eli5: why did soldiers in pre ww1 wars have a “turn based” or organized battle?


This is probably false to some extent because I get this perception mainly from movies and other media, but did soldiers in old wars line up in formations exposing themselves and take turns to fire? If so, why?

Edit: Ty for all the detailed responses guys! I had one more question- wouldn’t it make more sense for them to spread out or take cover while fighting?

In: 2518

I assume the turn dynamics formed automatically because re-loading took a sh1tload of time.

The formations were probably just left-over habits.

Old muskets took a long time to reload. They were also pretty inaccurate. The methods you’ve seen, three ranks working together, meant that you were unleashing an almost constant stream of fire on the enemy. One reason the Civil War was so horrible was that the muskets and rifles of 1860 were much better than the ones of 1800, but the tactics hadn’t evolved.

Side note: back in the 1960s the USSR went out and trained 60,000 of its troops in Napoleonic War tactics. Horsemen, riflemen, and artillery troops were used in two movies, ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Waterloo.’ I suggest watching the last part of Waterloo for an accurate reproduction of how the fighting looked.

edit =16,000. Still a lot of people.

Formations had critical purposes for medieval warfare: soldiers not in formation behind a wall of shields could be chased down and killed easily by cavalry, or surrounded and just killed.

When guns were introduced, they didn’t have very good accuracy or range, so it was critical for an entire line of people to all fire at once, to have any sort effect. And then reloading took forever, so they took a step back and the next line of people behind them fired while they reloaded. So formations still had a purpose.

They stopped having a purpose and started being detrimental with the introduction of machine guns (automatic fire / automatic reloading) and artillery.

For a certain period of time yes.

Early muskets were often fired in lines where a group of soldier would line up and then fire. They would then fall back to reload as reloading could take a minute or more depending on the exact circumstances and the person in question.

Volley firing in this manner also helped with how inaccurate muskets were.

Of course the two sides are not taking turns firing each other but it might look like that depending on the timing of the two separate lines.

Nobody has picked up the key historical point that once armies closed to musket range firing second was an advantage due to the slow reload times.. Therefore ‘waiting for your opponent to take their turn’ meant inching your forces closer to try and get them to fire first and then… between your advance and their charge… Choosing to fire at the ideal range.

As accuracy and reload times improved.. this gave way to rank volley fire (forgotten the exact term). But first rank fire, second rank fire, third rank fire etc, by which time the first line has reloaded.