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Sunday, November 11, 2007

HUX 530: Way of the Gun

Way of the Gun

Military Technology and its

Effects on Humanity


Eric Williams


Essay Four

Dr. Bryan Feuer

November 13th, 2002

War is an evolutionary creature, feeding off the progress of humanity and its technological achievements. And just as humankind has evolved and undergone change, so too has warfare in its technologies, theories, and innovations. In the course of human history, technology, and more specifically gunpowder, has played a monumental role in shaping the dynamic of the world today. Furthermore, the impact of the gunpowder age on European social life has been equally dynamic. To some degree, it might be argued that the way of the gun and the way of society lived a semi-symbiotic existence. The fortunes of one have been inextricably entwined with the fate of the other. By looking at the impact of technology on warfare from the 1500’s on, the student of history can better understand how the advances of science and industry have affected the growth of society at large.

The greatest advance in warfare from the dawning of the Renaissance onward has been the implementation of gunpowder and firearms. Gunpowder was invented in China and was first introduced in Europe in the 14th Century. At that time, the means of using gunpowder was severely limited, and as such limited its effectiveness on the battlefield. The inherent danger surrounding its use as well as the unpredictable nature of the equipment and the gross unfamiliarity soldiers had with the stuff limited the use and effectiveness of gunpowder in warfare for about 100 years (Feuer 67). Human ingenuity, however, soon learned how to harness the potential of gunpowder and slowly developed its uses from the massive brass bell cannons to the modern machine gun.

The cannon ushered in an era of unprecedented change in Europe. The campaigns of Charles VIII in Italy were the first decisive military campaign to truly show the potential of gunpowder. His great innovation was to order cannons made lighter so that they could be transported with his army – a considerable difference from the earlier days when cannons were fixed to immovable platforms during siege warfare (Keegan 320). With technological advances, cannon were made lighter and more efficient and thus would no longer slow down an advancing army. Prior to Charles’ campaigns, the general fear surrounding cannon use was that it would hamper an army’s advance or would be left behind during a hasty retreat as they were too heavy and bulky to be moved at the same pace as the rest of the column (Keegan 320). Charles’ campaign into Italy made an immediate impact with the siege of the Neopolitan fortress of San Giovanni (Keegan 321). This same fortress had once withstood a siege that had lasted some seven years; Charles captured it in eight hours (Keegan 321). This single event set off a chain of events which served to change the face of Europe forever. No longer were the old castles enough to repel this new technology. Fear spread though Italy and the nation-states of Europe took heed that they needed to create better fortifications, and quickly at that.

Fortifications had to evolve in order to meet the challenge of mobile cannon. Iron cannonballs leveled and fired along a similar horizontal plane could chew holes through castle walls (Keegan 322). This created a unique set of circumstances as the breach that was created by the cannon served to turn the physics of the castle wall against itself (Keegan 322). Walls tumbled down and oftentimes took one or two of the defensible towers with them. At the same time, the debris from the falling wall served to fill the channel of the moat or ditch that surrounded the castle (Keegan 322). The castle wall became its own worst enemy, allowing an easy passage for an assault force to cross the moat and oft times toppling a tower that likely held archers whose job was to prevent such an assault force from penetrating the breach. In response to these failures, nation-states spent enormous sums of money developing and building newer and better fortifications, eventually settling on the bastion fortress design (Keegan 323). The bastion featured an angled outer wall that served to make incoming cannon shot glance off the surface with a minimum of damage. Defensive technology had caught up to the cannon and forced more change on the attackers part. Essentially, what the invaders had to do was build a succession of three trenches and move their cannon from the farthest trench to the trench nearest the bastion walls (Keegan 327). At the closer range, the firepower behind the shot could impact significant damage on the heavy bastion wall and create a breach (Keegan 327). The effect of this on the soldiery, as one might expect, was considerable. To risk one’s life by forging ahead and digging a trench under cannon or arrow or bullet fire was suicide and many soldiers resented being, in essence, ditch diggers (Keegan 327).

The problem thus far is how to gauge the effect of cannon on society. It is easy to state that the success of Charles and his mobile cannon ushered in sweeping changes in fortification spending and design. War, as now, was big business during the Renaissance and many cashed in on become fortress engineers. So fashionable and trendy was it to design fortifications that two of Europe’s most prolific artistic talents, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo tried their hand at it (Keegan 325). Indeed a great deal of money was to be made in business of war.

While social impact of the cannon might be seen as vague when we try to consider how it effected nation-states and their domestic policy, the development of the handgun ushered in more visible social changes in Europe. Handgunners likely grew from the crossbowmen profession, and like crossbowmen, they were used in an ineffective manner in their early years in warfare (Keegan 329). Archers, whether using a crossbow, composite bow, or long bow, were seen as the dregs of the military by the more honorable, chivalric, and knightly aristocratic classes. No self-respecting knight would lower himself to using a bow and this same prejudice extended to the use of the musket. Furthermore, the musket required little skill to master because “accuracy at this point was less dependent upon the soldier than upon the weapon itself” (Feuer 67). Yet, while the knightly class refused to acknowledge the use of such a weapon, “their increasing use not only hastened the decline of the armed knight, but also emphasized the significance of non-aristocratic military elements” (Feuer 67). This was further compounded by the fact that as musket technology and firepower improved, the effectiveness of plate armor in the field was nullified and further hastened the death of the mounted knight (Keegan 331). Yet, the aristocracy refused to let cavalry die out right away. Knights attempted to learn how to fight with gunpowder from horseback, a disastrous enterprise (Keegan 341). The aristocracy did not want to see the chivalrous knight dismount his steed and essentially assume the role of a glorified crossbowman (Keegan 332). However, even as the aristocracy resisted the ways of the gun, the more traditional soldier class began to embrace it and see it as an honorable calling (Keegan 334).

The use of gunpowder made handgunners the heart of Europe’s armies as the years went by. Fewer and fewer were the mounted knights. For a number of years, handgunner and pikemen fought side by side, the handgunners to strike afar and the pikemen to resist an enemy charge. Eventually, with the introduction of the ring bayonet, the pikemen went the way of the mounted knight (Keegan 341). Yet, as formidable a force as handgunners were to their foes, they were still a danger to themselves. Another result of the technology of the gun came in the form of drilling. Drills were used to teach gun-wielding soldiers discipline and safe use of their weapon (Keegan 342). The dominant reason for this was two fold. One, the constant marching and training built a highly skilled soldier class and served to suppress the individuality of the soldier, making them fight better as a cohesive unit (Keegan 343). Secondly, drilling taught the important steps of gun safety on the firing line. Before, when archers were the ranged weapon specialists, a mistake at the firing line might result in the injuring of only their immediate neighbor should an accident occur. Now, with guns and highly volatile powders being used in such close proximity, an errant spark might literally ignite a catastrophic disaster that could affect the entire unit. Drilling, which focused on the 47 distinct steps needed to fire one’s weapon, sought to avoid any accidents by having the entire mass working in unison step by step (Keegan 342).

Now, with cannon being more accurate and deadly and with muskets and rifles becoming the same, additional social changes would take root in Europe, especially during a siege. Killing became a long-range enterprise. At the same time, the soldier classes began to wear distinctive uniforms and began to enjoy a rise in social status to befit their profession. This was especially true of the emerging officer class. Officers typically wore colorful outfits and could be easily seen on the battlefield. As one might expect, in a time where ranged combat was the norm, brightly colored targets were hard to ignore. As one’s conspicuous presence at the front increased their likelihood of being targeted by a foe, new definitions of courage and bravery had to be written (Feuer 68). Furthermore, as technologies related to attack and defense improved, sieges became a much longer process, taking months at a time. The result was the inevitable year-round siege that replaced the traditional sieges that only lasted while the seasons were fair (Feuer 67). Furthermore, as more and more conscripts or volunteers opted for military service, armies swelled to larger and larger numbers. The effect of this on society at large was enormous. In the rural regions, the brunt of wartime destruction was felt by these lower classes as passing armies might burn or steal or injure villagers while on their march. Furthermore, whether one lived in the rural areas of a nation-state or within the city besieged, numerous other hardships befell humanity. As sieges dragged out longer and longer due to technological stalemates, starvation, disease, and a great strain on the economies of these warring factions begin to be felt. Shortages occur and prices inflated to reflect this (Feuer 69). Taxes were raised to pay for these prolonged campaigns, jobs were lost, healthy males might be conscripted into military service, and other general unpleasantness (i.e. riots, murders, rapes, thefts, and social unrest) would occur (Feuer 69). Moreover, large bodies of troops needed shelter, supplies and food and the locals bore the cost of this (Feuer 68). So expensive was warfare after the introduction of the gun, that oftentimes nations ran out of war funds and had to sue for peace or withdraw from a campaign because the funds just weren’t there (Keegan 345).

Finally, as cannon and rifle warfare trudged into the 19th and 20th Centuries, inventions such as the telegraph allowed for news from the war fronts to reach that nations civilian and political populations quicker. Newspaper sales boomed, as did the technology of the gun. New military concepts such as “total war”, where the entire resources and population of a nation are brought to bear in assisting the war effort, are introduced (Feuer 71). Armies swelled to numbers topping 100,000. Casualty rates skyrocketed into the hundreds of thousands as well. World War I saw the technology of the gun lay waste to 15 million tons of allied shipping, 8.6 million soldiers killed, 800,000 German soldiers die from malnutrition due to siege, Zeppelins dropping bombs on civilian targets, tanks roll into cities, airplanes command the sky and U-boats roam the seas, and a massive flu epidemic destroy the lives of some 20 million debilitated veterans following the wars conclusion (Feuer 75-77). This truly was, as King Henry V so succinctly put it, “the royal fellowship of death”.

The technology of the gun brought sweeping changes to the social climate of Europe ever since its inception. Those changes are still being felt today, and many are still happening. The gun and its technology served to exterminate the knightly class of soldier. It served to give credibility and validity to marksmen and offered new social status to the soldiers of the gun. Sweeping changes were made in defense spending among European nations after the fall of the Neopolitan fortress. Uniformity and drilling became commonplace resulting in highly skilled and highly valuable soldiers. Technology of the gun has served to carve out empires and lay waste to generations of people, soldier or otherwise. The evolution of war technology has served to brutalize, victimize, and lobotomize millions. Lives have been killed, lives have been exploited, and some have been stretched to the breaking point from shell shock or combat exhaustion. World War I ushered in the end of war’s patriotic innocence and the beginning of its brutal realities.

Works Cited

Feuer, Dr. Bryan. Humanities 530: War and the Human Experience. Course

Guide. California State University, Dominguez Hills, 1996.

Keegan, John. A History of Warfare. Vintage Books division of Random

House Publishing, New York, 1993.

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Graduate of The University of Akron, Graduate of California State University (HUX)

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