Chapter 5 - The Emergence of Modern War
Weaponry
Previous Contents Next

The most significant invention in weaponry of the period of the Hundred Years War was the introduction of gunpowder which, when coupled with the introduction of new techniques for casting metal, produced the primitive cannon. The immediate impact of this new invention was the siege mortar used to batter down castle walls. In 1453, the Ottoman armies used cannon fire to destroy the remnants of the Byzantine Empire at Constantinople. Mobile siege guns, although still cumbersome, played a leading role in several battles of the Hundred Years War. This was the first effective use of field artillery in Europe. True field artillery appeared in the final decade of the 15th century when the French mounted light cast bronze cannon on two-wheeled carriages pulled by horses. The introduction of the trunnion at this time increased the ability to mount and aim these guns with greater accuracy. By the 17th century, gunmaking had progressed to the point where range, power, and major types of guns were to change little over the next two centuries.

By the 15th and 16th centuries, gunpowder was changing the battlefield. The appearance of the musketeer, the forerunner of the modern rifleman, and his firelock musket made it possible for tightly packed infantry formations to engage cavalry without having to engage directly in close combat. The slow rate of fire of these early short-range weapons, however, required that the musketeers be protected from the hostile advance, a problem that led to mixing musketeer formations with pikeman. Although the mix of pike to musket changed considerably over the next 300 years, the mixed infantry formation remained the basic infantry structure for the next three centuries.

The most immediate effect of portable firearms on the battlefield was, however, felt on cavalry. The invention of the wheel lock allowed the pistol to be aimed and fired with one hand. As the shock effect of cavalry was gradually reduced by the introduction of the pike and musket to the infantry, the cavalry armed itself with saber and pistol and began to rely more on mobility than shock. At long last, after more than a thousand year interregnum, infantry was once more becoming the deciding force on the battlefield. Cavalry, no longer decisive, was used to pin the flanks of dense infantry formations in place so that they could be raked with artillery and musket fire. The siege mortar gave way to the smooth bore cannon that could act as genuine field artillery. By the 17th century, horse-drawn artillery was replaced by genuine horse artillery in which all members of artillery units rode into battle, a development that greatly increased the flexibility and mobility of field artillery, making it a full partner in the newly emerging maneuver warfare.

By the 16th century the feudal order was creaking toward its own demise, and in its place arose the nation-state controlled by the absolute monarch in command of a permanent standing army. The instrument of creating and protecting the nation-state was the professional army. Whereas feudal armies had attempted to capture the enemy's castle strongpoints, the new armies engaged in wars of attrition in which the destruction of the enemy's armed forces was the primary goal. The stage was set for a new round of national conflicts propelled by the new ideology of nationalism and dynastic rivalry. These conflicts spawned yet another cycle of development in new and more destructive weapons.

Among the most destructive of these conflicts was the Thirty Years War (1618-48) that began as a clash of feudal armies and ended by setting the stage for the development of modern war. During this period the musket revolutionized the role of infantry. The original musket was a firelock, itself a great improvement on the earlier matchlock. The matchlock required a forked stand to hold its long barrel. The rifleman had to ignite the powder in the touchhole with a hand-held burning wick, conditions which made the weapon very difficult to aim. The firelock used a trigger attached to a rod which moved a serpentine burning wick to the touchhole, thereby allowing the rifleman to hold the weapon with both hands and make an aimed shot. The lighter, more reliable, and more mobile firelock could fire a round every 2-3 minutes. For the first time the infantry had a relatively reliable and accurate firearm.

The firelock was later replaced by the wheel lock in which a rotating geared wheel powered by a cocked spring caused the flint to ignite the powder in the flashpan. A century later the wheel lock was replaced by the flintlock in which a spring loaded hammer struck a flint igniting the charge. By the 1800s this mechanism was replaced by the percussion cap, a truly reliable system, and with each development the rifle became more certain to fire on cue while the rate of fire increased.

Corned powder was a significant innovation of this period. Early gunpowder for rifles and cannon tended to separate into its component materials when the powder was stored for long periods or when moved in the logistics train. The separation made it unlikely that the powder would explode evenly in the barrel, thereby increasing misfires and propelling the bullet at much lower velocity. The trick was to shape the component materials in gunpowder like little nuggets which reduced the problem of settling and made the powder more certain to fire evenly, thus maintaining the velocity of the projectile. The result was longer range and deadlier cannon and firearms.

In the 16th century the rifleman carried his powder and ball, ranging from .44 to .51 caliber lead shot, in small leather bags. In rainy weather the weapons often would not fire because of damp powder. The introduction of the paper cartridge by Gustavus Adolphus in the Thirty Years War greatly improved the reliability of the rifle and increased its rate of fire. Riflemen could now fire two rounds a minute instead of a single round every 2-3 minutes. By the end of the U.S. Civil War the totally self-contained modern cartridge with powder and bullet in a single metal container made its appearance and, by the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, the breech-loading rifle had become standard issue for European armies. Two decades later the clip and magazine-fed rifle revolutionized infantry tactics. The breech loading magazine-fed rifle made it unnecessary for the rifleman to stand or kneel to reload. This made possible the introduction of truly modern dispersed infantry tactics which further increased the ability of infantry to fire and maneuver.

Regardless of the type of firing mechanism, the musket remained an inaccurate weapon with limited range and slow rate of fire until the Civil War. The smoothbore musket was usually ineffective beyond 100 or so yards. By the early 1700s the British Brown Bess could hit a man at 80 yards with some regularity. But it was the Americans who truly revolutionized riflery by inventing the first reliable rifled barrel, the famed Kentucky Rifle. The invention and use of rifling made it possible to hit a target reliably at 180 yards and increased the range and accuracy by a factor of three.

The rifle made a significant impact on the battlefield. In feudal armies infantry was packed into dense squares to maximize firepower and resistance to shock from cavalry attack. As the rifle became more reliable and firepower more deadly at long range, it became possible to thin out the packed masses of infantry into lines while still providing sufficient firepower and defense from cavalry attack. Gustavus Adolphus was the first to deploy his infantry in lines four men deep alternating pikemen with musketeers. This was the birth of linear tactics that remained unchanged in its essentials until almost the 20th century. Linear tactics provided the infantry with yet more mobility without sacrificing firepower or defense, thereby opening the way for more sophisticated battlefield maneuvers and tactical deployments. No longer the primary striking force, the pikeman had the task of protecting the musketeers from cavalry attack. As muskets became more reliable, powerful, and accurate, thinner and thinner infantry formations could be used without sacrificing killing power until, finally, the pikeman disappeared from the field altogether.

The legacy of the pikeman remained in the form of the bayonet, still standard issue in modern armies. The first bayonets were plug bayonets inserted into the muzzle of the rifle. This, of course, made the firearm inoperable, and the musketeer still had to rely heavily upon the pikeman for protection. By the end of the 17th century the ring bayonet was introduced. This allowed the rifle to fire while the bayonet was in place, but the attachment arrangement was clumsy and unreliable. Shortly after the ring bayonet, the standard barrel bayonet attached to a permanent stud welded to the rifle barrel made its appearance and, within a decade, became standard issue in all European armies. The musketeer had now become his own pikeman. Musket infantry was now expected to protect itself from cavalry attack and, when closing with the enemy, to fight hand-to-hand with the bayonet. By combining the functions of the musketeer with the pikeman, all infantry could now be armed with firearms. The result was that the killing power of infantry increased greatly. In 1746 the fluted bayonet made its appearance at the Battle of Culloden and has remained one of the basic close combat tools of the infantryman ever since.

Still other advances increased the power of infantry. In the mid-1700s the Prussians introduced the standard size iron ramrod replacing the nonstandard wooden model. The result, when coupled with good training of the soldier, was to double the rate of musket fire. At the same time, infantry began to diversify its weapons capability as the primitive hand grenade made its appearance. The first hand grenades were little more than hollow iron balls packed with black powder and ignited by a burning wick. Within a decade, however, the infantry grenadier had become a standard feature of European infantry formations.

The most significant advances in firepower and range came in the area of artillery. At the beginning of the Thirty Years War, artillery was still handcast by individual craftsmen. The weight of these individualized artillery pieces was often too great to make them mobile enough for effective use against enemy formations, although they served well enough in sieges. Gustavus Adolphus standardized the size of cannon and shot, and produced the first lightweight artillery guns. He also standardized infantry rifle barrels and musket shot. This system of millimeter caliber measurement was adopted almost universally, and is still used today in most modern armies. Adolphus standardized artillery firing procedures as well so that his artillery gunners could fire eight rounds from a single gun in the time it took a musketeer with a firelock to fire a single round.

Over the next century the French introduced a number of innovations in artillery including mounting the gun on wheeled carriages and the trunnion to improve aiming. Until this time most artillery was drawn by horses while the artillery crews walked. This arrangement slowed considerably the mobility of the artillery on the battlefield, and it was common practice never to move the guns once they had been deployed. Frederick the Great of Prussia introduced the idea of mounting the guns and crews on horseback and wagons, the invention of horse artillery. This innovation greatly increased the mobility of field artillery so that commanders could routinely move the guns around and change deployments for maximum effect. At the same time, of course, guns were becoming lighter and the aiming mechanisms more accurate. The result was the introduction of a truly deadly combat arm that would, over time, be responsible for more casualties than any other weapon.

The range of smoothbore cannon gradually increased over the years until, by the Napoleonic era, cannon could fire about 300 yards, or about the range of the Roman ballistae. Up until the Crimean War (1854), 70 percent of all cannon shot fired was solid ball shot. But as early as the 1740s artillery gunners had various types of artillery rounds at their disposal. Heavy rounds that exploded on contact were used primarily by howitzers while artillery guns, those with a flatter trajectory, commonly used canister, chain, and grapeshot against cavalry and infantry formations. Later, these rounds were coupled with exploding charges ignited by timed wicks that made it possible to burst artillery rounds over the heads of the enemy, greatly increasing lethality and casualties. In the Civil War rifled cannon came into its own with a corresponding increase in range and accuracy. Still later, advances in breech loading, gas canister sealing, and recoil mechanisms greatly increased rates of fire.

Previous Contents Next