A rifle regiment is a military unit consisting of a regiment of infantry troops armed with rifles and known as riflemen. While all infantry units in modern armies are typically armed with rifled weapons the term is still used to denote regiments that follow the distinct traditions that differentiated them from other infantry units.
Rifles had existed for decades before the formations of the first rifle regiments but were initially too slow to load and too unreliable in use to be considered practical weapons for mass issue. With improvements in designs of rifles, the first rifle regiment was raised very late in the 18th century as armies could now equip entire units of troops with these new weapons in preference to earlier handguns such as muskets. Though rifles still took about twice as long to load as a musket the increase in accuracy and change in tactics more than compensated for this delay.
British rifle regiments in the late 18th and early 19th centuries
European armies in the 18th century largely consisted of large numbers of line infantry troops in brightly coloured uniforms firing volleys in massed formations on open fields. More emphasis was placed on volume of fire than on individual marksmanship, there was little room for individual manoeuvrability and soldiers were expected to carry heavy packs and march in file. As muskets took so long to reload and were rather inaccurate at more than one or two hundred yards a mass volley was often followed by a bayonet charge. The side that fired first charged then had its charge disrupted by the opposing volley meaning that firing first was not necessarily an advantage.
These tactics proved ineffective versus the French troops and their Native American allies in the often wooded terrain of North America in the middle of the 18th century. Unofficial experiments with troops wearing homemade dark green or brown coloured jackets and carrying lighter gear were carried out by 60th (Royal American) Regiment under the inspiration of 1st battalion commander Henri Bouquet. A sister battalion, the 5/60 that was raised from foreign troops later fought in the Peninsular War equipped as a normal regiment. It quickly replaced its line infantry with riflemen to become a rifle unit in practice and later in the 19th century it became a rifle unit in name as well.
Following this successful experimentation, in 1800 Colonel Coote Manningham handpicked troops from fifteen regiments to raise the Experimental Corps of Riflemen which eventually developed into the 95th Rifles. These troops were distinguished by a wearing a dark green jacket (rifle green) instead of scarlet and black belts instead of white (both to as camouflage), being armed with the Baker rifle instead of a musket, travelling in dispersed formation, often in pairs, instead of a marching in file and were instructed to aim and be selective of targets. (The use of green was so distinctive that it led to the naming of the Green Jackets Brigade who became the Royal Green Jackets.) Officially the Baker was issued only to rifle regiments with other infantry units being issued muskets. Having neither Colours to act as a rally point nor drums to issue commands the riflemen used bugles as signals. Many tactics pioneered by the riflemen are standard infantry tactics today.
Rifle regiments were notable for their somewhat less harsh disciplinary proceedings compared with other units, such as less frequent flogging. Officers in the rifle regiments would also dine with the enlisted men, a practise that was uncommon at the time and is still unusual, officers and enlisted soldiers typically having separate messes. In class-conscious British society, where officers bought and sold commissions and so tended to come from the upper classes, this triggered condescension from regular army officers, who regarded riflemen as socially inferior.
Lack of Colours
As rifle regiments travelled in dispersed formation and specifically did not carry Colours there was no place to carry their battle honours. Initially they did not carry drums either but now these are carried and battle honours are placed on them instead. Battle honours may also appear on the cap badges.
Due to them being relatively new units rifle regiments tended to come at the end of the order of precedence when on parade. Following amalgamations and reorganisation in the 19th century some rifle regiments were found substantially higher in order of precedence, such as were The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), than they are today.
Modern British rifle regiments
Historically, many regiments consisted of single battalions. With the restructuring of the British Army many regiments have been combined into large regiments.
- Rifle Brigade (Prince Consort's Own)
- King's Royal Rifle Corps
- Royal Ulster Rifles
- British Army order of precedence
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