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For other uses, see Rifleman (disambiguation).
British Army rifleman of the Peninsular War

A rifleman (abbr. Rfn[1][2]) is a soldier in a light infantry unit. Although ultimately originating with the 16th century hand gunners and the 17th-century musketeers and streltsy, the term rifleman originated in the 18th century. Entire regiments and bodies of troops were armed with the weapon. It later became the term for the archetypal common infantryman.


Units of musketeers originally developed to support units of pikemen. As the effectiveness of firearms increased, the balance of these pike-and-musket units shifted, until the pikes were supporting the muskets. The last pike regiments were dissolved by the 1720s with the invention of the bayonet. This innovation replaced the pike, and in effect converted the musket into a pike for those situations where it might still be useful, such as following up volleys with a charge, or defending against cavalry.

Smooth-bore weapons such as the musket had always been recognised as inaccurate, requiring massed volleys to be effective. Aimed fire, with targets individually chosen and fired upon on the initiative of the soldier, was not possible until the development of rifling in the barrel. This imparted spin to the bullet, greatly increasing the 'trueness' of the trajectory, rather than the randomness of a musket ball that actually 'bounced' down the barrel. Rifles, although deadly accurate, were disadvantaged by being very slow to reload. This meant that the soldiers chosen for this role needed to be resilient, brave and resourceful, as well as being good shots. Trained to act in teams of two, each defending the other while they re-loaded, they were still vulnerable, especially to cavalry, trained as they were to fight in isolated and dispersed groups rather than as a mass that could present a solid wall of bayonets. These factors—the time and expense required in training, the limited number of suitable recruits, and the specialised roles and situations where they were most effective—meant they were highly prized, given special privileges, and 'husbanded' rather than squandered. They were, in essence, an élite.

Such rifle units reached their heyday up to and including the Napoleonic Wars, with the British riflemen (partially derived from units of colonial militia; see Rogers' Rangers or the Royal Americans) truly excelling in the American War of Independence. Regular units of rifles were formed in the British Army in 1800 (the 60th Regiment of Foot and the 95th Regiment of Foot). These were often given the name "light infantry", emphasizing their specialised roles.

Starting in the 1840s, with the advent of the Minié ball and the first military breech-loading rifles, the weapon entered the age of industrialised warfare, where it was mass-produced and accessible to all infantrymen. Much faster and simpler to load, able to be reloaded while prone, impossible to be double-loaded after a misfire; the high level of training and highly specialised roles gave way to generality. The term 'rifleman', once used solely as a mark of distinction and pride, became a commonplace description of all infantry, no matter what their actual status was. Nevertheless, the term still retained a certain élan, that is still found today.

Modern tactics[edit]

Modern riflemen are armed with select-fire assault rifles, hybrids of submachine guns and rifles. Riflemen are the basic modern soldiers from which all other soldierly functions stem. Though by tradition certain infantry units are based on the rifleman, they employ a variety of other specialized soldiers in conjunction with the rifleman.

In the context of the modern fire team, "Rifleman" can be used to indicate a basic position such as scout, team leader, or designated marksman. In the same context, the terms Designated Automatic Rifleman and Assistant Automatic Rifleman are used to describe a soldier who carries either a light support weapon or its ammunition.

The term "Long-Rifleman" is often used by police forces, anti-terrorist units and small-scale team-based military forces worldwide. It is an assignment rather than a rank, and refers to a marksman or sharpshooter (not a sniper, who is additionally an expert in fieldcraft), one who is meant to expand the team's effective range with a long, scoped rifle.

Rifleman in different countries[edit]


In the Australian Defence Force riflemen are employed by the Australian Army in both the Regular Army and the Army Reserves. Riflemen in the Australian Army are members of the Royal Australian Infantry Corps. Riflemen in the Regular Army are organised into seven battalions of the Royal Australian Regiment.

The 7 battalions are composed of:

  • Two battalions of mechanized infantry
  • Two battalions of motorized infantry
  • Two battalions of light infantry
  • One battalion of paratroop infantry

Riflemen of the Army Reserve are organized into individual state and university regiments with reserve depots being found in many places throughout rural and metropolitan Australia.


In the Indian Army, of the 28 Infantry regiments, the following 10 are designated rifle regiments and are distinguished by their black rank badges, black buttons on their service and ceremonial uniforms as also the beret which is a darker shade of green than the other regiments. Apart from these, a paramilitary force, Assam Rifles and Eastern Frontier Rifles, also follows the traditions of the rifle regiment.

Rajputana Rifles
Garhwal Rifles
Jammu and Kashmir Rifles
1st Gorkha Rifles (The Malaun Regiment)
3 Gorkha Rifles
4 Gorkha Rifles
5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force)
8 Gorkha Rifles
9 Gorkha Rifles
11 Gorkha Rifles


In the Israel Defense Forces every soldier goes through some basic training of infantry, called "Tironut". However, the level of training changes according to the role and unit to which the soldier belongs. The "Rifleman" profession (in Hebrew: רובאי) includes basic military skills, physical training, military discipline and using the assault rifle. More infantry skills (such as operating diverse weapons) are added as the level of training increases.

Basic training ("Tironut"):

  • Non-combat soldiers are trained as Rifleman 02.
  • Combat-support troops are trained as Rifleman 03.
  • Combat Engineering soldiers and infantry soldiers are trained as Rifleman 05.

Advance training ("Imun Mitkadem"):

Additional training for combat soldiers:

  • Combat class commanders are trained as Rifleman 08.
  • Combat Senior Sergeants are trained as Rifleman 10.
  • Combat officers are trained as Rifleman 12.


The Rhodesia Regiment had an affiliation with the King's Royal Rifle Corps since World War I. The regiment's badge was the Maltese Cross, the colours were red, black and rifle green and rifle green berets were worn. A private soldier had the title of "Rifleman".

United Kingdom[edit]

A historical reenactment with the British 95th Rifles regiment.

From their inception the British Rifle Regiments were distinguished by a dark green dress with blackened buttons, black leather equipment and sombre facing colours that gave them what was really a modern aspect - designed for concealment rather than display. This has been retained until the present day for those British units that still carry on the traditions of the riflemen. Their most famous weapon was the 'Baker rifle', which in the hands of the elite 95th regiment and the light companies of the 60th regiment and the Kings German Legion gained fame in the Peninsular War against Napoleonic France.

During the Siege of Delhi the 8th (Sirmoor) Local Battalion along with the 60th Rifles defended Hindu Rao's House during which a strong bond developed. After the rebellion the 60th Rifles pressed for the Sirmoor Battalion to become a rifle regiment. This honour was granted to them next year (1858) when the Battalion was renamed the Sirmoor Rifle Regiment. Later all British Army Gurka regiments were designated rifle regiments a nomenclature maintained to this day with the Royal Gurkha Rifles.

The rank of Rifleman instead of Private was officially started in 1923.[3]

United States[edit]

In 1808, the United States Army created its first Regiment of Riflemen. During the War of 1812 three more Rifle Regiments were raised but disbanded after the war. The Rifle Regiment was disbanded in 1821.

In the Mexican–American War Colonel Jefferson Davis created and led the Mississippi Rifles.

Riflemen were listed as separate to infantry up to the American Civil War.[4]

During the Civil War, Sharpshooter regiments were raised in the North with several companies being raised by individual states for their own regiments.[5]

In the United States Marine Corps, the Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) 0311 is for "Rifleman." It is the primary infantry MOS for the Marine Corps, equivalent to the U.S. Army MOS 11B for Infantryman. The training for Riflemen is conducted at the U.S. Marine Corps School of Infantry.

See also[edit]

References and notes[edit]

  1. ^ Taylor, James W. (2002). The 1st Royal Irish Rifles in the Great War. p. 17. 
  2. ^ Forty, George (1998). British Army Handbook, 1939-1945. p. 190. 
  3. ^ "About the Royal Green Jackets". Retrieved 6 June 2011. 
  4. ^ United States War Department Revised Regulations for the Army of the United States, 1861: With a Full Index J. G. L. Brown, printer, 1861
  5. ^ Katcher, Philip; Walsh, Stephen (2002). Sharpshooters of the American Civil War 1861–65. Osprey Publishing. p. 4. ISBN 978-1-84176-463-4.