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21 January 2009

 Products The Guns of Gettysburg Design Diary 60 Years & 4000 Miles: Arms Across the Water.

60 Years & 4000 Miles: Arms Across the Water.

Technological change does not run at the same speed in all times and in all areas. A military airplane built in 1949 is not even remotely comparable to a military airplane built in 2009. A computer from 1949 and a computer from 2009 almost unimaginably less so. A car built in 1949, however, is capable of fulfilling its essential function — moving people from place to place — pretty nearly as well as one built in 2009. A desk built in 1949 might very well be better than a desk built in 2009.

Military technology is something that we think of as changing rapidly, but even there we see considerable variability in the rate of change. An M-26 Pershing heavy tank from 1949 would be a (slowly) moving coffin for its crew against main battle tanks built in 2009. On the other hand, an AK-47 from 1949 is a perfectly serviceable, if raw and unrefined, infantry weapon compared to its counterparts in 2009.

During the 60 years between Austerlitz and Gettysburg, there had been some changes in military technology that were revolutionary. At sea, the year prior to Gettysburg had demonstrated the shocking helplessness of wooden sailing warships against steam-powered ironclads. Railroads had profoundly changed the supply of armies. On the tactical battlefield, however, there was nothing so revolutionary as either of those: weapons from the era of Austerlitz could be and indeed were found on the battlefield of Gettysburg, although they had largely been superseded by a newer generation of weapons.

It is my intention to examine the broad classes of weapons used at the two battles and discuss how they had differed, but not to perform a detailed review of specific makes and models of weapons. I will, for example, discuss the difference between smooth-bore and rifled cannon, but not the difference between the 3-inch ordnance rifled cannon and the 10-pounder Parrott rifled cannon.

Notes on Range

Before embarking on this comparison, however, I’d like to first discuss the question of range. In principal, the main way a Napoleonic or Civil War soldier controlled the distance his weapon would fire a projectile was by changing the barrel’s angle relative to the ground. Up to a certain point, the higher the angle, the longer the distance. At some point, however, the opposite would be true and increasing the angle would decrease the distance. This optimum angle determined the theoretical maximum range the weapon could fire the projectile. From this theoretical perspective, the weapons at Gettysburg had very long maximum ranges, far beyond what primary sources give as the ranges at which firing generally took place.

The problem here, was accuracy: as the range increased, the likelihood of hitting the target decreased, along a more or less smooth curve. Somewhere along that curve, whoever was in control of a weapon would deem it a waste of ammunition and/or effort to make the shot, and this point defines the practical maximum range. The thing is, the practical maximum range, unlike the theoretical maximum range, is highly subjective and situational. Different shooters had different levels of skill. Different targets were more or less difficult to hit. Different tactical conditions would change the shooter’s opinion as to whether a shot was worth attempting, even if it didn’t affect the probability of a hit — i.e., an artillery battery might fire to help an infantry attack but would not fire if no infantry attack was intended.

Given the complexity of practical maximum ranges, the numbers I give here should be used with care. They represent my own sense of the longest ranges at which fire was generally exchanged, but it is not difficult to find cases where fire was exchanged at longer ranges than these and not exchanged at shorter ranges. So, in looking at these numbers, don’t get too hung up on them and remember that they are my subjective appraisals of the subjective appraisals of the men on the battlefield based on an incomplete historical record. The numbers are very far from being unbreakable laws of physics.

So (at long last) with this preamble completed, let‘s move on to the specific discussions of how the weapons of artillery, infantry, and cavalry differed between the battles of Austerlitz and Gettysburg. Each arm will be taken in turn.

Artillery weapons

The artillery arm had not undergone any radical alteration between the two battles. A superficial examination would not, in fact, reveal any changes at all: the artillery pieces of both battles were metal tubes mounted on wooden carriages, drawn by teams of horses, served by crews of ten or so men per gun. The total weight of an artillery piece, with carriage, would be in the range of 2,000 to 3,000 pounds or so. (Note: these sizes apply to the mobile artillery that the armies took into the field with them; in both the Napoleonic and Civil War periods much heavier guns were used in naval and siege warfare.)

The table below presents the artillery used at Austerlitz and Gettysburg. These figures do not include the guns from the cavalry action east of the main battlefield.

BoreAusterlitz QuantityGettysburg QuantityAusterlitz Weight Gettysburg Weight  Range  
3-4 poundersmooth1301,900 lbs.   800 yds.
6 poundersmooth10112,000 lbs.1,000 yds.
light howitzersmooth1192,400 lbs.1,800 lbs.   800 yds.
heavy howitzersmooth16392,800 lbs.1,800 lbs.1,200 yds.
8 poundersmooth632,500 lbs.1100 yds.
12 poundersmooth462403,000 lbs.2,500 lbs.1,200 yds.
3 inchrifle3262,000 lbs.1,500 yds.
3.75 inchrifle203,000 lbs.1,600 yds.
Total pieces475626
Throw weight3,6277,588
Accuracy adjusted2,66713,865

In looking at this chart the two largest differences between the battles would be the types of bores used (smooth vs. rifled) and the size of the shot fired. A third difference, which the chart doesn’t capture, is the widespread use of explosive shot at Gettysburg compared to its much more limited use at Austerlitz. Each difference will be discussed below.

Rifling the barrel of a cannon was done in order to spin the projectile to stabilize it in flight. This spun the projectile around its axis, which kept it from tumbling end-over-end through its axis, as a projectile fired from a smooth-bore gun tended to do. End-over-end tumbling would cause a projectile to curve unpredictably during flight which reduced accuracy and thereby reduced the practical maximum range.

Projectile sizes generally went up between Austerlitz and Gettysburg. The smaller smooth-bore cannon in use at Austerlitz had been phased out of service, and only the largest of them, the 12-pounder was retained (and that in an improved, more mobile version). The bulk of the cannons at Gettysburg were newer, more accurate 3-inch rifled cannons.

Explosive projectiles were not new in the Civil War. The armies at Austerlitz used them, but their use was confined to howitzers; cannons fired solid shot. At Gettysburg, however, solid shot was seldom used, and because every piece could fire explosive rounds, specialized howitzers to fire them all but disappeared: the ratio of howitzers to cannon at Austerlitz was 1:3; at Gettysburg, it was 1:15. While it might be thought that the switch from solid shot to shell represented a major improvement in firepower, the reality was less impressive. The main problem with explosive rounds was the need to get the round to explode at the right distance, which required not only accurate ranging technology but also accurate fuses, and Civil War artillery had neither. The result was often impressive looking bombardments that did surprisingly little actual damage to the target. Solid shot, on the other hand, if well-fired, could skim along the ground like a rock skipping across a pond, and a ball fired in such a manner had much less need for accurate ranging, though it was of course less damaging that an accurately placed shell blast.

Explosive ammunition was, however, restricted to long-range use. At shorter ranges (generally under 600 yards) the preferred artillery ammunition at both Austerlitz and Gettysburg was canister: a hollow cylinder filled with balls that burst on firing, converting the piece into a giant shotgun. Rifling gave no advantage firing canister: what was wanted was a larger bore so that more balls could be fired. Here the 12-pounder smooth bore was actually a better weapon than the 3-inch rifle.

All in all, too much difference should not be made between the 12-pounder smooth-bores and 3-inch rifles at Gettysburg. The tactical uses of the pieces were very similar, and while differences existed, for the most part where one could be used the other could be used as well. From a game design perspective, what is significant is the general increase in artillery hitting power. There were not only more guns at Gettysburg (as shown by the “Total pieces” line in the table), they were bigger guns, resulting in a heavier ‘broadside’, so to speak, if you multiply the number of guns by the weight of their ammunition, as shown in the “Throw weight” line. Finally, if you adjust for the increased range of the heavier guns and the increased accuracy of the rifles, it could be reasonably estimated that the artillery at Gettysburg was about five times as powerful as that of Austerlitz.

Infantry weapons

Infantry weapons, like those of artillery, had not undergone much visible change between Austerlitz and Gettysburg. The biggest difference (as with artillery) was inside the barrel. Almost all of the infantry weapons at Gettysburg were rifled, whereas so far as I know, no units at Austerlitz had rifled guns.

The table below summarizes these weapons (incidentally, numbers here are all rounded off; even where greater precision as to the numbers of soldiers is available, greater precision as to their weapons generally is not):

LoadingBoreLoadAusterlitz QuantityGettysburg quantityRange
Smooth-bore musketmuzzlesmoothball120,000200 yds.
Smooth-bore musketmuzzlesmoothbuck&ball7,500200 yds.
Rifled musketmuzzlerifleminnie-ball120,000500 yds.
Breech-loading riflebreechrifleminnie-ball500500 yds.
Total arms120,000128,000

Infantry weapons at Austerlitz were all pretty much the same: smooth-bore, muzzle-loading muskets firing a single ball. Infantry weapons at Gettysburg also pretty standardized, although the standard weapon there was rifled instead of smooth-bore. A few units at Gettysburg had some men equipped with the older smooth-bore, and a few sharpshooter units were equipped with breech-loading (but still single-shot) rifles and were selected and trained for marksmanship.

An interesting thing about infantry fire at Gettysburg is that although the rifled muskets there were capable of impressive long-range accuracy in the hands of skilled shots, the overwhelming majority of the soldiers carrying them were anything but skilled. Most of them had little or no target practice with their weapons nor training in longer-range fire. In fact, apart from sniping and skirmish fire from the few men in either army who could really shoot, infantry regiments delivered mass volleys at ranges not much longer than would have been seen at Austerlitz: generally at ranges between 50 and 150 yards. At such close range, the advantages of the rifled musket were drastically reduced. In fact, at the low end of that range, smooth-bore muskets with buck and ball ammunition (a musket ball combined with three buckshot pellets) were generally more lethal because of the greater number of projectiles fired with each shot.

If the idea of volleys being exchanged at 500 yards between regiments is not supported by the empirical data, aimed fire from concealed marksmen or from skilled skirmishers at that range can and did happen. Officers and artillerymen in particular were in real danger from such a threat, and the armies took pains to try and keep enemy marksmen from being able to engage them at those ranges. Because of this, the long ranges of the rifled muskets really did have a real-world consequence, even if not quite so dramatic an effect as might be imagined from looking at the range numbers in isolation.

Cavalry weapons

The chart below summarizes the main cavalry weapons used at Gettysburg. (The table includes cavalry that fought in a separate action east of the main battlefield; most of the Union cavalry and all of the Confederate cavalry fighting took place in this action.)

LoadingBoreShotAusterlitz quantityGettysburg quantityRange
Sabern/an/an/a26,000n/a
Muzzle-loading carbines with pistols & sabermuzzleriflesingle7,500500 yds.
Breech-loading carbines with pistols & saberbreechriflesingle10,000500 yds.
Repeating rifle with pistols & saberbreechriflerepeating1,000500 yds.
Total arms26,00018,500

At Austerlitz, cavalry was armed and fought almost exclusively from horseback with sabers. Civil War cavalry, on the other hand, used a variety of weapons depending on circumstances. A cavalryman at Gettysburg might at one time fight on foot using his carbine, on another on horseback firing his pistols, and in yet another using his saber. All of these types of cavalry combat were seen at Gettysburg.

While sabers were the exclusive weapon for mounted cavalry combat at Austerlitz, many troopers at Gettysburg regarded their sabers with disdain; partly because they were not well trained in their use, partly because the sabers issued to them were often dull and without tools for sharpening them, and partly because Civil War cavalrymen had alternatives. Their first alternative was the multi-shot revolver. While it could not be fired accurately from horseback at any distance, it was easy to handle and deadly at close quarters. The second alternative was to fight dismounted and for this Civil War cavalrymen carried carbines.

Union cavalrymen typically had newer, breech-loading carbines while Confederate cavalrymen had to make due with more cumbersome muzzle-loaders. (Confederate cavalrymen got breech-loaders when they could, but Confederate industry struggled to provide quality copies of the Union guns.) This was not an insuperable disadvantage, but Gettysburg saw for the first time in the east Union cavalry with a new generation of weapon: the repeating rifle. These weapons were convenient to use and could produce a heavy volume of fire, which could overwhelm an equal number of single-shot firing Confederate cavalrymen. The only downside in battle was that without proper fire discipline, repeating rifle armed cavalrymen could and did use up all their ammunition firing ill-considered shots and end up having to retreat from enemy cavalrymen who may have had inferior single-shot guns, but they were inferior single-shot guns with bullets in them.

Casualties

An interesting question with regard to both periods concerns the number of casualties due to different types of weapons. In general, it is thought that the great majority of Napoleonic casualties were from artillery fire, with musket second and saber a distant third. Austerlitz was unusual among Napoleonic battles in its mobility, and I would guess that losses due to musket fire were substantially higher than was typical for the period, as most Napoleonic battles tended to include prolonged bombardments by massed cannon, which was not the case for Austerlitz.

I have seen estimates of Civil War casualties which attribute as much as 85% of them to musket fire. While this seems like a reasonable number for battles fought in wooded or rugged terrain were artillery could not be easily employed, I doubt that this was the case at Gettysburg. Gettysburg was an unusually open battlefield by Civil War standards (even though it would have been exceptionally heavily wooded by Napoleonic standards) and it seems likely to me that artillery accounted for a much larger percentage of the at that battle than was typical for the war. By way of an informal test of this idea, I looked at those higher-unit commanders — brigade and above — who were killed or seriously wounded at the battle. (I used men of these ranks because accounts usually indicated whether they were felled by musket or cannon fire.) The weapons responsible seemed about evenly split between musket and cannon fire, which I would guess is likely the case for the common soldiery as well.

Speaking of command losses one of the striking things about Gettysburg was what a dangerous place it was for senior commanders compared to Austerlitz. If you compare the top twenty or so commanders in the two battles, none of them were killed or seriously wounded at Austerlitz, while seven (Heth, Pender, Hood, Reynolds, Hancock and Sickles) were killed or seriously wounded at Gettysburg. Without claiming to have made a formal study, my general reading would suggest that the disparity was characteristic of the two periods. (Which is not to say that all Napoleonic battlefields were as free of senior command losses as Austerlitz or that all Civil War battlefields had senior command losses as devastating as Gettysburg.) Here is one area where I would think it likely that the weapons improvements between the two periods had much to do with the result; a Napoleonic general faced dangers, but not marksmen shooting from 500 yards off and not exploding shells in areas hundreds of yards behind the front lines.

Conclusion

When I told a friend that I was doing a game on Gettysburg, he asked if I intended to stir up any controversy. My reply was that in doing anything at all on the Civil War, it was not possible to avoid controversy. While controversy may be unavoidable, it is not my intent to either stir it up or settle it, but merely to lay out my thinking so as to make the design more understandable (and hopefully more enjoyable) to those who play it.

Anyway, that’s it for this entry. I hope to do a couple more general essays on historical background (current plans are for one on the men who made up the armies and another on tactics) before going back to design diary entries more directly focused on the game proper as distinct from the historical subject matter.