Warfare in western civilization was transformed in the sixteenth century. The introduction of newer, more powerful firearms with the ability to penetrate any armour in common use radically altered infantry and cavalry tactics. New infantry and cavalry tactics brought with them changes in military organization, and a new emphasis on order and discipline and the collective training needed to bring it about. Careful training was essential if an infantry battle square was not to disintegrate into a stumbling mass of individuals, unable to resist a determined onslaught of enemy lance, pike or shot.
To gain the knowledge necessary for this greater battlefield articulation, early modern tacticians and commanders mined the long-neglected treatises of classical Roman and Greek ‘professors of tactics’, most notably Aelian, Vegetius and Leo. Of the three, Vegetius’ treatise of Roman military wisdom was the most widely read and available in the sixteenth century, having been read for centuries. His work earned a new lease of life with Machiavelli’s publication of The Art of War in 1521, which leaned heavily on the fourth-century Roman author. Aelian’s translation into Latin in 1550 added a new dimension to the study of Roman tactics, for unlike Vegetius, Aelian’s work was written during the reign of Trajan at the height of the Pax Romana and focused on the infantry tactics that made the Roman army the most well-articulated in the history of pre-gunpowder western civilization. Inspired by classical tactical doctrines and armed with new martial technologies, battlefield commanders initiated a ‘military revolution’ in the early sixteenth century.
Central to the success of this ‘military revolution’ was the widespread availability of the arquebus and the musket, the first effective and reliable infantry firearms used in large numbers. In the fifteenth century, the matchlock ignition device was invented to make ignition more reliable and aiming more accurate. With a matchlock, the handgunner pulled the trigger, raising the lower end of the serpentine or cock while the upper end holding the match in its clamp was lowered into the pan. This feature allowed the handgunner to look where he was pointing while firing. Stocks were shortened and fired from the shoulder rather than the breast, giving the gunner a better line of sight to his target. But because of the open pan exposed to the elements, matchlocks functioned only in calm and dry weather, and the necessity of having the match smouldering before and during combat created unusual battlefield hazards, compromising night operations and threatening friendly powder supplies.
In the early sixteenth century a new mechanical ignition device was invented, called a wheel lock. This was a vast improvement over the matchlock because it replaced the smouldering match with an ignition system that struck pyrite or flint against steel to produce a spark that ignited the priming powder in the pan. This unprecedented reliability also allowed for one-handed firing, making the wheel lock pistol the preferred weapon of cavalry and special units after the 1520s. But the expense and delicate construction of the wheel lock made it impractical for general issue, and the matchlock arquebus continued to be the primary infantry weapon in the sixteenth century.
The matchlock arquebus was a muzzle-loading, smooth-bore gun that was 4 feet in length, weighed between 9 and 15 pounds, and fired a lead ball weighing less than an ounce at a muzzle velocity of about 800 feet per second. The arquebus now delivered a much heavier punch at close range than the longbow, though the bow remained superior in rate of fire for another 350 years, until the invention of the repeating rifle in the nineteenth century. But the arquebus was limited by its relatively low power of penetration at longer ranges, forcing gunsmiths to develop the musket, a heavier weapon with improved ballistic properties.
The Spanish musket, first used in the Italian Wars in the 1530s as a defensive position weapon, was also a matchlock and smooth-bore, but was 6 feet in length and weighed about 20 pounds. It was a crew-served weapon that fired a 2 ounce lead ball, and had a barrel so heavy that it required a barrel rest for firing. Though the musket’s increased powder improved the lead ball’s velocity, its effective range still remained well under 200 yards. Both the arquebus and the musket required a few minutes to reload (two shots in three minutes was considered exceptionally good by the 1570s), and accuracy was so poor that the typical marksman could not reliably hit a man-sized target at ranges above 75 yards. Still, the arquebus and musket could penetrate any practical thickness of armour on the battlefield, making light infantry firepower an increasingly important factor in early modern warfare.