Monthly Archives: September 2015

Long range artillery in wargames

A couple of weeks ago I considered the effect of skirmishing in wargames, with an especial focus on the grand tactical games that are my particular interest. This time I want to consider another topic that concerns such big-scope games: artillery fire at long range.

Looking at some standard works (Nafziger’s Imperial Bayonets; Dawson, Dawson, Summerfield’s Napoleonic artillery; the von Reisswitz Kriegsspiel) gives the following general picture. Effective artillery range is somewhere between 600m and 900m – with most commentators converging on the lower end of that range – no doubt this depends on conditions and weapon (a 12pdr might fire farther). Direct fire was theoretically possible up to 800m for a 6pdr, 1km for a 12pdr (Kriegsspiel figures). After this ricochet fire (or “random” fire or “Rollschuss”) could extend the range. Kriegsspiel suggests a maximum 1,350m for 6pdrs, or 1,500m for 12pdrs. Other evidence suggests that artillery could cause damage to targets for another 1Km. Howitzer ammunition couldn’t ricochet, but the Kriegsspiel statistics suggest similar maximum ranges (i.e 1.35Km for the 7pdr and 1.5Km for the 10pdr). The contemporary experts are quite clear, however, that firing at ranges beyond about 600m was a waste of ammunition.

But here we bump into one of the problems of simulation. What those sages pronounced in various manuals and treatises does not necessarily reflect the actual behaviour that we are trying to simulate. This is even starker, incidentally, with counter-battery fire, which the experts usually denounce as being a waste – but which was the almost universal practice of artillerymen (and, also, incidentally, quite successful at suppressing enemy artillery fire). The fact is that the  effects of artillery fire could be significant at the grand tactical level at ranges of 1km and over.

Two case studies make this clear to me. The first is at Wagram in 1809. The effects of artillery fire during this battle were much commented on. Given the vast size of the field I think that a lot of this was conducted at ranges greater than 600m, but that is hard to pin down. In one particular case this does look clearer though. Massena’s corps disengaged from its position in the centre and marched across Austrian lines, but behind the French Grand Battery, to reinforce the Napoleon’s threatened left wing. In Gill’s account of this it suffered terribly from Austrian artillery fire: “beyond all description” according to one witness. And yet the Austrian guns cannot have been very close. Looking at the maps suggests 1Km or more. Much of this fire may have been directed at the grand battery in the first instance – though Gill’s description also suggests that Massena’s troops were also shielded by the corps’ own artillery leapfrogging forward as the troops advanced. All this suggests that the infantry was an indirect target in wargames terms, but that significant damage was done. No doubt the effect of Austrian fire was increased by an enfilade effect, as the fire was to the flank of the advancing columns, and the fact in moving the troops would not have been able to use the ground to avoid losses.

The second case study comes from Waterloo. Napoleon established a grand battery at the start of the battle on the ridge alongside La Belle Alliance inn. This was 1km away from the Allied troops on the opposite ridge. Some commentators (including Adkin in his wonderful tome on Waterloo) have suggested that the grand battery was deployed some 500m further forward on a slight rise in the intervening valley, about 200m short of La Haye Sainte. But the evidence from French participants is pretty clearly against this, though some batteries may have advanced to this position later in the battle. And the previous night there was quite a fierce exchange between the two ridges. The French conducted a bombardment at this range for an hour or so on the day. This does not seem to have done a huge amount of damage, attributed to the fact that the Allied infantry was sheltering behind the ridge, and that the ground had been softened by rain, preventing ricochet effects. And yet the fire was intense enough to be remarked upon by British witnesses – and British cavalry units, well behind the ridge, shifted position to a more sheltered spot to reduce casualties.

So we are talking about artillery fire having an effect at least to about 1.5Km, even behind undulations in the terrain. This seems to take two important forms. The first (like Waterloo) is a general cannonade, firing blind into an area where you expect enemy troops to be concentrated. The second is collateral fire – overshoots and bouncethroughs from direct targets that may have been closer at hand. The Spanish author of a series of “maxims” about artillery usage, quoted extensively by Nafziger, mentions that it is not a good idea to deploy artillery directly in front of infantry, as they are liable to be caught by fire aimed at the artillery. French officer and raconteur Elzéar Blaze also mentions this – how he hated being posted behind artillery. The point though about both these types of fire is that we are not considering the effects of aimed fire.

So what sort of damage could it do? Casualty rates are probably quite low, though an occasional direct hit on dense formations could be quite lethal. But Napoleon at Waterloo still thought it was worth doing. Damage could also be psychological. Direct hits could could cause disruption, perhaps. But I think the main effect is more subtle. Standing around under bombardment which you have to accept passively is often described as one of the most difficult tasks in war. It is likely to be psychologically draining in some way. But how this plays out is less easy to see. When the bombardment stops, as it must before any direct attack, the targets experience relief, which can take the form of fierce desire to get to grips with the enemy to relieve the pent-up frustration. I’m not sure how much evidence there really is of this kind of softening up causing the rapid collapse of trained troops. It happened in neither of the two instances I quoted above. At Wagram the Saxons did collapse on the second day from near Aderklaa after not much more than artillery fire. But that came after heavy losses on the first day, and then enduring fire “en potence” – from two directions. Much of this fire was likely was from less than 1Km, I suspect, though, at least for the units at the front.

My personal theory is that there is some sort of stamina limit, after which men feel that they have had enough – a come-down after a prolonged exposure to adrenaline. Towards the end of big battles there seem to be few troops available to do anything – far fewer than can be accounted for by dead and wounded. This was perhaps regarded as a bit shameful, so few people would write about it. But all knew it was a factor – and it comes through from Clausewitz’s writing. Exposure to bombardment perhaps sets the clock ticking, hastening that moment of eventual collapse, even if the men are perfectly capable as the bombardment ends. Wargames usually simulate this by having much higher rates of casualties than is justified by killed an wounded – and this is often very successful in simulating that end of battle scenario – though less good when it comes to simulating the effects of cannonades.

Fot tactical rules, matters are quite straightforward. Artillery fire at ranges of over 600m is probably not worth worrying about, though for games mechanics longer range brackets might be helpful. Though Lasalle isn’t very specific about its distance scale, this does seem to be the case with these rules. Older rules allow longer ranges, but these tended to tolerate useless detail more.

Turning to grand tactical rules Grande Armée and Volley & Bayonet have very similar mechanisms. Artillery units would target individual units (generally brigades), throw a small number of dice, and hope for high scores, which would give you hits. Ranges are quite long (1,000 to 1,600 yards) and little attempt is made to distinguish between long and effective range. In GA a hit immediately reduces combat effectiveness, in V&B the unit keeps going at the same capability until it is burnt out. The problem for both is similar to the one I was referred to in skirmishing – a low standard deviation attritional tactic comes out as a high standard deviation one. It has to be admitted though this may have a stronger basis in fact – as the results could indeed be quite variable, at least in terms of dead and wounded. There is no attempt to deal with bouncethroughs and indirect fire. In GA at least (I haven’t played V&B) players tend not to bother with preparatory bombardment for more than a token turn or so. The results seem to unreliable. Artillery can do a lot of damage, though its main impact is defensive.

Bloody Big Battles faces a similar issue, but it’s more extreme. A hit amounts to removing a base, which represents an extreme level of damage – that would not be realistic. Instead a lesser level of damage is inflicted: temporary disruption. But you have to act quite quickly to capitalise. Suppression of enemy artillery is probably a more useful goal for an attacker, though still requires a good score. Ranges are much longer than for other systems (2.4Km or more!), but they are designed mainly for a later era when artillery was punchier. Having said that I thought the ranges worked OK for my Waterloo simulation – in which I provided for bouncethrough and indirect fire in a house rule.

And now for my latest set of favourite rules: Et sans résultat! These are quite interesting in that they have a game mechanism referred to as “fatigue”, which operates at divisional level. This degrades the responsiveness of the division, and increases the risk of eventual panic or collapse. It has much less direct effect on combat. I think this models the psychological effects in a realistic way. And so these rules have two mechanisms with which to register the effects of bombardments. The first is direct damage to units , in the form of fairy conventional “hits”, which it handles at quite a low level of granularity (thus a 2,000 man brigade might have 20 or so strength points split between three “battalions” rather than a single brigade with about 4-5 points, as with GA or V&B, or just over a single base for BBB); and it has divisional fatigue with which to model the longer-term psychological impacts. The fatigue process also allows the effect of bombardments on the firing artillery – which was an important consideration for commanders at the time, but rarely bothered with by games designers. The core design, therefore, is very strong  – though I can’t comment on what I would call “calibration” without more time on the games table.

But there’s a big snag with ESR. The weapons ranges are too short. Apart from point blank, there are two weapons ranges, up to 450 yards (400m) and up to 900 yards (800m). There’s another 200 yards or so of bouncethrough effect. This really only caters for the sort of short-range directly aimed fire that was mainly used on the defensive. The paradox is striking. At last a rules systems comes up with a good way of modelling the effects of long range cannonading – and then makes no allowance for players to actually do it. There is probably a deeper design problem here. The time frame of ESR moves is quite short (three an hour – it’s an hour for V&B or BBB!). If targets suffered one fatigue point a turn under long range bombardment, then this could be quite devastating. And yet if the effects were reduced in the typical way through randomisation (say a 50% chance of a fatigue loss) then this would give a high standard deviation over the typical 3 or 4 moves of a historical cannonade. It may well be that weapons ranges were brought down because cannonading proved to be too effective.

So how about my gestating grand tactical rules? I’m aiming for much higher granularity than ESR – boiling down to something quite similar to V&B (with bases of 1,500 men like BBB, but able to survive one or two hits). But I also want an equivalent of the fatigue system in ESR, to be operated by divisions. However, I was thinking of quite high granularity on that – say six levels (so that is can be marked by a six sided die). But with check points at hourly intervals, this might work. I plan to use hourly turns (though movement articulated in shorter time spans if required), with a cannonade phase at the start. Artillery must be committed at this stage, and markers placed on targets far and wide, including generous bouncethrough and indirect fire, up to at least 1.5Km. This is evaluated at the end of the turn – though I’m a bit vague on just how this will work. Finally the divisional fatigue/morale/cohesion will be assessed. The devil will be in the detail, as usual, though.


French artillery in 1:100 – Part 8 Finishing off and conclusion

My French artillery
The end result all lined up. From left to right the 12-pdr, 8-pdr, 6-pdr, 4-pdr, and the 10-pdr, 6 pouce and 24-pdr howitzers

I can now declare the project closed. The final stage was painting up some additional crew figures, correcting the old ones I wanted to re-use, and doing the bases. But this is the article I am linking to TMP, so before describing the finishing touches, I want to summarise what I have done.

I have described the scope in my introductory post. I wanted to provide fresh models for my 15mm French army, whose tin men have grown to more like 18mm over the years – which approximates to 1:100. This is not well catered for in the market, because by the time more accurate information emerged, manufacturers had moved on to other scales, mainly 28mm. My main aim was to produce models for wargames that look approximately right – but there is also an element of building a collection too. Having said that I have neither the patience nor the manual dexterity to produce models of collector standard – the standard that I see so often displayed in TMP. Eye candy this is not.

But I hope it is useful to anybody building French armies in 15/18mm. Many of my models are pulled together from old bits and pieces I have had around for years, and I describe how I did this in my posts. But in this article I will summarise what I recommend to people wanting to use what is out there in the market. This is not based on a comprehensive survey of what is there, but what I know of the more popular makes. They are all Blue Moon and AB, though I have considered others along the way. The headings link to the main articles. So here goes:

The 4-pdr

Not easy to get right. Easy for me because I had lots of old Battle Honours models to start with, and plenty of wheels of the size I wanted – but these aren’t easily obtainable these days. The only model of the right scale out there that I know of is Blue Moon. But this is let down by wheels that are too small – and the bigger wheels are in important part of the look of French artillery.

The 8-pdr

Much easier, though I cobbled mine together from bits and I did not buy any of the current models. But both Blue Moon and AB look fine – but these will look best beside models in the same stable, though.

The 12-pdr

The BM carriage is too much too long, based on reviews I have read. The AB one is the right size, and nicely detailed, but the trail doesn’t look quite right in my view. I have two of the ABs and three cobbled together models based on the Blue Moon French Howitzer carriage (!).

The 6-pdr

The Blue Moon model is essentially sound, but has some errors. The barrel needs to be smoothed; you need a new and higher elevating plate from card. The AB model is nice but based on the 8-pdr carriage, which might be accurate for a few, late weapons, but not for most of the era. The barrel also needs to be smoothed. Also on my old AB models the wheel track was much too wide and had to be cut down. This may have been corrected in current models. This is the main artillery piece for my armies, so I needed lots. I made up six from Blue Moon, to go with my 3 old AB ones, and three more I made up from old Battle Honours Prussian pieces.

The 6 pouce howitzer

By this I mean the classic French “6 inch” short-barrelled howitzer that is the subject of most illustrations, often described as “Gribeauval”, but which was probably not all that much used in fact. None of the 15mm models I have seen get this right. The carriage for the Blue Moon model is vastly oversized (I used it for the 12-pdr, and it was a bit too big even  for that!). The AB model is of generally the right proportions, but looks a bit weedy. And the latest model (mine are old ones) might not even be right based on their illustration. I used a BM barrel on the AB carriage, but still wasn’t too happy!

The 10-pdr howitzer

This is another “6 inch” howitzer, and used in the heavy batteries, right up to Waterloo. But the only pictures I have seen are of the barrel.  It was based on an old Prussian design. In fact the simplest way of producing this is to take the AB Prussian “7-pdr” howitzer, which is probably quite close to what this weapon looked like in the later years with a later-style carriage. You can “Frenchify” this by adding trail handles (bend some fuse wire or even a staple) and cut out the ammunition box retaining struts. To get an earlier look I put the AB Prussian barrel on the AB French howitzer carriage.

The 24-pdr howitzer

This was the main howitzer in use by the French, and also, confusingly, usually referred to as “6 inch”. There are no 15mm models of this anywhere that I know of. The closest model is the Blue Moon Prussian howitzer. But the French barrel was slightly longer, and the trunnions further back, so that the barrel projected more from the front. I opted to make my own barrel, but this looked too heavy, and was bit more than my clumsy fingers should have taken on. The Prussian model needs an elevating plate (easy to make from card) and its trunnion recesses are too deep (I filled them with plasticine) – these are applicable to using it in Prussian mode too. Also you may want to Frenchify it – which I chose to do on my 3 models. If you are making your own barrel you can also use the Blue Moon French 6-pdr carriage (or the Prussian 6-pdr come to that).

Now a few words about the finishing. I decided to reuse my existing crews. These were Battle Honours foot crews and Old Glory horse crews for the 1809 period, and AB Guard foot crews. I decided not to use my Battle Honours Guard horse crews – they are too small and not impressive enough, or my BH standard horse crews, as these are bit dull. The BH foot crews are bit underscale for the job, though, and this is a bit noticeable if you get the correct 1:100 scale wheels. Still, I use them to make up the numbers.

BH French crew
The Battle Honours crews manning a couple of 6-pdrs, made from different sources.

The Old Glory figures are fine for both scale and appearance – though the gun models that come with them are not particularly useful if you want them to look right (though mine provided carriages for my 8-pdrs and wheels for the 4-pdrs! These were from an old pack, though, and I don’t know whether this would work nowadays).

OG HA Crew
The Old Glory horse artillery crews with a 4-pdr and a 6-pdr

I don’t particularly like the AB Foot Guard figures either, though they were fine for size and detailing. There is no officer and the pose of figure carrying a n ammunition round looks laughable (casually holding a 12-pdr round as if it was a tube of Pringles), and they are mostly wearing backpacks.  Another problem is that I had painted them in too bright a shade of blue (Army Painter spray colour with dark Quickshade). I tried calming this down with washes of dark blue-grey, and then touching up – but this wasn’t altogether successful.

AN OG Crew
The AB Guard crew with one of my made-up 12-pdrs and the 10-pdr howtizer.

These figures needed reinforcements. I had some Fantassin/Warmodelling crew figures lying around unpainted (bought in Fantassin days). I have been very critical of this range’s artillery pieces, but these figures are perfectly respectable. They are depicted in greatcoats and backpacks, which covers up some uniform details and makes them quite generic – they can double as line artillery or marine gunners. I painted the shakos appropriate to later uniforms.

Fantassin French crew
The Fantassin crews man a 6-pdr and a 24-pdr howitzer

I supplemented these with later era Blue Moon crews. These are nice figures, depicted with shako covers,  tunics and without backpacks. I painted some as line and some as naval gunners (there were some of these at Waterloo, apparently) – though you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference (the naval gunners have red collars).

BM crew
Blue Moon crews man 6-pdrs

I am still playing with painting methods. I undercoat with specialist metal undercoat from a DIY store. This comes in a lifetime-sized tin, but the only one I could lay my hand on was water-based and white. A mistake. Diluted paint (it’s much too thick to go on direct) leaves you with issues of surface tension and coverage (not so good as filling the holes). White undercoat is not a particularly good choice for relatively quick-painted 15mm figures. I gave the figures a first thin coat of raw umber after the undercoat, followed by several coats of a blue mix. In another experiment: I created this mix from ultramarine and raw umber (I use artists colours), instead of my usual Prussian blue base. But this needed lots of coats before it started to look right. I tried to highlight with the brighter ultramarine, but the effect was hardly noticeable. The overall effect was rather nice though (incomparably better than Army Painter Navy Blue plus dark Quickshade!), but not as quick as I wanted! Even if it doesn’t come out in my pictures. I did not feel the need for Quickshade, so just did a raw umber wash on the faces.

The bases were new. I need smaller sizes these days. The standard is 30mm square, with 25mm (wide) by 30mm for light guns, and 30mm (wide) by 35mm for the heavies. Two figures populate the bases, except for the heavies, which have three. These aren’t eye-candy. The position of the figures is not realistic. It is all dictated by the needs of  games played on a small table. I am also avoiding the thick MDF (or mounting board) bases that are so popular – they do frame the figures nicely. But I feel that height is my enemy on the table, especially since I am forced into using miniaturised terrain. And I already have magnetic strip on the bottom. So I used 300gsm artist’s paper. That’s thick for paper but thin for a base, especially a larger one with a greater risk of warping. Never mind. I have magnetised bases and I store on steel paper, which should stop the warping.

I use a home-made gloop, consisting of sand, artist’s gesso and paint (I used a dark burnt umber this time – I have used raw umber before). I apply this with a sculpting tool after gluing the figures to the base. After touching up with burnt umber paint, I  covered the bases with a combination of flock and static grass. I’m not expert with the static grass, which comes out  a bit matted in my hands. The flock represents the flattened areas – and only in very small areas is the base of burnt umber left exposed. They haven’t set up in a Japanese garden amongst decorative tufts and rock features. To unify the flock and static grass I give it all a wash of yellow green (using ink and flow enhancer rather than water as a base). I then give a bit of a dry brush with a white/yellow ochre mix. The overall effect is textured and the figure bases are nicely covered up, and the colour doesn’t jar with the table covering. In my earlier batch of bases for my Prussians the overall effect was too dark, which made my dark figures look even duller. So I used a brighter colour of static grass, more yellow in the wash, and was rather heavier (and less dry) with the dry brushing. This looks much better, and I will have to reverse engineer my Prussians somehow. But I don’t think I’d recommend this approach particularly – I think you can get nicer looking results than this.

And now my thoughts turn to my next project. Prussians probably. I have it in mind to do a similar article (or articles) on Prussian artillery, and one on limbers too. But I need more Prussian landwehr!





Skirmishing in wargames

Wargamers have had a difficult relationship with skirmishers. In the early days they were always there. After all they were a constant feature of historical battle accounts, and many commentators suggested skirmishing was an important part of war in this era. Besides the light troops provided interesting variety in their uniforms. Advancing bodies of miniatures would always have a scattering of skirmish figures before them, usually mounted on single bases. Rules were designed to accommodate them, albeit very crudely, usually without any provision for reserves and so on.

But at some point gamers got fed up with them. They seemed to require an awful lot of work for not a lot of effect. They started to disappear, with gamers rationalising that the effects of skirmishers were taken care of in other game processes. Or else there would some kind of tokenistic  “skirmish phase” which could be quickly got through as a preliminary to the main combat. The deeper truth is that most historians, and wargamers in their wake, never really understood what skirmishing was all about. I want to try and unpack this a bit.

Now let’s start with the traditional view. Skirmishers would be drawn from an elite company, the British Light Company (often topped up with riflemen) or the French Voltigeurs. (The reluctance of British historians to properly understand Austrian and Prussian practices, with no elite companies, is one of the many dimensions of this issue). These men would run out in advance of an attack and deliver fire on the target, which would help shake it as the attack was actually delivered. The main body would advance without stopping, with the skirmish screen melting away as it approached.

At first this looks like quite a plausible tactic. A typical battalion frontage would be about 200 paces. Across this frontage 20 or more pairs of skirmishers would be deployed – say 50 men. That would be about half a voltigeur company, the other half being held back as supports. This screen would advance about 200 paces, say, in front of the main body (though in wargames it would typically be less). That gives them two minutes to soften up the target. Fresh troops in an elite company could be expected to loose off six aimed rounds in that time – 300 rounds altogether. There is a suggestion (see Nafziger’s Imperial Bayonets) that nearly half of these rounds would score – say 120. Well in real battlefield conditions we know this is unlikely. But say on average each of the men in the screen found his mark at least once – 50 men killed or hurt. The target might be 700 men strong, so you could easily get 5-10% casualties. Surely enough to rattle a unit? The picture of the opposite – defensive skirmishers harassing advancing troops is more complicated, as the skirmishers would have to both move and fire. But perhaps they could make up for this by using the support line as the attackers advanced.

This is highly idealised, of course – but then these things look so simple for people moving tin men on a tabletop – without the minor terrain features that can hide whole units, or smoke, or noise that interferes with command. But there a much bigger and more obvious problem. What happens if both sides have a skirmish screen? Wargamers seem to resolve this by deciding that one or other of the screens rapidly gives ground, leading the winning screen free to do its stuff. But how? Well something like a bayonet charge would be needed to get that sort of result quickly enough. And here the historical evidence vanishes. This happened only rarely, if at all. It wasn’t that light troops were deficient with the bayonet – they often led the way in broken ground or villages, where most bayonet fighting took place. I think there is something about the dispersed nature of a skirmish screen that makes this impossible. One issue might be that the psychology of dispersed formations makes it much harder for men with loaded muskets to go forward to contact. Or it could simply be command and control – a charging skirmish screen could not be rallied in time to do any meaningful skirmishing afterwards.

No. What happened when two skirmish screens met is that they stopped and took potshots at each other. Given the dispersed nature of the target, which could make use of any ground cover going, and the fact that the firers were themselves under fire, this fire would be pretty ineffective and would not achieve very much in the two minutes it took for the advancing formed troops to catch up. At this point the attacking side has a decision to take. He can press on through his own screen, drive back the enemies’ and then onto the main body. The attacking skirmishers would have achieved nothing, and the defending skirmishers probably not much more. I think the French attacks at Vimiero and Victor’s at Talavera were much like this – as were the British attacks at Salamanca. And if this is the typical pattern of events, then the wargamers’ loss of patience with skirmishing becomes understandable. They just cancel each other out.

But the attacker has another choice. He can halt the advance and give his skirmish screen a chance to take effect. If his skirmishers are superior, he will cause the opposing screen to wilt, and he can advance his own men up to the main body. The attacker can try to make sure of this by feeding extra men into the screen. The skirmish supports go first, and then men from the main body can be sent in. But the same options are available to the defender. We might then get an escalating skirmish combat, which starts to become the main event, rather than the clash of formed troops. Of course the more men you sent into the skirmish, the weaker the formed body would become. It was one of the more difficult tactical decisions that field officers would have to make.

Here are a couple of examples – sticking to British/French encounters, as these familiar and well documented. Ney’s attack at Bussaco, got into just such an escalating exchange with the British Light Division. But the better-trained British proved to have the better of this. In desperation the main body charged in, only to be ambushed by the reserve troops from the Light Division. Reynier’s attack at Bussaco also developed into a big skirmish exchange. In the end the British charged and drove the weakened French off – but I haven’t studied this episode in detail – the French may have tried a bayonet charge first. A further example is Quatre Bras. The French seem to have made no serious attempt to charge home with their infantry, being content to wear down the Allies with skirmishers and artillery, and then test their mettle with cavalry attacks. The British skirmishers could not compete with the numbers of French skirmishers thrown at them, and so the formed bodies took the strain, though helped by some cover. They tried counterattacking with some success, but Allied casualties were high.

There is good reason to think that these prolonged encounters between skirmish lines, fed by supports, were quite normal. If you read the generic accounts of  warfare from Prussian author Clausewitz (who served Prussians and Russians in the wars, right up to the Waterloo campaign) you would think it was the norm. Such combats marked what he called the “destructive” stage of a battle, before the “decisive” stage was arrived at.

Something important needs to be added to this. I have painted a picture above of six shots being loosed off in two minutes, and causing quite a bit of damage. But after those first few shots a number of things would conspire to reduce the effect of fire. The firers would tire, their weapons start to clog and become hot and harder to handle, shoulders would become bruised, making men reluctant to hold their weapons properly. And volumes of smoke would appear. Often shots would be fired at an unseen enemy without any true aim. Less experienced troops were notorious for loosing off as many shots as possible as quickly as possible, the quicker to be taken out of the firing line due to ammunition depletion. The expenditure of musket ammunition was many times higher than the casualties they inflicted in this era  (a notable contrast with artillery stats for the period, incidentally). Things slow down drastically. Instead of matters being resolved in minutes, as would be the case with close range volleys and bayonet charges, time slips by very quickly. An exchange could use up a couple of hours quite easily.

A further point needs to be made, which takes a little grasping, but which is critical to simulation. Of lot, even most, of the destructive effect of skirmish warfare arises from fatigue and ammunition loss, not from the casualties inflicted. Troops would burn out, a process graphically described by Clausewitz’s references of men becoming “extinguished volcanoes”. The damage was, in a sense, self-inflicted. Superior discipline counted for a lot, because good troops would tire out less quickly. The slower rate of fire of rifles might actually be a benefit. If that sounds bizarre, consider this. Why, in the 1860s, were so many armies reluctant to introduce faster-firing breech-loading small arms? The grizzled, veteran generals were worried that their troops would simply burn off the ammunition too quickly and then become useless – they had reckoned without the superior accuracy of rifled weapons, and, perhaps, the better discipline of armies raised in peacetime.  A consequence of this is that skirmish combats almost always caused significant wear and tear to both sides. The number of times I have seen a tabletop encounter were the better side gets off Scott-free is legion! The idea wasn’t so much to kill your opponents as to force them to throw more men into the combat, making them useless in the “decisive” phase.

A more subtle point flows from this. Differences in training and morale would cause different rates of attrition between the sides – but otherwise the main variables tended to affect both sides equally. These might be the length of time of the exchange, the amount of smoke and ground cover (though one side might have an advantage here), and the aggressiveness with which each side pursued the combat (which would stimulate a response in their opponents). This runs counter to the way most skirmish combat mechanisms work: typically each side throws a dice to judge losses (usually on the other side) and these are only weakly correlated.

The problem for tactical wargames rules becomes obvious – I’m thinking of systems like Lasalle (which I have played) and Black Powder (which I haven’t even read). Typically a move represents quite a short space of time. You don’t want your game to degenerate into many moves were little happens – even if this quite a legitimate, battle-winning tactic in real warfare. They have similar problems with representing artillery, which real soldiers often used in prolonged bombardments that no wargamer would have the patience for. Skirmishing is dealt with very formulaicly in Lasalle, so as to be resolved quickly without disrupting play too much. But I don’t think the challenge insuperable, what is needed is an elastic approach to representing time. I have a few ideas on this, but not tested them yet. My current energies are going into grand tactical rules.

In grand tactical games a move usually averages out to 30 minutes, with 20 minutes or an hour used as well. And elasticity (some moves represent longer elapsed time periods than others) is pretty much a given. The challenges are different at this level. The “So what?” issue is an important one. Combat mechanisms avoid the detail, so who cares if what is going on is a conventional clash of formed troops, or a skirmish exchange? Because there are different risk calculations to be made. A volley and bayonet approach, with only a limited role for skirmishers, will yield quick results, but those quick results can often be bad ones. It did not go well for Junot at Vimiero or Victor at Talavera after all. Or Leith at Salamanca. A skirmish-led approach is classic attrition warfare, on the other hand, and neither leads to quick victory nor quick defeat. In modern language, it has a low standard deviation. If you have a numerical advantage it is one way of making it tell. Your opponent may be forced to throw the dice and counter with cold steel – usually with the odds stacked against them.

I am not sure if I have ever seen this trade-off represented properly in grand tactical rules. In Grande Armée skirmishing is represented by throwing one or two dice, and hoping for a six. It is a high standard deviation approach, and pretty ineffective at that. I haven’t played Volley & Bayonet but I think it suffers from a similar problem. Slow rates of casualties in a typical game mechanism, is represented by having to score high on a dice, which means that losses are very uneven – and completely unlike the way attritional tactics worked in life.

The skirmish rules in Et Sans Résultat are much, much better. Both sides decide commitment (three levels – aggressively pressed, passively respond, reluctantly participate); dice are thrown to see if one side “wins”; each side then throws to see how many hits are suffered. There is a clear appreciation that losses (i.e. hits) flow from the numbers fed into the encounter, rather than actual casualties, and that depends on control as much as anything. But there are issues. Skirmishing comes over as an element of friction rather than a tactic. In the one game I played I tried to use it as a tactic but the rewards were poor. If you “aggressively press” you are quite likely to end up with damage (fair enough) but your odds on inflicting it are limited. Quite often one side would suffer nothing at all. It’s quite high standard deviation stuff. There are a couple of other issues. It seems inconsistent with the game design that players are given three options as to how to conduct skirmishing, when so many other things (for example the line/square/column decision) aren’t given to players. The level of commitment should sure follow from tactical doctrine and divisional orders, with the dice taking care of local variation? Also a round of skirmishing precedes most combats, including straight bayonet charges. In my view (see above) serious skirmishing only happens when the main bodies are halted, and there is enough time for the firing to take is toll. I suspect these issues are interrelated. As skirmishing is not really a useful tactic, why would you delay an attack to skirmish? In which case you wouldn’t get much skirmishing at all.

Skirmishing is not an easy thing to do justice to at any level of rules design. It is not a problem that I have solved in my dabblings with rules design. But cracking it is surely necessary to get the true flavour of Napoleonic warfare.