By H. R. Smith.
The addition of gunpowder and its ever advancing effective use led to the first handheld weapon to use gunpowder…. the harquebus.
The harquebus is also known as the arquebus or the hackbut. This is a very primitive firearm used between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. The musket is a successor of the harquebus. It was a smooth bore long firearm.
A matchlock is used to fire the harquebus. The matchlock is a device used to “cock” the weapon and have it ready to fire. It had a long barrel with end flared to make it easier to load. The fighter with the harquebus was the harquebusier. The harquebusier would brace the barrel of the gun onto a pole with a forked end when firing.
The use of the harquebus during the battle of Pravia in 1525 where the French knights were defeated by heavy fire from harquebusiers provided incentive for others to acquire the harquebus.
During the sixteenth century the harquebus began being replaced by the lighter and more accurate musket.
With large cannons and the lighter harquebus the old aristocracy castles were no longer sufficient defenses. The role of the medieval cavalry had been fading during the late middle ages and the power of the aristocracies began to fade too.
Large armies could be devastated by with the use of the English longbow and the Swiss pike. A long bowman could fire 12 arrows per minute which is much faster than a crossbow. The Swiss pike is a long pole weapon whose primary use was against cavalry assaults. These pikes had the resemblance of a spear and were typically between 10 and 14 feet long. Steel tips were added to the end to increase its effectiveness. These pikes would be used in a large square formation (called a “hedgehog formation) to protect archers and harquebusiers from cavalry assaults.
Although both of these weapons were effective it was very difficult to amass large armies with the skills necessary for their effective use. The longbow took years to learn to use effectively and the Swiss pike required large groups of very well disciplined fighters moving in complex formations.
This is in stark contrast to a soldier who could be trained to effectively use a firearm in weeks instead of the years of training needed for the longbow and pike. There was no need to learn marksmanship skills because these early firearms were extremely inaccurate.
Firearms did not take great physical strength and could still annihilate armored cavalry forces. The harquebus (explained above) was the first relatively light weight firearm. Even though it had to be placed on a stand for firing, it could be operated by only one soldier.
The advantage for firearms was that they could inflict a lot of damage over a great distance, but at close distances the cavalry could annihilate the firearm carrying soldier. The use of pikes to protect the soldiers with firearms was used for years. Interestingly enough, the bayonet combined the effective use of the two weapons.
The harquebus gave way to the muskets which were expensive to make and required a designated infrastructure to produce. The wealth and industrial capacity of a country became the most important factor in determining its military success. This meant that the trading nations of Western Europe had a significant advantage over the more agricultural nations.
The aristocrats who had routinely put down revolts in the past with their cavalry and armies could now be threatened. These new armies cost a lot of money and required a great deal of infrastructure to maintain so the countries became more dependent on taxation in order to maintain their armies.
The inaccuracy of the firearms meant that the armies had to be very large in order to be effective. Since any man could be trained in a very short period of time in the use of a musket it became easier for a country to rely on the population to enter combat on its behalf.
By today’s standards, these wars were not especially deadly. The lack of good roads meant the armies moved very slowly. The most common battle tactic was the siege.
The changes and advancements in weaponry made the use of mercenary forces like those used during the Renaissance obsolete. As the Renaissance era ended, the mercenaries were, for a short time, used for training and administration of the armies and the infrastructure. These tasks were eventually taken over by the state with centralized administration. Some people believe the bureaucracy of today is an outgrowth of the centralized administration of the huge armies and the required infrastructure necessary for its support started during the Renaissance.
Ray Smith is an avid student of all segments of the Renaissance period, from warfare to the artists and their works as well as the clothing and language during the period. He maintains a Renaissance website at http://All-About-Renaissance-Faires.com that has extensive information on all aspects of the Renaissance period. There is extensive information on Renaissance Warfare techniques at http://All-About-Renaissance-Faires.com