For Your Enlightenment: Pre-industrial gunpowder warfare for compelling militaries

Many people argue that due to magic, fantasy combat should have more in common with early modern warfare than premodern war. To be honest, I haven’t fully considered this idea. To get started, let’s look at what war looked like in the gunpowder era before the Industrial Revolution. This will focus on European warfare at the end of the period, barely touching the Napoleonic wars.

We’ll look at armies, gear, strategy, operations, siege tactics, battle tactics, and naval tactics.


  • As warfare evolved during the early modern era, army sizes skyrocketed. The demands of larger armies, coupled with increased bureaucratic capacity, led to some of the first large standing armies. These were recruited or conscripted from the populace and usually provided salaries, all features that modern professional militaries are familiar with.
  • We’ll touch on this in the next section, but the fact that most of the expenses are paid by the state serves to “flatten” armies as far as social classes are concerned. Before this period, soldiers mostly had to pay for their own gear. This meant that poorer soldiers were consigned to lower-quality units and suffered high mortality rates. For example, cavalry was made up of members of the upper-class, since horses are so expensive. Once governments started picking up the bill, unit membership starts being less based on soldier wealth. In theory, this should make things more based on personal ability, but nepotism and chance were still significant factors.
  • Professional armies have one notable drawback. Most non-professional militaries make use of existing social structures—families, villages, or other pre-existing organizations fight together. These social ties create morale, or more properly, cohesion. Since career soldiers are removed from these connections, artificial ones have to be made. Training regimens and standardized drills serve to create bonds between soldiers, encouraging them to stay in the fight.


  • As previously mentioned, the early modern period saw governments producing gear for armies. Premodern gear tended to be wildly varied, even within units. Now that equipment was being made en masse, it started to become standardized. Regular uniforms became more common as well.
  • The advent of gunpowder significantly reduced the complexity of both weapons and armor. Soldiers were usually equipped with muskets and bayonets; bullets pierced through even plate armor, so soldiers tended to wear only helmets (if that).
  • For the first part of the early modern period—before guns had advanced much technologically—cavalry was still used to close gaps and rush infantry. Because of this, pikes were still used, leading to “pike and shot” formations. Weapon developments eventually allowed for a higher rate of fire, making cavalry impractical and removing both horse and pike from the battlefield (though horses were still used for reconnaissance and communications).
  • The other area that benefitted highly from gunpowder was artillery. Massive amounts of resources were devoted to forming and maintaining artillery divisions, as they were often the deciding force in all varieties of engagements.


  • Military strategy was largely the same as in the premodern era: acquire resources by controlling land and its residents, and control the land and its residents by conquering settlements. Cities and towns both had the administrative infrastructure to extract resources and the military infrastructure to serve as a base of operations, allowing garrisons to harass enemies attempting to cross through or control the area. Because of these factors, sieges and assaults were the most important aspects of war, with field battles taking place mostly to deny enemy access to settlements.
  • Of course, the nature of sieges and battles changed dramatically with gunpowder, which we’ll address soon.
  • At the same time as these developments were occurring, the Scientific Revolution was bringing reason, experimentation, and math to the forefront of most fields. War was no different, and this period saw the first formal military theories. Arguably the most prominent military theorist of our time was Clausewitz, who wrote about Napoleon and Frederick the Great (an amazing general that too many people haven’t heard of). We get the concepts of the fog of war and the theoretical justification of “defense in depth” from Clausewitz.


  • The logistic features described in my article on premodern warfare are still relevant. To summarize, premodern armies featured large baggage trains for managing supply, and armies “foraged” from the surroundings (read: forcibly seized supplies from nearby civilians), forcing armies to keep moving to have fresh areas to forage. While the large number of noncombatants (called “camp followers”) stayed, many other features changed.
  • As militaries develop technologically, the amount of logistical support—both in the term of supplies and support personnel—paradoxically increases. This is captured in a measure called the “tooth-to-tail ratio” (T3R), where the amount of combatants (“tooth”) is compared against the number of noncombatants (“tail”). All of this boils down to the result that early modern armies were much more logistically complex than premodern ones.
  • The higher logistic demands combined with the increased level of administrative capacity of early modern governments led to several innovations. Since, as Bret Devereaux quipped, “farmers can’t grow artillery shells,” the source of supplies moved away from the countryside and towards central production centers. These supplies were delivered to armies via supply lines, and stored in supply depots to aid passing armies.
  • The new system of supply lines led to a new tactical opportunity: cutting off an army’s supply. In the premodern era, armies were largely self-sufficient, since they foraged from their surroundings. By intercepting supply convoys, armies could starve out enemy forces. This understandably shifted the strategic and tactical landscape significantly, making envelopment an even more important method for weakening armies.
  • Close to the very end of the early modern era, one person advanced logistics even further: Napoleon. He brought back foraging, at least for food and other non-ammunition needs, which made his armies more mobile. He also closely coordinated with allies and subjects to acquire what supplies he couldn’t forage.
  • In addition, he frequently split his armies into parallel columns, each foraging only to one side. Using multiple columns allowed him to use larger armies (since more of the countryside would be used to support his soldiers) and move his forces quicker (shorter columns move much faster).
  • This was incredibly difficult to organize, since all the columns had to arrive at the planned battle site at the same time—if they arrived one after the other, the enemy could focus on each one in turn, something called “defeat in detail” (which is something Napoleon deliberately employed on his enemies, catching small forces away from the rest of the armies to pick them off where he had the advantage).

Siege Tactics

  • The invention of artillery had a massive effect on sieges. Attackers could blast holes in walls, something impossible for pre-gunpowder siege engines (contrary to what we see in media), and defenders could shred approaching infantry (before this time, it was essentially assumed that attackers would reach the walls, so most defenses focused on making the area next to the walls dangerous). One thing to note is that these were not exploding shells, but simple metal cannonballs. Exploding shells were a relatively late innovation.
  • Adapting to these offensive and defensive factors led to a completely new type of fortification: bastion forts (also called star forts or trace italienne). These utilized the developing science of ballistics to create mathematically precise structures, which I think are absolutely gorgeous and should inspire more fictional fortifications:
The bastion fort at Bourntage, one of the most intricate bastion forts I’ve seen
  • While castle walls were thin and tall to reduce the effectiveness of ladders and dirt ramps, new fort walls were thick, short, and slanted to reduce cannonball effectiveness. The other main features of bastion forts were the bastions—the pointy parts on the corners of the central fort above. The “face” sides looked outward to cover the area near the fort, while the “flank” sides allowed cannons to fire at the area next to the main wall. These walls and bastions were precisely planned to cover all the battlefield with artillery fire.
  • These walls were supplemented with moats (dry or wet) and a long, sloping dirt barrier called the “glacis.” Again, the power of the ditch shows itself—no matter the era, dig a ditch.
  • As the formal theories of “defense in depth” were developed (having multiple positions to fall back to, slowly whittling the enemy along the way), multiple layers of these fortifications were created. “Outworks” were smaller structures outside the main bastion fort, and “citadels” were minor forts within a city to protect key infrastructure should the settlement fall. The pictured fort has several types of outworks outside the bastion fort itself. There’s a lot of outwork variations, and I encourage looking into them for ideas.
  • Just as mathematics came to dominate fortress design and construction, methods of siege and assault became very regimented. The most common technique involved “siege parallels,” a method perfected by Vauban. Siege parallels were trenches dug around the fort. As the name suggests, they were parallel to the defensive walls to give attacking cannons the best firing arcs. These parallels provided besiegers with defenses both against the settlement’s artillery and solders (circumvallation) and defenses against relieving armies that might attack the besiegers themselves (contravallation).
  • Traditionally, three parallels were used. The first was dug outside the fort’s artillery range and was mostly a defense against relieving armies. Trenches were then dug towards the fort in a zig-zag pattern, so the settlement’s cannons couldn’t fire directly down the trench. Once the diggers got in range, they dug the second parallel, which allowed besieging cannons to prevent sallies from the fort. More trenches were dug towards the fort before the third parallel was dug close enough to allow artillery to fire on the fort walls themselves.
  • Once the final trench was dug, attacking cannons would focus on one or more sections of the fortress walls to create a breach. (Not the bastions, since defenders would often have ways to seal those off if taken.) After a breach was made, the siege was essentially over. Sending infantry through the breach to take the city was costly—so costly the first unit through was called the “forlorn hope”—but the result was almost guaranteed to be the loss of the city.
  • By the end of the early modern period, sieges were essentially a choreographed dance. Bastion forts were the best the era could offer against artillery, but they were still certain to fall eventually. What they did do was make sieges incredibly costly—in time, supplies, and manpower—for the attackers. Because of this, sieges were effectively negotiating games. Once a siege started, the settlement could only survive if the attackers pulled away because of supply problems, threat of relieving armies, or political forces. Fort leaders could only hope that one of these events happened before the breach was made.
  • There were very strong incentives for forts to surrender before the breach happened. Attackers would harshly punish settlements that made them spend so much to conquer them. In some areas of Europe, it was common practice to let the victorious army run rampant throughout the city for three days before commanders would even try to restrain them.

Battle Tactics

  • To readdress the same misconception mentioned in the previous article: pitched battles (and really any battle or aspect of war) are less about death and more about morale. Morale—which in pitched battles is more properly called “cohesion,” since it relies on social ties between soldiers—is what keeps a unit or army in the fight. Casualties only matter because they affect morale and lessen an army’s ability to fight. Even as the mortality of war escalated with gunpowder, morale was still the governing factor.
  • We’ve mentioned that the creation of professional armies, with the corresponding loss of native social ties, required training programs and drills in order to create cohesion. This created an opportunity for standardized unit sizes, chains of command, formations, and tactics. This is when the classic infantry volleys (“Ready, aim, fire!”) were invented; premodern archers didn’t need this kind of regulation.
  • Some theorists describe three main formations used in this period: the column for speed and mobility, the line for offensive firepower, and the square for stationary defense. I haven’t been able to find any early modern writers who described this system, so it may be a classification devised after the fact to describe trends of the era. It works well enough, so I’m comfortable using it.
  • Marching in columns is common in war in most periods, and arranging in lines is almost universal too. The line was more important now that gunpowder was used, since maximizing the number of soldiers firing on the enemy was vital. Lines were commonly three deep, since there were three stages in firing muskets. The lines in front of the one currently firing could kneel as they prepared their guns.
  • Lines had one crippling drawback: they were very difficult to move. Lines could march forward, though every casualty and obstacle could break the line. With significant difficulty, lines could also turn to face new threats or march in a new direction.
  • When possible, it was much better to use columns to move instead. This meant that a common and vital drill was transitioning between columns and lines.
  • Squares were effectively immobile, but they allowed the formation to fire all around it. As such, it was used against very mobile enemies, like cavalry (while it was still around) or when it wasn’t certain where the enemy was, as in ambushes.
  • All of this discussion has ignored the other game-changer for the era: artillery. Premodern artillery was rarely used outside of sieges, since they weren’t that effective against diffuse or moving foes. Cannons changed that, as they could devastate large swaths of infantry—especially as formations grew denser to encourage cohesion.
  • Artillery was even more immobile than line infantry was. Moving to a new position involved putting the cannons’ supports away, hitching them up to horses, turning them around, slowly dragging them to the new position, and then reversing the process. Since relocating was so difficult, building fortified positions through ditches and earthworks was common when a good location could be found.
  • Battles therefore became very positional, focused on capturing and holding positions that gave guns and cannons a commanding view of the battlefield.
  • The last consideration was ammunition. Early modern armies burned through it at a tremendous rate and were crippled without it, so operations to cut supply lines were powerful. If infantry ran out of ammo, they could at least attach bayonets and charge, though this was a last resort. Artillery was useless if it ran out, but the crew food be armed with backup muskets so they weren’t completely defenseless.
  • This section wasn’t in the premodern article for a reason. Premodern navies were mostly for transporting troops, and naval engagements were rare. Ships didn’t have much they could do to each other except for arrow fire, boarding actions, and ramming (though some ships, like Greek triremes, had devastating battering rams).
  • The inventions of artillery and large ship designs created the first true warships, purpose-built to destroy enemy navies. The main goal was usually the siezure of ships and resources, though pure destruction was an acceptable outcome.
  • Cannons could use different types of ammunition to target different elements of enemy ships. These included round shot (simple metal balls for puncturing hulls), grapeshot (effectively cannon shotguns for killing crew above deck), and chain shot (two balls joined by a chain for destroying masts and rigging). For most shell types, the real danger for the enemy crew wasn’t the shot itself, but the cloud of deadly splinters, which could easily shred bodies.
  • Tactics were relatively simplistic, since ships weren’t very maneuverable. Forget the fancy moves of Pirates of the Caribbean or Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. Turning was so hard that it often took two men to turn the helm wheel.
  • What tactics there were centered on broadsides, which had all the guns on the side of the ship facing the enemy (like an infantry line). This could get difficult, since ships were always moving. The ideal was “crossing the T”, where one ship fired broadside down the length of the enemy vessel, but this was very hard to arrange.
  • By the end of the period, the gold standard of naval tactics was the “line of battle,” where all friendly ships lined up end to end, creating a wall of cannonfire. Ships designed around this tactic were called “battle ships of the line,” later shortened to “battleships.”

That concludes my summary of early modern warfare! I’d love to hear any feedback or suggestions you might have.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: