Instead, the workhorse weapon of the 18th century remained the smoothbore musket. From the 1700s to the 1850s, armies relied on smoothbores and employed a handful of techniques to overcome its flaws. To help compensate for the inaccuracy of each individual soldier, armies grouped their troops into lines, with soldiers standing in tightly-packed ranks, elbow-to-elbow and shoulder-to-shoulder with their neighbors.
Soldiers standing in those lines strove to load and fire their weapons in concert, executing each step in precise synchrony with their neighbors. Troops fired their weapons all at once, in an action known as a “volley,” which helped compensate for the poor accuracy of the musket. Though an individual soldier had little chance of hitting a target, 100 soldiers firing at once in a coordinated volley created a swarm of bullets, at least some of which were bound to hit something.
The British soldiers in Paul Revere’s celebrated engraving of the Boston Massacre are employing just such a volley. The troops are shown having formed a line in close quarters, and the billowing clouds of white smoke indicate that they have just fired a volley into the colonial mob.
“The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street, Boston, on Mar. 5, 1770,” (ARC Identifier 530966), Signal Corp Photographs of American Military Activity, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (accessed September 6, 2012).