The Plevna Delay
Winchesters and Peabody-Martinis in the Russo-Turkish War
A small Turkish army is trapped, but with the help of surprising firepower,
they hold up the entire Russian Campaign for over five months.
by Richard T. Trenk, Sr.
Man at Arms Magazine, published by Mowbray Publishing, is "The NRA Journal for the American Arms Collector", and may be the finest scholarly journal devoted to arms collecting published in the English language. Information regarding subscriptions, articles and back issues, including the issue containing a more complete and graphically superior version of the following article, (including additional photos of Peabody-Martini and Winchester rifles and additional illustrations) may be found at the Man At Arms website at: http://www.manatarmsbooks.com/
As Field Marshal Osman Pasha lay wounded in a small peasant cottage, surrendering his Turkish forces to General Ganetsky, the Russian general ordered his interpreter to say that he much admired the brilliant tactics and defensive positions that the outnumbered Turk had employed for over five months. General Ganetsky then shook the hand of the man who had held up a combined Russian and Romanian army, inflicting horrendous casualties rivaling those at the Antietam, Shiloh and Wilderness battles of the American Civil War. Lt. Gen. Skobeleff, whose brigades were among the first to suffer massive losses at the hands of Osman Pasha's forces said, "He is the greatest general of the age, for he has saved the honor of his country. I will offer him my hand and tell him so personally." The year was 1877, and the Russians were in the midst of their 12th conflict (since 1676) with the Ottoman Empire. Osman Pasha, with 15,000 men and 174 modern Krupp artillery pieces, had been on his way to bolster Turkish forces at Nikopolis in Bulgaria. Upon learning that the Turks at Nikopolis had surrendered, he quickly marched his small army to the town of Plevna (modern name, Pleven), which is located 75 miles southwest of Bucharest. Russian intelligence completely failed to notice this force and had no idea that it was now located at Plevna, busily constructing trenches, redoubts, fortifications and gun emplacements that would soon baffle the Russian generals and, at the same time, introduce the repeating rifle into European warfare. Standard Turkish practice was to mark off the yardage on anticipated battlefields using sticks with ribbons attached, or recording the distance to natural objects such as trees, rocks or other visible objects. At Plevna, Osman Pasha had plenty of time to do all this measuring and marking, and it soon paid off in Russian casualties.
Oliver F. Winchester had sent fancy .44 caliber Model 1866 Winchester rifles to selected Turkish officers and politicians, and this gift giving finally resulted in a small order being received in 1869. Tests showed that ordinary Turkish soldiers could easily learn to load and fire this lever action rifle very quickly. In 1870 and 1871, the Turkish government placed additional orders totaling 5,000 carbines and 45,000 muskets with bayonets.
Factory records do not indicate how much ammunition the Turks purchased, but based upon various battle accounts that describe long periods of constant firing, it would appear that the Turks purchased at least 40,000,000 and as much as 60,000,000 rounds from Winchester. After the final Turkish surrender in 1878, the Russians reported that they had captured 500,000,000 rounds of all calibres! While this may have been an exaggeration, there is no doubt that Turkish tactics required a massive amount of rifle ammo, and soldiers were, in fact, issued large amounts of cartridges and encouraged to shoot as much as possible. By way of comparison, a German army corps of that era would have been sent into battle with 4,500,000 rounds of rifle ammunition. The exact number of Winchester Model '66s that Osman had on hand has not been recorded, but based upon the results, he employed at least 8,000 and as many as 12,000.
The standard Turkish infantry rifle was the American-designed Peabody-Martini falling-block rifle in .45 caliber. This was not only a fast shooting rifle (tests produced 17 aimed shots per minute) but was also very accurate out to 700 yards, and loaded with most small bore, large capacity black powder cartridges, it would carry several thousand yards with a high looping trajectory. (For more information about these weapons, see "The Turkish Connection: The Saga of the Peabody-Martini Rifle" by William O. Achtermeier, Man at Arms, Volume 1, Number 2, pp. 12-21, 5557.) The Russian infantry was equipped with the obsolete .60 cal. Krenk (Bohemian spelling, Krnka). Their rifle brigades used the more modern American designed .42 cal. Berdan rifle.
On July 18th, 1877, 1,500 Russian cavalry were reconnoitering around Plevna. They clashed with a small number of Turkish skirmishers and, thinking the town itself was lightly defended, reported back to their leader, Lt. Gen. Schilder-Schuldner, who decided to send his entire force of 7,500 infantry to occupy the town on July 20th after several hours of cannon fire.
Small numbers of Turks in trenches were easily overcome and allowed to flee. Resistance seemed to have ended. The Russian infantry walked right into the town, acting like visiting tourists. Osman Pasha, who had carefully concealed his main force inside houses and barns and behind other sheltered locations, allowed the Russians to enter the town in considerable numbers before springing the trap. With a bugle signal, the Turks revealed themselves and began pouring massive rifle fire into the startled Russians. Only a small number of those who made it into Plevna managed to escape the town. Their leader, Maj. Gen. Knorring, fell as did the commander of the Archangel Rgt., Col. Rosenbaum. At virtually point-blank range, the Winchesters had poured out the majority of the bullets, and the Peabody-Martinis kept up a lingering long-range fire upon the retreating Russians. Turkish losses were only 12 killed and 30 wounded. In this first battle at Plevna. Russian losses amounted to 74 officers and 2,771 men who fell in a fire fight that lasted only 15-20 minutes. They left behind on the field 17 wagons of ammunition.
The Grand Duke Nicholas was commander in chief of the Russian army (see note on the Russian Imperial family, below). He and his General Staff realized that his army could not bypass Osman Pasha's forces (which, in a few days. received another 5,000 men). A force this large, equipped with the longer ranging Krupp artillery, could play havoc with communications and supply lines. He ordered Lt.Gen. Baron Krudner, who commanded the right wing of the Russian armies, to take his IX Corps, reinforced with a brigade of the XI Corps and a full division of the IV Corps, to Plevna to eliminate this rascal who dared to block his path.
In 1877 a Russian army corps normally had 25,000 men, but many units were understrength, so Krudner also received what would later prove to be a mobile disaster, in the person of Lt. Gen. Prince Schachowskoi, who was commander of the 11th Army Corps. When the Prince arrived with one infantry and one cavalry brigade, he had already established a reputation for wild and foolish tactics, which sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed, but always at the cost of lives and equipment.
The Turkish General Staff at Sophia was overjoyed at the unexpected success that Osman Pasha had provided them. By July 22nd. they had brought his forces at Plevna up to 45,000 effectives and added to the number of Winchesters on hand.
The Grand Duke wanted immediate action and sent Krudner an order to "Attack at the earliest possible moment." Krudner responded by telegraph, saying that he had but 26,000 men and 186 artillery pieces, and the Turks had 50,000 men and unknown artillery at Plevna. The Grand Duke messaged back that his own intelligence was certain that there were only 27,000 Turks at Plevna and for Krudner to, "Attack at once!"
General Michael Skobeleff of the 11th Corps was assigned to reconnoiter in strength and try to dislodge the Turks from Lovatz (modem name, Lovech), which is located about 20 miles south of Plevna on the Osma River. He observed large numbers of Turks but avoided serious contact, and, more importantly, he failed to recognize that the Turks in the Plevna region now outnumbered the Russians who were going to be sent against them.
By July 30th, Krudner had received more ammunition and supplies and was ready to mount the attack demanded by the Grand Duke. A two-pronged attack on the north and eastern approaches to Plevna would consist of a left flank force having Maj. Gen. Skobeleff at the extreme end with one brigade of Cossacks plus one battalion of horse-drawn artillery with 16 guns. The inner left flank was commanded by Prince
Schachowskoi and had two brigades of infantry plus two squadrons of lancers and 48 guns. Two squadrons of lancers provided links between these left flank groups.
On the extreme right flank was Maj. Gen. Loscharef with one regiment and one horse battery of six guns. The inner right flank was commanded by Lt. Gen. Veliaminof and consisted of two divisions of infantry with 80 guns. Another two squadrons of lancers would act as links between the two right flank groups. Gen. Krudner would personally keep control of the reserves (between the flanks), which consisted of one infantry brigade and four squadrons of lancers and dragoons, as well as one horse battery of 30 guns.
Besides being outnumbered, the Russians had fatal defects in their plan. The two groups were too far apart to be of assistance to each other once the action commenced. Also, Osman Pasha had carefully placed his lines of trenches in undulating terrain, and attacking forces could not actually see the second and third lines of trenches until they would crest the various hills and ridges, at which time they were then exposed to rifle and cannon fire while the defenders remained well protected (see battle map of Plevna defenses).
from Man At Arms Magazine, Volume 19, Number Four, August, 1997)
(copyright Man at Arms, 1997, Permission for use requested)
This drawing could be downloaded and expanded for additional detail.
On the morning of July 30th, an artillery duel commenced and did not end until 3:00 p.m., when the Russians started their main troop advances. On the extreme left flank, Gen. Skobeleff got to within 600 yards of the Plevna outskirts and started to fire his artillery when heavy long-range rifle fire caused so many casualties that he withdrew beyond their range and view. Prince Schachowskoi advanced to the village of Radisovo and killed the handful of Turks found there. Although his orders were to take the village and await new orders, he and his men were excited at their easy success. At 2:00 p.m., the Prince sent a message to Skobeleff saying that he was taking the offensive with his two brigades. This was the moment for which Osman Pasha's riflemen had been trained. The Prince lined up his two brigades and ordered them forward towards the Turkish trench line.
Russian reporters and military analysts later said that these troops began taking hits from the Peabody-Martinis at 3,000 yards, but this must be considered an exaggeration. What was really happening was a plunging high trajectory fire that was being accurately adjusted to keep pace with the oncoming infantry (see note below for a discussion of "plunging fire"). Men were falling in fair numbers at 2,000 yards, and the losses increased as they marched ever closer to their goal atop the hills of Plevna.
The Russian infantry accepted these losses in their usual stoic manner, but by the time they were 600-700 yards from the Turks, they began to unravel and break up into clusters. Some groups lay down to avoid the hail of lead and were goaded to their feet by their officers who valiantly urged them onwards. The concussion of Turkish rifle fire was constant and was augmented by Turkish artillery firing shrapnel shells into the Russian line. As the Turk officers called out each new range change, the riflemen adjusted their sights and poured forth more bullets in the general direction of the Russian line. The Winchesters lay next to many of them, fully loaded with 14 rounds. A box of 500 rounds was placed next to each repeating rifle, and other ammunition reserves were close at hand.
Still they came forward, these obedient Russian soldiers, until they reached a point 200 yards from the Turkish trench line, when the order was given for the Turkish artillery, to cease fire and the riflemen to pick up their Winchesters and commence rapid fire. As the Winchesters spewed forth their rapid fire fusillade of lead, Russians fell in greater numbers than before. Still they came forward, bayonets fixed, ready to impale their oppressors in the trenches. According to prior plans, the Turks stopped shooting when the Russians were about 50 yards from the trench line, and they now abandoned their first line of trenches and ran back into their second trench line, where they commenced their rifle fire all over again. The Russian advance stalled and took cover in the Turkish first line of trenches.
Prince Schachowskoi received a message that Gen. Krudner was sending a regiment to reinforce him, but they lost their way and never arrived in time to help. At 4:00 p.m., he could hold himself back no longer and ordered his remaining troops to charge the second line of trenches. The long-range Peabody-Martinis started their deadly plunging fire again, and Russians fell in large numbers as they worked their way uphill. closer to the second line. Once more the Winchesters took up the close-range fight, sending their wall of hot lead, decimating the oncoming infantry line. In a few places, Russians managed to get into the second line trenches and, surprisingly, two companies actually got into Plevna itself, but Osman threw strong reserves into these points and drove them back.
By 6:00 p.m.. both flanks of the Russians had ended their attacks, but in desperation, Gen. Krudner sent his reserves, the Serpoukhof Regiment, into action near the center. These gallant men caught plunging fire as soon as they formed up their lines, and not one got closer than 100 yards of the Turk first trench line. Their leader, General Bojerianof. was hit near the 100 yard markers and was carried back by those of his personal guard who were still unhurt.
By 7:00 p.m., the Turks had full control of their second line trenches and attacked the now retreating forces of Prince Schachowskoi. who had no men available to act as a rear guard. The Prince sent a message to Gen. Skobeleff on his left. It read, "Extricate yourself as best you can. My companies (originally 200 strong) are coming back 5 and 10 men strong!" His personal guard had all been slain, and he kept around himself a small group of Cossacks. He managed to escape back to the Russian encampment four miles north of Plevna. His remaining soldiers were literally being driven before the Turkish rifle fire, causing the Russians to abandon three artillery pieces, all their wagons and their wounded (whom the Turks killed off during the night, as they took no prisoners).
News reporters wrote "...to find another instance of a corps being so rapidly destroyed as those the Russians used here, one has to go back to some of the frightful slaughters in the wars of the First French Empire." An official Russian report stated, "Turkish rifle fire was infernal on the flanks and center and seemed to increase greatly as our men neared the trenches." Thus ended the Second Battle of Plevna. Losses were reported to be 169 officers and 7,136 men. This represents 30 percent of the 26,000 that Gen. Krudner sent into battle.
The Grand Duke Nicholas was appalled and frustrated while Czar Alexander II messaged his demand for a successful attack to eliminate the stalemate at Plevna and to get the entire army moving again on all fronts. An army of Romanians had now joined the forces that Krudner had at Plevna. Rearmed, resupplied and rested, the combined Russo-Romanian forces now numbered 80,000 men (later to increase to 150,000). These were divided into two 40,000-man groups, and one group was held back as a reserve. Those in the attacking group were ordered to move forward as close as possible and to dig entrenchments and artillery positions on the north, south and east sides of Plevna. On the morning of Sept. 7th, they commenced a massive artillery bombardment which they maintained for four and one half days until noon on September 11th.
Turkish reports stated that this cannonade was totally ineffective and caused virtually no casualties or irreparable damage to their positions. The Turks were quite correct on this matter. Infantry in zig-zag trenches 15 inches wide could not be effectively harmed by shrapnel from shells that exploded in the ground. Only a direct hit could kill and wound, and then only in that immediate trench area.
At noon, the Third Battle of Plevna started much the same way that the others had, except for one difference. The Peabody-Martinis started killing the allied reserves that were gathered a few hundred yards behind the actual line of attacking units, over 1,000 yards from the Turkish riflemen! Turkish artillery and long-ranging Peabody-Martinis cut down large numbers of allied infantry long before they managed to reach the first trench line of the Turks. As before, the Winchesters did their remarkable job at the closer ranges. It was a repeat of battles number one and two. Krudner and his ranking advisors had seemingly learned nothing from their earlier mistakes.
The Gravitza Ridge Redoubt No.1 (see Plevna battle map) had been a particularly important goal to Gen. Krudner, and after hours of bloody attacks (and massive losses), the Russian infantry finally managed to push out the Turkish defenders and raise their own flag over this redoubt. However, once they had filled it with their troops -- courtesy of Osman Pasha, who withheld artillery and rifle fire until plenty of Russians were inside -- they found to their dismay that they could not stay there. Another Turkish redoubt (Gravitza No. 2, which had been silent and unsuspected) was located above and only 300 yards from Gravitza No.1, and the Turks were now pouring a torrent of rifle fire right into the Russian troops, who found no place inside that gave them any protection. The Russians had no other choice; the order was given to retreat from this redoubt that had just been captured at high cost. Gen. Skobeleff, seeing this flight and failing to recognize the cause, ordered his own reserves forward to try to stop the widespread retreat unfolding before him. His efforts came to nothing when Turkish artillery and riflemen stopped his troops before they had gone 500 yards. The General himself had to retreat to the rear with his IV Corps troops in order to save himself.
The Third Battle of Plevna is usually recorded as having ended the night of Sept. 11, 1877, by which time the Russians had lost another 300 officers and 12,500 men, and their Romanian allies had lost 56 officers and 2,500 men. The battle was not quite over because Gen. Skobeleff, in a gallant effort to obtain some measure of success that day, had now pushed his 15,000 men against the southeastern redoubts Numbers 14 and 15, and, after sustaining severe losses, managed to occupy these two that were nearest to the center of the town. While all the other allied forces were retreating with heavy losses for the day, Skobeleff hung on for 24 hours, pleading for reinforcements that never arrived. On the afternoon of Sept. 12th, he reluctantly evacuated these redoubts, having sustained casualties of 53 percent (8,000 men). This, then, marked the end of the Third (and final) Battle of Plevna, but not the end of fighting in the area.
By October 19th, Romanian sappers had wormed their way to within 40 yards of Gravitza Redoubt Number 2 and were begging their commander, Prince Charles, to allow them to attack. Unwilling to dampen the eagerness of his troops, the Prince consented. The Romanians hurled themselves at the redoubt in huge numbers, expecting to take it with the overwhelming rush of manpower. From the previously "quiet" redoubt, there blazed forth a volume of rifle fire such as had never been experienced by any soldier. The Turks had expected such an attack and had, in fact, been taunting the Romanians by sniping and throwing clods of dirt down onto them for weeks. Osman had specially reinforced this redoubt with Winchester shooters because it was so close to the enemy line, and had also modified the layout so that it consisted of three tiers of rifle pits, one above the other, which enabled them to bring an unprecedented 20,000 shots per minute to bear upon the area being assailed.
The Romanians endured this enormous rain of bullets long enough to carry into the first level of rifle pits, but after 20 minutes, they were forced to retreat, leaving over 1,000 of their comrades dead on the slopes. This 25-minute action appears to have satisfied their need to come into closer contact with their Turkish enemies, as they no longer begged for permission to repeat the assault on Redoubt No. 2.
Europe, and most other parts of the world, had been following "The Plevna Delay," as it was being called in the newspapers. Reporters marveled at the fact that so few Turks were holding up the entire Russian offensive. The value of the rapid-firing Winchesters was never properly recognized by the press or non-Turkish military men, but in many war rooms around the world, decisions were later made to replace outdated big bore rifles with faster shooting rifles of smaller caliber and higher muzzle velocity. The Turkish High Command placed an immediate order with Winchester for another 140,000 repeating rifles. These generals had no need for further tests and trials. They knew what worked.
The Russians managed to capture the town of Lovatz to the south, and this effectively encircled the Plevna area and cut off Turkish supply caravans. Food, fuel, ammunition, medical supplies, blankets, uniforms, shoes and everything else an army needs failed to arrive, and by December, things were desperate inside Plevna. Disease and enemy action had taken the lives of 10,000 Turkish soldiers, and Osman had just 40,000 men remaining to face the nearly 150,000 well-supplied allied troops.
On the night of December 9th. Osman distributed to each of his men 150 rounds of ammunition, three days rations and a pair of sandals. This was all he had to give. All the cannon not being taken were spiked and their ammuntion buried. A bridge was secretly thrown across the River Vid, alongside an existing stone bridge, so as to permit a more rapid movement of troops across this river. Four thousand sick and wounded men were to remain in the Plevna infirmary, but all the doctors and nurses moved out with the army.
After dark, the Turkish forces started to quietly withdraw from the positions that they had held since July and silently massed at the River Vid. At 3:00 a.m., Gen. Skobeleff learned from Turkish deserters what was happening. He sent a small detachment up into the Turkish redoubts, and after they had explored sufficiently, they reported back to Skobeleff, who immediately informed the Grand Duke, at Bogot, and General Todleben, at Tucenica (by telegraph), that Plevna was being evacuated by the Turkish army. All allied forces were put on alert, but, as yet, there was no indication as to where the Turks would appear.
Osman Pasha divided his force into two corps of 20,000 each. His plan was to attack the Russian lines two miles west of the fiver on the Sophia Road and, eventually, to march to Milkovatz where he could be resupplied and again make a stand. His reserve, Second Corps, was told to stay near the river and guard his rear for "two hours" and then come up fast, to join with the First Corps.
On the morning of December 10th, the Turkish First Corps started the two-mile charge towards the Russian positions under incessant artillery fire -- and without benefit of their own artillery to respond. Shrapnel and grapeshot felled Turks in large numbers, while their line advanced silently at double-quick time for two miles on an open plain, without firing a single shot in retaliation. Osman Pasha led his men at the front of their line, astride his chestnut stallion. In 45 minutes they were into the first line of Russian trenches, which they overwhelmed quickly and, then, without pause, charged forward to take the second line as well as two artillery earthworks, each containing eight field pieces. General Stroukoff had been sent to bring up a full division of grenadiers, and at his timely arrival with these reinforcements, the Russians regained their composure and did not yield any more terrain to the now weary Turks.
It was now 8:30 a.m., and Osman Pasha realized that he had made a fatal mistake in not having his Second Corps follow earlier. With his full army, he surely could have forced his way through the remaining Russian defenses. The Russian troops threw themselves upon the exhausted Turks, and the most furious hand-to-hand fighting raged with heavy casualties on both sides, but the Russians were now the ones with overwhelming superiority of numbers. The big guns were retaken as were the two trench lines, and seven guns that the Turks had brought from their starting point at the river. At this time, the two armies were only 200-300 yards apart, keeping up a heavy fire upon one another but making no attempt to close in. Osman's horse was killed, and the bullet wounded him in the calf of his right leg. News of his falling spread rapidly amongst the Turks and somehow became distorted to the affect that Osman was dead. The same battalions that an hour earlier had fought with a frenzied valor now began to fall back towards the River Vid. Seeing this panic, the Russians renewed their own attack on the fleeing Turks, who were soon jamming their way through throngs of civilians and their carts that clogged the narrow Sophia Road.
At 10:00 a.m., the Turkish Second Corps started westward as planned, but immediately encountered the First Corps retreating towards them. Russian artillery was shelling the area with salvos of shrapnel, and the Turks had no place to hide on the open plain. For three more hours, they milled around in this exposed area. taking continuous shellfire and many losses. The Turks replied as well as they could with their own few field pieces.
At 1:00 p.m., as if by mutual agreement, the cannons ceased their work and an eerie quietness settled upon the region. Both sides expected the other to make another charge attack, but it had not happened. The Turks began to realize their hopeless situation. The enemy in front was now overwhelmingly superior in manpower. Behind them, Russians and Romanians now occupied the defenses of Plevna, and Osman Pasha and his weary soldiers were trapped and dying in an open area, running low on ammunition and hope.
A white flag appeared and a blindfolded Turkish officer was seen going across the bridge towards Plevna, with a Russian escort troop. General Ganetsky refused to deal with him when he learned he was only a junior officer. Fifteen minutes later, a second Turkish officer was also refused and was sent back with a note written in French saying that because Ganetsky knew the Field Marshall was wounded. he would only deal with an officer who personally represented Osman Pasha. However, in a few minutes, Gen. Skobeleff himself arrived at the bridge with 30 of his staff, who waved white handkerchiefs at the Turkish soldiers standing on both sides of the road. Turkish officers replied by waving a large white object to signify their understanding.
Osman sent out his Chief of Staff, Tevik Pasha, who stated to Skobeleff that the Turkish army would surrender but, due to his wound, Osman could not come out in person from the small house in which he was now lying. Ganetsky agreed to be escorted to the house where Osman surrendered his sword and was asked to tell his army to lay down their weapons. A member of his staff, Adil Pasha, was sent to a nearby hill where he could be heard telling the men in his loudest voice that it was all over and to lay down their arms. Riding in a carriage on his way back to Plevna, Osman was greeted by the Grand Duke Nicholas who said, "I congratulate you on your defense of Plevna. It is one of the most splendid exploits in history." The next morning at a huge breakfast gathering, the Grand Duke returned Osman Pasha's sword as a final tribute to this worthy, history making adversary! Field Marshal Osman Pasha was interned comfortably in Russia for the duration of the war, which the Turks eventually lost in 1878.
Furneaux, Rupert. The Siege of Plevna.
Greene, F.V., Russian Campaigns In Turkey 1877-78.
Herbert, William V.Von Harlessem, The Defense of Plevna 1877.
Hozier, Capt. H.M., The Russo-Turkish War.
McDowell, R. Bruce, Evolution Of The Winchester.
Parsons, John E., The First Winchester.
Smith and Smith, The Small Arms Of The World.
Trotha, Thilo Von, Tactical Studies On The Battles Around Plevna.
Wilson, R.L., Winchester, An American Legend.
The Theory of Plunging Fire
from Man At Arms Magazine, Volume 19, Number Four, August, 1997)
(copyright Man at Arms, 1997, Permission for use requested)
Due to air resistance, a round ball bullet loses velocity much more rapidly than an elongated bullet. This resulted in muzzleloading (round ball) shoulder weapons being essentially unable to fire effectively at long range. Attacking forces could form up in plain view of the enemy, knowing that there would be no accurate small arms fire beyond 200-300 yards. For smoothbore, unrifled muskets, even this distance would be shortened to 40-100 yards.
With the adoption of the breechloading rifle employing linen, paper or metallic cartridges, elongated bullets became the standard. Typically, such bullets were 2.0 to 2.8 calibers in length, with the average .42 to .45 cal. bullet being 2.4 calibers (1.08 inch) long. Such a bullet, when fired at 1,400 feet per second (fps) muzzle velocity (mv), had excellent total range and good terminal velocity due to its superior wind drag factor, heavier weight and sectional density.
The year 1877 was still the era of the bayonet, sword and lance. The officer corps in every army believed in the mantra of "Giving Them Cold Steel," and, in open field combat, it was indeed necessary to not have your charging ranks too far apart, lest the first ranks be unsupported when initial hand-to-hand contact was made. Military thinkers quickly determined that oncoming ranks of infantry that were bunched up closely were vulnerable to rifle fire far beyond the range at which the shooter could actually aim at a specific target.
The accompanying diagram shows that a cartridge having a high trajectory permitted infantry to maintain relatively close spacing between their ranks at longer distances but at closer range or when a cartridge has a flatter trajectory, this safe distance between ranks is much greater. In the excitement and heat of battle it was all too easy to forget about rank spacing, and the Turks at Plevna not only had the terrain well marked and measured, but they were continually presented with ranks of Russian infantry that were much too close together, resulting in the soldiers in two or more ranks being potentially struck by any one bullet.
The terrible losses experienced at long ranges were accepted by the Russians without much thought to the cause. Military analysts and news reporters on the scene also failed to recognize what was being done incorrectly, and simply spoke of the "heavy casualties from long range fire."
How far will they shoot?
Maximum range for some 19th and 20th century military cartridges.
Name Bullet wt. Muzzle Vel. (fps) Extreme Rng (yds)
U.S. 45 70 Govt. 500gr. 1,315 3,500 (1)
French 1 I mm Gras 386gr. 1,427 3,271 ( 1 )
Spain/Egypt 43 Rem. 387gr. 1,340 3,062 (1)
U.S, 45 Peabody-Martini 485gr. 1,375 3,200 (1)(2)
U.S. 30-40 Krag 220gr. 2,000 4,050
U.S. 30-06 M2 152gr. 2,800 3,500 (3)
U.S. 30-06 MI 174gr.BT 2,600 5,500 (3)
308 Win. (7.62 NATO) 150gr. 2,820 3,300 (2)(3)
223 Rem.(5,56mm NATO) 55gr 3,240 4,500 (2)(3)
(1) Black powder cartridge; (2) Estimated data; (3) Pointed nose. All others are round nose.
A Note on Names in the Russian Imperial Family...
As anyone who has read War and Peace can tell you, keeping track of Russian names can be an ordeal. This is especially true with the members of the Imperial family, which, with a singular lack of imagination, used the same names over and over again. Their titles don’t help much either since the Russians didn't make use of place names in their titles, as did the English.
All of the sons of the Tzar except the Tsarevich, were Grand Dukes, as were all of the Tsar's Brothers and the sons of his brothers. Between 1801 and 1917. there were five Tsars who were named Nicholas, and three were named Alexander.
The Grand Duke Nicholas Nicilovich, who commanded the Russian Army in the war of 1877 was a son of Tsar Nicholas I and brother of Tsar Alexander II, then on the throne. He was born in 1839 and died in 1891. In World War I, the Russian army was also commanded by a Grand duke Nicholas Nikilovich, who was a son of this man -- making him a cousin of Tsar Alexander III and a second cousin of Tsar Nicholas II. If all of this is very confusing to you, you’re not alone. Anton Denikin, a prominent white general of the Russian civil war, recorded this story about his father:
Conscripted as a serf in the reign of Nicholas I, Denikin’s father served twenty-five years and, because of his good record, was allowed to take an examination for an Officer’s Commission in the Frontier Guards. The qualifications were: The ability to do simple math, a simple test of reading and writing, regular attendance at church and knowing the genealogy of the Imperial family.
(Joseph V. Puleo, Technical Editor)
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Updated: Oct 29, 2021