Source: Chambers's Journal, 29 January 1859
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.
Ball-practice is thus regulated. The class is drawn up in line, a sergeant standing by with book and pencil, as when the men are being made to judge distances. At the word, each man steps forward in succession, delivers his fire, and, accordingly as he has made a good, bad, or middling shot, gets good or bad marks set against his name in the register of the firing. If he misses the target altogether, no signal is made by the marker at the butt, and he gets a 'miss' put against his name; but if he makes a hit, the marker signals by different flags whether the hit is an, 'outer' - that is, outside the outer ring - a 'centre' - or within the outer ring - or a bull's-eye. An outer counts one point; a centre, two; and a bull's-eye, three. It will be proper to observe that the width of the target employed varies in proportion to the distance from which the practice is carried on. No change, however, is made in the height of the target, that remaining always about the height of a man. At first, one target, two feet wide by six high - about the size of one man - is used, and several of these targets are placed side by side as the distance becomes greater. At nine hundred yards, eight targets are employed, representing a front of about eight men, and the bull's-eye is made four feet in diameter. Nor at such a distance as half a mile is a bull's-eye of that diameter by any means easy to hit; for it is obvious that the smallest deviation from the correct line of flight becomes of immense importance when prolonged through such a distance as that. Moreover the effect of the wind on the flight of the ball, at these long ranges, is found to be very great. A sergeant - who, as we had many opportunities of observing, is a capital shot - assured us, that when firing at the 900 yards' range during a high wind, he found his first ball driven nearly fourteen feet out of the correct course. In his subsequent shots, he allowed that much in his aim, and then succeeded in hitting the bull's-eye several times running.
For the first few hundred yards, the Enfield rifle is fired standing, like the old musket; but at greater distances, it is better to kneel if the object fired at is placed on the same level, or the great elevation given to the piece would require it to be held too low on the shoulder for steadiness. In order to shoot well kneeling, the shooter should plant him self firmly on the right heel, rest his left elbow on his left knee, and so get a capital rest for his piece in the left hand. Another mode of getting a steady aim, particularly when there is much wind - but one which can of course only be adopted under peculiar circumstances, is to lie at full length on the back, with one's 'feet to the foe' or target. The muzzle of the rifle rests on the toes of the right foot, the butt is pressed to the right thigh by the left hand, which is brought across the stomach, and the trigger is pulled as usual by the right hand, the head being raised three or four inches from the ground in order to take aim. Excellent shots are generally made in this curious position, and it may be very advantageously adopted by the sharpshooter who wishes to be particularly careful of his own person, as well as to make good shots. A sod, a few inches thick, is a complete rampart to a man lying on his back, and he could not well be hit by anything but a chance shell, for he would not expose his head and shoulders even when in the act of firing, as he must do in a greater or less degree if he lay on his stomach.
In ordinary light-infantry skirmishing, the men are extended to the right and left in pairs at about a dozen paces apart. One man fires his piece, and stepping a pace or two aside, reloads, while his companion advances before him, and fires in his turn, and so on - each man alternately advancing to fire and reloading, so long as the forward movement lasts, the 'retiring' being conducted on precisely the same principles. Now, even this drill is carried on with ball-cartridge, so that some idea may be formed of the effect likely to be produced by well-trained men in this kind of fighting, when armed with our improved weapons. Ten or a dozen single targets, of the usual size - two feet wide by six high - are placed in a line, with the proper intervals between them, thus representing a line of the enemy's skirmishers; and a party of men, extended in pairs as above described, fire at them with ball-cartridge, advancing and retiring as if in the presence of an enemy. The men we saw at this light-infantry drill were a party of about twenty of the Royal Engineers, armed with the Lancaster rifle, which is considered to be a better weapon even than the Enfield; but the number of misses compared with the hits, even under these favourable circumstances, plainly showed how much the difficulty of taking a correct aim is increased by this constant shifting of one's ground. Clearly, in the good old days of Brown Bess, skirmishing in this fashion could not have been very destructive to life. At 400 yards, the hits were very few; but as the line of skirmishers advanced, they of course became more frequent, until, at 100 or 150 yards, there were more hits than misses. In determining the average number of shots which may be expected to take effect, however, we must take into consideration a circumstance which would assuredly exercise a strong perturbing influence. If the targets were armed with Enfield or Lancaster rifles, and were returning picket for picket, the aim would certainly not be so accurate. Soldiers soon become something given to fatalism; and where bullets are singing and whizzing about their ears, they are enabled to take things all the more coolly if they have some faith in the doctrine that 'every bullet has its billet.' Without impugning any one's courage, then, we may be permitted to believe that many more bullets are billeted for the bull's-eye, whatever that may chance to be, when they are all flying in one direction. But besides this element of disturbance, there is another difficulty which must be taken into account in the calculation. When one party is skirmishing, the other party is skirmishing too; so that the difficulty of making a good shot is increased by the motion of the object fired at; and this element must be allowed for before we can calculate, from the results of target-practice, the probable percentage of hits. Perhaps the most striking result of the Enfleld rifle-firing - at least to us - was the effect of a volley, or rather of a series of volleys, fired by twenty men at ten targets, placed close together at 300 yards' distance. The balls pattered like hail upon the iron targets; and it is clear that many a gallant fellow in future will 'lose the number of his mess' before he is near enough to the foe to see the white of his eyes.
But the change from the hap-hazard, load-and-fire-as-fast-as-you-can system of shooting with Brown Bess, to the skilful handling of the rifled musket, can hardly fail to have a very desirable influence on the morale of the soldier. The elaborate training the men now undergo, and the emulation excited among them, must have a considerable effect on their character and habits; and therefore, even in an educational point of view, we gain largely by the improvement in our weapons of war. No one can doubt that this will be the case who passes a few hours watching a class at target-practice, and has observed how lively an interest the men take in the work, particularly when compared with the bored look of the same men engaged in field-drill. For the first time since the days when powder and ball superseded the national bow and arrow, the English soldier has some employment connected with his profession in which he can take an interest, irrespective of mere drill; in which all but hopeless noodles - every day less commonly found among army recruits as elsewhere - are soon perfect; and which, if persisted in too unremittingly, more than, any one thing disgusts the soldier with his calling. If no other advantage resulted from the relegation of Brown Bess to the United Service Museum, and other dépôts of military curiosities, we should be amply compensated for the increased cost of the superior description of musket, and the extra expense of the ammunition required for practice. Any stinginess, indeed, in this latter item - ammunition - will necessarily interfere with the progress made by the men as marksmen, and will very materially diminish the other advantages to be derived from the reformation in musketry. Enthusiasm must not be cramped by the denial of a cartridge.
It is well known that in those regiments in which such sports as cricket and foot-ball are encouraged, the men are both more healthy and better conducted than in those in which the men are accustomed to seek recreation in the public-house alone. Target-practice, therefore, may be easily made a pastime as well as a duty; and the men will take to it as willingly as Swiss peasants to practice at the village butt, or as idle fellow's to sparrow and pigeon shooting. We must expect to find black sheep in every flock, and therefore it is not surprising that some men grumble at the extra trouble and time demanded by so much ball-practice; but, generally speaking, they appear to take an interest in what they are about, which is quite refreshing to behold; and do their best, not only to win the prizes offered to the best shots, but to surpass their comrades - the 'chaffing' which constantly goes on at the expense of the bad shots, being in itself sufficient proof of the interest excited. The rewards for good shooting are considerable, reference being had to the moderate scale of a soldier's pay. A penny, twopence, threepence, or fourpence per day extra pay, may be obtained by the most expert marksmen in the company or regiment; and a more chivalrous feeling is appealed to by the giving of a decoration to the best shot, in the shape of a pair of crossed muskets worked in gold embroidery on the sleeve and cap of the prizemen. This extra pay, and this honourable mark - as we understand - the marksman retains for a certain period, and then must win them anew, or, like the holder of Dockett's badge amongst the water-men, yield them up to the better shot.
The writer, a short time since, was witness of a trial of skill between two little buglers, which will serve to shew the excellent moral effect which the new system of teaching men to use their arms skilfully will have on them. Two parties had finished the regulation allowance of ammunition for the day, and there being four spare cartridges left, the buglers - evidently what the French call enfants de troupe, children of the regiment - asked if they might ''av a shot.' Neither of the little fellows had ever fired a musket loaded with ball-cartridge before, and much delighted they were at the opportunity of doing so; but the interest excited was not confined to them; the soldiers and the civilian on-lookers being equally anxious to see which would prove himself the better man, or, rather, boy. The distance happened to be two hundred yards; and number one, the biggest boy, fired his first shot, and got an 'outer,' counting one point. This was good work; and the party to which number two belonged thought themselves beaten; but their champion, with his first shot, got a 'centre,' counting two points. Then number one fired again, getting another 'outer,' or one point; and unless number two made at least a hit, it was a dead, heat. But number two, taking a very deliberate aim with the musket he had barely strength enough to hold out, again got a 'centre,' or two points, thus beating his opponent by two to one, whereupon his party cheered; and he, taking what is known amongst the genus gamin as 'a sight' at his adversary, danced round him like a little cannibal. Here, then, we have proof of the existence of a much healthier state of feeling than that which we find usually prevalent among soldiers who are undergoing the training incident to their calling. In truth, facing right, left, and about; marching and counter-marching, in slow time or quick like an automaton, at the will of another, must inevitably be dreary work. But the soldier has now an occupation in which he ceases to be a mere machine, and which brings his faculties into play as well as his muscles.
When guard-duty is light, as in many places it must be, a great deal of time hangs heavily on the soldier's hands - always supposing, that he is not over-drilled - and his mind is but too often a mere blank. He therefore naturally seeks at the public-house or beer-shop for the amusement and excitement which is a necessity, under one form or another, for every human being; and which, if not to be obtained innocently, will assuredly be obtained at the expense of both health and morals. Health suffers too, as it has of late been conclusively shewn, by the listlessness and weariness inseparable from the monotonous existence of the soldier; and it is of the highest importance, therefore, to find occupation for his mind, even in a purely sanitary point of view. Of course, it would be utterly absurd to expect that the serious evils - serious, if only on the low ground that the efficiency of the army is thereby diminished, and its cost increased - will be eradicated by anything which the best intentioned rulers can adopt; but giving the men an interesting occupation will certainly aid in allaying them. It will help greatly the good effects produced by the improved barrack accommodation, the better regulation of canteens, and the establishment of regimental schools and libraries.
We have already remarked, that the pecuniary rewards offered by the government as an inducement to the men to make themselves skilful marksmen, are considerable, having regard to the scale of the soldier's pay; but if we may form an opinion from our limited experience, the spirit of rivalry will be no less efficacious than the hope of winning the pecuniary rewards, in keeping alive amongst the men that spirit of good-will without which the most elaborate and patient training must remain comparatively valueless. After all, the age we live in is by no means so prosaic as its detractors would
have us believe; numbers then are still
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth; and admittance into the purely chivalric order the Victoria Cross is as eagerly sought for by all ranks of fighting-men as it could have been in th days of Coeur-de-Lion himself. To become one of the best shots in the British army is no mean object of ambition for the young soldier to propose to himself and, to borrow a metaphor from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the badge which proclaims him to be so, may be justly termed 'the Blue Ribbon' of the ranks.