To know tactics, you must know weapons


The Battle of the Nile occurred near the end of the age of fighting sail. Nelson had little opportunity to adopt tactics to new material, as Napoleon did with mobile artillery and the great Panzer captains did with tanks. thus Nelson's achievement is even more remarkable: he adopted his tactics to a weapon system that in its essentials was centuries old, and with insight that has rarely if ever been equaled at sea. We may believe that his tactical mastery was achieved by a lifetime spent under way. Clausewitz thought that good strategy could come from the inspired novice but that effective tactics were the work of a lifetime. To know tactics, you must know weapons.
Wayne P. Hughes, "Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat" 2nd ed. p.25-26

I don't see how Napoleon's artillery was that much different from earlier artillery (much of his arty was actually from the old Gribeauval system and decades old when he used it).

There are still a couple interesting thoughts in this short quote:

(1) There is probably room for tactical improvement left for things that were in use for centuries. Now that's an encouragement.

(2) Why is he such a Nelson fan? Judging by Hughes' own descriptions, all that Nelson did was he manoeuvred his forces such that his complete fleet was concentrated on a part of the hostile fleet, leaving the rest out of the decisive fight. The state of the naval art must have been horrible if that was outstanding. 
See Epaminondas, more than 2,000 years earlier. Every army leader who attacked an army during a river crossing (when many of the hostiles were on the other side and ineffective) pulled basically the same trick as Nelson, and this tactic is ancient as well.

(3) "To know tactics, you must know weapons." This one is frustrating, and I actually don't doubt its truth. It is frustrating especially as taxpayers need to pay for weapon systems when almost none of them can possibly understand their tactical use and thus their value.
This problem with insider knowledge is similar to the one with the hidden functions of very electronics-dependent weapon systems and new technologies in general. I pointed at something similar in January: "Naval and air warfare; the problem with technology assessment"

Luckily, I left my comfort zone and entered detailed modern tactics topics only rarely - and mostly so when poor practices were obvious. This year, the only real modern tactics blog post was "Avionics of doom", where I was quite careful ("could have"). I was probably less careful in earlier years.

To me, the 1970's are where the stuff is so very much historical that published sources offer a good picture about previously hidden details. Well, unless you're talking electronic warfare; the only good sources about EW are very general ones like the EW101 and EW102 books.
I suppose pondering outside one's comfort zone makes only much sense on the operational and strategy levels of warfare (yes, I think there is an operational level). Much tactics stuff is too much influenced by largely unknown tech stuff. At times I mention some device casually to someone who served 20 years in combat arms and even he didn't know about the really important device (which I knew only by chance). This happens especially with EW stuff.



  1. The rumour that I have heard is that before Napolean, guns were drawn largely by civilian horse teams. These civilians tended to flee when shot at. Which tended to "fix" the location of deployed guns at the start of a battle.

    By militarizing the drivers, Napolean was able to move some of his guns around during a battle, greatly increasing their usefulness.

    1. There were other means for moving guns. Napoleon might have fixed one problem within the human organization he was meant to head. That doesn't mean he solved a problem that plagued all of mankind.

  2. Concentrating on part of the enemy force was a most remarkable achievement under these conditions. A fleet at anchor is usually much more capable at directing raking fire through the longest dimension of any approaching ship. Anchors give maneuverability to these gun platforms and the capability to use the lowest gun decks while a ship moving in from the sea has either slow speed and little wind for the third gun deck of a ship of the line to be used without flooding or it is outgunned. Nelson's achievement is remarkable as soon as you look at nifty details of enacting such things.
    The idea of concentration was around for a very long time and the numbers of guns on several decks in a line of ships were the reply. If there was another solution viable for the contemporaries of the Age of Sail, then there won't have been ships of the line, just frigates and corvettes. Crossing the T for example requires more effective range.