Exam preparation materials

Chapter 17

The War Machine Gets Some Upgrades

In This Chapter

Standing in stirrups to fight more effectively

Donning metal suits to fend off arrows and lances

Turning flying sparks from fireworks into firearms

Bringing down the Byzantine Empire with big guns

Since before the spear, warfare has always stimulated technology. Assyrian military engineers, Macedonian weapons inventors, and Roman fortification builders were the weapons techies of their respective times.

It’s hard to imagine anybody coming up with a horrific substance such as Greek fire, a highly combustible liquid that long predated twentieth-century napalm, if not to use it as a weapon. And metalworking seems to have fed on the needs of weapons makers and armorers. But inventions spur warfare, too.

More than a millennium ago, two dandy little innovations from Asia enabled and demanded many adjustments in how wars were fought and even how war was perceived. These innovations were

Gunpowder: The Chinese mixed up the first batch in the ninth century AD, although they didn’t try to blow anybody up with it until a while later.

The stirrup: Far less flashy than gunpowder but exceedingly practical, the low-tech stirrup — that thing that you put your foot into to climb onto and ride a horse — became part of a Chinese horse soldier’s gear in the fourth century AD.

Reinventing the Cavalry

Both gunpowder and the stirrup eventually filtered west through Asia to Europe, but the simpler stirrup came first. It coincided with a reemphasis on speed and mobility that I talk about in Chapter 16. Horseback warfare gained greater importance in medieval times, and it took diverse forms ranging from the lightly armed Arab conqueror on his small, fast-turning steed to the steel-plated European knight on his ponderous, metal-clad charger.

Standing tall and staying astride with stirrups

Stirrups make it vastly easier for a rider to stay balanced while swinging a sword, aiming an arrow, and especially while wheeling around in a strategic maneuver. That stability, in turn, allows the violence-prone equestrian to wield bigger weapons with better control. Europe’s armor-clad age of chivalry would have been unthinkable without stirrups. Some thirteenth- and fourteenth-century styles are shown in Figure 17-1.

Imagine a rider encased in a pounded-steel suit, bracing a long, heavy lance with one arm while trying to use his metal-shielded thighs and buttocks to grip the undulating flanks and back of a galloping steed. It wouldn’t work. But give that same knight two hanging platforms, one for each foot, so he can lift and center his weight, and the heavy armor and lance become more formidable than cumbersome.

TechnicalStuff.eps The stirrup originated either in China or in central Asia among the nomadic tribes and clans that are often labeled barbarians.

Figure 17-1:Front and side views of different stirrups, a technological innovation that changed warfare.


Raiding as a way of life on horseback

Chinese soldiers started using the stirrup around the fourth century AD, but the hard-riding Asian nomads called Avars probably had the invention as early as the first century BC. Their riders’ feet were tucked into stirrups when the Avars stormed into Eastern Europe in 568 AD, taking Danube Valley lands away from the Byzantine Empire.

Avars and other barbarian peoples used the stirrup while attacking towns and cities to get what they wanted — valuable trade goods, food, money, and sometimes even control of a region or an empire. (You can find out more about barbarian raiders and conquerors in Chapters 6 and 7.) Raiding became a way of life for some nomadic tribes from interior Asia’s steppes. Because these herders and hunters had little to offer in trade to settled farmers and townsfolk, such as the Chinese, they resorted to getting things they wanted by force.

Remember.eps Raiding is best performed quickly. You make the hit, and then put plenty of ground between yourself and your target. Horsemanship gave raiders an edge, and the stirrup sharpened it.

Guarding Byzantine borders

The rich Byzantine Empire (see Chapter 6) was a prime target of raiders, so fast horse patrols were a must to guard its borders. Stirrups, probably copied from the Avars, gave the Byzantine patrols an advantage over Western Europeans, who didn’t have the technology yet. This superiority coupled with the use of a commissariat (a support organization that made sure cavalrymen and foot soldiers had enough to eat, even during long sieges) made the Byzantine Empire extremely difficult for outsiders to penetrate. Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, needed every advantage in the seventh and eighth centuries as its troops faced a new and persistent foe: the Arabs.

The Arabs used stirrups, too, on relatively small, quick horses. More than great riders, the Arabs focused their zeal to spread their new religion, Islam, in the seventh and eighth centuries. They gained control of the Middle East and lands eastward into India and westward across North Africa and Spain (see Chapter 6).

Yet Constantinople withstood the Arabs. The Byzantine capital (today it’s Istanbul, Turkey) enjoyed a terrific strategic position, sitting on a point of high land jutting into the sea. Unable to take the capital on horseback, in the eighth century the Arabs tried ships, mounting a naval blockade that may have succeeded if not for Greek fire. A military secret, Greek fire may have been mostly naphtha, refined from coal oil that seeped to the surface from underground deposits. Whatever Greek fire was, it ignited on impact and floated.

The Byzantines catapulted clay pots full of Greek fire onto the decks of enemy ships, setting them aflame. Even if the pot missed, the pots’ contents burned atop the water. Sometimes the Byzantines squirted Greek fire out of hand-powered pumps. After losing too many ships, the Arabs called off the blockade.

Moors challenge

Arabs may not have brought down Constantinople, but their light cavalry strategy worked just about everywhere else. (Light cavalry refers to lightly armored horse units with an emphasis on speed.) In 711 AD, Muslim Arabs conquered Spain, which remained in Muslim control long after the great Arab Empire broke up into regional Islamic kingdoms.

The Muslims in Spain, who advanced from North Africa, quickly came to be called Moors. (Find more about the Moors in Chapter 6.) Christians living a little north of them, especially the Franks, didn’t like them as neighbors.

Ruling what was Gaul (now it’s France and much of Germany), the Franks were old-style barbarian ground fighters who were also disciplined and willing to adapt. When quick-riding Moors raided his borders, the Frankish king knew he needed more speed. His solution was to build up his cavalry.

Ironically, to defeat the invading Moors at Poitiers in 732 AD, that king, Charles Martel, ordered his horsemen down on their feet. Facing the attacking riders with shields and spears, the Franks stood fast and successfully repelled the Moors.

Despite that return to infantry tactics, this battle marked the beginning of the age of chivalry, a time when the armored knight dominated European warfare.


The words chivalry and chivalric are related to the French chevaux, meaning “horse,” and to other horse-based words, such as cavalier and the Spanish caballero. These words show how people of the Middle Ages associated nobility, gentility, and courage with mounted warriors. As in ancient Rome, the mounted soldier enjoyed a status denied to the foot soldier.

intheirownwords.eps This era of chivalry, like so many before it and since, glorified violence. People thought of fighting skills as a mark of civilization. Jean Froissart, a fourteenth-century French chronicler, wrote, “Gentle Knights were born to fight, and war ennobles everyone who engages in it without fear or cowardice.”

Ennobling or not, war costs money, and it became extremely expensive to outfit an armored, mounted knight. The Frankish king Charles Martel helped his riders pay for their gear by taking land from the medieval Church and giving it to the warrior-nobles. Under the system of feudalism (refer to Chapter 6), a landlord profited from his tenant farmers’ harvests.

Charlemagne, a slightly later Frankish king and the first to unite a big piece of Europe after the Romans fell, accomplished that unification with his cavalry.

Putting on the Full Metal Jacket

A culture of chivalry lasted for hundreds of years in Europe. In movies, this armor-clad culture is associated with the legendary King Arthur, who may not have existed at all (see Chapter 19). If he did exist, Arthur probably led Celtic Britons against invading Saxons in the sixth century AD, but he certainly didn’t do it in plate-metal armor. Plate armor didn’t come into fashion until 800 years later, in the fourteenth century.

Interlocking metal rings: Chain mail

Before plate armor, knights wore chain mail; before chain mail, they wore scale armor, a defense against arrows since Assyrian times (in the previous chapter).

Scale armor, like a lizard’s scales, consisted of small metal plates sewn into overlapping rows on a leather vest.

Chain mail was a bit more ingenious than scale armor. It consisted of interlocking metal rings made into a doublet, or close-fitting jacket.

The Crusaders wore mail as they rode east to liberate (in their words) the Holy Land from Muslim control (see Chapter 7). Chain mail became obsolete only as archers got better bows — bows that could shoot an arrow or a deadlier metal bolt — with enough force to pierce chain mail.

Putting more power into the archer’s bow

The crossbow was yet another Chinese invention, and an ancient one at that, dating back to the fourth century BC. European archers rediscovered the crossbow’s deadly power in the tenth century AD.

TechnicalStuff.eps A short, extremely stiff bow was mounted on a stock with a mechanism for cranking back the bowstring and holding it there at a higher tension than a man could achieve by pulling the string back manually. You loosed the missile with a finger-lever, or trigger.

The crossbow usually shot short bolts rather than arrows. These bolts were often made of metal. They penetrated materials that an arrow from a conventional bow could not. The Normans who conquered England in 1066 used the crossbow.

Pope Urban II condemned the crossbow in 1096 as “hateful to God.” In 1139, the Church banned the crossbow for use against Christians. (When it came to pagans such as the Saracens, a name for Turks and other Muslims, the weapon was okay.)

Charging behind the lance

Although Crusaders used the crossbow, there seemed something less than honorable about it. Chivalric values centered on personal combat. When there wasn’t a war to fight, knights rode against each other in fierce and often deadly jousts.

The lance, a long, pointed weapon that a jousting knight tucked under his arm, delivered incredible force. Increasingly metal-clad riders balanced on their stirrups and braced against high-backed saddles as they used this variation on the ancient spear to try to knock each other off their horses. Heavier armor kept them from being pierced through.

Mock battles let knights win status and stay sharp for the real thing, but the mock battles were still real. At a 1241 tournament in Neuss, Germany, about 80 men and boys died in the games.

The longbow marries precision to power

The English longbow, a refinement of ancient Welsh technology, became the latest thing in weaponry during the fourteenth century. Both precise and powerful in the hands of a skilled archer, the longbow gave knights another reason to wear solid metal armor.

Did the Hundred Years’ War really last 100 years?

The name of the Hundred Years’ War suggests ten solid decades of constant battle. Actually, it wasn’t one war but a series of back-and-forth conflicts from the 1330s to the 1450s.

In 1337, Philip IV of France snatched Aquitaine (today a region of southwestern France) from Edward III of England, and Edward invaded France. The next century included many battles and raids. But there were also truces, including a 28-year peace after Richard II of England married the daughter of Charles VI of France in 1396.

France eventually won, largely because England — weakened by an internal struggle, the Wars of the Roses — gave up trying to conquer its neighbor across the English Channel.

The crossbow was powerful, but its accuracy and range were limited, and it took too long to load. An English longbow could do damage at 750 feet and be reloaded rapidly. Only a skilled archer could use a longbow well, however, so England required yeomen to practice marksmanship. (Yeomen were small landowners, who served as soldiers when needed — as small farmers had in ancient Greece and Rome; see Chapter 16.)

In 1346, at the Battle of Crécy (in the Hundred Years’ War between France and England), English archers with longbows brought down wave after wave of French opponents. France lost more than 1,500 knights that day and 10,000 foot soldiers. England lost only two knights and fewer than 200 soldiers overall.

In the short term, Crécy led the French and other European knights to strap themselves inside heavier suits of armor. No one knew then that armored knights were on the way out and guns were on the way in. A century later, firearms outshot and outpierced any bow yet invented.

Adding Firepower with Gunpowder

Between the twelfth and the eighteenth centuries, guns spread from China to western Asia, to Europe, and then around the world. They advanced from primitive experiments to precision technology. Warriors were forced to revise their strategies, sometimes adapting ancient battle formations to the new weaponry, while defenders had to find new ways to fortify outposts and cities.

Lighting the fire of discovery

Light a fire on a patch of dirt that has sulfur in it and you get a sizzling, popping reaction. Somebody whose name is lost to history noticed this a long time ago in China, and the observation led other Chinese to experiment with putting concentrated sulfur together with charcoal. By the ninth century AD, another genius added potassium nitrate crystals (saltpeter). Burn that mixture, and you get sparkly effects that made a nice backdrop to formal ceremonies. Taoist monks played with these chemicals until they had fireworks.

Over time, pyrotechnicians (fireworks makers) realized that their mixture of gunpowder could make stuff fly — dangerous stuff. Soldiers noticed this, too. By the twelfth century, the armies of the Sung Dynasty added metal grenades to their arsenal. China pioneered fragmentation bombs, whose casings shattered into deadly shrapnel. Within another 100 years, Chinese factories made hundreds of military rockets and bombs, some filled with poisons, such as arsenic, that released on impact. Others were packed with tar and oil and were designed to start fires. The Chinese also built early guns in the form of metal barrels packed with gunpowder that shot out rocks or metal balls.

Spreading explosive news

News of Chinese explosives spread west along the ancient trade route, the Silk Road (see Chapter 6). The Arabs got primitive firearms by the late thirteenth century. In 1267, the recipe for gunpowder turned up in Europe in the hands of English scientist Roger Bacon.

Less than a century later, European armies began using crude cannons. Archers with longbows, not their innovative comrades who were trying out noisy, stinky little firepots, decided the Battle of Crécy, mentioned earlier in this chapter, but the primitive cannon was a sign of things to come. The early European cannon was called a firepot because it was pot-shaped. It propelled an arrow (yes, an arrow) with impressive force but little reliability and no accuracy. The earliest European gunmakers were craftsmen who, until then, had made church bells. Often they melted down bells to make cannons. Soon the gunmakers found out that a tubular barrel worked better and that it should propel a metal shot. You could knock down a castle gate or level a house that way.

Bringing in the big guns

intheirownwords.eps By the early sixteenth century, the Italian writer Niccolo Machiavelli observed, “No wall exists, however thick, that artillery cannot destroy in a few days.”

Guns were already big, although some of the biggest didn’t work so well. In the early fifteenth century some early cannon, sometimes called bombards, weighed 1,500 pounds and discharged balls 30 inches in diameter. How did anybody back then make a cast-metal barrel that big? At first, it wasn’t cast but rather pieced together out of forged iron staves, like the curved boards used to form a pickle barrel. Iron hoops held the staves together — temporarily, anyway.

In 1445, artillerymen in Burgundy (then an independent principality and later part of France) were firing a bombard made of staves and hoops at invading Turks when a hoop burst. The crazy thing is that they fired it again. Two more hoops and a stave blew apart on the next shot. In 1460, one of King James II of Scotland’s big guns exploded and killed him and many members of his royal party.

Battering down Constantinople’s walls

Sometimes a big gun was just the thing. As I explain in the earlier section “Guarding Byzantine borders,” the Arabs failed to capture stout Constantinople. Deciding to break out the big guns in order to breach the city, Ottoman Turkish Sultan Mehmet II hired a Hungarian gunmaker, who built him a cannon that sent a ball flying a full mile.

milestone.eps In 1453, the sultan fired that gun, nicknamed Mahometta, at the Byzantine capital’s ramparts and kept firing. Like so many of these giants, the cannon cracked after the second day and became unusable after a week. But Mehmet had other big guns. After 54 days of pounding, the 1,000-year-old Byzantine Empire finally fell, a victim of technological advance.

Refining the new weaponry

Although massive bombards worked, military leaders knew there had to be less-cumbersome ways to win battles using big guns. Weapons makers went to work devising field artillery weapons that were more useful and more versatile — and that fit specific niches in the Renaissance arsenal.

Making guns lighter and more maneuverable

Eventually, artillery experts figured out that they could cast some guns in light-yet-strong bronze, rather than iron. These lighter, less-cumbersome guns could be moved into place more quickly, fired more often (some of the big ones could deliver a shot only once in two hours), and weren’t so likely to explode, so they could do even more damage than the giants could.

Improving gunpowder with brandy

Guns got better, but gunpowder needed improvement because the sulfur, carbon, and saltpeter had three different weights. The saltpeter crystals settled to the bottom while the carbon came to the top.

The only way to ensure that the gunpowder worked was to mix the ingredients right before loading the weapon, which was difficult and time-consuming. Then somebody came up with a way to make the ingredients stick together by mixing the gunpowder with brandy and letting the resulting paste dry into corns, or grains, containing all three ingredients.

But what a waste of brandy. Soldiers tried substitutes, such as vinegar, which worked okay, but human urine worked even better — especially the urine from a soldier who had put that brandy to more pleasurable use. (It didn’t improve the smell of gunpowder, however.)

Putting guns in soldiers’ hands

Guns were first seen as replacements for the catapult and the battering ram — destructive, but not precise. As gunnery improved, however, guns gained accuracy and usefulness.

Soon, gunmakers came up with models for use on the battlefield — both as light artillery (usually a horse-drawn cannon on wagon wheels) and as weapons that soldiers could carry. Handcannon, as the smallest guns were called, scared the enemy’s horses (and your own, for that matter) and perhaps intimidated a knight or two. But for quite a while handcannon didn’t seem a practical replacement for bows and swords. How did you hold a gun, aim it, and also effectively set fire to the gunpowder charge?

TechnicalStuff.eps In the middle of the fifteenth century, the solution was a wick soaked in alcohol and coated with saltpeter, attached to a trigger. Pulling the trigger lowered this slow match into the gun’s touchhole to light the powder charge.

The matchlock, shown in Figure 17-2, freed a marksman’s hands to aim a weapon, including one called a hackbut or harquebus — variations on the German Hakenbuchse, which meant “hook-gun.” Some had a hook that you could brace on the edge of a wall when firing over it. The hook caught some of the shock from the gun’s powerful recoil.

The term musket comes from mosquito. It was supposed to irritate the enemy like its namesake. But muskets were anything but mosquito-like in size. Many a musket had to be propped on a forked rest, like a crutch, to be aimed and fired. So in addition to the heavy gun, a musketeer had to lug around this cumbersome prop.

Figure 17-2:The matchlock added a fuse to ignite the gunpowder and free the soldier’s hands.


Striking sparks

Because a slow match could send off a spark that lit the charge too soon, the musket was dangerous for the musketeer. Gunsmiths came up with other ways to fire a powder charge, such as the wheel lock, a piece of flint held against a spring-loaded steel wheel. If you’ve examined the moving parts of a cigarette lighter, you have a pretty good idea of how the wheel lock struck sparks. Eventually the simpler flintlock, consisting of a spring-loaded hammer that struck a flint, became the dominant technology from about 1650 into the nineteenth century.

Adapting old strategies for new weapons

Until the introduction of the breechloader (a gun loaded from the back), a musketeer put everything — gunpowder and shot — down the barrel. He had to stand up to stuff all this material into the tube. Prince Maurice of Nassau, commander of the Netherlands troops in their religious war of independence against Spain (see Chapter 14), revived the countermarch, a Roman archery strategy. He put his musketeers in precise rows and had the ones in front fire all at once, and then move to the rear to reload while the next rank fired.

Remember.eps Under Maurice and leaders like him — Sweden’s King Gustav Adolph II (1594–1632) and French Inspector General Jean Martinet (died in 1672) — armies emphasized rigid discipline more than ever. (Martinet’s name became a synonym for an unbending authority figure.) Military commanders of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries wanted soldiers to be more than fierce; they wanted them willing and able to charge into concentrated gunfire. This trait — suicidal as it often proved — became a weird new definition of manly bravery.

Floating fortresses on the sea

Through the sixteenth century, warships were often oar-powered galleys, and the most effective naval maneuver was to ram an enemy ship and then board it with fighters armed with swords and pikes. But as gunpowder redefined battlefield weaponry, cannon and firearms also redefined the naval arsenal and the tactics of a sea battle. At the Battle of Lepanto in 1517, the galleys of both the Turkish navy on one side and the allied Christian nations of Europe on the other were fitted with two to four cannon on their bows, but the Europeans won the battle by hand-to-hand combat onboard Turkish ships.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, galleys had fallen out of favor as warships, partly because guns had become the key weapon in naval battles, and vessels needed to bristle with gunports along both sides, not oars and oarsmen. Sea captains still sought to board the enemy ship but generally did so only after disabling it with cannon broadsides.

Fortifications adapt to the artillery era

Ever since the earliest walled towns, a good defensive barrier was as tall as possible. But cannonfire could topple such a wall, and so architects came up with a new way to build a fort in the mid-fifteenth century. In Genoa, Leon Battista Alberti (see Chapter 13) drew designs for star-shaped fortresses with relatively low but extremely thick walls. Figure 17-3 is a simplified depiction of Castillo San Marcos, built by sixteenth-century Spaniards in St. Augustine, Florida, where it still stands.

TechnicalStuff.eps Jutting angles let a fort’s defenders aim their cannons diagonally across the enemy lines so that a cannonball could skip down the line, wiping out more men, guns, horses, and equipment.

Figure 17-3:With thick walls and a star-shaped design, the Renais-sance fort was built for cannon battles.


Tracking the Centuries

Fourth century AD: Chinese cavalry begin using stirrups.

568 AD: Avar horsemen, using stirrups, win battles to take Danube Valley lands from the Byzantine Empire.

732 AD: At Poitiers in Gaul, Charles Martel, king of the Franks, and his troops turn back invading Moorish horsemen from Spain.

Tenth century AD: European archers adopt the powerful crossbow.

1096: Pope Urban II condemns the crossbow as “hateful to God.”

1267: England’s Roger Bacon has the recipe for gunpowder.

1396: Richard II of England marries the daughter of Charles VI of France, bringing a 28-year peace in the Hundred Years’ War.

1460: A Scottish military cannon explodes, killing King James II and many members of his royal retinue.

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