A Fun Texas “What if” Fantasy

In August of 1835, Steven F. Austin returned from his imprisonment in Mexico City. The following month, instead of continuing to call for peace, he began to call for war. In the following month, the Texas Revolution began at Gonzalez with the attempted seizure of a cannon the Texans had in their possession. In December, Ben Milam and Frank Johnson assaulted San Antonio and took control of the city a few days later, setting the course for the most famous battle in Texas history.

As a historian, it is sometimes fun to play the “what if” game. It is not encouraged among professional groups because our job is to analyze and interpret history. However, a couple of questions were passed to me recently and I will attempt to address both over the course of my next two blog entries. The first, do I think the Alamo could have been held by 10 US Marines with a modern-day load out? The second is a bit more serious and could have had major implications in extending the Texas Revolution. Could the Alamo have been held if James Fannin had left Goliad and reinforced Colonel William Travis?

To analyze the possibilities, I thought it was best possible to look at the small arms of the time. I acknowledge I am leaving out part of the standard kit of a Marine and will not look at the implications of hand grenades or machine guns. I will brush over night vision devices and scoped weapons because the implications of being able to see at night against and enemy who cannot is self-explanatory.

In the 1830s, the Mexican soldier was armed with a British rifle. Some historians believe them to be the famed Brown Bess. However, the ones sold to Mexico would have most likely been the Indian produced version, and therefore have been of a lesser quality than the European produced model used by the British army. This nine-pound rifle fired a .752 caliber ball through a 39-inch barrel. It was known to be very inaccurate. 1 Some claim this black powder rifle was good up to 300 yards, but the Indian produced model was accurate to around 100 yards, with the optimal range being 50 or less. The reason being the Indian model did not have the refined barrel of the European model. (Oddly enough, quality between Russian, Chinese, Czech, and other former Eastern Bloc countries is similar in the famed AK-47 produced today. The Russian model is far superior in quality). This lack of accuracy made it better suited to slow, static battle field tactic of lines abreast and volley fire. The lack of accuracy was brought about by a slow rifling barrel. 2 Rifled barreling places grooves inside the barrel of a rifle in order to spin a bullet as it moves forward. A spinning bullet more stable in flight. Think of it in baseball terms as a fastball versus a knuckleball. The knuckleball will dance because it is subject to the air pressure around it. A fastball is more stable and “straight” due to the spin that allows it to be less susceptible to changes in air flow. (Incidentally, this slow rifling problem also plagued the early models of the famous M16). In addition to the long barrel, the rifle was also equipped with 23-inch sword bayonet that would become useless when it was in place if the weapon was fired. The blast would cause the bayonet to fall off. In addition, the bayonet weighed almost two pounds, making rifle handling extremely difficult and clumsy.

In terms of rifle quality alone, the Mexican soldier was found to be wanting.

Brown Bess

BROWN BESS courtesy of The Specialistltd.com

The modern rifle used by the US Marine Corps is either the M16A4, M4, or M4A1. For simplicities sake, this scenario will use the M4.

The M4 is the younger relative of the Armalite, and later Colt M16. It is a smaller version with a shorter barrel and collapsible stock. It’s effective range on a point target is about 500 yards. 3 Marines must qualify at 200, 300, and 500 yards with iron sights in boot camp. 4 The M4 also has the option of firing on single shot, or three round burst. This alone gives the Marines a massive advantage. In addition, the weapon is about 8 pounds fully loaded and only about 33-inches long when the stock is fully extended.

M4 carbine with scope
M4 carbine courtesy of History War Weapons

In this scenario, I was asked to consider the Marines with a standard loadout. With that in mind, the rifles would be equipped with combat optics, either an Aimpoint or Eotech red dot sight, which come into play in close quarters and short ranges. The marines would also have night vision devices, allowing them to use a standard laser to aim at night. Aiming at night would be important considering the final Mexican assault took place before dawn.

Two distinct Marine advantages have been noted, the ability to see at night and the range of effective small arms, 500 yards vs. 100 yards.

The Mexican Army also set up artillery around the Alamo compound at distances from 250-600 yards away. They also had at least two howitzers with a range of around 1500 yards, well outside of the range of Marine rifles. 5 The Mexicans could have fired their howitzers in an attempt to either breech the walls, or kill the Marines on top. The Marines would be able to pick off the closer field guns and their crews with the range of their rifles roughly equaling the range of the artillery. With a hypothetical 5 Marines taking a shot at the same target, at least one bullet would be bound to find it’s mark. The Mexicans could fire the howitzer, but the Marines could easily displace between shots due to the slow, manual reload time.

On the morning of the assault, the 1,800 Mexican soldiers charged into the fire of 180-250 Texans behind the strong walls of the Alamo compound. With a relatively low rate of fire, the Texans were simply overwhelmed by numbers. The Texans had stacked several rifles with full loads in order to fire as much as quickly as possible. First the northern and western walls were abandoned as the Texans pulled back to the church and barracks located in the center and south-east corner of the compound. The south wall and palisades next to the church were the last to fall. Superior numbers and the slow rate of Texan defender rifle fire ultimately led to the fall of the Alamo.

The question still remains, would 10 Marines with a modern loadout have been able to hold out against the Mexican army?

It is absolutely possible, and in my estimation, probable they could have. The biggest deficiency for the Texans was the massive piece of real estate they were expected to hold with very little manpower. The compound in front of the church is where most of the fighting took place. It was roughly the size of two football fields laid end to end, about 550 feet by 240 feet. The Texas forces had a high estimate of around 250 men. That makes for 1 man for every six feet of wall. However, some were manning the canon at the back of the church, some were outside the walls, and others were in the cow pens to the northeast. By this line of thought, the Marines would be badly overmatched in regards to the amount of wall space they could cover.

Alamo compound
Alamo Compound Courtesy of Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library
Note: The Church is on the bottom right of the picture. Part of the wall on the left (west) can still be seen today across the street and next to the House of Wax.

However, the assault came mainly from the north and south. The Marines could put 5 men on each wall. As the Mexicans assaulted, the Marines would be able to put out an incredible amount of defensive fire. They would not necessarily need to kill, but to simply disable. A soldier with broken legs and holes in their body is not going to be climbing ladders. Distance to the objective would also be on the Marines side. They could shoot slowly at individual targets at a distance as the initial assault would begin. The ability to quickly drop a magazine, insert a new one, and get back to shooting quickly would be essential to defense. The Texans did not have that advantage.

Assuming the Mexican would eventually get over the wall, the Marines would displace, just as the Texans did. They would also head for the church building and its thick, protective walls. The church had a one main entrance in the front and a second in the rear that opened to the cow pens. Needless to say, the Mexicans could only send a few men through the church doors at one time. The Marines would simply need to fire at the doors from cover and let the bodies stack up, forming a barrier. Eventually, the Mexicans could build ladders to climb over the 22-foot-high walls of the church and its open top. 6 However, the Marines would have been able to put a few men on top of those walls by virtue of using the ramp at the rear of the church.

In the end, the Marine’s firepower would have been enough to defeat the Mexican army of the time. With enough ammunition, the Mexican cannons, could have eventually destroyed the Alamo walls. However, the Marines with small arms would have made short work of the cannons within their range. It is also possible if the Mexicans preferred to pound the walls, the Marines would send a couple of men outside the walls in order to pick off the artillery crews from a shorter distance.

The great deciding factor in the battle would simply be ammunition. With enough ammunition, the Marines would easily hold off the Mexican army. With the exact same physical and material conditions as the siege in 1836, the Marines would have had a store of needed ammunition in the church. The Texans of the time, had a massive amount of ammunition and gunpowder on hand.

There have been numerous examples in history of numerically superior forces being defeated by significantly smaller number. The Vietnam War provided a plethora of examples, as does the American Revolution, and even the culminating Battle of San Jacinto that ended the Texas Revolution.

History has proven it is much easier and less costly to fight on the defensive than to assault a fortified position. In terms of numbers, the defenders of the Alamo proved this to be true by killing around 600 Mexicans at the loss of around 250 Texan, a kill ratio of roughly almost 2.5:1. US Marines, firing modern weapons from the same positions, would only up those numbers. 7

In short, with enough ammunition, 10 Marines could have held the Alamo against Santa Anna’s assault.

Remember the Alamo!!

1849 Alamo
Circa 1849 picture of the Alamo. Little renovation had been done to the church since the 1836 battle.
Courtesy of Wise about Texas

1 “Arms of the Mexican Infantry 1835-1836.” Arms of the Mexican Infantry 1835-1836. Accessed August 24, 2016. https://www.tamu.edu/faculty/ccbn/dewitt/adp/history/1836/the_battle/the_weapons/mexweapons.html.

2 Ibid.

3 “M4 Carbine.” Military.com. Accessed August 24, 2016. http://www.military.com/equipment/m4-carbine.

4 “Marine Corps Weapons Qualification Course.” Military.com. Accessed August 24, 2016. http://www.military.com/join-armed-forces/marine-corps-weapons-qualification-course.html.

5 “LA VILLITA EARTHWORKS.” BROWN, KENNETH M. Accessed August 24, 2016. https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/bbl17.

6 Ibid.

7 “Mythologizing The Alamo.” Mythologizing The Alamo. Accessed August 24, 2016. https://www.tamu.edu/faculty/ccbn/dewitt/adp/archives/newsarch/santos.html.