RICOCHET, a military term expressing the rebound of a projectile that strikes on a hard surface. The origin of the French word ricochet is unknown. Its earliest known use (14th and 15th centuries) was in the sense of "repetition," e.g. chanson du ricochet, " an oft-told tale." Hence it came to be applied to the rebound of a flat stone skimmed along the surface of water, known familiarly in English as "ducks and drakes," and so finally in the military sense defined above, which found its way into the English language.
The use of the now obsolete "ricochet fire" in war is well illustrated by "ducks and drakes." The shot, striking the ground at a small angle, described for the remainder of its course a succession of leaps and falls. The discovery of this species of fire, usually attributed to Vauban (siege of Ath in 1697), had the greatest influence both on sieges and on operations in the field. In siege warfare, ricochet, especially when combined with enfilade, i.e. when directed along the enemy's line of defence, soon became the principal weapon of the besieger, and with the system of parallels gave the attack a superiority so complete that a siege came to be considered as the most certain operation of war. Enfilade fire by itself was neutralized by traverses (q.v.) in the defences, but by the new method a shot could be so aimed as to skip over each successive traverse and thus to search ground that was immune from direct fire. The application of ricochet fire to operations in the field came somewhat later. In the 18th century field artillery, which was not, before Napoleon's time, sufficiently mobile to close with the enemy, relied principally upon the ricochet of round shot, which, sweeping a considerable depth of ground, took effect upon several successive lines of hostile troops. But once artillery was able to gallop up to the enemy and to use its far more terrible close-range projectile, case-shot, ricochet fire came to be used less and less, until finally, with the general adoption of shell (which, of course, burst at the first contact with the ground), the round shot disappeared altogether from the battlefield. Similarly in siege warfare, as soon as high-angle fire with shells became sufficiently accurate, there was no further need of round shot and ricochet.
The term "ricochet" is now only applied, in modern rifle shooting, to the graze of a bullet that has struck short. A modern bullet that has ricochetted inflicts a very severe wound, as its nickel or other hard envelope is torn and jagged by its contact with the ground. With its high remaining velocity it is dangerous even after more than one ricochet, except at extreme ranges.
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