The Effectiveness of Early Firearms

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

For a long time, the effectiveness of firearms was greatly exaggerated — but not by every fighting force:

The Turkish infantry—the Janissaries—were permanently embodied: they appear in their manner of fighting to have somewhat resembled the Scottish Highlanders; their custom being, after firing their muskets, to draw their sabres, and rush upon the enemy, Montecuculi bears testimony to the desperate bravery of the Turks. He says he has repeatedly seen them swim rivers in the face of an enemy, with their sabres between their teeth.

The chief strength of the Turk lay in his use of the arme blanche, which, with his infantry as well as cavalry, was the sabre.

What may be the effect of the recent improvements in fire-arms, both in respect to longer range and greater precision, time will show; but it appears certain that hitherto the effect of the invention of firearms upon war has been greatly exaggerated and misunderstood. For example, Adam Smith says: ” In modern war, the great expense of fire-arms gives an evident advantage to the nation which can best afford that expense; and, consequently, to an opulent and civilized over a poor and barbarous nation.”

This assertion is disproved by what the Highlanders accomplished in the seventeenth century under the Marquis of Montrose, and in the Rebellion of 1745, and by the whole history of the Turks for 200 years after the introduction of fire-arms. The Highlanders did their work principally with the broadsword, and the Turks with the sabre; and the result sufficiently showed the unsoundness of the conclusion, that making a noise by the explosion of gunpowder would form an efficient substitute for the neglect of the cultivation of the qualities of bodily strength and activity, and skill and dexterity in the use of arms. It is no answer to this to say that Cromwell’s troops ultimately beating the Highlanders is in favour of fire-arms; for Cromwell did nearly all his work by the superior excellence of his cavalry and the bodily strength and enthusiastic spirit of his pikemen. More of the work, too, both of Cromwell and Gustavus Adolphus, was done by the butt than by the muzzle of the musket, the bayonet not being rendered effective till long after. It might be shown also that Frederick II. of Prussia owed much of his success to the excellence of his cavalry, commanded as they were by the best cavalry officer in the world, Seidelitz.

Where the Turks were weak was where, as has been shown, the Spartans were weak — in their cultivation of bodily strength to the total exclusion of intellectual power. With them, as with the Spartans, this rendered it impossible, or next to impossible, to possess a first-rate general. Consequently, the Spartans and the Turks, though they might, from their excellence as soldiers, be almost sure of defeating troops of inferior excellence led by ordinary generals, when they came to contend with the strategical genius of such commanders as Epaminondas and Eugene, were defeated; the great superiority of the general making up for the inferiority of his army.

Marshal Saxe’s theory (which, however, must have been much modified if the rifle had then been in use) is that musketry is of very little service, unless at such close quarters as to be pretty nearly equivalent to the use of the “arme blanche.” He speaks of “l’abus de la tirerie, qui fait plus de bruit que de mal, et qui fait toujours battre ceux qui s’en servent.” He says, further, “La poudre n’est pas si terrible qu’on le croit. Peu de gens dans les affaires sont tués de bonne guerre et par devant; j’ai vu des salves entières ne pas tuer quatre hommes, et je n’en ai jamais vu, ni personne, je pense, qui ait causé un dommage assez considérable pour empêcher d’aller en avant, et de s’en venger à grands coups de bayonettes et de fusils tirés a brûle-pourpoint. C’est là où il se tue du monde, et c’est le.victorieux qui tue.”

Marshal Saxe supports his theory by various facts; one of which was, the total and rapid destruction of two battalions of German infantry by a body of Turks: cavalry, it would seem; though that point is not quite clear in the Marshal’s account; but, either way, the sabre was the weapon of destruction. He thus describes the action: “At the battle of Belgrade I saw two battalions cut in pieces in an instant: it happened thus. Two battalions, one of Lorraine, and one of Neuperg, were on a height which we called the battery; and at the moment when a blast of wind dispersed a fog which prevented us from distinguishing anything, I saw these troops on the crest of the height separated from the rest of our army. Prince Eugene asked me if I had a good sight; and what was that troop of horsemen which was making the circuit of the mountain. I replied, that it was thirty or forty Turks. He said to me, ‘Those men are destroyed,’ meaning the two battalions. I did not, however, see that they were attacked, or were likely to be, because I could not see what was on the other side of the mountain. I proceeded thither as fast as I could. At the moment I arrived behind the colours of Neuperg, I saw the two battalions present arms, take aim, and fire a general volley at thirty paces on a body of Turks who were advancing upon them. The fire and the melee were simultaneous; and the two battalions had no time for flight; for they were all instantly sabred on the spot where they stood. There escaped only M. de Neuperg, who, luckily for him, was on horseback ; an ensign, with his colours, who threw himself on my horse’s mane, and hampered me very much; together with two or three soldiers. At this moment Prince Eugene rode up almost alone; that is to say, with only his staff; and the Turks retired, I don’t know why. It was there that he received a shot through the sleeve. Some troops of cavalry and some infantry now came up, and M. de Neuperg asked for a detachment to secure the clothes. Sentinels were posted on the ground occupied by those dead battalions; and piles of coats, hats, shoes, &c. were collected. While this was going on, I amused myself with counting the dead, and I found only thirty-two Turks killed by the volley of those two battalions; which has not raised my opinion of the value of fire-arms.”

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