Archive for the ‘Biscuits and Bullets’ Category


M-60 vs. Leopard 1 vs. Chieftain vs. AMX-30

M-60A3

The American M-60: MUCH better than I grew up believing!

Like anyone who is both my age and the author of military fiction, I took a keen interest in the very modern military affairs of the Reagan era. Quite by chance, I learned just how wrong the open source material of that period could be.

Back in the day, there was a common consensus about the 2nd generation of Western main battle tanks, those of the 1960s and ’70s, updated versions of which were still in use today. The French AMX-30 was the lighter and more mobile tank; the British Chieftain was the heavily armored, heavily armed (120mm rifled gun vs. 105mm rifled gun of the others), and consequently slow one; and the German Leopard 1 and American M-60 were about the same and somewhere in the middle. Everyone repeated this conventional wisdom over and over again: experts in the media, defense ministries, even games!

This was the picture that held until these vehicles started finding their way into private museums, and that is where the surprising truth came out, and I happened to stumble upon it. Take frontal armor, where it’s thickest: the M-60 has 155mm, and while the turret face of the Chieftain is indeed thicker, the vaunted Leopard 1’s thickest armor was only 70mm! In other words, the supposedly equivalent M-60 had 3 1/3 more inches of steel up front. Also, the supposedly lighter AMX-30 had 10mm more frontal armor than the Leopard 1.

Now, when you realize how many soldiers in how many countries operated these vehicles for more than 30 years without all the comparative data getting out (nevermind how many factory workers were involved in building the things) it’s a testament to just how many people can keep a secret when the reason for keeping the secret is so obviously important. I must also comment on how sneaky the marketing guys were in Germany, selling as many inferior tanks as they did from Australia to Canada to Chile!

Given how last place the Leopard 1 turned out to be, I have to wonder if the Leopard 2 is as good as it’s cracked up to be. Unlike the Challenger or the M-1 Abrams, the Leopard 2 has never really been tested in combat.

(Credit: NPS)

One of the minor technical notes that appears in Stonewall Goes West is the use of buck and ball ammunition. Fired exclusively from smoothbore muskets, the savage effectiveness of this ammunition load at close range will come as a surprise to many a casual Civil War buff, due largely to the numerous myths surrounding the Minie ball-firing rifled muskets that were the primary infantry weapon of the war.

Buck and ball consisted of a standard, full bore ball with a few pieces of buckshot added in for good measure. Widely used for at least a century prior to the Civil War, buck and ball mitigated the single largest deficit of the smoothbore musket — it’s lack of accuracy beyond a few dozen yards — by turning the musket into a shotgun. Following shotgun logic, a soldier doesn’t have to aim well or even see the target clearly to score a hit, an important point on battlefields shrouded in black powder smoke. The ammunition could wreak great havoc when employed at short range, as it did most famously in the hands of the Irish Brigade at Antietam and Gettysburg (and at Second Kettle Run in my story).

One exercise I thought of to convey what facing down a line of infantry firing buck and ball at close quarters really meant comes from my fondness for Patrick O’Brian novels, namely converting the matter into “weight of metal.” A Civil War buck and ball load usually consisted of one .69 caliber ball plus four .32 caliber pieces of buckshot, for a combined weight of 673.2 grains (1.5 oz). By contrast, the .58 caliber Minie ball weighs 469 grains. Put 300 men in a line of battle firing three shots a minute, and the buck and ball-firing smoothbores have flung 84.4 lbs of lead at the enemy, while the boys with rifled muskets have flung back only 60.3 lbs of lead.

The Minie ball had greater stopping power, and inflicted infamously more ghastly wounds than anything coming out of a smoothbore. Yet at close range, the buck and ball will score many more hits. This is what happened whenever anyone got within 50 paces of the Irish Brigade: they ate facefuls of an ammunition load that was the black powder version of a deer slug plus four bits of .0 buckshot.

Taking the exercise further, compare the buck and ball-firing regiment to 12-pounder Napoleons firing canister, specifically the best known 1.5 inch-wide canister shot. Each shot weighed .43 lbs, and each canister held 27 of those shot balls, so each one flung 11.6 lbs of metal at the enemy (not counting fragments of the canister case). The typical rate of fire for a Napoleon was about two rounds a minute, so to equal the weight of metal of a regiment of 300 men firing buck and ball, you need 3 1/2 12-pounders. At close quarters, a single regiment of men armed with smoothbores is potentially as murderous as the typical Confederate artillery battery!

(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

My first lesson in how describing food and drink can add a particularly vivid character to a narrative was when I read Bruce Catton’s The Civil War. One of my favorite parts of that three volume compendium of Mr. Lincoln’s Army, Glory Road, and A Stillness at Appomattox is the section where he describes “biscuits and bullets,” and his personal revulsion at what he thought of as the “intestine-destroying” iron rations eaten by Union soldiers cuts right into the reader’s belly. Whether it be fiction or non-fiction, I think any narrative that addresses how people lived and neglects to include this very elementary issue of eating and drinking is missing out on not just a very important aspect of life, but also a way to illustrate and emphasize a wide variety of points.

So it is with coffee and the Confederacy in Stonewall Goes West. By the middle of the war, coffee was becoming scarce throughout the South, and the image of Billies and Johnnies trading tobacco for coffee is a staple of Civil War fraternization. Southerners resorted to all manner of substitutes for coffee during the war, and I mentioned several in the novel:

    • Acorn Coffee: This coffee substitute made a reappearance in the Second World War when coffee became scarce, especially in the UK, and survivalists continue to teach its preparation today. The acorns were boiled, dried, ground, roasted, and then brewed up as if they were normal coffee grinds.
    • Kentucky Coffee: I’ve never read of anyone referring to Kentucky Coffee in any Civil War books or personal papers, but I know that the stuff was consumed as a coffee substitute by frontiersmen, so it’s easy to imagine some thirsty Southrons resorting to it when the genuine article wasn’t available. The Kentucky Coffeetree produces seed pods that can be roasted and turned into a coffee substitute, hence the name. Ironically, the tree is more widespread in the Mid-West these days, and relatively rare in Kentucky itself. The pods and leaves are also somewhat toxic and capable of repelling hungry insects, so thoroughly roasting them is necessary to break down the toxins and make them safe for consumption.
    • Spruce Needle Tea: This stuff appears regularly on the modern survival programs broadcast on the Discovery Channel, and anyone who has spent time in the Boy Scouts should be familiar with it. It creates a pleasant herbal tea packed with Vitamin C. Like Kentucky Coffee, I’ve never seen a reference to someone using it during the Civil War, but I know that woodsmen and frontiersmen were drinking the Spruce Needle Tea in colonial times, so it is again easy to see people short of real coffee and tea resorting to it. That is especially the case if those people are in a place where spruce trees are on hand, such as the mountains of northern Georgia.

Yaupon Holly
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

  • Yaupon Coffee: People still drink the Indian “black drink,” or yaupon coffee/tea today, and I have read references to its use in the Civil War. It’s not widespread, but I’ve seen the odd cafe or tea room in the South offering the stuff, and some health food types have caught on to its benefits. It comes from the leaves of the Yaupon Holly. The leaves are dried and then either brewed from the leaf (tea) or powdered, brewed, and filtered (coffee). I’ve had both and don’t think the style changes how it tastes, but powdered Yaupon is easier to transport.