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"How did small groups of soldiers maneuver?" Topic

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79thPA Supporting Member of TMP26 Apr 2022 6:52 a.m. PST

How did small groups of soldiers -- particularly infantry of the line, maneuver and fight? The reason I ask is because a number of man-to-man rule sets have, say, groups of 12 figures (which represent 12 men) marching and fighting in two rank lines and firing volleys. My own experience with this is from decades ago when a local group played Brother Against Brother and they moved and fought their 12 men like they were individual regiments.

So, a junior officer has been tasked with some type of mission and he is given 24 soldiers to command. Do we know the SOP for these various time periods? For the ACW, I expect that the men would all be in a skirmish or extended formation. What about the F&IW or the Napoleonic Wars? Is some corporal really going to put his 12 men in a two-rank line and shoot at another 12 men in a two-rank line?

Rich Bliss26 Apr 2022 7:09 a.m. PST

No. I suspect they maneuvered in loose groups. Think "hunting party"

Eumelus Supporting Member of TMP26 Apr 2022 7:31 a.m. PST

You are quite correct that they did not maneuver as little tiny close-order regiments, but neither did they flit about in a haphazard manner. There was a skirmisher drill – a doctrinal method of performing light-infantry functions – which they trained in and used in action. Here's one good link to get you started:


Personal logo doc mcb Supporting Member of TMP26 Apr 2022 8:27 a.m. PST

Without looking at the link, I'm guessing they operated in pairs, with some space between each pair.

Ryan T26 Apr 2022 8:58 a.m. PST

Google up "Civil War skirmish drill" and you'll get no end of informative sites. My browser protection warned me away from the site listed by Eumelus, but a quick graphic description of the drill can be seen at: link

35thOVI Supporting Member of TMP26 Apr 2022 10:11 a.m. PST

79th hopefully I am answering your question as relates to the Civil War. Small units were still capable of performing all the same drills of a larger unit. They had too. At times as you know Brigades would be the size of a regiment. Regiments the size of companies. Companies the size of a handful of men. It's actually much easier to Maneuver in smaller groups. But obviously firepower and melee capabilities are Severely curtailed. There is also a separate skirmish drill for units. Normally a regiment would break out a company or 2 into it. You worked in pairs of 2, along a spread out double line. 1 fire while one behind loads, move up fire, or move back fire. A small group could and had to perform all of Hardee's drills. This is all simplistic. You can probably find copies of Hardee's on the web, as well as skirmish drill with diagrams. I just gave away my copy of Hardee's. I hope this is what you are asking.

Personal logo KimRYoung Supporting Member of TMP26 Apr 2022 10:12 a.m. PST


All your answers can be found in the 1863 US Infantry Tactics:


There is an entire section on skirmishers. Essentially operating in groups of 4, in cooperation with others as part of a section or platoon. Way to much detailed information for me to go into here. How to form, how to rally in squares, or circles plus command calls etc.

serious students should have this book, plus companion books on artillery and cavalry to really understand tactics.


35thOVI Supporting Member of TMP26 Apr 2022 10:21 a.m. PST

Kim is correct in that it is actually 4 to a full team. But you as an individual are dealing directly with your partner.

Scott Sutherland27 Apr 2022 3:20 a.m. PST

Regarding picquets of regular line troops, then it my will be a case of "mini regiments". Bear in mind that the only common system of command-and-control would be the standard platoon drills. So, you would see two rank lines under a sergeant or officer. Not because this is particularly largely good. It's necessary to do it 'by the book' because that ensures a collective understanding.

Regarding light infantry (and possibly veterans who may have acquired some additional skills) look at the following (thanks to Rob Griffith and his blog).

Gross, Baron (1801). Duties of an officer in the field and principally of light troops, whether cavalry or infantry, London: Printed by C. Roworth for T. Egerton. link

Ehwald, C. Von, & (Trad.), a. M. (1803). A treatise upon the duties of light troops. Retrieved from link

Jarry, F., M., L. A., & L. A. M. (1803). Instructions concerning the duties of light infantry in the field. Retrieved from link

Britain, G., & Army. (1803). Regulations for the exercise of riflemen and light infantry, and instruction for their conduct in the field. Retrieved from link

See also
- PDF link in Les Tirailleurs.

- Over de ligte infanterie, of aanmerkingen omtrent de inrigting, het onderwys en de taktiek der ligte infanterie link


ScottWashburn Sponsoring Member of TMP27 Apr 2022 7:52 a.m. PST

Keep in mind when using ACW manuals for information about skirmishers that the typical spacing for ACW skirmishers was 5 paces between men (although this could be increased or decreased as necessary). But I believe that Napoleonic skirmishers were usually much more closely spaced, sometimes with less than 1 pace between men--virtually just a one-rank line.

Oliver Schmidt27 Apr 2022 7:59 a.m. PST

French skirmishers in Reille's corps in 1815 had a distance of 10 to 15 paces:

Davout (Morand) in 1811 ordered 15 paces for the skirmishers in his corps:

15 paces are ca. 9,75 m:


Eumelus Supporting Member of TMP27 Apr 2022 11:03 a.m. PST

Herr Schmidt, thanks for this! In Reille's instructions, a battalion is deploying 50 men (25 pairs) of skirmishers with 50 more in close reserve. If those 25 pairs are 15 paces (9.75m) apart, they are covering 243m, much more than a battalion frontage. This is certainly possible if the battalion is somewhat isolated, but I feel that the skirmishers must have been more closely deployed in larger battles (perhaps that is the 10-pace deployment, but even that would cover 162m which is a lot for a 600-man battalion's frontage).

Probably best to train the men to be comfortable with the larger intervals, knowing that in the stress of combat (not to mention the clouds of black powder smoke) they'll tend to bunch up.

ScottWashburn Sponsoring Member of TMP29 Apr 2022 8:36 a.m. PST

Eumelus makes a good point. There's no point in deploying the skirmishers to a much larger front than the battalion they are covering has. And at 15 paces apart, a skirmish line has virtually no effective firepower. I strongly suspect they would be a lot closer together no matter what those regulations say.

Oliver Schmidt29 Apr 2022 8:52 a.m. PST

Schérer in 1795 ordered a distance of only 2 to 3 paces [1,3 to 1,9 m] for the army of Italy:

(in French, German and Polish only, sorry)

So if it was pointless to deploy the skirmishers with a wider front than that of the battalion, why did generals like Morand and Reille order it ?

von Winterfeldt01 May 2022 3:03 a.m. PST

So if it was pointless to deploy the skirmishers with a wider front than that of the battalion, why did generals like Morand and Reille order it ?

Good question, with 15 paces distance, I cannot see a possibility to create the famous smoke screen as well, in fact is this realy a screen, I find this wide spacing puzzling, but you are right of course, Morand and Reille knew much more what was required and how it did work than us.

ScottWashburn Sponsoring Member of TMP01 May 2022 3:30 p.m. PST

It would be pointless to deploy skirmishers on a wider front than the battalion if there were other friendly battalions to either side who would be deploying their own skirmishers. If there weren't any other battalions close by, or if your battalion was on the flank, or maybe the brigade commander ordered you to cover the front of the whole brigade, then yes, you'd deploy on a wider front.

Mark J Wilson03 Sep 2022 11:20 a.m. PST

If a demi-brigade of 3 battalions deployed in a line of spced close columns so that it could deploy into line as required, I'd expect the skirmishers to deploy as per regulation and to cover the complete frontage of the demi-brigade. Any skirmish line has effective firepower because it has men firing aimed shots under control as opposed to the mass 'blast away' of a battalion. Davout and Reille are hardly desk warriors, why would they write something that experience had taught them couldn't be managed. Now that may not translate well into certain rules sets, but I'd suggest that that reflects the failing of the rule set and doesn't justify the assumption that it must have been done differently.

As to maneuvering small groups of soldiers in the C18th, I see no reason why they would not have maneuvered in a three rank line as per their normal drill manual; that is how the officers and NCO's were trained to move men about and the period wasn't one where armies encouraged 'freestyling' in fact I's suggest that there never has been a period where any army encourages 'freestyling'.

Michman03 Sep 2022 4:11 p.m. PST

"small groups of soldiers – particularly infantry of the line"

The smallest Russian Army heavy infantry sub-division was the "отдѣлъ"/"otdel" = detachment, alsp called a "капральство"/"kapralstvo" = corporalcy (meaning a corporal's commnd), 1/8 of a company:
--- 1 corporal or lance-corporal
--- 18 rankers
--- typical equipment : 3 tents (carried on the company tent wagon if taken on campaign), 1 large cooking pot (carried on commissary's cart), 3 axes, 1 metal shovel, 1 pick-axe/mattock, 1 scythe

The smallest French Army formed infantry sub-division was the "escouade" = squad, also called an "ordinaire" = ordinary (meaning sharing daily activities), 1/8 of a company:
--- 1 corporal
--- 15 rankers
--- typical equipment : 1 large tent (carried on a regimental wagon if taken on campaign), 1 large cooking pot ("marmite"), 1 large spirits/wine carrier ("grand bidon"), 1 large deep-sided covered cooking pan or cassarole ("gamelle"), 1 pick-axe, 1 hatchet, 1 sickle, 1 wooden shovel

In a garrison or caserne, these small sub-units would each occupy a single room or chamber.

Michman04 Sep 2022 3:15 a.m. PST

Following on from my post above ….

The next largest Russian Army heavy infantry sub-division was the "полувзводъ"/"poluvzvod" = half-platoon, 1/4 of a company = 1/16th of a battalion:
--- 1 company-grade officer & 1 sergeant-grade NCO
in the 1st half-platoon : captain/staff captain & sergeant major
in the 2nd half-platoon : sub-lieutenant & standard-bearer sub-ensign (officer aspirant)
in the 3rd half-platoon : lieutenant & sergeant-at-arms
in the 4th half-platoon : ensign & sub-ensign (officer aspirant)
--- 1-2 officer's servant(s), with officer's pack horse
--- 1 commissary & 1-2 commissary guard(s), with 2-wheel / 2-horse cart
--- 2x "отдѣлъ"/"otdel"
--- total ~44 men

The next larger French Army formed infantry sub-division was the "demi-section" = half-section, also called a "subdivision", 1/4 of a company = 1/24th of a battalion (from 1808 onward):
--- 1 sergeant, with a "grand bidon" of vinegar
--- 2x "escouade"
--- total 33 men

comte de malartic Supporting Member of TMP29 Oct 2022 3:38 p.m. PST

Typically, in the 18th century, non-regular troops would fight in these small scale actions. The French had the "Grassins," the Austrians had Croats, Prussians had Frei Korps and the British had Highlanders. In America regular troops sometimes got involved as well. The French "Compagnies Franches" and milice could this as well as the occasional picquet from the Troupes de Terre. American rangers and provincials were available for the British as well as regular light infantry. Numbers could vary but could be as low as 20 or 30 men – for example Jumonville's force. Larger forces could be 200 – 300.

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