It was a very British scene. A group of wild haired men and women, dressed like Siberian irregulars, standing in a huddled group on a rain lashed November day on a hillside overlooking Glasgow. From time to time the clouds lifted and a bright autumnal light flashed off the buildings of the city below us. We were there to fire eighteenth century weapons.
Long, elegant muskets, the Land Pattern, better known as the ‘Brown Bess’ were passed around the group. Each of us handed it to the next with a deep sense of veneration; this was the weapon that in distant lands: Bengal, the American frontier, the Caribbean, the Peninsula and on the bloody field of Waterloo had made such slaughter of Britain’s enemies. Today we would find out why.
Dr Tony Pollard, director of the Glasgow University’s Centre for Battlefield Archaeology, was in charge and we chatted as the team assembled the first experiment. They erected a curious array that looked like a radio antenna. It would measure the speed of the musket balls as they left the barrel.
A gap in the rain allowed us to get on with it. A few shots all demonstrated that the balls hurtled through the sensors at around 230 metres per second. At the battle of Quebec in 1759 Wolfe ordered his men fire a gigantic double shotted volley. We gingerly loaded two musket balls and used two thirds of the charge of gunpowder; the speeds of the balls varied depending on which order the two balls and wadding were put in. But the average speed was much lower. The balls flew out at around 150 m/s. Still enough to shatter flesh and bone at the 40 yards or so that Wolfe let fly his first devastating volley on the Plains of Abraham.
Next it was time to measure accuracy. Contrary to some myths British infantrymen did not simply hold their heads away from the breech, shut their eyes and hope for the best. Wolfe’s army was regularly made to ‘fire at marks’ and veterans were expected to be able to keep up a regular fire of three, aimed shots a minute.
We set some targets up at about 70 or 80 metres. Tony fired a few shots, with little success. A leg shot was the best he achieved. At the battle of Quebec, the French fired at this kind of distance or even further, and this made their fire inaccurate and some of their musket balls had slowed down so much that even when they hit British soldiers they failed to puncture the skin.
Next we fired at the same target 30 metres away. It seemed very close, training men to hold their fire until the enemy were so near, until they could see the whites of their eyes, must have been a huge challenge. But our testing showed that this discipline would bring enormous rewards. Nearly every shot counted.
Ball after ball thudded into the targets. The balls fired from the double shotted muskets hit the targets about 30 cms apart, meaning in all probability that the soldier had either wounded two enemy or certainly killed one. The lesson was clear: holding their fire till the last minute and then delivering well aimed, regular volleys was what made the redcoats of Wolfe and Wellington the finest infantrymen in the world.
With great excitement we turned to the last weapon in Tony’s considerable private arsenal: A 1.5 pounder cannon. 41 pistol balls were wrapped in cartridge paper and, together with a charge, were gently but firmly rammed home. With mobile phone cameras gripped in excited hands we stood clear as the gunner touched the linstock with its lit slow match to the neat pile of powder on top of the vent.
With a hiss like a firework the powder ignited, and two or three seconds later there was a giant roar and the cannon blasted out the balls like a giant shot gun. We found evidence for at least 50% of these balls on the 30m target. Fired into a dense mass of men, at this range, as Sergeant Bristoe infamously did at the battle of Culloden, the cannon would have torn a swathe through the attacking force.
As the rain started sheeting down again, it was a sombre thought.