April 19, 2023 Reading Time: 8 minutes

The shots that rang out on April 19, 1775 in Lexington and Concord are widely considered to be the opening salvo in the US War for Independence. Although we may never know who shot first, there is another mystery that economics may help us unravel: why did the British Redcoats wear red coats?

Think about that mystery for a moment.

If wars are won by killing more of the enemy’s soldiers than they kill of yours, or getting them to surrender because death is certain, it doesn’t make sense to wear uniforms that are easy to spot. Being very visible on the battlefield seems counterintuitive. Red, particularly the bright shade favored by the Brits, is hard to miss. Today, modern armies invest in camouflage fabrics to blend into their field of operations and make it harder for the enemy to target. Were the British too dumb to realize this?

I pose this puzzle to students in my Introduction to Political Economy course, even though it appears unrelated to economic analysis. Oh, but it is. If economics is the study of cost-benefit analysis based upon (reasonably) rational calculation, why would an army want to make it easier for an enemy to see them? This is seemingly irrational.

A Bloody Explanation

When asking to solve this mystery, the first student response is predictable. “They wore red so that you couldn’t see the blood when a soldier got shot,” someone in the front row (the smart students) would confidently proclaim. Over the 35 times I’ve asked this question, this was the first answer given in all but one instance.

The answer is obvious, of course! Blood is red. The coats are red. If an infantryman gets shot or stabbed, he will never know it. And if he doesn’t know he’s injured, he’ll keep fighting and the enemy won’t know they’re winning. Ingenious!

C’mon, does that really make sense? Consider that the typical long rifle used during the late 18th century fired a lead bullet that was a half to three-quarters of an inch in diameter, and traveled at an average speed of 1,350 feet per second. Something like that is going to make an impact.

If you were hit anywhere by such a projectile, you wouldn’t need to look for blood. You would know instantaneously what happened. A sharp pain would occur, followed by lots of screaming (if death wasn’t immediate). Your comrades would figure out quickly that something was wrong without relying on visual blood evidence.

The “bloody” explanation fails to hold up on other grounds. Blood oozes out of wounds and will darken any color fabric lighter than black. Bright red clothing really doesn’t “hide the blood.” And then there is the major arterial spurting. Splatter, splatter everywhere, including on your hands and white breeches (which may well be stained with other fluids too).

Moreover, other armies didn’t choose red. The French favored blue. Hessians preferred blue or green earth tones, with some red flourishes. All very distinctive and fashionable for the times.

Thinking that red coats were used by Redcoats to hide blood stains is one of the dumbest explanations in the long history of dumb explanations.

When my students finally realize this, they often cough up other arguments such as “red is a traditional British military color that honors the monarchy.” Okay, but that only kicks the can back further in history. Why did somebody originally choose red? Others suggest that red makes it easier to know who not to shoot at or stab during the fog of battle. “Don’t kill the red team; they’re on our side!” As it turns out, this last answer isn’t half bad, but not exactly for the reason that students think.

Economics to the Rescue

As it turns out, color is largely superfluous to the actual explanation for the choice of uniform. The better explanation relies on the uniform’s being distinctive, and also relates to the nature of battle, soldiers’ incentives, and the ability to command troops in days of yore.

Consider that 18th century warfare relied on pitched battles fought in close proximity. Rifles were relatively inaccurate beyond 100 yards, and muzzle loading was time-consuming. Soldiers lined up in tight formations three or four rows deep, with the front rows laying low or kneeling for the first salvo. Following the first volley, preloaded rifles were passed forward for the second round. If lucky, each grouping of infantry could get off three to four rounds before the difficulty of reloading in the heat of battle made it inefficient to rely exclusively on firearms. Men would then charge enemy lines with bayonets, engaging in brutal face-to-face skirmishes. The battle would end usually when one of the armies felt outnumbered and fled.

Now consider what it would be like to be a foot soldier in 1776. If your commanding officer informed you that your platoon was going to be on the front battalion lines, you could safely assume you were going to have a bad day. Chances were that if you were not shot initially, you might get stabbed or maimed by the end of the battle or, more likely, be taken prisoner. And while a stab wound may not seem as bad as taking a rifle round to the chest, do not forget that battlefield medicine was crude; a slow and painful death from gangrene often awaited those “lucky” enough to be pulled off the battlegrounds alive. 

(Admittedly, battlefield statistics were iffy at the time, and remain so, but any day you were sent to the front lines increased the dangers one would face compared to most other options. Looking at an enemy line likely raised one’s anxiety more than looking at a field to plow.)

If a soldier was tapped for the frontline of battle, it would not be unreasonable for him to start thinking of ways to avoid a terrible fate. And once the guns started firing, and infantrymen were charging, a rational soldier who wanted to stay alive would look for any opportunity to run to safety away from the raging conflict.

Further consider that the typical infantryman was recruited from the lower ranks of British society. The prospects for upward socio-economic mobility were lacking in the motherland; dying on the battlefield wasn’t a better option. Nonetheless, the British army was sending young men across the Atlantic, all expenses paid. And America, with plentiful land and a need for labor, was a land of opportunity for young, able-bodied men. If only you could somehow get out of the British Army.

As such, desertion was an ever-present temptation for the typical 18th century soldier. Generals, however, didn’t win wars if their soldiers ran away. In fact, that was how they lost. For commanders, the struggle was not only to defeat the enemy in front of them, but preventing their soldiers from deserting from behind. But how does an officer do this?

Enter the Red Coats

During battle, officers would ride horseback surveying troop formations from higher ground. They would also monitor the rear and flanks of their troops to identify any deserters. Anyone caught fleeing would suffer serious consequences, including execution. Detecting and enacting a high price on desertion was critical, for if one soldier escaped to safety, others were soon to follow and the battle would be lost.

Red coats made identification of deserters easy for British officers. Likewise with blue or green coats. An easily identifiable uniform raised the probability that any army deserter would be caught and punished severely.

And as some of my students noted, distinct uniforms also helped soldiers identify which army to kill when fighting occurred in frenetic close proximity. This is where they were half right; uniforms are uniform to help identify partisans. Nonetheless, the real surprise was that uniforms were used by one’s own commanding officers to prevent soldiers from abandoning their duties.

Adopting distinctive clothing worked even when battles were not raging. The temptation to desert existed when soldiers were camped. Slipping out from your tent at night and to a new life would help you avoid having to run away during the next day’s conflict. But if you only had clothes that identified you as an enemy combatant, it would be much harder to blend into the socio-demographic background. Colonialists spotting a Redcoat running amok in their village were likely to call for tar and feathers.

Granted, none of this eliminated desertion entirely. By using identifiable uniforms to alter the probability of escape and imposing a serious cost for defection, however, the chance of soldiers going AWOL was significantly reduced.

This not only worked in the American theater, but in Europe as well, where French, German, and English infantrymen didn’t look all that different. As warfare became more global, weaponry more long-range and precise, and other means of monitoring one’s own troops more technologically feasible, camouflage became all the rage.

Interestingly, once the Americans pulled together their own Continental Army in June of 1775, uniforms were eventually adopted when financial resources became available, and pitched battles became more common in the later stages of the war. Voluntary militias didn’t require uniforms, as most of their men were individuals who had a strong interest in fighting, and hence a lower propensity to desert. Not surprisingly, they camoflauged themselves and favored guerilla tactics over pitched battles.

Exit, Voice, and Loyalty

The economic logic of desertion can be distilled from the lessons of Albert Hirschman’s classic work, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Hirschman’s pathbreaking study was primarily concerned with how consumers and members of clubs react to declines in quality by firms and other organizations. If consumers felt a particular product was not up to par (or increased in price relative to stable quality) they could either voice their complaints directly to the manufacturer or exit to another product. Companies would naturally rather hear complaints from their customers before they exit so as to provide some time for remedial action to be taken. Other organizations such as social clubs, churches, and governments face the same problems as private commercial enterprises.

Much of Hirschman’s work explained how firms and other organizations balanced the tension between voice and exit, with most entities trying to incentivize dissatisfied customers, members, and citizens to tell leadership what was wrong before abandoning ship (exiting). He introduced the concept of loyalty to show how firms and other groups would encourage a feeling of faithfulness to a brand, so as to slow down the possibility of exit and allow those most devoted to a product or service to speak out if they identified any problems.

The situation with militaries provides an interesting twist to the Hirschman story, although he never dealt with it directly. The use of voice (complaining) is typically discouraged in the army, particularly during the heat battle. Winning a conflict often requires decisive action under extreme time pressures, and debate about alternative solutions is often harmful to the cause as it slows decision-making processes and allows the enemy to get the upper hand. (Granted, when peace is at hand, the smart officer will encourage input from the ground troops about what things are working and what are not. In war, however, this is not a realistic option.)

Without the “voice” option, soldiers who are not happy with their situation are left only with exit –  desertion. As noted above, desertion is not how armies win wars, and military leadership will do whatever they can to prevent it, including the execution of deserters. If voice and exit are eliminated as options, this leaves loyalty on the table as a way of dealing with one’s difficult situation.

Ironically, cutting off exit and voice can enhance soldiers’ loyalty to one another and make them a more effective fighting force. If one cannot officially complain, nor easily abandon his post in battle, it becomes apparent that giving one’s full effort in working as a team and defeating the enemy is the way to make the best of a bad situation. Fighting hard next to one’s fellow soldiers is how everyone survives. This is why rigorous boot camps, where grunts are not allowed to question orders or quit, builds intense comradery amongst soldiers, which is an important quality to have in battle.

So, when one considers the various incentives facing foot soldiers and officers on the battlefield, economics does explain why the Redcoats wore red coats. Students are often amazed and delighted by what the economic way of thinking can help us understand, and it is why instructors must look for every opportunity to instill the wonder of economics in their students.

Anthony Gill

Anthony Gill

Anthony Gill is a professor of political economy at the University of Washington and a Distinguished Senior Fellow with Baylor University’s Institute for the Study of Religion.

Earning his PhD in political science at UCLA in 1994, Prof. Gill specializes in the economic study of religion and civil society.

He received the UW’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 1999 and is also a member of the Mont Pelerin Society.

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