I once read in a primary source that whilst the Prussians had the best drilled regiments who were able to fire 4 shots a minute to everyone else's standard of 3. Comparatively, British Redcoats were the best shots, by simple virtue of the British state allowing their men to drill with live rounds thanks to their large economy and small army - other states simply could not afford it.

I've since lost this source, but anybody who could find it or present a counter-claim is greatly appreciated! If true though, how did Britain achieve this given that Britain wasn't even the strongest economic power in the 18th century (that belonged to the French and Spanish)?

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    @jamesqf you do know that guerilla warfare and open-order fighting was nowhere near as prominent as how the Patriot portrays it, right? If anything, it was the British who took on the most irregular warfare against the Americans - Roger's Rangers became a loyalist formation after Washington refused him, Ferguson's Rifles skirmished with the first breechloaders and Tartleton's dragoons led deep raids in Georgia and the Carolinas. Commented Jul 8, 2015 at 20:46
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    @jamesqf - Losing the war is hardly a measure of army quality. Good armies can, and often due lose due to other matters, like biting off more than they can chew. Witness Napoleon's Grande Armee. The British in the Americas just had the problem that there was too much America for their troops to hold down. When they made some mistakes, they got their armies cut off and captured in Saratoga and Yorktown. And the Colonial Rebel troops weren't chopped liver.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jul 8, 2015 at 23:44
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    @jamesqf so you're saying the American army of 1973 is inferior to the NVA? Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 1:21
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    @jamesqf That's absurd. Victory or defeat in wars are affected by a myriad of factors such as quantity, logistics, diplomacy, politics, and even the location of the war. Accordingly, it is an absolutely inane way of measuring military quality.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 8:02
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    @jamesqf - If you are going to make up a new langauge, you can't make yourself understood.. Quality has an actual objective meaning and can't be handwaved away with glib statements. Good armies can and do lose wars, if given tasks beyond their ability. Pickett's troops were not crappy soldiers because they got shot down attacking a position without taking it.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 18:46

7 Answers 7


I can address your confusion in latter part at least.

According to Maddison, The UK's GDP passed France's sometime between 1700 and 1820 and Spain's by 1700. According to Bairoch, England's GDP passed France's between 1830 and 1840 and was far past Spain's by 1800 (when his numbers start).

So at the absolute least, it appears the UK's economy was doing better than Spain's during the 18th century, and was in the same league as France's.

As for their relative military performance, I'd argue that its more a matter of inclination than money. Scarcely 100 years earlier, tiny Sweden (with a tenth of the UK's GDP at the time) was a big-time military power in northern Germany, with arguably Europe's best army.

  • Huh, interesting! I always thought France had the higher GDP until the incredibly favourable Opium trade started pouring British merchants with silver and the industrial revolution was picking up steam (no pun intended). Would you care to elaborate this in a new question? Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 0:08
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    England always had good income before industrialization - like via the wool trade with Belgium, which explains their permanent interest in affairs tin that area.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 0:53
  • Sweden became a "big time military power" during the 30 Years' war based on French subsidies. Yes, it "punched above its weight" but its taste of "Great Power" status caused it to overreach later. During Queen Anne's War, either France or Britain would have gladly paid for their services, but they preferred war with Peter the Great instead.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 19:57
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    Before mass armies, a small but well organised state could put a pretty good army in the field and punch above it's weight. It's not all about GDP but how effective economic organisation.
    – pugsville
    Commented Jul 16, 2015 at 3:16

This site implies that the redcoat was given a higher allowance of live ball shot than other nation's soldiers, however the source is not stated. An Osprey book confirms the figures for the British army though, although there is no information provided for the state of the other armies.

  • That is the Peninsular army of Wellesley; hardly a 18th century army. Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 2:49

The English army under Marlborough in the War of the Spanish Secession was of very high quality (1704-1714) and brought Louis XIV to the brink of ruin. The march from the Netherlands to Bavaria to meet the French at Blenheim was a masterstroke of marching and logistics, and they destroyed the army they met in battle.

Probably the major reason why is that its relative smallness led to it being able to be something of an elite force and it could choose its battles. The relative wealth of England probably helped it be equipped to a high standard.

Of course, the English historians will go on and on about this in every war before and since, but in general English troops have been high quality since the Hundred Years War, if a bit small in number. When they plump out in WWI/II the luster fades somewhat, but they have made it through regardless.

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    No sources for various claims?
    – Jose Luis
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 8:28
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    ...with a little help from their friends.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 13:01
  • @joze - a little hard to source a thousand years of English military history, just to back up well known facts.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 18:39
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    Sources for saying that the English was an "elite" army? Under what standards? What time period? A link to the battle in which the army 'destroyed' the army from Louis XIV is necessary. Brought Louis XIV to the brink of ruin? Only because the army was good? Or was it because other factors? Was England wealthier than the other nations to make a so called "elite" army? Yes you can source all that and no they are not well known facts. I disagree.
    – Jose Luis
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 19:58
  • You can add those citiations yourself, you know, rather than be the police force.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jul 10, 2015 at 17:21

Performance on the battlefield is often about tactical organisation and method, rather than equipment and individual skill. Musketry was on the whole massively ineffective.

Prussia had better tactical organisation during the Frederick the Great Period, but relatively short lived, The French were generally better after that.

I know Napoleonic period is little after the 18th but Nosworthy is a good back about tactical doctrine and effectiveness of musketry. http://www.amazon.com/Battle-Tactics-Napoleon-His-Enemies/dp/0094772401

Makes the argument that British fire doctrine of with holding fire until the enemy were a point blank (on attack or defence) made it much more effective (both in casualties and moral) That and better awareness of "levelling" (how high to aim ratline to distance from the target) than individual skill of the British with the musket.


Short answer:

Yes, but one army did not have an edge over the entire century. A century, at that time, was nearly three generations. And militaries of the time could only serve for a small timeframe, so you could have up to ten different generations in one army for this century.

Long answer:

During the 18th century, in Europe, armies were in a very subtle situation. Different factors led them to be of quality and efficiency. I will concentrate on Western Europe since there has been a variety of situation in the East of Europe (East of Prussia), and the South (South of Austrian Empire).

Some of the factors were as follow:

  • More training and skill management

In Europe, after state built themselves during the end of the Middle Age, they had started to fight for a variety of reasons. But the main point is they moved from the mercenaries of 16th century into government's armies. This led them to manage skills of their soldiers: training included drill, tactics were written, and officers slowly started, during the 18th century, to attend to military schools.

  • Fast weaponry evolution

During those centuries, and especially during 18th century, musketry, rifles, and artillery had major technical evolution. This came from the actual manufacturing of the weapon to better logistics and new tactical possibility with faster loading and firing (especially for artillery). I am not aware of technical evolution for cavalry, but the development of lighter firing weapons led to mounted rifles and dragoons. All of these evolutions needed to be appropriate by soldiers, and some were only during Napoleonic Era. But the point is that different countries had different innovations at different time, so the resulting quality of their armies was varying fast.

By the way, this has been also true for navies, but I won't speak of that there.

  • Officers changed. Kings changed

Remember: this was not a time for meritocracy, there was still a lot of noble people who managed to get into military responsibilities for who they were born, and not for what they were able to do. But failure is a failure, and sometimes king and ministries changed their mind and dismissed commanders. This is not to say that officers were always stupid men, some of them were truly capable. But this is to say that the quality of commanders could change fast, at top as well as lower commanding scales. As a result, the quality of a given unit could change and could be more or less well used by high command.

  • Economic system

At the time of the 18th century, centuries of war in Europe had built social identities. John Keegan quoted some of the "military people" of Europe in his Battle of Normandy. For example:

  • Scottish
  • Swiss
  • Different Germanic people such as the Hessians
  • Prussia, as it developed a fairly big army compared to the size of the state
  • Cossacks
  • etc...

Those people ususally provided units to larger countries, as mercenaries or as regulars, such as United Kingdom, Austria, Russia, and this resulted in different quality in one country's army.


The Hessian soldiers (see The Best Armies Money Could Buy) were widely recognized at the time as the most elite in the world (which is why the British hired them). This was because of their discipline, tactics and good use of equipment, not so much their marksmanship. The best shots in the world until quite recently have always been Americans by a long shot (no pun intended).

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    I don't think anyone thought Hesse was better than Prussia's troops. Prussia's weren't for sale, though.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jul 8, 2015 at 23:41
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    The best shots in the world until recently? Sources for before? Who is the new best shot?
    – Jose Luis
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 8:30
  • individual shooting skill is almost totally irrelevant to battlefield performance
    – pugsville
    Commented Jul 16, 2015 at 3:13
  • @pugsville LOL, you are obviously not a soldier. Commented Jul 16, 2015 at 13:40

In military theory 18th,19thC a firefight was a line of men robotically shooting and advancing in unison against the enemy till putting them to flight with the bayonet.The reality rarely, if ever matched. In the stress of battle a soldiers natural reaction is to blaze away aimlessly, hoping the noise discourages the enemy then run if they keep coming anyway; only direct control by officers can prevent this.

Contemporary evidence from Albuera (1811) have the British soldiers 'constantly advancing on & shaking the enemy'. Yet the firefight was at some 80 yards range and lasted around 20 minutes. Clearly the advances were small & fitful - but they did occur & only on the British side.

A look at the numbers and organisation of officers in a firefight reveals that the British not only had the best ratio of officers & NCOs to men, but they were positioned where they could best control and encourage the men forwards. No other army came close at the time, and consequently the British (at the unit versus unit level) had a superior reputation.

Obviously factors of logistics,training, and generalship come into play for winning battles - but the basic determinant of the troops reputation was management organisation.

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