Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Is rate of fire no longer a key metric in assessing military effectiveness?

Rate of fire doesn’t seem to be important in today’s militaries. The problem seems to me firing too much and running out of ammunition.

031023-N-6967M-234
One member of Special Boat Team 22 (SBT-22) lays down cover fire with a minigun during a practice narrow river beach extraction.  

Photo by PH1 Shane T. McCoy
031023-N-6967M-234 One member of Special Boat Team 22 (SBT-22) lays down cover fire with a minigun during a practice narrow river beach extraction. Photo by PH1 Shane T. McCoy
031023-N-6967M-234 One member of Special Boat Team 22 (SBT-22) lays down cover fire with a minigun during a practice narrow river beach extraction. Photo by PH1 Shane T. McCoy

Rate of fire doesn’t seem to be important in today’s militaries. I mean, everyone can go “full auto.” Rather, the problem seems to me firing too much and running out of ammunition.

I wonder if this affects how contemporary military historians look at the tactical level of war. Throughout most of history, the problem, it seems to me, was how many rocks, spears, arrows or bullets you could get off. Hence the importance of drill, which was designed to increase the volume of infantry fire (and to reduce people walking off the battlefield when they moved back to reload).

I mention this because I was reading the other day about the battle of Trafalgar and noticed this: “Spanish gun crews were able to fire one round every five minutes from each of their 32-pound cannon. Most British crews could manage a round every ninety seconds. The best could reduce that time by a third.”

Rate of fire doesn’t seem to be important in today’s militaries. I mean, everyone can go “full auto.” Rather, the problem seems to me firing too much and running out of ammunition.

I wonder if this affects how contemporary military historians look at the tactical level of war. Throughout most of history, the problem, it seems to me, was how many rocks, spears, arrows or bullets you could get off. Hence the importance of drill, which was designed to increase the volume of infantry fire (and to reduce people walking off the battlefield when they moved back to reload).

I mention this because I was reading the other day about the battle of Trafalgar and noticed this: “Spanish gun crews were able to fire one round every five minutes from each of their 32-pound cannon. Most British crews could manage a round every ninety seconds. The best could reduce that time by a third.”

I also liked the author’s summary of the non-human ingredients of the typical warship of the day: “To create a 74-gun ship required 100,000 cubic feet of timber for the hull, 168,000 pounds of hemp for the rigging, 33,750 pounds of copper to sheathe that hull, keeping it clean and fast, and 4,800 pounds of nails to fix the entire elaborate assemblage together. About 3,400 trees, from about 75 acres of woodland, were needed for each ship.”

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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