Tips on Writing Military Science Fiction essay

Shoulder Held Rifles

Rifles and Tactics

The introduction of rifled shoulder held weapons dramatically changed tactical strategy in the mid 19th century by antiquating mass charges, increasing the importance of cover and positioning, and pushing the development of better artillery and armored units. Where-as prior to the introduction of the shoulder-fired rifle troops could legitimately march in columned assaults not unlike those conceived of by the ancient Romans, modern ranged weapons were capable of mowing down successive enemy lines before the sides could even come to a clash. In the many decades between the introduction of the rifle and the eventual development of tactics built around modern firepower capabilities, millions of troops were lost to an insistence on out-dated tactics or puzzling deadlocks. From the American Civil war to the First World War, the rifle revolutionized combat.

To understand the importance of the rifle in modern military history, one would do well to quickly examine the technology itself, for its effect was directly related to its functionality. Prior to the advent of rifles in combat, the most commonly used gun was a musket. These were “smooth-bore, large caliber weapons using ball-shaped ammunition fired at relatively low velocity.” Balls were loosely stuffed into the barrel with gunpowder, frequently causing a great deal of soot and smoke that would need to be cleaned away. Rifles, on the other hand, have grooves on the interior of the barrel which cause the bullet to spin as it exits the gun, giving it a more stable and accurate trajectory. The grooves may have originally been designed to help funnel soot and smoke out of the gun, or inspired by the way in which spiraled feathers could stabilize arrows. “Rifles were initially single-shot, muzzle-loading weapons. During the 18th century, breech-loading weapons were designed, which allowed the rifleman to reload whilst under cover, but defects in manufacturing and the difficulty in forming a reliable gas-tight seal prevented widespread adoption. During the 19th century, multi-shot repeating rifles using lever, pump or linear bolt actions became standard…”

The switch to breech loading rifles was largely inspired by the great difficulty in pushing a bullet down through the grooves of a rifle without further trapping soot and deforming the lead head. Speed was also an issue. Conical bullets were created around this time, allowing the missiles to be heavier, more deadly, and better fitting to the barrel of the gun. Not all good rifles were breech loading, though. The Minie bullet, which was used in muzzle loaders, was a very frequent little warrior in the Civil war. The Minie was a “smaller, hollow-based bullet that could far more quickly and easily be rammed into the bore, expanding when the weapon was fired to catch in the rifling and be shot spinning out of the barrel. That spin made the mini ball, like other, more expensive and unwieldy rifle bullets, a highly precise and far traveling projectile. They could reach a half-mile or more, and an average soldier could easily hit a target 250 yards away.”

There were several significant changes in the functionality of these rifles compared to earlier weapons. First, the heavier bullets and rifled barrels resulted in far greater accuracy and kill-power over long ranges. Accuracy and distance differences were dramatic. In 1856 U.S. Army experiments showed that at 400 yards only 4% of snipers using smoothbore muskets could hit a target, compared to 52.5% of those using rifles. At only 200 yards, the difference was between 42.5% of smoothbore shots hitting their mark and 80% of rifles.

Secondly, rifles became increasingly quick to load as the technology increased– by the time they were widespread, they were also generally breech loading. Multiple-shot magazines, such as those used in the 7-shot Spencer and 20-shot Henry rifles, had developed before the end of the civil war, and machine gun rifles were common by the first world war. Obviously, to combination of speed, accuracy, and distance revolutionized the way combat functioned. These effects should have been relatively predictable for generals, and it is one of the most baffling aspects of military history that for a full half a century after rifles became widespread, tacticians were still struggling to adapt. Well over half a million soldiers on both sides of the conflict died in the American Civil war, in no small part because of their leaders’ insistence on tactics which did not take the rifle into account.

Reading over the functionality of the rifle, one can see two obvious implications for tactical adjustment. First, the rifle is far more accurate at a far greater difference, which makes it capable of being used successfully by snipers and long-range warriors. Snipers have the potential to inflict significant damage to an enemy with minimal losses, and also to play a vital part in strategical interests. For example, invaders moving through unfamiliar territory could theoretically be decimated by well-placed and mobile snipers covering their movements — a tactic which would both reduce numbers and slow progress. One story from the Vietnam war tells of a rifle-bearing sniper who single-handedly wiped out an entire north Vietnamese company. “The enemy could not effectively return fire and Hathcock kept them suppressed because they knew that if they were to show themselves they would die.” Such tactics did not appear until more recently, despite the fact that “modern sniper rifles can trace their ancestry back for over a century” Obviously, what a single sniper could do a unit could do as well, taking up strategic positions with a great deal of cover and shooting anything that dared to come within range, or sneaking up on enemies. Attacking and fading back into the background could be immensely effective.

Secondly, the fact that rifles can shoot over such great distances and with such speed means that massed line attacks over open terrain become blatantly suicidal. Such phalanx-like tactics date back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, and were standard tactics through-out the Middle Ages. Even muskets did not make these tactics outdated, and Napoleon used them with great success. “Troops [were] moving from place to place in column formation, but deploying into line for battle. A line formation in the assault delivers more firepower since everyone in both of its ranks can shoot. The column has more penetrating power since it overwhelms defenders with superior numbers at the point of impact….Confronting only smooth-bore muskets or slow- loading hunting rifles, Napoleon habitually attacked in column.”

When such tactics were used with longer range and faster firing weapons, the majority of the line would be killed before reaching their objective. Two lines facing off often both faced massive casualties. Ideally, when using such weapons troops need to move quickly from physical cover to physical cover, or be backed by artillery or other “suppressive fire” that keeps the enemy from shooting at them as they take a position. This is the sort of tactics now used in firefights. “Running across the open is stupid, the runner is a big target and very hard not to see. Crossing a long distance (like thirty or more feet) is suicide unless the individual’s buddies are keeping the bad guys from looking…. Solid cover should be chosen before the person even gets up.” Modern soldiers look for cover, and try to be exposed for as little time as possible. Using foxholes is a common tactic when all other cover fails — they first came to be used during the World War because of the impossibility of advancing across open fields when facing rifle fire. Even during the civil war, troops could have attempted to keep under cover and attack in unpredictable ways. The closest strategist of the time came was to use a rise-and-rush strategy of “taking cover just before each defending volley, then rising and rushing forward a few yards between volleys,” which mainly failed only when it wasn’t used or because soldiers were not well enough trained to be working together as a coherent team.

In short, the rifle necessitated a total change in traditional tactics. Rather than highly ordered mass attacks across fields of battle, war began to necessitate short and unpredictable movements, the use of cover and range. If one is to look at historical examples, one might compare traditional battle tactics with the Romans, and the needed advances in tactics as a change to more “barbarian” tactics like those used by the ancient Mongols — constantly shifting patterns, confusing and range, with mobility and speed an important part of the equation. However, it took two world wars for these points to be made.

The lessons of the U.S. Civil War were little noticed in Europe, where strategy and tactics continued to be thought of in terms of mid-19th-century practice. European theorists also ignored the extensive and effective use of machine guns, artillery, and rifles in the colonial wars of the 19th cent. As a result, the bloody stalemate of World War I came as a surprise to most generals. It was characterized by trench warfare and by bloody frontal attacks, which were usually stopped at great cost to the attackers by massed small arms and artillery fire.”

The first world war effectively drilled into Europe and America the terror of modern rifle-based warfare. Rifles could keep people penned in their trenches, or kill anything that moved out of them. Rifle-defended trenches were highly effective at stopping invasions (a fact that the American South should have considered during the Civil War), but one could make very few advances from them. However, by the time of the second world war, the lessons of the rifles had been relatively well learned. In preparing for the next war, Germany invented “lightening strike” capacities, focusing on mobility and range and suppressive fire. “Speed, and still more speed, and always speed was the secret… And that demanded audacity, more audacity and always audacity.” During that war, cover was provided for the rifle-bearing infantry by planes and tanks, and once a hole was made in defenses, infantry could pass through without running a gauntlet of rifle fire. Tanks seem like the only reasonable answer to rifles in terms of fielding a good invasion, for only armored vehicles or individuals could safely march across an open field towards a trench or fortress defended by rifles.


Civil War Preservation Trust. “Small Arms.” Civil War Preservation Trust History Center and Classroom. 21 April 2005).

Columbia University Press. “Total War and Mechanized War.” The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. 21 April 2005).

Dick Weeks. “Weapons of the American Civil War.” Home of the Civil War. 21 April 2005).

DDerby. “Rifle.” Wikipedia. 21 April 2005).

Edward Czarnecki. “A Brief History of U.S. Infantry Tactics (1855-1865).” U.S. Regulars Archive. (accessed 21 April 2005).

Trueman, C. “Blitzkrieg.” History Learning Site. 21 April 2005).

William S. Frisbee Jr. “Tactics.” Tips on Writing Military Science Fiction. 21 April 2005).

DDerby. “Rifle.” In Wikipedia. [encyclopedia online]. (15 April 2005 [21 April 2005]); available at

Dick Weeks. “Weapons of the American Civil War.” In Home of the Civil War. [historical website online]. (16 February 2002 [21 April 2005]); available at

Civil War Preservation Trust. “Small Arms.” In Civil War Preservation Trust History Center and Classroom. [historical preservation organization online]. (2005 [21 April 2005]); available at

William S. Frisbee Jr. “Tactics.” In Tips on Writing Military Science Fiction. [informational website online]. ([21 April 2005]); available at

DDerby. “Rifle.” In Wikipedia. [encyclopedia online]. (15 April 2005 [21 April 2005]); available at

Edward Czarnecki. “A Brief History of U.S. Infantry Tactics (1855-1865).” In U.S. Regulars Archive. [historical website online]. (2005 [21 April 2005]); available at

William S. Frisbee Jr. “Tactics.” In Tips on Writing Military Science Fiction. [informational website online]. ([21 April 2005]); available at

Edward Czarnecki. “A Brief History of U.S. Infantry Tactics (1855-1865).” In U.S. Regulars Archive. [historical website online]. (2005 [21 April 2005]); available at

Columbia University Press. “Total War and Mechanized War.” In the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. [encyclopedia online]. (Columbia University Press, 6th ed., 2005 [21 April 2005]); available at

Major General Fuller, in: Trueman, C. “Blitzkrieg.” In History Learning Site. [educational website online]. (September 2002 [21 April 2005]); available at

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