Is the '64 Silly?

By Mark Tully

Look at the 1764 Manual of Arms very closely, just as it is written, and you will quickly realize -- it's silly!

If we follow along, word-for-word and step-by-step, the first thing the 1764 manual calls for is to fire an unloaded musket! Then it has us "reload" and go through a whole bunch of various maneuvers (including grounding) with a fully charged musket! Next, we secure -- dumping the load we just put down without firing it -- and for the big finish, the troops present their arms and the whole battalion turns completely around in place -- first to the right, then the left. The battalion finally winds up with charging bayonets (without advancing), and then ends without ever having the troops unfix their bayonets!1

How utterly SILLY! Why did the troops embarrass themselves by going through all of this nonsense?

Because, though silly, the 1764 (as well as the other drill manuals) taught the soldiers the basic skills they needed to maneuver and fire as quickly as possible. The whole point of 18th-century warfare was to occupy the enemy's ground, and the rule of the day was to throw as much lead into the enemy as possible to break up their formations then move in with the bayonet. This could only be accomplished by "choreographing" the loading sequence so that every man was performing exactly the same motion at precisely the same time. Having all 400 plus men in the battalion perfectly synchronized was essential for both optimum rate of fire and the safety of the officers and the men under them.

The British soldier was expected to load and fire four times per minute. Even if we cut that rate in half to allow for maneuvering and the general confusion of battle, a soldier should still be able expend all 36 (or more) rounds in his pouch in under 20 minutes.

We all know from experience that if just one soldier gets himself out of sequence it breaks the flow and disrupts the rate of fire. Following are a few basic guidelines for increasing our re-created regiment's firepower for more authentic and efficient battle demonstration.

1) Safety first. Remember that we are playing with "real" weapons. The Manual, though seemingly inefficient, is the safest, surest way for a large body of men to quickly load and fire a muzzle-loading musket. If everyone is performing the manual quickly and correctly it is much easier for the officers or ncos to spot any trouble or unsafe practices and correct them.

2) Practice, practice, practice. Performing the manual may be "boring", but it is the only way to be safe and keep up a reasonable rate of fire on the field. Even if a particular unit is documented as being slow or sloppy, it should be so out of CHOICE, not out of necessity. The public likes to watch the drill demonstrations, and practicing the Manual of Arms is an excellent way of interacting with them. Don't exclude your new recruits -- the public will learn more from watching you teach the Manual than they will from simply watching it performed.

3) TROUBLE SHOOT. Check your musket before you go out into the field -- make sure the touch-hole is clear, the pan is clean and the flint is sound and firmly fixed (the number-one cause of "klatches" is a loose flint -- even a dull flint will usually spark if it is kept tight).

4) E Pluribus Unim (one out of many). In other words, the whole is stronger than any of it's individual parts. Individuality has no place in a recreated 18th-century battalion. The strength of the linear formation is in its EFFICIENCY. To be effective in battle everything must run like a well-oiled machine. If your musket misfires, DO NOT re-cock the piece and attempt to get your shot off -- it breaks the timing of the loading routine and screws up everyone else in the line. Use the time while everyone else is reloading to check your musket to determine what the trouble is.


1) The Manual Exercise as ordered by His Majesty in 1764, Printed by H. Gaine at his printing office at the Bible and Crow, 1775 (reprint from the USMA Library's Special Collections division, 1975)