The Military Revolution - 1  

Sebastian Vrancx (1573-1647) Soldiers plunder a farm


In January 1955, the historian Michael Roberts delivered a lecture (published 1956) called The Military Revolution: 1560-1660. Roberts argued that changes in the size, strategy and tactics of early-modern armies and the impact these changes had on society and government were so profound as to be revolutionary.
Roberts' thesis has been questioned and criticized. It has also been expanded and adapted, particularly by Geoffrey Parker who also sees military change as crucial in the rise of the West.

Changes in arms and fortifications

During the 15th Century the development of large siege guns forced changes in the construction of defensive works. In Italy fortifications with thick earthen or brick walls and angled bastions, often complemented by moats, ditches and entrapments, were developed to make artillery attack less effective. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the distinctive low thick walls and angled bastions of the trace italienne spread slowly to the rest of Europe.

The bastion of Jülich castle designed by the Italian military architect, Alessandro Pasqualini (1493-1559).

The improvement in fortifications made sieges longer and more expensive. The siege of Ostend, for example, lasted from July 1601 to September 1604. The castle had recently been rebuilt with ramparts and counterscarps and the surrounding area was flooded by the defending Dutch, and its capture cost the Spanish thousands of troops. (Compare the siege of Breda or of Candia).
Vauban's engineering continued to stress the bastion, but he also strengthened salients with ravelins and designed walls to make enfilading fire easier. In the later 17th and early 18th century, sieges remained costly in time and lives - the Allies suffered 12,000 casualties in the capture of Lille from the French (1708).
The besiegers themselves often had to construct elaborate fortifications to defend themselves from a garrison's guns, and both besieged and besiegers mined and counter-mined (i.e. dug tunnels under their opponents fortifications so that they could trigger explosive charges from beneath). The Dutch besiegers constructed 25 miles of trenches and fortifications in the siege before the capture of ‘s Hertogenbosch (1629).
Siege warfare became a specialist area of science:  Prince Maurice founded a special engineering course at Leiden University, the Duytsche Mathematicque and employed the mathematician, Simon Stevin to draw up its curriculum.
The growing importance of fortresses made battles less frequent and less crucial: - defeat in the field was not decisive if a garrisoned strongpoint was still held.

Matchlock musket

The sixteenth century also saw a significant change in weapons and tactics. Mounted knights and archers had dominated the medieval battlefield, but were replaced by musketeers and pikemen.
Muskets had replaced the bow and arrow throughout Europe by the end of the sixteenth century, but the musket was a large, slow, unwieldy weapon. At the beginning of the 17th century, the average musket was about five feet long and fired 12-bore shot. It was so heavy (c. 15 pounds) that it had to be supported and stabilized by a forked "rest". It took at least two minutes to load and because the gunpowder was ignited by a burning "match", it was unreliable in wet and windy weather.


In the course of the 17th century, the musket became gradually shorter (down to about four feet on average) and lighter. The "matchlock" was superseded by the "wheellock" (which ignited the powder with a revolving toothed wheel).


In the last two decades of the 17th century, armies were issued with the "flintlock" (which produced a spark by striking the flint against a piece of steel (frizzen) positioned just above the gunpowder pan).


The slow rate of fire of muskets necessitated that the musketeers be defended from sudden cavalry attack by pikemen. The pike was about 18 feet long (sometimes cut shorter by tired soldiers) and so only strong men could wield it effectively. At the opening of the 17th century, two pikemen were deployed for each musketeer, but during the century the ratio shifted - only one pike for five/six muskets. Eventually, the invention of the bayonet made each musketeer his own pikeman in some sense.

An innovation in the later seventeenth century was the grenade. This was a cast-iron ball about the size of grapefruit, packed full of gunpowder and small lumps of metal, with a fuse attached. Especially strong and tall Grenadiers were trained to throw the grenades (which had a troubling tendency to explode prematurely). The weapon was particularly used in siege warfare to assault the soldiers who rushed together to a breach in the fortifications.
[Frederick William of Prussia recruited a special battalion of Grenadiers called the "Potsdam Giants"; he paid well to attract men more than seven feet tall from all over Europe].

Developing tactics

Successful tactics depended greatly on maneuvering the various elements of the early-modern army in close co-ordination. Pikemen could defend themselves from cavalry attack, but were very vulnerable to musket fire.
The Spanish tercio was the first successful combination of pikes and muskets. The pikemen were formed in a central square and the musketeers positioned at each corner. Tercios were large - about 3,000 men - and difficult to maneuver. Spanish infantry tactics were based on the tercio until its defeat at the Battle of Rocroi (1643). (The Hapsburg armies of the later seventeenth century were reorganized by Montecuccoli on a six-rank battallion model that owed more to Gustavus Adolphus than the earlier tercio tradition).
Cavalry were useful for reconnaissance and surprise, but stood little chance against disciplined pikemen and were little used in Western European warfare. When France went to war in 1635, only just over twelve thousand of its 132,000 troops were cavalry.


On the vast steppes of Eastern Europe, cavalry remained very important. The "winged" horsemen (Husaria) of Poland, organized in divisions and supported by artillery, played a key role in warfare. The Poles bred horses for speed and endurance, developed a superb curved saber, and carried twenty feet lances that could pierce pikemen's defenses.
At the battles of Kircholm (1605) and Gniew (1656), Polish cavalry showed they could beat the best Western infantry, and they played a key role in routing the Ottoman forces at the siege of Vienna (1683).

Musket fire needed to be concentrated in volleys to be destructive because the weapons were so inaccurate (effective range was only about 75-100 yards - a modern army rifle has a range of about 400 yards) and because misfires were so common. However, if all the guns were fired simultaneously, the unit was very vulnerable until the guns were reloaded.
The Dutch were the first effectively to overcome this problem: - musketeers were drawn up in ranks (generally six) - the front rank fired and then moved back and began to reload, whilst the rank behind then fired and repeated the process. The troops had to work together and be thoroughly familiar with their weapons for this tactic to be successful. Maurice of Nassau insisted that the soldiers train regularly, and in 1597 standard terms of command were introduced throughout the Dutch army to guarantee uniformity.


In 1607, the Wapenhandlinghe of Jacob de Gheyn was published. This beautifully illustrated drill manual showed each stage of loading a musket and readying a pike. It was soon translated into Danish, German, French and English, and across Europe troops began to be systematically drilled.

The title page of a copy of a German translation


Gustavus Adolphus trained his troops so well that he was able to reduce the number of ranks to three (one kneeling, the second crouching, the third standing) and yet still maintain a continuous fire of volleys. Gustavus Adolphus also reduced the size of tactical units, deploying them in battalions of about 500 men - this made tactical maneuver simpler and more flexible.
With the help of his skilful aide Torstensson, Gustavus Adolphus also innovated in his use of artillery. He made artillery lighter and more mobile - rapidly firing four-pounders were used effectively throughout the battle, moving forward with the troops rather than discharging from fixed positions before the main battle commenced. At the Battle of Breitenfeld (1631), Gustavus Adolphus even managed to capture the enemy's artillery (by a bold cavalry raid) and turn it against them.

Bigger armies

The need for troops to garrison and besiege fortresses led armies to become larger. By 1713, Peter the Great had an army of over 300,000 men.


Number of troops




United Provinces




1550s 150,000


1590s 200,000 80,000







1650s 300,000 100,000 100,000


1700s 50,000




[Adapted from B.M.Downing, The Military Revolution & political change]

The size of armies increased absolutely, but problems of logistics and supply still made it very difficult to concentrate large numbers of troops at one point. The problems of moving thousands of tons of flour in addition to large quantities of gunpowder and shot meant that if an army could not "live off the land" it rapidly dispersed or died from hunger. Throughout the century, winter campaigning remained difficult - if not impossible - because of the absence of grass &c. for the horses and livestock.
Turenne was victorious in his Bavarian campaign because he secured his lines of supply, avoided conflict until conditions suited him and maneuvered his enemy into devastated territory. "Make few sieges and fight plenty of battles" he told Condé, "when you are master of the countryside the villages will give us the towns".
Louis XIV was able to overcome these problems and deploy massive field armies because Michel Le Tellier and his son, the Marquis of Louvois established an efficient system of billeting and supply.


Drilling French troops



Louis and Louvois also took a small step towards making officers into a professional meritocracy. For much of the seventeenth century, in many countries noblemen simply  assumed positions of command regardless of their competence (or even attendance) - the colonels of the Imperial armies of 1633, for example, consisted of 13 commoners and 94 noblemen. In 1675, Louis instituted the ordre du tableau (Table of Ranks) making power dependent on rank and seniority (not noble birth). The continued practice of selling colonelcies undermined promotion by talent.


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