Rifleman

Rifleman

[rahy-fuhl-muhn]

Rifleman is a private soldier in a rifle unit of infantry.

Origins

Although ultimately originating with the 16th century handgunners and the 17th century musketeers and streltsy, equipped with firearms to support pikemen (with whom they were integral), the term rifleman originated from the 18th century. Much later it became the term for the archetypical common soldier.

As the effectiveness of firearms increased, the balance of these pike-and-musket units shifted, until the pikes were supporting the muskets. The last pike regiments were dissolved by the 1720s with the invention of the bayonet. This innovation replaced the pike, and in effect converted the musket into a pike for those situations where it might still be useful - such as following up volleys with a charge, or defending against cavalry.

Smooth-bore weapons such as the musket had always been recognised as inaccurate, requiring massed volleys to be effective. Aimed fire, with targets individually chosen and fired upon on the initiative of the soldier, was not possible until the development of rifling in the barrel. This imparted spin to the bullet, greatly increasing the 'trueness' of the trajectory, rather than the randomness of a musket ball that actually 'bounced' down the barrel. Rifles, although deadly accurate, were disadvantaged by being very slow to re-load. This meant that the soldiers chosen for this role needed to be resilient, brave and resourceful, as well as being good shots. Trained to act in teams of two, each defending the other while they re-loaded, they were still vulnerable - especially to cavalry, trained as they were to fight in isolated and dispersed groups rather than as a mass that could present a solid wall of bayonets. These factors - the time and expense required in training, the limited number of suitable recruits, and the specialised roles and situations where they were most effective - meant they were highly prized, given special privileges, and 'husbanded' rather than squandered. In essence, an élite.

Units of 'Rifles' reached their heyday up to and including the Napoleonic Wars, with the British riflemen (actually units of colonial militia - see Rogers' Rangers or the Royal Americans) truly excelling in the American War of Independence. Regular units of Rifles were formed in the British Army in 1800 (the 60th Regiment of Foot and the 95th Regiment of Foot). From around 1840, with the advent if the first military breech-loading rifles, the weapon entered an age of industrialised warfare, where it was mass-produced and accessible to all infantrymen. Much faster and simpler to load, able to be used while prone, impossible to be double-loaded after a misfire; the high level of training and highly specialised roles gave way to generality. The term 'rifleman', once used solely as a mark of distinction and pride, became a commonplace description of all soldiers, no matter what their actual status was. Nevertheless the term still retained a certain élan, that is still found today.

Britain

From their inception the British Rifle Regiments were distinguished by a dark green dress with blackened buttons, black leather equipment and sombre facing colours that gave them what was really a modern aspect - designed for concealment rather than display. This has been retained until the present day for those British units that still carry on the traditions of the riflemen. Their most famous weapon was the 'Baker rifle', used during their heyday.

France

French rifle units were designated Tirailleurs (Fr. 'Sharpshooters').

Germany

German units that used rifled weapons were from the beginning known as Jäger (German for 'Hunters'). Originally recruited from foresters and gamekeepers they were by nature self-sufficient, and adopted a green dress - traditional for German hunters. As well they used weapons and equipment characteristic of the traditional German hunter: a 'hanger' (or short sword - actually in the military a sword bayonet) called a hirschfänger, a pack made of badger-skin called a dachs, and hunting horns for relaying signals. They even used the traditional German hunting cry of "horrido" for their war-cries. Eventually recruitment had to be expanded from just those of a forestry/hunting background and to differentiate those that were from such a background, they were known as gelernt-jäger.

Their rifles, even up until the first breech-loading versions, were known as Büchse. Originally of private purchase, and the Jäger's personal weapon, these were shorter than muskets and often featured improvements such as 'set' or 'hair' triggers, and sophisticated sights.

A parallel tradition in Germany was that of the Schützen. With a similar appearance and role but a different origin, they had a slightly different emphasis to their esprit-de-corps. Being from many walks of life rather than a strictly forestry or hunting background, what set them apart was simply their accuracy of fire, hence the name that carried the meaning 'sharpshooter'.

The specialist role of the Jäger was carried on for much longer in Germany, even up until the Second World War, when it was applied to paratroopers (Fallschirmjäger), anti-tank troops (Panzerjäger) and mountain troops (Gebirgsjäger). Indeed Gebirgsjäger originated during the First World War, when they were known as the Alpenkorps. Throughout they maintained a romantic appeal to the German populace, and were seen as dashing and heroic. Erwin Rommel launched his military career as an officer (Oberleutnant) of an elite mountain unit (the Württembergisches-Gebirgs-Bataillon) in the First World War, for which he was awarded Prussia's highest military decoration - the ''Pour le Mérite'.

Reference:

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Italy

Italian Rifle units were designated Cacciatori or Bersaglieri.

Spain & Portugal

Spanish and Portuguese Riflemen were known respectively as Cazadores y Caçadores.

Modern Tactics

As a general rule, riflemen are armed with assault rifles meant to cover a good medium range, unlike the "gunman" (or Sub-machinegunner), who are armed with shorter-range weapons for close combat. Riflemen are the basic modern soldiers from which all other soldierly functions stem. Though by tradition certain infantry units are based on the rifleman, they employ a variety of other specialized soldiers in conjunction with the rifleman.

In the context of the modern Fire team, "Rifleman" can be used to indicate a basic position such as scout, team leader, or designated marksman. In the same context, the terms Automatic Rifleman and Assistant Automatic Rifleman are used to describe a soldier who carries a light support weapon (or services and reloads it for the shooter).

The term "Long-Rifleman" is often used by police forces, anti-terrorist units and small-scale team-based military forces worldwide. It is an assignment rather than a rank, and refers to a marksman or sharpshooter (not a sniper, who is additionally an expert in fieldcraft), one who is meant to expand the team's effective range with a long, scoped rifle.

See also

References and notes

Further reading

External links

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