A Note on Smallarms of the Indian Army

My background research for the Mysore hill forts article (see Lewis 2012) required that I learn about the early 19th century arms and equipment of the East India Company’s (EIC) army. This work soon broadened to include several of the more common smallarms of the Indian Army, which is the direct descendant of the EIC army (Menezes 1999).

As I studied what the Indian infantryman carried into battle over the past few centuries, two weapons stood out, the India Pattern musket and the .303 Lee-Enfield. Both were in service for a half century or more; both were important British Army weapons and were used by armies elsewhere in the British Empire; and hundreds of thousands of both weapons were issued to Indian soldiers. In short, the India Pattern musket and the .303 Lee-Enfield, more than any other smallarms, played significant roles in recent Indian military history.

I will explore several aspects of these weapons in subsequent blog posts. The main point to be made here is that long-serving smallarms share several characteristics: they are effective, dependable, relatively easy to maintain in serviceable condition, and cheap to manufacture. They are the cockroaches of the smallarms world, good at what they do and hard to get rid of. While they were clearly not the best choice for every tactical situation, they filled an important niche as general purpose infantry weapons for many years.

Length of service of a weapon type can be an interesting characteristic when viewed in archaeological and historical perspective. It makes the researcher address an important question–what makes a weapon design so attractive (or so necessary) that commanders will send men into battle with arms that would have been familiar to their grandfathers? Such a question would be absurd if asked of conflicts during, say, the Upper Paleolithic (ca 35,000-10,000 years ago) when abundant archaeological evidence shows that the rate of change in material culture was small relative to that of modern times. In the Upper Paleolithic (and for thousands of years afterwards), innovation in warfare was more the exception than the rule, and men went off to war with arms and equipment that could be several generations old. However, the same question asked of modern armies in the rapidly industrializing world of the late-18th through the 20th centuries is far from trivial. Alternative arms were available to these armies, but in some times and places the consensus, even if unspoken, was that some smallarms that had already seen long service were “good enough”.

Length of service, by the way does not carry with it the notion that a given weapon type remained in use without change throughout its service life. Muskets used by the EIC army during the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, were not unchanging designs that that may have responded mostly to questions of cost. Far from it. Each musket design or pattern was subject to frequent modifications that drew on experiments, technological developments, and after-action reports. Therefore, a weapon like the India Pattern musket was neither a great design nor a reflection of the EIC’s tightwad policies (of which there were plenty); it was a good design that benefited greatly from previous muskets and it continued to be improved throughout its service life.

References Cited

Lewis, Barry (2012) British Assessments of Tipu Sultan’s Hill Forts in Northern Mysore, South India, 1802. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 16: 164–198.

Menezes, S. L. (1999) Fidelity and Honour: The Indian Army from the Seventeenth to the Twenty-first Century.  New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

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