Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Experimental Corps of Riflemen

by David Cook

If there is one regiment of the British Army that served in the Napoleonic Wars that encapsulates the esprit de corps, then it is none other than the 95th Rifles. From their unique uniform, rifle and tactics, their fame grew from humble beginnings to something ‘legendary’. No other corps served in virtually all battles and campaigns of this period and even today, in modern day fiction, the 95th remain extremely popular with academics, historians, authors and the ordinary folk.

So why did the army need them and when?

The need for rifle-armed men; sharpshooter infantry who were trained to think for themselves in open order rather than rely on the basic soldering of forming into perfect blocks of men, marching up to the enemy and trying to destroy them with massed musketry, did not originate from the American War of Independence, as most people believe. A lot was garnered from the British defeat as they sought to re-think out-dated military training, but it was not the catalyst.

The earliest ‘marksmen’ were formed long before the English Civil War broke out. German units made up of huntsmen and foresters, had rifle-armed companies interspersed with musketeers and pikemen, although these were primitive ‘fowling pieces’, but already the need to have sharpshooters was recognised in the 17th century. Tyrolese hunters had always operated in the dense forests and high mountains of the country with rifled carbines and were expert shots. Their practices were considered by the armies of the day. The Native Indians employed different tactics; such as ‘hit and run’ during the War of Independence. Skirmishing units arose especially for the campaign and so rifled firearms weren’t a sudden invention or need; it was independently-thinking men that would use them, that were.

The 60th Regiment of Foot (made up of Germans) was created before and was used for service in the Americas, and was expanded to a fifth battalion wholly armed with rifles. They were considered at the time ‘a very foreign-looking regiment’, but early doctrines revealed their skirmishing and sharpshooting applied skills. Instructions on how to use riflemen in the field was written by their commander and it influenced the thinking of Sir John Moore who perfected the unique light infantry training years later at Shorncliffe with the creation of the famous ‘Light Division’ of the 95th, 43rd and 52nd regiments during the Peninsular War.

An interest in creating a thorough ‘British’ rifle-armed regiment surged on until the late 1700’s when in 1799 a letter written by the Honourable William Stewart to the Secretary at War, found its way to the Duke of York and a plan was formed. In January 1800, fourteen line regiments were asked to send four NCOs and thirty men (who were all good shots) for rifle training. Half the regiments asked were Scottish or Irish, because Stewart firmly believed that ‘Gaelic men’, as hardy folk, were better suited as scouts and skirmishers. Command of this ‘Experimental Corps of Riflemen’ was given to Colonel Coote Manningham, an advocate of individual free-thinking, and training began in March 1800, at Horsham.

95th Rifles recruitment poster

The training (a huge investment by the army in every individual was truly exceptional at this time), included proficiencies of drill, weapon handling, field craft and tactical manoeuvres. Traditionally, soldiers were taught to ‘point or present’ their muskets at the enemy, not to ‘aim’, as muskets were smooth-bore weapons. Highly inaccurate firearms, but then it goes back to the old style of thinking that battle was attrition and the fastest side to shoot and reload would invariably win. There was no skill in pointing, just volley fire in massed ranks. The riflemen trained with live ammunition which gave the opportunities to refine their skills and give the edge over enemy counterparts as they never practiced with live rounds. Riflemen took part in shooting competitions, and awards were given for competitive activities, team-work was part of the ethos and skill came with rewards and merit. Officers took part and became integrated with the rank and file, something never heard of before. A ‘Chosen Man’ status for merit was given to four men per company, the badge was a white lace ring around the upper right arm. This was not a rank, merely a standing, but was the precursor of the Lance-Corporal stripe.

The men were put into three classes: 1st was considered needing improvement, 2nd awarded to men who were good shots and 3rd were ranked as marksmen. 1st Class had a black cockade on their shakoes, 2nd had white and 3rd had green. A marksman was required regularly to hit a round target four shots out of six or a figure target three shots out of six at a range of not less than 200 yards. If he failed, he would lose his status until he could prove otherwise.

The soldiers in this new regiment had to re-learn their craft and it became quickly apparent that some of the men sent were in fact the dregs that each colonel wanted to get rid of. These men were sent back to their old units and more were recruited.

The principle weapon of the Rifles was the Baker Rifle, manufactured by Whitechapel gun-maker, Ezekiel Baker. It had seven rectangular grooves in the barrel, which gave it its deadly accuracy because it spun the musket ball when fired at the cost of slow loading – perhaps two per minute against three from muskets. For accurate firing, a Baker rifle could not be reloaded as quickly as a musket, as the slightly undersized lead balls had to be wrapped in patches of greased leather or linen so that they would more closely fit the lands of the rifling. The tight-fitting patched ball took considerable force and hence more time to seat properly inside a rifle’s barrel, especially after repeated firing has fouled it with debris. Early on, a small wooden mallet was provided to hammer the ramrod down the muzzle, however, this was abandoned as unnecessary. Like the German Jäger rifles of the day, the Baker rifle had a scrolled brass trigger-guard to help ensure a firm grip and a raised cheek-piece on the left-hand side of the butt for snug purchase. It also had a patchbox located in the brass bound butt where the Rifleman would keep extra greased linen patches, a cleaning kit and tools. The barrel was thirty inches in length and browned to mask any glare that could reveal the sharpshooter’s position. A seventeen-inch sword-bayonet that slotted into a bar beside the muzzle completed the Rifleman’s weapons. Pikes were actually considered in the early days, from the thinking that cavalry could threaten the slow-to-load rifles, but after the long sword-bayonet was introduced the idea was shelved.

Rifleman Tom Plunket in the supine position shoots dead
General de Colbert at between 400-800 yards

The regiment was clothed in a uniform of dark green with black facings and black leather straps, and was the first ever attempt at camouflage undertaken by the army. So dark was the uniform that they were nicknamed ‘Sweeps’, because they resembled sombrely-dressed chimney sweeps. Some riflemen did not receive their new uniform until late 1802, and still wore their old redcoats.

Three companies accompanied the British expedition to Ferrol in Spain and the whole corps fought together at Egypt in 1801 debuting with some merit. The regiment was became known as the Rifle Corps until December 1802 when it was finally allocated the number ‘95’ becoming the 95th (Rifle Corps) or 95th Regiment of Foot. The ‘Green Jackets’ gained respect as they fought throughout the Peninsular War, into France and were present in the Waterloo campaign.

They were (and still are) considered the best of the best. ‘First in the field and the last out’ was their mantra and the Rifles became unequalled masters of the battlefield skirmishes, marches and were thus held in high-esteem by allies and by foes alike.

The vanguard of the British Army, the 95th,
marches into Paris after the Waterloo Campaign, 1815.


David Cook was born in Hampshire, but now lives in Leicestershire. David is a self-confessed history-nut and writes about the medieval era, Tudor, the English Civil Wars and the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

Marksman, set in 1810, is the fourth story in The Soldier Chronicles historical series.

Rifleman Arthur Cadoc, stranded in the chaos of war and still wearing the green jacket of his beloved 95th, now fights for the Spanish guerrilleros. When a British exploring officer reveals that a traitor working for the French plans to eliminate the partisan leaders, Cadoc is plunged pell-mell into the guerrilla - the ‘little war’. With only his training, wits and his trusty Baker rifle, Cadoc proves that he is not only a daring and a deadly marksman, but a man born for fighting against the odds.

Marksman is now available worldwide.

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