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Friday, April 30, 2021

Battle Ready: Weapons and Tactics of the European Soldier

In the previous section of this two-part WAM Update, we learned how, beginning in the 14th century, European armies began to shift their focus from knights and heavy cavalry towards infantry and common-born soldiers. This led to changes in tactics, in the shape of fortifications, and in the organization of the army itself. In this section, we will look at the rapid rise of firearms, and the further changes they brought to both armor and fighting style, ultimately making cavalry obsolete.

By the mid-16th century, the man-at-arms was rapidly adding pistols to his arsenal, often without the lance and in some cases adding an additional firearm, the carbine. These shorter barreled firearms were less accurate and thus needed to be used at close ranges. It was discovered that by increasing the thickness of the cuirass (breast and backplate) of the armor, it could be made proof against pistols and other light firearms. Thus it was that the heavily armored cavalry of the mid-16th century onwards became known as cuirassiers, in reference to their reinforced armor. 17th century cavalry continued to make shock attacks, with drawn swords followed up by pistols after the enemy line had been broken through.


A gun with a wooden stock, in a shape somewhat similar to a modern rifle, but only a single short barrel. It is front-loading, with an elaborate wheeled mechanism controlled by the trigger (a clamp that would hold a piece of flint and a spring-loaded steel wheel that can be wound), and the rear ends in a sphere with ivory inlay.
Master "NEH", Puffer (wheel-lock pistol) for the Mounted Guards of Elector Christian I of Saxony (r. 1586-91),
German, Saxony, dated 1588. Steel with blueing, walnut, and horn. 5 lb, 2 oz (weight).
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.47


A suit of silver-colored armor with brass studs, some arranged in rosettes; the overlapping plates do not extend past the knees, and the face is uncovered apart from a brim above the eyes. Armor is accessorized with a red sash and a basket-hilt rapier.
Three-Quarter Armor for a Cuirassier, Southern German, Augsburg, 1620–1625.
Steel and brass with modern leather. 47lb. 1oz. (weight).
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.1135


Not all cavalry were heavy types. Lighter cavalry had long existed, using light lances and less armor. By the late 15th century they came to be known as demi-lancers. As firearms were introduced, new types of light cavalry evolved creating a variety of new types whose roles would often overlap, blur and change definition as time passed. An example is the dragoon, whose role was originally as a mounted harquebusier, essentially a mounted infantryman who dismounted to fight, using the horse as rapid transport. However, dragoons quickly adapted to the role of using their firearms from the saddle and by the 18th century were essentially an unarmored form of cavalry using pistols, sabers, and carbines.

 

A gun with wooden stock, again reminiscent of a modern rifle, with a single long and thin barrel. Again it is front-loading and has a complex mechanism controlled by the trigger. The wood is decorated with brass and ivory inlay.
Wheel-Lock Carbine for the Personal Guard (Trabanten) of Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau,
Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg (r. 1587-1611), 
German/Suhl, about 1590.
Steel, brass, bone, iron, and wood. 4 lb, 3 oz (weight).
 The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.51


In the mid-16th century the army infantries typically had 2 soldiers with firearms (or shot) to every 5 pikemen. The shot, like archers previously, were primarily for ranged combat, supporting the pikes in their melee combat, which was seen as the primary role of infantry. Pikemen also defended the shot from assault by enemy pikemen and cavalry. This ratio gradually shifted as the lighter arquebus was replaced with the powerful musket. By 1600 the ratio had become 3 shot to every 1 pike. This was partially due to the large amount of siege warfare in the second half of the 16th century, where a man with a firearm was far more effective than one with a pike.
 
 
Another gun with a wooden stock somewhat shaped like a modern rifle, but with only a single barrel. The barrel is wider than the previous gun, and the wood largely undecorated. The mechanism controlled by the trigger is a simple clamp that could hold a burning piece of rope.
Matchlock Musket, Austrian, Wiener-Neustadt, about 1675. Steel, iron and wood. 15 lb 4 oz (weight).
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.616


The 17th century would see the armor of the cuirassier gradually reduced to just a cuirass and helmet, with all other plate defenses removed to increase speed as the more powerful musket could more readily pierce even reinforced armors. Other forms of cavalry would abandon armor altogether. As the century progressed cavalry came to be used in more of a supporting role to the infantry, though still used to deliver the fatal blow to an enemy after they had been broken.
 
 
A black ink print on yellowed paper, showing a section of an army from an overhead view. Footsoldiers and horse-mounted fighters are arranged in large organized blocks, with the largest at the center and the rest surrounding. The labeling is in Italian.
Italian Army on the March, European, early 17th century. Ink engraving on paper. Prints.
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.594


As the ratio of shot to pike continued to shift in the former’s favor, so too changed the tactics. Instead of using large blocks of slow moving pikemen supported by shot, the new ratio required spreading out the shot in longer thinner lines to maximize firepower, as well as offering a smaller target. The formation was also more maneuverable, as the tactical units shifted from larger regiments of 2,000 men to smaller companies of 120. The pikemen adopted the same formation to spread the limited number of pikes facing the enemy and to continue to support the shot from melee attack. Additionally, the use of larger numbers of field artillery enhanced the overall firepower of the linear formation, giving it an emphatic punch. Cavalry were used to scout and sweep the flanks. The Battle of Breitenfeld, September 17, 1631 saw the Swedes use linear tactics to beat bulky Imperial pike squares; this would become a model for linear tactics that was used up to the First World War.

 
A black ink print on cream paper showing examples of troop movement. Each starts with a column of soldiers depicted as eight bars (representing companies of soldiers) arranged into a rectangle. Dotted lines indicate how each company would move from this column into a straight line in an organized manner, with different movements depending on where the ending line falls relative to the original column.
Engraved by Amos Doolittle (American, 1754–1832), Plan of Military Evolutions,
American, early 1800s. Engraving on cream wove paper. Prints.
Charles E. Goodspeed Collection. 1910.48.837
 

Colored print on cream paper of a soldier on a horse; the soldier wears a solid breastplate and a helmet with a large crest, but no other armor.
Philibert Louis Debucourt (French, 1755–1832), Cuirassier Prussien, about 1800.
Aquatint and watercolor on cream wove paper. Prints.
Mrs. Kingsmill Marrs Collection. 1926.1122


A colorful print on cream paper depicting a soldier in a red coat uniform resting a musket on the ground beside him; the wood stock gun is nearly as long as he is tall, reaching his shoulder. The soldier shakes the hand of a crying woman with two children beside her; a third child stands behind her, dressed in a perfect soldier's uniform including a gun with bayonet held at his side.
Isaac Cruikshank (Scottish, 1764–1811) after Woodward, The Soldier's Farewell, 1803.
Etching with watercolor on cream wove paper. Prints.
 Gift of Dr. Samuel B. Woodward. 1934.872 (Detail)


By the 18th century the musketeer had become the main fighting force of the armies of Europe, supported by artillery and cavalry; cuirassiers were now few in number. The flintlock musket would replace the matchlock while the socket bayonet, developed by the French, allowed musketeers to convert their weapons into spears. This enabled musketeers to shoot and effectively engage in melee, making the pikemen obsolete. However, Napoleon made great use of cuirassiers and brought them back into vogue in the 19th century, though cavalry would never again dominate the battlefield as it had in the Middle Ages. The 19th century saw the musket supplanted by the rifled musket and then cartridge fed rifles. Cuirassiers continued to serve on the battlefields of Europe through the First World War. In the 1930s, French cuirassier units would have their horses and armor replaced by tanks, effectively ending the age of armored horsemen.


A painting of two men in 19th century military uniform conversing on a muddy road. One rides a white horse and carries a spear with two small banners, the other stands huddled with a wooden stock gun tucked under one arm. There is a strong wind, and the brushstrokes in the grey sky suggest rain.
Christian Sell (German, 1831–1883), Two Patriots, 1870s. Oil on panel. Paintings.
Gift of Mrs. Roger N. Heald. 1972.50


—By Neal Bourbeau, Programming Coordinator

April 30, 2021


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