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The Continental Army and the British Army were significantly different in their organizational structure, levels of experience, and funding. The Continental Army was an undisciplined, unprepared fighting force with makeshift uniforms and sloppy tactics (at least at the beginning of the war). The British Army was the world’s elite fighting force and fresh of victory of the globe-spanning Seven Years War against France and her allies. What caused the Continental Army to prevail in the Revolutionary War?


Scroll down to see the differences between the Continental Army and the British Army.

The Duke of Wellington famously said that “our army is composed of the scum of the earth – the mere scum of the earth” and that they enlisted “from having got bastard children, some from minor offenses, many more for drink.”  Napoleon said the British army was “an army of lions commanded by jackasses.” But was this true?

The “Average” British Soldier


    1. 23 years old, 5’ 6” in height.  Farmers were most common, followed by weavers and shoemakers.
    2. Most had joined voluntarily, but a few had been forced into the army by “press gangs.”
    3. Some enlisted because they were out of work. Others wanted to get out of their boring farm lives. Others joined in order to avoid death sentences or prison.  Some were tricked into enlisting.
    4. Most were Scottish or Irish.  English recruits made up only about 30% of the army.
    5. Only a third of enlisted men could read and write.
    6. Most received an enlistment bonus equivalent to $100 US today.  This rose to the equivalent of $800 today.
    7. They were paid only 8 pence a day, but they had to pay for their uniform and equipment, so they actually received much less.  Some took extra jobs on the side. Scott asks if the British had a large standing army – did England heavily conscript during wartime?



    1. The regiment was the basic unit.  It was also the highest official unit, although regiments were sometimes grouped together into brigades on an ad hoc basis. Each regiment had its own number to identify it.  Many regiments had their own history, and there was a lot of regimental pride.
    2. Each regiment was divided into 8 battalion (or “regular”) companies, 1 “grenadier” company, and one “light infantry” company.  A company had about 60 men and were led by a cannon.
    3. Grenadiers started as grenade experts, but evolved into an elite force.
    4. Light infantry had lighter and less equipment so they could move quicker.  They were often used as “skirmishers” (kind of like scouts).



Training and Leadership

    1. Recruits trained in their regiment, although the training was mainly drill, with very little physical training.
    2. Each regiment had its own distinctive color for lapels and cuffs, as well as to have the number of the regiment stamped on the buttons.
    3. Discipline was very strict.  Beatings and floggings were frequent and severe, with up to 1000 lashes.  
    4. Officers were drawn mainly from “gentlemen”, including the aristocracy, the gentry, clergy, and politicians.  Many officers were Scottish and Irish, just as with the enlisted men.
    5. There was no military academy.  Most officers simply bought their office.  The higher the rank, the higher the cost (but even the lowest rank was very expensive).



Uniforms and Equipment

    1. Full body red wool coat with a divided rear skirt and turned back cuffs.
    2. Sleeveless white vest and white knee breeches.
    3. Black three-cornered hat.
    4. The primary weapon was the “Brown Bess,” a smoothbore, muzzle-loading, single shot, flintlock. 75 caliber musket.
      1. Musket:  3.5 foot long barrel with no rifling.  The maximum range was about 80 yards, and the muzzle velocity was relatively low.  It 
      2. Muzzle Loading: it had to be loaded from the muzzle (the business end). 
      3. 75 caliber: The ball was round and one-half inch in diameter.  When it entered a human body it crushed bones and tore up muscle and organs.
      4. Single shot: The solider had to empty a paper cartridge into the muzzle, drop the ball in, and ram it down with a ramrod.
      5. Flintlock: When the trigger was pulled, it allowed a hammer with a screwed-down piece of flint to strike a movable frizzen.  This created a spark which ignited a small amount of gunpowder in a pan below the frizzen. The flash set off the powder in the barrel which forced the ball out.
      6. (Describe process of loading musket) A good soldier could get off three shots a minute.  
    5. Officers generally did not use muskets. Instead they used flintlock pistols and swords.



      1. The point of firing at the enemy was to mass the firing to disrupt the enemy. “Accuracy by volume.” Individual accuracy was not stressed (in general).
      2. More key to warfare than shooting was the use of the bayonet in charges.  A line of soldiers above all else to push the enemy back. 
      3. Dead and wounded were usually left on the field, with the exception of officers.  There was no organized medical corps.


Continental Army


    1. At first, the largest unit was a militia company. These companies elected their own officers and initially did not adhere to traditional military discipline.
    2. Over time, they were grouped into regiments and were made more “regular” along the British model.
    3. By the summer of 1775, the militias organized into armies specific to each colony, each with its own generals and other senior officers.  But officers from one colony did not usually obey orders from officers of other colony. Units often came and went as they pleased.
    4. Uniforms (when troops had them) were similar to British ones, except they were blue and buff (especially after 1779) or blue and red.  Militia tended to not have uniforms, especially at first. After the French joined the war, they began sending brown uniforms with red trim.
    5. Muskets and other equipment were similar, except that they increasingly used French muskets and gunpowder, which were superior to their British equivalents.
    6. Most continental soldiers were of British descent, although descended from other European nations.  Also, Native Americans fought on both sides, as did African-Americans. Most Continentals were farmers.
    7. The average age was 21 for the American-born but 29 for foreign-born (14% of whom were transported convicts who were sent to the colonies as indentured servants).
    8. In other words, many of the men who joined the Continental Army did so for financial reasons.  The bounties were a big draw.
    9. Officer positions were given on the basis of merit; they were not sold as in the British army. Many American officers had been traders beforehand.

This article is part of our larger selection of posts about Colonial America. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to Colonial America.

This article is also part of our larger selection of posts about American History. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to American History.

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