Sunday, September 25, 2005

Ask The Gun Nut: World War One rifle sights...

Dear Auntie Gun Nut,
Why are the sights on my World War One-vintage Enfield graduated out to 2,000 yards? Was it because of trench warfare? Were these guys just amazing shooters, or what?



Gentle Reader,
Most all of the rifles used in WWI were developed long before WWI. Besides, the enemy's frontline trench was rarely more than a couple of hundred yards away, and in some memorable sectors of the Western Front the other side's forwardmost trenchline was within easy grenade-tossing range.

The concept of volley fire dated back to the first gunpowder-armed troops. By the time of mass gunpowder armies in the 17th century, when the only way to hit someone with the smoothbores of the day much past 50-100 yds was with sheer dumb luck, battles consisted of you jogging all your columns around the battlefield to catch the enemy's guys, forming your columns into line, and shooting the other guy's line until it was softened up enough for a shock attack.

As rifled weapons came into general use, the military establishment completely overlooked their increased effectiveness in individual employment against point targets and said "Cool! We can deliver our volleys from further away now!" So, the American Civil War began with a display of classic tactics of the kind that had evolved in a nearly unbroken line from Maurice of Nassau to Gustavus Adolphus to Frederick the Great to Napoleon. When it became apparent that advancing in battalion columns against the massed fire of rifled muzzleloaders was a good way to get yourself shot to ribbons, troops on both sides began using tactics that would still be familiar today: pickets (LP/OP's), movement in dashes, et cetera.

A few years later, the Frogs and the Jerries decided to take a poke at each other. Despite the fact that troops of the French and Prussian armies were armed with vastly more modern weapons than the rifle-muskets of the American Civil War, they turned a blind eye to any lessons they may have learned from that first big industrialized conflict (indeed, Field Marshal Moltke scorned the very idea that there was anything to learn from "armed rabble chasing each other about in the wilderness.") The Austro-Prussian War and Franco-Prussian War were fought with weapons of the late 19th Century and tactics of the early 17th. When the tactics of Jena were applied to Sedan, the results were predictable and bloody. Flexible and forward thinkers that they were, the general staffs of the losing armies decided that their problem was (are you ready for this?) that their troops didn't charge into the massed, long-range rifle fire fast enough!

The end result was that the final rifles of the 19th Century were all set up for long-range shooting by fast-moving formations of infantry against other fast-moving formations of infantry, a situation that had only ever existed in wargames and in the minds of general staff officers...

5 comments:

Lam said...

Tamara, like your site and your opinions and attitudes. I am in GA. Go Vols.

Countertop said...

Fascinating.

Can you recommend a good book on the subject?

Bob Hawkins said...

You might also ask, why did WWI rifles use cartridges that were effective that far out? We don't do that today; were people then just stupider than us?

One way of looking at the answer is this: Prior to WWI, infantry units were only issued rifles, no machine guns. Missions that we consider machine-gun jobs had to be fired by rifles in volley. Therefore, the rifles had to fire what we would consider machine-gun ammunition.

It's not an accident that when machine-guns were adopted, they mostly used the then-standard rifle ammunition. Then, after a half-century or so, smaller rifle ammunition became standard. It's worth noting that when the US WWII rifle, the M1 Garand, was being designed, consideration was given to chambering it for a smaller round similar to the M16 round. The War Department decided to stick with the .30-06 on the grounds that war could break out any day, and they didn't want to get caught in the middle of switching the Army to new ammunition.

Tam said...

"Can you recommend a good book on the subject?"

Scarlata's Collecting Classic Bolt Action Military Rifles is a good start if you want a broad overview book with just enough detail to be useful. It lacks the detail of many specialist works, but is handy for including many rifles not even mentioned anywhere else...

Tam said...

"Missions that we consider machine-gun jobs had to be fired by rifles in volley."

That was the theory (company- and battalion-sized units volleying merrily away at 1500+ yards) but it almost never happened that way. MG's and indirect artillery fire made long-range volley fire from rifles obsolete before it was really born.

"Then, after a half-century or so, smaller rifle ammunition became standard."

One reason rifle calibers less than .3" never caught on is that they couldn't carry a useful payload of the period's tracer compound; the kiss of death in a military using a common caliber in their rifles and emmagees.

"It's worth noting that when the US WWII rifle, the M1 Garand, was being designed, consideration was given to chambering it for a smaller round similar to the M16 round. The War Department decided to stick with the .30-06 on the grounds that war could break out any day, and they didn't want to get caught in the middle of switching the Army to new ammunition."

The .276 Pedersen was a fair bit beefier than 5.56 (in fact, it was a close ballistic cousin of the currently-hyped 6.8 SPC), but was allegedly rejected mostly due to the massive stocks of .30 already on hand in a depression-era economy, as well as Dep't. Of The Army leeriness over the "stopping power" of a sub-.30" rifle round.