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Grenades were used by European, Muslims, and Chinese before 1800. However, there were no noticeable field-battle involving the hand grenades during the Napoleon era. One would imagine that grenades are effective against a square formation that is tight and slowly-moving. One or two grenades is enough to create a temporary disorder. Furthermore, the primary usage of grenades was to break tough defensive lines.

In early 1800, grenades are still frequently used in siege battle, and possibly in open battle:

The others are of the caliber of four, and weigh about two pounds. These last are called hand grenades, and are thrown into the covert way, or the trenches of a besieged place, or indeed into the midst of troops.

Small (e.g. 6-pounder) artillery shells can be directly used as hand-grenades.

It is also documented that hand grenade were used during the Napoleonic era (1799−1815) and were used by both the French and British.

But why there is no documented battle in which hand-grenades play a role in open field disrupting the square formation?

There are possible reasons for why the grenades were not used in field:

1. Inconvenience: the effective grenades were too big and too heavy to be easily used.

Rebuttal: Mounted Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard are selected big guys with big horses. Throwing grenades is not too difficult for them. Each grenadier only need to carry one small grenadier.

2. The damage caused by black-powder grenades is limited and not lethal enough.

Rebuttal: the Mounted Grenadiers does not need to kill enemy soldier with grenades. They only need to use a grenade to disrupt enemy square formation. It is unlikely that soldiers are willing to stay in form with a grenade thrown into them. After that, it is easier for cavalry to run them down.

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  • Possible third argument, "Grenades were not part of the doctrine" Do the following links help to answer your question? Grenades in Napoleonic warfare history.ca Wessexarch.uk?
    – MCW
    Oct 2, 2023 at 18:07
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    Some ideas: you are throwing grenades into the objective you are charging into at full speed. By the time the grenade is there, you are there too. Getting close to throw the grenade and then turn back to charge again not only seems incredibly difficult for amassed cavalry, but exposes them for longer to enemy fire. And of course, no matter how well trained you are, lighting and throwing a grenade at full gallop seems difficult, also. How many of those grenades will fall to the ground to explode under your comrades who advance behind you?
    – SJuan76
    Oct 2, 2023 at 18:09
  • @SJuan76 During Waterloo, the French horseman are surrounding the square formations, not always charging into them: charging directly into squares is not a good choice.
    – dodo
    Oct 2, 2023 at 18:14
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    Its possible that some military writer of the time wrote about this, or somebody actually tried it. Failing that, perhaps some professional historian has written about this. However, in absence of one of those kinds of lucky find, I'm not sure an answer is possible that is not purely opinion/speculation.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 2, 2023 at 18:17
  • @MCW Many thanks. Adding more references.
    – dodo
    Oct 2, 2023 at 18:24

2 Answers 2

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Grenades were notoriously unreliable and short range. A modern hand grenade can be thrown between 20-40 meters. A soldier is required to throw it +30 meters. Grenades in the 1800s were heavier, thus the throwing range was shorter. It wouldn't fragment as well as a modern grenade.

That means that a soldier had to get very close to throw his grenade. So close that he was likely to be shot (or bayoneted) by his enemies.

Grenadiers were elite soldiers, because of the danger of their work. Doing that on an square would not be dangerous but suicidal.

The question also asks about horse grenadiers throwing grenades from horseback. I'm not aware that ever happened. Units got promoted/demoted to a certain status or where assigned a different title. For example, lancer units were more expensive than hussar units. After the Napoleonic wars many lancer units were renamed in hussars to save money. They of course lost the lance, but apart from the lance they were doing the same work.

The idea that a grenadier rides in on horseback, lights his fuse, tosses the grenade and hopefully escapes alive is more a gaming feature than something that happened in real life. I have never heard of it.

Given the fact that grenadiers à cheval were big men on big horses looks more like a heavy dragoon unit got promoted in title and or status. The tasks for grenadiers à cheval and cuirassiers were identical (shock cavalry), the difference being cuirassiers wore a cuirass and grenadiers à cheval did not.

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    Thanks a lot for your input. Your first paragraph focuses on the heaviness and potentness of 1800 grenades, and they are discussed in my text. The rest of you answer focuses on the distance; however, looking at the picture above, the distance between the squares and cavalry is less than 20 meters.
    – dodo
    Oct 3, 2023 at 4:45
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    @dodo: (1) Most of the distances between adjacent squares are closer to 50m than 20. Just because two squares in the foreground are closer doesn't negate the obviousness of that being exceptional. (2) British battalions typically were about 800-1000 men. These squares appear to be more like 400 men apiece. Larger squares would be further apart. (3) This is not a contemporary, or even close, picture; but rather is a screen shot from Waterloo (1970. The squares are deliberately placed close enough to all fit in frame, not to be historically exact placement. Oct 4, 2023 at 1:21
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Square formation operates in an open space, where one has more efficient means of targeting it - e.g., the artillery shells, which can be fired from a greater distance and carry a more significant explosive charge than hand grenades.

Hand grenades are more suitable in close quarters - against trenches or buildings, where artillery either cannot be used or inefficient due absence of direct sight.

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  • Even in field battles, the effectiveness of artillery is highly terrain-dependent. For example, in the battle of waterloo, British squares take advantage of the backslopes.
    – dodo
    Oct 3, 2023 at 10:17
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    @dodo Yes, sure. But not to the extent that would make hand grenades a viable substitute - they are useful in the context where the square formation is already meaningless.
    – Roger V.
    Oct 3, 2023 at 11:58

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