Another Word from Moltke

I was re reading some passages from General Helmuth von Moltke, who I previously mentioned here and here. These two sections jumped out at me.

In the next war our needlegun will not again be opposed by a far inferior rifle but, on the contrary, an entirely equal weapon. Superiority is no longer to be sought in the weapon, but in the hand that wields it. This essential change must be taken into consideration when translating the experiences of the last war into future circumstance.

The significant improvements in firearms make themselves felt in the extension of their reach and in the accumulation of effects at decisive points. The former property (extension of weapons’ ranges) necessitates alterations in tactical deployment and the way units fight. The latter property gives the effect of fire an offensive character that it did not previously have. It can in some circumstances be absolutely destructive and, consequently, independently decisive.


The infantry will cling to its proven habit not to fire at too great a distance. The effects are all too little; one weakens one’s own confidence and increases that of the enemy. The enemy’s long range fire is best answered by individual and, indeed, the best riflemen. Massed fire remains reserved for short distances, where a calmly delivered volley work sin an annihilating manner and breaks the will of even the bravest enemy.

There are some interesting elements to these passages, which came from Moltke’s 1869 Instructions to Large Unit Commanders. The “needlegun” that he references in the first quote is the Dreyse Needle Gun (Weaponsman has an interesting post about it). It was originally developed in the 1840’s, and was later adopted as general issue by the Prussian military. It provided infantry a nearly 4-1 advantage in rate of fire, faster reload speed, and the ability to reload from awkward positions since the soldier did not have to stand. The war referenced at the end of the first paragraph is the Austro-Prussian war of 1866.

In these passages, Moltke is emphasizing two important points: 1) Technological superiority only offers a strategic advantage for so long, and should not be relied upon exclusively; and 2) Disciplined fire from skilled riflemen is key to eroding enemy morale.

In the European theater of the time, the Prussians had arguably the most advanced infantry rifle with the bolt action needlegun. But, I would argue that it was already outclassed by the American Spencer Repeater or Henry rifle at the time of writing. Moltke saw the writing on the wall, and was cautioning his subordinate commanders to continue emphasizing the importance of marksmanship skill over the ability to produce higher volumes of fire. Indeed, we see this same debate repeatedly in the century that followed this writing, with many a general warning about the dangers of issuing lighter recoiling rifles and copious amounts of ammunition (such as the M16).

It was only a few years after Moltke’s direction that the Mauser brothers produced the first of their legendary rifles (the Model 1871). The Mauser rifle design evolved into more advanced variants, including the Spanish M93 that Teddy Roosevelt faced at the battle of San Juan Hill, and motivated the US Army to develop the Springfield 1903. It saw service with a huge number of countries, putting them all on more or less equal footing until the introduction of the American M1 Garand.

You’ll have to forgive my detour down nerd-ville, I love this stuff.

In any case, the point is that technology is always evolving. Any developments that give one side an advantage in the short term will most definitely be negated by counterdevelopments  by the opposing side. I’ve mentioned before that I believe US marksmanship training has been lacking lately. The widespread use sighting devices like ACOGs and red dot sights has resulted in fewer training dollars invested in the actual shooting ability of individual riflemen. This can only work for so long against untrained opposition firing wildly. But should the US go up against another trained military equipped with comparable optical equipment, it could be an entirely different result.

4 thoughts on “Another Word from Moltke”

  1. Individual skill still matters, even in large groups of individuals. The smaller the numbers, the more it matters.
    If you are on your own, it matters a great deal.

    1. I am, though I haven’t been able to hit the range for pistol yet. The big thing I want to focus on is my grip and trigger. It’s less of an issue with a striker fired pistol, but I do still have trouble with pulling shots to the left on the double action mode of my Beretta. I’m still working through dry fire for that.

      Like rifle shooting, I also tend to lose focus on the front sight during the shot cycle. I plan to do a lot of time running the the bill drill.

      1. It takes a while to learn. For maintaining sight focus during the shot, intense concentration is the key. This will also help with the Beretta trigger-cocking. Dry fire will strengthen your trigger finger, and concentrating on the front sight as you pull will help you modulate your pull so as to keep the sights still.
        It takes a while, just keep going.


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