Napoleonic weaponry and warfare

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Napoleon I, Emperor of the French, is recognized as one of the greatest commanders in military history. His main strategy was focusing on one part of the enemy, quickly defeating them, and continuing onward. His success was made possible not only by his ambition, but also through the dynamic composition of his army. As well as through dynamic composition. It is stated that Napoleon would see his equipment being gained through provisional control of the armories of France allowing the weapons direct control by government.

Emperor of the French title used by the House of Bonaparte

Emperor of the French was the monarch of the First French Empire and the Second French Empire.



The French Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic Wars revolutionized military strategy. The impact of this period was still to be felt in the American Civil War and the early phases of World War I. With the advent of cheap small arms and the rise of the drafted citizen soldier, army sizes increased rapidly to become mass forces. This necessitated dividing the army first into divisions and later into corps. Along with divisions came divisional artillery; light-weight, mobile cannons with great range and firepower.

French Revolution Revolution in France, 1789 to 1798

The French Revolution was a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France and its colonies beginning in 1789. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, catalyzed violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon who brought many of its principles to areas he conquered in Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, the Revolution profoundly altered the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Through the Revolutionary Wars, it unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East. Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history.

Napoleonic Wars Series of early 19th century European wars

The Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) were a series of major conflicts pitting the French Empire and its allies, led by Napoleon I, against a fluctuating array of European powers formed into various coalitions, financed and usually led by the United Kingdom. The wars stemmed from the unresolved disputes associated with the French Revolution and its resultant conflict. The wars are often categorised into five conflicts, each termed after the coalition that fought Napoleon: the Third Coalition (1805), the Fourth (1806–07), the Fifth (1809), the Sixth (1813), and the Seventh (1815).

Military strategy is a set of ideas implemented by military organizations to pursue desired strategic goals. Derived from the Greek word strategos, the term strategy, when it appeared in use during the 18th century, was seen in its narrow sense as the "art of the general", or "'the art of arrangement" of troops. Military strategy deals with the planning and conduct of campaigns, the movement and disposition of forces, and the deception of the enemy.

Napoleon invariably sought to achieve decision in battle, with the sole aim of utterly destroying his opponent, usually achieving success through superior maneuver. As ruler and general he dealt with the grand strategy as well as the operational strategy, making use of political and economic measures.

Grand strategy or high strategy comprises the "purposeful employment of all instruments of power available to a security community". Issues of grand strategy typically include the choice of primary versus secondary theaters in war, distribution of resources among the various services, the general types of armaments manufacturing to favor, and which international alliances best suit national goals. With considerable overlap with foreign policy, grand strategy focuses primarily on the military implications of policy. A country's political leadership typically directs grand strategy with input from the most senior military officials. Development of a nation's grand strategy may extend across many years or even multiple generations.

While not the originator of the methods he used, Napoleon very effectively combined the relatively superior maneuver and battle stages into one event. Before this, General Officers had considered this approach to battle as separate events. However, Napoleon used the maneuver to battle to dictate how and where the battle would progress. The Battle of Austerlitz was a perfect example of this maneuver. Napoleon withdrew from a strong position to draw his opponent forward and tempt him into a flank attack, weakening his center. This allowed the French army to split the allied army and gain victory.

Battle of Austerlitz A battle of the Napoleonic Wars

The Battle of Austerlitz, also known as the Battle of the Three Emperors, was one of the most important and decisive engagements of the Napoleonic Wars. In what is widely regarded as the greatest victory achieved by Napoleon, the Grande Armée of France defeated a larger Russian and Austrian army led by Emperor Alexander I and Holy Roman Emperor Francis II. The battle occurred near the town of Austerlitz in the Austrian Empire. Austerlitz brought the War of the Third Coalition to a rapid end, with the Treaty of Pressburg signed by the Austrians later in the month. The battle is often cited as a tactical masterpiece, in the same league as other historic engagements like Cannae or Gaugamela.

Napoleon in Berlin (Meynier). After defeating Prussian forces at Jena, the French Army entered Berlin on 27 October 1806 Charles Meynier - Napoleon in Berlin.png
Napoleon in Berlin (Meynier). After defeating Prussian forces at Jena, the French Army entered Berlin on 27 October 1806

Napoleon used two primary strategies for the approach to battle. His "Manoeuvre De Derrière" (move onto the rear) was intended to place the French Army across the enemy's lines of communications. Using a "pinning" force to keep the opponent stationary, he would swing around onto his opponents rear with the bulk of his army, forcing the adversary to either accept a battle on Napoleon's terms or push further into the pinning force and hostile territory. By placing his army into the rear, his opponent's supplies and communications would be cut. This had a negative effect on enemy morale. Once joined, the battle would be one in which his opponent could not afford defeat. This also allowed Napoleon to select multiple march routes into a battle site. Initially, the lack of force concentration helped with foraging for food and sought to confuse the enemy as to his real location and intentions. This strategy, along with the use of forced marches created a morale bonus that played heavily in his favor.

The "indirect" approach into battle also allowed Napoleon to disrupt the linear formations used by the allied armies. As the battle progressed, the enemy committed their reserves to stabilize the situation, Napoleon would suddenly release the flanking formation to attack the enemy. His opponents, being suddenly confronted with a new threat and with little reserves, had no choice but to weaken the area closest to the flanking formation and draw up a battleline at a right angle in an attempt to stop this new threat. Once this had occurred, Napoleon would mass his reserves at the hinge of that right angle and launch a heavy attack to break the lines. The rupture in the enemy lines allowed Napoleon's cavalry to flank both lines and roll them up leaving his opponent no choice but to surrender or flee.

Flanking maneuver military tactic

In military tactics, a flanking maneuver, or flanking manoeuvre is a movement of an armed force around a flank to achieve an advantageous position over an enemy. Flanking is useful because a force's offensive power is concentrated in its front. Therefore, to circumvent a force's front and attack a flank is to concentrate offense in the area where the enemy is least able to concentrate defense.

Line (formation) Tactical formation of soldiers

The line formation is a standard tactical formation which was used in early modern warfare. It continued the phalanx formation or shield wall of infantry armed with polearms in use during antiquity and the Middle Ages.

The second strategy used by Napoleon I when confronted with two or more enemy armies was the use of the central position. This allowed Napoleon to drive a wedge to separate the enemy armies. He would then use part of his force to mask one army while the larger portion overwhelmed and defeated the second army quickly. He would then march on the second army leaving a portion to pursue the first army and repeat the operations. This was designed to achieve the highest concentration of men into the primary battle while limiting the enemy's ability to reinforce the critical battle. The central position had a weakness in that the full power of the pursuit of the enemy could not be achieved because the second army needed attention. So overall the preferred method of attack was the flank march to cross the enemy's logistics.

Napoleon used the central position strategy during the Battle of Waterloo

Battle of Waterloo Battle of the Napoleonic Wars in which Napoleon was defeated

The Battle of Waterloo was fought on Sunday, 18 June 1815 near Waterloo in Belgium, part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands at the time. A French army under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated by two of the armies of the Seventh Coalition: a British-led allied army under the command of the Duke of Wellington, and a Prussian army under the command of Field Marshal Blücher. The battle marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

Map of the Waterloo campaign Waterloo Campaign map-alt3.svg
Map of the Waterloo campaign

Napoleon masked Wellington and massed against the Prussian army, and then after the Battle of Ligny was won, Napoleon attempted to do the same to the Allied/British army located just to the south of Waterloo. His subordinate was unable to mask the defeated Prussian army, who reinforced the Waterloo battle in time to defeat Napoleon and end his domination of Europe. It can be said that the Prussian Army under Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher used the "maneuver de derrière" against Napoleon who was suddenly placed in a position of reacting to a new enemy threat.

Napoleon's practical strategic triumphs, repeatedly leading smaller forces to defeat larger ones, inspired a whole new field of study into military strategy. In particular, his opponents were keen to develop a body of knowledge in this area to allow them to counteract a masterful individual with a highly competent group of officers, a General Staff. The two most significant students of his work were Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian with a background in philosophy, and Antoine-Henri Jomini, who had been one of Napoleon's staff officers.

One notable exception to Napoleon's strategy of annihilation and a precursor to trench warfare were the Lines of Torres Vedras during the Peninsular War. French Armies lived off the land and when they were confronted by a line of fortifications which they could not out flank, they were unable to continue the advance and were forced to retreat once they had consumed all the provisions of the region in front of the lines.

The Peninsular campaign was notable for the development of another method of warfare which went largely unnoticed at the time, but would become far more common in the 20th century. That was the aid and encouragement the British gave to the Spanish to harass the French behind their lines which led them to squander most of the assets of their Iberian army in protecting the army's line of communications. This was a very cost effective move for the British, because it cost far less to aid Spanish insurgents than it did to equip and pay regular British army units to engage the same number of French troops. As the British army could be correspondingly smaller it was able to supply its troops by sea and land without having to live off the land as was the norm at the time. Further, because they did not have to forage they did not antagonise the locals and so did not have to garrison their lines of communications to the same extent as the French did. So the strategy of aiding their Spanish civilian allies in their guerrilla or 'small war' benefited the British in many ways, not all of which were immediately obvious.


Gribeauval 12 pounds gun on display at the Musee de l'Armee. Gribeauval cannon de 12 An 2 de la Republique.jpg
Gribeauval 12 pounds gun on display at the Musée de l'Armée.

One of the major components in Napoleon's arsenal of weaponry was his artillery. With the development and improvement of combat weapons throughout the Seven Years' War prior to Napoleon, artillery had expanded to almost every European country, including France with 12-lb, and 8-lb cannons. "The Gribeauval guns, developed between 1765 and 1774, were 12-, 8-, 6- and 4-pounders with 6- and 8-inch howitzers." [1]

This style of gun was the artillery of choice for Napoleon, considering they were lighter by one third than the cannons of any other country. For example, the barrel of the British 12-pounder weighed 3,150 pounds, and the gun with carriage and limber about 6,500 pounds. The Gribeauval 12-lb barrels weighed 2,174 pounds and the gun with carriage and limber 4,367 pounds. Since Napoleon insisted on speed and mobility in conducting his maneuvers, this lighter cannon provided the flexibility he desired. Along with the artillery, the army had vast quantities of mortars, furnace bombs, grape and canister shots, all of which provided substantial support fire.

Artillery also played a role in the war at sea, with most ships containing anywhere from 50-100 cannons. In 1798, Napoleon's flagship L’Orient, with 120 guns, was the most heavily armed vessel in the world. [1] Napoleon's quick, destructive artillery force contributed to a majority of his victories.


Exploded view of the Charleville musket, the main French firearm. Charleville exploded view.jpg
Exploded view of the Charleville musket, the main French firearm.

As for the infantry soldier himself, Napoleon primarily equipped his army with the Musket Model 1777 Charleville—a product from older designs and models. Used during the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, the Charleville was a .69- caliber, (sometimes .70 or .71) 5-foot-long (1.5 m), muzzle-loading, smoothbore musket. Properly trained French infantry were expected to be able to fire three volleys a minute. A trained soldier could hit a man sized target at 100 yards but anything further required an increasing amount of luck, [2] the musket was wildly inaccurate at long range. French officers were usually armed with a .69 pistol as a secondary weapon to their sword. This still had to be muzzle loaded and fired with a flintlock before reloading. Besides guns, soldiers used a variety of swords, bayonets and pikes for close range, or melee combat. Cavalry, officers, sergeants and other higher-ranked officials mainly used swords, while the bayonets were equipped to the majority of infantry soldiers. Despite the fear they generated in opponents, bayonets were somewhat impractical and used as a last resort.

The cavalry and engineers of the army essentially carried the same musket as the infantry. At 10 inches shorter, the carbine and the musketoon were less cumbersome, making them more suitable for the mobility that horseback riders required but at the expense of accuracy. Besides the usage of the firearms, the light-cavalry typically wielded curved sabers with a 33-inch blade (840 mm), and the heavy-cavalry, straight sabers with a 38-inch blade (970 mm). [1]

Throughout the Napoleonic Wars rifles were also introduced into the battlefield. Rifles were substantially more accurate at a maximum range of 200 paces, because the barrel put spin on the bullet. [2] Despite this advantage, rifles were more expensive and took longer to load—something Napoleon was not fond of and a reason why he did not incorporate them into his army. Instead, he settled for speed of the musket, as it allowed for his rapid maneuvers. The British did utilize the rifle, most notably with the creation of an entire elite rifle regiment, the 95th Regiment (Rifles). Rifles were also utilised in smaller numbers by Jäger companies in several German states. One success of the British 95th Rifles was picking off French General Auguste François-Marie de Colbert-Chabanais in 1809 during the Peninsular War. The British themselves were to lose General Robert Ross, himself a veteran of the Peninsular War, to American rifle fire in 1814.

The Austrian Army introduced the Girandoni air rifle as a specialist weapon and used them in the Napoleonic Wars. A multi-shot breach loader, it only had an effective full charge range to about 150 yards. It was nearly silent and made no smoke or noise, but was complex and needed a significant infrastructure to support it. The air rifle fell out of use after 1815 as more conventional type weapons proved superior overall; in only a few more decades, all soldiers would be rifle equipped.

Most weaponry provided would be gained due to the French hosting absolute control over all armories even if this control came from provinces and district command.


One of Napoleon's largest advantages was the speed of his troop movements. Napoleon insisted on extreme speed when conducting the marches, movements and attacks of his army. He claimed that the "Loss of time is irreparable in war…I may lose a battle but I should never lose a minute." [3] Many factors contributed to Napoleon's ability to perform these flexible movements, from the division of his army into an independent corps system, to the avoidance of slow- moving, lengthy supply lines. Instead, Napoleon's army looked to live off the land, acquiring the motto, "The war must feed the war." Napoleon sought to acquire food from his surrounding environment, whether that meant paying friendly countries or simply foraging. These factors, combined with Napoleon's innate persuasive ability to inspire his troops, resulted in successive victories in dominating fashion. His opponents were often confused and unsettled as Napoleon intricately coordinated strategic attacks on profound scales.

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Rifle firearm designed to be fired from the shoulder

A rifle is a portable, long-barrelled firearm designed for long-range precision shooting, to be held with both hands and braced against the shoulder for stability during firing, and with a barrel that has a helical pattern of grooves ("rifling") cut into the bore walls. The term was originally rifled gun, with the word "rifle" referring to the machining process of creating grooving with cutting tools, and is now used for any long handheld device designed for aimed discharge activated by a trigger, such as air rifles and the personnel halting and stimulation response rifle. Rifles are used in warfare, law enforcement, hunting and shooting sports.

Skirmisher historical profession

Skirmishers are light infantry or cavalry soldiers in the role of skirmishing—stationed to act as a vanguard, flank guard, or rearguard, screening a tactical position or a larger body of friendly troops from enemy advances. They are usually deployed in a skirmish line—an irregular open formation much more spread out in depth and breadth than a traditional line formation. Their purpose is to harass the enemy—engaging them in only light or sporadic combat in order to delay their movement, disrupt their attack, or weaken their morale. Skirmishers' open formations and smaller numbers can give them superior mobility over the regular forces, allowing them to fight on more favorable terms, taking advantage of better position or terrain and quickly withdrawing from any threat of superior enemy forces.

The Baker rifle was a flintlock rifle used by the rifle regiments of the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars. It was the first standard-issue, British-made rifle accepted by the British armed forces.

Early modern warfare History and description of warfare in the early modern period

Early modern warfare is associated with the start of the widespread use of gunpowder and the development of suitable weapons to use the explosive, including artillery and firearms; for this reason the era is also referred to as the age of gunpowder warfare.

Line infantry type of infantry

Line infantry was the type of infantry that composed the basis of European land armies from the middle of the 17th century to the middle of the 19th century. For both battle and parade drill, it consisted of two to four ranks of foot soldiers drawn up side by side in rigid alignment, and thereby maximizing the effect of their firepower. By extension, the term came to be applied to the regular regiments "of the line" as opposed to light infantry, skirmishers, militia, support personnel, plus some other special categories of infantry not focused on heavy front line combat.

Field artillery in the American Civil War artillery weapons, equipment, and practices used in the American Civil War

Field artillery in the American Civil War refers to the artillery weapons, equipment, and practices used by the Artillery branch to support the infantry and cavalry forces in the field. It does not include siege artillery, use of artillery in fixed fortifications, or coastal or naval artillery. Nor does it include smaller, specialized artillery classified as small arms.

The Light Division was a light infantry division of the British Army. Its origins lay in "Light Companies" formed during the late 18th century, to move at speed over inhospitable terrain and protect a main force with skirmishing tactics. These units took advantage of then-new technology in the form of rifles, which allowed it to emphasise marksmanship, and were aimed primarily at disrupting and harassing enemy forces, in skirmishes before the main forces clashed.

Infantry tactics are the combination of military concepts and methods used by infantry to achieve tactical objectives during combat. The role of the infantry on the battlefield is, typically, to close with and engage the enemy, and hold territorial objectives; infantry tactics are the means by which this is achieved. Traditionally infantry have made up the largest proportion of an army's fighting strength, and consequently often suffer the heaviest casualties. Throughout history, infantrymen have sought to minimise their losses in both attack and defence through effective tactics.

Column (formation) formation of soldiers marching together

A military column is a formation of soldiers marching together in one or more files in which the file is significantly longer than the width of ranks in the formation. The column formation allowed the unit rapid movement and a very effective charge, and it could quickly form square to resist cavalry attacks, but by its nature only a fraction of its muskets would be able to open fire.

Coalition forces of the Napoleonic Wars

The Coalition Forces of the Napoleonic Wars were composed of Napoleon Bonaparte's enemies: the United Kingdom, the Austrian Empire, Kingdom of Prussia, Kingdom of Spain, Kingdom of Naples and Sicily, Kingdom of Sardinia, Dutch Republic, Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Kingdom of Portugal, Kingdom of Sweden, various Confederation of the Rhine and Italian states at differing times in the wars. At their height, the Coalition could field formidable combined forces of about 1,740,000 strong. This outnumbered the 1.1 million French soldiers. The breakdown of the more active armies are: Austria, 570,000; Britain, 250,000; Prussia, 300,000; and Russia, 600,000.

The infantry in the American Civil War comprised foot-soldiers who fought primarily with small arms, and carried the brunt of the fighting on battlefields across the United States. Historians have long debated whether the evolution of tactics between 1861 and 1865 marked a seminal point in the evolution of warfare. The conventional narrative is that generals and other officers adhered stubbornly to the tactics of the Napoleonic Wars, in which armies employed linear formations and favored open fields over the usage of cover. Presumably, the greater accuracy and range of the rifle musket rendered that approach obsolete, and the Civil War armies' transition to longer battles in 1864 is taken by numerous scholars as proof of the new technology's transformative impact. More recently, however, academics have begun to reject this narrative. Earl J. Hess judges the tactical training of the Civil War as critical to the armies' success, and maintains that the dearth of overwhelming victories during the conflict was actually consistent with the infrequency of such battles throughout history. Allen C. Guelzo contends that rifle muskets did not revolutionize land warfare due to a combination of inadequate firearms training and the poor visibility caused by black powder. This debate has implications not only for the nature of the soldier's experience, but also for the broader question of the Civil War's relative modernity. Williamson Murray and Bruce Wayne Wei-Siang Hsieh argue that the conflict was resulted from "the combination...of the Industrial Revolution and French Revolution [which] allowed the opposing sides to mobilize immense numbers of soldiers while projecting military power over great distances." The Civil War involved a number of other recently-introduced and new technologies, including military balloons, repeating rifles, the telegraph, and railroads.

The types of military forces in the Napoleonic Wars represented the unique tactical use of distinct military units, or their origin within different European regions. By and large the military forces during the period had not changed significantly from those of the 18th century, although their employment would differ significantly.

African military systems (1800–1900)

African military systems (1800–1900) refers to the evolution of military systems on the African continent after 1800, with emphasis on the role of indigenous states and peoples within the African continent. Only major military systems or innovations and their development after 1800 are covered here. For events prior to 1800, see African military systems to 1800. Coverage of the 20th century and beyond is provided in African military systems after 1900. For an overall view of the military history of Africa by region, see Military History of Africa. See individual battles, empires and leaders for details on activities after 1800.

During the American Civil War, an assortment of small arms found their way onto the battlefield. Though the muzzle-loading percussion cap rifle was the most numerous weapon, being standard-issue forth the Union and Confederate armies, many other firearms, ranging from the single shot breech-loading Sharps and Burnside rifles to the Spencer and the Henry rifles, two of the world's first repeating rifles, were issued by the hundreds of thousands, mostly by the Union. The civil war brought many advancements in gun technology, most notably the wide spread use of rifled barrels.

Canon de 12 Gribeauval

The Canon de 12 Gribeauval or 12-pounder was a French cannon and part of the system developed by Jean Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval. There were 1.079 English pounds in the Old French pound, making the weight of shot nearly 13 English pounds. The 12-pounder was the heaviest cannon in the French field artillery; the others were the light Canon de 4 Gribeauval and the medium Canon de 8 Gribeauval. Superseding the previous Vallière system, the Gribeauval system was adopted in 1765 and its guns were first used during the American Revolutionary War. The greatest use of Gribeauval guns came during the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. During the latter wars, the 12-pounder was often employed in corps artillery reserves. Because of their physical and psychological effect, Emperor Napoleon increased the number of 12-pounders in his artillery and fondly called the cannons his belles filles. Gribeauval cannons fired canister shot for close-range work and round shot at more distant targets. In 1803 the Year XI system was introduced, but it only partly replaced the Gribeauval system which was not completely replaced until the Valée system was set up in 1829.

Canon de 8 Gribeauval

The Canon de 8 Gribeauval or 8-pounder was a French cannon and part of the Gribeauval system developed by Jean Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval. The Old French pound was 1.07916 English pounds, making the weight of shot about 8.633 English pounds. The 8-pounder was the medium weight cannon of the French field artillery; the others were the light Canon de 4 Gribeauval and the heavy Canon de 12 Gribeauval. Replacing the older Vallière system, the Gribeauval system was introduced in 1765 and the guns were first employed during the American Revolutionary War. The most extensive use of Gribeauval guns was during the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. The 8-pounder could be found in divisional reserves, advanced guards or army artillery reserves. Emperor Napoleon began to phase out the 8-pounder by increasing the proportion of 12-pounders in his artillery. The emperor began switching calibers to the handier 6-pounder piece, utilizing captured guns as well as newly designed French cannons. The Year XI system began in 1803, but it only partly replaced the Gribeauval system which was not entirely suppressed until the Valée system was introduced in 1829.

Napoleonic tactics describe certain battlefield strategies used by national armies from the late 18th century until the invention and adoption of the rifled musket in the mid 19th century. Napoleonic tactics are characterized by intense drilling of the soldiers, speedy battlefield movement, combined arms assaults between infantry, cavalry, and artillery, relatively small numbers of cannon, short-range musket fire, and bayonet charges. Napoleon I is considered by military historians to have been a master of this particular form of warfare. Napoleonic tactics continued to be used after they had become technologically impractical, leading to large-scale slaughters during the American Civil War, Austro-Prussian War and the Franco-Prussian War.

Armies in the American Civil War

This article is designed to give background into the organization and tactics of Civil War armies. This brief survey is by no means exhaustive, but it should give enough material to have a better understanding of the capabilities of the forces that fought the American Civil War. Understanding these capabilities should give insight into the reasoning behind the decisions made by commanders on both sides.


  1. 1 2 3 Connelly, Owen, Blundering to Glory: Napoleon's Military Campaign, Third Edition, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. (Introduction pg xii)
  2. 1 2 Moore, Richard Napoleonic Guide: Weapons of War: Infantry 2006
  3. Chandler, David, The Campaigns of Napoleon, The Macmillan Company 1966, Toronto Ontario, pg 149