07 August 2013

BF&S Skirmish level tactics: Ranged weapons

By Fire & Sword is a set of rules that work well for both smaller skirmish battles between patrols as well as larger division sized clashes between armies. In general the game play is identical and the same rules are used. However on the smaller skirmish level some things have a different impact, and what you can expect from unit performance is slightly different on this smaller scale.

In this article I will try to cover what you can expect from your musket and artillery armed units.
First let's start by mentioning the advanced rules which use limited ammunition. I would strongly suggest using these rules and keep track of unit ammunition levels as it adds realism to your games and balances the power of musket/artillery heavy armies. Limited ammunition rules also add additional bonuses to cavalry fighting in close combat (more about that later). So make sure to use the limited ammo rule even if you are just starting out and learning the game.

Skirmish level battles, are completely scenario oriented and always limited to 6 turns by default. Even though victory points are awarded for being conservative with your own force and inflicting casualties on the enemy most victory points come from the objectives themselves. It is possible to win the game having suffered both minimal casualties and having inflicted minimal casualties. This is in particular more true for forces that rely on shooting over close combat.

Shooting in By Fire & Sword is all about volume of fire if you want to inflict casualties. Shooting at close range is also to be preferred, not only because it doesn't force you to re-roll hits - but mainly because most handguns have a greater punch at close range and reduce enemy armor value by several notches. A Half-musket hitting an armored Reiter at close range reduced his survival ratio from 60% to 30%, hitting the same Reiter at longe range only reduces his survival ratio from 60%  to 50%. So as you can imagine, opening fire at close range is to be preferred if you want to inflict casualties.

Casualties lead me into the next point -morale tests. In BF&S you usually take morale tests when you lose a base, this means a unit has suffered 3 failed armor saves and lost an equal amount of wounds. At skirmish level much of your ranged weapon armed troops is about reducing the efficiency of the enemy army by forcing them to roll morale checks. A failed morale check means a unit is disorganized and whatever they had planned this turn has failed. If you manage to inflict a "Flee" result on an enemy then it's even better as a fleeing unit has the potential of running off the table. And should the enemy rally their fleeing unit they still can't issue an order to them until the following turn.

With the low lethality of the guns fired at long range, players fielding musketeers and artillery should not count on providing heaps of dead enemies - but instead focus on breaking enemy morale and preventing enemy movement. Every time you have disorganized or broken an enemy you have succeeded in reducing the options of the enemy next turn. Enemy commanders will need to spend command points to rally and reform their units, leaving them short of command points to actually boost troop morale over the coming turn.

Infantry with the ability to fire "Salvo" should try to use it as often as they possibly can (which is every two turns). The difference between Salvo and regular fire or Counter March is that it only takes a single enemy casualty to inflict a morale test. You don't need to kill an entire base, a single soldier is enough. This is a big deal.

The same goes for artillery in skirmish level games. Their strength lies not in killing rows of enemies with round shot, round shot is actually a waste of ammunition unless you are trying to snipe enemy artillery positions. Instead the strength of regimental guns and light artillery is to tag along your musketeers and fire case-shot. Case shot has no "Long range" penalty, and the range of the case shot is often the same or slightly longer than that of muskets. Just like with Salvo fired by infantry a case shot need only to inflict a single wound to cause a morale test on an enemy unit. Additionally, Case Shot increase the amount of attack dice from your artillery by 1 more than you would have had when firing round shot. And you can get one more if you fire case shot at the flank of an enemy unit.

A combination of infantry firing salvo and artillery firing case-shot creates a very solid barrier against anyone who wants to approach such a position from the front and excellent for defending chokepoints. Remember that light artillery found in skirmish level army lists can fire twice per turn due to their fast reload ability. Firing a case shot twice per turn is truly devastating - and the more sources of morale test inflicting fire you have in your force the better.

When playing with limited ammunition there is also a point of conserving ammunition, artillery should in general not fire at long range targets since you get a poor trade in spent ammunition for the few kills you inflict. The same could be said about infantry firing at long range, unless you fire at small vulnerable targets such as artillery, commanders and small companies. If your target is a full sized squadron of cavalry or infantry it is better to wait until they approach you and fire at close range.

Pistol armed troops, and Reiter’s firing "Caracole" is another subject worth mentioning. Pistols have a range of 5cm which is basically firing at an arm’s length. The only time you should consider firing pistols as a proper mode of attack is when playing the order Defend and receiving a charge - or when you have flanked an enemy and can fire at them without the threat of taking return fire. Firing pistols in defense fire of course only works if the enemy makes contact with you, or fails to make contact just a few centimeters away from your position with their first move. Make sure to think this through as firing defensive fire and being out of range will be devastating for you when the enemy moves into contact with their second movement step and benefit from all their cavalry impetus bonuses.

Caracole should be reserved to troops with arquebus handguns, these get a -1 penalty to hit from being fired from the horseback, but there is a point of using caracole to get within close range of the enemy as the arquebus has a armor piercing value of 1 which reduces the enemy armor save by 10% which can often be enough to inflict large number of kills on unarmored infantry and light cavalry alike.

Flanking fire, now combining anything of the above such as Salvo, Case Shot, Caracole or even firing regular musket fire without special rules at the flank of an enemy is where you get good value for money from your shooting. Each base firing at the flank of an enemy receives +1 attack die. Units that benefit from this the most are units that can manage to fire with their entire unit in one attack - such as units firing Salvo. A squadron of 6 bases of musketeers have 12 shooting attacks per default, firing at the flank of an enemy they get 18 attack dice!

Combine flanking fire with special rules and close range and you are onto something.

Pistol armed cavalry that can fire during their charge should also not be looked upon to slay  droves of enemies, since you only get 1 attack die from each base in the front rank of your charging unit. Shooting during charge is purely meant to soften up your target, remember that an enemy base that has suffered 1 wound fights with a 50% reduced combat efficiency in close combat and shooting attacks.

Forcing the enemy to fight back with 1 attack less is often decisive when all hits and modifiers for outnumbering/flanking have been taken into account at the end of close combat. The best use of pistols is however made by cavalry using them as part of their close combat attacks. Cavalry that have ammunition left for their pistols when they come into close combat get a +1 to their attack rolls. Combine this with a charge impetus of +1/+2 depending on your cavalry type and you realize that it is better to save that ammunition for close combat than trying to fire at an enemy from a distance.

Some armies have ranged weapons but the quality of their training or firearms is poor, for example the Border Dragoons of the Muscovy. You can still compensate their low accuracy by fielding the light artillery with that force - though they mostly rely on always defending with their extremely low FSP value which makes their skirmish group ridiculously cheap.

Polish cavalry is all equipped with a mix of bows and carbines which makes their shooting attacks quite weak - such units should not rely on their weapons to do much else than soften the enemy up with a couple of wounds before charging. Though imo the ammunition is better saved for close combat and firing pistols.

Cossack armies look poor at first glance but have a bunch of special rules that compensate for their training and short range on the muskets. The key for Cossack armies is to end up being the defender and force the enemy to come to you. Hiding behind the tabor wagons which should be placed in such a way so that the enemy can't or will have a very hard time to go around them is pretty much the way to go. Moloitsy have the nice ability to fire with rifles if you reduce their rate of fire to 1D10 per base, this allows you to shoot with average accuracy up to 50cm away! This is an excellent threat to enemy artillery trying to move up close and fire case shot, a good threat against enemy officers - but also a relatively good countermeasure against light cavalry and infantry. The Registered Cossacks are great at firing their muskets if you arrange them in a double line formation where only the front rank is shooting, in this instance the better trained cossacks are firing while the cossacks with poorer training are only reloading the muskets for the good marksmen. The volume of fire may be smaller, but remember that you also only use half a unit of ammunition if only half of your company/squadron is firing in each shooting step.

Bow armed units have a harder time inflicting damage due to the enemy receiving a small bonus to their defense rolls vs arrows. Firing arrows at heavily armored units is pointless, and to get results when firing at light and medium troops you should try to fire from the flank to at least get more attack dice. The strength of bow armed troops are usually not their weapons but all the special rules for very light cavalry that accompany the unit that allow for hit and run tactics and swift movement on the battlefield.

How this all comes into play on skirmish level

Skirmish level battles often have you control small number of men/units. Musket armed troops are simply too few in numbers to produce the volume of fire necessary to destroy an opponent purely with their ranged attacks. Instead ranged troops focus on softening the enemy up before charging them/being charged - or - try to stop the enemy by disorganizing them/making them flee by forcing them to take a morale test which they fail. Reducing the number of combat ready units the opponent has available his next turn burns through the command points your opponent would use to boost his troops during the coming turn. Preventing the enemy to move up to, or stay on an objective, is just as good as killing them. Remember that the game includes 2 shooting phases during each turn, and if your opponent burns a lot of command points to increase a units morale in one phase - he will probably have nothing left to boost his units with during the second phase. Light artillery and units with Counter March, both who can fire once in each phase, should take advantage of this fact.

Of course everything above also works (to an even higher degree) at division level. But all those tricks and tactical possibilities have a greater impact on the small scale battles fought on skirmish level when you have a limited number of turns, smaller units and clear objectives.

I hope this has given you a bit of insight into units armed with muskets and artillery, and what to expect of them on the battlefields of By Fire & Sword.


  1. Thanks, Anatoli. This was an extremely useful guide. I'm sure I would have figured this all out eventually, but only by learning it the hard way (being terribly massacred)! This information will help jumpstart my adventure into the game.

  2. One thing about save reducers. Arquebus does reduce save by 10% if the save is "0". Most units have 0-3 "amour value". Pancerni have 5 and reiters 4. A -1 is 20%-100% reduction! Imagine musketeers/dragoons weapon with -3!!

    Great text! Another important thing worth mentioning is delaying fire. It can provide another round of morale tests! (Dealdy with 3-p rapid fire rule/salvo combo).

    1. Of course, I was thinking about the % as results on the D10 with each side being 10%, but you're right the percentile impact is actually higher if you count it correctly :-)

  3. Really nice article, look forward to the next one.

    With the limited ammo, do you use the counting or the rolling to run out? Which one and why?


  4. We always use the counting of ammo, as I don't like units suddenly running out of ammo randomly. Counting ammo also allows for greater precision of the written ammo count all units carry around - and makes you conserve or spend ammunition in a more calculated manner.

    Sure it adds the element of book keeping (we use tiny D6 dice next the unit to keep track of ammo) but I prefer it to rolling D10 and find out that a unit depending on their firepower has spent all its ammo after the first salvo.

    In a campaign mode you could use the random ammo counting with die rolls to simulate some kind of chaotic and unprepared conditions - but in regular games and tournaments I would personally advice on counting the ammo.


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