Site hosted by Build your free website today!


Use your browser's BACK button to return






In the text we discussed at length the process by which the arquebus replaced the crossbow. We then dealt with the relative advantages and disadvantages of the arquebus and the sixteenth-century musket when compared to the composite recurved bow. We said little, however, about the process by which the musket developed from the arquebus, mainly because the tactical factors which influenced the growth of the arquebus into the musket were those of land warfare. Though not of primary importance to our thesis, this process of development provides an excellent example of the interplay between tactical demand and technological response.

For some time following the development of the matchlock mechanism, individual firearms remained fairly small in size. This was because individual firearms, for some obscure reason related to man’s natural love of symmetry, were butted against the breastbone for firing. This placed severe limitations on the amount of recoil which a man could take and, hence, on the size and muzzle velocity of the projectile which he could fire.

Then, shortly before the beginning of the sixteenth century, men began butting their weapons to the shoulder. Like many developments of importance to the early development of practical military small arms this custom seems to have originated in Spain though we cannot be sure. The net result was the relaxation of a significant constraint governing the design of small arms: arquebusses could now be made to shoot a considerably heavier projectile than before at velocities which were at least as high.1

At first, however, there was little change in the size and power of at least Spanish small arms. They seem to have generally paralleled the crossbow in penetrative power and effective range, gaining in popularity from their greater reliability and simplicity and perhaps from their effectiveness at frightening horses.

Then, in the waning years of the fifteenth century, Spanish armies entered Italy under the renowned Gonsalvo de Cordova. Here they encountered tactical conditions far different from those to which they were accustomed. Their Moorish opponents on the open plains of Andalusia and North Africa had been mainly lightly armored cavalry who relied on short-range missile fire and tactical mobility. But their principal opponents in Italy had weapons and tactics tailored to the more constricted battle fields of northern Europe. They were heavily armored troops who relied almost exclusively upon direct shock action and were the finest fighting men in the world for that purpose: French heavy cavalry and Swiss and German mercenary pikemen and halberdiers.

The early chapters in the history of the development of the Spanish musket are undocumented. At first the musket was simply a ‘large arquebus’ to observers and it was not identified as a clearly differentiated weapon until much later. Still, it is apparent that the urgent need for increased stopping power and penetrative ability at long ranges had an almost immediate impact on Spanish small arms design. The fifty picked arquebusiers who accompanied Pedro Navarro at Ravenna in 1512 and who fired their weapons from forked rests were musketeers in fact if not in name.2 By the battle of Mühlberg in 1547, effective small arms fire at unexpectedly long ranges was solidly established as a Spanish trademark.

That the Spanish musket of the sixteenth century was equally well suited for Mediterranean warfare at sea should not obscure the fact that it originated as a specialized infantry weapon, awesome in its power, designed to penetrate armor and stop a charging Swiss pikeman or French gendarme in his tracks at the longest possible range. While serving this purpose magnificently, the musket placed heavy demands on its user, imposed a heavier logistic burden than an ordinary arquebus and was slower to load and fire. Still, as long as armored shock action remained important on the battlefields of Europe, the Spanish musket retained its place in warfare and small arms elsewhere grew in size and power in imitation of it. The standard small arm of the late sixteenth century in northern Europe was the ‘caliver’ (from the French, arquebuse du calibre de M. le Prince, a large arquebus) of about 74 caliber.3

Then, as the use of armor began to decline — to a large extent because of the effectiveness of the larger shoulder arms — the musket itself began to diminish in size until, at the end of the seventeenth century, it was no larger or more powerful than the arquebus it had initially supplanted. With the tactical demand removed, technology returned to its original level. The eighteenth-century infantry musket was lighter, easier to load, and — because of its flintlock mechanism — faster firing and more reliable than the sixteenth-century arquebus; but in effective range and stopping power it was essentially the same.

Though we know little about it, the process of development which produced the Turkish musket of the sixteenth century must have closely paralleled that which produced its Spanish equivalent. Certainly, the tactical stimuli and technological results were remarkably similar. If anything, the Janissaries — small arms specialists from an early date — may have had a head start since their opponents were armored specialists at shock action all along. This generalization applies with equal accuracy to Serbian and Hungarian knights and to Venetian and Genoese noblemen. The Mamluks, though less heavily armored than contemporary French gendarmes, were pure shock specialists and wore reasonably complete suits of mail reinforced with plate at strategic locations. In addition, the Ottomans had been opposed from the 1440s by mercenary Bohemian and Moravian infantry in the Hungarian service, forerunners of the Landsknechts of the sixteenth century and probably just as heavily armored.

Back to top of Chapter 4


1Black powder small arms, like artillery, have a relatively inflexible upper limit of attainable  muzzle velocity imposed by the limitations of black powder’s burning rate; but because of the   scale effect and because small charges burn less efficiently than larger ones, a much longer  barrel, relatively speaking, is needed to approach this upper limit of muzzle velocity.

2Mentioned from Italian sources by Frederick L. Taylor, The Art of War in Italy 1494-1529 (Cambridge, 1921), p. 46.

3The virtues of ‘calivers’, as opposed to ordinary arquebusses, were extolled by Sir Roger Williams in his Briefe Discourse on Warre (London, 1590).