The land forces of the British and Americans were similar in terms of organization, weapons, and tactical doctrine, although the United States Army regularly enjoyed a numerical advantage while the king’s soldiers normally benefited from stronger leadership and better training until the last year of the war, by which time their opponents had improved the competence of their regular forces. Like all Western armies, both had a mix of line and light infantry, as well as artillery, cavalry, engineers, and others. Both also relied on the services of part-time militiamen drawn from the civilian population. Indeed, the Americans called out over 450,000 militia during the war, a number equivalent to 90 per cent of the entire population of British North America. Additionally, both sides deployed soldiers whose competence fell between the professionalism of the regulars and the limitations of the militia, such as regiments of American volunteers and ‘incorporated’ Canadian militia.

The land war was primarily an infantry struggle, fought by men organized into regimental or battalion formations that varied in size, but commonly mustered 500–800 soldiers. For most, their principal firearm was the smoothbore, muzzle-loaded, single-shot, flintlock musket. Using paper cartridges containing a ball and powder (and occasionally extra buckshot, especially in American service), a soldier could load and fire his weapon two or three times per minute.

 In action, the musket could be reasonably accurate at 50 yards (45m) and remained deadly up to 150 (140m). After that, its potency declined rapidly. Until improvements in weapons technology occurred later in the 1800s, the most effective way of using muskets was to stand troops in tightly packed lines and fire massed volleys into the enemy at close range. In simplified terms, these volleys ideally would shatter the opposing line so that the winning side could use its secondary weapon, the bayonet, to drive its adversaries from the field if they had not already left. There were some adaptations to the rough North American environment, such as thinning the lines compared to European practice on occasion, but the fundamental principle of volley fire dominated deployment and combat operations for both armies.

As effective as these dense formations of infantry were – and it was these soldiers who decided the big battles – they could not be used in all of the situations in which foot soldiers had to engage. Armies also needed light infantry when conditions called for skirmishing, ambushing, or guarding the line infantry’s front, flanks, and rear. In battle, light infantry often deployed in a thin line or chain ahead of the main force until it was ready to fight. This allowed their small numbers to cover a wider frontage than the formation they protected. It meant, however, that they could not produce the heavy volume of fire of line troops, which was their fundamental weakness. Essentially, light infantry tried to preserve the main body from harassment by covering it so that it could approach the enemy in as fresh a state as possible. Additionally, they might try to weaken the enemy line before the arrival of their own line. In retreat, light infantry might deploy to hold off pursuing troops long enough for the main force to escape. Ian advance, they might rush ahead to thwart enemy efforts to recover from a setback or to capture positions of tactical value, such as bridges or places that might serve as strongpoints.

The majority of light troops carried muskets, but some used rifles. The main differences between these weapons were that the barrel interiors of rifles were not smooth but had spiral grooves cut into them and they held tighterfitting bullets. This meant that rifles could be more accurate than muskets and were dangerous at 300 yards (275m). However, they took longer to load, fouled from gunpowder residue quickly, and suffered from other challenges. These limitations prevented them from becoming the dominant infantry weapon until technological advances solved these problems several decades after the War of 1812 had ended.

In the confusion of popular history, a common view is that British infantry fought in tightly packed lines and the Americans deployed in an individualistic manner and used cover because of their knowledge on the North American environment. The reality was that light infantry formed a larger percentage of the British than American regular forces in the war, and all armies in the Western tradition recognized the need for a balance of line and light troops. In terms of technology, drill, tactics, and other aspects of their militaries, there were many more similarities than differences between the British and American soldiers who faced each other across the fields and forests of the Great Lakes in the north, the Atlantic coast on the east, and the Gulf regions to the south.

The artillery used on land was similar to that employed at sea, with guns being the dominant weapon, but with carronades seeing limited service, such as in fortifications for close-quarters defence. Likewise, round shot and canister were the most commonly used projectiles. Armies, however, used mortars and howitzers more often than navies did. These weapons fired on high-angled trajectories and used shells, or exploding shot, as their primary projectile. A shell was a hollow ball filled with gunpowder and equipped with a fuse. The fuse could be adjusted so the shell would explode at a predetermined number of seconds after being fired. The British – but not the Americans – also used spherical case shot, or shrapnel. It was a shell containing musket balls and a powder charge, which, when fired from howitzers, served as a kind of long-range canister shot by exploding over the heads of enemies to rain both shell fragments and balls down upon them. Both sides used rockets, although the British employed them much more frequently than their opponents did. Used on land and at sea, rockets fired artillery projectiles from a pole, obviating the need for heavy guns or howitzers, which made them far more portable. They were, however, less accurate, but were not as unreliable as some writers have imagined them to have been.

Read more in The War of 1812 by Carl Benn.