This is a quick rant about one thing I often read, and which I think is totally false.
In youtube comments but also in wikipedia I often read sentences like the following about the interdependency of smoothbore muskets and close / line formations of the 18th and 19th centuary. It is said, that the line formation developed, because the muskets were so inaccurate. The wikipedia article about line formations states it in a similar fashion:
The line formation provided the best frontage for volley fire, while sacrificing maneuverability and defence against cavalry. (last seen 28.03.2020)
That that the two and three rank line formation offers the best frontage for volley fire, while not wrong is shortend. A one rank formation offers the same frontage for volley fire for a unit, but makes the overall army frontage far too wide. Depending on the terrain, not all units could be used in battle and distances for overseeing the battle would become too large for good movement and too large to lead the battle by one commanding officer. Therefore it is more accurate to say, that the two or three rank line formation provided the best compromise of volley fire, overall mobility and smooth handling of an army the commander.
But the statement, that the inaccuracy of the smoothbore muskets forced commanders to adopt the close formations and linear tactics is complete nonsense! A smoothbore musket does not become magically more accurate just because you place your men shoulder to shoulder! It is as inaccurate as it was before, with the difference, that the unit now offers a perfect target for the enemy. To counter the smoothbore musket fire it would have been far better, to adopt a loose formation. If the enemy unit would be in close formation the men in the loose formation would hit as many, as they would hit if they were themselves in a close formation, while being a much smaller, and therefore harder to hit, target.
But why were the wars of the 18th and most of the 19th century fought in close formations, if it had nothing to do with the armament?
- Best compromise of movement and ease of leading. The fact that the army commander still was the main protagonist of planning and leading a battle, made it a necessity, that the battlefield was rather small. This changed with introduction of the corps and division system, which allowed larger armies.
- Compromise of attacking and defensive power. Until today, you have to concentrate your forces to win (or you are fighting a war of attrition) a quick decision. Line formations offer the best compromise of attaking power, while also having the ability to withstand a bajonett charge. A loose formation is quickly overun, as is a one rank line. For defense you need depth, which is offered by a deep rank close formation.
- Defense against cavalry. The closer the ranks are, the quicker the men can assemble an anti-cavalry square formation.
- Cultural reasons – to me, this is the biggest reason, why the close formations were still in use, even when fire power already suggested to adopt loose formations. E.g. 18th century armies were armies in which the soldiers were mostly forced to service. To prevent desertion armies had to closely monitor their soldiers. Close formations allowed that officers could monitor their soldiers during battles, in which most of the soldiers would have deserted, if they were deployed in loose formation, without monitoring.
Even the high ranking officers of the german army before WW1 didn’t believe that their soldiers would continue attacking if they were deployed in a loose formation or allowed lay down or to use the spade. They believed, that for winning quick victories, units must stay close toghether and led by well educated officers.
How wrong those assumptions were, was proved in the second half of WW1 when small groups of loosly spread german soldiers were highly motivated and defended the ground, without being constantly monitored by noble officers.
Therefore those assumptions of the pre-war and therefore the clinging to close formations (one rank, but still shoulder to shoulder) were based on flawed cultural believes about the common soldier.
As I hopefully argued coherently, the inaccuracy of the smoothbore muskets hadn’t much to with the adoption of close formations. It was a combination of cultural believes and simple phyiscal laws, that a concentrate force has more attacking/defensive power, which led to adaption and long prevaillance of close formations.
I strongly believe, that we, who are interested in military technology and tactics shouldn’t make the mistake of overestimating the influence of properties of technology on behaviour of people. Culture often has a bigger influence, and therefore historians of military technology research should incorporate culture more in their research.