“Forty Rounds of ammunition ought to be enough” – Whittaker on “random fire” and ammunition waste

Last Monday I brought up Alonzo Gray’s discussion of ammunition expenditure by Civil War cavalry.  Gray came to the conclusion that eighty rounds per trooper was sufficient when going into action.  He noted the means of resupply… and difficulty at times of that resupply.  Point being that “80 rounds worth” might be a measure of the time a cavalry formation could maintain a line.

One of the sources Gray cited offered a different count and a very different viewpoint into the discussion.  Frederick Whittaker spent his Civil War a member of the 6th New York Cavalry, going from private to Lieutenant.  And with that came a different perspective from the regimental commanders cited elsewhere in Gray’s discussion. Whittaker wrote Volunteer Cavalry: The Lessons of the Decade in 1871.  While a discussion of cavalry tactics and operations, it drew largely upon personal experiences instead of military manuals.

We can discuss Whittaker in detail on another day.  But for the moment, let us consider his thoughts on ammunition:

But there was one lesson which might have been learned in the war, which yet was not. Neither side seemed to give it a thought; and it was reserved for the sober philosophic German to teach it to us in 1870. This lesson, the most valuable of all, is how to save your ammunition.

General von Moltke, to whose genius the brilliant results of the campaigns of Sadowa and Sedan are owing, is the first man in high place who has had the wisdom to profit by experience in this matter.

The saving of ammunition, if every fully carried out in modern warfare, will be found to be the greatest revolution since Leopold of Dessau introduced the iron ramrod.

The fault of wasting it is the crying sin of modern armies. It is the commonest thing in the world to see officers on the line of battle encouraging their men to waste ammunition.  “Fire away, boys!” “Give ’em hell!” “That’s it!” “Give it to ’em!” is the shout of almost every excited man on the skirmish line; and the officers, having no rifles, do nothing but yell to the men to fire faster.

What is the consequence? Ninety-nine bullets out of a hundred fired in action are fired at random.  A dismounted man goes on the line with twenty rounds in his box, and perhaps forty or sixty more crammed in his pockets. The line fights for an hour and a half; and at the end of that time the cry arises, “Fall back!” “We are out of ammunition!”

Whittaker’s observation is not unique in the annals of military professional writing.  The issue of random fires was the ill from which S.L.A. Marshall formed his premise for Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command.  Set aside for the moment many subsequent professionals who found fault with Marshall’s data, the premise had at least a kernel of truth.  So Whittaker’s complaint carries some weight here.  However, let us be clear that Whittaker and Marshall were set in somewhat different directions to solve this randomness problem.

Whittaker went on to chide the “West Pointers” who would stand behind the line with a saber to lead the men.  He preferred that the officers take up a carbine and share a spot in the line with the men.  Why?  “An officer taking a carbine, and carrying only a few rounds of ammunition, will better realize the necessity of saving it.”

If a prize were offered to the man who should maintain his post on the skirmish line, and bring out by the end of the campaign the largest average number of cartridges in each battle, I am fully convinced that the regiment adopting such a system would kill more enemies and be twice as much dreaded as under the random system.

Sort of counter-intuitive that the unit which shoots the least would inflict the most casualties.  So we might have to reserve judgement there.

If every general officer in our service would enjoin upon his brigadiers to enforce the saving of ammunition upon their different regiments, the gain in efficiency would be enormous.  The moral effect of an army which reserves its fire till sure of its aim is something wonderful, whether in attack of defense; and the corresponding weakness of an enemy which begins to fire at long ranges is equally marked.

If regiments drawing the smallest quantity of ammunition, and still holding their position, were praised in general orders, the emulation would be, we are convinced, productive of unmixed good.  Forty rounds of ammunition ought to be enough for any cavalry skirmisher, if he fights from daylight till dusk; and a regiment announcing itself “out of ammunition” in the thick of a fight ought to be severely censured in brigade, division, and corps orders, even while ammunition was supplied.

That’s fine, but on what experience is this based?  Whittaker continued….

I write from practical experience. I lay on the skirmish line at Cold Harbor in June, 1864, when infantry and cavalry attacked us for several hours.  I knew well that, during all that time, I could not get rid of more than twenty shots, aimed at anything certain.  Bullets were flying about, but they were fired at random. A knot of cool hands lay on the ground near me, each by his little pile of rails; and a shot about once a minute, with a long steady aim at the puffs of the enemy’s smoke, was all we could managed conscientiously.  At the same time a terrible firing was going on at our right, as if a corps of infantry were engaged; and then, the first thing we knew, men were falling back there “out of ammunition.”

Again and again, have I seen the same thing – men reserving their fire, coming to the rescue of the squanderers, to be reproached by those squanderers for having “done nothing, while we were fighting superior numbers.” A beaten man always has an excuse.

But these “out-of-ammunition” fellows have often got better men into grave peril, by falling back, and thus leaving a gap for the enemy to occupy.  I have seen the whole of a brigade forced into a retreat, and the loss of many prisoners, from the failure of a single regiment in this manner.  It was at [Trevilian Station], near Gordonsville, Virginia, we fighting on foot, and before we were aware of it, a force of the enemy was in our rear, and firing into the led horses.  Only the approach of darkness saved many of us, myself in the number, from capture, and I lost my horse and had to foot it until I captured another.

Not that Whittaker carried a grudge against those “out-of-ammunition” fellows, mind you.   Whittaker certainly had a different measure of how long forty rounds would last for those on the battle line.

What would you say to that assessment?

(Citations from Frederick Whittaker, Volunteer Cavalry: The Lessons of the Decade, New York: printed for the author, 1871, pages 19-22.)


One thought on ““Forty Rounds of ammunition ought to be enough” – Whittaker on “random fire” and ammunition waste

  1. I really like this post. Especially when you consider Buford’s delaying action on the first day at Gettysburg. I would venture that a experienced outpost officer, with much time spent on the western frontier knew the value of conserving his command ammunition.

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