Infantry fire was collective fire

Tuesday, April 9th, 2019

While looking toward a 600-meter lightweight general-purpose cartridge, Emeric Daniau traces the history of individual weapons and notes how their role has changed:

Against large bodies of troops moving in compact formations (as in, for example, the Transvaal campaign), more than 50% of firefights occurred at what we now call “long range” (between 900 m and 2100 m); only 25% occurred at ranges shorter than 900 m (Figure 2).

Engagement Distances 1880-1900

According to J.B.A. Bailey, in the sixty years preceding 1914, artillery fire produced less than 10% of all battle casualties, the remaining 90% fell to small arms (mostly individual weapons), whose range and accuracy had come to rival those of artillery. This estimation is supported by medical and after-battle reports available from that era.

But the introduction of shells loaded with high-explosives (instead of black-powder) around 1890, the invention of reliable impact fuses, the development of rapid-firing guns like the famous French 75 mm Mle 1897 (with an oleo-pneumatic recoil-absorbing mount) and mathematic models for direct and indirect fire solutions (increasing dramatically the hit probability of long-range gunnery) during the same period radically changed the way armies were fighting, and it was anticipated (in 1901, long before WWI) that artillery fire could produce as much as 40% to 50% of overall casualties in future Europeans conflicts.


WWI saw (indirect) artillery fire replacing (direct) long-range small arms fire in its battlefield effectiveness and this trend continued well after the end of the war. During WWII, small-arms fire including individual weapons and machine guns) produced no better than 2/3 of enemy casualties (when fire support was lacking) and sometimes even less than 1/3. With effective long range fire achieved by HE effects (artillery, tanks and planes), there was a huge pressure to reduce the practical range of weapons (or at least, no need to try to increase it) in order to increase still further the practical RoF.


In the US, the experience of infantry engagements during WWII and the Korean war (both high intensity wars) was reviewed and the famous “Hitchman” report concluded that since most (~90%) infantry engagements occured at a maximum range of 300 yards (274 m) and hit effectiveness with US M1 Garand rifle was “satisfactory” only up to 100 yards (91 m), a way to increase the individual weapon overall effectiveness (up to 300 yards) was to reduce the bullet and cartridge weight and use a pattern dispersion” principle (controlled burst fired in full-auto mode) to compensate for human aiming errors.

“3. To improve hit effectiveness at the ranges not covered satisfactorily in this sense by men using the M-1 (100 to 300 yd), the adoption of a pattern-dispersion principle in the hand weapon could partly compensate for human aiming errors and thereby significantly increase the hits at ranges up to 300 yd.” (conclusion of the ORO-T-160 report).

It should be stressed that for the authors of the ORO-T-160 report, semi-auto fire was to be used only at short range (less than 100 yards), and “pattern-dispersion” full-auto fire reserved for ranges longer than 100 yards, the opposite of the current thinking of the effectiveness of full-auto fire and an indication that there could be some difference between the concept of “pattern dispersion” and the real realisation as found in current assault-rifles.

The addition of a toxic agent to the bullet (to increase the lethality) was also proposed.

The parallel work on a small-calibre, high velocity (SCHV) cartridge, using a 5.56 mm bullet launched at a very high velocity (1030–1200 m/s) indicated that a large reduction in ammunition weight and recoil could be achieved without decreasing hit probability or incapacitation capability against dismounted soldiers.

Before the Hitchman report, infantry fire was mostly considered as a form of “collective fire”, but after WWII infantry fire effectiveness was often considered only from the point of individual fire, aimed at individual targets, and “collective fire” was replaced by MG fire.


  1. Kirk says:

    That’s an interesting paper, one that I’m going to have to spend some time evaluating before I said much about the content.

    I will say one thing, right now: The Hitchman Report was something I think we got wrong, not in the basic data, but in the premises we used to evaluate it.

    The US has always seen combat as the result of a collective action undertaken by a bunch of self-acting individuals; the German approach during WWII was that combat was entirely collective, and that the primacy of the team took precedence over the individual. Which is why they put all their money into the MG34/42, and we put all of ours into the Garand.

    Post-WWII, the US finally kinda-sorta acknowledged the facts on the ground, in that the team was more important and effective in battle than the individual, but they kept right on with some of the core assumptions that they’d continue to use to justify things like the SPIW program.

    And, you overlook all the data about the dispersion of rounds, first-round hit probability, and you start to think that maybe you don’t need a weapon of any real precision in the hands of the individual soldier–All he has to do is get it to the right place, and fire it in more-or-less the right direction, like a Fisher-Price toy version of a real rifle.

    Now, effectively, that’s what most of the troops firing are really doing. They’re keeping the enemy in place, preventing him from doing anything effective, and that works. But, you equip them all for that use case, and what you’re doing is preventing the actual effective shooter from being able to do his job by hitting the target, or actually doing significant damage once he does.

    To a degree, these views are all somewhat accurate, even though they seem to be mutually and diametrically opposed in many ways. The thing is, and this is what I think most people miss with all the discussions about this, it is possible that these views are all accurate summations of combat, but just at different times. There are going to be moments where you are shooting speculatively, to suppress enemy activity and movement, times when you are seeking precision fire at individual identified targets, and times when your fires are part of a team. The difficulty is that you’re going to have to do all three with the same damn weapon, and the same damn soldier…

    I think the conundrum needs to be answered with a two-caliber solution, one that is flexible enough to adapt to a different theater or set of conditions within one theater. I would start by issuing weapons of exactly the same ergonomic solutions, but in different calibers. If you’re sending the guys off to Afghanistan, for patrols in the mountains, you take up the M16/M4s, and then pass out the AR-10 series, along with the support MGs in something like a .338 mini-magnum. If you’re sending the troops to mechwar in Northern Europe, and you don’t really give a rat’s ass about blowing apart the cultural heritage of centuries with support weapons, give ‘em the M16/M4, and 7.62mm MG systems.

    Tactics necessarily need to remain similar, but the ranges and weapons load-outs don’t need to, at all.

  2. Lu An Li says:

    Adding a “toxic agent” to a bullet a violation probably of a number of conventions. Plunging fire at extreme range taught to troops up unto the First World War. Used effectively at Plevna by the Turk. Russian battalions moving across open ground engaged by plunging fire at a range of about 1500 meters. Battalions moving across open ground only squads returning!!

  3. Kirk says:

    To some degree, I’m quite conflicted about the value of the various restrictions we’ve placed on ourselves with regards to things like expanding projectiles.

    I think I’ve made this point in the past, but I’ll repeat it, simply because I think it bears repeating ad nauseum.

    At the time that the restrictions against expanding bullets were laid on, the people agitating for it were the jackals of Europe, nipping at the heels of the British Empire. The instigators of that whole “inhumane” thing were the Wilhelmine Germans, and they were aghast, aghast I tell you, that the British would dare to use the dreaded “Dum-Dum” bullet on fellow white men during the Boer War. Never raised a hint of protest when the Brits did it in India; never complained about their own analogous war crimes against the various African tribes in their colonies, but they were outraged, outraged, I tell you, that the British were shooting their semi-clients in the Transvaal and Free Orange Republic with these “Dum-Dum” expanding bullets… Never any real evidence that such a thing had happened, of course, but it was a useful propaganda stick with which to beat the British over the head with.

    And, of course, these were the same people that introduced the world to chemical warfare, taking hostages in Belgium, shooting what they termed “Francs Tirauliers” during the early stages of WWI, who were mostly imaginary, and on and on. The fact that anyone bothered to listen to that set of hypocritical pricks on the expanding bullet issue is mind-boggling.

    It’s also really rather amazing, when you consider the realities of war as it was fought before decent medical service and antibiotics. Basically, if you didn’t kill someone with the bullet, you essentially doomed them to a long, lingering death somewhere back in the charnel houses of the medical system. So, the choices were essentially “Shoot with expanding bullet, kill quickly…” or “Shoot with “humane” bullet, and kill over a period of weeks…”.

    Same-same today. We issue rounds in NATO that don’t tumble or break up, in 5.56mm. Which necessitate shooting the subject not once or twice, but multiple times–Medics who used to work for me reported dealing with wounded enemy who had basically been turned into so many human sieves, and yet lived. For a given value of “live”, I suppose. Yet, these rounds that produce multiple ice-pick like wounds are deemed more “humane” than the ones that tear great bloody holes in the enemy with one hit, and kill them nearly immediately. It’s like “Here, let us give you this mouse gun that we’ve crippled, so that you have to shoot the enemy a dozen times to ensure stopping him… And, you get to deal with the aftermath, BTW… Have fun sleeping with that, boys…”.

    Whole thing is based on a fundamentally flawed premise, and it’s one I’ve always disliked. You try to introduce a bit of “humanity” into war, and what you most often wind up doing is making it far more inhumane and cruel. Personally, I think you’d be kinder to simply kill the poor bastards with an expanding bullet that caused quick incapacitation and death, rather than poking holes in them and letting them suffer horribly, should they survive the firefight. Not to mention, the wounded enemy who bleeds out tomorrow, or who dies from infection a week or two from now…? They’re still dangerous, and capable of pulling a trigger or setting off an IED for quite some time. You put a grapefruit-sized hole on the opposite side of where you hit the bastard, they’re not gonna be thinking about too much else in the much more limited time they have left.

  4. Paul from Canada says:

    If you follow the story of “Breaker Morant”, one of the justifications (shown in the movie) of the actions taken by the Australians, was that they found “dum-dum” bullets in the possession of Boer prisoners.

    The Swedes complained about the use by the U.S, of early 5.56mm ammo because of its tendency to yaw, tumble and fragment, causing “grievous wounds”, until it was pointed out that Swedish 7.62mm ammo did the same as was three times as large.

    ALL spitzer bullets tumble, (it is a matter of proportional size as to whether they do so before or after exiting a typical human body). The associated fragmentation depends on other factors. Velocity is one, hence the relative reduction in the effectiveness of 5.56mm ammo at longer ranges. Another is the strength of the bullet. 5.56mm ammo has a much thinner jacket, and can’t withstand the stresses when yawing thru tissue at high velocity. Swedish (and German) 7.62mm ammo had a brittle steel jacket, which also would not withstand the stresses of passing thru a denser medium (flesh) at supersonic velocities.

    If the humanitarian desire is to minimize suffering, then in theory, ricin coated bullets are the way to go, ensuring quick lethality, without any lingering of, if survived, maiming and chronic pain.

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