Early Modern warfare

Early Modern warfare

Early Modern warfare is associated with the start of the widespread use of gunpowder and the development of suitable weapons to use the explosive. It was first invented in China and then later spread to the Middle East. It then found its way into eastern Europe following the invasions of the Mongols who had employed Chinese gunpowder based weapons to conquer parts of Europe and the Middle East then into central and western Europe following the crusades when European forces discovered the substance from the Islamic forces they faced. This was prior to the 15th century on a limited basis, but became dominant in the Early Modern Age and lasted until the mid-19th century, with its apex during the Napoleonic Wars from 1792 to 1815. It was brought to the Indian subcontinent by the Middle East as well during the early modern era.

The understanding of "gunpowder warfare", expressed here, comes from the works of Michael Roberts who argued that a military revolution occurred in the sixteenth century that forever changed warfare, and society in general. Since he wrote in the 1950s his narrative has been augmented and challenged by other scholars. When exactly the revolution occurred is debated, and whether it was revolution or a slow transformation is also discussed.

Early gunpowder warfare


Gunpowder and flame projector tubes were first invented and used in military combat in China before the technology was transmitted elsewhere, with advanced technological innovation during the Chinese Song Dynasty (AD 960–1279). The cannon later arrived in the Muslim world in the 13th century, where the explosive hand cannon was invented. These then reached the Iberian Peninsula, with gunpowder described in Europe by Roger Bacon in 1216 and 1248; however, for a long time European gunpowder weapons were unpredictable, unwieldy and difficult to deploy. As a result, they were mainly used for attacking castles and other defences, a task that was equally well suited to undermining or non-explosive weapons.

The development of the siege cannon did have an important effect: it soon made existing castle designs, such as majestic towers and merlons, obsolete. Fortresses with sloping walls, to deflect cannon shots, brought the siege back to being one of the central aspects of warfare during this era. The "trace italienne" and Star fort became the new fortress designs, although building them was generally vastly expensive. Small states and local aristocrats rarely had the money to build these defences, and these groups lost power in favour of the centralized governments. The once mighty city states of Italy became parts of the French or Holy Roman Empires, while the small states of Germany were forced in vassalage to a greater power or coalitions.

Weaponry is often placed at the forefront of technological advancement and the invention of the arquebus soon began an arms race. The useful but still unwieldy weapon was refined and reduced in size through many rapid developments culminating in the smoothbore musket around 1600. These small, portable, personal weapons, which could fire projectiles over rapidly increasing distances with greater accuracy, heralded the growth of modern warfare. Gustavus Adolphus pioneered the use of lighter field artillery in the 1630s. In naval warfare, the cannon maintained its position of pre-eminence due to the fact that guns were aimed by positioning the angle of the ship more commonly than not. Small arms never had a fraction of the importance in naval gunpowder warfare as they had on land.


Many regions participated in gunpowder warfare during this period. The first civilization that employed the use of gunpowder in warfare was medieval China, beginning in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (907–960 AD).

The impetus for the development of gunpowder weapons in China was increasing encroachment by tribes on its borders. [Harvcolnb|Kelly|2004|pp=8–10] From the 10th century until the 13th century, advances in military technology aided the Song Dynasty in its defense against their hostile neighbors to the north, including the Tanguts, Khitans, Jurchens, and finally the Mongols.

The discovery of gunpowder in the 800s and the subsequent invention of firearms in the 1100s both coincided with long periods of disunity during which there was some immediate use for infantry and siege weapons.Harvcolnb|Chase|2003|pp=31–32]

The years 904–906 saw the use of incendiary projectiles called 'flying fires' ("fei-huo"). [cite book | last = Gernet | first = Jacques | others = Trans. J. R. Foster & Charles Hartman | title = A History of Chinese Civilization | edition = 2nd | year = 1996 | publisher = Cambridge University Press | pages = p. 311 | quote =The discovery originated from the alchemical researches made in the Taoist circles of the T'ang age, but was soon put to military use in the years 904–6. It was a matter at that time of incendiary projectiles called 'flying fires' ("fei-huo").] Harvcoltxt|Needham|1986 argues that gunpowder was first used in warfare in China in 919 as a fuse for the ignition of another incendiary, Greek fire. The earliest depiction of a gunpowder weapon is a mid-10th century silk banner from Dunhuang that shows a fire-lance, precursor of the gun.Harvcolnb|Needham|1986|pp=220–262]

The earliest surviving recipes for gunpowder can be found in the "Wujing Zongyao" of 1044, which contains three: two for use in incendiary bombs to be thrown by siege engines and one intended as fuel for poison smoke bombs. [Harvcolnb|Kelly|2004|p=10] One of the recipes describes a 'thorny fire-ball' bomb designed with caltrops to catch and stick to targets and set them alight. It calls for a mixture of sulfur, saltpeter, charcoal and other filler and combustible ingredients to be packaged into a ball that is lit just prior to being launched from a trebuchet. [Harvcolnb|Needham|1986|p=122]

The formulas in the "Wujing zongyao" range from 27 to 50 percent nitrate.Harvcolnb|Needham|1986|p=345] Experimenting with different levels of saltpeter content eventually produced bombs, grenades, and mines, in addition to giving fire-arrows a new lease on life. By the end of the 12th century, there were cast iron grenades filled with gunpowder formulations capable of bursting through their metal containers.Harvcolnb|Needham|1986|p=347] The 14th century "Huolongjing" contains gunpowder recipes with nitrate levels ranging from 12% to 91%, six of which approach the theoretical composition for maximal explosive force. Harvcoltxt|Zhang|1986 argues that the use of gunpowder in artillery as an explosive (as opposed to a mere incendiary) was made possible by improvements in the refinement of sulfur from pyrite during the Song Dynasty.

In the battles of Tangdao and Caishi, which both took place in 1161, combatants employed both grenades and soft-case bombs packed with lime and sulfur.Partington, 240.] Harvcolnb|Needham|1986|p=166] Needham, Volume 4, Part 3, 476.] In 1221, cast iron bombs thrown by hand, sling, and catapult are mentioned, yet earlier in 1161 trebuchets on Song Dynasty naval warships were used to launch gunpowder bombs at the opposing Jin Dynasty navy.Harvnb|Needham|Cullen|1976|loc=Volume 4, Part 3, 476]

The "Tê-An Shou Chhêng Lu", an account of the siege of De'an in 1132, records that Song forces used fire-lances against the Jurchens. [Harvcolnb|Needham|1986|p=222]

The earliest depiction of a gun is a sculpture from a cave in Sichuan dating to the 1100s of a figure carrying a vase-shaped bombard with flames and a cannonball coming out of it. [Harvcolnb|Lu|Needham|Phan|1988] [Harvcolnb|Chase|2003|pp=31-32] The oldest gun ever discovered, dated to 1288, has a muzzle bore diameter of 2.5 cm; the second oldest, dated to 1332, has a muzzle bore diameter of 10.5 cm. [Harvcolnb|Needham|1986|p=290]

In his 1341 poem 'The Iron Cannon Affair', one of the first accounts of the use of gunpowder artillery in China, Zhang Xian wrote that a cannonball fired from an eruptor could 'pierce the heart or belly when it strikes a man or horse, and can even transfix several persons at once'. [Harvcolnb|Norris|2003|p=11] During wartime, the Chinese used the early gunpowder weapons in defense against the Mongols, and the weapon was taken up by the Mongol conquerors later. An account of a 1359 battle near Hangzhou records that both the Ming Chinese and Mongol sides were equipped with cannon. [Harvnb|Kelly|2004|p=17]

The 13th century saw the beginnings of rocketry and its use in both peace and war. [Harvcolnb|Crosby|2002|pp=100–103]

In the middle of the 14th century Jiao Yu, who had served Ming Dynasty founder Zhu Yuanzhang as an artillery officer and become one of his confidants, compiled a military treatise called the "Huolongjing". In addition to descriptions of old standbys like gunpowder recipes, fire arrows, fire lances, cannons and bombards, the "Huolongjing" also described poisonous gunpowder recipes, naval mines, land mines which employed a wheellock and falling weight mechanism, rocket launchers and even multistage rockets. Harvtxt|Needham|1986 suggests that the proto-shells described in the "Huolongjing" may be among the first of their kind.

Mongol Empire

By the 13th century, explosive projectiles were being used by the Mongols in their invasions of Japan. A set of scrolls commissioned by Takezaki Suenaga, a Japanese warrior who fought against the Mongols, depict the Mongol’s use of an exploding shell, known as a teppo. In addition, several more explosive shells have been discovered off the coast of Japan where several ships of the Mongol fleet sank during their second invasion. [Conlan, T: Scrolls of the Mongol Invasion of Japan]

Islamic world

Medieval period

The Arabs acquired knowledge of gunpowder some time after 1240, but before 1280, by which time Hasan al-Rammah had written, in Arabic, recipes for gunpowder, instructions for the purification of saltpeter, and descriptions of gunpowder incendiaries. [Harvcolnb|Kelly|2004|p=22 'Around 1240 the Arabs acquired knowledge of saltpeter ("Chinese snow") from the East, perhaps through India. They knew of gunpowder soon afterward. They also learned about fireworks ("Chinese flowers") and rockets ("Chinese arrows"). Arab warriors had acquired fire lances before 1280. Around that same year, a Syrian named Hasan al-Rammah wrote a book that, as he put it, "treats of machines of fire to be used for amusement or for useful purposes." He talked of rockets, fireworks, fire lances, and other incendiaries, using terms that suggested he derived his knowledge from Chinese sources. He gave instructions for the purification of saltpeter and recipes for making different types of gunpowder.'] However, because al-Rammah attributes his material to "his father and forefathers", Harvcoltxt|al-Hassan argues that gunpowder became prevalent in Syria and Egypt by "the end of the twelfth century or the beginning of the thirteenth".

Hasan al-Rammah included 107 gunpowder recipes in his "al-furusiyyah wa al-manasib al-harbiyya" ("The Book of Military Horsemanship and Ingenious War Devices"), 22 of which are for rockets. If one takes the median of 17 of these 22 compositions for rockets (75% nitrates, 9.06% sulphur and 15.94% carbon), it is almost identical with the reported ideal recipe (75% potassium nitrate, 10% sulphur, and 15% carbon).

Al-Hassan claims that "the first cannon in history" [cite web |url= http://www.history-science-technology.com/Articles/articles%2072.htm |title= Transfer of Islamic Technology to the West: Part III |last=Hassan |first=Ahmad Y |authorlink=Ahmad Y Hassan |work=History of Science and Technology in Islam ] was used by the Mamluks against the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260;Harvcolnb|al-Hassan] Khan states that it was invading Mongols who introduced gunpowder to the Islamic world [Harvcolnb|Khan|1996] and cites Mamluk antagonism towards early riflemen in their infantry as an example of how gunpowder weapons were not always met with open acceptance in the Middle East.Harvcolnb|Khan|2004|p=6] Similarly, the refusal of their Qizilbash forces to use firearms contributed to the Safavid rout at Chaldiran in 1514.

The earliest torpedo was also first described in 1270 by Hasan al-Rammah in "The Book of Military Horsemanship and Ingenious War Devices", which illustrated a torpedo running with a rocket system filled with explosive materials and having three firing points. [Arslan Terzioglu (2007). "The First Attempts of Flight, Automatic Machines, Submarines and Rocket Technology in Turkish History", "The Turks" (ed. H. C. Guzel), p. 804-810.]

Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire had been one of the first Middle Eastern states (that extended into Europe, making them the first European state as well) to effectively use gunpowder weapons and used them to great effect conquering much of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Balkans. In the seventeenth century the state began to stagnate as more modern technologies and strategies were not adopted. Specifically, the Ottoman Empire was slow to adopt innovations like boring cannon (rather than casting them in a mold), making the conversion from matchlock firearms to flintlocks, and the lightening of field guns and carriages. [Jonathan Grant, "Rethinking the Ottoman Decline: Military Technology Diffusion in the Ottoman Empire, Fifteenth to Eighteenth Centuries", "Journal of World History", Vol. 10, No. 1 (1999) 179-201 (182)]

In part this was because the military elite had become a powerful force in the empire and change threatened their positions. David Nicolle theorizes that one contributing factor to the Ottoman reluctance to adopt the flintlock musket, despite its superiority over the matchlock ignition system, was the dusty climate of much of the Middle East which could cause problems with reliability. cite book
last = Nicolle
first = David
authorlink = David Nicolle
title = The Janissaries
publisher = Osprey
date = 1995
pages = 22
isbn = 1-85532-413-X

Overall, the Ottoman Empire between the 15th and 18th centuries has been assessed as a third-tier military producer, that is a producer which copies existing technologies, but does not capture the underlying process of innovation (first-tier producer) or adaption (second-tier producer). [Jonathan Grant, "Rethinking the Ottoman Decline: Military Technology Diffusion in the Ottoman Empire, Fifteenth to Eighteenth Centuries", "Journal of World History", Vol. 10, No. 1 (1999) 179-201 (181)] Other research, though, complicates that view. A Chinese military manual published in 1644 compared Ottoman and European firearms in the following manner:cite book|last=Chase|first=Kenneth|title=Firearms: A Global History to 1700|publisher=Cambridge University Press|date=2003|pages=2|isbn=0-521-82274-2]

Firearms have been in use since the beginning of the dynasty, and field armies in battle formation have found them convenient and useful to carry along...Since muskets have been transmitted to China, these weapons have lost their effectiveness...In battle formation, aside from various cannon such as the "three generals," the breach loading swivel gun, and the "hundred-league thunder," nothing has more range or power than the Ottoman musket. The next best is the European one.

The fact that Ottoman firearms were considered by 17th century Chinese writers to be superior to European firearms demonstrates that the Ottoman Empire was at least a second tier producer of muskets during this period. However, some claim that the 'European' firearms the Chinese researcher tested were actually Japanese arquebuses based on fifty year old Portuguese models. The design of the Ottoman matchlock is substantially different from that of the European variety and it in turn influenced the matchlocks produced in both Safavid Persia and Mughal India.

15th Century

The Ottoman Empire was one of the first states to put gunpowder weapons into widespread use. The famous Janissary corps of the Ottoman army began using matchlock muskets as early as the 1440s.cite book| last = Nicolle| first = David| authorlink = David Nicolle| title = The Janissaries| publisher = Osprey| date = 1995| pages = 22| isbn = 1-85532-413-X] The army of Mehmet the Conqueror, which conquered Constantinople in 1453, included both artillery and foot soldiers armed with gunpowder weapons. cite book|last=Nicolle|first=David|authorlink=David Nicolle|title=Constantinople 1453: The end of Byzantium|publsher=Osprey|date=2000|pages=29-30|isbn=1-84176-091-9] The Ottomans brought to the siege sixty-nine guns in fifteen separate batteries and trained them at the walls of the city. The barrage of Ottoman cannon fire lasted forty days, and they are estimated to have fired 19,320 times.cite book|last=Nicolle|first=David|title=Armies of the Ottoman Turks 1300-1774|publisher=Osprey|date=1983|pages=29-30|isbn=0-85045-511-1]

16th Century

The 16th century saw the first widespread use of the matchlock musket as a decisive weapon on the battlefield with the Turks becoming leaders in this regard. The first of these campaigns was the campaign against the Persians in 1514 under Yavuz Sultan Selim, or Selim the Grim. Armed with gunpowder weapons, his army defeated the Persians at the Battle of Chaldiran.cite book|last=Kinross|first=Lord|title=The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire|publisher=HarperCollins|date=1977|pages=166-167|isbn=0-688-08093-6] After his victory over the Safavids, Selim turned his attention towards the Mamluk dynasty in Egypt. The decisive battle of his campaign against the Mamluks, and the battle which highlighted the importance of the musket in the Ottoman military, was the Battle of Raydaniyah, fought in 1517. There, Selim outflanked the entrenched Mamluk artillery, and attacked the Mamluk forces with his Janissaries. The Janissaries, armed with firearms, destroyed the Mamluk army, armed mostly with traditional swords and javelins.cite book|last=Nicolle|first=David|title=Armies of the Ottoman Turks 1300-1774|publisher=Osprey|date=1983|pages=31|isbn=0-85045-511-1]

Reference was made by João de Barros to a sea battle outside Jiddah, in 1517, between Portuguese and Ottoman vessels. The Muslim force under Salman Reis had "three or four basilisks firing balls of thirty palms in circumference".Harvcolnb|Guilmartin|1974|loc=Introduction: "Jiddah, 1517"] This was estimated to be a cannon of about 90 inch bore "firing cut stone balls of approximately 1,000 pounds" (453 kg)".

After the death of Selim, he was succeeded by his son Suleiman the Magnificent. During his reign, gunpowder weapons continued to be used effectively. One important example, is the Battle of Mohacs in 1526. During this battle, Ottoman artillery, and Janissaries armed with muskets, were able to cut down charging Hungarian cavalry.cite book|last=Kinross|first=Lord|title=The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire|publisher=HarperCollins|date=1977|pages=186-187|isbn=0-688-08093-6]

17th Century

Although the cannon and musket were employed by the Ottomans long beforehand, by the 17th century they witnessed how ineffective the traditional cavalry charges were in the face of concentrated musket-fire volleys.Harvcolnb|Khan|2004|pp=5-6] In a report given by an Ottoman general in 1602, he confessed that the army was in a distressed position due to the emphasis in European forces for musket-wielding infantry, while the Ottomans relied heavily on cavalry. Thereafter it was suggested that the janisseries, who were already trained and equipped with muskets, become more heavily involved in the imperial army while led by their "agha".

By the middle of the 17th century, the continued reliance of the Ottomans on over-heavy ordnance had been made out by European officers as a liability. Raimondo Montecuccoli, the Habsburg commander who defeated the Ottomans at Battle of Saint Gotthard commented on Ottoman cannon:

:"This enormous artillery produces great damage when it hits, but it is awkward to move and it requires too much time to reload and site. Furthermore, it consumes a great amount of powder, besides cracking and breaking the wheels and the carriages and even the ramparts on which it is placed . . . our artillery is more handy and more efficient and here resides our advantage over the cannon of the Turks." [Jonathan Grant, "Rethinking the Ottoman Decline: Military Technology Diffusion in the Ottoman Empire, Fifteenth to Eighteenth Centuries", "Journal of World History", Vol. 10, No. 1 (1999) 179-201 (191)]

afavid Empire

Soon after the Ottoman Empire, two other Muslim gunpowder empires appeared: the Safavid Empire in Persia and the Mughal Empire in India. They both began in the early 16th century but later collapsed in the 18th century.

The refusal of their Qizilbash forces to use firearms contributed to the Safavid rout at Chaldiran in 1514.Harvcolnb|Khan|2004|p=6]

Despite this initial reluctance, the Persians very rapidly acquired the art of making and using handguns. A Venetian envoy, Vincenzo di Alessandri, in a report presented to the Council of Ten on 24 September 1572, observes:

:"They used for arms, swords, lances, arquebuses, which all the soldiers carry and use; their arms are also superior and better tempered than those of any other nation. The barrels of the arquebuses are generally six spans long, and carry a ball little less than three ounces in weight. They use them with such facility that it does not hinder them drawing their bows nor handling their swords, keeping the latter hung at their saddle bows till occasion requires them. The arquebus is then put away behind the back so that one weapon does not impede the use of the other."

Mughal Empire

Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire on the Indian subcontinent, employed firearms, gun carts and movable artillery in battle. In particular, he used them at the first Battle of Panipat (1526) to defeat the much larger forces of Ibrahim Lodhi, the last ruler of the Delhi Sultanate. Other battles he fought using gunpowder weapons include the Battle of Khanwa in 1527 against Rana Sanga, and the Battle of Ghaghra in 1529.

His descendants also employed gunpowder weapons in their expansion of the Mughal Empire, such as Akbar the Great at the second Battle of Panipat (1556) against Adil Shah Suri and Hemu of the Sur Dynasty. In "circa" 1582, Fathullah Shirazi, a Persian-Indian polymath and mechanical engineer who worked for Akbar, invented the autocannon, the earliest multi-shot gun. As opposed to the polybolos and repeating crossbows used earlier in ancient Greece and China, respectively, Shirazi's rapid-firing gun had multiple gun barrels that fired hand cannons loaded with gunpowder. [A. K. Bag (2005), "Fathullah Shirazi: Cannon, Multi-barrel Gun and Yarghu", "Indian Journal of History of Science" 40 (3), pp. 431-436.] Another cannon-related machine he created could clean sixteen gun barrels simultaneously, and was operated by a cow.cite book|url=http://books.google.com/books?id=-bE9AAAAMAAJ&printsec=titlepage&client=firefox-a#PPA281,M1|title=The Emperor Akbar|author=Friedrich Christian Charles August|coauthors=Gustav von Buchwald|publisher=Trübner & Co.|year=1890|accessdate=2008-04-04] He also developed a seventeen-barrelled cannon, fired with a matchlock. [citation|title=Science and technology in early modern Islam, c.1450-c.1850|first=William Gervase|last=Clarence-Smith|url=http://www.lse.ac.uk/collections/economicHistory/GEHN/GEHNPDF/ScienceandTechnology-WGCS.pdf|publisher=Global Economic History Network, London School of Economics|page=7]

Kingdom of Mysore

The first iron rockets were developed by Tipu Sultan, a Muslim ruler of the South Indian Kingdom of Mysore. He successfully used these iron rockets against the larger forces of the British East India Company during the Anglo-Mysore Wars. The Mysore rockets of this period were much more advanced than what the British had seen, chiefly because of the use of iron tubes for holding the propellant; this enabledhigher thrust and longer range for the missile (up to 2 km range). After Tipu's eventual defeat in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War and the capture of the Mysore iron rockets, they were influential in British rocket development and were soon put into use in the Napoleonic Wars. [Roddam Narasimha (1985). [http://nal-ir.nal.res.in/2382/01/tr_pd_du_8503_R66305.pdf Rockets in Mysore and Britain, 1750-1850 A.D.] National Aeronautical Laboratory and Indian Institute of Science.]


Beginning of polygonal fortifications

The period from 1500–1801 saw a rapid advance in techniques of fortification in Europe. Whereas medieval castles had relied on high walls to keep out attackers, early modern fortifications had to withstand artillery bombardments. To do this, engineers developed a style of fortress known as the "trace itallienne" or "Italian style". These had low, thick, sloping walls, that would either absorb or glance off cannon fire. In addition, they were shaped like stars, with bastions protruding at sharp angles. The reason for was to ensure that every bastion could be supported with fire from an adjacent bastion, leaving no "dead ground" for an attacker to take cover in. These new fortifications quickly negated the advantages cannon had afforded to besiegers.

A polygonal fort is a fortification in the style that evolved around the middle of the eighteenth century, in response to the development of explosive shells.

The complex and sophisticated designs of star forts that preceded them were highly effective against cannon assault, but proved much less effective against the more accurate fire of rifled guns and the destructive power of explosive shells. The polygonal style of fortification is also described as a "flankless fort". Many such forts were built in the United Kingdom and the British Empire during the government of Lord Palmerston, and so they are also often referred to as Palmerston forts. Their low profile makes them easy to overlook.

In response to the vulnerabilities of star forts, military engineers evolved a much simpler but more robust style of fortification.

An example of this style can be seen at Fort McHenry in Baltimore in the United States of America, the home of the famous battle where the "Star Spangled Banner" was penned by F.S. Key.


The power of aristocracies fell throughout Western Europe during this period in relation to the state. Their 200-400 year old ancestral castles were no longer useful defences against artillery. Their role in war was also eroded as the Medieval cavalry lost its central role in warfare. The cavalry made up of the elite had been fading in importance in the late Middle Ages. The English longbow and the Swiss pike had both proven their ability to devastate larger armed forces. However, the proper use of the longbow required a lifetime of training, making it impossible to amass very large forces. The proper use of the pike required complex operations in formation and a great deal of fortitude and cohesion by the pikemen, again making amassing large forces difficult. Starting in the early 1300s, plate armour pieces were added to the protective linked mail armour to guard against the arrows of the longbow and crossbow. By 1415 the first"hand cannons" were deployed by some infantrymen, and the earliest small bore arquebuses, with burning"match locks" appeared on the battlefield.

Role of Plate Armour

During an interval that lasted for 250 years (1400 to 1650), extensive plate armour was worn in virtually all major European battles, by some footsoldiers (usually pikemen) and mounted troops. Plate armour was expected to deflect edged weapons and to stop an arquebus or pistol ball fired from a distance, and it usually did.The threat (firearms) and remedy (armour) tended to work as long as the velocity and weight of the ball was quite low, but over time more effective firearms, (after 1650) could kill an armoured man at a distance of even 100 yards. The musket, carried by most infantrymen, other than pikemen, after 1650, fired a heavier charge and ball than the arquebus. A recruit could be trained to use a musket in a matter of weeks. Since the muskets themselves were extremely inaccurate, training in marksmanship was of little benefit. A musket did not require the great physical strength of a pikeman, or the fairly rare skills of a horseman.Muskets could neutralize even the most heavily armoured cavalry forces. Since a firearm requires little training to operate, the order and respect maintained by mounted cavalry in Europe and their Eastern equivalents could be undermined by a peasant with a gun. Though well smithed plate armour could prevent the penetration of gunpowder-weapons by 1670 it became no match for massed firearms in frontal attack and its use ended.

Transition to muskets

The arquebus, from 1410, was one of the first firearms that were relatively light (they still required a stand to balance them) and could be operated by one person. One of these weapons was first recorded as being used in the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, although this was very much a medieval battle. The musket was originally a heavier form of the arquebus, which fired a shot that could pierce armour, though only at close range. In the 1500s, it had to be mounted on a support stick to keep it steady. The caliver was the lighter form of the arquebus. By 1600, or so, these firearms were phased out in favour of a new lighter musket. For most of the 1500s and 1600s, muskets were of the matchlock design.

However, this was superseded in the 1690s by the flintlock musket, which was less prone to misfires and had a faster reloading time. By this time, only cavalry scouting units, "the eyes of the army" continued to wear front and back plates to protect themselves from distant or undisciplined musket equipped troops.

While soldiers armed with firearms could inflict great damage on cavalry at a moderate distance, at close quarters the cavalry could slaughter the gun armed infantry if they could break their formation and close to hand to hand combat. For many years infantry weapons were a mix of firearms and pikes for defence. The invention of the bayonet allowed these two weapons to be combined into one making the firearmed infantry the vast bulk of all forces.

Nature of war

This period saw the size and scale of warfare greatly increase. The number of combatants involved escalated steadily from the mid 1500s and dramatically expanded after the 1660s. For example, the King of France could field around 20,000 men in total for his wars against Spain in the 1550s, but could mobilize up to 500,000 men into the field by 1700 in the War of Spanish Succession. Moreover, wars became increasingly deadly in this period. This may in part be attributed to improvements in weapons technology and in the techniques of using it (for example infantry volley fire). However the main reason was that armies were now much bigger, but logistical support for them was inadequate. This meant that armies tended to devastate civilian areas in an effort to feed themselves, causing famines and population displacement. This was exacerbated by the increasing length of conflicts, such as the Thirty Years' War and Eighty Years' War, which subjected fought over areas to repeated devastation. For this reason, the wars of this era were among the most lethal before the modern period. For example, the Thirty Years' War and the contemporary Wars of the Three Kingdoms, were the most bloody conflicts in the history of Germany and Britain respectively before the First World War. Another factor adding to bloodshed in war was the lack of a clear set of rules concerning the treatment of prisoners and non-combatants. While prisoners were usually ransomed for money or other prisoners, they were sometimes slaughtered out of hand - as at the battle of Dungans Hill in 1647.

One of the reasons for warfare's increased impact was its indecisiveness. Armies were slow moving in an era before good roads and canals. Battles were relatively rare as armies could manoeuvre for months, with no direct conflict. In addition, battles were often made irrelevant by the proliferation of advanced, bastioned fortifications. To control an area, armies had to take fortified towns, regardless of whether they defeated their enemies field armies. As a result, by far the most common battles of the era were sieges, hugely time-consuming and expensive affairs. Storming a fortified city could result in massive casualties and cities which did not surrender before an assault were usually brutally sacked -for example Magdeburg in 1631 or Drogheda in 1649. In addition, both garrisons and besiegers often suffered heavily from disease.

The indecisive nature of conflict meant wars were long and endemic. Conflicts stretched on for decades and many states spent more years at war than they did at peace. The Spanish attempt to reconquer the Netherlands after the Dutch Revolt became bogged down in endless siege warfare. The expense caused the Spanish monarchy to declare bankruptcy several times, beginning in 1577.

The changes in warfare eventually made the mercenary forces of the Renaissance and Middle Ages obsolete. However this was a gradual change. As late as the Thirty Years' War (1618-48), most troops were mercenaries. However, after this conflict, most states invested in better disciplined and more politically reliable permanent troops. For a time mercenaries became important as trainers and administrators, but soon these tasks were also taken by the state. The massive size of these armies required a large supporting force of administrators. The newly centralized states were forced to set up vast organized bureaucracies to manage these armies, which some historians argue is the basis of the modern bureaucratic state. The combination of increased taxes and increased centralisation of government functions caused a series of revolts across Europe such as the Fronde in France and the English Civil War. In many countries, the resolution of this conflict was the rise of monarchical absolutism. Only in England and the Netherlands did representative government evolve as an alternative. From the late 1600s, states learned how to finance wars through long term low interest loans from national banking institutions like the Bank of England. The first state to master this process was the Dutch Republic.

This transformation in the armies of Europe had great social impact. J.F.C. Fuller famously stated that "the musket made the infantryman and the infantryman made the democrat." This argument states that the defence of the state now rested on the common man, not on the aristocrats, revolts by the underclass, that had been routinely been defeated in the Middle Ages, could now conceivably threaten the power of the state. However, aristocrats continued to monopolise the officer corps of almost all early modern armies, including their high command. Moreover, popular revolts almost always failed unless they had the support and patronage of the noble or gentry classes. The new armies, because of their vast expense, were also dependent on taxation and the commercial classes who also began to demand a greater role in society. The great commercial powers of the Dutch and English matched much larger states in military might.

As almost any man could be given a musket and with only minutes of instruction be able to be a soldier made it far easier to have massive armies. The inaccuracy of the weapons necessitated large groups of massed soldiers. This led to a rapid swelling of the size of armies. For the first time huge masses of the population could enter combat, rather than just the highly skilled professionals. It has been argued that the drawing of men from across the nation into an organized corps helped breed national unity and patriotism, and during this period the modern notion of the nation state was born. However, this would only become apparent after the French Revolutionary Wars. At this time, the levée en masse and conscription would become the defining paradigm of modern warfare. Before then, however, most national armies were in fact composed of many nationalities. For example, although the Swedish Army under Gustavus Adolphus was originally recruited by a kind of national conscription, the losses of the Thirty Years' War meant that by 1648 over 80% of its troops were foreign mercenaries. In Spain, armies were recruited from all the Spanish European territories including Spain, Italy, Wallonia and Germany. The French recruited soldiers from Germany, Switzerland and elsewhere as well as from France. Britain recruited Hessian troops until the late 18th century. Irish Catholics made careers for themselves in the armies of many European states (See the Flight of the Wild Geese).


Column - this was favored by the French. Notably during the Napoleonic era, this is due to the ineffectiveness of the conscripts. By being in column not all muskets could fire at once, reducing the amount of shots fired per minute. It was effective at breaking through "line" formation of undisciplined armies.

Line - Mainly used by the British, it allowed every musket to fire at once and could decimate column formation.

Square - This formation was used against cavalry. Bayonets would be fixed, the first line would kneel with their muskets angled upward (much like a pike.) The second and third lines would fire at the cavalry when it came close. This formation was very ineffective when faced with combined cavalry and infantry, or artillery fire in the case of plain squares (used by less experienced soldiers).

Skirmishers - Light infantry would advance and be the first to fire to draw the enemy to attack. Much like the "Sharpe" novels, the sharpshooters would not target common soldiers, but the officers so that the men were without leadership.


The rise of gunpowder reduced the importance of cavalry, but it remained effective in a new role into the nineteenth century. The cavalry along with the infantry, became more professional in this period but it retained greater prestige than the foot soldier. Light cavalry were introduced for skirmishing and among scouting forces for the advantage of speed and mobility. New types of horse soldiers introduced in this period were dragoons or mounted infantry.

Dragoons were intended to travel on horseback but fight on foot and were armed with carbines and pistols. Even orthodox cavalry carried firearms, especially the pistol, which they used in a tactic known as the caracole. Cavalry charges with swords on undisciplined infantry could still be decisive, but a frontal charge against well ordered musketeers and pikemen was all but futile. Cavalry, from the 16th century on, were more likely to charge other cavalry on the flanks of an infantry formation and try to work their way behind enemy infantry. When they achieved this and pursued a fleeing enemy, cavalry could still destroy an enemy army.

However, the power formerly wielded by a solely cavalry focused army was at an end. For the first time in millennia the settled people of the agricultural regions could defeat the horse peoples of the steppe in open combat. The power of the Mongols was broken in Russia and, no longer threatened from the east, that region began to assert itself as a major force in European affairs. Never again would nomads from the east threaten to overrun Europe or the Middle East. In the Siege of Kazan (1552), Russia had employed cavalry, infantry armed with arquebus (Streltsy), artillery and sappers, while the Khanate of Kazan had only employed cavalry. The use of sappers proved decisive.

The one exception to this was the Ottoman Empire, founded by Turkish horsemen, but integrated with the organization of the Byzantine Empire and the technological achievements of the Arab Empire. Arguably the world's greatest power for almost the entirety of the early modern period, the Ottomans were some of the first to embrace gunpowder weapons and integrated them into their already formidable fighting abilities. As European infantry became better armed and disciplined, by about 1700, Ottoman forces began to be regularly defeated by Austrian Habsburg and other forces.


In Japan the pattern was somewhat different. Soon after European contact, firearms were adopted in the nation and an era of gunpowder warfare followed for several decades, culminating at the famous Battle of Nagashino, where volley fire was introduced. The Japanese under Toyotomi Hideyoshi also used firearms against Koreans and Chinese during the Imjin War of the 1590s AD, which was effective, yet the Chinese and Koreans matched this with farther-range cannon fire. Once the islands were unified, the Tokugawa shogunate launched an effort to solidify the power of the feudal samurai class and banned all firearms (as well as repairs to feudal castles). For several centuries Japanese warfare remained medieval and the society feudal in nature.

Naval warfare

The spread of European power around the world was closely tied to naval developments in this period. The caravel for the first time made unruly seas like the Atlantic open to exploration, trade, and military activities. While in all previous eras, European navies had been largely confined to operations in coastal waters, and were generally used in a support role to land based forces, this changed with the new vessels and the increasing importance of international waterborne trade. The new caravels were large enough and powerful enough to be armed with cannons with which they could bombard both the shore and other vessels.

See also

*Early Modern period
*History of gunpowder
*Gunpowder magazine
*Technology of the Song Dynasty
*Battle of Caishi
*Battle of Tangdao



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Further reading

* [http://www.drizzle.com/~celyn/jherek/16thMilSci.pdf Military science in western europe in the sixteenth century. Prologue:The nature of armies in the 16th century] (PDF). Contains a substantial bibliography and further reading sections.
* [http://authors.history-forum.com/liang_jieming/chinesesiegewarfare Chinese Siege Warfare: Mechanical Artillery & Siege Weapons of Antiquity]

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