Armed With Muskets And An Odd Rifle, Napoleon’s
Elite Skirmishers Were First In The Fight.
By Jeff John
Suffering many defeats throughout the 1700’s, France honed an affinity for the effective, fast-moving light infantry and artillery in battle. By the late 1700’s, the French Revolution threw a twist (and a guillotine) into the military establishment. Hopelessly undisciplined “recruits” chock-full of liberté, égalité, fraternité were more akin to a big mob compared to France’s small professional army—and much smaller officer corps (at least the remaining officers still possessing their heads).
This led, more or less, to the meteoric rise of a certain Corsican-born artillery captain who kept his head. Napoleon Bonaparte arose from humble beginnings to Emperor, and molded this motley crew into the Grand Armée, which swept aside all in its path in what was—essentially—the first world war.
The Revolution badly disrupted the French small-arms makers (and everything else). Poor quality arms and iffy delivery initiated the rise of the US National Armories. One of First Consul (not Emperor, yet) Bonaparte’s major priorities in 1799 was getting the arms factories running efficiently again. He succeeded.
In 1803, Napoleon ordered a refinement of the light infantry. The company of skirmishers in every battalion of infantry (fusiliers) and light infantry (chasseurs) were now the Voltigeurs and would be recruited from the shortest men in a company. The French-English Military Technical Dictionary of 1917 defined voltigeur as: “(gym.) vaulter (on a horse); vaulting teacher; vaulting horse; (mil.) voltigeur (light infantryman).” The original concept imagined these infantry “vaulting” aboard cavalry for fast transport into combat. Occasionally successful, this method quickly proved impracticable, but the name stuck, and Voltigeurs proved themselves versatile, even afoot.
Voltigeurs acted as advance scouts, gathering intelligence as the army moved and they were the first to fight. They were required to think and act independently, drilling in tactics and marksmanship. They were specialists in open field and urban combat. They moved in close to pick off enemy officers, artillerymen and create mayhem in general. They were last to leave a fight, too, and covered the rear as the army disengaged or retreated.
Voltigeur officers, sergeants and quartermasters received a new model rifle adopted the year they were formed (only the second model rifle ever issued in France), while rank-and-file were issued the smoothbore Dragoon musket shorter and handier than the standard infantry musket—especially to men no taller than 5 feet! Secondary weapons included bayonet and short sword. Among a regiment’s three companies of Voltigeurs were 27 rifles and 265 smoothbores. (1)
The “Fusil de Marine” was likely dragooned into infantry service with
the Voltigeur units along with its parent “Fusil de Dragon.” Eighty
grains of Goex FFg powers this load from a paper cartridge wrapped
around a “Royal” weight ball of 0.648 inch.
The horn (shown is the cartridge box badge) was the symbol of Voltigeurs,
and hornists gave orders on the field. The rest of the army moved to drums.
Muskets were notoriously inaccurate. It is possible some enterprising
sharpshooters stitched thick patches to the ball in an effort to increase
its accuracy, at least until the action got hot. In an example of early
“political correctness,” the playing cards have philosophers instead of
kings, the virtues, instead of queens and soldiers of the republic
replace knaves. This reproduction deck has numbers and suits added.
France’s first rifle, the Mle 1793, was developed after the Republican army encountered rifle-armed Austrian Chasseurs in the war to restore the monarchy in France. (The Austrians were equally impressed and copied the French Mle 1777 musket.) The rifle as an arm was proving its worth worldwide. Englishman Charles James wrote in the 1802 A New and Enlarged Military Dictionary, “The [riflemen] formed the most formidable enemies during the war in America, being posted along the American ranks and behind hedges, etc. for the purpose of picking off British officers… They have proved equally fatal in the hands of the French during the present war, and have been wisely added to our establishment.” (2)
France’s second rifle, one subject of this story, was the beautiful, light, handy Carabine de Versailles An XII (An XII meaning “Year 12,” or 1803). An updated version of the Mle 1793, the An XII features a sturdier stock and slightly longer, heavier swamped octagon barrel, just the right weight for a fast-moving skirmisher. The balance is perfect for offhand shots, and its .54 caliber delivers decent power and range.
The upgraded An XII solved a few of the Mle 1793’s flaws, but still persisted a very odd quirk. A curious development occurred when arsenal testing proved a “forced ball”—one larger than the bore and hammered home—delivered 12 times the accuracy of the smoothbore at 150 yards. (3) Soldiers were issued mallets to pound the oversize ball down over a cloth patch. This is very strange and foolish (if not suicidal) in a military rifle. To ease loading, the wrought-iron barrel was swaged almost a 1/3 of its length and tapered from roughly .60 caliber at the muzzle down to .54, according to The Rifle Shoppe’s, Jess Melot, who examined a pristine example. This would give the soldier a fighting chance at seating a ball, but still awfully slow—especially in a fouled bore.
Its endearing size and handling characteristics weren’t enough to counter difficult loading, poor sights, no patchbox, heavy trigger, and no bayonet. Since the ball was pounded home, the rifle couldn’t be unloaded by “drawing the ball” and a ball seated without a charge required the rifle be disassembled to unload. None of this warmed the soldiers’ hearts.
The original Carabine de Versailles was rifled with seven deep grooves. It was loaded
with a “forced ball” requiring a mallet to pound an oversized ball and patch home.
The repro’s Colerain-made barrel is rifled with 6 round-bottom grooves. You need good
eyes to use the nub of a front sight, but it shoots well with conventional patched ball.
The rear sight is one drawback, being close to the eye and quite small. Napoleon
moved away from some of the screwier decrees of the French Revolution such as the
obscure method of naming years from the start of the Republic. Thus this carbine
is dated 1806 rather than An XV.
French arms prior to 1805 were marked “R.F” for Republic of France. This carbine
(above) is marked “E.F” for Empire of France. Other inspection marks are upside
down on the left side (below). Unlike most other arms in this era, instead of a
sideplate, the lock screws rest in simple escutcheons.
Dropped From Service
Napoleon didn’t think much of the rifle despite its successful use against him by the British, Germans, Austrians and Russians. When informed of the problems in 1812, Napoleon simply forbade them. Production of the An XII ended in 1812 with only 2,212 produced.
As to the rifle’s use, little is documented, and the following account is inferred. At the 1812 Siege of Badajoz, Spain, British Col. Willoughby Verner notes, “When… the breaching battery (no. 9) opened fire on La Trinidad the fire of the French sharp-shooters at a range of about 300 yards from the covered way was so severe and accurate, that it was necessary to send for a party of the 95th Rifles… whence at ranges of between 250 and 350 yards they easily kept down the fire of the defenders.” (4)
Smoothbores won’t shoot well that far, but a rifle will. Perhaps the Voltigeur sergeants got together for a little target practice, perhaps along with riflemen from the contingent of Hesse-Darmstadt soldiers present. At least they had the time to leisurely pound their rounds home. We’ll never know.
Enlisted Voltigeurs were issued shorter, lighter Dragoon muskets, and some with the Dragoon’s big iron middle band replaced with one of brass. The Marine version is otherwise identical to the Dragoon and includes a standard brass middle band. Just a guess, but I bet Marine muskets were diverted to Voltigeurs. After Nelson’s 1805 victory over the Franco/Spanish fleet at Trafalgar, the French Navy spent the war mostly blockaded in harbor. Why send them new muskets?
Even though a sizeable Marine force was used to police the Empire’s ports and river traffic, troops going into combat should’ve had first call on the best arms, not watchmen. It’s possible a fit of common sense (or desperation) overcame those in charge of dispensing arms. And of course, as attrition created shortages, Voltigeurs were also issued the standard Mle 1777 infantry musket. Since a Voltigeur’s average height was 59 inches, the Dragoon musket’s muzzle was practically eye-level at 55-1/4 inches, and the Mle 1777’s muzzle a hair below 60 inches!
Voltigeurs practiced marksmanship, but the mechanical accuracy of a smoothbore musket shooting military paper cartridges is notoriously erratic. The finest shot can’t compensate for the random dispersal of a shot rattling down the barrel, especially as the generous flash pan is primed with a variable amount of the main charge. French powder in the Napoleonic era was of poor quality and fouled barrels, too. The musket bore diameter was 17.5mm (0.689-inch) using a ball 16.5mm (0.649-inch) in King Louis’ day. The ball was reduced to 15.9mm (0.626-inch) in the Napoleonic era to make loading easier in the face of heavy fouling. (3)
Officers and sergeants in France’s new Voltigeur units formed in 1803 to scout,
skirmish and engage the enemy closely were armed with a nifty, handy rifle in .
54 caliber and the ranks with the handier .69 caliber Dragoon’s musket. The
Dragoon was 4 inches shorter than the infantry musket at 4 feet, 6-1/4 inches.
The average height of a Voltigeur was 4 feet, 11 inches.
The “Fusil de Dragon” was made at St. Etienne for the mobile infantry mission of
the Dragoons, and is identified by the big iron middle band. The sturdy band allowed
Dragoons to ride with the musket slung across their backs, rather than a small light
carbine clipped to a wide shoulder belt as other cavalry used.
That’s a lot of space between ball and barrel, so what constitutes “accuracy” and “marksmanship” is elusive. As a musket fouls it becomes a little more accurate (perhaps less random is a better description). But at some point it has to be cleaned—preferably after the battle, but not always! Marc Desboeufs in his Memoires said, “I took cover behind a corpse. From there, on one knee, I fired at the enemy until my musket, which burnt my hands, became too clogged up. I picked up another. The man to whom it had belonged was stretched beside his weapon; I dragged his corpse by the foot and I placed it on top of the first. From behind this human rampart, I continued to fire… As those balls that did not hit the skirmishers carried on into the columns behind, I put a good number of men out of action.” (5) Packed formations obviously lessened the need for pinpoint accuracy!
Marksmanship skills centered around a steady hold so a flinch didn’t measurably add to an already unpredictable shot. Voltigeurs worked in groups under an officer, sergeant or corporal, who identified desirable targets. So if a squad concentrated their fire on one target, the random chance one of the balls connects improves—a musket version of “area fire.” Voltigeurs shot William, Prince of Orange in the arm at Waterloo, and he left the field. They certainly weren’t shooting to wound, but it was good enough.
The smoothbore was no match for the rifle, and Voltigeurs needed to move in as close as 50 yards to make shots count. During action in Spain, Rifleman Cpl. Lindau, with Britain’s King’s German Legion observed, “The French skirmishers did not like to have dealings with us: we met at a great distance and the French bullets often struck the ground in front of us because the enemy’s rifles [probably muskets] were bad, and the powder was very coarse…” (6)
Riflemen of the King’s German legion were armed with the .62-caliber Baker rifle. One of the era’s best rifles, the Baker was capable of putting a round on a man at 200 yards more often than not. Baker riflemen also trained to use cover, fire from a rest and use the sling as a shooting support. The marksmanship of the “green jackets” or “grasshoppers” was respected by the French.
This type of warfare created frightful casualties for more than another 100 years. Armies formed lines two or three deep to face infantry or squares against cavalry. The lines were extremely vulnerable to cavalry, and the squares were easily decimated by artillery. England’s Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, always tried to choose hilly ground for a battle so he could stage the majority of his men behind hillcrests to protect them from artillery.
Voltigeurs were adept at annoying either formation. England’s 52nd Battalion had formed into two squares behind a slope, thus protected from artillery and freely roaming cavalry. “The battalion had repeatedly advanced over the crest to push French skirmishers down the forward slope, and as they did it again, firing volleys to drive the Voltigeurs back, [Captain] Cross saw enemy cuirassiers riding through the smoke…” (7)
Napoleon used both technology and tactics to great success. Although he conquered much of Europe, Napoleon lost his Grande Armée in the Russian winter of 1812. The Empire built with the sword fell to the cold. Well-disciplined veterans proved irreplaceable. There would still be two more years of war and the Battle of Waterloo before the first “world war” came to an end.
6430 Vista Drive
Shawnee, KS 66218
P.O. Box 1848
Grand Island, NE 68802
UK Expo Int.
P.O. Box 351
Carbine de Versailles AN XII
Maker: The Rifle Shoppe, Inc.
18420 E. Hefner Road, Jones
Action type: Flintlock rifle
Barrel length: 24-13/16 inches
Overall length: 41-1/8 inches
Weight: 7 pounds, 14 ounces
Finish: Polished bright
Sights: Fine blade front, U-notch rear
Stock: French walnut, oil finished
Price: Kit: (assembled lock), $1,095
Fusil de Marine Modèle An IX
Maker: Davide Pedersoli, Via Artigiani
57 25063 Gardone Val Trompia, Brescia, Italy
Importer: Beauchamp & Son, Flintlock’s Etc.
160 Rossiter Road
Richmond, MA 01254
Action type: Flintlock smoothbore
Barrel length: 40 inches
Overall length: 55-1/4 inches
Weight: 10 pounds
Finish: Polished bright
Sights: Blade front only
Stock: European walnut, oil finished
(1) Weapons and Equipment of the Napoleonic Wars, Philip J. Haythornwaite, ©1996, hardcover, 190 pages, illustrated, ISBN: 1-85409-393-2, Arms & Armour Press, OP
(2) British Military Flintlock Rifles: 1740-1840, by DeWitt Bailey, ©2002, hardcover, 264 pages, 320 photos, 8.5×11 inches, $47.95, ISBN: 1-931464-30-0, from Mowbray Publishing, 54 East School Street, Woonsocket, RI 02895, (800) 999-4697, www.gunandswordcollector.com
(3) French Military Small Arms 1717-1865, by Didier Bianchi, translated by Eric A. Bye, ©2015, softcover, 136 pages, fully illustrated in color, ISBN 978-1-931464-65-9, Mowbray Publishing
(4) History & Campaigns of the Rifle Brigade Pt. II, Col. Willoughby Verner, ©2002, 506 pages, ISBN: 9781843422136, Naval & Military Press, Uckfield, United Kingdom, www.naval-military-press.com
(5) Les étapes d’un Soldat de l’Empire (1800-1815): Souvenirs du Capitaine Desboeufs, by Marc Desboeufs ©1901 (partial translation: Terry Crowdy, French Napoleonic Infantryman 1803-15, ©2002, Osprey Publishing
(6) A Waterloo Hero, by Frederich Lindau, ©2009, hardcover, 215 pages, ISBN: 978-1-84832-539-5, Frontline Books, Pen & Sword Books Ltd., 47 Church Street, Barnsley, S. Yorkshire, S70 2AS, www.frontline-books.com
(7) Waterloo, The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles, by Bernard Cornwell, ©2014, hardcover, 352 pages, well illustrated, ISBN: 978-0-06-231205-1, Harper Collins Publishers, 195 Broadway, New York, NY 10007
(8) Armes A Feu Francais Modeles Reglementaires 1717-1836 (2 volumes), Jean Boudriot, ©1997, Editions Du Portal – le Hussard, ISBN: 2-86551-033-6
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