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I recently stumbled upon this impressive quote about the Battle of Borodino in a video (here at 5:07):

"The artillery roared to such an extent that from dawn until the middle of the day we couldn't even hear the musket fire; the cannonade was constant. One might think the sky was on fire. But we could hardly se the sky through the thick smoke."
-- N. I. Andreev

Source: Rey, Marie-Pierre.
L'effroyable tragédie: une nouvelle histoire de la campagne Russie.

While the quote is certainly commanding and spectacular, I am trying to judge how accurate the description is.

--> What I am trying to get a feel for, is for how many of the Borodino combatants the stated fact might hold true.

Given that loudness of sound is reduced over distance (squared, actually), we can assume that there were probably at least some areas on the Borodino battlefield where the quoted fact holds true, i.e. that for half a day you couldn't hear the (constant1) musket fire over the (just as constant2) cannon fire.

E.g. if a cannon 100m away is louder than a musket 1m away it will hold true for many - but this seems implausible...

Is this something that might just have been observable to some officers standing back on the hills close to the batteries and far way from the infantry clashes? Or would this have been the experience of many of the soldiers?


1,2 The same video actually gives sources for the total ammunition fired over the course of battle (at 11:46):
Cartridges fired - French: 140'000, Russian: 120'000
Canonballs fired - French: 60'000, Russian: 50'000

--> This boils down to around 3 cannon balls per second for the entire duration of the battle.

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    Some aspects of this question might be better answered by users on the Physics site, I think. However, I suspect we have some users with the expertise to take a stab at it.
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 12, 2023 at 16:18
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    Once the distribution of cannons an muskets in the fields and the loudness of a cannon and a musket is known, physicists an engineers may try to solve the problem, but the data must be provided by somebody knowledgeable in cannons, muskets and the Borodino battle. This site seems a better place to start than Physics.SE.
    – Pere
    Apr 12, 2023 at 18:43
  • The 12-pounder Napoleon cannon used in the American Civil War was similar to Napoleonic-era cannons, and used about 1Kg of powder. A musket shot uses around 6-7g of powder. Apr 12, 2023 at 22:00
  • @JohnDallman: The 12-pounder Napoleon cannon you referred to, being a combined howitzer-cannon, is an entirely different beast from the Napoleonic-era 12 pound (pure) cannon. From your link: "Napoleon III realized that mixing field guns and howitzers within an artillery battery caused the logistical problem of having to carry two types of ammunition. ... The French gun designers' solution to the problem was the invention of the canon obusier de 12 or 12-pounder gun-howitzer. By 1856, this new weapon had been adopted by France, Austria, Prussia, Saxony, and Russia." Apr 13, 2023 at 0:53
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    "The peak SPLs at the shooter's ear ranged from 132 dB (miniature rifle) to 183 dB (howitzer). The spectral content of the main part of the acoustic energy was less than 400 Hz (peak 16-100 Hz) for large-caliber weapons and 150-2,500 Hz (peak 900-1,500 Hz) for small-caliber weapons (rifles)." pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7761796 "human discernment of volume is logarithmic rather than linear" meaning something that's 51 dB louder than something else is absolutely loud AF. When you're lighting 2" mortars you don't hear other fireworks unless there's someone else launching 3 inchers
    – Mazura
    Apr 14, 2023 at 0:50

3 Answers 3

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From inspecting the French and Russian Orders of Battle for Borodino, I get a rough total of 113,000 musket-armed French with 700 guns against 106,000 musket-armed Russians with 614 guns. In total, averaged over both sides, that is one gun for every 170 musketeers.

Taking the French Charleville musket as typical, each round fires a 179 grain powder charge (189 minus 10 grains as primer). The only cannon I could find details for is the Gribeauval 12 pounder which fired a 1.8 kg powder charge for round shot. The ratio of these charge sizes is about 150; very close to the ratio of musketeers to guns at 170.

As I understand black powder firing to always be subsonic, neither will be producing a sonic blast even at the muzzle. I will assume that the "noise volume" in each case is proportional to the powder charge. This is in no way scientific, as it ignores both the distinction between amplitude vs power and the fact that human discernment of volume is logarithmic rather than linear. However it will have to do for a rough estimate.

Now, an understanding of Napoleonic battle tactics is in order.

First, while in theory (formed) battalions attempted to engage in volley fire, in practice this quickly broke down into continuous firing by each musketeer as fast as he could load. Further, the vast number of battalions engaged at any time meant that the musket fire would have comprised a nearly continuous background rumble of noise. All use of skirmishers simply reinforces this observation, as they always "fired at will".

Second: individual batteries, with their slower rate of fire, lower quantity, and greater distance from the enemy, were generally able to maintain a volley effect. Even more so for grand batteries.

In conclusion, then, I believe that the overall average volume of musketry and cannonade was roughly equal. However the manner in which artillery was able to synchronize its firing better resulted in its volume being emphasized; so it had a tendency to stand out against the constant musketry background. The ear and brain would certainly be working to enhance this effect, dulling the background in order to maintain sensitivity to exceptions.

As for the distance over which sustained cannonades could be heard: The cannonade at Waterloo was heard in parts of London, roughly 320 km away.

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    Despite it's limitations, I like this answer, partly because you are upfront about the limitations and work around them well. Apr 13, 2023 at 3:04
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    Basic calculations from the 150x charge size, assuming it correlates to sound amplitude: the cannon would be 20 dB louder, and have equal sound volume at 10x longer distance compared to a musket.
    – jpa
    Apr 14, 2023 at 6:18
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    @jpa You are conflating sound power and sound amplitude, where power varies as the square of amplitude. Presumably the sound power varies as the charge size in your analysis, to generate a 20 dB variation. However it's actually energy that varies as charge size, with power that value divided by the time in which it's released. That means muzzle velocity and explosion time length (both unknown) complicate the analysis, providing additional factors affecting the dB calculation. That's why I didn't attempt to further analyze the physics. Apr 14, 2023 at 6:47
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    @jpa: Since typical muzzle velocities of cannons ranged from a bit larger to nearly double that of muskets, depending on numerous factors, that could be as much as an additional 3 dB for cannons over muskets: since not only is the energy release larger, but it's occurring over a shorter time span further increasing the peak power. Apr 14, 2023 at 6:56
  • @jpa: So no, there's nothing "basic" at all about your analysis - until after one understands the important distinction between energy, amplitude, and power of a sound-producing source, and how one might measure or estimate all three. Apr 14, 2023 at 7:05
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The noise of a firearm comes from the free-air expansion of high-pressure gas escaping the muzzle. The sound from multiple guns does not add up linearly. Each gun's sound is a single pulse of pressure.

Two pulses at 150 dB, arriving at different times, is still only 150 dB. They are only equivalent to a single charge twice the size if synchronized down to a millisecond.

enter image description here(source)

The shorter the weapon's barrel, as measured in calibers, the lower its chamber-to-muzzle pressure ratio, allowing more energy go into noise rather than projectile KE. Long barrels lower the muzzle pressure and thus the noise.

The closest proxy for noise levels is muzzle pressure. The amount of propellant doesn't matter as much. Exploding it in a grenade produces extreme (and, by design, lethal) pressure, just burning it almost none. Guns are in between these extremes.

Small caliber rifles tend to be tolerable (as in, very loud, but the hearing loss from a single shot is generally temporary), revolvers and shotguns are somewhat louder, while modern pistols and large caliber rifles can get extremely loud, requiring hearing protection.

Ballistic simulation software can predict muzzle pressure, including for black powder specifically. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get information on powder formulations used in Napoleonic wars, which would allow for hard data. So I had to estimate it using modern black power, but with reduced heat of explosion, as if it had some inert material mixed in - accounting for dirt, dust, moisture, inaccurate part fractions, component crumbing in production.

For initial calculations, I've attempted to simulate historical black powder based on a DTIC study, but it produced higher performance than recorded. Comparing historical data to simulations worked out to Napoleonic era gunpowder being roughly equal to modern Fg class black powder with about 22% inert filler.

For the gun, the best data I could get is for the Canon de 12. It's possible to work it backwards from known performance perspective. I've matched the gun to produce 1440 fps (as reported) with a 1.8 kg black powder charge with a 6 kg projectile out of a 2300 mm barrel, as described.

enter image description here

In comparison, performance projections for the Charleville musket, using essentially the same propellant, look very different.

The initial burning rate factor is a bit of a tweak; it's determined by powder geometry and primer design, so used to be more of an art before the modern era. I matched it using a black powder estimator, to arrive at known performance of these muskets.

For noise, the number that matters is Muzzle Pressure, middle right tab. There is a 4-fold difference between muskets and cannons. This is pressure, not volume. as mentioned, the pressure from multiple muskets doesn't combine into one louder sound, it just makes the sound more continuous.

Calculating attenuation is more difficult. For a single cannon and a single musket, you could estimate that a cannon would be about as loud at 60 m as a musket at 1.75 m (shooter's ear to muzzle distance). For a full battlefield, Pieter's answer estimates roughly equal volume of gunpowder burned in cannons and in muskets. This means they'd fill it about as well, with the difference that cannons' muzzle gas would've been released at 4x the pressure, making it far overpower the muskets.

enter image description here

In short: cannons employed somewhat larger relative powder charges and operating pressures. They also had shorter barrels, only 18-20 calibers, compared to 63 calibers for the musket, which resulted in less pressure drop inside the barrel.

This means 4 times the pressure at the muzzle. A single loud noise nearly disables human hearing temporarily (and damages it permanently), making subsequent noises of lower volume inaudible.

It's probable (I'd give it at least 95% certainty) that the statement in the question held true for most participants, except for outliers that happened to be very far away from any cannon. That is, that the muskets were inaudible, being completely masked by temporary deafness from much louder cannon fire.

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  • Thanks for this spectacular answer. Leave it to the internet to surprise you with people having very niche expertise that perfectly fits a question.
    – fgysin
    Apr 18, 2023 at 6:51
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When two enormous armies meet, only a relatively small number of infantrymen can engage at any time: maybe only a few thousand, maybe only a few hundred, musketeers on each side are in a position to fire. The remaining men are simply targets, waiting their turn to move forward to the firing line or to be slaughtered. If you look at the figures for cartridges fired, it is not much more than one per person, on both sides.

At Borodino, the main action was at the Bagration fleches, which were taken and re-taken by the French and Russians, and then the Raevsky redoubt. Most of the forces not directly involved in that area were made to wait, suffering terrible losses from artillery fire.

While the account of the battle in Tolstoy's "War and Peace" cannot be regarded as a reliable historical account, it probably gives a useful insight: Prince Andrei's regiment was held in reserve for the first eight hours of the battle, in which time they sustained losses of several hundred men, without firing a single shot.

On the other hand, the artillery on both sides were able to fire from a much greater distance and, trusting that they knew where the enemy soldiers were, many of them were firing continuously through out the whole battle- each cannon fired, on average, roughly 100 rounds.

It therefore makes sense to compare the number of rounds fired, rather than the number of guns. Three times as many musket shots were fired as cannonballs, but muskets used a tiny amount of powder, and would only be audible in the immediate vicinity, whereas cannon fire would be audible over the entire battlefield.

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    Borodino was not a meeting engagement; but rather a set-piece battle with one side well entrenched with multiple redoubts. Davout's entire III Corps was engaged from the start in attempting to take the redoubts in the centre of the Russian Line. Casualties in the battle were the most in any battle of the quarter century comprising the Revolutionary an Napoleonic Wars, tens of thousands greater than the battle in second pla0ce: Waterloo. No part of your answer is compatible with these basic facts about Borodino. Apr 14, 2023 at 0:21
  • @PieterGeerkens III corps was commanded by Ney at the battle of Borodino: Davout led I corps. The initial attack was not made by "Davout's entire ... corps" but by two of his six divisions, led by Compans and Dessaix. source: 1812 : Napoleon's Russian campaign by Richard K. Rhein, 1990, p243. I don't see the relevance of your comment about casualties.
    – JavaLatte
    Apr 16, 2023 at 1:09

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