In ancient battles, the armies would assemble in mass ranks and battle lines, then march towards each other until there was a collision of death and chaos. Tactics and weapons evolved somewhat as time went on, but as anyone who has seen Gangs of New York can attest, there seems to be some primeval instinct towards mass group combat. Each leader gathers all his followers, whom he believes to be stronger than the other guy’s followers, and they have at it.
Often the romanticized history of the American Revolutionary War tells that the foolish British attempted to carry this type of line and file combat into the musket age. The wily Americans then decimated the ill adapted Brits with guerrilla type sniper tactics that were learned on squirrel hunting trips with Davy Crockett!
Sniper tactics did play a role, especially in the early parts of the war, but the bulk of the major battles were fought with European linear tactics, lines of musket wielding soldiers marching towards each other. This may sound like crazy talk to us now, but the tactics were born of the melding of classic battle planning and exploiting the strengths of then modern weapons.
“The answer is in the arms the armies used. The smooth-bore military musket—the English version came to be known as the Brown Bess—is often maligned for inaccuracy though the weapon was true enough at short range, say less than eighty yards. Yet accuracy was not at all the issue. Rate of fire, with companies firing in volley, gave muskets their military advantage. A well-drilled company could load and fire in unison at least four times a minute and some seasoned units probably did better. No soldier aimed his weapon at any single adversary. He “presented” his weapon straight ahead, or obliquely to the right or left, at the command of his officers and fired in unison with his company as rapidly as possible”
Unified rapidity of fire was key, and this continued to be an issue as firearms technology slowly developed in the 18th and 19th centuries. A rifleman armed with a musket could be trained to load relatively quickly, since his powder charge and ball were packaged together in a paper cartridge. However, the need for a standing reload was a tactical weakness.
Around 1780, an Italian named Bartholomäus Girandoni developed an air rifle known as the Girandoni Air Rifle or the Windbüchse, German for “wind rifle”. This was a .46 caliber gun, similar in size to contemporary muskets, capable of firing a ball with a velocity comparable to the modern .45 ACP. Revolutionary for the time was its 20 shot tubular, gravity fed magazine.
The rifle was capable of 30 shots on a full charge of air, which was contained in a pressurized butt stock. The effective range of the rounds was about 150 yards, but power would decline as the air depleted. Each shot resulted in a small charge of air being carefully metered out to fire the round.
The rifle was used in service with the Austrian Army from 1780 until around 1815. An Austrian rifleman would be equipped with the rifle, two spare air reservoirs, and 100 rounds–a full loaded rifle and 80 rounds stored in tin tubes.
Unlike its powder fed rivals, the Girandoni could be reloaded by a prone rifleman. All he had to do was roll on his back, hold the rifle vertically, and allow another round to fall into the chamber. He could then return to firing position, never exposing himself to enemy fire, allowing for a high rate of fire from a secure position. Additionally there was no cloud of powder smoke to obsure his view.
There were weaknesses in the weapon, predominantly due to the limited manufacturing capability of the time, and somewhat to the pressurized air design itself. The reservoir was made from riveted together hammered sheet iron, sealed by brazing, and utilizing leather seals, and as such was prone to leakage. If the cylinder was filled by hand pump it required nearly 1500 strokes to fill. To attempt to rectify this weakness a wagon mounted pump was later developed. Another weak point was that the firing mechinism itself, being very complicated, was delicate and a small break could render it inoperable.
One of these rifles was believed to have been carried by Lewis and Clark on their 1803 expedition and used as a technological demonstration to the natives they encountered. An entry in a travel journal by one Thomas Rodney, who visited Captain Meriwether Lewis during travels down the Ohio River, recounts what he saw:
“Visited Captain Lewess barge. He shewed us his air gun which fired 22 times at one charge. He shewed us the mode of charging her and then loaded with 12 balls which he intended to fire one at a time; but she by some means lost the whole charge of air at the first fire. He charged her again and then she fired twice. He then found the cause and in some measure prevented the airs escaping, and then she fired seven times; but when in perfect order she fires 22 times in a minute. All the balls are put at once into a short side barrel and are then droped into the chamber of the gun one at a time by moving a spring; and when the triger is pulled just so much air escapes out of the air bag which forms the britch of the gun as serves for one ball. It is a curious peice of workmanship not easily discribed and therefore I omit attempting it.”
Here are a few well dressed fellows discussing and firing the rifle in question.
Look here for a very detailed look at construction and operation of the rifle. This website, as well as the always helpful Wikipedia were used for background information. The lead image is from here, the Revolutionary war print from here, and Lewis and Clark from here. The gun images were all sourced here, and the accessory pack was from here. YouTube videos were sourced from here and here respectively.
Thanks to cavemanengineer for the tip!