RIFLE AND SABER is a tactical simulation of ground combat in the period between 1850 and 1900. This title joins MUSKET & PIKE and GRENADIER in the SPI Tactical Series of games covering the evolution of warfare after the introduction of firearms onto the battlefield. RIFLE AND SABER was designed by John M. Young, and published in 1973 by Simulations Publications, Incorporated (SPI).


Lord Alfred Milner, British High
Commissioner of Southern Africa
In the fall of 1899, the British Colonial Government in Cape Town began preparations to forcibly annex a large swath of South African territory that, inconveniently, was already occupied by the fiercely independent descendants of 17th century Dutch, German, and Scandinavian settlers, the Boers. This coveted territory was occupied by two Boer Republics: the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Not surprisingly, the Boers were as opposed to British colonial rule as other native-born Africans, but unlike their more technologically disadvantaged tribal neighbors, the Calvinist Boers had one thing that the other native peoples did not have: a very large cache of Mauser rifles, as well as a sizeable quantity of other modern European arms. And when word of British intentions reached the scattered settlements and farms in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, the Boer reaction was almost immediate: they mustered a large body of volunteers and promptly marched against the nearest neighboring British territories.

Afrikaneer commandos, Second Boer War
One column of Boer irregulars invaded Natal in the east and quickly drove back and then surrounded Major General George White’s British contingent in the town of Ladysmith. A second powerful Boer force crossed the Cape Colony frontier in the west and quickly laid siege both to the English settlement at Mafeking and to the capital of Cecil Rhodes’ diamond empire, Kimberley. These unexpected developments threw the plans of Sir Alfred Milner, the British High Commissioner of Cape Colony, into complete disarray. But the British Colonial Office, although surprised by the strength and speed of the Boer response, was not about to abandon it’s latest African territorial ambitions, and reinforcements were dispatched immediately by the British government to the Cape Colony. Thus it was that on 30 October 1899, General Sir Redvers Buller arrived in Cape Town to assume overall command of British forces in the South African territories. In November, 40,000 fresh British regulars, along with supporting arms and artillery, arrived in Cape Town’s harbor and began to disembark from their transports.

Lieutenant-General Lord Methuen,
K.C.V.O., C.B., C.M.G.,
Commanding 1st Infantry Division
Initially, General Buller planned to march his entire force into Natal to crush the Boer incursion and relieve General White’s force in Ladysmith. However, at the pleading of Commissioner Milner, Buller finally agreed to split his command and dispatch three well-equipped brigades to the aid of the beleaguered British garrison defending Cecil Rhodes’ diamond capital. This second expeditionary force was placed under the command of Lord Methuen and directed to march with all speed to relieve Lieutenant Colonel Kekewick’s men who were still holding out with Rhodes in Kimberley.

The first leg of Methuen’s expedition proceeded along the single rail line that ran north from Cape Colony into Rhodesia. The Boers, however, were neither stupid nor irresolute and Methuen’s troops were soon forced to fight a pair of costly engagements, first at Belmont and then at Graspan. Both of these actions followed a similar pattern: the Boers positioned themselves in prepared positions on the local high ground, but once heavily engaged, were forced to retreat in the face of a lethal combination of British artillery fire and infantry bayonet assault. This pattern of British attack, and its regular outcome, was not lost on the Boer field commanders. For the next battle, Boer tactics would dramatically change. And unlike their defensive arrangements during their previous engagements, at the Modder River the Boer military leaders decided that they would avoid the exposed high ground that was clearly too vulnerable to the British artillerymen; instead, they would entrench their forces on the plains below. This battle would test both Boer discipline and tactical ingenuity, and the British Army’s professionalism. And, however it turned out, one thing was certain: it would not be a repeat of the fighting at Belmont and Graspan.


RIFLE AND SABER is a two-player tactical (company-level) simulation of warfare in the “Age of the Rifle.” The different engagements presented in the game examine an interesting and varied cross-section of different wars and eras. The changes in warfare that occurred during this period were dramatic; the relatively short span of years covered by this game traces the evolution of the individual soldier’s standard firearm, and its tactical use, from the era of muzzle-loading muskets to the devastating first appearance of the machinegun. In examining these changes, combat from the War for Italian Independence, the American Civil War, and even the Boer War are all presented in scenario format.

The basic game mechanics of RIFLE AND SABER are comparatively simple and easy to learn. This means that, like the other titles in this series of SPI games, players should quickly be able to learn the basic rules and get into the actual play of the game in one sitting. Infantry and cavalry units each represent approximately 100 to 150 men; artillery counters are typically 4 to 6 guns. The game is played in turns on a hexagonal grid map. Each hex is 50 meters from side to side and each game turn represents five minutes of real time. The game turns in RIFLE AND SABER are divided into symmetrical player turns. Each player turn follows a set sequence: the Fire Combat Phase; the Movement Phase; and the Shock Combat Phase.

Pickett's Charge, Gettysburg, painting by Edwin Forbes
One of the biggest changes between this game and its predecessors is the increase that it shows in the lethality of the ordinary infantryman. The introduction, first of rifling in muskets, and later breech loading, and magazine loading in rifle design radically changed the nature of the battlefield. The effective range and accuracy of the ordinary infantryman were both drastically improved as a result of rifling. Thus, ordinary riflemen were, at once, more accurate with their aimed fire, and upon the introduction of breech loading rifles, much safer: they no longer had to stand to load their weapons, but could now fire while prone or from concealment. Breech loading, and then magazine loading, also dramatically increased the trained soldier’s rate of fire. These two improvements also significantly transformed the relationship between the three combat arms: infantry, cavalry, and artillery. The shock value of a cavalry charge against ordered troops was irretrievably lost, and until the wide-spread substitution of breech loading, rifled field pieces for the older, smooth bore, muzzle-loading Napoleonic cannon, artillery crews were at extreme risk from riflemen whose accuracy and range was greater than that of the heavy guns the artillerymen served.

Warfare, already terrible, was fated to become more terrible still. Tragically, rail roads and mass conscription combined with the rapid, widespread adoption — by the world’s modern European-type armies — of magazine-fed rifles, machineguns, and steel, breech loading field pieces to set Europe’s armies irrevocably upon the path towards the trenches, barbed-wire, and unrelenting mass carnage of the First World War. RIFLE AND SABER shows just how far along that path modern armies had already travelled by the end of the 19th century.

RIFLE AND SABER offers seventeen different scenarios drawn both from familiar conflicts and also, in many cases, from virtually unknown battlefields:

  1. Fatehpur (7 July 1857)
  2. Varese (26 May 1859)
  3. Palestro: Attack of the Allied Vanguard (30 May 1859)
  4. Magenta: Struggle for Ponte Vecchio (4 June 1859)
  5. First Bull Run: The Stone Wall (21 July 1861)
  6. Shiloh: The Destruction of Prentiss’ Division (6-7 April 1862)
  7. Gettysburg: Little Round Top (1-3 July 1863)
  8. Gettysburg: Pickett’s Charge (1-3 July 1863)
  9. Langensalza: The Prussian Rearguard Defense (27 June 1866)
  10. Worth: Struggle for the Niederwald (6 August 1870)
  11. Mars-La-Tour: Attack of the Imperial Guard Cavalry (16 August 1870)
  12. Plevna: The Russian Attack on the Grivitza Redoubt (30 July 1877)
  13. Plevna: Skobeleff’s Capture of the Green Hills Redoubt (8 November 1877)
  14. Tarapaca (25 November 1879)
  15. El Caney (1 July 1898)
  16. Modder River (28 November 1899)
  17. South Africa: Action near Belfast (12 May 1900).

For players who want either to increase the game’s realism or to adjust play balance between unequal opponents, RIFLE AND SABER offers, along with the standard rules, additional 'optional' rules that allow players to incorporate the effects of, among other things: Morale, Improved Positions, Trenches, and Road Movement.


RIFLE AND SABER is one of a number of different games, designed by John M. Young, that spanned the period from the first wide-spread individual use of firearms through the wars of Napoleon, the Crimean War, and the American Civil War, all the way up to and including the Second World War and beyond. I confess that I am a big fan of Young’s many games. His designs are almost always innovative, interesting, playable, and fun. Despite his tragic and untimely death many years ago, John Young leaves behind him a library of some of the very best game designs that, in my opinion, SPI ever published.

Design Characteristics:

  • Time Scale: 5 minutes per game turn
  • Map Scale: 50 meters per hex
  • Unit Size: company/squadron/battery
  • Unit Types: muzzle-loading infantry, early breech-loading infantry, late breech-loading infantry, cavalry, mounted rifles, machinegun, muzzle-loading horse artillery, breech-loading horse artillery, muzzle-loading artillery, breech-loading artillery, and information counters
  • Number of Players: two
  • Complexity: average
  • Solitaire Suitability: above average
  • Average Playing Time: 2–3 + hours (depending on scenario)

Game Components:

  • One 22” x 28” hexagonal grid Map Sheet
  • 400 ½” cardboard Counters
  • One 6” x 11½” map-fold Rules Booklet (with Scenario Instructions incorporated)
  • Two 6” x 7” Combat Results Tables
  • One 7” x 11” Terrain Effects Chart
  • One 8½” x 11” combined Turn Record Track and Errata Sheet (as of 30 April 1973)
  • One 8½” x 11” back-printed Scenario Historical Commentary Sheet
  • One small six-sided Die
  • One SPI 12” x 15” x 1” flat 24 compartment plastic Game Box (with clear compartment tray covers) and clear plastic game cover with Title Sheet

Related Map and Counters Blog Posts

SPI, MUSKET & PIKE: Tactical Warfare 1550-1680(1973)

Recommended Reading

See my blog post Book Review of this title which is strongly recommended for those readers interested in further historical background.

THE WEST POINT ATLAS OF AMERICAN WARS (Complete 2-Volume Set); edited by Brigadier General Vincent J. Esposito; Frederick A. Praeger, Inc. (1959); ASIN: B000MTBTEU

Also see my blog post Book Review of this definitive three volume work on the officers of the Army of Northern Virginia by Douglas S. Freeman.


  • Kerry Anderson said...

    I wanted to like this game but it seemed a bit generic for me. One blob of infantry moving against a similar blob of infantry. Tactics were absent.

    I think many of the old SPI tactical games were like this.

    I'll give it another try.

  • Greetings Kerry:

    Thanks for visiting; I appreciate your interest.

    Yes, comparing these old SPI tactical games (and I would include the 'PRESTAGS' series and 'SOLDIERS' in this bunch), it is easy to find fault with their relatively simplistic game engines. The absence of both "command and control" (in some, but not all cases) and "morale" rules certainly detracts from the simulation value of these titles, given the current state of the hobby.

    On the other hand, the element that I really liked about these early SPI games was that, for all their faults, they did offer a wide-ranging collection of different scenarios that often -- at the time, at least -- covered engagements from little-known, but important conflicts. In their day, I personally think that these games really delivered a lot of play value for the money; moreover, even if some of the scenarios weren't particularly well-balanced (and that was often the case), players could always move onto the next one if the current situation seemed unpromising.

    Admittedly, 'NEY VS. WELLINGTON' is a far better simulation of Napoleonic tactical combat, for example, than "The Attack of the Imperial Guard at Waterloo" in 'GRENADIER'. But, as much as I like Frank Davis' basic 'WELLINGTON'S VICTORY' game platform, I still take a perverse pleasure in smashing through the Iron Duke's left with the French in the older game. And, of course, ugly as it is by today's standards, 'GRENADIER' -- like the other titles in this vintage SPI series -- can still produce a very tense and challenging contest between evenly-matched players.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Kim Meints said...

    R&S wasn't my top favorite of the SPI Tac games but it still rated above Grenadier for me.

    I still need the old JP scenario's from issue 3 I believe for the game.

  • Greetings Kim:

    Your opinion seems to be the prevailing one when it comes to these early SPI tactical games. In fact, so far as I know, Mark Saha and I are virtually the only reviewers that I can think of who have actually gone on record as saying that we like 'GRENADIER'!

    When it comes to some of the other titles, not being a "sword and shield" kind of guy, I could never really get too excited about either incarnation of the 'PRESTAGS' Series of SPI tactical games. On the other hand, I liked all of the "gunpowder series" and, as I have noted elsewhere, I still retain a special fondness for 'GRENADIER' and 'SOLDIERS'. Oddly enough, however, when it came to my friends way back then, most of them preferred to play 'MUSKET AND PIKE'. Unfortunately, the absence of commanders in both it and in 'RIFLE & SABER' really tended to detract a bit from these games in my view (even though, to be honest, the lack of leaders never bothered me that much when it came to 'SOLDIERS').

    Regarding old gaming magazines, I am amazed that you still have as many issues as you do. When it comes to my own hobby magazines, I have, over the years, either sold or given away the vast majority of my own magazines to other players. I still have a large collection of old copies of 'The General', 'Moves', 'Grenadier', and 'Fire & Movement'; but everything else has pretty much followed the path of my many of older games: up and out.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Joe, I just posted on Grenadier but I also wanted to mention that my enjoyment with that game spurred me to acquire a copy of Rifle and Saber too. I'm not much of a Civil War guy in general but I am hoping that the game has something for me anyway.

    Off the topic of R&S and more regarding Grenadier, I have started looking into what other games exist at this scale covering actions in 1800s, preferably the early part of the century. So far, I have compiled the following list.

    Company Level or Battalion level with some company level elements, 250m per hex or less. 15 minutes per turn or less.

    Rifle and Saber
    Ney vs Wellington
    Wellington's Victory
    Rebel Yell

    I'm interested to see what other games have been made.

    I have played the "La Bataille" system but this is just slightly at a higher scale- Reg/Bat. I think the same is true for the Gamers which I have never played but I believe was even called the "Brigade" series. I have played a lot of the Triumph and Glory/Jours de Gloire series which I highly recommend but these two are at a higher level.

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