As a social institution, the British army in 1776 was a bundle of paradoxes. How so?
The customary image of the British soldier of the Revolution is that of a collection of Britain’s dregs, but the reality is somewhat different. The average British soldier was probably about 23 years old and about 5-foot-6-inches in height. He had most probably been an agricultural laborer; weavers and shoemakers made up the next largest categories. It was a volunteer army; the average soldier probably enlisted because he was out of work. He was as likely to be Scottish or Irish as he was to be English. He was probably illiterate. The enlistment bounty was a guinea and a crown. The soldier’s pay was eight pence a day, subject to “stoppages” for uniforms, tools, and such, thus reducing it to almost nothing. Soldiers could earn extra pay for various tasks and in peacetime could work civilian jobs in their off-hours. No one enlisted in the British army; they enlisted or were recruited for service in a particular regiment, the basic organizational unit of the army. Enlistment was for life. Discipline was severe but was held to be necessary for proper behavior and subordination. Flogging was not abolished until 1881. Desertion, cowardice, striking an officer, mutiny, murder, and rape were all flogging or hanging offenses.
Officers were drawn entirely from the class of gentlemen. Like the ranks, they were almost equally divided among Scots, Irish, and English. There was no military academy for officers until the establishment of Sandhurst in 1796; most officers bought their commissions at prices that kept the lower classes out.
Officers and men stood out together because of their uniform, a “full-bodied” red wool coat. The coat featured a divided rear skirt, oversize folded-back cuffs, and folded-back lapels and skirt-corners. The purposes of the uniform were identification and intimidation.
The regiment was the primary building block of the British army. No formal organization existed above its level, though regiments could be grouped together as a brigade on an ad hoc basis for war service or for particular campaigns. There was only one grade of officer above the regimental command rank of colonel, and that was simply general.
The British soldier’s principal weapon was the Short Land Service musket, or “Brown Bess,” first introduced in 1718. It was a musket that featured a 3-foot-6-inch-long barrel with no rifling and was utterly unreliable for hitting targets at more than 80 yards. It was bored for .75 calibre ammunition that crushed bone and tissue.