Riflemen Won’t Shoot

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

According to S.L.A. Marshall’s research — which has been questioned — 80 to 85 percent of riflemen won’t shoot at the enemy, and other sources do corroborate this, David Grossman (On Killing) finds. For instance, Paddy Griffith (Battle Tactics of the Civil War) found musket fire oddly ineffective:

Even in the noted “slaughter pens” at Bloody Lane, Marye’s Heights, Kennesaw, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor an attacking unit could not only come very close to the defending line, but it could also stay there for hours — and indeed for days — at a time. Civil war musketry did not therefore possess the power to kill large numbers of men, even in very dense formations, at long range. At short range it could and did kill large numbers, but not very quickly.

Combat casualties don’t match non-combat estimates:

Griffith estimates that the average musket fire from a Napoleonic or Civil War regiment firing at an exposed enemy regiment at an average range of 30 yards would usually result in hitting only one or two men per minute! Such firefights “dragged on until exhaustion set in or nightfall put an end to hostilities. Casualties mounted because the contest went on so long, not because the fire was particularly deadly.”

This does not represent a failure on the part of the weaponry. John Keegan and Richard Holmes in their book, Soldiers, tell of a Prussian experiment in the late 1700’s, “in which a battalion of infantry fired [smoothbore muskets] at a target one hundred feet long by six feet high, representing an enemy unit, resulted in 25 percent hits at 225 yards, 40 percent hits at 150 yards, and 60 percent hits at 75 yards.” This represented the potential killing power of such a unit. The reality is demonstrated in their account of the battle of Belgrade in 1717, during which “two Imperial battalions held their fire until their Turkish opponents were only thirty paces away, but hit only thirty-two Turks when they fired and were promptly overwhelmed.” Sometimes the fire was completely harmless, as in Benjamin McIntryre’s observation of a totally bloodless nighttime firefight at Vicksburg in 1863:

It seems strange however that a company of men can fire volley after volley at a like number of men at not over a distance of fifteen steps and not cause a single casualty. Yet such was [sic] the facts in this instance.

(Cannon fire, like machine-gun fire in WWII, is an entirely different matter, sometimes accounting for over 50 percent of the casualties of the black powder battlefield, and artillery fire has consistently accounted for the majority of combat casualties in this century. There is reason to believe that this is as much due to the enhanced psychological effectiveness of these systems — due to group accountability processes at work in a cannon, machine gun, or other crew-served weapons firing — as it is to their increased mechanical killing potential, i.e., their contribution to what artillery officers like to call the “metal density of the air.” This critical point will be addressed in detail later.)


  1. A Boy and His Dog says:

    Is this due to reciprocity? For example if the firing has no effect then a soldier expects his opponent won’t single him out for revenge. However if he takes out one or more opponents then all arms will be aimed at him as a violator of subconscious social order.

  2. Rollory says:

    One implication here is that snipers are simply people who are actually willing to kill.

  3. A.B. Prosper says:

    This is interesting .I’ll note as technology changes, its liable to change as well.

    Semi Autonomous systems guided Ender’s Game style will be very good at killing in mass numbers without remorse or hesitation as would real life Terminators. No Skynet required either.

    Now we do have mass kill solutions in the form of artillery, machine guns to a degree and bombs but this will be the first infantry mass kill solution that effects the weak point, the human conscience.

    Its going to have interesting effects, high casualty rates and mass PTSD as a social norm in war time won’t be good for societies assuming even that vast majority of war casualties somehow shift away from civilians to soldiers which is unlikely.

    And yes I suppose we could move to bot on bot violence alone or just opening war with EMP weapons but again these will have hefty consequences none of which are good.

  4. Kirk says:

    The majority of Grossman’s work is fatuos twaddle based on fantasy and wishful thinking. He posits some truly fanciful things like an entirely mythical “reluctance to kill” that doesn’t exist anywhere else in history. Were Grossman’s ideas even slightly valid, we’d have accounts of Mongol troopers suffering horrendous bouts of PTSD-related mmaladies in the aftermath of stacking all those heads at Samakhand, and the Romans who sserved in the Legions would have left extensive literature about their angst at having leveled Carthage and having sold the populace into slavery.

    Most of his “evidence”, like the multiply-loaded muskets and rifles of the Civil War battles he cites can more rationally and simply be explained as the result of poor and inadequate training practices of the day, which ha recruits do everything in the loading drill except pull the trigger on a fully-loaded weapon. Further, he has refused to examine whether or not similar rates of loading without actually firing occurred on other contemporary battlefields of that era, such as the ones on the Northern Plains, where the majority of the pre-war Regular Army was deployed fighting Indians. Not a hell of a lot of “reluctance to kill” on display, there.

    Grossman is woefully underqualified as a scholar in the fields he’s had the audacity to publish in. He’s a lousy historian, and entirely unqualified as a psychologist, and yet has made his reputation by publicizing his unfounded and poorly thought-out concepts. Some of what he has said has some merit, when restricted to discussions of the effects of war and killing on well-socialized modern Western population groups, but his attempts to somehow extend those ideas as being some “universal human truth” are just painful to listen to.

  5. Kirk says:

    There may be another comment on here from me, awaiting moderation. Or, the system may have eaten it, so I’m possibly repeating myself, here.

    First off, if you’re going to quote either S.L.A. Marshall or Grossman in any serious way, you should only be doing so in the context of making fun of their fatuous twaddle. Both parties suffer from the signal issue that they’re work was done mostly with an eye on the market, and not on any actual scholarship or research.

    I’ve met and talked to Grossman. He’s a nice guy, but he is emphatically not the authority he claims to be in either history or psychology. Research his qualifications–He was a normal line officer who was rotated into teaching Leadership at West Point, and who developed (rather poorly, if I do say so myself) the twaddle he’s been engaged in parlaying into a post-military career for the last twenty-odd years. He’s no more an authority figure than Marshall, who is noted for having falsified a good deal of what he was known for–Oral history.

    Grossman starts from the thesis that there is supposedly some wonderful, innate human trait that induces us to be “reluctant to kill” other humans. Bullshit. Show me, please, where there is any evidence for that. I’ll wait, while you try to find plaintive whines from Mongol troopers over the angst they felt after the experiences they had during the sacking of Samarkhand, or any one of several hundred other cities in Asia and Central Asia. I’ll also wait while you show where there are any classical sources bewailing the PTSD of Roman legionaries who participated in the sacking of Carthage, or of any other Roman victim. It will be awhile, because those sources don’t exist, and they don’t exist because this “universal human truth” twaddle that Grossman is selling simply doesn’t exist. Period.

    If he’d limited himself to saying something like “well-socialized members of modern Western societies have issues killing other people they’ve identified as other members of those societies…”, he might have had a defensible point. As it is, he’s engaged in an intellectual flight of fancy that quite simply is unsupportable. His “evidence”, a good deal of which is sourced from Marshall, is utterly specious.

    Couple of cases in point–The infamous “multiple loading of muskets” found on Civil War battlefields. Grossman would have us believe that the men who did that were loading and not firing those rifled muskets because they were simply unwilling to fire on other humans and try to kill them. While they were being fired on by those “others”. Oh, really? Well, if that’s the damn case, then why did they load, at all? Simply going through the motions and dumping the powder out of the torn cartridge would have been sufficient, so why did they continue to ram home the wadding and bullet, as well? After all, they were “just going through the motions”, right?

    A far more likely reason is that they were the victims of poor and unrealistic training. In the Civil War era, live-fire training was not at all common, nor was marksmanship training of any kind for the common run of soldier. What they did do was have the tyro soldier line up and run through the drill of loading the rifle, until their hands bled. The drill stopped short of fixing a live cap and then firing the weapon, which goes a long way towards explaining why the hell so many weapons were found in the multiply-loaded condition they were–The soldiers were doing just what they’d been trained to do the most, which was “go through the motions”. Live fire and live volley fire were astoundingly rare events, to modern eyes. The odds are, however, that this inadequate and unrealistic training are the explanation for those infamous rifled muskets being found after the battle.

    I’ve personally put this question to Grossman: If your thesis is correct, then we should find nearly identical instances of similarly-misloaded rifled muskets on other contemporary battlefields, should we not? Signally, we do not find those sorts of things reported, anywhere else than where we had mass numbers of poorly-trained troops engaged. Examples of places where we should? Try the battles on the Northern Plains, where we had some fairly large battles fought between the tribes and the pre-Civil War Regular Army troops that were stationed there. Try, please, to find examples of those rifled muskets anywhere else. You won’t. The “significant data” for his thesis simply doesn’t stand analysis, or even basic historical research.

    Similarly, when you look at the numbers that Marshall came up with, and which you quote at the beginning of this, that of an “80% non-participation rate”, the numbers simply don’t add up, and don’t even begin to pass the “does this make sense?” test. Only a commissioned pair of idiots (but, I repeat myself…) could fabricate statements like that, and then actually believe them. For one damn thing, what the hell do you suppose the 20% is doing, whilst the 80% is fucking off? Oh, right–Carrying the battle to the enemy, and doing most of the fighting. Gee, what do you suppose that I, the squad leader, am going to do once I notice the fact that the vast majority of my element isn’t contributing jack shit to the fight? Do you think I’m somehow going to miss that they’re not firing, and that when I make my post-combat checks on munitions, water, and food, that they still have almost all the ammo I issued them before the fight? Hmmm? And, what do you suppose the reaction is going to be, between me the leader, the 20% who are fighting, and this 80% dead weight we’re lugging around with us? Do you think that we who are risking all are going to somehow look the other way while these slackers are just along for the ride?

    Marshall and Grossman are both idiots, idiots who have not one damn clue how things work on the battlefield. 80% non-participation rate, my ass–If that was even remotely true, the Germans would have won WWII with their hands tied behind their backs. Additionally, you’ll note that Marshall never once “checked his numbers” against the Pacific theater–How do you suppose that

  6. Kirk says:

    OK… Hopefully, third try is the charm. There may be two other posts from me on this one, or they were eaten by the system.

    Either way, I’ve got an opinion on this issue, and I’m going to express it.

    Firstly, citing either Grossman or Marshall for any purpose is fraught with risk. Both parties are guilty of poor research, poor reasoning, and wishful thinking on a scale hard to believe for people who are so often cited as authorities in their self-appointed areas of expertise. Paddy Griffith is an historian that I’ve found worthwhile in other regards, so I don’t know how to evaluate his assertions in this area, other than that I think he has this fundamentally wrong.

    Grossman, being contemporary and still active, has the most to answer for. He is entirely unqualified on any basis to be making the assertions he’s made, and he’s made them based on some rather massive historical distortions and what amount to outright fairy-tales. Had he limited his thesis to something like “Well-socialized members of modern Western societies often experience emotional trauma when asked to kill other identifiable members of those societies in combat”, he might have had a decent, somewhat defensible point. When he expanded that idea to make it some kind of fatuous “universal truth of human nature”, he stepped far beyond the boundaries of “defensible”, and right into “ludicrously wrong”.

    Were his assertions to be true, we’d have to be able to find reference to PTSD-like symptoms from many different cultures throughout history–We’d find historical references to Mongol troopers experiencing post-battle angst, after the massacres at Samarkhand, and literally hundreds of the other venues where they slew entire cities by hand, and then searched the entrails of their victims for loot. Don’t see much of that, anywhere in the historical record, do you? By Grossman’s theory, most of the Mongolians should have been absolutely catatonic by the time Ghengis was even part-way done with his conquests. There is some evidence, however, that they were not. Likewise, with the Romans–Show me, please, anywhere in the historical record where the Romans did anything but laud the horrendous measures that the average legionary took part in, during the many and varied occasions when they sacked the cities of their opponents. Carthago delenda est, anyone? Hell, let’s look at Dacia, and Trajan’s column. See much evidence there, for a putative “reluctance to kill”?

    Oh, sure–There’s lots and lots of historical evidence showing how right Grossman is. Only if you’re stone-ignorant of the actual historical record, which I suspect he is. I’ve met the man, back when he was still in the Army, and trying to hawk the initial version of “On Killing”. Notably, when challenged on his ideas or asked to account for actual history that contradicts his ideas, he retreats into ignoring the questions or evidence, restates his specious thoughts, and then ignores the questioner. He’s a nice man, I suppose, probably a “Good Christian ™”, but he’s dangerously deluded. He actually tried telling me that the then-current Rwanda nightmare was somehow irrelevant to the question of whether or not his ideas had any validity. How the hell that squares with “universal human truth”, you tell me, but that’s what he asserted at the time–Rwanda had nothing to do with human reluctance to kill in combat. I’m not going to speculate on whether or not that means he considered the Rwandans non-human, but that’s the general vibe I got.

    Both Grossman and Marshall cite the Civil War multiply-loaded rifled muskets as being evidence for their ideas. Sadly, they both miss that the more likely explanation is simple–Piss-poor and unrealistic training for the tyro soldiers who were the most likely perpetrators. When you go back and look, you’ll find that what we would think of as “live fire” was notably rare in those days–Most recruits were introduced to rifle drill by just that–Drill. All they did was go through the steps of loading the rifle, mind-numbingly repeating the motions of each step without actually culminating in putting a cap to nipple and actually firing. Is it a surprise that they responded to the heat of battle by doing as they were trained, and just went through the motions without actually firing the rifle? Not to anyone with any familiarity with training people on firearms, it isn’t. I don’t doubt that they simply reverted to doing precisely as they were trained, instead of theorizing about some fantasy “reluctance to kill”. Let us not forget–These men were under fire. Sheer survival meant that they had to dominate the firefight they were in, standing there in line. The idea that you’d keep going through the motions of loading the rifle simply to avoid having to kill other human beings while watching those “other human beings” kill your buddies around you, and hearing the noise of rifled Minie balls going overhead…? Ludicrous. Those rifled muskets are evidence of something, but I seriously doubt that it what Marshall and Grossman are claiming them to be.

    Additionally, if this were some evidence for a universal human behavioral pattern, then we should find it on other battlefields contemporary to the era, should we not? There should be numerous reports of rifled muskets being found in that same condition, anywhere we fought during that era, shouldn’t there? And, yet… We don’t have any record of such things being found on any of the battlefields of the Northern Plains campaigns against the Indians during the Civil War, do we? Are there similar reports, coming out of the Crimea? India? Anywhere? And, if those weapons are there, were there also poorly-trained soldiers present?

    Only place you see it is where there were numerous amounts of freshly conscripted, poorly-trained troops engaged in large-scale battles. So… What should that tell us about this historical data point? Does it speak to poor training being the rule in that era, or does it imply that people don’t like killing other people? I would submit that the evidence for the latter is somewhat lacking, given the history we have. I honestly can’t recall reading any accounts from individual soldiers of the era, discussing their horror and angst at killing the odd thousand Fuzzy-Wuzzies or so.

    Additionally, they both refer to the same bit of fatuous nonsense you repeat at the head of this post. Only a pair of commissioned idiots (redundant, I know…) could even come up with a theory like this, and expect the rest of us to believe it.

    What, pray tell, do you suppose the reactions of the “other 20%” would be, upon realizing that they were doing most of the fighting, and taking all the real risk in modern combat? What, do you think, would be the reaction of the team and squad leaders of those supposed 80% “combat avoiders”? Do you think we’d be all understanding, and not notice or do anything about the fact that the vast majority of our units were leaving us to do their dirty work for them? Really, now?

    Honestly, that’s so much BS that I can’t believe anyone in their right mind would even consider it worth repeating. Seriously–You’d have us believe that the average combat leader is just going to ignore the fact that 80% of his troops were effectively dead weight? That they weren’t firing? What are we, deaf, dumb, blind, and cretinously stupid? How the hell do you propose these “combat avoiders” manage to get past the first after-action combat checks, where we re-balance the ammo and other munitions across the unit? I’m somehow supposed to miss that these men still have the majority of the ammo I issued to them before the fight? That they didn’t fire, during the fight, and that the only people who were firing and who expended any significant ammo were the 20%, including the leadership? Bullshit. It doesn’t even pass the first smell test, let alone the “makes sense” one.

    Marshall liked to take credit for being the driving force behind the Army’s change from bullseye target training to using silhouettes in more realistic settings at random ranges. However, when you go back and look at the actual documents, there’s a severe lack of anyone even acknowledging Marshall’s existence, let alone his so-called “research”. The new system was called “Trainfire”, and all of the documentation surrounding it that I’ve seen makes no mention of combat avoidance, or Marshall’s nonsensical set of assertions. What it does discuss is the realization that by conditioning the soldiers to firing at big, round targets on clearly discernible backgrounds, we were conditioning them to only shoot at such clearly defined targets. Given that the enemy doesn’t often run around with a huge bullseye target on them, the decision was to try providing more realism in training, by showing the targets as human silhouettes and against more realistic backgrounds. It worked, oddly enough. Conditioning the troops to fire at people? Not really a consideration by anyone involved–It was all about providing better fidelity to actual conditions to be encountered on the battlefield. You can’t find a single spot in any of the documents where Marshall is even mentioned, despite his assertions to the contrary. If anyone can back up that BS of his, I’d welcome the information, because it was really disconcerting to discover that for myself–I once had a lot of respect for Marshall, and read everything of his I could get my hands on. It wasn’t until I read Hackworth’s account of being his liaison officer in Vietnam that I started to question the validity of what he was saying. Right now, having talked to people who were actual participants in some of the battles he wrote about during the three wars he was active, I don’t believe a damn thing he wrote, about anything. The man was a fraud, pure and simple, and you can’t tell where the truth starts and the bullshit begins, with anything he wrote. That being the case, I have to reluctantly write all of it off as being unreliable.

    You cite either Grossman or Marshall, and the rest of your reasoning becomes suspect, simply because of what you’re basing it on. Both men were are utter frauds, lousy scholars, and eminently unqualified to be making the specious claims they’ve made, down the years. The fact that Grossman taught at West Point is essentially meaningless–It’s not like he was selected to do that, based on any real reputation for scholarship or research. It was simply the luck of the draw that he was selected, like dozens of officers are every year, to go to grad school and then take a position as an instructor there. It’s not the widely-assumed indication of intellectual excellence that many assume it to be.

  7. Y. says:

    I got to second Kirk here. Grossman is an tool and humans are in no way ‘reluctant to kill’. Had they been, tribal societies would not have up to 60% lifetime mortality due to homicide.

  8. Gary says:

    SLA Marshall’s work has come under criticism for being made up. His idea that most don’t fire their weapons don’t hold up for Nam or any more recent war. This is an idea that got out there and no one really confirmed it. In the Civil War, this is most definitely incorrect.

  9. Old Coyote says:

    Must agree with the dissenters: most modern biographies from WWI to today quite forcefully bring home the willingness of our troops to kill on a large scale. Horrific stuff to read, occasionally. Many vets of WWII (my father included) bought a large pictorial book of all theatre operations, published in the late 40′s. The victors seem proud in many photographs. Not sure what Marshall’s work was about, except as some kind of psy-op.

  10. Space Nookie says:

    OMG, this comment thread is making me angry.

    SLA Marshall wrote a 1947 book Men Against Fire based on his experiences interviewing enlisted men immediately after combat during WWII. The book is about learning from combat experience and improving training methods. Within the book he relates the figure that roughly 85% of enlisted riflemen report not firing their rifles during an engagement. He blames this on poor training where soldiers were instructed to conserve ammo and only fire on clearly visible targets, i.e. targets which rarely appear in actual combat.

    Marshall was able to conduct some interviews during the Korean War and the Vietnam war and concluded that firing rates had improved, from 15% to roughly 50% and 70% respectively, as a result of improved training.

    This whole “reluctant to kill” thing is pretty much an invention of Grossman. He rephrases the idea that soldiers need good training to be effective on the battlefield, into the idea that people are reluctant to kill unless they are desensitized by military training. A big part of his 1993 book “On Killing” was the idea that violent video games are similar to military training methods, that children were being desensitized to killing, and that a massive crime wave would result, and because of that, violent video games should be banned. “On Killing” was published in 1993, around the same time that murder rates in the US started to decline.

    Two very separate, different people.

Leave a Reply