Prussian infantry singlemindedness

The Prussian army of 1741 won Frederick the Great's first battle because it was better drilled. It was capable of shooting about three shots per minute, while the opposing Austrian-Hungarian troops shot about two times per minute. The psychological pressure of getting shot at so much more often while the Prussian lines were advancing was too much for the Austrian-Hungarian infantry and it broke and ran.
Prussia had to become good at much else (cavalry charges, use of artillery, first all-mounted "horse" artillery brigades, improvements of skirmishing, battle manoeuvres) to prevail in that was and the next, but the infantry remained obsessed with shooting faster than the enemy.
1773 Prussia introduced a new ramrod for loading infantry muskets that had identical ends and thus the drill was shortened by eliminating the movement of turning the ramrod around.
1781 Prussia introduced a conical hole between the barrel and the pan where the flintlock's sparks ignite the blackpowder. This shortened the loading drill further, as the movement for adding blackpowder to that pan was eliminated and the movement to close the pan was eliminated. The blackpowder from the barrel now fell by itself into the pan through the conical hole.

The rate of fire was improved to about six rounds per minute. The infantryman carried 60 cartridges at that time, but the shooting order inevitably broke down in battle and even the best flint of the flintlock had to be replaced after about 50 shots, so there was enough munition for much more than 10 minutes of shooting.
That's how the Prussian army went to war with Revolutionary France and later Napoleonic France, but the infantry failed to impress in those battles. This was certainly in significant part to the increased numbers of artillery pieces in battles, but those had already risen before 1763. Inferior morale of the infantry was another issue. But maybe something else was wrong, too?

Let's look at the conical hole, which as far as I can tell is universally lauded as an improvement in literature.

This hole allowed blackpowder to fall into the pan from the barrel. The infantryman only needed to open the paper cartridge, pour teh blckpower into the musket muzzle and then ram the ball bullet down the barrel. So the blackpowder that was ignited by sparks was identical to the blackpowder that drove the lead ball forward in the barrel.
I see a problem here, and it is about the nature of blackpowder: Blackpowder is made of a carbon source (charcoal), an oxygen source (saltpetre) and sulfur. What's the purpose of sulfur? It's much more flammable than the others, so it can be ignited with adequate reliability by sparks (if dry). Adding more sulfur does actually not make the blackpowder more powerful. 
So you want a high sulfur content in the pan (to be ignited by the sparks) and low sulfur content blackpowder in the barrel. You can have that if you store and load a more sulfur-rich blackpowder for the ignition pan.
To have more sulfur in the barrel than necessary is wasteful and provokes supply issues in wartime. Flint was imported from France, England and Spain (Spain was usually at war with either Spain or France and allied with the other in 1740....1815), charcoal (preferably by hemp stem cores) could be produced anywhere, saltpetre could be won from any pigsty. Meanwhile, sulfur was imported from Italy.

So the Prussian method was economically wasteful, but that's not the whole issue: Sulfur is the part of blackpowder that makes blackpowder famous for producing much smoke.The smoke became an issue, as troops and leaders could not see their enemies well any more, as the smoke of muskets and cannons accumulated on the battlefield.
The Prussian infantry of the 1780's did not only shoot three times faster than the Austro-Hungarian infantry of 1740, it did also produce more smoke with every shot. This was done by an army that kept the three-rank line (as opposed to the British who used a two-rank line), another +50% smoke.

The Prussians had muskets that looked neat, but their buttstock was not angled well and made the use of sights very awkward. That didn't matter much, as the muskets didn't really have sights. Well, adding sights would not have helped past the first salvo anyway.

I suspect that the Prussian focus on infantry rate of fire was too singleminded and suboptimal. Skirmishing, morale (motivation) and coping with logistics austerity was much more important than nominal rate of fire in 1792...1815. Later, the ingeniously simple invention of the Minié ball allowed quick muzzle loading of rifles and for the first time the accuracy of fire of general infantry became most important.

P.S.: There are debates about what rates of fire were really achieved. There's no debate regarding Prussians loading and shooting more rapidly, that's consensus.
I used the book ISBN 3-8289-0521-8 to write this blog post, for I didn't want to fully rely on memory of what I read years ago.


  1. So the Prussians had one good idea at a time, honed it to perfection, and didn't think about many other problems, because they had one good idea that worked in the past?

    1. They got multiple things right
      - high rate of fire infantry drill
      - experiment with all-mounted artillery battery
      - experiment with mounted riflemen
      - after 1st battle development of effective battle cavalry

      The rest of the formula for success was that the British had thee same enemies (especially France) and subsidised the Prussian army with coins (+ delivered flint and enabled import of Italian sulphur by sea).

  2. While the Prussians fired faster than their enemies, the real advantage of the Prussians in the SYW was of course their ability to change faster from movement formations to battle formations, rate of fire was secondary in battle.

    Kolin was not lost or Leuthen was not won because of rate of fire....

    The two rank formations of the Brits was usually the result of no heavy cavalry on the other side. At Waterloo they fought in many cases in FOUR ranks after their issues at Quatre Bras.

    And the use of columns in combination with skirmishers changed after 1806 everything. IMHO your argument may to a certain extent be correct but is not really relevant in the larger context.

  3. Ulenspiegel, may I ask, are you referring to the British in four ranks whilst they were in Square? This would be normal and was used to provide an infantry formation that couldn't be flanked by cavalry. It was devastatingly vulnerable to artillery, however. My understanding of the British two-rank line was that it was to maximise infantry firepower and to extend the 'front' of a battalion..

    1. Squares were indeed depicted as very thick on some paintings. I don't remember any regulations on their # of ranks, though.

      The Prussians used three ranks in line and found that many men from the two forward ranks were wounded by shots from behind in accidents. And especially in fire-by-rank mode the third rank added much less than 50% firepower per metre frontage.