British soldiers were taught not to aim, but merely to point the piece towards the target
…the British soldier was a poor marksman. Actually, he did not “aim” his musket but merely “pointed” it at the enemy. The British manual of arms did not even include the command “Aim!”
Its inaccuracy was reflected in the British manual of arms. There was no command to “aim.” Instead, men were ordered to “level muskets” before firing.
British soldiers were trained to point their muskets, not to aim them as the American invariably did.
Not only was there no attempt made to aim, British regulars were taught to look the other way, so as not to have the musket flash blind them.
We see this one published over and over again – that British soldiers were not taught to aim their muskets. Some authors go so far as to say that Baron von Steuben’s great innovation at Valley Forge was replacing the command “present” in the British manual of arms with “take aim,” thereby giving American soldiers a tactical advantage. There’s just one problem with these assertions: British soldiers were, in fact, taught to aim, and they practiced marksmanship.
It is true that the manual of arms used to teach British soldiers how to handle their muskets did not include a command called “Aim” or “Take Aim,” but this is strictly a matter of terminology. The command was called “Present”, and part of the description was:
“..raise up the Butt so high upon the right Shoulder, that you may not be obliged to stoop too much with the Head, the right Cheek to be close to the Butt, and the left Eye shut, and look along the Barrel with the right Eye from the Breech Pin to the Muzzel….
This sounds like aiming because it is aiming. The part about not stooping the head, that is, not tilting the head sideways, makes sense if one tries it with an actual musket. Reproduction muskets often have less “drop” from the breech to the butt than do originals (apparently to use less wood in the stock), but even with a reproduction it is easy to put the bottom part of the butt firmly on the shoulder so the barrel is high enough to sight along it without tilting your head.
But British muskets didn’t have sights, right? Well… not the type of sights that modern weapons have, but there was that thing at the muzzle that people today call the bayonet lug. 18th century military manuals call this the “sight.” That’s a pretty good indication of how it was expected to be used. And many surviving, regimentally-marked muskets (that is, weapons that we know left the armories and were used in the field) have a neat groove filed into the top of the breech for sighting along the barrel. It is unlikely that these were calibrated with any sophistication, but the original muskets give us clear evidence that aiming was important.
Alright, so they did have sights, and they were taught to aim. What about practice? It has been shown that soldiers in England during times of peace seldom fired with live ammunition (“ball cartridges”), instead practicing with blank cartridges (which included everything except the bullet). But when hostilities loomed in America, more time was spent “firing at marks,” that is, target practice. Orderly books are replete with orders for soldiers, particularly recruits, to practice firing at marks. In late 1774 the commander-in-chief in Boston directed that “The General has only the following particulars to recommend; first that the men be taught to take good aim, which if they do they will always level well.” One British officer in Boston described the practice in the opening days of 1775:
The Regiments are frequently practiced at firing ball at marks. Six rounds pr man at each time is usually allotted for this practice. As our Regiment is quartered on a Wharf which Projects into the harbour, and there is very considerable range without any obstruction, we have fixed figures of men as large as life, made of thin boards, on small stages, which are anchored at a proper distance from the end of the Wharf, at which the men fire. Objects afloat, which move up and down with the tide, are frequently pointed out for them to fire at, and Premiums are sometimes given for the best shots, by which means some of our men have become excellent marksmen.
A visitor to Boston in March 1775 found it entertaining to watch the troops practicing:
I saw a Regiment & the Body of marines, each by itself, firing at marks. A Target being set up before each company, the soldier of the regiment stept out singly, took aim & fired, & the firing was kept up in this manner by the whole regiment till they had all fired ten rounds. The Marines fired by Platoons, by Companies, & sometimes by files, & made some general discharges, taking aim all the while at Targets the same as the Regiment.
Lookt at five companies on the common firing at Targets. A little dog happened to be on the beach where the balls fell thickest, & continued to run backwards & forwards after the balls, being much diverted with the noise they made, & the dirt flying about; & kept doing so, till they had done firing their 10 rounds apiece without being hurt.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that every soldier was a great marksman, or that in the pressure and confusion of battle every soldier aimed carefully. There are even comments about soldiers who appeared not to aim at all. But it is clear that the importance of aiming was recognized, taught and practiced in Britain’s professional army – which should really come as no surprise. With many years of experience and experimentation in tactics and battlefield procedures, these career soldiers had figured out that firearms were more effective if aimed than if not. Why do people believe that they didn’t aim? That remains a mystery.
 The Manual Exercise, As Ordered by His Majesty, in 1764…. The copy used here was printed by Hugh Gaine, New York, 1775. Although this document was very widely reprinted, the text of the manual exercise portion does not vary with the exception of typographical changes. Popular military writer Thomas Simes advised, “Great attention must be had in the instructing of recruits how to take aim, and that they properly adjust their ball.” Simes, Thomas, A Military Guide for Young Officers (London, 1772) 196.
 Robert Honyman. Colonial Panorama, 1775: Dr. Robert Honyman’s Journal for March and April, Philip Radford, ed. (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1939), entries for 22 March and 25 March 1775. The “body of marines” was the two battalions of marines landed from British warships and formed into a land corps for service in Boston. “by files” refers to files of men, that is, men standing one behind the other when the corps is formed in two or three ranks.
 An American officer at Fort Washington in November 1776 observed of some British soldiers firing on him, “…it is astonishing how even these blunt shooters could have missed us. But as we were ascending a considerable hill, they shot over us. I observed they took no aim, and that the moment of presenting and firing, was the same.” Alexander Graydon, Memoirs of a Life, Chiefly Passed in Pennsylvania (Harrisburg, PA: John Wyeth, 1811) 183. This passage is widely used as an example of poor British marksmanship, but could be an isolated case.