Review of Volumes
III and IV
Man At Arms magazine, Vol.21 No.5 (October 1999), pp.50-51.
Review by Herbert H. Houze.
With the publication of Ammunition and Performance
and The Users and their Smallarms David F. Harding has completed
his "tour de force" Smallarms of the East India Company.
In all, this four-volume study contains some 2,358 pages, over 660 illustrations
and approximately 1.4 million words. By anyone's measure, an incomparable
feat, and one which richly deserves the praise it has already
Volume III of the series, Ammunition and Performance,
is by far the most technically oriented of all the installments. Though
this may sadly result in its being overlooked by some readers, Ammunition
and Performance must be regarded as one of the most important contributions
to have been made this [the 20th] century to the study of military
history. Its contents not only challenge many of the popularly held conceptions
about the usage of arms, tactics and military training during the eighteenth
as well as the early nineteenth centuries, but also through the presentation
of contemporary documents, proves most of them to be fallacious.
It also fully outlines the logistical problems (e.g. the supply of powder
etc.) Faced by the East India Company in outfitting its troops for the
field. To put it bluntly, this volume by itself is an essential
research tool to anyone seriously studying the military practices of that
period and, as part of Mr. Harding's series, it places the content
of the other volumes within their proper context.
While those involved in the shooting sports or the military
of today expect their ammunition supplies to be untainted and immediately
ready for use, commanders stationed in the Indian subcontinent during
the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries did not have such expectations.
Instead, they were continually confronted with supplies that varied both
in quality and effectiveness. Powder, flints, and later, percussion caps
were shipped from England. Though the long sea voyage had little or no
effect upon flints and the later percussion caps, it did promote a deterioration
of the powder. While most often the latter arrived in only a damp or caked
condition, at times it had become so degraded that it was beginning to
separate into its constituent elements. As a result, the powder always
had to be partially reprocessed (even if that amounted to its only having
to be dried), a somewhat costly and time-consuming process. Eventually,
the losses incurred due to the importation of powder led the East India
Company to establish mills in India.
After explaining these problems, as well as those associated
with the production of lead bullets, Harding examines the ammunition that
was made at India. He analyzes the types made, their distribution ranges
and intended use. In the process of presenting this information, he also
discusses in detail the misconceptions that have arisen concerning
windage and other ballistic problems associated with smoothbore weapons.
It should be noted that, in the latter regard, Harding has done
an exemplary job of rehabilitating the name of Benjamin Robins and, more
to the point, reacquainting historians with Robins' contributions to the
study of ballistics. Though ignored for almost two centuries,
Robins was responsible for the discovery that round balls fired from smoothbore
weapons had erratic trajectories due to the "random spin" imparted to
the ball as it left the barrel. In addition, it was Robins who postulated
and then proved that unequal air resistance further contributed to the
erratic flight of round balls.
Perhaps some of the greatest treasure unearthed by Harding
in the East India Company's archives, are the training records that were
kept by the Madras Army. As he points out, these reports document
the results obtained during the firing of literally millions of rounds
of ammunition. Furthermore, they note the results obtained by
various troop formations using quite different arms at varying ranges.
The tabulated results of these records demonstrate the effectiveness (both
in regard as to accuracy, as well as penetration) of smoothbore muskets
at distances far greater than one now suspects. Not surprisingly, the
records also demonstrate the general superiority of rifled arms at much
more distant ranges. In addition, the records kept by the Madras Army's
officers include those for firing practices conducted by mounted cavalry
and other specialized units. This allows the reader to compare the effective
accuracy rates of various infantry groups versus mounted or unmounted
cavalry. In addition, the specialized use of firearms by certain categories
or formations of troops can be evaluated and placed into their strategic
The final two chapters of this volume are devoted to the
introduction and service histories of the Baker flintlock Rifle and its
successor the Two-Groove percussion Rifle. Aside from providing information
concerning their construction, issue and use, Harding documents how the
advantages provided by these two rifles were recognized, as well as exploited
by the Madras Army. He also fully discusses why the same features were
not appreciated by those forces in Bengal.
Given the complexity and depth of the material presented
in this volume, it is almost impossible to fully summarize its contents.
Its tremendous value, though, will become quickly apparent to those who
use the work. Similarly, those who appreciate thorough and careful research
will thank the author for the countless years he spent sifting through
the East India Company's records.
As the title of the final volume in Harding's study implies,
The Users and Their Smallarms deals with the troops fielded by
the East India Company. Before addressing this topic, however, the author
presents a rather interesting and wonderfully detailed examination of
the logistics, as well as problems involved in the shipment of arms to
At the conclusion of the preceding section, Harding turns
his attentions to the primary concern of the volume, the troops who actually
used the arms that had been sent out. Following an arrangement based upon
the geography of the East India Company's three presidencies (i.e., Bengal,
Bombay and Madras), the author reconstructs the makeup, organization,
armament, as well as service histories of the units comprising the Company's
three armies. In addition, he also provides whatever information is now
available concerning the auxiliary and irregular forces which, at one
time or another, were in the East India Company's service. To allow a
ready comparison of each army's organization and armament, the author
has subdivided his discussion into general unit categories (i.e., infantry,
cavalry, artillery, etc.) by region. Consequently, commentary regarding
the distribution and use of particular arms by the infantry of one presidency
can be viewed in relation to practices elsewhere simply by referring to
the preceding or subsequent chapters. The internal organization of the
chapters also makes it a relatively easy matter to determine when, where
and why certain units were established, how they were armed and the details
of their operational histories.
As one might expect, the volume of information still extant
for specific units varies widely. The histories of some have been carefully
preserved, while others me now known only by their names. Among the latter
are a number of irregular units (such as the 1st or Rajahmundry Battalion
of Hill Rangers, the Sawunt Warree Local Corps, etc.) that were in existence
for only brief periods of time. In some instances, the reasons for a unit's
disbandment are known and Harding is able to set down the cause for posterity
Such is the case for a squadron of light cavalry raised in 1824 as part
of the 16th or Sylhet Local Battalion. It was disbanded two years later
due to what was called the "inutility of mounted troops on the Sylet Frontier"
(p.465). Apparently, no one had given much thought to the fact that forested
areas are not conducive to cavalry operations.
In addition to local troops, the posting of regular
British Army units to India is also discussed. In the course
of presenting their unit histories, Harding has been able to dispel some
previous inaccuracies (e.g., with respect to the 22nd Regiment of Foot,
the assertion that they used percussion arms in 1843 is proved baseless
The final sections of this volume devoted to the arms used
aboard the East India Company's ships and in places other than India.
At the work's conclusion there are two appendices discussing the initial
distribution of percussion arms to the East India Company's troops and
the markings found on the various smallarms used by the Company The latter
should prove to be quite useful to collectors.
Despite the singularity of purpose displayed in these two
volumes and indeed in the entire study, Harding has avoided creating
a myopic work. Instead he has written one which is farsighted
enough to include ancillary information alongside of the material culled
from the East India Company's archives. In contrast to many researchers
of our period, he has also included reasoned commentary concerning the
material discussed rather than merely presenting it as is. As a result,
the documentary material achieves greater significance through being cross-referenced
to other sources or being set within a broader context, whether that be
related to economics or to history. It should be noted that carrying out
the latter is no mean feat. When it is done poorly, an otherwise good
book can be ruined. Fortunately however, when it is done correctly,
as in this case, a really good work can be transformed into one of true
In conclusion, it can only be added that arms, military and general historians all owe Mr. Harding a tremendous debt of gratitude He has created a masterpiece of historical literature which will serve all its readers well for generations to come.