‘Pickets’ versus Bullets

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Source: Chambers’s Journal, 29 January 1859

‘Pickets’ versus Bullets > Ball Practice > Morale Benefits

THE old regulation-musket, known in the army by the affectionate sobriquet of ‘Brown Bess,’ would sometimes, though not always, carry a bullet with a certain degree of precision about a hundred yards; but beyond that very moderate distance, no one, however expert, could make sure of hitting even a barn-door; the aim of the individual who pulled the trigger; supposing that the state of his nerves permitted him to take aim at all – which a very distinguished general, not very long since deceased, declared to be not invariably the case – having very little to do with the direction taken by the projectile. On momentous occasions, when it was important that shots should not be thrown away, the old instructions were: ‘Reserve your fire, my lads, till you can see the whites of the fellows’ eyes; then aim low, and blaze away as fast as you can.’ That is, nobody thought of doing much execution except at very close quarters; but, like Molière’s physician, nous avons changé tout cela; and science has furnished us with a musket with which we may begin to blaze away at our adversaries almost as soon as we can see that they are adversaries, and with which a good shot may almost make sure of sending a ‘picket’ to its mark at something like a thousand yards. The modern picket, therefore – which is the American name for a Minié rifle-ball – is a very much more formidable missile than the old-fashioned bullet; but, whatever may be its advantages over its predecessor as to accuracy of flight, length of range, and penetrating power, there is one disadvantage attending the general employment of the rifled musket from which it is fired. It is not sufficient to substitute for Brown Bess a superior description of firearm; but in order to enable our soldiers to use their weapons with effect, careful training and much practice are requisite, so that the instructing of a recruit is a much more complicated affair than it used to be. We have lately had an opportunity of seeing a great many men trained to the use of the new arm; and it may interest the reader to learn something of the process by which the lad who has perhaps never fired a shot in his life, is converted into a more or less skilful rifleman. There are certain moral results, too, which may be expected to flow from the substitution of a scientifically constructed weapon for the clumsy Brown Bess, and which it is by no means uninteresting to note.

In the first place, then, it is necessary that the future marksman should be taught to judge, with a considerable degree of accuracy, the distance he is from the object he is to fire at; for, unless he can ascertain that, the new rifle will be scarcely more destructive in his hands than the old musket. The length of range is determined by the degree of elevation; and in order to get this correctly, a sight, the height of which is regulated according to a scale, is fixed in front of the lock; but it is obvious that the true distance must be known before the ‘sight’ can be properly adjusted, and nothing but practice can enable a man to ascertain this by the eye alone. To some it may appear difficult to teach men to judge, within a comparatively few yards, how far they are from an object placed at from one to nine hundred yards from them; and this, too, under every variety of circumstance, such as differences of level in the size and position of the intervening and surrounding objects, and, above all, in various atmospheric conditions, and amount of light; but if we reflect with what accuracy we habitually judge of such short distances or lengths, in yards, feet, and inches, as those, with which we commonly have to do, we shall readily believe that, with practice, the eye may be taught to serve us as faithfully even when it is a question as to scores and hundreds of yards; and experience shews this to be the case. There are, of course, some thick-skulled, non-observing fellows who can never be made to guess their distances correctly; but most of the men soon acquire a considerable facility in so doing, and in practice, it must be remembered that it is not necessary that every man should be quick at it; for a few sharp-eyed lads will leaven a whole lump of stupidity, and enable every one to adjust the ‘sight’ of his piece with sufficient accuracy.

Instruction in judging distances is managed in this way: The class is drawn up on some open space of ground, and two or more of their number are sent on with a red flag, the men being made to face in the contrary direction to that in which the flag is being carried, so that they shall not be able to count steps, or in any other irregular manner assist themselves in forming a judgment of the distance traversed, which must be decided by the eye alone. As soon as the bearers of the red flag stop, the class faces about, and the sergeant, standing six or seven paces in front of his men, so as to be out of hearing, calls out each man separately and asks him how far he thinks he is from it. His answer is put against his name in a book ruled for the purpose, and when all have guessed, the true distance is ascertained by measurement – every man getting so many marks or points set down to him, according to the accuracy of his answer – that is, provided he guesses within a certain number of yards of the truth; for unless he does so, he gets no point at all. If the men are out judging distances for the first time, the differences of opinion will be very wide, private Murphy perhaps thinking that he is full five hundred yards from the object that private Milligan, with great pretension to exactness, declares to be no more than three hundred and twenty-five yards distant; but after a few mornings practice, Brown and Jones, Murphy and Milligan, come to see things much more in the same light, and, their differences are reduced to a small number of yards. In short, most men soon manage to get the number of points they should obtain before being passed on to a more advanced class of students in the art of shooting with the Enfield rifle.

But besides being taught to judge distances, the men have another course of instruction to undergo, before they are put into the first class for ball-practice at the target. They must be taught the principles on which accuracy of aim depends with the peculiar weapon they are to use. For this purpose, stands – something like the stands used to support an engineer’s level or the camera of the photographer – are set up at different distances from the target; and the learner, resting his musket on one of these, adjusts the aim to the best of his judgment. It is so contrived that the piece will remain on the stand as pointed, so that the instructor can show the pupil any error that he may have made, and can make him change the aim either horizontally or vertically as the case requires. When he has been made to level his musket with tolerable accuracy in this way, the pupil is ready to commence firing at the target in the first class; that is, among those who are to fire at a distance of from 100 up to 300 yards. The Enfield rifle being sighted to 900 yards, three classes have been established for practice – namely, of those in the first class, who fire from 100 to 300 yards; of those in the second class, firing from 300 up to 600 yards; and of those in the third class, who fire from 600 to 900 yards; every man being obliged to obtain so many points in the first class before he can pass into the second, and in the second before he can pass into the third. As soon as he has obtained the required number of points in the last class, his course of instruction is complete. All that teaching can do for him has been done, and, unless he be one of those unfortunate mortals, born fumblers, and totally without manual dexterity, he is probably an average marksman. Only a decided genius for the thing will make him a really good shot.