I don't know everything about the revolutionary war, but what I remember from high school history was that the colonists used a kind of guerrilla fighting, while England's army used inflexible battle plans, like marching as a unit. What I'm wondering is whether the colonists picked up these techniques from Native Americans?

Secondarily I'm wondering if I remember right from high school history that their flexible fighting techniques were a definitive factor in winning the war.

  • Probably worth remembering that many of the leaders in the Revolutionary army were ex-British Army officers (e.g. George Washington). There would have been officers on both sides who had experience from the French and Indian wars. The definitive factor in the colonist's victory was the intervention of the French and Spanish on their side. Jul 31, 2016 at 11:19
  • It's nice to note that the first usage of modern skirmisher tactics in North America was performed by the french during first colonial conflicts,and by the hand of the Miquelets de montagne, a type of guerrilla unit born during the spanish succession war and the hasburg league war and widely adopted after that conflict, recruited in the frontier with spain and in the rousillon.
    – CptEric
    Aug 1, 2016 at 13:20
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    skirmishing was not unknown in Europe. nor was america the first usage of modern skirmisher tactics.
    – pugsville
    Aug 1, 2016 at 13:30
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    "England's army"? - surely you mean "the British army", England didn't have an army in 1775. Aug 2, 2016 at 21:28
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    Dense 'inflexible' formations may seem made to us, but it was the most effective way to fight with the tools they had. A lot has changed in 250 years. Since this is a Revolutionary war question, I'll just caution against trying to learn history (let alone an appreciation of early modern period infantry tactics) from Mel Gibson films. Aug 3, 2016 at 23:25

4 Answers 4


Don't believe everything you see on TV. Colonel Robert Rogers was the founder, in order, of Roger's Rangers during the Seven Years War, and then the Queen's Rangers and King's Rangers during the Revolutionary War. All of these units fought loyally on the British side as effective irregular troops.

While it is certainly true that the early American Settlers learned much from the native inhabitants about both fighting as irregulars and traveling about and living off the land, by the time of the Revolutionary War many American colonists, both Loyalists and Patriots, were accomplished and even distinguished in that regard.

Update - from the link to American Military History (courtesy of Ken Graham, pp 38-9):

.... The lessons of the debacle on the Monongahela, as the British properly understood, were not that regular forces or European methods were useless in America or that undisciplined American militia were superior to regular troops. They were rather that tactics and formations had to be adapted to terrain and the nature of the enemy and that regulars, when employed in the forest, would have to learn to travel faster and lighter and to take advantage of cover, concealment, and surprise as their enemies did. ...

Special companies, such as Maj. Robert Rogers’ Rangers, were recruited among skilled woodsmen in the colonies and placed in the regular British establishment. ....

The colonial wars also proved that only troops possessing the organization and discipline of regulars, whatever their tactics, could actually move on, seize, and hold objectives and thus achieve decisive results.


Yes, American colonist soldiers did learn guerrilla fighting tactics from the Native Americans.

One can believe that the Native Americans had a great influence on how warfare was shaped from the European methods of fighting as was done by soldiers in say France or England.

When Europeans first arrived and the inevitable conflicts with the Indians began, the Europeans were surprised and shocked by the Indian way of making war. Instead of the lines of infantry on open battlefields the Europeans were used to, the Indians used stealth, camouflage, surprise, deception, and other small-unit tactics that utilized the terrain as cover and confused their conventional European opponents. The European colonists quickly adapted and became every bit as skilled and savage as the Indians in waging frontier war and began using Indian tactics when they fought each other. In short, the Indians were good because their environment and culture promoted armed combat as a necessary skill. From having to survive by matching wits against nature and wild game, to having to defend themselves against rival tribes, the North American Indians were some of the finest soldiers in the world by the time Columbus arrived. Those societies mentioned earlier that had perished by the fifteenth century did not seem to value warfare according to what archaeologists tell us. That may be a major reason they weren’t there.

Evidence of the Indians’ influence on the American military still is evident at Fort Benning, Georgia, where the United States Army Ranger School posts the standing orders of Robert Rogers. Rogers was a colonial militiaman who admired the Indian way of combat and built a unit that modeled itself after the Indians’ tactics. They traveled off-road, learned ambush and tracking tactics, and traveled light while garnishing their food from nature as them rapidly moved overland. They proved extremely effective against the French in the French-Indian War and subsequent units that fought for both British and American colonists also utilized tactics learned from the Indians by Rogers’ Rangers. - What Students Need to Know about the Frontier Wars.

What really is guerrilla warfare?

Guerrilla Warfare. Guerrilla warfare (the word guerrilla comes from the Spanish meaning “little war”) is often the means used by weaker nations or military organizations against a larger, stronger foe. Fought largely by independent, irregular bands, sometimes linked to regular forces, it is a warfare of harassment through surprise. It features the use of ambushes, hit‐and‐run raids, sabotage, and, on occasion, terrorism to wear down the enemy. Typically, a small guerrilla force seeks to concentrate its strength against the weaker portions of the enemy's forces, such as outposts or lines of communication and logistics, to strike suddenly, and then to disappear into the surrounding countryside. In the American experience, this type of warfare has been used since the French and Indian War (1754–63), when colonists adopted American Indian tactics to strike back against French forces and their Indian allies. Maj. Robert Rogers of Connecticut, considered a founder of the guerrilla tradition in America, organized Rogers's Royal American Rangers in 1756 and trained them to carry the war deep into enemy territory. His doctrine, published as Rogers’ Rules for Ranging (1757), is considered a classic and is still issued to all soldiers attending the school for U.S. Army Rangers (Fort Benning, Georgia).

Here is this excellent article on American Military History which is quite informative, yet too long to quote in its entirety. It is great read for those interested.

  • The biggest problem for the "Invaders" was that the Puritans were really good at building walls. Stone walls. They also created town squares with the Churches...and there were many...face inward towards the Town Green. The Irish who "sallied forth" in the name of the Crown had no idea what they were walking into...and it had nothing to do with "guerilla tactics." The War in the North was fought over Connecticut as the British lost the Massachusetts Commonwealth in about six weeks...and one mistake (the execution of Nathan Hale) lost the "Red Coats" Connecticut. Jul 31, 2016 at 20:16
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    >Those societies mentioned earlier that had perished by the fifteenth century did not seem to value warfare according to what archaeologists tell us. That may be a major reason they weren’t there.< Smallpox is likely the reason they were not there. It's been theorised that North America was about as populous as Europe before the arrival of Columbus. It's been suggested that up to 90% of the population were wiped out. I doubt it had anything to do with warfare.
    – Anaryl
    Aug 2, 2016 at 20:54

Yes, many of them did. Specifically the third of four groups listed below. But that is not what finally won the war.

There were actually four groups of American soldiers. The first group was the smallest, numbering about 10,000, who were both trained and experienced. These men had marched and fought with George Washington in the first two years of the war, camped with him at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78, and were trained in marching and bayonet fighting there by (mostly) European officers such as (US-commissioned) General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben from Prussia. Naturally good at loading and shooting, these men were better than any in the British army.

The second group of men were subsequent regular recruits, who were trained but not experienced. They were put through similar training, but did not have the prior experience of the first group.

The third, and perhaps largest group, were men that were not formally trained by the regular army like the first two groups, but had military experience, usually fighting Native Americans. An example were the so-called "Overmountain Men", drawn from the mountainous areas at the borders of the modern Virginia/Kentucky, North Carolina/Tennessee, who fought the Cherokees. Such men formed irregular units that won notable battles at Kings Mountain and elsewhere in the South using guerrilla tactics. Some such units fought in northern battles such as the siege of Boston and Saratoga under officers such as Dan Morgan who taught them to target officers, "aim for the epaulette boys".

And the fourth group of men were raw militia, who did not have either the training or the experience of the first three groups. Such men were almost useless, although they did "pad the rolls" on the American side at a number of battles, notably Camden, South Carolina.

It is worth noting that men that got most of their experience by "learning" guerrilla tactics from Indians (through opposing them) were not as good as trained "regular" troops, except in special circumstances (like fighting from cover). Even so, they were decidedly better than militia with no experience, and thereby formed a pool of men that gave the British unexpected difficulties. It was not that their "flexible" guerrilla tactics usually led to victory. Instead they lost battles at a lower-than-expected rate until help arrived from Europe beginning in late 1777, or early 1778. Put another way, such men "beat the spread."

It is important to note that the American Revolution was finally won at e.g. Yorktown by trained troops, both "native" recruits in the first two groups, and the ones we received from France.

  • You do realize that Wilhelm von Steuben was only a Captain in Frederick the Great's army? Aug 1, 2016 at 11:40
  • @PieterGeerkens: Yes, but he was a General In Washington's. Likewise General Horatio Gates was a Major in the British army.
    – Tom Au
    Aug 1, 2016 at 14:33
  • But your posting says: "Prussia's General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben", which is incorrect. Correct would be to say something like "Prussian General (in the American army) Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben". Aug 1, 2016 at 16:25
  • @PieterGeerkens: OK, changed it to "...from Prussia" to avoid the confusion.
    – Tom Au
    Aug 1, 2016 at 16:31
  • Of course, it is inappropriate to call him "von" anything since his title was fictional. But that is picking nits.
    – MCW
    Oct 6, 2017 at 22:09

A Prussian soldier named Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben is credited with turning the early American colonists into a fighting army. He has been recognized as the Father of our military. He was also gay. "Killing England" Bill O'Reilly.

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    I don't think this really answers the question that was asked.
    – Steve Bird
    Oct 6, 2017 at 21:40
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    Sources would improve this answer. I think Steuben did not turn the colonists into "guerilla" fighters.
    – MCW
    Oct 6, 2017 at 22:08
  • The source is given.
    – Dan Walter
    Oct 11, 2017 at 0:26

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