Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Destroying Angel: The Rifle-Musket as the First Modern Infantry Weapon - A Book Review

Overview: In his inaugural book “The Destroying Angel,” author Brett Gibbons (a Captain in the US Army Reserves), argues why the Rifled-Musket of the 1850s and 60s was the first modern infantry weapon. The weapon fundamentally altered the capabilities and role of infantry on the battlefield. It resulted in new tactics and theories which made the weapon more similar to firearms today than what came before. In so doing, Gibbons challenges contemporary historian’s (most notably Allen Guelzo and Earl Hess) who argue that the technical limitations of the rifled-musket prevented it from having any meaningful impacts on war and soldiers. Guelzo and Hess argue that the rifled-musket had more in common with the smoothbore musket of Napoleon’s time, than the weapons which came later. Gibbons takes the opposite stance. Gibbons argues, the brief rifled-musket era (about 15-20 years) represented a fundamental shift in both the capabilities of the standard infantry’s small arms weapon, and also the requirements placed upon the ordinary soldier. Gibbons argues the rifled-musket necessitated the adoption of a professional, thinking, soldier rather than the drilled, automatons, of the Napoleonic era.  

To make his case, Gibbons first looks at the clearest example of how the rifled-musket changed warfare, the Crimean War. The Crimean War was fought from 1853-1856, between the British/French/Ottoman alliance and the Russian Empire. At this time, the rifled-musket was just beginning to become the standard issue weapon in the British Army. The Crimean War is ripe with examples of how the rifle was changing warfare and Gibbons details multiple examples to support this argument.  Gibbons reveals individual marksmen knocking out artillery batteries at ranges in excess of 500 yards (a previously unprecedented occurrence), breaking up columns of Russian infantry hundreds of yards before the smoothbore armed Russians could bring their Napoleonic weapons into range, and shattering cavalry charges with multiple volleys of accurate fire, long before the cavalry could close to charge the infantry (previously infantry firing at cavalry in line was a sitting duck).

After these obvious and powerful examples, Gibbons talks about the weapon itself (what was the rifled-musket and how was it different?), the weapons iconic parabolic trajectory, which it’s critics claim were an Achilles heel of the weapon, but how despite these limitations the weapon resulted in a revolution in military theory. Gibbons talks how the high arching trajectory of a rifled-musket’s shot actually resulted in the development of modern infantry tactics. This trajectory allowed the invention of infantry being used as support troops for assaulting infantry. Support troops would fire over the head of advancing infantry, to pin down the defender while, the assaulting column advanced in relative safety. Cover/Support fire is a tactic which is fundamental to the modern way of war even today (150 years later). Gibbons also talks about how the British trained soldiers to use their weapons in a highly professional manner. This was a revolution in of itself. Prior to the rifled musket, infantry was just a trigger puller. Smoothbore-musket armed soldiers just needed to point their weapon in the general direction of the enemy, pull the trigger, and reload. The rifled-musket armed soldier needed to be an individual soldier. He needed to know how to estimate distance, adjust his sites for the distance, and aim deliberately. These new requirements prompted the British army to open up marksmanship schools, something previously unheard of but something which remains an essential today. Gibbons then returns to the battlefield with additional examples of rifled-muskets being used as modern fire arms (during the Indian Rebellion of 1857) and of other nations failing to use the weapons as anything but a modified smoothbore-musket (the wars of Italian Unification). He discusses how different powers either successfully or unsuccessfully leveraged the capabilities of the new weapons (namely the British vs the French) and he concludes with a brief look at the American Civil War and the contemporary historian’s arguments.

In his final passages, Gibbons challenges the arguments of contemporary historians, Guelzo and Hess. Gibbons argues that both historians make the mistake of relying too heavily on the American Civil War in their evaluation of the rifled-musket. Gibbons’ thesis that the rifled-musket was the first modern infantry weapon also means it’s the first firearm which requires a modern soldier. During the American Civil War, while US soldiers were impeccably drilled in the maneuvers of Napoleonic armies, they received little to no marksmanship training. Modern fire arms require substantial and constant live fire training to make an infantryman effective. During the Civil War marksmanship training was nearly unheard of. Because of the lack of training and the failure of the US officer corps to adapt to a new way of thinking about their weapons, the American’s failed to leverage the new capabilities of their rifled-muskets, despite having hundreds of thousands of soldiers armed with them. Gibbons claims, Gulezo and Hess fail to understand the way in which the rifled-musket was revolutionary because they failed to look at the right conflicts. The British Army of the 1850s and 1860s is where Gibbons argues the rifled-musket was truly appreciated and where its full potential was leveraged. After all, you can’t have a modern fire arm, if you don’t also have a soldier trained to use it. The British backed up their breakthrough weapons with revolutionary training regimes worthy of a modern army. Guelzo and Hess are mistaken because the American armies they looked at were not training their soldiers to be modern soldiers; they were training them to march in the ranks of Napoleon or Wellington. American soldiers had neither the time nor the resources to do anything different.

For a first book, Gibbons’ “The Destroying Angel” is impressive. Gibbons clearly has a knack for clear and precise prose. He effectively and succinctly lays out his argument and explains things like firing arc’s and trajectories in a way which the ordinary reader can easily follow. He also provides several graphics which help the more visually inclined (the Kindle version’s visuals are far superior to the print version of the book). Gibbons key failings are unusual for an author, he’s too concise. The book while approachable and an easy read (100 pages in the print version) also lacks somewhat for contextual depth. Gibbons provides the necessary context for the rifled-musket itself but his case studies could have used more depth. There seems to be an expectation that the reader already has a background in history and at least a 10,000 foot understanding of the Crimean War or the Wars of Italian Unification. While the lack of context doesn’t take away from the argument, it may prove somewhat incomplete to the reader looking to understand why the Italian soldiers were not professionals like the British. Additionally, Gibbons focuses heavily on the British Army and their use of the rifled-musket but the book would benefit at looking at how the Prussian’s, Italians, and Austrian’s viewed this new technology. There is perhaps too much of a focus on the British, without enough context of the outside world (it’s there, just not in much detail). Additionally, a more detailed background of the development of the first rifles and how the rifled-musket was different (the book touches lightly upon this) would also be appreciated. Still, these are minor complaints, borne mainly out of my desire to read more by Gibbons. On the whole, I fully enjoyed this book and for $4.99 (Kindle Price) I can’t recommend this book enough (affordable, approachable, and well written), for anyone remotely interested in the topic.

If this sounds like something you might want to read you can buy the book here:


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