Discussion Misfires in battle

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Cavalier

Corporal
Joined
Jul 20, 2019
Back in the 80's I came across a statement concerning muskets misfiring on the battlefield during the era of muzzle loading weapons. Of course I can not know remember the source of this statement. Could be my old age or could be I'm just a few beers short of a case.

It is alleged that in the era of the muzzle loader there was a "rule of thumb" among military thinkers that the percentage of misfires in any given unit, due to errors in loading, would double on each successive volley delivered after the first. The first theoreticly, being loaded correctly.

The errors were thought to be caused by excitement, fear, noise, fatigue, level of experiance, frequency of drill or lack of it, etc, etc.

The number of incorrectly loaded muskets found on the battlefield of Gettysburg might go some way to substansiating this theory but I am not sure how much can be made of this, (I think most of us are aware of the figures for that).

This was given as one of the reasons for delivering the first volley at as close a range as possible.

The whole idea seem reasonable to me.

I have never found any other mention of this "theory" in my reading on civil war tactics and I wonder what you guys think of this or if you have ever heard of it before.

Thanks to anyone who cares to respond!
 

DixieRifles

Captain
Joined
Mar 22, 2009
Location
Collierville, TN
This was given as one of the reasons for delivering the first volley at as close a range as possible.
I don't agree that weapon misfires were a reason for firing the first volley at close range. If they thought the Company/Regiment would have more misfires for each successive volley, then it would make sense to give the order earlier while they were further away.

Based upon different periods of combat and different circumstances, there were several reasons for holding the fire until the enemy was closer.
A- The most common logic is to ensure the volley did not go over or under the enemy. In the American Revolution, I think they tended to shoot too high. Either way, the early Brown Bess lacked any sights and had very poor ballistics, that you wanted your one shot to make it count.
B- Terrain could throw off aim of the average soldier. Sometimes the officers knew the terrain and position of troops required him to hold fire until the enemy was in direct line of sight.
C- Shock effect. Pickett's charge carried them a long distance under constant, sporadic fire and they continued their attack. Yet, there are cases where a charge by a determined enemy is stopped dead when one effective volley is delivered at close range.

Speaking of the first "volley", I find that the first shot can be the one that misfires. Why? If the rifle bore has either water or too much oil, once you ram the powder down the barrel it will push all that excess liquid to the bottom and soak the powder charge. I don't know how they avoided this in the field but I always pop one or two caps to burn out the oil---as well as lets me know if any holes are plugged up.

I'm trying to understand your question.
First there are misfires that can easily be cleared, re-primed and fired successfully.
Then there are misfires that would be noticed however it would take time to unload or repair the gun. The simple musket may not have many failures of this type. More complicated weapons can result in problem that originated from poor assembly or loading. Maybe a spring breaks or a part is installed incorrectly or something jambs a cylinder.
Third, the misfires that most people talk about are the ones that the soldier was totally unaware of and he continues to load another round on top.

I don't think we could know how many misfires were from my first category. The soldier would quickly fix it and fire it but would not want anyone to know about his mistake.
 

Cavalier

Corporal
Joined
Jul 20, 2019
@DixieRifles. I had the impression that the idea was that misfires occurring from errors on the soldiers part, (forgetting to put the cap on the nipple or forgetting to withdraw the ramrod and the like, the third category you refer to), became decidedly more and more frequent the longer the regiment continued to fire, (other issues, like casualties, not withstanding). The regiment would never deliver another volley as effective as the first. With the above in mind, that first volley, delivered at close range, would be the most devastating to the enemy formation. That's my understanding of the theory anyway.

I think the number of incorrectly loaded muskets retrieved on the battlefield of Gettysburg goes some way to illustrating the above, although I am not sure how much can be made of this.

I wondered if anyone else had heard of this theory or if they knew the source of it. Mahan maybe?

I have never experienced the issue you mentioned above with a misfire on the first shot with a percussion musket. However my misfire rate with flintlocks is horrendous, regardless of how many rounds I attempt to fire.

I enjoyed your comments, thank you very much!
 
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DixieRifles

Captain
Joined
Mar 22, 2009
Location
Collierville, TN
Pretty much every wargaming ruleset (for combat in the musket period) I know of have some sort of rule that you get a bonus on the first volley.
I was going to mention that rule in wargaming. I usually attributed that to the "fog of battle" after the troops became engaged. But the rule applied for the duration of the battle. So if you fired a volley early in the morning and then moved out of the conflict, you never got this bonus again. This rule almost encouraged the gammer to NOT be aggressive and not engage as quick as he could.
 

Bruce Vail

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Jul 8, 2015
I have many times read of soldiers being hit by 'spent' bullets. Being hit in this way caused pain, but did not pierce the skin or cause permanent damage. Is this is what is meant by a 'misfire'?
 
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Cavalier

Corporal
Joined
Jul 20, 2019
@Bruce Vail As Story said above pretty much describes it. Because of the involved loading procedures for muskets soldiers, in the heat of battle, sometimes screwed up and as a result their muskets didn't go off, misfired. There could be other reasons for that but soldier error in loading was what I was referring to.
 

Cavalier

Corporal
Joined
Jul 20, 2019
@thomas aagaard. @Dixie Rifles As a warmer myself I was aware of that rule in many wargame rulesets. However I never found the theory that was supposed to have been in vogue in the muzzle loading era in a primary source and wonder if anyone else had. The idea makes sense to me, as do a few others I can't find the source of.

Thanks for posting your thoughts!
 
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Package4

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Jul 28, 2015
Back in the 80's I came across a statement concerning muskets misfiring on the battlefield during the era of muzzle loading weapons. Of course I can not know remember the source of this statement. Could be my old age or could be I'm just a few beers short of a case.

It is alleged that in the era of the muzzle loader there was a "rule of thumb" among military thinkers that the percentage of misfires in any given unit, due to errors in loading, would double on each successive volley delivered after the first. The first theoreticly, being loaded correctly.

The errors were thought to be caused by excitement, fear, noise, fatigue, level of experiance, frequency of drill or lack of it, etc, etc.

The number of incorrectly loaded muskets found on the battlefield of Gettysburg might go some way to substansiating this theory but I am not sure how much can be made of this, (I think most of us are aware of the figures for that).

This was given as one of the reasons for delivering the first volley at as close a range as possible.

The whole idea seem reasonable to me.

I have never found any other mention of this "theory" in my reading on civil war tactics and I wonder what you guys think of this or if you have ever heard of it before.

Thanks to anyone who cares to respond!
When using the Gettysburg example, there are quite a few factors that need be considered:

Pickett's men and others in the charge were told to hold their fire during the charge, how many of the muskets picked up belonged to this group?

Muskets that misfired were often discarded as there were plenty of spares already on the ground, did the soldier pick one off the ground that was already loaded, but threw another round down the barrel? (Most of the multiple round guns had two rounds)

I find that my M1861 Colt will foul after 10 rounds, do I dump water down the barrel in the middle of a fight, or grab a weapon on the ground?

I do not believe that getting close for the first volley was a tactic commonly used, but would depend upon whether you are on defense or offense. Defensive troops with cover have the levity to wait, for the right opportunity, to inflict maximum damage.

Earl Hess has written a fairly concise book on the topic of the rifled musket in the Civil War and in reading about other periods, it appears that actual combat, utilizing small arms, in virtually all wars, was/is from a fairly close distance. (usually inside of 100 - 75 yards)
 

Cavalier

Corporal
Joined
Jul 20, 2019
@Package4. To my knowledge there are no specifics on what part of the battlefield the muskets were picked up. I don't believe too much can be made of the guns abandoned on the battlefield of Gettysburg thing but thought it might have some bearing on muskets misfired due to improper loading. Well the theory made sense to me when I read it but it seems to hold little weight with guys like you who would know. Thanks for rendering your opinion, I appreciate it.
 

thomas aagaard

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 19, 2013
Location
Denmark
A few years ago I made a topic about the weapons picked up after the battle at Gettysburg.

It also cover some debate about misfires and similar.
 
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Cavalier

Corporal
Joined
Jul 20, 2019
@thomas aagaard Thank you for posting that! It was very helpful and I love that kind of stuff. I only wish I had known about this site and had the ability to go on here years ago! I have stubbornly distanced myself from computers for many years, (except when forced to use them a little at my second job), and now am beginning to regret it.
 

CowCavalry

Corporal
Joined
Aug 17, 2017
I find that my M1861 Colt will foul after 10 rounds, do I dump water down the barrel in the middle of a fight, or grab a weapon on the ground?
Older thread and someone will correct me if I am wrong; I think the cartridges were issued in boxes of 10 and that two out of this box would contain a "wiper" bullet, which would have helped with this fouling. If you had the opportunity to fire 10 rounds in a CW battle, you would most likely have been in a protected position and would have had the opportunity to run a patch down the barrel with a worm as well.
 

Package4

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Jul 28, 2015
Older thread and someone will correct me if I am wrong; I think the cartridges were issued in boxes of 10 and that two out of this box would contain a "wiper" bullet, which would have helped with this fouling. If you had the opportunity to fire 10 rounds in a CW battle, you would most likely have been in a protected position and would have had the opportunity to run a patch down the barrel with a worm as well.
With all due respect, many soldiers looked at the "cleaner bullets" as bad luck or just plain bad ammunition, case in point, at Franklin a pit of bullets were recovered just to the left of the (facing the house) Carter House in the Federal entrenchments. The pit held hundreds of cleaner bullets, it was obvious that the men there deposited their rounds discriminately. There is also debate as to how well the rounds actually worked.
Have you ever run a patch down a fouled barrel? The results are less than optimum, you just push more residue down into the firing chamber. Additionally the Southern troops did not have cleaner bullets, it was simply easier to pick up a weapon on the field, there were plenty to chose from and ram a round down the barrel.
 
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thomas aagaard

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 19, 2013
Location
Denmark
Fouling depend a lot on the specific model of gun and exactly how the cartridge is made... and how old it is and the climate.
(that is why testing this with modern replicas is pretty irrelevant)

Danish testing in the 1850ties show that a rifle musket could be loaded and fired all day with no cleaning.
(The paper around the bullet pull out the fouling from the shot before it)
And then the next day it could be done again, with the last round being as easy to load as the first.
Issues with fouling is not something I remember reading anything about when looking at danish sources on the 2nd Slesvig war in 1864 and it was basically expected that a soldier will run out of cartridges before fouling become an issue.

When the british first started to use the P53 testing in Britain showed the same.
But when the exact same weapon and model of cartridge was shipped to other parts of the world, the weapons fouled with only a handful of shots.
The temperature and the storage-time was the issue.
read more about this here: https://nebula.wsimg.com/a1ee6168412239f136bad72550a72dd0?AccessKeyId=C6CC5D56582B54161E90&disposition=0&alloworigin=1
An article well worth a read.
 

CowCavalry

Corporal
Joined
Aug 17, 2017
With all due respect, many soldiers looked at the "cleaner bullets" as bad luck or just plain bad ammunition, case in point, at Franklin a pit of bullets were recovered just to the left of the (facing the house) Carter House in the Federal entrenchments. The pit held hundreds of cleaner bullets, it was obvious that the men there deposited their rounds discriminately. There is also debate as to how well the rounds actually worked.
Have you ever run a patch down a fouled barrel? The results are less than optimum, you just push more residue down into the firing chamber. Additionally the Southern troops did not have cleaner bullets, it was simply easier to pick up a weapon on the field, there were plenty to chose from and ram a round down the barrel.
I have seen many spent/fired wiper bullets for sale around NPB sites. I have no idea or not whether they were marked as such in the cartridge boxes but I find it hard to beleive that a soldier in the heat of battle (or before) would care or take the time to notice the marking and discard the wiper round. But, I suppose its possible.
 
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CowCavalry

Corporal
Joined
Aug 17, 2017
Fouling depend a lot on the specific model of gun and exactly how the cartridge is made... and how old it is and the climate.
(that is why testing this with modern replicas is pretty irrelevant)

Danish testing in the 1850ties show that a rifle musket could be loaded and fired all day with no cleaning.
(The paper around the bullet pull out the fouling from the shot before it)
And then the next day it could be done again, with the last round being as easy to load as the first.
Issues with fouling is not something I remember reading anything about when looking at danish sources on the 2nd Slesvig war in 1864 and it was basically expected that a soldier will run out of cartridges before fouling become an issue.

When the british first started to use the P53 testing in Britain showed the same.
But when the exact same weapon and model of cartridge was shipped to other parts of the world, the weapons fouled with only a handful of shots.
The temperature and the storage-time was the issue.
read more about this here: https://nebula.wsimg.com/a1ee6168412239f136bad72550a72dd0?AccessKeyId=C6CC5D56582B54161E90&disposition=0&alloworigin=1
An article well worth a read.
I think it was in Longstreet's memoir that he described the action in one of his corp's battles as being so heavy that the soldiers of an individual unit were using trees to push their rammers against to load the cartridges as the barrels were so fouled.
 
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thomas aagaard

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 19, 2013
Location
Denmark
I have seen many spent/fired wiper bullets for sale around NPB sites. I have no idea or not whether they were marked as such in the cartridge boxes but I find it hard to believe that a soldier in the heat of battle (or before) would care or take the time to notice the marking and discard the wiper round. But, I suppose its possible.
The paper of the cartridge for the cleaner rounds was colored light blue.

If they had an idea that it was inaccuracy or something it would (to me) make perfect sense to remove them.


Personally when I was in the army I only loaded 28 rounds in our 30 round magazines. And I know many others did the same.
The issue was that the magazine sometimes fail to load the next round when full.
And if you by mistake load 31 rounds, (something that was possible) it failed most of the time.

Did we have proper scientific evidence that the failure rate was substantially higher at 30 rounds than 28?
No, but we had sufficient anecdote evidence that we only loaded 28... despite the disadvantage that is...
And I know men who when into combat in Afghanistan doing this.

So If a group of soldiers get the idea that the cleaner round is "bad" Iam not surprised that they didn't use it.

Admittedly, that is just my personal experience.
 
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CowCavalry

Corporal
Joined
Aug 17, 2017
The paper of the cartridge for the cleaner rounds was colored light blue.

If they had an idea that it was inaccuracy or something it would (to me) make perfect sense to remove them.


Personally when I was in the army I only loaded 28 rounds in our 30 round magazines. And I know many others did the same.
The issue was that the magazine sometimes fail to load the next round when full.
And if you by mistake load 31 rounds, (something that was possible) it failed most of the time.

Did we have proper scientific evidence that the failure rate was substantially higher at 30 rounds than 28?
No, but we had sufficient anecdote evidence that we only loaded 28... despite the disadvantage that is...
And I know men who when into combat in Afghanistan doing this.

So If a group of soldiers get the idea that the cleaner round is "bad" Iam not surprised that they didn't use it.

Admittedly, that is just my personal experience.
Who knows, possibly a localized belief at a battle or a bad batch of ammo delivered there. Judging from the number of fired wiper bullets I have seen for sale surrounding battlefields, however anecdotal, suggests they were heavily used.
 
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