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Wellington's Army

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C. Hamilton Smith's Experiment with the Colour of Uniforms
Edited by Keith Raynor

Twenty years as a reenactor, Mr Raynor is an experienced and thorough researcher in England and contributes articles regularly to Magazines such as First Empire and the Age of Napoleon. Mr Raynor assists Access Heritage Inc (formerly The Discriminating General) considerably in unearthing key documents and artifacts that allow us to more accurately manufacture of our products.

While reading this document keep in mind the colour selected for the uniforms of the Canadian Voltigeurs. It is possible this corps' Colonel, Charles-Michel Salaberry was present at the below experiment. As well Major General Baron Francis de Rottenburg, founder of the 5th (Rifle) Battlalion of the 60th Regiment and an innovator British light infantry tactics, was in Lower Canada during the formation of the Canadian Voltiguers and could also have been in attendence at Hamilton Smith's tests in 1800. -Webmaster

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Canadian Voltigeurs performing target practice, 1812 by Eugene Leliepvre (courtesy of Parks Canada)

Though it might appear to be slow at times, the British Army did not stand still regarding the experimentation or introduction of acceptable new ideas during the Napoleonic Wars. This included questioning the suitability of red as the uniform colour for the army particularly for its light troops. One such experiment occured in 1800 being a controlled test on the effect aimed rifle fire had on coloured targets, these targets being either of a red, green or grey colour. The resulting tests showed that grey was the most suitable colour for a uniform and a recommendation was made for its adoption by Riflemen and Light Infantry.

The tests were carried out by the rifle company of the 6th/60th (1) under the supervision of Charles Hamilton-Smith (2). Years later he described the experiment in an article for the Royal Engineers (3). The main part of Hamilton-Smiths article precluding the preamble is herewith transcribed below:

" Under general circumstances; and in battles, when the distance, the smoke of cannon and musketry, partially, at least, concealed contending armies from each other, glaring uniforms may not have caused serious bloodshed; but in the later wars, and the mode of engaging introduced during the French Revolution, where the rifle service is greatly increased, and clouds of skirmishing light Infantry cover the front of their forces so far in advance as to be checked only by similar combatants pushed forward by the opposing army, the fire of both parties is commonly guided by individual aim, and good marksmen make considerable havoc. The colour of the uniform becomes therefore a question of importance, particularly where it is of so distinct a nature as to offer a clear object to the marksman.

Observation teaches military uniforms to fade from the eye, in proportion as they are neutralized; from red, the most conspicuous, to earthen brown and neutral greys. To the marksmen, white enlarges the object, and is so far deceptive; blue reduces the real magnitude; black and dark green assimilate with blue, and light green has a tendency to appear neutral.

The relative distinctiveness of these colours was readily ascertained by the normal rifle company of the 6th battalion 60th Regiment, which, after rather severe service in the Helder expedition, returned to the Isle of Wight, and there had, with the sanction of its Colonel, permission to undertake a series of experiments on the comparative effect of rifle fire upon different colours.

After some preliminary observations on plain white and on black targets without ring or bull's-eye, and where the first mentioned was evidently more maltreated by rifle shot than the second, it was resolved to confine the trials to plain red, green, and grey, -- a light iron-grey made with distemper being then the uniform of a Highland regiment, of a Dutch rifle battalion, both in the same garrison, and the normal company in question, which then still had the same Austrian Tyrolean costume which it had worn in the last Helder expedition. From this Company were selected the best six marksmen, all educated Jager, and each was supplied with six bullets. The red target, placed on the open heath, was distant 125 yards from the stand; the time selected was seven in the morning, with weather sufficiently moderate not to have perceptable influence on the direction of the shot; the men were to load as to them seemed best, and to fire at leisure. After each had fired six shots, the party returned home. On the next day, when the weather was equally favourable, and the sun at the same angle of elevation, the same number of shots, were delivered by the same men, and under the same conditions, at the green target; and on the third, at the grey.

On the third day of the second series of trials, the men immediately observed that they were now so familar with the distance, that their fire would be more effective than in the first. But it was this time the grey target that was to be aimed at, and the result turned out by no means commensurate with the expectation of the marksmen. In this manner the second series of experiments was conducted, even with more care, if possible, to maintain the conditions perfectly similar: each day the targets had the shot-holes stopped, and the surface repainted; but now the red target was already so much damaged, that fearing it would not hold together for the day's trial, the distance for the third and last series of rounds was increased to 150 yards, and notwithstanding the changes resulting therefrom, it fell to pieces before the last shot was delivered, and, being bound together by withies, was brought home in a bundle. The green also was so much battered in the fiery ordeal as to be unfit for repairing; but the grey remained sound, and was afterwards used again.

There had been fired 108 shots at each, 72 of which at 125, and the last 36 at 150 yards. It is to be regretted that the exact number of shot-holes which had been each day carefully noted down is not now in the possession of the writer; the copy of the report which was sent up to Sir Robert Brownrigg, the Quarter Master General of the forces and Colonel of the battalion, having been lent to a Military acquaintance who never returned it. But so far as recollection can be depended on, there were, it is believed, more than double the number in the red than in the grey target, and the state of the green was intermediate.

It was observed also that the grey was comparatively unhurt when the distance was increased, and to ascertain the fact more fully, that target was afterwards painted vertically one half red and the other left grey, and the same result was obtained. It was then suggested to set up the triangle stand, upon which the rifle can be laid, in order to level it at the centre, and screw it fast. The most experienced Tyrolean in the company took pains to effect the object, and still the red bore the great majority of hits, upon which last occasion only it is proper to observe that both ring and bull's eye were painted black, none having been used during the three first series of experiments.

The general result is, however, of so important a nature, that it appears exceedingly desirable they should be repeated, and if possible, with still greater precautions, because, in case of further confirmation, the question arises whether all riflemen and light infantry should not take the field in some grey unostentations uniform, leaving the parade dress for peace and garrison duty.

Charles Hamilton-Smith, Colonel."


1. The rifle company of the 6th/60th had just returned from the Helder campaign in which they had worn a light iron-grey uniform. Two years later the uniform had changed, the regulations describing it as: " The rifle companies of the 1st/2nd/3rd/4th and 6th battalions of the 60th Regiment. The Jackets for the rifle corps of the above battns, are of green cloth without lappels or lining except the sleeves. The inside of the breast fronts ( faced ) with red cloth, and made to button over the body down to the waist with 10 buttons. Short skirts not turned back, but cut to slope off behind, with the pocket flaps sloping like light infantry and the pocket in the plait. Round cuffs with 4 buttons on each and without slits. The cuffs, Shoulder straps and a standing collar of green cloth. No wings or lace, but the edges of the whole jacket feathered with red cloth. The back skirts to fold well over between the hip buttons, and all the buttons on the Jacket small. A white milled serge waistcoat with sleeves. Green cloth breeches, and black cloth woolen gaiters." 2. Charles Hamilton-Smith. ( 1776-1859 ) Soldier, artist and author. Military career: 1787 studied at the Austrian academy for artillery and engineers at Malines and Louvain. Served as a volunteer in the 8th Light Dragoons, then as a cornet in Hompesch's Hussars. In December 1797 joined the 60th Regiment in the West Indies. 1809, was on recruiting service in Coventry, then engaged as deputy quarter-master general for the Walcheren Expedition. In January 1811, again at Coventry, then becoming a Captain in the 6th Regiment. Called to active service again, he provided maps for Lord Lynedoch in March 1815 of roads and towns in the Ardennes. In 1816, sent on a mission to the U.S.A. and Canada. Retired on half-pay 1820 and never again actively employed. Received brevet rank of Lt-Colonel in 1830. The above taken from the Dictionary of National Biography. 3. " Aide-Memoire to the Military Sciences, volume 1 " London 1853. 4. A short note on Hamilton-Smiths experiment can be found in the article, " Fire effect " by Major G. Tylden, Journal of Army Historical Research, volume 20 5. Hamilton-Smiths recommendation for the use of grey uniforms by light infantry was not heeded by Horse Guards. Instead green was to become the colour associated with Light Infantry. Already worn by units like the 5th/60th and Rifle companys of the North Yorks Militia; it would subsequently be used by such regiments as the 95th Rifles, Glengarry Light Infantry, etc; and eventually by all battalions of the 60th foot (by May 1815). Indeed, in 1811 it was recommended that all light infantry be clothed in green, though nothing came of that proposition too.

Published in " Age of Napoleon ", England

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