Ten Rifle Companies

 

Today is the 246th Birthday of the United States Army. On June 14th, 1775, the Second Continental Congress passed the following:

“Resolved, That six companies of expert riflemen, be immediately raised in Pennsylvania, two in Maryland, and two in Virginia… [and] as soon as completed, shall march and join the army near Boston, to be there employed as light infantry, under the command of the chief Officer in that army.” (here)

I’ve spent years researching the American military experience, particularly in the years leading up to the War of Independence. However, it was only in the last few days that it occurred to me: Why ten rifle companies?

To a non-military reader, or even a war history enthusiast, this question might seem a bit silly. I mean, even among the most casual of observers, the decision by the Continental Congress to form a new army most likely seems to be pretty obvious: “We’re in a shooting war with the British Army; let’s make an army, okay?” Of course, this makes sense. But: why rifle companies?

Rifles were not widely or extensively used by the contemporary armies of the period. Conventional infantry regiments (made up of eight to ten companies of approximately 80 soldiers per company) were all armed with smoothbore muskets (not rifles). These muskets were relatively heavy, very sturdy, and built for mounting bayonets. Accurate? Not so much (60-80 yards). Muskets were well-suited to the common infantry shock tactics of the period. By the way, the British Army was excellent at this type of warfare. On the other hand, rifles were poorly suited to then-standard infantry tactics. They were lighter in weight, could not take a bayonet, and had a much, MUCH slower rate of fire. However, they were much more accurate, out to 200-250 yards. Furthermore, at that time there was no industrial production capacity for the manufacture of rifles. Although available in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Virginia, rifles were hand-produced and custom-made to the owner’s specifications. Therefore, in specifying rifle companies, Congress made an explicit, purposeful choice in favor of weapons (and therefore tactics) distinctly different from those favored by the Regular military.

However, none of this factual history really answers the question: Why? At this point in the war, the bulk of the British Army was besieged in Boston, unable to breakout by land, and not yet willing to retreat by sea. Conventional tactics of the era would require the Continental Army have greater numbers of heavy infantry, grenadiers, sappers, or pioneers for use in tightening the siege. Under such tactics, light infantry (riflemen) would be pretty much ancillary. Sharp-shooting and sniping were considered “uncivilized” at best, and violated the recognized laws of land warfare of the time. (That these rifle companies would perform this exact function superbly once they arrived in Boston is a discussion for some other time.) Again, the question comes back to, “Why did Congress authorize the establishment of a specific body of soldiers, armed with a particular piece of equipment, unsuited to the immediate fight at hand?”

What’s even more puzzling is that this question, (Why ten rifle companies?) leads to others: Whose idea was it in Congress to introduce and pass such a bill? Was the Congress responding to a request by General Washington for more light infantry? If so, how does this square with Washington’s ambivalence concerning the use and utility of riflemen and other irregular tactics? (Again, a topic for another day.) How much debate did Congress entertain before passing the bill? Regarding the debate, what justifications were made to argue in favor of the proposed ten rifle companies?

The bottom line is this: I don’t know the answers. If any of Ricochet’s many well-educated scholars and experienced Soldiers know anything about these topics, I hope you’ll join the conversation.

And let me close with this: Happy Birthday, United States Army, an institution I have loved (and at times hated) since 1981. It has been my honor to serve, and I would go back and start all over again if I could.

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  1. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Why ten companies? Ten companies make up a regiment. That was the standard stand-alone military unit in the eighteenth century. (Yes, there were independent companies, but the regiment was the basic building block of an army.) So in building a national army your first step would be to build a regiment. Then add regiments so you could create brigades and divisions.

    Why a rifle regiment? In a way you have answered your own question. It was because rifles were scarce. There were plenty of infantry regiments at Boston. Theoretically each one was composed of a grenadier company, a light company and eight line (musket-armed) companies. However, while it was fairly easy to find the big, husky guys to serve as grenadiers (which were supposed to be the shock troops) it was very likely that there were not enough rifles to properly equip the light companies. So a Continental rifle regiment could serve a valuable function. They could either be used entire or the companies parceled out to existing line regiments as their light companies.

    Moreover, scouts required extra skill and training, Putting them in a Continental regiment not only facilitated administration, it facilitated training. You could retain a few company of it to train additional riflemen.

    You can read more about this kind of stuff in my book George Washington. There are better books on the subject published by Osprey, but I like mine.

    • #1
  2. D.A. Venters Member
    D.A. Venters
    @DAVenters

    I wonder if cost was a factor in raising only 10 companies at this point in the conflict.  Congress was not flush with money to fight a war and so I would think they had to keep an eye on that.

    I also wouldn’t be surprised if this is legislation that is just giving legal formal approval to what was already happening.  In other words, Congress got word that these companies were forming and needed some imprimatur from Congress.  This may explain why the resolution specifies the number of companies from particular colonies.  Maybe they made them rifle companies because that is what most of the recruits already had and were bringing with them.  If the recruits were drawn from areas near the frontier, they may be more likely to have rifles than muskets.

    Just a guess.

    • #2
  3. Postmodern Hoplite Coolidge
    Postmodern Hoplite
    @PostmodernHoplite

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    Why ten companies? Ten companies make up a regiment. That was the standard stand-alone military unit in the eighteenth century. (Yes, there were independent companies, but the regiment was the basic building block of an army.) So in building a national army your first step would be to build a regiment. Then add regiments so you could create brigades and divisions.

    Yes, what you say about the number of companies in a regiment is very true. Perhaps this was the Congress’ thinking. But the US Army’s website states that these were intended for use as light infantry. Now, at the time, it was common practice for each infantry regiment to have a company of light infantry, so too also a Grenadier company. Typically, these companies would be consolidated into a light infantry or Ranger “battalion” within a larger brigade, or what we would refer to as a division.

    Did Congress act because General Washington had written and identified that a shortage of qualified light infantry was to be found in the various State militia units that comprised the newly-created Continental Army? If so, do we have the documentary primary sources to support this?

    If such was the case, why specify “rifle” companies, and not light infantry? At that time, most British Regular army regiments’ light infantry companies were equipped with light muskets, (or fusils). These would have been a lot easier to source, as the workmanship and craftsmanship necessary to build a fusil from scratch was significantly less, as well as being easier to convert an existing musket.

    It seems to me that an awful lot of assumptions have been made over the years about this topic, both within the US military community and the broader civilian academic world. I think there’s more here than meets the eye. In particular, I am curious to explore how the foundation of what would become the US Army was shaped by a decision that appears to be contrary to contemporary conventional military doctrine.

    • #3
  4. Postmodern Hoplite Coolidge
    Postmodern Hoplite
    @PostmodernHoplite

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    You can read more about this kind of stuff in my book George Washington. There are better books on the subject published by Osprey, but I like mine.

    Thanks for the link. I just bought it, and am looking forward to reading it.

    • #4
  5. Postmodern Hoplite Coolidge
    Postmodern Hoplite
    @PostmodernHoplite

    D.A. Venters (View Comment):
    I also wouldn’t be surprised if this is legislation that is just giving legal formal approval to what was already happening.  In other words, Congress got word that these companies were forming and needed some imprimatur from Congress.  This may explain why the resolution specifies the number of companies from particular colonies.  Maybe they made them rifle companies because that is what most of the recruits already had and were bringing with them.  If the recruits were drawn from areas near the frontier, they may be more likely to have rifles than muskets.

    You pose several good points here. Perhaps Congress was simply responding to what was already happening. But if so, why specify “rifle” companies, and not light infantry (since those don’t have a requirement for a particular form of firearm)? The three states directed to raise the companies were where there was an actual rifle production capacity, with Pennsylvania having the largest. Even at that, on the frontier, rifle ownership was about 40-45% among those who owned long guns (based on my earlier research). Again, it would have been much easier to raise light infantry companies, as opposed to the challenges of raising companies armed with rifles.

    I hope that there is some documentation out there somewhere that will reveal what Congress was thinking here. (If they were responding to a request for forces by General Washington, I would LOVE to be able to document that!)

    • #5
  6. Bob Armstrong Thatcher
    Bob Armstrong
    @BobArmstrong

    Hand-made rifle producers banded together to form a regional trade association which then lobbied the Continental Congress for special interest money to protect their nascent industry. War profiteers the lot of them – including their lapdog General Washington. No records of this remain since they hid their tracks well to cover the logrolling and self-dealing.

    </sarcasm off>

    • #6
  7. Postmodern Hoplite Coolidge
    Postmodern Hoplite
    @PostmodernHoplite

    Bob Armstrong (View Comment):
    </sarcasm off>

    “I regret I only have one ‘LIKE’ to give this post!” (I’m STILL laughing at this one – thanks, @bobarmstrong! I hope this gets promoted to the Main Feed if for no other reason than that others will this.)

    • #7
  8. navyjag Lincoln
    navyjag
    @navyjag

    Army ROTC did teach me how to clean on M-1. A valuable skill.  Its just than learning ship navigation was easier. 

    • #8
  9. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    I wonder if there was some ambivalence about a federal army instead of relying on state-based units. Can you trust a commander from one state not to favor his guys over others?  Can you trust the Congress not to give cronies the supply contracts to the detriment of my state’s vendors?

     

    • #9
  10. Postmodern Hoplite Coolidge
    Postmodern Hoplite
    @PostmodernHoplite

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    I wonder if there was some ambivalence about a federal army instead of relying on state-based units. Can you trust a commander from one state not to favor his guys over others? Can you trust the Congress not to give cronies the supply contracts to the detriment of my state’s vendors?

     

    Excellent point, @oldbathos – yes, ambivalence about establishing a standing Regular army was a real issue in 1775, and would continue to shape US military policy for decades. It seems to me that the authorization for the ten rifle companies (to be raised for one year of service) was in itself more aligned with a militia-centric citizen-soldier model. These volunteers would all be self-armed, and self-trained (at least when it comes to their marksmanship and woodcraft). The companies were raised regionally, rather than through enlistment into the Continental Army in general.

     

    • #10