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Small Arms Firing School, 16th C. Style

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May 23, 2008
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Firearms Training

"One reason why firearms drove out the bow and lance was precisely this, that they economised on training"
Michael Roberts, The Military Revolution, 1560 ”“ 1600, 1956, Belfast

"Captaynes should use great diligence in ye training of their men, or because in ye same be hardy men, but because they be wel trained and in their orders wel apointed"
Barnaby Rich, A Right Exelent and Pleasant Dialogue between Mercury and an English Souldier, London, 1574

"When Elizabeth came to the throne, experienced officers were far and few between. Current opinion then felt that the military profession in England had reached its nadir. ”˜The sacred profession of perfect men of war’, wrote Captain Edward Turnour of Portsmouth to Cecil (later Lord Burghley), ”˜is now by ill training growen to misorder and mischief, and to the greatest ill that man’s hed may imagin"
Lindsay Boynton, The Elizabethan Militia 1558 ”“ 1638, David & Charles, 1971

"The Captains ”¦ pointed out that this (i.e. soldiers having their powder expenditure deducted from their wages) was a constant source of worry to the men, who knew that the more powder they used the less they would have in food and clothing. It made the men unwilling to fire their weapons, and turned brave men into cowards"
Cruickshank, Elizabeth’s Army, Oxford, 1946

"There was very little continuity in the Tudor military experience before Elizabeth’s commitment to the rebel provinces in the Netherlands took shape from [1585]. From 1585, English troops were constantly engaged ”¦ Before 1585, peace and military decay prevailed ”¦ which was noted by sensitive contemporaries ”¦ whereas training was commonplace on the mainland in response to the new weapons and technology of the military revolution, the English were ignorant of it ”¦ The English problem was not lack of courage, but lack of training and experience."
David Eltis, The Military Revolution in 16th century Europe, 1998

Musketeer doffing his hat. Note the apostles hanging from his chest, the priming flask over the hip and the smouldering match between his fingers.

Since contemporary times, it has often been said that one of the main advantages of the firearm over the longbow was that the former required very little training. Anybody, almost irrespective of age and health, could pull a trigger bar; however, the bow demanded many years of practise to produce a good archer that could rain unaimed arrows down on a massed enemy 300 yards distant, or a murderously accurate aimed arrow at a small target 100 yards away. Although there is much truth in all this, it would, none the less, be wrong to assume that little or no training was necessary for firearms, for it took instruction and practice to turn a mere shooter into a passable marksman who could reload, prime and fire in a reasonable period of time.

At the beginning of the Queen’s reign the military situation was so bad that, not only were there very few firearms (and even fewer that were serviceable), but also that there was no proper training programme in place. Indeed, throughout the Elizabethan period, the great majority of both conscripts and volunteers that were sent into the Netherlands, France or Ireland, were untrained. In 1557 a visiting Venetian observed that, in England, what troops they could muster were so without training that ”˜there would be few among them who would know how to move under arms, and to handle the pike, harquebuse or other sort of weapon, it not being the custom in that kingdom for the inhabitants to perform any sort of exercise’. Small wonder that all those with military experience on the continent, spoke out strongly in favour of training. Humfrey Barwick, for instance, himself an old musketeer and soldier of fortune in the armies of Europe, recommended forty-five days of training a year.

Part of the problem was that the military had been so neglected during the reigns of Edward and Mary that there were very few left who were competent to conduct training. The situation was summarized by the Hampshire military authorities who wrote, ”˜we find our cuntre people raw in the use of Armes: so have we not manye apte to trayne them’. The first tentative moves towards a professional training program came in 1572/73 when the Privy Council ordered that, at musters, a selection of the most able men was to be made, who would then, at prescribed times, assemble to be ”˜tried, armed and weaponed, and so consequently taught and trained’.

Training was to be conducted over a period of two to three months, on holidays or during the afternoons of certain work days. It appears that, at first, these instructions were regarded with indifference, but with the growing Spanish threat of the 1580s, attitudes began to change. The growing seriousness of the situation is reflected by a flood of military proclamations culminating in Burghley’s 1587 order that there be weekly training for the shot. To encourage the small-arms men, shooting matches and mock battles were held on Midsummer Day, St Peter’s Day and St Bartholomew’s Day. The government also held competitions with prizes. In 1580, for instance, at a display before the Queen, 200 calivermen competed. According to one observer, ”˜The gunmen were all expert fellows, discharging their shot in very good order ”¦ a gilded Gun (was given as) reward unto the best that could handle their Peece’.

Following the defeat of the Invincible Armada in 1588, there was a period of military relaxation, but, with the renewed threat of invasion in 1590, there was a flurry of martial activity which included a return to training. But resources were stretched and, as we have seen most of the freshly levied troops for the 1592 Brittany campaign were sent into the theatre completely untrained, and often without arms and armour. The situation was so bad that Norreys wrote to the Privy Council complaining that his new men were of poor quality, insufficiently equipped and without training. John Nolan, in his study of Sir John Norreys, described how, as the men came up the beach, following their landing in Brittany, ”˜the general and his officers ran them through some rough drills. Many had never handled weapons, and the operation of muskets and calivers were mysteries of which Norreys and his captains impatiently unravelled. Powder was scarce, though, so most men fired no more than two practice rounds ”¦’

One problem of the English arms industry at this time was its dependence on imported gunpowder. This became a crisis during the Armada battles of 1588 when the ships ran out of powder and were unable to properly replenish. Although domestic production improved after the Armada, England continued to depend on foreign supplies. This meant that powder remained expensive and, it was largely because of this that counties tended to discourage too much practice and failed to stock propellant to required levels. The situation was so grave, that in 1592, the year of the Alderney ship’s loss when the Spanish threat was as great as it had been five years before, some of the counties were officially reprimanded and instructed to restore their supplies to statutory levels by the immediate purchase of powder from the Ordnance Office in London.

One curiosity of the period, that surely discouraged soldiers from practicing to improve their aim and rate of fire, was that they were obliged to pay for their own gunpowder, the cost being deducted from their wages. Knowing that every time they squeezed the trigger bar they were cutting into their income, made the men disinclined to shoot ”“ sometimes even in battle. A defeat of the English by Irish rebels in 1598, was attributed by one commentator to the men’s reluctance to discharge their weapons. Essex and others spoke out against this scheme, but it was not until 1601 (by which time home powder production had much improved) that the Council resolved that soldiers no longer had to pay for their own powder, or be charged for the loss of a weapon in battle.

There is not space here to go into all aspects of training but, in large part, it would have consisted of marching, the orderly assembly and movement of battlefield formations, and individual, as well as en masse weapons drill with calivers, muskets, pikes and sidearms. With firearms in particular, the so-called counter-march would have been much practiced. In this, after the front rank shoots, each man turns to his right and marches to the rear to reload, exposing a new front line that is ready to fire. To avoid chaos, clear commands were fundamental. These came in two forms, drumbeats and verbal orders. By the time of the Alderney ship, the various drumbeats appear to have become well defined and understood; the same, however, cannot be said of spoken commands. In fact, it was not until two years after the Alderney ship, that Sir John Smythe published his Instructions, Observations and Orders Mylitarie, which was the first attempt in England to set down standardized orders.

Alderney Trust


36 Cl.
Mar 27, 2022
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"Well men, each of you have had your two training shots, now you're ready to go to war. Don't forget that you're firing the King's Powder and will be charged for every shot."

Talk about a morale killer.