The End Of Formalized Warfare

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But none of these improvements removed the greatest deficiency of the matchlock—its ignition system. Obviously what was needed was a gun that could make its own fire. The first such weapon—the wheel lock—worked something like a cigarette lighter. The mechanism consisted of a steel wheel or disc with serrated edges which turned on the action of a wound spring, striking against a piece of iron pyrites to produce the sparks needed to ignite the primer. Though this device did away with the lighted match it was a complicated mechanism, expensive, and unsuited for military use because of its slow rate of fire. It found favor, however, with sportsmen and bandits.

The next step in the development of firearms was the snaphance, brought to England from Germany late in the Sixteenth Century. For its ignition system the snaphance used flint and steel, the universal method of making fire. A piece of flint in the adjustable jaws of a hammer struck a downward glancing blow, when released by the trigger, against a piece of steel held in position over the pan containing the priming powder to produce the spark. The great disadvantage of this mechanism was the fact that when the piece was loaded the hammer was in the up, or cocked, position and the pan carrying the charge was open. Despite this deficiency, the snaphance was widely used during the Seventeenth Century and competed with the matchlock for the favor of the American colonists.

Efforts to remove the deficiencies of the snaphance produced the flintlock, the standard infantry weapon of the Eighteenth Century. First the lock was modified to allow for a half-cock position, then the steel piece was combined with the pan cover so that pressure on the trigger simultaneously released the hammer and opened the pan. Superior to the matchlock in range and accuracy, lighter in weight, and easier to load and fire, the flintlock musket remained in wide use as a military weapon until shortly after the war with Mexico in 1848.

The first matchlock had value only as a missile weapon. Once the enemy had closed in, it was useless. Action at close quarters called for shock weapons, and this was provided in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century warfare by the sword and a variety of polearms, the most popular of which were the pike and halberd.

Musketeers could and did carry swords or some other cutting weapon to use in the charge, but they could not compete with the 15-foot standard pike of the period. There were pikemen for that purpose and the pike was as standard a weapon as the musket. In Massachusetts about one-third of the troops were pikemen, armed with “a good Pike wel headed.” The town watch, it was further provided, “shall stand double, a Pike and Musket together.”

In European warfare of the Seventeenth Century pikeman and musketeer fought side by side, but the latter with his sword was no match for the enemy armed with pike. The merger of these two elements in a single formation as deep as it was wide with pikes on the outside produced “a bastioned fortress” almost impervious to cavalry charge and capable of decisive action at close quarter, but combined two opposing elements. The pike was useless at musket range and the musket at pike point. Thus, one part of the formation was of necessity idle while the other was in action.

The chief problem for the Seventeenth-Century tactician was, therefore, to combine shock and missile action in the same soldier and to utilize the entire formation at the decisive moment. The bayonet (first developed in Bayonne, France) was the answer. The first models, built in about 1640, were inserted into the muzzle of the musket, thus converting the gun into a spear for close action. At the end of the century a bayonet that did not plug up the piece and prevent firing came into general use. By that time the pikeman was becoming rarer and soon disappeared altogether from European military units, though for a long time there was great dissatisfaction with the loss of shock action and the reliance on firepower.

In America, the pike, together with armor and the sword, fell into disuse even earlier than in Europe. In the forests of the New World the sword soon gave way to the knife and hatchet, metal armor to heavy leather or quilted cloth coats. The pike, despite its limited usefulness, was retained longer. Finally in 1675 the Massachusetts General Court, declaring the weapon of “little use in the present warr with the Indians,” ordered pikemen “to furnish themselves with fire armes.”

Artillery pieces of the early Seventeenth Century were smooth in the bore and loaded through the muzzle like small arms. Extremely heavy and cumbersome, they had to be fixed into position before firing. The heaviest piece in Massachusetts, the culverin, weighed 4,500 pounds, the demiculverin 3,400. The sakers at Plymouth weighed 1,500 and had a range of only 360 yards. The use of such weapons, therefore, was limited to siege actions. Gustavus Adolphus wrought a revolution in the use of this arm in the middle of the century by lightening the tube of the piece and mounting it on a carriage. With this improved weapon he combined artillery with infantry, thus creating the field artillery. But it was a long time before this innovation reached the New World, where cannon continued to be used mostly in fixed position for sieges and for coastal defense.