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The End Of Formalized Warfare

May 2024
13min read

Military science was very rigid in the 1600’s. It quickly changed when Americans began to fight Indians

The first English settlers who landed at Jamestown in 1607 came dressed and armed for battle. In the best European tradition of the day, they carried not only firearms but pikes, poleaxes and swords. Across the chest they wore breastplates; to protect their legs they had light metal skirts, and on their heads sat iron pots. To the red men who watched them furtively from the fringing forests off the beach, these heavily appareled pale men must have presented a strange appearance indeed.

They were in fact a traveling exhibit of the art of war as practiced in Europe in the early Seventeenth Century. It was an age only 200 years removed from the Middle Ages, when cavalry and the lance dominated warfare. The longbow and the gun had unhorsed the plumed knight and wrought a revolution in the military arts, but the vestiges of an earlier age were still evident.

The one weapon on which the settlers placed chief reliance and which would ultimately prove the undoing of the Indian was the matchlock musket. Only one step removed from the arquebus of the Sixteenth-Century Spanish infantry—the first hand-carried gun—the early matchlock was a muzzle-loading, smoothbore weapon, fifteen pounds in weight and six feet long. So heavy and unwieldy was the gun that it had to be propped up on a rest before firing, like the modern BAR. It used as much as two ounces of powder and went off with a Hash, roar, and cloud of smoke that were as effective in producing results as its lead ball projectile.

Loading and firing the first musket were no simple tasks. Standing upright, the musketeer poured the coarse black powder charge into the muzzle and followed it with the two-ounce lead ball bullet. Both he sealed into the barrel with wadding pressed home by a long iron ramrod. The firing mechanism was the matchlock, a metal clamp that held in place a slow burning fuse called the match. When the musketeer pressed the trigger the clamp dropped the match into a small pan of priming powder outside the barrel. The flame from the ignited primer then passed through a touchhole in the barrel to set oil the powder charge which, in turn, propelled the lead ball out of the muzzle in the general direction of the enemy. When, as often happened, the primer tailed to ignite the charge, the result was a cloud of smoke and a “flash in the pan.”

The effective range of the early matchlock in battle was only about fifty yards, less than that of the English longbow, which was also a more accurate weapon. The great advantage of the musket lay in the penetrating power and destructiveness of its lead bullet, which could drop a horse and smash any medieval armor. But much of its power was lost by the escape of gases through the touchhole. Aiming the piece, too, was pretty much a waste of time and some of the weapons did not even have sights. The bullet did not fit the barrel tightly and might come out high, low, or to the side. In wet weather the gun did not work at all, and as long as there was the prospect of a fight the musketeer had to keep his fuse lit at both ends. The smoke gave away his position and the sparks combined with loose powder often had grave consequences for him and those nearby.

To perform all the tasks required to load and fire his piece, the musketeer went forth to battle as fully accoutred as a modern mechanic. In addition to a corselet and headpiece, he carried sword and “snapsack,” the rest for his musket, extra matchcord, (lint and steel, priming wire, scrapers, bullet extractors, cleaning rags, lead to make bullets, and a brass mold for casting them. His powder he carried in ready-made charges in a bandoleer, with a reserve in separate flasks, one for the coarse grain and another for the primer. Standing guard at Jamestown, a musketeer was required to keep his match lighted, his piece charged and primed, “and bullets in his mouth.”

Despite these drawbacks, the matchlock continued in general use through most of the Seventeenth Century as the standard military weapon. It was inexpensive and rugged, and its mechanism was so simple that it could be produced more quickly and more cheaply than any other firearm of the period.

Efforts to improve the matchlock were continuous. An early variation was the caliver, several of which were taken to Jamestown. This gun used a standard bore so that the musketeer would no longer have to make his own bullets. Gradually the matchlock was made lighter. By 1626 the Swedish army under Gustavus Adolphus was using a musket weighing ten pounds, thus eliminating the need for a rest. From six feet, the piece was reduced to about four, the Massachusetts regulations providing for a musket between three feet nine inches and lour feet three inches.

Various ingenious devices were introduced to make the task of loading a matchlock safer and faster. One of the earliest was the bandoleer, consisting of about twelve wooden cylinders, each containing enough powder for a single charge. For its-first settlement, the Massachusetts Bay Company purchased “90 bandaleeres for the musketts, each with a bullet bag.” The development of the cartridge cut down the loading time even more by combining in a single paper packet the powder charge and lead ball. All the musketeer had to do was drop the contents into the muzzle when he got ready to fire. In the opinion of Governor Johan Rising of New Sweden, cartridges were “many times better in the rain and in the woods than bandoliers.”

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.

Cavalry, the third of the combat arms and once the mistress of warfare, had been relegated to a secondary place by the Sixteenth Century. In a complete reversal from the shock tactics employed by the heavily armed knights of the Middle Ages, the horsemen in their zeal to employ firearms came more and more to rely on missile action. Riding in rank toward the enemy’s line to pike point, they fired their pistols, wheeled, made way for the next rank, and then rode off to re-form. Gustavus quickly put a stop to this maneuver, called the “caracole,” by requiring his cavalry to fire first and then charge home with saber, thus giving it the full shock effect of an earlier day.

Warfare in Europe by the middle of the Seventeenth Century was a formal business conducted with professional armies, governed by detailed and precise rules, and fought in fixed formations. Battles were built around a rigid line of infantry made up of pikemen and musketeers, formed in advance in geometric pattern according to protocol and a complicated system of mathematics. This formation consisted of six to eight ranks and was rigid and unmaneuverable. It was made more so by the immobile artillery that was set along the line to support the infantry but once in place could be moved only with great difficulty. Cavalry remained on the flanks to scout and, at the critical moment, add the weight of its charge to the battle.

The key to victory was discipline. The whole purpose of the advance was to bring the line within effective range of the enemy so that the musketeer could do his work. The number of ranks was based on the time required to reload, so that the first rank after firing could march to the rear and ready its weapons. Thus, the individual elements of the rigid line were constantly in motion. Accuracy was unimportant—only ability to load and fire under all circumstances mattered. The endless discipline of training on the parade ground was designed to produce a mechanical perfection of the physical motions required to maintain a straight line and to load the musket; that was the obsession of the infantry. Failure meant a ragged volley or a broken line, either of which could lead to defeat.

Under such a system of warfare and with the weapons of that day battles could be fought only under the most favorable conditions of weather and terrain. No commander whose men were armed with the matchlock could hope to attack in the rain or to keep his rigid and unwieldy line intact while marching over a broken and hilly countryside. He looked rather for large, level stretches, which were plentiful in Europe.

In the wilderness of North America the settler from the Old World would not find many areas suitable for warfare in the traditional style. Moreover, the Indians neither knew the rules nor cared to learn them. They lived in fortified villages surrounded by a stockade constructed of logs. Still in the neolithic stage, they fashioned their weapons of stone, horn, or hardwood. For shock action and fighting at close quarters they used the tomahawk and the knife. As missile weapons, they placed chief reliance on the bow and flint-tipped arrow. For forest warfare, the Indian bow was superior in some respects to the colonial matchlock. It was light, practically silent, could be used in all weather, and, in the hands of a skilled warrior, was an extremely accurate weapon with a rapid rate of fire.

Indian tactics were admirably suited to the forest. Formations were open and organization loose. Each warrior operated largely on his own, fighting from the cover of trees and utilizing skillfully his knowledge of the terrain and his ability to conceal his presence. Emphasis was placed on swift movement and surprise, pitched battle avoided whenever possible. If victory could be won by stealth, ambush, deceit, or treachery, the Indian did not hesitate to use such practices.

Once engaged he was a fierce fighter, for by his code valor and heroism were outstanding virtues and death in battle the best of all possible deaths. Rarely were prisoners of war taken in Indian battles, and torture was an accepted custom, governed by code. To die under torture without a cry of pain was to achieve greatness.

Faced with such a foe and with these informal tactics, the first settlers quickly realized that the formal and rigid methods they had brought with them from Europe would be unavailing. The enemy simply would not fight “openly in ye feeld,” as Captain Underhill of Connecticut learned when he “chose to beat up the drum and bid them to battle” while marching his men forward with colors flying. “But none,” he complained, “would come near us.”

Even if the red man had not already been accustomed to fight from cover, he would have done so quickly after his first encounters with the settlers. Ineffective as the traditional advance of the infantry line was against him, the Indian could not easily dismiss the fire that came from that line. Moreover, his arrows had no effect on the metal armor worn by the early settlers, or even on the heavy leather coats used later. Forty musketeers, wrote Francis Higginson of Massachusetts Bay, could drive 500 “savages” from the field.

The method of attack favored by the Indians was the hit-and-run raid. Striking an isolated cabin or small settlement by surprise, they killed the inhabitants, looted, and then disappeared into the forest. When the settlers organized small bands to pursue the raiders, the Indians ambushed them. Even when he acquired firearms, the Indian did not alter his method of fighting, simply substituting the missile action of the musket for that of the arrow. Moreover, he was now dependent upon the white man for his supply of ammunition.

Against these methods the settlers slowly built up their own system of defense. The transition from the early palisades to permanent forts at strategic points along the frontier was accomplished in rapid order. The first and most important improvement was the blockhouse with its overhanging second story. Placed at the corners of the palisade, it enabled the defenders to enfilade the entire front and to fire down upon the attacker below.

The settlers did not rely wholly on forts and blockhouses but sought to gain advance notice of raiding parties by sending out scouts. Already wise in wood lore, they adapted their methods to this technique readily. But the system worked even better when the scouts were Indians—members of a friendly tribe. The white man learned the value of surprise and stealth, too, fighting in open formations and raiding Indian villages when they least expected it—at dawn and in the winter season when the Indian preferred not to fight. In some respects the Indian, who refused to post a watch at night, made the job easier. Time and again he was attacked at dawn by the white man, his village destroyed, his crops burned, but he never learned the value of security. The two severest defeats he suffered followed from this failure. In each case the Indians had retired to what they thought was an impregnable stronghold—a camp surrounded by a log palisade in the midst of a swamp—and in each case they were surprised.

This struggle for survival between red man and white, fought without rules along the outermost fringe of civilization, reflected its primitive and savage setting. The arrival of the white man did not alter the Indian custom of torturing prisoners of war before putting them to death. One man named Tilly was tied to a stake, his skin flayed off, hot embers placed between flesh and skin, and his fingers and toes cut off one by one. At this stage, mercifully, he died. Nor was this an isolated case.

Though the Seventeenth Century is filled with the noise of battle, most of the fighting was done by small groups in individual and often isolated settlements along the frontier. Unimportant in themselves, these conflicts with the Indians had enormous significance in the aggregate, for they paved the way for the conquest of a continent. Once established along the Atlantic seabord the English settlers moved slowly westward, pushing the Indian back, in the first great wave of migration that ultimately reached the shores of the Pacific, 3,000 miles away.

The wars that followed continued intermittently for over a century, and, as the course of empire moved westward, were resumed on every frontier. But after the first years, the cause of the red man was doomed. The whites were too numerous and their superiority in weapons and equipment too great for the Indian. And the initial advantage he enjoyed from fighting on his own ground and on his own terms, he soon lost when the white man proved himself a quick student in the art of forest warfare with its emphasis on surprise and speed, open formations, and cover and concealment. It was a lesson the white man never forgot.


A classic example of formalized warfare was the Battle of Naseby, which decided the first English civil war in 1645. The panorama on the following pages, engraved by a Seventeenth-Century artist, shows the two armies lined up, face to face, on an open plain, ready for battle. Across the top of the scene stretches the Royalist army of King Charles I. In the center of the line, each infantry regiment is composed of a battalion of pikemen (their pikes seeming to form a solid block), flanked by two battalions of musketeers. The wings of the line are held by cavalry. In the foreground of the panorama, ranged in identical formation, is the army of Parliament, commanded by Sir Thomas Fairfax, whose portrait appears at upper right.

At the shock of battle the Royalist infantry gained ground and the Royalist right wing of horse, commanded by Prince Rupert, routed the Parliamentary horse under Colonel Ireton. But while Rupert raced on to capture the Parliamentary baggage train at the lower left of the scene, Oliver Cromwell’s right wing of horse saved the day for the army of Parliament. Plunging through the Royalist cavalry of Sir Marmaduke Langdale, Cromwell’s “godly horsemen” wheeled and overwhelmed the King’s infantry from the rear.

Elaborate manuals of arms governed the use of the complicated captions in French, English, German and Dutch. Only by rigid weapons of the Seventeenth Century. These illustrations are from co-ordination of each movement could the soldiers execute the Maniement D’Armes, published by Jacques de Geyn in 1608, with precision maneuvers which were required in formalized battle.

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