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Monday, April 10, 2006

Telling Shades of Grey

What I’ve found in research is that you are forever lighting upon interesting sidebars that immediately widen the standard date/biography/recounting of events look at history into glimpses of a deeper picture of the time. This of course means certain false starts, dropped investigations, forgotten enthusiasms and discoveries that, for whatever reason, are ignored. Just like those of our present lives.

I think two of the most iconic units among amateurs of The War of 1812 would have to be The Canadian Voltigeurs, and the 25th US (and maybe even all of Scott’s Brigade - the 25th, 22nd, 11th and the 9th.

Both the Canadien and the American units were clothed in grey, something very much against the expected colour and romance of Napoleonic military haberdashery. This unexpected shade rather than a bright or ominous colour stands out, and immediately catches attention. The performance of both the Voltigeurs and the Scott’s drill-soaked regulars only makes the attraction of these grey-clad men greater.

I also wonder, because we are not isolated from our knowlege of events since 1814, whether the grey uniforms - on the backs of fine soldiers - also appeals because it forshadows the death-knell (a very slow-pealing one, I’ll admit) of the line-’em-up-and-march ‘em-and-blast-’em warfare. (I think the same sort of anachronistic foreshadowing accounts for the great popuarity of the various Sharpe series, of which someone (I can’t find the reference now) dismissed as sort of a jumped up SAS type, and doing harm to understanding true Napoleonic tactics. However, it all is certainly good fun.)

I thought all of this was worth musing on when I chanced across an article by Keith Raynor titled C. Hamilton Smith's Experiment with the Colour of Uniforms on the War of 1812 Website.

In 1800, Hamilton Smith used the rifle company of the 6th/60th to have an empirical poke at how colour might influence shooting accuracy, or, alternatively, provide great security to a skirmish chain. Some paragraphs from a later report he wrote of the experiment:

Observation teaches military uniforms to fade from the eye, in proportion as they are neutralized; from red, the most conspicuous, to earthen brown and neutral greys. To the marksmen, white enlarges the object, and is so far deceptive; blue reduces the real magnitude; black and dark green assimilate with blue, and light green has a tendency to appear neutral.


After some preliminary observations on plain white and on black targets without ring or bull's-eye, and where the first mentioned was evidently more maltreated by rifle shot than the second, it was resolved to confine the trials to plain red, green, and grey, -- a light iron-grey made with distemper being then the uniform of a Highland regiment, of a Dutch rifle battalion, both in the same garrison, and the normal company in question, which then still had the same Austrian Tyrolean costume which it had worn in the last Helder expedition. From this Company were selected the best six marksmen, all educated Jager, and each was supplied with six bullets. The red target, placed on the open heath, was distant 125 yards from the stand; the time selected was seven in the morning, with weather sufficiently moderate not to have perceptable influence on the direction of the shot; the men were to load as to them seemed best, and to fire at leisure. After each had fired six shots, the party returned home. On the next day, when the weather was equally favourable, and the sun at the same angle of elevation, the same number of shots, were delivered by the same men, and under the same conditions, at the green target; and on the third, at the grey.

On the third day of the second series of trials, the men immediately observed that they were now so familar with the distance, that their fire would be more effective than in the first. But it was this time the grey target that was to be aimed at, and the result turned out by no means commensurate with the expectation of the marksmen. In this manner the second series of experiments was conducted, even with more care, if possible, to maintain the conditions perfectly similar: each day the targets had the shot-holes stopped, and the surface repainted; but now the red target was already so much damaged, that fearing it would not hold together for the day's trial, the distance for the third and last series of rounds was increased to 150 yards, and notwithstanding the changes resulting therefrom, it fell to pieces before the last shot was delivered, and, being bound together by withies, was brought home in a bundle. The green also was so much battered in the fiery ordeal as to be unfit for repairing; but the grey remained sound, and was afterwards used again.

There had been fired 108 shots at each, 72 of which at 125, and the last 36 at 150 yards. It is to be regretted that the exact number of shot-holes which had been each day carefully noted down is not now in the possession of the writer...But so far as recollection can be depended on, there were, it is believed, more than double the number in the red than in the grey target, and the state of the green was intermediate.

It was observed also that the grey was comparatively unhurt when the distance was increased, and to ascertain the fact more fully, that target was afterwards painted vertically one half red and the other left grey, and the same result was obtained. It was then suggested to set up the triangle stand, upon which the rifle can be laid, in order to level it at the centre, and screw it fast. The most experienced Tyrolean in the company took pains to effect the object, and still the red bore the great majority of hits, upon which last occasion only it is proper to observe that both ring and bull's eye were painted black, none having been used during the three first series of experiments.

The general result is, however, of so important a nature, that it appears exceedingly desirable they should be repeated, and if possible, with still greater precautions, because, in case of further confirmation, the question arises whether all riflemen and light infantry should not take the field in some grey unostentations uniform, leaving the parade dress for peace and garrison duty.

• Charles Hamilton-Smith, Colonel.

It is hard to slot something like this in a useful manner. But it does give a bit of pause.

Maybe Scott’s battalion(s) and the Canadian Voltigeurs had a little something that helped create that aura of success they enjoyed.


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