Volley fire, as a military tactic, is the practice of having a line of soldiers all fire their weapons simultaneously at the enemy forces on command, usually to make up for inaccuracy, slow rate of fire, and limited range, and to create a maximum effect.
With the advent of the handheld musket in the 16th century military revolution, volley fire tactics became used on European battlefields. Although the military historian Geoffrey Parker attributes its "invention" in Europe in an influential thesis to the Dutch rebels William Louis and Maurice of Nassau in 1594, a number of instances attest that volley fire and the countermarch were already in "common use" in Europe by this time. The contemporary Italian historian Jovius records how a form of volley fire was employed by Colonna's arquebusiers as early as the Battle of Bicocca (1522).
In the 18th century, the British would use volley fire to make up for the inaccuracy and limited range (100 yards) of their musket, the Brown Bess. Armies approached one another in linear formations. British soldiers would fire volleys in the general direction of the enemy, by ranks. The command they were given was to level weapons, rather than to aim. The shooters might be formed in three ranks, with the front rank firing simultaneously, then the second rank, offset, then the third, after which the first rank was ready to fire again. The Austrian Empire, and later the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had much trouble trying to implement the tactic. It was soon abandoned after many embarrassing losses, and the Austrian Empire has never been known for its prowess with this military formation. Effective volley fire required practice in swiftly completing the required motions. In the American Civil War volley fire was used quite effectively, since the effective range and rate of fire were greater than in earlier centuries.
Perhaps one of the best examples of volley fire in film is depicted in the Movie Zulu recounting the Battle of Rorke's Drift. In the defense of a fixed position, British infantry utilized a two rank volley fire to decimate an attack by a large Zulu force. Despite the Zulu's superior numbers, their attack collapsed under the relentless volley fire they faced.
In modern times
In modern times the use of volley fire is limited, since automatic weapons can devastate massed infantry on their own without volley fire formations.
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