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An outing with Rapid Fire rules

Our journey with 20mm WW2 games at the club continued with yet another set of rules this week. These were Rapid Fire, which have been around for quite a while. Originally published in 1994, we used the second edition published in 2005. I think another edition might be in the works. We thought they might suit our style of play on club nights. The game wasn’t that successful, though how much of that was down to scenario design and how much to the rules is hard to say.

We played an encounter game, similar to the previous week’s game of Iron Cross, with the British beefed up by the addition of three Churchills to the infantry force, and the transfer of the two M10s to support a reduce armoured force of three Shermans, to which I also added a company of armoured infantry (I was gamesmaster). The points values of both sides were identical. But the game proved one-sided. The Germans moved first. Long road movement distances (30in for faster vehicles) let them seize the village at the heart of the scenario in the first turn. To compensate I let the frustrated British have reserved fire. So the Germans lost two tanks in the first move, out of the three in their right wing forces. The British lined up their five vehicles, with a 17pdr, two 76mms and two 75mms into a formidable wall of fire, which seemed to paralyse the attack from that side. On the German left, the other force, with stronger armour (including a Panther) decided to tangle with the Churchills. This wasn’t so one-sided. Both sides lost two tanks, and the Germans their Marder tank destroyer. But when the British left’s wall of tanks moved across it was able to knock out the remaining Panther without too much difficulty, and then threaten to use its wall of fire to systematically reduce the infantry in the village. The Germans needed to be less hasty and use a concealed approach to unite in the centre before taking the strong British armour on.

So, what about the rules? They have a very old-school feel about them. The simple IGOUGO turn structure (albeit modified for reserved or overwatch fire) with no random activation, is part of this, and a heavy reliance on D6 throws. Admittedly this is not so unlike so unlike Fistful of TOWs (FFT), the system we use for micro-armour, which is rather more modern. But FFT uses more dice to resolve fire. For example, in antitank fire you typically throw three dice to see if you hit, a handful to see if you penetrate, and maybe one more for a “quality check”. In RF you throw just one die in a combined hit/penetration throw, followed by another damage throw if you hit.  And in FFT you have a concept of suppression at unit level, unlike RF, where you just kill people off until morale of bigger units is affected.

The architecture is very basic. There are just 6 grades of armour (including soft-skinned) and 6 grades of gun for antitank effect. Also just three classes of movement for most vehicles. That leads to some curiosities at the margins. The German 88mm in the Tiger I is classed the same (grade 2) as the longer 75mm weapon in the Panzer IV (though it has better HE capability). The Panther (with its grade 1 gun) is classed as a fast vehicle able to keep up with light tanks and armoured cars. Given the long standing of these rules, I’m sure all of this has been debated at great length. Incidentally there is no distinction between front and side armour.

This sets the tone. They are very simplified rules, in reaction to a trend towards mind-numbing detail when they were first written. But, unlike Crossfire, the rules are pretty comprehensive. That made them quite slow at first, as you were tempted to look things up when something unfamiliar occurred. But before long they should become very quick – much quicker for the same size of forces than Iron Cross, though not necessarily that FFT. There is no thought to produce house rules, because these rules are well-written, cover all the things they should, and have been endlessly tested in action. The only thing I’m tempted to do is to slow down the Panther. Iron Cross is very immature by comparison.

In this day and age, we find simplified mechanisms quite acceptable, so this is a feature rather than a criticism. The first thing that tends to stick in the throat with RF, though, is their basic design concept. They are meant to be brigade level rules, with whole battalions of infantry on the table, and three tank models to a company. That means a 5:1 ratio for vehicles and 15:1 for infantry. And yet it plays as a 1:1 skirmish game, with vehicles being knocked out by single shots and troops storming individual houses. One my fellow players said that the best thing to do was to play it as a 1:1 game, and forget that you are dealing with bigger scales. There is deliberately no designed distance scale (in common with most modern rules, it needs to be said), which no doubt means that shorter ranges are longer, if you see what I mean. Overall it is probably about 1mm to the metre (like Battlegroup, I think; Iron Cross is about 2.5mm to the metre; FFT is 0.25mm to the metre unless you scale it up). Of course what this scale up means is that you can have all sorts of nice toys on the table, up to artillery pieces. This is a bit of a fudge, but actually not so very different from games like Bolt Action and Battlegroup, which try to recreate the flavour of larger encounters in a 1:1 skirmish. For a club game I’m not going to stress too much.

The big problem with the game is similar to that with FFT. The sequence of shooting is critical, as your force can get  shattered in a single round depending who fires first, because you can fire all your stuff at once. Hence the effectiveness of Pete’s row of British armour. Fire is often very effective. It does not have the big problem with FFT of the move distances being too long relative to weapons ranges, though road movement is generous compared to other sets of rules. You still have the mobile ambush problem that I discuss further below. Iron Cross overcomes this by its much more interactive play, which turns encounters into duels rather than one side blasting the other to pulp before it can reply. It also limits the number of pieces you move and fire. And further, in Iron Cross there is a lot of firing and missing. The basic chance to hit is 60%, or 70% at short range (though it goes up to 74% at short range in my rules if everybody sits still), an even then it often bounces off. If you have a powerful gun in RF it is much higher than this (often 5/6 to inflict a guaranteed damage). In Battlegroup activation rules limit the number of pieces you can move and fire in one turn, so it is harder to deliver this sort of overwhelming blow, plus direct fire is subject to an “observation” test. Also the concept of suppression, much used in modern rules, allows an intermediate step, though less so in tank to tank combat. (It isn’t really fair to call suppression rules modern, since I first came across them in the Wargames Research Group rules published in 1973). There are observation rules in RF, to be fair, which we should have used more than we did.

I think a big problem with rules like FFT and RF is that they allow mobile ambushes. That is you can move a substantial force of armour out from a concealed position (or from out range in the case of FFT) and gun down an opposing force that is moving forward before it can fire back. I have a conceptual preference for rules that force you to either move or fire; or if you must allow units to do both, to do the firing first (as per the old WRG rules). Move and expose your self; or fire and never get anywhere. That, to me, is the essential choice at the heart of mid-20th Century warfare.

Still, I’m not writing off RF for club games yet. They play fast and are well-crafted in their way. What clearly doesn’t work so well is the sort of contrived scenario that we played this week. Encounter battles did happen, but it is rare for both sides to know where the other side was and was not even then. We will try an attack-defence game next time, using concealed placement tokens. Also I want to bring in indirect fire from mortars at least. But that’s not going to be for quite a few weeks now.

Salute 2018

The weekend before last I went to the 2018 Salute show in Excel in London. This is the only wargames show I regularly go to. I am now a member of the South London Warlords that puts the show on, though I have as yet played no part in organising it or helping on the day. Too much else going on in my life (which is also why this article is so late).

So much that I couldn’t stay long this year. I arrived at about 11am and stayed until about 1pm. It says a lot about the show that I could have stayed longer if I didn’t have other places to go! The show is big. This year it seemed bigger than ever. Certainly from the point of view of the trading stands, which increasingly seem to be the point of the show. The games did not look as numerous as previously. There were quite a few empty tables, gratefully seized by visitors as somewhere to sit down and have a rest or chat with friends. Star of the show was a replica WWI British tank, which you could peek inside of.

There was some spectacular games, which people had taken a lot of trouble to put on. But there were some rather underwhelming ones as well. Worst was a case where the intended English Civil War game could not be put on due to illness. Instead there was a WW2 demonstration that looked pretty dire even by the standards of a club night. The reason was clear enough, but I’m not sure I would have put anything on in those circumstances. I didn’t like a couple of others more due to my personal taste. One was a Battle of Tewkesbury (1471) game. The board was small but, even then the small scale figures only took up a small part of it. The terrain was an abstract expanse of pale green base, with some darker bits to represent wooded areas. As it happens I had visited the Tewkesbury battle site over Easter (on Easter Sunday in fact). It is claustrophobic, dominated hedges, rolling ground, with streams and lanes and the general shape of the ground playing an important role in how the day played out. The recreation conveyed none of that – and the armies looked much to small in relation to the ground. The lesson there: I don’t want to do a historical game that is presented so abstractly that the historical feel is completely lost. And if you are using small scale figures, the role played by terrain matters more to the overall presentation. It would, of course, have been very hard work to put together the complex system of hedges and lanes and streams that make up the Tewkesbury battlefield – but it has the potential to be visually stunning. Although the area now is currently ruined by new developments, it shouldn’t be too hard to get close to original layout. Field systems stay much the same until modern bulldozers flatten them – as can be seen from the fraction of the field that has survived, which has changed little. Besides the battle is much studied and I expect somebody else has done the hard work already.

A second battle I found underwhelming, or at any rate demonstrating a direction I don’t want to go in, was a recreation of Aspern-Essling (1809). It used hex based terrain system and 28mm figures. The villages were represented by large building models, with one model making up a small village, and units were small groups of figures in rather loose formation. This is the danger of these popular large scales. The effort goes into doing up the miniatures and buildings to look good as individuals, but the effort required for doing large numbers is too much. The effect en masse is dire. It looked nothing like a big Napoleonic battle with dense masses of troops confronting each other in villages with streets. I don’t think the hex-based system used helped either. Whether I can achieve what I want to with 15mm Napoleonic figures on a large scale remains an unanswered question.

One good-looking table was presented on a WW2 1943 theme – featuring 20mm scale figures and aircraft in a Mediterranean setting (the battle for Leros 1943). I think it was showcasing Battlegroup rules (more of which later). But after a couple of passes I realised that nothing was actually moving. It was diorama and not a game. I remember the same thing last year with a 1941 desert war “game” to coincide with Battlegroup Tobruk. I don’t really approve, but the presentation did succeed in drawing observers in, so I’m sure there’s something to be learned from it.

Part of my purpose for the day was to get inspiration. I’m afraid, though there were some attractive games, it was mostly showing me what not to do. My tastes are rather out of kilter with the rest of the wargaming community – and so far I have failed to put on anything that demonstrates the sorts of things I want to see.

Apart from inspiration there was shopping. Here things went better. I resisted the temptation to buy models or figures (there is too much unpainted stuff at home), or books on history (too many unread ones). Instead my books were squarely focused on wargames projects. First I bought the newly published Battlegroup Torch. I am less than convinced by the Battlegroup rules themselves, though they have quite bit going for them. But their author, Warwick Kinrade, does a wonderful job of historical research and works much harder than most to create an authentic feel. I have his books on Kursk and Normandy because these were the closest I could get to the 1943 Mediterranean theme. I let the 1941 Tobruk book go; this early desert war is far too far away from what I’m looking at. But this new book starts with the various battles of El Alamein in 1942, when more modern weapons started to play a role. Better still it includes Tunisia, which is one of the three campaigns that I am particularly focusing on (Tunisia, Sicily and Salerno). I have read it, and I’m not disappointed. So much better than the rather lightweight Bolt Action book I bought last year on the Mediterranean campaigns. I do hope Warwick gets on to Italy. It is promising that he says that Tunisia proved much more interesting that he thought it would be. Indeed so. The terrain is quite different form the desert, which has never attracted me for tabletop battles, and there is an interesting array of troops and weapons, with hard fighting on both sides.

Still on the WW2 theme I bought some Iron Cross rules, which I’d been encouraged to try after a magazine article. These might well work well on a club night, where my friends have come into a stash of WW2 20mm models and are taking an interest. They are a bit simplistic in places, but actually look very interesting. Alas I can see that no WW2 rules will meet my tastes, and that I will be writing my own. Not yet though.

I also bought a couple of books for Napoleonics. I am trying to think of ways I can get my metal into club games (though the main problem for now is that the basing is all over the place and they don’t look good enough). I looked at two options. One was a new divisional game: Over the Hills. This looks quite interesting and easy to play – I saw encouraging reviews on TMP, though the reviewers also said they were poorly written. On a quick review I can see what they mean. But they are still full of a lot of the tropes that affect most wargames at this level. Built up areas are treated much like individual buildings – which fails to capture the flavour of street fighting. Squares are vulnerable to infantry attacks (more vulnerable, at first glance, than catching a line in the flank). The soldiers of Bachelu’s division at Waterloo might beg to differ. Still the treatment of skirmishers is rather better than many, and I need to give them a proper chance. I will give a proper review another time.

And finally I bought a scenario book for Chris Pringle’s Bloody Big Battles. This is post-Napoleonic but I’m thinking of trying BBB on a club night, as another option. One of the big problems with club games is creating interesting scenarios, and Chris has a gift for turning historical scenarios into interesting wargames. I’m hoping I can do something with these (and the Franco Prussian War ones in the rule book). Since BBB is the closest current system to the rules I am trying to put together myself, I’m sure there is much to learned from this. I am trying to resist the magnetic attraction of putting together yet more armies to run some of these scenarios in their intended format…

1943: the Royal Scots Greys Sherman troop

The days are getting longer and the afternoon light better. I can get back to painting and modelling, and so resume my 1943 project. When I left off last Autumn I had just started my most ambitious project to date: four tanks for the Royal Scots Greys at Salerno. I have already posted at length on my early research last Summer.

It is ambitious because it is the first, and probably only, time I am modelling a specific unit at a specific time, rather than something generic.  It involves conversion work on my models, and producing my own decals.

The first challenge was finding models. I am looking at the M4A2 (or Sherman III) in early format (especially the early mantlet – there is more flexibility on the nose ). My preferred supplier is PSC, but they did not have anything. They have the welded hull M4A1 or the long-hulled M4A4. I went as far as buying the Armourfast M4A2 after good reviews, but without understanding what options it had. There were none and it was a later war variety without any sandguards; the mantlet and nose were later war too. A lovely clean model though, that I will use for a reinforcement platoon. Then I found the Italeri kit of earlier war British configured M4A2s with sandguards. Otherwise I would have resorted to one of the more expensive 1/76 models that are on offer from Milicast.

The boxes for the Armourfast and Italeri models
The Armourfast sprue – all there is for each model!

Alas on opening the box it was not all good news. The hatch is moulded closed and in the wrong orientation. The British (and certainly the RSGs) removed the one hatch cover and oriented the other to the rear (rather than having the hatch open to the sides). Besides I want to model my tanks with the hatch open and a commander. Otherwise it is a nice model. It is a snap together wargames kit, not a proper model, but that suits me fine. But that hatch: fixing that is essential to getting the look of the model I want. I am compromising on lots of things – it’s only a wargames model after all – but I can’t on that. The shame is that this is one place that the Armourfast model is unequivocally better: the hatch and the two half-covers are moulded separately. But I can’t even swap turrets as the mantlet looks even harder to fiddle with.

One idea was to use the hatches from my old Airfix Sherman models. I had thought of using these to make up a reserve troop. But although I have some sentimental attachment to them (one of them is one my oldest models), they aren’t very good models, as well as being 1/76 rather than my preferred 1/72. They can’t even be pinned down to one type of Sherman, adopting features from various ones. So I tried prising off the hatches. Alas in only one case was this anything like feasible. The others were too well glued and were badly damaged in my attempt to prise them away. I was able to retrieve four half hatch covers – which are useful. Though it turns out I needed the other four too (more on that later).

So there was nothing for it but to get out the jewellery saw and try to take off the turret hatches. The first one was much easier than I feared, though there was some damage to the turret mouldings. The next one was much the same. But I must have got a bit complacent, because the next two did not go so well, with more damage to the turret top – though nothing that a bit of filler couldn’t sort out to the standard I need. Next came cutting out the hatch lids to leave the hatch ring. This was not easy. The plastic is quite thick and the jewellers saw only does straight lines. I used drill, saw, craft knife and files to hack out the moulded hatch. After that the hatch ring could be clued back to turret top in its new orientation, with the machine gun bracket to the left rather than the rear. In the last two cases, and especially the last one, quite a bit of filler was needed. After that the half-lid (from the Airfix models) was glued in open position to the rear.

The next operation was on the sand guards. In Italy the British generally removed the rear portion (where they had sand guards at all), and this to me was another essential part of the look. Unfortunately in the Italeri kit, the sand guard is moulded to the upper hull, rather than being a separate part as in the PSC models. One option I had considered when looking at the Armourfast model (no sandguards), was taking sand guards from a PSC model (perhaps the cast hull M4A1), which in turn could be used for the reserve troop. Sawing, cutting and filing my way through the Italeri model, in hindsight this may have been a better option. It is very hard to do this without damaging the remaining hull, and once again filler was needed to do an imperfect job of covering up the mess. For all its virtues I’m really not sure I would start with the Italeri model again.

Next came assembly of the model. Mostly I just snapped it together without glue. I did glue on the bottom hull to the top as there is an unsightly join at the front, which required filler – so it was imperative the join was solid. Given the shape, this fillering was a bit awkward, but surplus filler looks a bit like mud, so no major problem.

Next there was the matter of the tank commander. I used resin models from Milicast. These were slightly small (1/76) and some of the arms had to be glued on, which I found very tricky – but they are much cleaner cut that the PSC figures. Given the difficulties with the arms, I’m not sure I’d use these models again, but go for AB metals instead. Another problem is that the figures are wearing berets, when the pictures from Salerno show the tank commanders wearing standard steel helmets (mid war pattern) (for AB the choice would have been berets or later style helmets). I lacked the confidence to do head swaps, or filing off the top of the heads to fit helmets. Instead I put an appropriate helmet cut from plastic Airfix 8th Army figures near the hatch (following one of the later pictures). The figures are full length, so the bottom of the legs had to be cut off, and I had to jerry rig a platform inside the turret to cement them to.

Next came the aerial. I had successfully used plastic broom bristle for my German tanks, so I used this again. The aerial came either in 4ft lengths, apparently, and the crew fixed one or two together depending on circumstances. The Salerno pictures showed something that looks like more than 4ft to me, so I assumed 8ft aerials,  though this made them quite tall (I wonder of they used US aerials, which had 3ft lengths, and so total height 6ft). Using a drop of superglue to fit the aerials on my German tanks had been pretty easy – but this time it proved much harder, as there wasn’t such a good point to attach the aerials to; in the end it was a little messy.

Also the pictures showed that pennants were flown on the aerials. This is another striking part of the appearance. It isn’t clear from the pictures what the flags were. The star decals interpretation is two triangular flags, red at the top and yellow bellow. I decided on a swallow tail flag at the top of the aerial for the squadron leader, and a triangular one for the troop leader. And in the lower middle of the aerial for all four tanks a triangular pennant. Colours are pretty speculative but at the moment I’m thinking of red for the upper flags and sky blue for the lower ones. I cut these from foil and glued them on. This turned out to be very fiddly, but they add a lot to the look.

And on to the final details. The missing hatch half-cover was attached to front of the driver position, presumably as a bit of extra protection. I had to manufacture these from plastic card, using the Armourfast ones as a model. I put on various stowage boxes and tarpaulins mainly from a Milicast resin set. These were mainly on the back. Some pictures show heavily laden tanks (including the Salerno ones, which show them mainly just after being unloaded from the landing ships), but in Italy many pictures also show relatively unladen vehicles. I may have overdone it (the turret cannot be completely traversed in most cases), but it add to the in theatre look.

The squadron leader is on the right

So here they are ready for the next stage: painting:

Update on Dining Table Napoleon

First, an apology to my email subscribers. The notification for my most recent post (yesterday) never went out. I don’t think the one for the previous post to that (back in December) went out either. I think I’ve resolved the problem, but I’ll only know once I’ve posted this one.

What I announced yesterday was my plan to digress into WW2 gaming with my 1943 20mm project. Apart from that digression, my hope is to post more frequently, to provide a record of what I’m doing.

How is my original, Napoleonic, project going? My last game was Salamanca when I used a personally adapted version of Horse, Foot Guns rules. I will probably rerun this game later this year, amending the command rules a bit to address the problems faced in that game.

Meanwhile I have been plodding on with my new rules for big battles. I have had several false starts. The pattern is that I have several bright idea, but as I work them into a prototype, I realise that my creation is vastly over-engineered, and so I’m back to the drawing board. My basic concept now is to have units similar to Bloody Big Battles (BBB), but with more cavalry and artillery bases. The game will be divided into hourly “turns” but these may be subdivided into two or three moves by each side where there is interaction. That is quite a complicated idea, so it’s no wonder than I am struggling to turn it into simple mechanisms. But the show goes on – I think something very interesting will emerge eventually.

Meanwhile, I will give some serious thought to reviving BBB. There have been a couple of interesting articles in the wargames mags on adapting it to Napoleonic or near-Napoleonic, away from its original brief for Bismarck’s wars. This presents the best chance of getting my Napoleonic metal into a club night game. The rules are simple, and relatively easy to bring into a multi-player format.

But the focus for now will be 1943!

Matthew

Reflections from Salute 2016

Yesterday I went to Britain’s foremost wargaming show: Salute, by South London Warlords. As it happens I joined the Warlords a couple of months ago – so I might have been one of the team of helpers. However I decided that I could put aside my other commitments for a day and turn up only a week ago.

Salute is held in Excel in London’s dockland district, to the east, not far from City Airport. It is massive and rather overwhelming. I have been going for a number years, off and on. My impression this time was that there were fewer games, but more commercial stands selling things. I’m sure the second of those is true, but the first may be an optical illusion. Most of the crowds were around the stands rather than the games. People largely came to look at and buy stuff. We may buy mostly online, but you can’t beat the physical presence, I guess.

And the show covers the whole range of the hobby. That means a lot of fantasy and science fiction games. I’m not keen on these personally, but it is drawing younger people into the hobby, and there is quite a bit of crossover and symbiosis. So I’m not complaining. Some of the fantasy games had quite a following – queues at some of the stands.

As to the games, there weren’t that many of the historical sort. My interests now extend to postwar armour battles (I hesitate to use the word “modern” since the 1980s seems to be a popular time point to represent, with two games at the show), and World War 2, as well as Napoleonic, with sidelines in early 18th C (Great Northern War in particular) and Bismarck’s wars in the mid-19th C. There was a scattering of Napoleonic games (but not including the currently popular Blücher rules), in 15mm, 28mm and 54mm, but many fewer than previous years. Likewise with WW2. Little or nothing on early 18C (not actually ever well represented at this event) or 19th C – I saw an ACW game, and one colonial one. Looking at the directory, somehow I missed a Königgrätz game.There were some references to Garibaldi’s uprising, but not a proper game that I could see. In addition there was at least one Seven Years War game. Much more popular were the various flavours of fantasy and sci-fi, often played on quite small areas – no doubt in response to often limited space that people have to play in.

Thin pickings, but enough to help me with some ideas as I ponder my future direction in the hobby. What I don’t want to do is what I saw quite a bit of: tables packed with model soldiers lined up for a slugfest. This is really just an excuse to display and use lovingly collected models, leaving little opportunity for a proper test of tactical skills or appreciation of historical dynamics. I want a game where the terrain is a star, and shapes tactical choices, rather than being dealt in a abstract and secondary way, as seems to be the case so often. As ever, Bruce Weigle comes to mind, though not necessarily with the huge effort he takes to put together his playing tables. This puts the challenge onto scenario design. One challenge in the shorter term is how to create interesting games, say using Blücher, for a club night, using the club’s standard terrain pieces, that can be put up and taken down in 10-15 minutes.

This leaves me not much further forward in terms of Napoleonics. Except that I am haunted by the thought that 15mm doesn’t really work – and that I should be in 6mm. That anyway is my conclusion for postwar armour games, which is were it is easiest to find games at the club at the moment. I am thinking of putting together a couple of 1980s/1990s armies in micro-scale (probably the GHQ 1/285 – the Heroics 1/300 items on display didn’t quite pass muster for me, except the aircraft). Of course such armies should be quick to build. But the smaller models undoubtedly work much better on the tabletop too.

Meantime I am struggling with similar issues for WW2, which I am also tempted to reenter after leaving it aside as a teenager (I still have some of my Airfix figures and tanks in the attic). I love the look of 15mm models (and I have a handful of US M10 tank destroyers from a free offer). But I have nagging doubts. Interestingly a couple of players at the club have put on good looking WW2 games in 15mm, using the same rules as we are on micro armour (a Fistful of TOWs 3 – a horrid name!). They populated their table with a lot of terrain items (hedges, woods, buildings), which is surely the way to go. But, as with the Napoleonics, the temptation is to put too many troops on the table. We even do that with our micro armour!

I made a number of purchases. The most interesting is an English translation of Pelet’s memoir on the French campaign in Portugal in 1810-11. I had heard of this because it has some important descriptions of the battle of Bussaco. Histories of the Peninsular War are dominated by British accounts, who tend to ram encounters between the French and British infantry into a rather formulaic narrative, revolving around French columns being taken apart by British lines. This formula has its roots in contemporary British accounts – it was refined but not invented by later historians. French accounts are few, but not constrained by this formula, and so offer fresh perspective. In Pelet’s case he, apparently, suggests that encounters between rival skirmishers played a much more important role than is suggested by British accounts. It will be interesting to see if this emerges from this book, and what other insights might come out.

I also bought a new book the battle of Barossa; I haven’t read reviews of the book, and I don’t know the authors. The quality of much recent historical writing is not good, so my expectations are not high: but it is an interesting battle, and under researched , so this looked worth a shot at half price. An even more speculative, but cheap, purchase was a paperback version of WW2 German General Raus’s account of tank fighting on the Eastern Front. This had been recommended as a friend. As I am inexorably drawn back into the period, this might offer me some insights into tactics.

Other stuff I bought included static grass basing materials, in various colours. I have a lot of base decoration to do, especially on my French units. I’m not short of materials, but the static grass I have is a bit long, so I went for shorter material, some of which may be useful for 6mm. I bought some beige, or “dead”, coloured grass, thinking to mix this in to reduce the intense greens of standard materials. Finally I could not resist buying some more dice: a box of D10s, and a couple of packs of 7mm D6s. D10s are quite popular in many rules systems, and I only have four. I may start bringing tem into my systems, perhaps as markers, so I though it useful to have a few at hand. The small 7mm dice might be useful as markers.

However, wargames is going to have a back seat in my priorities until the summer. I will invest available time mainly in the club, slowly building on my contacts there, and understanding what works best in this format. I had forgotten how much fun this sort wargaming is, so absorbed have I been by the historical side. I have much to learn.

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.

 

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.

French artillery in 1/100: Part 6 – the 6in howitzers

An so we come to the howitzers. Howitzers are often ignored by wargamers, as they usuallyFrench howitzers only comprised one section of two  in each battery – so there is only a call for them if you are representing pairs of guns. My games are grand tactical where each tabletop piece represents one or two complete batteries. And yet I have always had a soft spot for the type, and found ways of including one or two on the tabletop. And when it came to this project the howitzers caused me more research problems than any other aspect – and so has the modelling. Confusion reigns from start to finish. Let’s begin by considering the diagram to the right, which shows a drawing of each of the three howitzer types that the French used in the field, alongside captured weapons. Each of them is usually referred to as a 6 inch howitzer. In addition to these three RC in his Osprey offers some pictures of an earlier “Gribeauval” howitzer that was not in use in our era, so far as I know.

The one at the top is the “real” 6 pouce ( = thumb = inch) howitzer, that was cast in the 1790s, and dominates all illustrations of French howitzers. Its calibre is exactly six French inches, which were slightly longer than the ones in modern use in Britain and the US. I will call this the 6 pouce. The second is the heavy howitzer, based on the Prussian 10pdr howitzer. It was never produced in large numbers but it accompanied French 12pdr batteries right up to Waterloo. I will call this the 10pdr. These two I will deal with in this post. The third is the An XI howitzer, more properly called the 24pdr, or sometimes the 5 pouce 6 or 7 lignes (12 lignes = 1 pouce). It is nearly six English (and modern) inches in calibre, and is thus it is usually called a 6in howitzer by British observers. Perhaps disliking the alternative nomenclature, the French also seemed to have used this name very often too. It is much the most important of the three militarily, and also the most challenging to model, so it gets a post all to itself. I will call it the 24pdr. Incidentally DDS uses modern inches to distinguish the three (6.4, 6.8 and 5.9 respectively), but I don’t think this helps – if you must impose modern nomenclature, then surely the metric system is preferable and transparent.

So first to the 6 pouce. This is the 8pdr of the howitzers. From the literature and illustrations you might think it was the only howitzer the French had in service. And yet it was not all that widely used – though it is hard to tell for sure because when orders of battle refer to 6in or 6p howitzers they may be referring to any of the three designs, and possibly some captured 7pdr howitzers too. A number of barrels pop up in illustrations; all were cast in the 1790s, and I don’t think any were cast later. RC says that more were cast between 1804 and 1813, but I am sure he is confusing it with the 10pdr. The 6in howitzers captured at Waterloo and in the Royal Armouries, when not referring to the 24pdrs, refer to two 10pdrs, one cast in 1795 and the other 1813 (the entry for the latter was shown in my previous post). The 6 pouce was regarded as inaccurate and its carriage had a tendency to shatter (according to RC). Still, a number were used well into the Imperial era. There is an example in Les Invalides mounted on an An XI carriage, clearly from later on. And the official documentation seems to keep mentioning it. Whether it was used in Spain, like the Gribeauval guns, I cannot tell. All the howitzers described in both French (as published by Nafziger) and English (the report of artillery captured at Vitoria) sources refer to all the field howitzers as 6in. The surviving example from Vitoria in Lisbon is a beautiful 24pdr, showing that the French, as well as the British, referred to the 24pdr as “6 inch”. The Spanish government may not have used this design, unlike the Gribeauval guns – and these were the main source of artillery for the French in Spain, apparently.

Be that as it may, unlike the other howitzers, there are some lovely drawings of it and its original carriage. Some of these originate with designs sent by the French to the United States. One (after de Scheel 1800) is reproduced in part in DDS, and shows the original elevating mechanism – with a triangle of wood moved by a screw to the rear. Here is another version of this drawing:

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This is the source of a nice picture in RC – though this elevating mechanism (quite unlike the Gribeauval one) was replaced in 1792 according to DDS (the elevating screw came from below the barrel). Artists and historians seem attracted to these drawings and have quickly appropriated them to represent all French howitzers. It is used, for example in Mark Adkins’s book on Waterloo, in spite of the fact that it was almost certainly not used in the 1815 campaign. The visual appearance is certainly striking. You can see from the above drawing that the barrel is very stubby; there is not much barrel in front of the trunnions and it barely projects from the carriage. But it is also very chunky. as is the carriage, which, apart from the elevating mechanism, seems to have a family resemblance to Gribeauval pattern (though the cheeks do look a bit chunkier, they have that characteristic bend) The wheels are the same as the 8pdr and 12pdr, but the trails are shorter, though longer than for the 4pdr. One remarkable picture in DDS shows this carriage mounting a 24pdr from about 1822 – including the triangle of bolts relating to the obsolete elevating mechanism. This may be an attempt to render an 8pdr carriage, which we are told was in use at the time, but it clearly refers to the obsolete 6 pouce carriage.

There is a bit of problem with the drawings though. The barrel seems to be subject to different drawings from the carriage, and the scales get wonky. According to the above drawing the length of the trail is 187cm; according to the picture in DDS it 298cm. According to a table of dimensions in RC (which looks authoritative, though the metric conversion can be shaky) it is 268cm – which is the version I take as accurate. The DDS scale appears to be accurate for the barrel, but not the carriage. The colour illustration in RC seems to have overcome these problems, though, to produce a very nice picture, albeit with the out of date elevating mechanism.

How to model the 6 pouce? Unsurprisingly, it is the only French howitzer that any of the manufacturers has attempted. But they haven’t given it much attention. Battle Honours gave us a barrel, but supplied it with their “light” gun carriage, which I have used for the 4pdr. Old Glory and Fantassin/Warmodelling give us a tiny barrel to plant on a standard 8pdr carriage. Minifigs produce quite a nice model, but under scale for my purposes. AB get the closest. The overall dimensions and topography are correct on my models, bought over 10 years ago, and it even gets the elevating mechanism right, but apart from the wheels it just looks a bit weedy. The barrel, in particular, is much too thin – it should rival the 12pdr in girth (the calibre is larger after all (166mm to 121mm). The model may have changed, though. The picture in the link on the Fighting 15s site seems to show an 8pdr style carriage, not unlike the one used for the 6pdr. The recent Blue Moon offering is nothing less than a disaster. The carriage is hopelessly over scale (33mm long, or 330cm in scale). The barrel is on a more accurate scale, but lacks heft, though it is better than the AB attempt. The wheels are fine though!

So what to do? I used the BM barrel on the AB carriage. I already had three of the ABs, and I used two for this purpose. Some of the BM carriages I converted to 12pdrs, and I have used all the wheels – so I have managed to get something form £12 purchase of six. If you are starting from scratch I can only suggest you use the AB version and grit your teeth – unless you fancy scratch building the barrel yourself – it has quite a simple shape after all. I remain a bit disappointed with the carriage though. And if they have changed it to the 8pdr type, then this is something of a blank. The closest I can get is the Minifigs Prussian 10pdr, but the wheels are too small, the carriage a bit too broad, and the barrel nothing like right. It may be easier to model it on the AnXI carriage – see my next article. The barrel will still be an issue!

And now for the 10pdr. During the 1790s, apparently, the French were impressed with the Prussian 10pdr howitzer. So much so they produced a copy for their own use in 1795. I’m not entirely clear why. Perhaps problems with the 6 pouce howitzer led them to look on foreign weapons more kindly. But its more obvious competitor was the 7pdr howitzer, and Austrian 7pdr howitzer was certainly well regarded. DDS mentions the use of captured Prussian and Austrian ammunition. Perhaps the French just wanted something hefty to join their 12pdr batteries. And this piece was hefty at some 670/680Kg. That was twice as heavy as the 6 pouce, and heavier than the 8pdr gun – and only 100Kg lighter than the 12pdr. And it wasn’t a particularly new design – the original dated from 1743 according to DDS, and I have seen a picture of the barrel of the Prussian version complete with antique dolphins, representing mythical sea creatures, not the simple handles of the Napoleonic era. Still, it continued in use throughout the era, with additional pieces cast in 1813. Two were taken away by the British at Waterloo and are now in the Royal Armouries, one dated 1795, the other 1813.

What of its carriage? Here I have practically nothing to go on. DDS declares that the commonly depicted 6 pouce carriage was the Prussian original for this (in the caption to the drawing of the 6 pouce carriage, which shows a very clear drawing of the 6 pouce barrel alongside). I don’t believe this – the design is surely more modern and takes features from the Gribeauval design. But in the absence of any better data, I have decided that ithis carriage was used for both designs. The trail would no doubt have to be widened a bit to take a significantly broader barrel, but I expect that was standard stuff in those days before precision manufacturing. My basis for this (apart from assuming that there might be something in the DDS reference) is a picture in RC showing a Guard artilleryman in front of a howitzer (see below); this is clearly the 6 pouce carraige, but the barrel is a bit ambiguous (a bit too long-nosed for the 6 pouce, without looking like a 10pdr). This picture seems to date fromGuard howitzer late 19th Century, and is thin evidence indeed. But if in doubt I often take a lead from artists confronted by the same problem; the 10pdr was surely the howitzer used by the Guard foot batteries.

Whether this carriage was really robust enough for this brute is another question. Later in the era tangential references in DDS suggest that it may have been mounted on on a modified An XI carriage with an elevating plate. But there are no illustrations of this piece, apart from the barrel, that I have seen anywhere, so this amounts to guesswork. One thing can be said about its appearance though, apart from being very bulky: the trunnions are towards the bottom of the barrel (like many pieces of heavy artillery). This means that it would look as if the barrel was perched on top of the carriage, compared to how other weapons look.

Modelling this piece, almost invisible to history, might seem a hopeless task. But not so. I had bought the AB Prussian 7 pdr howitzer to support my slowly developing 1815 Prussian army – but it looked wrong. The barrel looked far to big, and it perched on top of the carriage. As I became aware of the 10pdr, the penny finally dropped. This represented a 10pdr howitzer, not the 7pdr! The dimensions measured up too – though since my French artillery barrels have a slight tendency to be oversized, it might not look quite right in comparison – though fine next to the 6 pouce, as it happens. I used this barrel on the AB French howitzer carriage. I had to add trunnions to it (the AB model moulds these to the carriage not the barrel) from a plastic rod – quite hard for my clumsy fingers, though. I simply borrowed a barrel from one of my many old Battle Honours Austrian howitzers to put on the original Prussian carriage, to give quite decent looking 7pdr. If you don’t want to do this, simply convert the Prussian carriage to a French one. In essence the Prussians copied of the French An XI carriage design for their later ordnance, so it makes quite a plausible carriage for French service. Just cut out the retaining bars for the ammunition box underneath rear end of the trail, and add some trail handles if you feel up to it (bend and cut some fuse wire or ordinary stationery staples and glue on). If you have the patience (I did not on my Prussian conversions) you can also cut off/file down the rings on the right of the rear transom.

So here are my models. The 10pdr is on the left, the 6 pouce to the right.:

6in hows 2

And here is the 6 pouce next to the original AB Prussian “7pdr”. The Prussian howitzer wheels are too flat – a common problem with AB models – but these can be bent into shape with pliers. Apart from the flat wheels, and mounting the wrong sized barrel, the AB model is a beauty, incidentally. Note that the AB French model doesn’t have the distinctive trail handles, which it really should. I haven’t had the patience to add them in this case!

AB howitzers

Next article: the 24pdr howitzer

 

French artillery in 1/100: Part 5 the 6pdr


Systeme_An_XI_cannon_de_6_Douay_1813

The French 6pdr, introduced after 1803, may have been the most produced artillery piece in the Napoleonic Wars (the Austrian 6 pdr, produced over a longer period, may have rivalled it – or perhaps the Russian 6pdr). The  Russians alone had captured over 184 by 1813 (mainly through the 1812 debacle, no doubt). Many more were cast in 1813, so that at Waterloo Napoleon had 142, not counting Grouchy’s corps. Compare that to the 92 8pdrs in use in 1806, as production ceased, according to DDS. And yet in most literature, until recently, it was as if this weapon did not exist. A picture of one in Chandler’s standard work The Campaigns of Napoleon is described as an 8pdr. Unfortunately 15mm figure manufacturers have taken their cue from this silence. So finding models of them to support a 15mm French army has been more than a small problem.

The 6pdr was the central product of the An XI review of French artillery instituted by Napoleon in 1803. It was to replace both the 4pdr and 8pdr, allowing more standardisation across the army. The advantages over the 4pdr were easy to see – the feeling that the lighter piece was not up to the task was widespread. The replacement of the 8pdr was more contentious. But in Napoleon’s view the advantages of the heavier weapon were trumped by those of the new one. Perhaps he could see, in a way that junior artillery officers could not, that lighter weapons meant more of them.

It was also a step towards standardisation with other armies, allowing greater interchangeability of ammunition. The 6pdr was the standard calibre for all other major nations, and most of the minor ones too. Although each nation’s version of the pound was different (there were about 8 French livres to 9 English pounds, for example), the calibres were generally more similar than this might suggest. According to DDS the French 6pdr had calibre of 96mm (to the nearest mm – this was not a precision age), and so were the Austrian and Russian weapons. For the Prussians it was 94mm, though, the British ploughed their own furrow with 93mm. Interestingly the Austrian ball was quite a bit smaller than the French one (just over 90mm compared to 94mm), but the charge behind it was 93mm. All this meant that some interchangeability was feasible, although the dynamic properties would have differed.

The new French 6pdr was part of a more general redesign. It inherited a some of the design features of the Gribeauval system – the big wheels and the less angular look (though the trail was straighter) – but it changed a lot too. This included peripheral features such as the carriage of the ammunition coffret (the small chest carried on the trail in the old system), and the use of trail spikes to manoeuvre the piece – which gave raise to the distinctive trail handles. The result was a piece that bore a family resemblance to the old 8pdr, but was notably different. The barrel was shorter and much lighter. In common with most other An XI barrels, it did not have the central reinforcing rings, giving it a smooth appearance that is distinctive from all or nearly all its peers in other nations. The carriage was about the same length as the 8 pdr, but lighter, straighter and had the characteristic upturned end. There were three rather than two sets of metal reinforcing bands on the trail, with the front two in different positions. And there was no second set of trunnion recesses for transport mode. There were no trail handles, no recesses for the coffret and the iron axle was encased in a larger wooden one.

All this was too much for the field officers, who criticised the new weapon compared to their beloved 8pdr. The new design was said to be  not as robust. In response, modifications were made. Back came the trail handles and the coffret recess; the wooden axle casing went. DDS says that the barrel was redesigned to be much bigger: “in effect, a lightweight version of the Gribeauval 8-pdr”. All these changes together they refer to as the “M1808” system. But how radical were the changes in fact? From a modeller’s perspective they appear to be pretty superficial. There is a drawing of the “new” weapon in DDS, and pictures of a scale model in the Musée de l’Armée at Les Invalides. Added to that evidence is the above picture of an example of an actual piece in Les Invalides (dating it is said from 1813 – though probably only the barrel’s date is known for sure). I have found a much older picture from les Invilades of what is surely the same piece:

6 pdr Invilades

It is clear from this evidence that carriage much the same as before. It’s the same shape; the bands are in the same places. That leaves the almost superficial detail of the trail handles, with the recesses for the coffret and the axle representation not being things that a typical 15mm model deals with.

And what of the bigger, heavier barrel? The barrel in the drawing has the same dimensions as the original, and that seems be true of the two photos too. The Royal Armouries has no less than 9 French 6pdr barrels, captured at Waterloo and all cast in 1813 (five in France, three in the Netherlands and one in Italy). These are 166cm or 168cm muzzle to breech ring (four of the French ones are 166cm; one of the French ones and one of the Dutch ones is 168cm, the lengths of the others isn’t mentioned in the Armouries catalogue) . The French ones are all 390 to 392Kg (the one measured Dutch one about 380Kg).  According to DDS’s statistical table the original barrel length was 166cm and weight 390Kg. Their “M1808” version is described as being 180cm and 392Kg. The 180cm measurement appears to include the button at the end, where it would conform to the 168cm Waterloo ones, and the weight is the same as the old version – so it doesn’t look as if they have firm data for the “M1808” barrel. The 1813 barrels conform to the original 1803 pattern, and I have yet to see any decent evidence that the heavier barrel was actually ever produced. Of course they might have been, and in the desperate circumstances of 1813 they might simply have gone back to the earlier design because of metal shortages. But show me a real living example of the bigger barrel!

Here is an extract from the Royal Armouries catalogue showing the entry for one the 6pdrs; note the lack of central reinforcing rings – and the notes on dimensions. The howitzer entry below it is also interesting, but more of that in my next post.

Royal Armouries

A further development is mentioned in DDS. It is that in January 1814 Napoleon ordered that old 8pdr carriage was to be adopted for all field ordnance, including the 6pdr, the 12pdr and the howitzers. But I wonder what evidence there is that this was ever adopted? Alas the carriages from the Royal Armouries 6pdrs were lost in a fire in the 19th century. Six of the barrels are on display at the Tower of London, but on modern (1950) reproduction carriages, based, I understand, on the Gribeauval 4pdr. My working assumption must be that the Waterloo 6pdrs looked like the example in Les Invalides.

And so to my models. In my collection I had three AB 6pdrs already. These were the only attempt at a 6pdr available at the time, but I found them deeply unsatisfactory. Firstly the wheelbase was much too wide – wider, even, than the 12pdr. But this may have been corrected somewhat since, judging by the LittleArmies blog, though still out by about 1mm. Second the carriage is simply an 8pdr one without the second trunnion recesses. The trail handles are also missing on mine – though these look as if they have since been added in, judging by the picture on the Fighting 15s website (and LittleArmies’ blog). There is no upturned trail end. The trail is bit narrow and straight rather than splayed, as with the 12pdr, but I am not so worried about that for the 6pdr, and it looks fine next to the AB 12 pdr anyway. This might be a fair representation of a post 1814 carriage, but I don’t think that there were many of these, if any. Unfortunately in the confusion over my last reorganisation all the barrels got muddled up, and I can’t comment on the accuracy of the barrel length. But I can say for sure that it has central reinforcing rings – and they’re still there.  Apart from these admittedly major problems, the usual very high standard of detailing from AB is there. I decided to keep them, but with 1mm or so taken off each axle end, and with the central reinforcing rings filed off the barrels. Whether these barrels are the originals, or whether they come from Battle Honours (BH) 8pdrs I can’t say!

Also from my bits and pieces, I had some old BH Prussian 6pdrs. The carriage looked rather suitable, being of the right dimensions, and with the trail bands in more or less the right place. With new wheels (taken from Blue Moon French or Prussian pieces – which I may yet regret when I come to complete my Prussian artillery project) and barrels from AB/BH, with the central rings filed down, I had a passable version of the original An XI 6pdr.

But I need serious numbers of the 6pdrs for my 1815 games, and if I ever get into 1812 and 1813/1814. I set a target at this stage of 12. That means I couldn’t just mess with my existing bits and pieces, I needed new stock. Fortunately, there’s a new kid on the block: Blue Moon. They do a 6pdr (in the usual packs of 6). This does have some issues. The barrel has the central reinforcing rings (and the dolphins are a bit vague), and the elevating plate sits far too low. The trail cheeks are also a bit thick. But filing down the barrel and with a new plastic card elevating plate (I simply glued the back end of one to the back of the barrel) and we were away. This is a very acceptable model. I have six of these to bring my total to 12 – and I know I can knock up many more if need be.

Here are the three variations with the usual crew figures. At the front is the BM, next is the AB, behind that is the BH Prussian conversion, and finally the 8pdr for comparison.

6pdrs 1

Here they are again, without the crews, from right to left: the 8pdr, the BH Prussian conversion, the AB and the BM.6pdrs 2

And a comparison of the the AB and BM models. The AB with the classic bent 8pdr carriage is to the left. It is difficult to see the shape of the BM model, but there is a marked uptick at the end of the trail, though not as marked as the real thing. The BM model is freshly painted for this photo, and could do with a little touch up, at bits of white undercoat are showing through! The AB carriage (not the tube) is an old paint job, with a darker interpretation of the carriage colour.

6pdrs 3

If you are starting from scratch I would recommend using the Blue Moon 6pdrs, with the same modifications noted above if those details bother you. The only serious alternative is the AB version, which is at least available singly – but you may have to narrow the wheel track, and really should file down the barrel rings.  Warmodelling/Fantassin claim to do a 6pdr, but I wouldn’t touch it. The carriage is all wrong, and not very nicely modelled either. I have not actually seen any others.

Next article: the 6in howitzers

French artillery in 1/100: Part 4 – the 12pdr

Gribeauval_cannon_de_12_An_2_de_la_Republique_top_viewAnd now for the big one. The 12pdr was the standard reserve artillery piece in the French army. These weren’t used in great numbers but they might described as “charismatic”. 12pdr batteries were present at army corps level, and the Imperial Guard had a number of batteries, the elite of the French artillery.

The best known version was the Gribeauval one. The picture above is from Les Invilades, the French army museum in Paris, and dates from about 1794, apparently (that may just be the barrel, though). It’s a big brute. Funnily enough the carriage dimensions aren’t that different from the 8pdr (though beware a misconverted metric measurement for cheek length in the dimensions given in RC – the Osprey). The wheels are the same diameter (146cm) and the axle the same length (209cm). The cheek length is 302cm compared to 286cm, and the cheeks are thicker. The overall appearance of the carriage is beefier than for the 8pdr. And the barrel is much bigger of course (211cm from muzzle to base ring, as opposed to 184cm – more misconversions in RC, incidentally): 880Kg, as opposed to 580Kg. Incidentally DDS suggests that the 12pdr barrel was 985Kg in weight, but the two 1794 examples in the Royal Armouries are slightly under 880Kg, the weight given in RC.

How the weapon evolved during the wars is not so clear, though. In the An XI review the 12pdr was retained but redesigned. The barrel was nearly the same length, but a bit lighter at 760Kg. Like other An XI designs the barrel did not have the reinforcing rings at the centre, the barrel being smooth from the breach ring up to the muzzle zone. The carriage was also of similar general dimensions to the old one, but straighter, lighter and with the characteristic upturned end. The axle had a wooden casing, the two trunnion positions were a bit closer together, and there was an additional metal band near the axle, between the trunnion recessess – probably the easiest way to tell the difference at a quick glance (though the second reinforcing band on the trail is further back than the Gribeauval design too). Remarkably, one of these carriages is at Les Invilades (with a broken wheel – pictures feature in both RC and DDS):

12 pdrIncidentally this shows the trail handles, which were not part of the original An XI design. The barrel on this weapon, however, is not the An XI 12pdr (you can see the reinforcing rings in the centre) – it looks like the Gribeauval version.

Were many of these newer designs ever made? It’s hard to tell. According the DDS the An XI system was suspended in 1805, and by 1808 the original Gribeauval designs were reverted to, subject to some modifications. Old pieces were converted. DDS says that all the An XI 12pdr carriages had been replaced by 1812. In which case for one to have survived is quite remarkable. Alternatively it might be that “replacement” did not involve much more than adding the trail handles (visible in the picture above) and other accoutrements required for the old system for manhandling the guns, and recesses for stowing the ammunition coffret on the trail in transit. If so quite a few modified An XI carriages might well have survived until the disaster of 1812.

What did the post-An XI 12pdrs look like? These are referred to as “M1808” by DDS, but I think this system of classification (Original An XI = M1803, etc.) suggests more system and uniformity than there really was, as well as being a modern artefact. DDS carries a couple of pictures of later carriages. One is one of the Royal Armouries pieces, thought to have been captured at Waterloo; the other dates from 1821 and is at Les Invilades. The former has a distinctly turned up trail end, but otherwise looks very similar to the 1794 picture above. The 1821 one is not a complete picture – the trail ends are not shown – and I can’t even be certain it is different from the “1794” one in the first picture above. It may well be my imagination, but I think that both of these later carriages look a bit lighter than the older one, though.

I’m sure none of the original Gribeauval pieces were withdrawn after 1803. Many tubes from the 1790s or even earlier still survive. DDS count just 20 French made 12pdrs in service in 1807, so it would seem that the army had quite a reserve of old barrels, unused perhaps because of the shortage of horses. A number of An XI pieces were made and then subject to relatively minor modifications. Then a number of post An XI pieces were made, often remounting old tubes. Amongst the 58 captured French 12 pdrs brought to Moscow on the Tsar’s orders in 1813, the tube manufacture dates are 1767 to 1811, with only 15 post 1803. No doubt further tubes were cast in 1813 – but none has popped up in any of the publications that I have read. In fact no tubes later than the 1790s have – which makes judging the appearance of later castings difficult to judge.

Now for my models. I already had two AB 12pdr models. While being generally unenthusiastic about them, I haven’t rejected them. What I don’t like is the trail, which has quite a small gap between the cheeks and there is no splay. But from most angles they are quite reminiscent of the Royal Armouries Waterloo piece, without the turn-up at the trail end. One good feature of the AB models – which Battle Honours (also by Anthony Barton) also reflects – is that the elevating plate is in the right place, rather than being way below the barrel, which Blue Moon tends to get wrong. I wanted at least three more pieces though. I was put off BM by LittleArmies‘ review of their 12 pdr. The trail was 36mm long – 5/6mm too big, though it did have a nice uptick at the end, signifying a late war carriage.

But then I had a look at the BM French howitzer carriage. This is way too big for the howitzer itself  – my biggest disappointment with Blue Moon, and of which more later. But the carriage and wheels work as the basis for a 12pdr. It is a tad overscale, but tolerable – and better over than under for this piece. The carriage required a few modifications. The rear trunnion recesses had to be cut and filed out. The rear of the elevating mechanism had to be cut out, and an elevating plate (plastic card) put in. A transom (also plastic card) had to be added in between the trail cheeks. The barrels were supplied from stock (I think from old Series 2 Minifigs), though the trunnion slots were a bit deep and I filled them with a little plasticine. In the end I had something quite pleasing, which I think looks the part next to my other models, rather better than my AB piece.

Here are the three converted 12pdrs with AB Old Guard crew figures:

3 12pdrs

And here is a rear view of all five, with the two AB models to the right:

5 12pdrs

And finally a comparison between the AB and the conversion a bit closer up:

2 12pdrs

So how would I recommend readers get their own 12pdrs without going through the conversion palaver? Well I have said that the AB version is perfectly acceptable, and you can buy them singly at £2.40 each. My worry is that they do not look at their best next to Blue Moon 6pdrs, with their heavier and wider trails – and the BM 6pdr is nicer than the AB version (more of that later). The BM 12pdr might be worth trying if you don’t mind finding £12 for 6. The carriage is too long, but the other dimensions look OK. Better too big than too small for this one. You will not find anything suitable in Old Glory, Fantasin/Warmodelling or Battle Honours. All of these try putting a 12pdr tubes on an 8pdr carriage (though in the Warmodelling case, this isn’t too bad size-wise, it’s just rather vaguely modelled). As this is quite a widespread practice, buying this one on spec is not advisable. You might even attempt my conversion using the BM howitzer parts – but you will need to find some 12pdr barrels from somewhere.

And if you want to do the An XI 12pdr? You can get the barrel by filing down the central reinforcing rings from the Gribeauval version, but the carriage looks a tall order. The BM 12 pdr is the closest, though too long. Converting it would be hard work though. For me this is the one that got away – I would have liked one of these in my collection!

Next article: the 6pdr