The Military Revolution? 1500-1700

It is undeniable that warfare changed between 1500 and 1700, but is it fair to call those changes a “revolution”? Perhaps the word “revolution” is a term that carries too much baggage – it implies fast, complete and total changes, which perhaps do not apply to warfare in this time period in the way that one would think.

According to Michael Roberts in 1955, the military revolution occurred between the years 1560-1650 and directly related to the introduction of gunpowder weapons, tactics and the bigger historical picture.[1]  The introduction of firearms and artillery into a military force necessitated larger, permanent standing armies which led to innovations in governments and administrations needed to oversee them.[2]  Innovations in warfare, however, which Roberts deemed a “military revolution” created the concept and the necessity for the modern state.[3]  Robert’s thesis on the military revolution between the years 1560-1660 in the early modern period focused on four key points: in tactics, strategy, scale and impact on society.[4]  There is evidence to suggest, however, that the armies of Spain and several other nation states were utilizing what Roberts deemed ‘revolutionary’ prior to the years he marks as the military revolution, including permanent armies that were well trained, adaptations in tactics and overseen by a military administration system.[5]  On the other hand, there were significant examples of standardization in many militaries throughout this century, and the introduction and significant use of military tactical handbooks accounted for many of the changes in tactics observed in the warfare of this period.[6]

In contrast, Geoffrey Parker in the 1970s argued that the revolution also sparked changes in defensive structures, making them capable of withstanding enemy artillery fire.[7]  Comparing the expansion of Western powers in the late 19th and early 20th century makes the innovations of the 17th and 18th centuries pale in comparison.[8]  Regardless of these two ideas of the military revolution, it is safe to say that there was no “standard practice” or “Ideal model” of warfare in these two centuries.[9]  While various countries encountered each other and used various tactics and often adopted tactics that they observed or experienced, warfare varied between states.[10]  Additionally while changes in tactics did occur with the introduction of firepower, it is arguable that morale, resolve and unit cohesion was equally important – if not more so – to a particular army’s success.[11]

Ultimately I think it is clear that there were many changes in both war and society in these two centuries, but I am unconvinced that these changes can accurately be called a “military revolution”. If it was a revolution at all, I think it’s more accurate to say that it was a revolution of society as powers gained wealth, notoriety, territory, weaponry and governmental structures conducive to fielding larger, advanced, technological armies in the attempt to gain the upper hand over their enemies.

[1] Jeremy Black, “Was There a Military Revolution in Early modern Europe?” History Today 58, no. 7 (2008): 34-41.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Geoffrey Parker, “The ‘Military Revolution’ 1560-1660 – a Myth?” The Journal of Modern History 48, no. 2 (1976): 195-214.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Black.

[8] Black.

[9] Black.

[10] Black.

[11] Black.


Case Study: Arsuf

Approaches to Combat: I thought this week’s module was fascinating – although I may be biased because I am fascinated with the history of the Crusades and the rise of Islam in general.  Arsuf is a battle I had heard about in passing, but I was unware of the details, and studying history from a tactical standpoint is new to me, but I really, really enjoy it.  Since Salah al-Din approached the battle with only light infantry and regular cavalry and Richard approached it with infantry and knights/heavy cavalry, I think that the inequality of not only the number of fighters but the methods that could be employed by those fighters certainly contributed to the eventual outcome – although this may not be a clear-cut victory in Richard’s favor as one may think.[1]  Salah al-Din’s strategy at the beginning of the battle seemed to be to lure the Crusaders into a trap by bombarding them with projectiles, hoping to draw them into a trap by attacking unprepared[2].  This tactic failed.  Richard, conversely, demonstrated patience and extreme foresight both before and during the battle.[3]  The discipline displayed by the Crusaders at the onset of this battle is admirable, to say the least.  Salah al-Din’s strategy of harassing and provoking the Crusaders not only did not prompt them to attack, but it also exhausted his own troops against a larger force.[4]  When the surge finally did occur, the Hospitallers were able to create a hole in Salah al-Din’s front line.[5]  Although Salah al-Din attempts to surround the charging knights, a second cavalry charge by the Knights Templar forces Salah al-Din to move back or else have his forces face encirclement.[6]

How did various Approaches determine the Battle’s outcome: Salah al-Din’s approach was a good one, given the previous displayed temperament of a lot of the Crusader forces he had faced in the Holy Land earlier.  In many previous battles throughout the Crusades, the Crusaders had been lured into battle, away from defensive structures, away from satisfactory food and water supplies and into the heat of the desert.  By attempting to provoke the larger Crusader force into battle against Salah al-Din’s smaller but lighter and faster force, Salah al-Din did indeed have a shot at success.  This failed however, due to Richard’s ability to adapt, adjust and use his superior numbers and heavier cavalry to his advantage.  The Muslim army exhausted itself in close combat by barraging the Crusaders with missiles constantly and were unable to sufficiently deflect the eventual charge.[7]

Disparity between Richard’s Victory and his ability to capture Jerusalem and why

Although the Battle of Arsuf seems like a clear victory for the Crusaders in terms of sheer numbers of casualties (7000 on the Muslim side versus 700 on the Crusader side), the outcome ultimately was not as cut and dry as sheer numbers would suggest.[8]  Richard was never able to capture Jerusalem, and although he never faced Salah al-Din in battle again, Salah al-Din aimed to prevent Richard from his ultimate prize by adopting a “scorched earth” policy, denying Richard the much-needed resources for besieging Jerusalem.[9]

[1] Webb, Jonathan, “Battle of Arsuf, 1191,” The Art of, Internet, available from, accessed 17 January 2017.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

Innovation, Adaptation and Technology in Ancient Warfare

Throughout this module, the thing that impressed and surprised me the most, which was repeated in the text several times was that success in ancient warfare wasn’t based so much on technological or even societal advancements but on the ability of ancient leaders to innovate with their armies and adapt, integrating what they had seen and learned on the battle field and then including it in their own forces later on.[1]  In Chapter one, while it discusses the composition, formation and economic policies behind some of the early empire armies in detail, it is clear that the forces that were willing to adapt and integrate, learning from people they had met in battle shared the most success, although all of their empires were eventually to fall for various reasons.  The other striking characteristic of ancient warfare in the stone and bronze ages is truly how little it changed over vast stretches of time.

While there were technological advancements in this several-thousand year period like the composite bow, the introduction and integration of cavalry and the use of early siege weaponry, the cavalry in most instances did not replace the earlier chariot, but was combined with it.  Similarly, the bow was integrated with slingers and spearmen, with some soldiers carrying weapons alongside their bows for defense.

Armies throughout this period became more organized, even armies that utilized the integration of forces from conquered foes.  They began utilizing standard formations rather than a pitched melee and strategy and strategic maneuvers began to play a role in not only field combat but siege warfare as well.  Socio-economically, city states that were able to manage vast empires by setting up systems of government that answered to a single overseeing authority were generally more successful due to the lack of modern communication technologies, although early message relays were set up by several leaders to facilitate communication.  Despite likely numeric inflation, the armies also grew larger over this period from Xerxes infamous Persian army that invaded Greece to China’s forces.  Defenses became stronger as siege weaponry emerged, enabling defending forces to withstand sieges for periods of years.

With the use and integration of iron, warfare began to change at the end of this period, although chariots were still being utilized alongside more organized cavalry forces, and socio-political changes resulting from increased population and urbanization began to influence warfare, leading up to the classical age to come when a shift in warfare was practically all but inevitable.


[1] Christon I. Archer, John R. Ferris, Holger H. Herwig and Timothy H.E. Travers, World History of Warfare (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 9-61.