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Fire at will

Posted by Lewis on June 23, 2003

In Reply to: Fire at will posted by TheFallen on June 23, 2003

: : Does anyone know the origin of this one?

: I'm not sure it'll have a specific origin. The idiom "at will" means just as and when one likes, so combining that with the verb "to fire" would seem within the bounds of normality.

Sorry, back to military history for this one. it comes from the tactic of "volley-fire" which is when a group of soldiers with projectile weapons fire (as near as possible) at the same time.

I'm not sure whether the bowmen at Agincourt were held back to use volley fire and I suspect that once they were told to 'fire', they simply shot as fast and as regularly as they could.

The first commands for projectile infantry would be for them to form ranks. If they were to be attcked by cavalry, then the ranks formed were squares and the front ranks would have bayonets fixed - as in the days of pikemen - horses will not charge into an array of spikes. if infantry faced infantry, then the ranks were usually 2 deep and stretched as a line across the battlefield.

By the time of the Napoleonic era, the British army was very accomplished at "volley fire", which would rake the ranks of advancing troops pretty thoroughly. Volley fire would be ordered by the officers along the lines of "Front rank - fire, second rank load, second-rank fire, first rank load" (which was sequential and understood by the troops. All those with working weapons would fire together in ranks at once or in blocks.

Muskets were not particularly accurate and so volley fire in which a hail of balls flashed across the horizon had more chance of damaging a group of opponent than trying to individually shoot targets at range.

Sometimes there would be "rolling volley" where smaller sections of the defensive line would fire in turn and the volleys would appear to go along the outstretched ranks - if the timing was right, the first section (usually the right flank) would be starting it's next voley before the left flank had finished the first, so that it appeared that the volleys were continuous.
Psychologically a ceaseless hail of fire could boost the defenders and demoralise the attackers, in the same way that cannon could.

Volley fire would usually continue until the advancing ranks were either so thinned out by casualties, broken/routed or too near. If the defensive ranks were unlucky, the attackers would bring artillery to bear on them and sometimes the defensive line would be broken by cannon, but cannon cannot be used when the infantry are also attacking at close quarters.

If the line held and the attackers ranks thinned, the rather chilling subsequent command was "fix bayonets" (or "fix swords" in the case of some situations in which long blades fixed to the end of the musket or rifle were called "swords" rather than bayonets). It was the main option at that point, if the defending infantry were to charge.

Muskets and early rifles took some time to reload and reloading in a charge would be very difficult indeed, so it was the use of the firearm as a spear-type weapon that was employed. It was not clean and was necessarily brutal.

The alternative to a charge was "fire at will" - which meant that the soldiers did not need to wait to be told to fire collectively and could select their own targets, rather than concentrate the fire in volleys.

So "fire at will" is not a casual command, but had a specific meaning within a disciplined infantry unit and is just one of a series of commands to make the best use of a body of infantry.

I haven't read whether soldiers named "Will" suffered particularly.