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The Military Revolution is a term used by some historians for a radical change in military strategy and tactics that is usually placed between the late Medieval era and the Early Modern Period up to the 18th Century. The introduction of gunpowder weapons, such as cannon and musket, played an important role in this supposed transformation of European warfare.


Origin of the concept

The concept of a Military Revolution was first proposed by Michael Roberts in 1955. On 21 January of that year, he delivered a lecture before the Queen's University of Belfast; later published as an article, "The Military Revolution, 1560–1660", that has fuelled debate in historical circles for five decades, in which the concept has been continually redefined. Though newer historians often challenge Roberts' findings, they usually agree with his basic proposal that European methods of warfare changed profoundly somewhere around or during the Early Modern Period.


Roberts placed his military revolution around 1560-1660 as the period in which linear tactics were developed to take advantage of the increasingly effective fire weapons,[1 ] however that chronology has been challenged by many scholars.

Ayton and Price have remarked the importance of the “Infantry Revolution” taking place in the early 14th century,[2] and David Eltis has pointed that the real change to fire weapons and the elaboration of a military doctrine according to that change took place in the early 16th century, not, as Roberts defended, in the late 16th century.[3]

Others have defended a later period for the military change, thus Jeremy Black thinks that the key time period was that of 1660-1710, which saw an exponential growth in the size of European armies,[4] while Clifford J. Rogers (historian) has developed the idea of successive military revolutions at different periods, first an “infantry revolution” in the 14th century, secondly an “artillery revolution” in the 15th century, thirdly a “fortifications revolution” in the 16th , fourth a “fire weapons” revolution between 1580 and 1630, and finally a fifth revolution, the increase in size of European armies, between 1650 and 1715.[5] Similarly, Geoffrey Parker has extended the period of the military revolution from 1450 to 1800, the period in which Europeans achieved supremacy over the rest of the world.[6] Not surprisingly, some scholars have questioned the revolutionary character of an evolution through four centuries.[7] Clifford Rogers has suggested that the military revolution can best be compared with the concept of "punctuated equilibrium evolution" (a theory originating in biology), meaning short bursts of rapid military innovation followed by longer periods of relative stagnation.[8]

Discussion on tactics


Linear tactics

Swedish Brigade deployed in 6 ranks, one company deep (every flag represents a company
Breitenfeld. The Catholic formations (to the left) are deployed 2 companies deep, while the Swedish (to the right) are deployed just one company deep
Alte Veste. Swedish assault columns deployed 2 companies deep

The original concept envisioned by Michael Roberts revolved around two military figures, Maurice of Nassau and, more importantly, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. They, according to Roberts, promoted linear tactics that favoured fire weapons, in contrast to the deeper Tercio favoured by the Catholic armies. Roberts, a specialist on Gustavus Adolphus, stressed his role as a military reformer, joining a long list of admirers that had credited him with virtually every innovation introduced prior to 1800,[9] although late critical analysis have greatly reduced the number of his innovations.[10] The use of commanded musketeers supporting cavalry, though, has precedents in the French Wars of Religion. However he could be credited with the invention of a new Swedish tactical infantry unit, the brigade, composed by three squadrons, each deployed just 6 ranks deep (see picture 1). Roberts stressed the shallow deployment, that would require a higher proportion of officers and NCOs, and better drilled soldiers, all in turn favouring the requirement for permanent armies, but to make the case for the revolutionary nature of this deployment, he did it by contrasting the “Swedish system” against a “Tercio System” used by the Catholic armies up to that date.[1 ] The use of the word Tercio was misleading, alluding both to a Spanish unit equivalent to an Infantry Regiment in other armies, and to a formation, particularly to that used by the Catholic League army of Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly in the Thirty Years War.

This was a gross simplification, in fact Tilly's Tercio is what we can call an assault column, Napoleonic style, surrounded by skirmishers,[11] and this was a product of the aggressive nature of his command, not something derived from a “system”,[12] a genuine Tercio, like any regiment, could in fact be deployed in several different formations, depending on the assigned mission, the Spanish Tercios were deployed 12 ranks deep as early as the Battle of Nieuwpoort (1600) , and in 10 ranks before 1630.[13]

Shallow formations are ideally suited for defensive deployments, but they are clumsy in offensive missions, the longer the frontage, the more difficult to maintain order and cohesion, or to perform any maneuver, especially wheeling; Gustavus Adolphus understood well that far from being slow and ponderous, the assault columns like those used by Tilly were in fact faster and more flexible, and the Swedish King made use of them when required, like in the battle of Alte Veste (see picture 3).

In conclusion, armies did start to use thinner formations, but in a slow evolution, and subjected to tactical considerations.[14] Fire weapons were not that effective as to rule exclusively the deployment of troops,[15] other considerations were also observed, like units experience,[16] assigned mission, terrain, or the need to meet a required frontage with an understrength unit. The debate line vs column was carried through the 18th Century up to Napoleonic times, with a temporary reverse to deep columns in the later campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars.[17] Ironically, depth reduction in cavalry formations was a more permanent change introduced by Gustavus Adolphus, in conjunction with less reliance on pistol fire it had the net effect of favouring shock action over fire power, contrary to the tendency defended by Roberts.

Trace Italienne

Roberts´ linear tactics concept had an early critic in his disciple Geoffrey Parker, who asked why the supposedly outdated Spanish Tercio crushed the Swedish at the battle of Nördlingen[18] Parker instead suggested as the key technological element the appearance of the trace italienne in early modern Europe. In this view, the difficulty of taking such fortifications resulted in a profound change in military strategy. 'Wars became a series of protracted sieges', Parker suggests, and open-pitch battles became 'irrelevant' in regions where the trace italienne existed. Ultimately, Parker argues, 'military geography', in other words the existence or absence of the trace italienne in a given area, shaped military strategy in the early modern period, and lead to the creation of larger armies, necessary to besiege the new fortresses and to garrison them. In this way, Parker placed the birth of the Military Revolution in the Early Sixteenth Century. He also gives it a new significance, not only was a factor in the growth of the State, it was also the main factor, together with the “Naval Revolution” to the rise of the West over other Civilizations.[19]

This model has been criticised on several grounds. Jeremy Black pointed that it was the development of the State that allowed the growth in size of the armies, not the other way around, and found Parker guilty of “Technological Determinism”.[4] More tellingly, the figures presented by Parker to sustain his idea about the growth of armies have been severely criticised by David Eltis as lacking consistency[3] and David Parrott has proved that the period of the trace italienne did not show any significant growth in the size of French armies[20] and that the late period of the Thirty Years War showed an increase in the proportion of cavalry in the armies,[21] contrary to Parker's Thesis that the prevalence of siege warfare marked a decrease of its importance.

The infantry revolution and the decline of cavalry

Some Medieval specialists elaborated on the idea of an infantry revolution happening early in the 14th century, when in some relevant battles, like Courtrai, Bannockburn or Halmyros heavy cavalry was routed by infantry.[22] However, it can be pointed out that in all those battles infantry was entrenched or positioned in rough terrain unsuited for cavalry, like in other battles of the 14th and 15th century in which cavalry was defeated, in fact infantry had been victorious in earlier times in similar situations, for instance at the battle of Legnano in 1176, but in open ground infantry still had the worst, as shown for instance at the battle of Patay and the battle of Formigny in which the vaunted English longbowmen were easily run down. However, the experience of battles like Courtrai and Bannockburn meant that the myth of the invincible knight disappeared, which was in itself important for transforming medieval warfare.

More substance has the case for the “return of Heavy Infantry” as Carey has named it.[23] Pikemen, unlike other infantry, could stand in the open against heavy cavalry, and while requiring drill and discipline, individual training requirements were much lower than those for archers or knights, and the switch from heavily armoured knight to footsoldier made possible the expansion in the size of armies from the late fifteenth century onwards as infantry could be trained more quickly and could be hired in great numbers, however that change was slow. The full development, in the fifteenth century, of plate armour for both man and horse, combined with the use of the arret (lance rest) which could support a heavier lance, ensured that the heavy cavalryman remained a formidable warrior, without cavalry, a fifteenth-century army was unlikely to achieve a decisive victory on the field of battle; battle might be decided by archers or pikemen, but a retreat could only be cut off effectively or followed-up by cavalry.[24] In the 16th century, a lighter, less expensive and more professional cavalry gained ground, so that the proportion of cavalry in the armies actually grew continually, so that in the last battles of the Thirty Years War cavalry actually outnumbered infantry as never before since the high feudal period.[25]

Another change that took place in the late 15th century was the improvement in siege artillery as to render old style fortifications very vulnerable, however the supremacy of tactical offence in siege warfare was not to last for very long, for as Philippe Contamine has noted, by a dialectical process which may be found in all periods, progress in the art of siege was answered by progress in the art of fortification, and vice versa.[26] Charles VIII's invasion of Italy in 1494 demonstrated the potency of siege artillery; but in this region by the early years of the sixteenth century there were beginning to emerge fortifications which had been designed specifically to resist artillery bombardment. If the full impact the fifteenth-century "artillery revolution" was comparatively quickly blunted by the development of the bastion and the trace italienne, the military supremacy which the possession of a powerful siege train conferred contributed in no small degree to that strengthening of royal authority which we find in some European states in the later fifteenth century.[27]

Discussion on size of armies

The increase in army size and its influence on the development of Modern States is an important point in the military revolution theory. However, for any accurate analysis reliable data are required. There are several sources for the study of the size of armies in different periods.

Administrative sources

By their own nature they are the more objective sources available. Since Napoleonic Wars European Commanders had at their disposal periodical ‘’’strength reports’’’ of their units. Those strength reports are the main source for research in conflicts in 19th and 20th centuries, however they are not without problems, different armies count effective strength in different ways, and in some instances reports are inflated by commanding officers to look good to their superiors.

Another source was ‘’’muster calls’’’, they were non periodical strength reports of the personal ready for duty. Muster calls are the main source for the strength of armies before the 19th century, but by their own nature they lack continuity and are ill suited for long time period analysis. They are, however, the most reliable source for the period and do provide a general picture of army strengths and their variability.[28]

Thirdly, ‘’’pay rolls’’’ provide another set of information. They are especially useful to study army costs, but they are not so reliable as muster calls as they only show payments, not real soldiers ready for duty, and before the 19th century “ghost soldiers”, men falsely enlisted by officers in order to get the fees for themselves, were a very common occurrence.

Finally, ‘’’Orders of Battle’’’, lists of units without précising strength, are very important for the16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Before that period armies lacked the organization to deploy permanent units, so that Order of Battles usually consist in an enumeration of leaders with commands. The exception for Ancient Times would be the Roman army, that from an early period developed a considerable military organization. An Order of Battle is not a reliable source for army strength, since units in campaign, or even in peace time periods, are rarely if ever at full authorized strength.

Narrative sources

Modern historians make use of the large amount of administrative sources available now, however things were very different in the past. Ancient writers too many times give numbers without naming sources, and there are few cases in which we can be sure they are actually using any administrative source. That is especially true when they speak about enemy armies, in which the access to administrative sources was in any case problematic. Besides that there are a number of additional problems concerning Ancient historians, they could be very biased in their reports, as inflating the number of enemies has been one of the favourites propagandistic resources in all times, and even when they are balanced, many historians didn't have military experience, so that they lack technical judgement and could accept anything that is given to them. On the other hand, they had access to first hand accounts that could be very interesting, although in the subject of numbers they are rarely accurate.

To sum up, Ancient narrative sources are very unreliable on the subject of numbers, so that it is not possible to make use of them in a pair to administrative sources. Comparatives between modern and ancient periods are thus not useful, and the study of the increase in the size of armies should be limited basically to Europe and the time period between late 16th and 20th century, in which data of comparable reliability are available.

Size of overall armies

A clear differentiation should be established between Overall armies, i.e. the overall armed forces of a given political entity, and Field Armies, tactical units capable of moving as a single force along a campaign. The growth in size of overall armies has been considered by several scholars as a key issue of the Military revolution. There are two main thesis, it has been either considered a consequence of the economic and demographic growth of the 17th-18th century[29] or the main cause for the growth of the administration and centralization of the Modern State in the same period.[30]

However, some opponents of the general thesis have challenged those views, for instance I.A.A. Thompson has noted how the growth in size of the Spanish army in the 16th-17th centuries contributed rather to the economic collapse of Spain and to the weakness of the central government against regional rebellions[31] while Simon Adams has put in question if there was any growth at all in the first half of the 17th century.[32] The growth is however clear in the second half of the 17th century, when the States embrace the task of recruiting and arming themselves their armies, abandoning the system of commission, prevalent until the end of the Thirty Years’ War. The organization of a system of Local and Provincial Militias around this period in several countries (and the growing importance of Local Aristocracy, the so called “refeudalization of the armies” especially in Eastern Europe) contributed to the extension of manpower base of the national armies, although foreign mercenaries still remained a considerable percentage in all European armies.

Size of field armies

This has been dictated through history by logistic constrains, mainly the supply of food. Before the mid 17th Century armies basically lived off the ground, so they didn't have supply lines, they moved to the supply, and many times their movements were dictated just for supply considerations.[33] Some regions with good communications could supply large armies for longer periods, still they had to disperse when they moved from these well supplied areas. The maximum size of field armies remained under 50 000 for most of this period, and strength reports over this figure are always from unreliable narrative sources and must be regarded with high scepticism. In the second half of the 17th century things changed greatly, armies began to be supplied through a net of depots linked by supply lines,[34] that greatly increased the size of Field Armies, and in the 18th and early 19th century, before the advent of the railway, the size of Field Armies reached figures over 100 000.


The deterministic concept of a Military Revolution based upon technology has given way to models based more on a slow evolution on which technology plays a minor role to organization, command and control, logistics and in general non material improvements. The revolutionary nature of these changes resulted only visible after a long evolution that handed Europe a predominant place in World Warfare, a place that the Industrial Revolution will confirm.


  1. ^ a b Roberts, The Military Revolution
  2. ^ Ayton and Price, The Medieval Military
  3. ^ a b Eltis, The Military
  4. ^ a b Black, A Military
  5. ^ Rogers, The Military
  6. ^ Parker, The Military Revolution, 1500-1800
  7. ^ see Ayton and Price, The Medieval Military, and also Childs, Warfare
  8. ^ Clifford J. Rogers, 'The Military Revolutions of the Hundred Years' War' in: The military Revolution Debate. Readings on the Military Transformation of Early Modern Europe, C.J. Rogers, ed. (Oxford 1995), p. 76-77
  9. ^ Guthie, Battles p.14
  10. ^ Brezezinski, Cavalry, gives a final list that includes a national army based on conscription of the peasantry, the Swedish Brigade formation, regimental guns and the salvo. The countermarch to keep a rolling fire required 10 ranks, by adopting the salvo, Gustavus Adolphus was able to reduce depth to six ranks, based on the idea that only five ranks of pike could actually reach the enemy, plus a sixth rank as a reserve, see Guthrie, Battles, p. 17, however the salvo was hardly a more effective way to use fire weapons, it did produce a morale shock effect on the enemy, but it left musketeers dangerously exposed to counterattacks. Besides, veteran troops could avoid the salvo by crouching just before it was delivered, as the Spanish did at the battle of Nördlingen
  11. ^ Guthrie, Battles p.11, curiously he contradicts himself when he estimates the pace of advance of a Tercio at 60 meters a minute, because he arrives to that estimation giving the required time to the musketeers, deployed as many as 25 ranks deep in the flanks of the pikemen, to keep a rolling fire. However, it is clear that in an assault the pace of advance would be dictated by the pikemen, musketeers just keeping up to provide flank cover, not forming in regular ranks, as Guthrie himself suggests just some paragraphs earlier
  12. ^ Guthrie, Battles p.60 argues that his experience in the Hungarian Wars lead him to reject conventional (Spanish-Dutch) military theory in thinking that decisive results could be achieved from field battles
  13. ^ Quatrefages, La revolución
  14. ^ Linear formations marked an increase in infantry defensive capacity through the emphasis on static firepower and a decrease in offensive capability due to shallower formations, battle will tend to be resolved by the cavalry wings instead, see Parrott, Strategy p.227-252
  15. ^ In this regard, the introduction of regimental guns should be considered as an “option” rather than a “development” because the increase in firepower was offset by other considerations, they slowed down the advance of infantry and added a considerable logistic burden that many considered they were not worth, for instance France, the rising Big Power at the time, discarded them after a brief experience in her army
  16. ^ Barker, Military Intellectual p.91 the more experienced the unit, the thinner the formation
  17. ^ see Chandler, Art of Warfare p.130-137
  18. ^ The Military Revolution, A myth?
  19. ^ Parker, The Military Revolution, 1500-1800
  20. ^ Parrott, Richelieu's Army
  21. ^ Parrott, Strategy and Tactics
  22. ^ Ayton and Price, The Medieval Military, see also Verbruggen, Art of Warfare
  23. ^ Carey, Warfare in the Medieval World
  24. ^ Vale, War and Chivalry p.127
  25. ^ Guthrie, The Later Thirty Years War p.42
  26. ^ Contamine, War in the Middle Ages p.101
  27. ^ Rogers, The military revolutions of the Hundred Years War p.272-275
  28. ^ For instance between the muster at Duben and the Muster at Breitenfeld the Swedish army lost more than 10% of its infantry in just two days (see Guthie, Battles p.23), this kind of conduct would be typical before a major battle was to be fought.
  29. ^ see Lynn, Clio in arms
  30. ^ Charles Tilly, Coercion Capital and European States
  31. ^ Thompson, War and Government
  32. ^ Adams, Tactics or Politics?
  33. ^ see Engels, Alexander the Great, for a treatment of the subject
  34. ^ see Lynn, Feeding Mars, for a discussion on the subject


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