Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Things Rattling Around in my brain.

Just an idle post to show the sorts of things that clutter my brain and confuse my thinking from time to time.

When I played the supposedly 1860 something Hook's Farm game last week I was slightly bothered by a feeling that despite the longer rifle ranges, the game didn't feel very different from an 1840's game. Two sorts of questions sprang to mind: " Why not and what could be done to fix it  without complicating things?" and "Why does it matter?".

Part of the first answer is that despite the improvements in firearms, tactics hadn't yet changed drastically so battles were not yet quite so different. Another part is that I am not showing very low level tactics and perhaps not done as good a job as possible at portraying skirmishers and the low effective battle range of muskets.
The problem with skirmishers is that unlike earlier periods, these were often integral parts of the line units but operating several hundred yards in advance and slowly turning from a security screen at the start of the century to often being the main firing line by the 1860's.  

A comparison of manual to table top tactics.

On the left we see a British battalion deployed using the 1862 drill manual at a ground scale of 3"=100 yards which is roughly the scale of Rattle of Dice. Roughly 1/4 of the companies are deployed as skirmishers, acting in pairs at 5 yards between each pair or such distance as will allow them to cover the front and flanks of the main unit. At a distance of around 200 yards behind them, less if there is dead ground, are the supports for the skirmish line formed in line or company columns according to terrain. These allow the skirmishing companies to be relieved if the men are tired or run low on ammo or can be used to extend the skirmish line, cover its retreat or possibly thicken it if hard pressed.  About 300- 500 yards behind the reserve is the rest of the battalion in line or column, and thats leaving out an optional but recommended additional reserve in between  the supports and the main body.  That's right the battalion of 600 men in "line" should have a width of about 6" and a depth of 15" to 20".  Doesn't leave a lot of room on a 5ft deep table, in fact one could get away in most cases with leaving the main unit off table.

On the right we see  a typical wargame representation of a battalion in line with skirmishers deployed. Still 4 skirmishers and the same width but only taking up maybe 6" or less in depth.  Not quite right but practical.

Passing on to effectiveness, there are several sources that claim that the aimed fire of a handful of trained skirmishers  is much more effective than the massed fire of several times their numbers of massed rifle fire despite the theoretical possibility of the latter being aimed. Its more about psychology than physics. There is a lot to be said for systems which do not degrade a unit's firepower with casualties but toy soldiers being what they are I like the effect on players that it has. The trick is making small arms fire effective without  it being quickly decisive at anything beyond the sorts of ranges that constitute a charge. 

Two alternate methods of showing a mid-late 19thC firing line with supports.
After giving up on trying to make skirmish fire more effective than volleys without being able to shred attacking troops even before the advent of the Chassepot,    and being tired of trying to coral and control the tabletop skirmish/firing lines of untrained players (not to mention my own) I opted to deploy infantry in a 2 deep line and assume that both sides were using similar tactics and would thus cancel each other out and the presence of skirmish lines and supports need not be shown explicitly. This does somewhat reduce the flavour of the period but does increase the resemblance of the tabletop to contemporary Lithographs. The provision for skirmish lines does still exist in Rattle if players wish to portray them but they are treated as separate units and its up to the player to remember that they are linked and should be used to cover their own units unless originally detached to go off and do something special. It would be particularly useful if deploying an army that used them against an untrained army that didn't but perhaps then the  skirmishers would need some sort of fire bonus. 

The 2nd question has a superficial answer and a real one. On the surface it matters because it affects how well we are recreating the period but given the simple toy soldier nature of the rules its hard to give this too much weight as long as the overall relative effects are right. The real issue is that if the two periods feel too similar, there's no real reason to clutter the shelf with two sets of musket era armies plus a pair of rifled musket armies and a set of breech-loading rifle armies. 

As we get into the re-creating issue,  I've realized that I could really use a pin rule to reflect the paralyzing effect of rapid rifle fire, as well one for as the increased use of extemporized cover by prone troops. I just haven't quite figured how to get it just right and simple, something like pinned by X amount of hits with pinned troops counting as in cover and with a morale roll to try to go forward again but reaction fire would help and that's another can of worms to be wary of. Hopefully the sheer volume of fire of breech-loaders will lead people to attack with skirmish lines which should have about the right effect. 

With regards to my own armies and limited shelf space, it reinforces the need to act on a tentative decision taken more than a year ago to merge the 1812 and 1837 armies into one set and settle the rest on the 3rd quarter of the 19thC with an eye more towards Lithographs than gritty reality. Might not hurt to increase the lethality of rifle fire a little bit vs muskets and add in some rules for improved shrapnel should I push the envelope towards 1870.


  1. Ross,

    Regarding skirmish fire vs volley fire . . . when I read this my mind flew off in a tangent to when I first learned to hunt ducks with a shotgun.

    My father gave me a single shot shotgun (as opposed to the over-and-under double barrel I used later or the pump he used). His reason was simple.

    I would only have one shot and I'd have to make it good. There wasn't a second or third try. So instead of shooting at the "flock", I'd have to pick a single target.

    It was a very good way to learn to wing shoot.

    Now it struck me that in volley fire, most troops would just point in the direction of the enemy and trust that the mass of shots would hit something . . . while skirmishers didn't have that mass of firepower and had to make their individual shots count.

    Funny how our minds work sometimes, isn't it?

    -- Jeff

  2. Dear Ross,

    There should be some radical changes afoot for troops in the 1860s from the effectiveness shown in the 1840s. The US fought two wars in these periods and some things really do stick out. First, the unrifled muskets used by many troops in the Mexican-American Unfortunate Situation, had an effective range much more like the Napoleonic Wars and that other unfortunate misunderstanding, the War of 1812, although rifled muskets were becoming much more common. BY 1861 in the American Un-Civil War, warfare by the midpoint of the war was about to change forever. Not only was the Gatling gun available but unfortunately unused but breechloaders and repeaters were becoming much more common. One battle in particular comes to mind, where one company of Union infantry armed with Henry repeaters drove off several regiments of Rebel infantry. Even breechloaders could permit dismounted cavalry to pour a volume of fire three to four times greater than enemies firing musket loaders. And one short year later in 1866, Prussian infantry would be able to blunt Austrian attacks time and again with the fire of their breech loaders. And Wilder's Brigade of mounted troops armed with Henry repeaters were worth a full division of cavalry armed with single shot weapons.
    Just looking at ROF as an issue might cause you to ask a simple question about the timing for your battles. Are they taking place in the period 1858-1863 where fighting had more of an 1840's feel? Or are you going to place your Imagi-Nation in campaign in the period 1864-1869 where heavier firepower will dictate changes in tactics? Ranges will be stretched out but more importantly the numbers of bullets being fired will be much greater.
    I am looking forward to your further thoughts on how you will ultimately handle this situation.
    A/K/A The Celtic Curmudgeon

    1. Jerry, I wasn't suggesting there were no changes or that improved weapons didn't eventually have an effect as they they appeared in increasing numbers but of typical troop deployments and official formations and attempted battlefield maneuvers. Thinking of a comparison between the thick skirmisher firing lines backed by lines and columns for final assaults as used by the Prussians and French in 1814 and the empty battlefields of the Boer War, or even the stalled skirmish/firing lines of the Franco-Prussian War, to me, the various rifled musket wars look closer to the earlier wars than the later ones.

      I agree that breech-loaders began to change things during the American war but they were a small percentage over all. Mind you, without intending any disrespect, given the state & leadership of the remnants of the army of Tennessee at Franklin, they probably could have been routed by smooth bore armed troops.

      The short answer to the gaming era is that the record so far indicates a series of campaigns reaching at least from c 1813 to c 1900 so it will all need to be catered for a some point.

      More to the point perhaps, I had originally been thinking Indian Mutiny and early ACW but recently I had been thinking of dipping a toe into breech-loaders for both sides (Fenian Raids, NW Rebellion, 1st Boer War, Franco Prussian, Russo-Turkish wars etc) but changed my mind since, with a few exceptions, if both sides had breech-loaders, fights seemed to bog down into prolonged firefights with little movement apart from efforts to find a flank or occasionally a final rush. So I'm back to the '57-'63 era if you will, probably to be followed by 1900-ish with breechloaders

  3. BTW, the battle to which I referred was the battle of Franklin in 1864.