Artillery Organization and Tactics

Despite only incremental technical changes artillery becomes increasingly important in the Napoleonic Era.

An illustration showing a split trail carriage of the Napoleonic Wars.

Illustration of a gun with a split trail carriage. It was the most common type by far.


By the time of the Napoleonic Wars artillery had been in use in Europe for hundreds of years.

Artillery is devastatingly powerful. As far back as 1453 it had signficant impact. It was a key factor in the fall of Constantinople.

That was a seige.

Which brings us to the main drawbacks of artillery. It is expensive and it is immobile.

Worse the more powerful it is, the larger and harder to move it is.

This led to the main division in the types of artillery, that between seige weapons and field ones.

The largest most powerful weapons were too heavy and hard to move to be useful in field operations. They couldn't keep up with the rest of an army.

By the 1490s the French had developed artillery mobile enough to form a seige train able to reduce multiple fortifications in a campaign season. Charles VIII's foray into Italy made medieval castles obselete and changed the face of Europe, but artillery was still extremely awkward to use on the battlefield. It was mainly used defensively in a static deployment.

Despite the importance of seige trains or their lack, both Wellington in Spain and Napoleon in Italy sorely felt the lack of seige artillery at times, this post is mainly about field artillery.

Developments in the Eighteenth Century

Superficially it might appear not much happened with artillery in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In a gross sense cannon remained much the same. They were smooth bore muzzle loaders that mostly fired solid shot directly at targets they could see. Mostly targets within a few hundred yards. They might have a longer range than a musketman but they weren't truly long ranged. They were also difficult to move. This was particularily true on the battlefield.

Devastating if the enemy charged directly at them en masse they were rather easily avoided and much more a defensive weapon on the battlefield than an offensive one.

In fact, a whole series of rather incremental technical changes accumulated throughout this period, and by the time of the Napolonic Wars they amounted to a significant change in artillery's role.

As early as the late 1600's the Dutch were innovating with the creation of howitzers. Howitzers were short barreled comparatively cheap cannon able to lob their projectiles on a high trajectory as well a low direct one. By the time of the Napoleonic Wars every artillery battery had some.

Although howitzers were perhaps less effective in the direct fire low trajectory role because of this, they could be used to shell troops behind obstacles. Shells being hollow cannon balls packed with explosive.

A limited improvement with its impact restricted to special circumstances but not an insignificant enhancement of artillery's usefulness.

One typical of the changes that occured during this period. Limited and rather technical and therefore often overlooked.

According to Bruce, et al, the development of field artillery, although experimented with as early as the Thirty Years War (Gustavus Aldolphus' leather guns), occured during the 1740s.

To quote: "The development of field artillery was not accomplished by any one man or nation. It was a development whose time had come by the 1740s, as both artillerymen and commanders saw the need for guns that could go with the infantry and cavalry on campaign and keep up them on the battlefield. No longer would artillery merely be emplaced on the battlefield and left there. Now artillery batteries would emplace and displace based on the tactical situation and the needs of the troops who were being supported.

They might also have said the development wasn't the result of a single technical innovation. Rather it was was a series of competative innovations by the major powers of Europe and even some of the smaller ones.

Despite some stabs at standardization by the French in the 1730's this competition was essentially kicked off by the Prussians with the Austrian War of Succession (1740-48).

As Christian Rogge writes: "From 1738 onwards, Prussian gun construction was transformed by the introduction of much lighter guns than than the M1717 heavy ordnance. This [was] achieved by reducing the weight of the charge, the overall barrel length, and the metal strength of the gun tubes. "

The new lighter guns designed by a Major von Holtzmann were enthusiastically adopted by Frederick the Great according to Rogge. Other sources castigate Frederick for his inattention to his artillery. Perhaps the way to square this circle is to remember Frederick (and the Prussians in general) were not prone to trying to share militarily important information.

Bruce et al, are emphatic that the more mobile and faster firing Prussian artillery was an unpleasant shock to the Austrians.

Holtzmann, now a Lieutenant-Colonel, continued innovating throughout the 1740s and 1750s. He introduced improved howitzers, added ammunition chests to limbers, and improved the systems of controlling the elevation and aiming of guns.

Nevertheless, the Austrians took the lesson the Prussians gave them during the War of Austrian Succession and in the Seven Years War (1756-1763) turned the tables. The Austrians improved their artillery so significantly that it was the Prussians turn to be unpleasantly surprised.

The main individual responsible for this turnaround was Prince Lichtenstein.

"Prince Lichtenstein (1696-1772) developed a new artillery system, the first integrated artillery system in history."

"Lichtenstein copied the elevating system[of the Prussians], and the gun carriages are very similar."

He was also "influenced by the standardization of gun tubes in the French Valliere System." The Valliere System dated from 1732. "Lichtenstein also established an excellant school system based on the French model, which produced technically proficient artillerymen and made the the Austrian artillery pre-eminent in Europe. "

The Prussian and Austrian developments didn't go unnoted by the French.

France was the largest and richest Western European state but its military performance during the mid-century wars was sub-par. A period of considerable soul searching, debate, and some reform on the part of the French thus ensued.

In the world of artillery this manifested as the Gribeauval System.

The Gribeauval System was named for Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval (1715-89). Not the only French innovator and with many supporters he nevertheless both designed and then championed the artillery system that Napoleon Bonaparte was trained in as a young man. The artillery system with which Napoleon conquered much of Europe.

Gribeauval joined the artillery arm in 1732. In 1748 he developed "a new gun carriage for fortress guns" which was "a major advance ... copied by other European powers."

In 1752 he "took a trip to Prussia to study the country's artillery. He got hold of the Prussian artillery designs and upon his return to France built copies of the guns and tested them in live firing.

However, the immediate inspiration for his system was Lichtenstein's work, the Austrian artillery of the Seven Years War. "From 1757 to 1762 Gribeauval was seconded to Austria"

"[W]hen recalled to France in 1762 he wrote to the French Minister of War, the Duc de Choiseul (1719-85), explaining that he wanted to work on a system of light artillery to replace the outmoded Valliere System of artillery that the French still used."

"Gribeauval completely reorganized the French artillery 'from muzzle to buttplate'. His gun carriages and gun tubes were of a more modern design than the Austrian and Prussian equivalents, and his designs were very specific and a great improvement in simplicity, mobility and accruacy."

The quote exaggerates the ease and speed with which Gribeauval's changes were adopted. Although first officially adopted on the 17th of August 1765, from 1772 to 1774 the Valliere was readopted because of opposition from a group led by the original Valliere's son. Nevertheless by the time of Bonaparte Gribeauval's wide range system of reforms had been fully instituted by the French.

This system, a wide ranging adoption of all the Prussian and Austrian innovations along with improvements and additions devised by Gribeauval himself, is summarized by Chandler.

His "reforms touched almost every aspect of French gunnery. Types of field artillery were standardized ito three main categories (12-, 8- and 4-pounders), supplemented by a fixed proportion of 6" howitzers and mortars. Cannon were lightened by shortening the barrels, improved casting methods were introduced, and trails, carriages and caissons were redesigned. Thus the new-type 12-pounder, including trail and carriage, weighed 1,600 lbs, - as compared to 3,200 lbs. of the older cannon it replaced. Stronger, larger wheels and better harnessing arrangements improved mobility, whilst the improvement of sights, the introduction of inclination-markers and the issue of gunnery tables improved performance in action. The introduction of pre-packaged rounds (serge bags containing shot and charge) speeded the rate of fire, and a new type of case shot was made available. In the realm of organization, Gribeauval made the 8-gun battery the standard unit throughout the service, and advised the attachment of at least one to each infantry division."

Gribeauval had learned from but significantly improved upon the Prussian and Austrian examples. It's probably not possible to over emphasize how important the superiority of his artillery system was. It's also probably not possible to fully appreciate it without some better technical background than provided above. Hence our next topic.

The Weapons

As the reader should by now appreciate any idea that 18th century and Napoleonic artillery was simple and technically unsophisticated is mistaken.

It will be useful to explain some of those technical details, without getting into depth regards anything too difficult such as ballistics or metal casting.

To start with it should be clear that an artillery piece consisted of more than just the metal gun tube.

Artillery pieces consisted of carriages and limbers just as much as they did gun tubes.

Carriages are, of course, the wheeled, mostly wooden brackets, that held gun tubes and allowed their aiming and some local movement. Limbers are what when attached to carriages allowed artillery pieces to be moved faster and over longer distances. This required a lot of horses usually four at a minimum often six, eight or even a dozen. All depending on the weapon's weight which varied with its power and design. Design, of course, as briefly summarized above varied by period and nationality.

Hence although much of the Prussian, Austrian and ultimately French efforts revolved around designing gun tubes that were just as effective while being lighter, just as much effort was put into creating carriages and limbers that were lighter and more effective. Easier to move, easier to aim more accurately, and faster to fire.

Some innovations such cartridges (safer as well as faster firing) and caissons on carriages (immediately available local ammunition storage) added to an artillery piece's effectiveness in battle without easily falling into any of the above categories.

The most common artillery carriage design throughout this period was the split trail one. Two big side pieces (brackets), separated by three or four crosspieces (transoms), gun tube in brackets on the top, wheels mounted underneath. Many variations, the Gribeauval ones had a curve that transmitted recoil more into the ground. Gribeauval and some other later designs had two sets of brackets for the gun tube, one for when it was being moved and one for when it was deployed for firing.

The basic design remained the same while many technical improvements were made to it.

For their guns the British implemented a "block" or "single trail" design. Instead of two big trails sticking out back that were continuations of large bracket sides it had a single trail that widened to to support the gun tube. This design was technically superior to the split trail one because it made for faster easier gun handling. It didn't allow for elevating the gun tube much though which didn't matter for guns per se but was unacceptable for howitzers. British howitzers continued to use a split trail design.

Which brings us to another point. Guns were fired with little or no elevation, three or four degrees at the most, the aim was that the cannon ball would be roughly man height or below throughout the length of its trajectory.

This led to an effective range of less than 1000 yards for even the most powerful pieces. Maybe not more than six or seven hundered yards for smaller pieces.

It should be pointed out that an individual human figure can't be made out much beyond a 1000 yards so that these effective ranges matched what could be targeted using just the naked eye.

The exact lay of the terrain the pieces were sited to fire over made an immense difference. Case or cannister shot could be fired effectively for about half of the total effective range of solid shot.

Cannister basically turned cannons into giant shotguns and was devastating at short range. On the other hand artillery crews often didn't wish to let the enemy get too close before bugging out.

Later in the 18th century and in the Napoleonic Wars it became common to try to extend the effective range of solid shot by deliberately trying to make it bounce or richocet beyond its initial impact point. This, of course, required hard ground hit just the right way. Sometimes such as at Waterloo the weather (wet ground is softer) and ground did not cooperate.

Organization of Artillery

Artillery units were a lot more complicated than a few guns with a couple of guys each.

In fact artillery gun crews varied from more than a half dozen to more than a dozen men in size, depending on gun weight, nationality, and period.

Haythornthwaite details a generic gun crew. To summarize, in general a gun crew would need a half dozen specialist artillerymen to carry out the basic drill for loading, aiming, and firing a gun.

  1. Aimer - the senior gunner who directed the aiming of the weapon
  2. Spongeman - responsible for both cleaning out the barrel and for ramming home a load
  3. Vents man - controlled the vent (firing port) preventing premature firing
  4. Loader - loaded the weapon
  5. Firer - fired the weapon
  6. Extra - usually a spare artilleryman would be present to carry ammo to the gun, and to replace any senior artillerymen if necessary

In addition several untrained men, often detached from accompanying infantry units, were needed to man handle the weapon into firing position.

Just how many depended on the size of the weapon. Haythornthwaite has standard French gun crews for a 12 pounder consisting of eight specialists and seven non-specialists for a total gun crew of fifteen. In contrast a French 4 pounder guncrew consisted of only eight men, five specialists and three non-specialists.

It wasn't safe to deploy guns alone.

A single gun might overheat or otherwise become unusable leaving its crew in the lurch.

Also artillery is more effective when used en masse.

The general tactical unit was the battery. As Moir writes "[a]ll artillery, horse and foot, was organized into batteries (called troops, companies or brigades) most commonly of six or eight guns. A few of these, usually one or two per battery were howitzers"

A succinct and reasonable summary that glosses over immense variation by nationality and period. It would be completely impossible to briefly describe all of even the official variation let alone what actually occurred in practise.

However, overall the British and Austrians tended towards smaller batteries. The British usually having a five gun (6 pdrs before 1808, 9 pdrs afterwards) and one howitzer organization. The Austrians having a four gun and two howitzer one. The guns being 6 pdrs in their light companies and 12 pdrs in their heavy.

French and Prussian batteries were medium sized. French batteries often had six guns and two howizters. Usually the guns were 8 pdrs or 12 pdrs. A mid-period experiment with 6 pdr guns fizzled out. The Prussian batteries had a similar six gun and two howitzer organization but with 12 pdr and 6 pdr guns.

The Russians had large batteries. They had six to eight guns, generally 6 or 12 pdrs, and two to four howitzers each. Unlike most other nations the Russians used both a heavy and a light howitzer.

All of the above batteries were essentially either assigned to divisions in the case of the lighter versions, or Corps and Armies in the case of the heavier ones. Note that depending on exact period and nationality speaking of divisions and corps is a bit anachronistic. Nevertheless it corresponds well to how these units were assigned and used in the field.

The issue of organization is further complicated by two other categories of artillery.

These being one, horse artillery, and two, "battalion guns".

Horse artillery was an attempt to make artillery much more mobile. It was an innovation of the Prussians under Frederick the Great in the Seven Years War.

The hope was such artillery, lighter and with horses assigned for each crewman, could keep up with and support cavalry. It was certainly much more flexible tactically.

Horse artillery batteries in general had fewer and lighter guns, and of course, many more horses.

It should be noted that Horse artillery varied in effectiveness between nations and that the Austrians in particular never fully implemented the idea. The French did but suffered a lack of adequate horses for it at times. Horses are more fragile than men, a significant problem for the artillery as well as the cavalry.

"Battalion guns" were lighter weapons attached directly to smaller tactical units in small numbers. Such units including regiments and brigades as well as battalions.

A pair of 3 or 4 pdrs wasn't an uncommon allotment. Sometimes even 6 pdrs though.

Although infantry units certainly welcomed the support of directly attached artillery there were some practical difficulties with the practise.

One was that even light guns can be cumbersome in bad terrain or weather. It was an ungoing concern of commanders that attached guns reduced the mobility of their infantry.

Another issue was that the dispersal of artillery reduced its ability to make a decisive impact. It was also still very expensive.

In the 18th century and at the beginning of the Revolutionary Wars it was common for most artillery to either be dispersed to directly support lower level infantry units or to be in an army artillery train. Later in the period of the Napoleonic War artillery tended to be assigned to intermediate operational units such as divisions and corps, with ideally something left over for a mobile army reserve.

Mainly I mention them here to say that for the sake of simplicity I'm not going to address the organization of either Horse Artillery or "battalion guns" further.

So in the foot artillery a battery would roughly have between a hundred and two hundred men and as many horses. Smaller batteries less, larger more.

But that was just the guns and the men to use them.

To be truly effective over the length of a campaign a battery needed to haul along extra ammunition and baggage. Sometimes provision would even be made for spare parts and tools for repairs. These extra wagons, horses, and men were sometimes called the "Train" and per battery they amounted to another hundred or so men, and twice as many horses and a half dozen wagons maybe.

All in all an artillery battery tied up a few hundred men and horses. A similar cost in resources to an infantry battalion or cavalry squadron the basic tactical units in other arms.

Artillery comes of Age

So as outlined above artillery had already moved far enough beyond its traditionally passive support role in both of the mid 18th century wars, the one of the Austrian Succession, and the Seven Years War, as to provoke far reaching and expensive programs of reform by major European states.

Just the same the Napoleonic Wars saw an even more significant sea change for artillery.

Not mentioned above is that the amount of artillery increased significantly throughout the 18th century. That fact coupled with its increasing operational mobility and tactical effectiveness made an impact in two major ways.

One, it made true combined arms tactics, in the modern sense of the term, possible.

The French with their theoretical soul searching after the Seven Years War, and their many veteran practitioners after the Revolutionary Wars, were the masters of combined arms.

Their new organizational structure of permenant divisions and corps didn't just ease the command and control problems of commanders. It also meant that a commander would always have units of all three of the major arms available. Moreover those units would be known to each other and used to working together. It made an immense practical difference.

A practical difference that became very clear with the campaign of 1805 that ended with Austerlitz. A difference that was underlined by the smashing of the Prussians at Jena and Auerstadt the next year.

Two, it became possible for massed artillery to directly decide the outcome of a battle.

The massed Russian batteries at Eylau in 1807 were a foretaste of this. They decimated at least one corps and made a nominal French victory Pyrrhic at best.

That said it was the battle of Friedland later in 1807 that clearly demonstrated that artillery could new be used aggressively as well as decisively.

At Friedland General Senarmont, commander of the Corps artillery of General Victors I Corps, massed the guns available to him and aggressively pushed them forward in successive bounds to destroy the infantry forming the Russian center.

Bruce et al, write: "more than 4000 Russians littered the field and the Russian centre was destroyed. This was the decisive action of the battle."

They go on to opine that: "Friedland was one of the outstanding victories of the empire and dramatically marks a decisive change in artillery tactics and employment."

In a sense for the Napoleonic Wars it also marks their high tide. Batteries were massed at Wagram, Borodino, Lutzen, Waterloo and elsewhere to good, but never the same, effect.

Napoleon's opponents had learned from him and the French were never again to have the same overwhelming dominance. Also the French lost a lot of artillery in Russia in 1812. The Prussians had already done so in 1806. The Austrians suffered in 1805 and 1809. The long march from Russia in 1812 into Europe was easier for the Russians than the French but still no cakewalk.

The armies fielded by all sides after 1807 were often large, but generally not so well equipped or trained as they had been beforehand. It showed.


The superficial impression of a static unchanging weapon system often given by 18th century and Napoleonic aritllery is a false one.

Increasing numbers of artillery (to the dismay of the parsimonious Frederick the Great) incrementally improved, and better handled, became increasingly important throughout the 18th century.

The Napoleonic Wars saw it become a full fledged partner in a new system of combined arms tactics and a new system of operational art.

If an opponent allowed it artillery could now be used aggressively to decide a battle.



Main References

Of Additional Interest

Blog Table of Contents