Venture Miniatures proudly presents…
Nosworthy Tactical Studies
Warfare During the Age
of the Musket
This portion of the Venture Miniatures website will present information about the tactics on the European battlefield, authored by Brent Nosworthy.
Please visit our online bookstore for information about Brent Nosworthy’s latest publications.
Readers are encouraged to contact the author to provide comments or additional information about the articles on this site or the studies offered for sale.
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Dutch regiment in line – War of Spanish Succession.
Courtesy of Ann S.K. Brown Collection
The Purpose of this Website
Although warfare would undergo a series of transformative changes during the 1494-1865 period, there remained one important commonality: on the battlefield: most small arms and ordnance were loaded at the muzzle. On a purely tactical level, it makes sense therefore to consider the entire era to be “The Age of the Musket.”
There were a number of distinct sub-periods that would be defined by some advancement in weaponry, how they were to be used, or some purely political demarcation, such as the outbreak of a major war or the reign of a powerful monarch, such as the War of Spanish Succession and the Napoleonic Era.
The purpose of this website to explore tactics during the age of the musket. Since this will include the age of the arquebuse this will range from roughly the beginning of the Italian Wars in 1494 to the point when the last iteration of the musket, the rifle-musket, was set aside at the end of the American Civil War in 1865.
To start, this website will offer readers two articles on what be termed Methods of Attack and Defense. Over the next short period, a number of other articles will be added to three additional topics: Weapons and Their Use, Formations and Manoeuvres, and Infantry & Cavalry and Organizations. Visitors can access additional articles on these topics listed at the bottom of these pages.
One of the goals of this website is to serve as a “clearing house” of historical information, research and analysis. In the days of traditional publishing the publication of an article or book was pretty much the endpoint of that particular research project, revised additions being reserved for all but the most popular or important works. With the advent of the digital age and the Internet it is possible to connect with other researchers and enthusiasts in a way previously not possible and one can now add to or modify any work as new information comes in.
To that end, viewers are encouraged to contact either the author or publisher with any additional information and/or comments.
Dutch method of street firing, circa 1720
Courtesy: Ann S.K.Brown Collection, Brown University
Methods of Attack & Defense
During the seventeenth century a subset of tactical doctrine emerged that might be best described as the “methods of attack and defense.” This doctrine governed how the men and their officers were to conduct themselves during the final moments, as the opposing forces neared one another.
This type of doctrine dictated whether the attacking infantry was to advance carefully and methodically or advance spiritedly and quickly. Similarly, were the men encouraged to be intimidatingly boisterous or were they to remain ominously silent? Would the attacking infantry be ordered to deliver fire, and if so, at what point during the advance, and how was this fire to be conducted?
Those commanding cavalry were faced with very similar considerations. Were their cavalrymen to fire their pistols or rely exclusively on the sword? At what distance from the enemy were their horsemen to break out into an all-out charge?
As time went on variations emerged, and, for example, by the eighteenth century the Dutch, French and eventually the Prussian infantry each employed slightly different styles of attack.
And, as far as cavalry was concerned reliance upon firearms during battle fell out of favor and was for the most part replaced by the charge with cold steel. Frederick the Great perfected this type of charge.
Firing by Rank
The fire by rank could be conducted while the battalion remained stationary, while it was marching ahead, or as it retreated away from the enemy.
Firing While Stationary: When firing in position, the files were open. The men in the first rank advanced 3 paces in front, fired, and making an about face walked down the aisle between the files, until they reached the rear. Here, they about faced again and started to reload their muskets or fusils (what today are called “flintlock muskets”.) The second ranks advanced to where the first had been, fired, and retired to the rear as the first had done. The same procedure was performed by each of the other ranks. The first rank could fire again, and the entire routine could be repeated as long as necessary. To ensure that the battalion was never denuded of fire, an additional precaution was sometimes taken. Fire was conducted by one demi-manche at a time. When all of its ranks in a demi-manche had fired, the other demi-manche began its fire .
This method of delivering fire had been formulated by Willem Lodewijk, Maurits of Nassau’s cousin and brother-in-law sometime in 1594. In his original version, the musketeers or arquebusiers returned to the rear to reload by walking between the files. Lodewijk felt the wider intervals between the files needed to allow the men to pass weakened the formation, especially against enemy cavalry. He then had the men in the rank file around the shot formation . This debate as to which technique was better, having the men walk down the files or file around the formation continued for most of the seventeenth century. This method of delivering fire was popularized in England by the wave of books during the Twelve Years’ Truce (1609-1621) as English veterans of the Dutch Revolt returned home and touted the new Dutch methods that would soon revolutionize the entire art of war on the European battlefield.
During an actual campaign, it was common to fire from behind a hedge or ditch. In these cases, the ranks were closed until the “point of the sword,” that is 1 pace. The first five ranks knelt with one knee on the ground, the sixth remained standing and fired. It then about faced and marched to behind the sixth rank of the pikemen, turned around again and began reloading. Meanwhile, the fifth rank stood up, fired and then marched to behind the pikemen, and presumably in front of the sixth rank already there. This process was repeated by the other four ranks. If it was necessary to continue the fire, the shot would return to its position behind the ditch or hedge and starting firing once again following the same procedure .
The practice of having the last rank fire first and then each successive rank standing up and firing one at a time appears to be but a variant of type of fire that had been introduced into French service in 1672. Dissatisfied with then traditional methods of delivering fire, French authorities in 1662 directed Lieutenant Colonel Jean Martinet to evaluate the various methods of delivering fire employed by European armies. The anonymously authored The Way of Exercising the Infantry as it is Now Practis’d described the above method (1672) . It was anything but new and even pre-dated the methods of delivering fire created by Willem Lodewijk and Maurits of Nassau at the turn of the seventeenth century. At the end of the 1500s it was known in a very slightly different form as the Venetian method of fire . Its provenance goes back much further than that. During the Battle of Bicocca (April 27, 1522) the Marquis of Pescara had his first rank of shot, fire and then fall to its knees, then the second rank fired and fell to its knees, then the third, and so on .
Firing While Advancing: To conduct this method of delivering fire, the battalion marched in front slowly ahead. At the moment fire was to be delivered, the first rank picked up its pace to move slightly ahead of the battalion. It stopped, fired, and then began reloading in place; their arms recharged, they then moved behind the sixth rank in the march. Meanwhile marching between the files, the men in the second rank moved slightly past those in the first rank who were now reloading, stopped, and delivered its fire in its turn. Each of the other four ranks did the same. In theory, the process could be repeated as long as it was necessary to fire, the first rank advancing through the other five ranks that had fired .
This method of delivering fire can be dated at least as far back as 1674 and is probably considerably older. There seems to be mixed opinion about its effectiveness. When penning a diatribe of the new French exercises for the infantry introduced in 1672, an anonymous British officer opined that “it is the best, and hath the least embarrass in it” of available options, superior to the traditional Dutch methods that most infantry resorted to up to then. Belhomme, writing at a much later date, in contrast felt it was intrinsically clumsy and fraught with confusion.
Firing While Retreating: When a battalion was forced to retreat during an engagement, the commander would try to do anything to slow down or thwart any pursuit. The best way of doing this was to periodically have a portion of the battalion stop and fire at their pursuers. To do this, the last rank, originally the first when the battalion had faced the enemy, stopped, faced the enemy again, and fired. It then made an about face again and marched past the battalion and gained the ground in front of the still retreating battalion and started to reload. The other ranks successively conducted the same procedure. According to Belhomme, this fire produced little positive results and often disordered the battalion [10.].
Part 2 of this article will explore the fire by file and fire by division methods of delivering fire, as well as that prescribed by the May 12, 1696 ordinance.
- Go to http://praetiritifides.chez.com/Page_Principale.htm select Art Militaire and then select entries for individual regiments.
- Belhomme, Victor L. (Lt.-Col.); Histoire de l’infanterie en France, 5 volumes, Paris, 1893-1902, vol. 2, p. 262.
- Nimwegen, Olaf van; The Dutch Army and the Military Revolutions 1588-1688, Rochester, NY, 2010, pp. 105-108.
- Belhomme, Victor L. (Lt.-Col.); L’armée française en 1690, Paris, 1895, p. 48.
- The Way of Exercizing the Infantry as it is Now Practis’d in the Armies of his Most Christian Majesty, 1672, p. 10.
- Davies, Edwin; Military Directions, London, 1620, p. 52.
- Taylor, The Art of Warfare in Italy 1494 – 1529, Oxford, 1921, p. 51-52.
- Belhomme, Histoire de l’infanterie en France, 1893-1902, vol. 2, p. 262.
- As You Were or the New French Exercise, n.p., 1674, pp. 29-30.
- Belhomme, Histoire de l’infanterie en France, 1893-1902, vol. 2, p. 262.
On the Attack and Defense of Heights or Unfortified Heights.
The following excerpt begins on page 309 of the first volume British Military Library. No. VIII, May 1799, pp. 309-311.
To conduct military operations in a mountainous and broken country, requires much greater abilities, a better coup d’oeil, and a more intimate acquaintance with the art of war, than any kind of warfare in an open level plain. In the former much less depends on the superiority of numbers. A small army or corps, may take so advantageous a position, as to render superfluous the use of shovel or pick-axe for defending it against an enemy of twice its strength; and, should not this enemy find means, by skillful and well-concerted movements, to turn a corps thus posted, to interrupt its communication with its magazines, raise alarms for the safety of its strong places, or inspire it with apprehensions concerning the destruction of a remote part of the country, and then compel it to relinquish its position; the major part of the campaign will most likely be lost in activity on the one side, while the other is gaining time to receive reinforcements, and acquire additional strength (which is of the utmost importance in a defensive war) and of consequence to improve its situation so far, as to be able to convert defensive measures into offensive operations. Field-Marshal Daun’s camp at Ewanowitz, at the commencement of the campaign of 1758, and that of Prince Henry of Prussia in 1759, at Liebenthal and Strehle, fully prove the truth of the above assertion.
It is no easy matter to obtain a correct knowledge, and for a just idea, of a hilly, intersected country; neither is it attained without much practice, and a good natural coup d’oeil. The aspect of any given tract of country, is so very different, if presented under different points of view, that you would scarcely know it to be the same. The roads have generally so many windings and turnings, that they are not only in a great measure hidden from our view, but they are so frequently represented on the map, twice as long as they would be in the same space in a campaign, level country. You will frequently, find, that, from their depth and marshy bottoms, ravines and valleys appear impassible, while the brush-wood and meadow-ground, which may escape an incorrect and superficial observer, made the contrary the case. Again, others seem to offer a safe and easy passage, and, when tried, the horses plunge through the sedge or old withered grass, which hide the morass, and the wagons or artillery sink into the mire.
The means of obtaining an accurate knowledge of these circumstances, and the manner in which a particular position, and its environs, or a tract of country to be reconnoitered, being so fully and ably explained in the Field Engineer, of the late celebrated Captain Tielke, an excellent translation of which has been published by Colonel Hewgill of the guards, we shall here confine ourselves to treat the best, and most advantageous method of employing the different species of troops, in hilly or mountainous positions.
I. On the Attack of Heights by Light-Infantry
No hill should be too steep for light-infantry, and no road too rugged. It is a common saying among the sharp-shooters of Tyrol, “where a goat can go, a man must go.” On consulting the records of military achievements, especially of those of Hannibal, and Alexander the Great, we shall meet with sufficient proofs of the truth of this saying.
Light-infantry, therefore, seem best adapted to ascend and attack rugged and steep heights; but they must be supported by regular infantry of the line, as otherwise they might not be able to maintain a post which they have carried. Their attack should be made à la debandade and in a full run, not in close order, or with a regular advance. If the face of the hills offers dips, hollow ways, etc. where they can find shelter from the enemy’s fire, they should halt there for some moments, especially if they have nearly come up to the enemy, that they may charge him in full breath, and with unimpaired vigor.
All firing with small arms must be prohibited on pain of death; the bayonet must decide. Fire, in this case, is the refuge of the timorous, who afraid of closing with the enemy; it does scarcely any execution, and wastes much of the time, which is of immense value to the assailants. To advance slowly exposes the troops to greater danger, because:
1. They remain longer under the enemy’s fire.
2. The courage of the troops cools when they are allowed time to reflect on the melancholy fate of their comrades, who are grievously wounded, or killed by their side; while, on the other hand, advancing rapidly, they have no time to think, and soon lose sight of all the objects which they tend to drop their spirits.
3. By advancing quickly, you are also more likely to strike terror into the enemy, and allow him no time to continue movements. His courage sinks at every step you take; from the natural complexion of the human mind; for, in proportion as you advance, the impending danger presses nearer upon him, and it is an unquestionable truth, that the danger which you see approaching, and which you cannot ward off, will much more forcibly operate upon your mind, than that into which spontaneously you plunge yourself.
If the nature of the ground be such, that you cannot fall upon the enemy’s flank, but are necessitated to advance straight up the hill, the light-infantry, as soon as they have ascended the eminence, should endeavour to throw themselves with impetuosity on one or both of his flanks, and, if possible, to gain his rear. If this attack be supported by regular infantry, or grenadiers, advancing against the enemy’s front, the light troops, who have succeeded in getting to his rear, must keep up a brisk fire, which cannot fail to create confusion in his line, and will, in all probability, bring on its total disorder and flight. If the enemy should not have secured his flanks and rear, and moreover, should be sufficiently imprudent and ignorant to continue immoveable on the summit of the height, and not advance to the edge of the declivity, to oppose your ascent, by raking the whole face of the eminence, you may be sure of victory. The greatest obstacle is already surmounted, and the shock of the attack will probably not cost you much; you have but one or two fires to sustain, and these are likely to be given without aim, and by troops rendered faint-hearted by the rapidity of your advance.
If the enemy be provided with horse, the light-infantry must form again, as soon as they have gained the summit, and make the attack in close order; and, if they fire, at least half must always remain loaded, and ready to fire, in order to oppose the attack of the cavalry. The bayonet is, in our judgement, the most proper for attacking infantry, but, against cavalry, foot soldiers should defend themselves by fire.
Should the enemy give way, the light-infantry must pursue him briskly, and keep up firing, that he may not recover from his disorder, and form again: but if any regular infantry of the line join in the attack, they will of consequence advance upon the enemy as he retreats, and by this means cut off part of his troops, and deliver them into the hands of the corps which is pursuing them. Villages, especially those which contain church-yards, and have stone-walls round the gardens, are peculiarly fitted for this purpose. By occupying them you may dispute the passage with the enemy. No entrenchments or previous preparations are required for this occasion, not only because a beaten enemy is devoid of courage, but also that the troops which hang on his rear, allow him no time to make a stand, or any kind of regular attack; the sudden check strikes him with awe: he may, perhaps, endeavor to move sideways, and avoid the village, etc. but instead of saving himself by this movement, he either inevitably draws nearer to his pursuers, or at least affords them the opportunity of coming up with him.
As long as the enemy is not completely routed, you should not stop to take prisoners, but merely secure the officers, and order the rest, as they surrender, to throw away their arms; as otherwise you will proceed too slow in the pursuit, and weaken your corps too much by the guards you send back with those who are taken; but, if you have a reserve, you may order such as throw down their arms to surrender themselves to it. Pursuing this method, you will not take so many prisoners, it is true, as you might otherwise obtain; but, surely, this can bear no comparison with a decisive victory, which you are sure to gain if you push on briskly; while, on the other hand, if your troops stop and disperse, to plunder and take prisoners, the enemy will form again, and perhaps regain all the advantages they have lost.
To Be Continued!
Prussian Fusiliers 1740s & 1750s.Lange, Eduard; Die Soldaten Friedrich’s des Grossen, Persistent link: https://www.e-rara.ch/doi/10.3931/e-rara-28660
Larchey, Lorédan; Origines de l’artillerie française, 16th Century field artillery.
Persistent link: https://www.e-rara.ch/doi/10.3931/e-rara-9873
Two armies in combat circa 1600, Walhausen, Jean Jacques; Art militaire à cheval, Zutphen, 1621. Persistent link:
A battalion in combat by the Age of Turenne (1640s-1670s), Schalch, Johannes; Exercier-Büchlein, 1680. Persistent link:
Study No. 1 – English Infantry & Cavalry Tactics: 1672 – 1698: This book-length study provides a detailed look at the tactics and grand tactics employed by English infantry and cavalry from the Third Anglo-Dutch War until the end of the Nine Years’ War. Starting with a sketch of technological developments (the plug & socket bayonet, grenadiers, and flintlock musket), the main focus is a detailed look at the manoeuvres found in the semi-official drill manuals (The English Military Discipline, An Abridgements of Military Discipline, The Perfection of Military Discipline and The Exercise of Foot.) Included are various methods of delivering fire (the original Dutch methods, “Swedes Way”, and subsequent innovations (fire by ranks, etc.), and the methods of attack and defense (when and how to fire, how the men are to comport themselves, and the actions performed during the final moments of attack/defense.) The section on grand tactics spans the Dutch resurrection of the Roman linear system and how this evolves into linear warfare. Copious tables in the Appendix allow the reader to see at a glance the differences in the manoeuvres provided in almost all of the period’s English language works.
NTS-SB1 – $28.00