A Few Words on Tacticals
By Mark Tully

Though we often call our twice-daily mock battles “tacticals” they really are just demonstrations of field maneuvers. A true tactical is won or lost by the skill of the troops and the officers leading them, not by a predetermined outcome.

It’s been perhaps 10 years since the NWTA has attempted a true tactical at one of our regular events–the last one I remember was at St. Charles in 1990 or 1991. It was a resounding flop–largely because no one bothered to tell the troops (who were expecting one of our usual battle scenarios) what was going on and so they didn’t understand when a “line judge” from the opposing side tapped them on the shoulder and told them they were dead. It was an excellent effort though. The main problem with it being that the troops didn’t know what was going on and therefore resented being tapped on the shoulder as a casualty. (It is also difficult to do one of these exercises in front of the public, as they have even LESS idea of what is going on).

Some seven or eight years ago several NWTA members from the 2nd and 6th Virginia Regiments, Worthington’s Company and the First Continental Artillery took part in some excellent tactical exercises in Ohio. These were hosted by the BAR/NWD and were conducted on 400+ acres of private/public land (no public invited) using the BAR’s rules for engagement. These rules worked something like many of the popular military miniature and/or board games, except that no casualties are taken, but bodies of troops gain or loose ground depending on whether they are receiving or giving fire. For example, if a body of troops receives a full volley from an equal-sized body of troops, they fall back five paces (if a volley is received from a lesser body they may only have to give up three paces).
The BAR rules are weighted in favor of large-unit action and rapid volley fire–which helps discourage small-scale skirmishes by “renegade” units running around doing their own thing. There are, however, all sorts of additional rules governing the action of skirmishers, riflemen and artillery and allowances are made for distance, numbers of muskets that actually go off and full battalion vollies as opposed to company or squad vollies.

The BAR rules are really much more complicated than they need to be! They do work, however, and have evolved over time to include as many different tactical situations as possible in an attempt to keep everyone happy. In order to make a tactical of this scope work, however, you need a lot of troops and half a dozen (or more) line judges who are intimately familiar with the rules and can direct the gains and losses and help avoid bickering and arguments.
This is, of course, a lot of work for a totally thankless job.

The tactical described on pages 7-9 is an example of a more loosely-structured event and is the type of thing that is best conducted with smaller quantities of troops. We had a total of six on the British team and our opponents were a loose group of perhaps eight or ten “longhunters.” The first skirmish was awkward as no rule had been established regarding casualties, and in the heavy woods it was often hard to tell who was shooting at who. Between the time the shot was made and the puff of smoke spotted the shooter had often changed his position or fallen back to reload so that it was almost impossible to know who the intended victim was. This led to the practice of “calling” shots–immediately after (or sometimes before) pulling the trigger calling out the name or a description of the clothing of the target and the part of the body that had been “hit.” Even though the woods was a bit dense, most of the fighting was done at relatively close quarters (10-20 yards), so there was little doubt as to the effectiveness of the fire–even though 95% of the troops engaged were shooting smoothbores. Therefore, almost all shots were regarded as legitimate “hits.”

The really neat thing was that everyone made a conscious effort to play fair and resist the innate human quality of always wanting to win. Even though no formal rules were established each “casualty” took it upon themselves to sit out for 5-10 minutes before leaving the tactical area and coming back into the action from another quarter as a “reinforcement.”

True tactical exercises are a great test of tactics, clothing and equipment. You very quickly learn what works, what doesn’t, and what strap or button needs adjusting. If you ever get an opportunity to take part in a tactical exercise I highly recommend you give it a try–nothing beats learning by actually doing!