The Military Revolution—Dutch and Swedish Reforms II


Before Gustav Adolf’s arrival on the scene, artillery was considered a specialty, and it was usually operated by civilian mercenaries. These were an unruly bunch that often showed utter contempt for military discipline. Gustav would not put up with this situation and formed the first military artillery company in 1623. By 1629 he had an artillery regiment consisting of six companies. He put this organization under the command of twenty-six-year-old Lennart Torstensson, undoubtedly the best artilleryman of his time. The artillery was thus established as a distinct branch of the army, manned almost entirely by Swedish soldiers.

Four of the six companies of artillery were true gun companies, one consisting of sappers, and the sixth of men, often called on during sieges, trained to handle special explosive devices. It was in weapons and the techniques of their use that set the Swedish artillery apart from that of other armies.

Gustav’s objective was not only to simplify the guns but to do so with the goal of making the artillery arm a full and equal partner with the infantry and cavalry on the battlefield. To be that partner, the guns had to be at the right place when they were needed—in other words they had to be mobile. This meant reducing their weights.

Gustav started out by discarding the heavy 48-pounder. He retained the 24-pounders and 12-pounders. They were useful for siege operations and long-range bombardment. He exchanged the 8-pounders with very mobile and relatively quick-firing 3-pounders.

Gustav first tackled the weight problem during the early period of the Polish campaigns. Improvements in the quality of gunpowder made it possible to equalize the pressure in the tube and reduce the thickness of the barrel. In the end, the Swedes had a field gun made that weighed only 90 pounds. It consisted of a copper tube (a metal the Swedes possessed in ample supply) reinforced by iron bands. It was also wrapped in ropes set in cement with a final layer of leather—hence the term “leather cannon.” The tube was removable since it became exceedingly hot after a few rounds and had to be cooled. This innovation was soon removed from the arsenal as it proved too fragile and dangerous for field use.

Gustav Adolf continued his search for a light field piece. Metallurgic advances made it possible to develop a short cast iron gun without the sacrifice of safety as was the case with the “leather cannon.” In 1624 Gustav had some of the old guns recast into new 3-pounders, with a caliber of 2.6 inches, a length of 48 inches, and a weight of 400 pounds. With its carriage it weighed 625 pounds. Four men or one horse could move the new gun during battle. These guns became known as “regimental guns” since they were assigned to the regiments. It was the first regimental field piece in military history.

The Swedes also developed the first packaged artillery cartridge for use with the regimental gun. It was a thin wooden case which held a prepared charge wired to the ball. The prepared charge increased accuracy and simplified loading. This led to a high rate of fire. The Swedish regimental gun could be fired eight times in the time it took musketeers to discharge six volleys.

At first, one gun was assigned to each regiment. This was later increased to two.39 The regimental guns changed the traditional role of the artillery and gave the Swedes an enormous advantage in battle, because for several years the Swedish army was the only army that possessed artillery pieces that could accompany the infantry into battle. The need for this type of firepower well forward has influenced all later tactical and organizational doctrines.

John Keegan appears to disparage Gustav Adolf’s innovations in weapons and tactics, in sharp contrast to what others have written. For example, he is the only military historian I know who labeled the infantry guns ineffective when he writes that in practice they did the enemy little harm. He appears to ignore the many battles from Breitenfeld onwards where these weapons had a devastating effect on thickly packed enemy ranks. Hans Delbruck writes that the entire socio-political situation of Europe was transformed with the new military organization.

Gustav Adolf also turned artillery into an offensive tool. He wanted to concentrate maximum fire at the decisive point in a battle. The new regimental guns with their mobility allowed Gustav to achieve this aim. Up till then, the artillery had been positioned before the battle and remained in those positions for the duration, unable to move. The light regimental gun could be moved at will.

Not only was the quality of the Swedish artillery impressive, but so was the quantity. Parker points out that the Dutch army deployed only four field guns at the Battle of Turnhout in 1597 and only eight at the Battle of Nieupoort in 1600. This stands out in sharp contrast to the 80 artillery pieces that Gustav brought with him to Germany in 1630.

When King Gustav appeared on the scene, the solid cast-iron projectile was still the artillery ammunition in use, but around 1580 there had been an improvement. Until then, the gunpowder in the hollow sphere was ignited separately from the propellant. It was ignited by a slow burning fuse before touching off the main charge. This meant that there was a serious problem if the main charge misfired. If the main iron ball was not removed in time, the whole gun could explode. This problem was overcome by a new type of fuse which was ignited by the propellant charge.

An exploding shell, where a bursting charge filled half the container, was invented in the late sixteenth century. There were also experiments ongoing with time and percussion fuses but these ideas were too far ahead of the contemporary chemistry to become useful. The early hand grenade made its debut but its handling was a cumbersome and dangerous operation. It was ignited by a slow burning fuse and Montross writes that: The soldier lighted the fuse and whirled the two-pound missile about his head to speed ignition before throwing. Accidents were frequent.


War in the patchwork of German states—some Protestant others Catholic— created a logistical problem. The question of food and ammunition became as important as the soldiers’ pay. Commanders resorted to looting towns and villages, both for supplies and valuables, to make up the arrears of their soldiers’ pay. Starving women and children became camp followers and their number often exceeded that of the armies. The Thirty Years’ War set up a tradition of looting as a legitimate operation in warfare.

Martin van Creveld defines logistics as the practical art of moving armies and keeping them supplied.46 This is a good definition as long as it is realized that “moving” and “supplied” are broad terms that involve a myriad of separate elements and actions.

Downing writes that the system developed by the Swedes represented a change from the normal practices of the period and relied on large staffs, but seemed little removed from plunder. The Swedes went about it in a very organized manner. Their quartermasters spread throughout Germany, inventoried the resources needed, and requisitioned them for their army’s needs.

At least it was, in the beginning, done without the pillage and massacres that other armies resorted to in living off the land, especially the mercenaries. A functioning supply system also tended to shorten wars since the enemy commander could no longer hope that by waiting his opponent would run out of supplies.48 Roberts writes that because the requisitions were usually spent in the same localities as they were made, the effects on the economy were not as injurious to the local populace as would appear at first sight. The long-term concern for future supplies from a particular region set the Swedish system apart from the practice of their opponents. However one looks at it, it was part of the philosophy that “war should be made to pay for itself.”

The alternative of letting soldiers forage for themselves often led to criminal behavior and desertions. In the case of Sweden’s Baltic campaigns in the second half of the sixteenth century, they had to deal with mutinies by mercenaries not properly paid and fed. The establishment of national armies in the seventeenth century with logistical commands led to better disciplined troops, as they had an organization to rely on for critical needs.

Logistic considerations always trump strategic and tactical ones. We will deal with several operations where logistical considerations prevailed over strategy. To plan a campaign without an adequate supply system is so full of risks that it should never be undertaken. Later we will witness what happened to Karl XII when he drove deep into Russia without an adequate line of supply. Napoleon also had to learn this truism the hard way.

The only two powers in Europe to establish a national logistic apparatus for supplying their armies were France and Spain. When France entered the war after years on the sidelines, it constructed a supply system consisting of magazines and private contractors in the local regions. This blend of government and private enterprise worked well. The Holy Roman Empire built a road system to supply its armies. The two principal roads ran from Vienna to the lower Rhine and from northern Italy to the mouth of the Rhine.


Military staffs have existed, in one form or another, throughout recorded history. At times they were primitive, composed mostly of informal group of specialists or trusted advisers relied on by the commander for advice. Like all other aspects of warfare, they evolved over time and became more sophisticated. As mentioned earlier, successful warfare is only possible when based on sound logistical preparation. We find that such preparations were present in the Roman Empire, but largely disappeared after its disintegration. It was not fully reestablished until Gustav Adolf revived it.

Again we find that Gustav took an existing concept and improved it. The Swedish regimental staff consisted of a colonel, a lieutenant colonel, a major, a chief quartermaster, two chaplains, two judge advocates, surgeons, provost marshals, and a number of clerks.

The staff at army headquarters mirrored that in the regiments except it was considerably larger and had added experts, such as a chief engineer and contractors. Both levels had a number of messengers.

Gustav was a meticulous planner. He would sit down with his staff and lay out various options, possible enemy reactions to those options, and logical Swedish counters to those reactions. These courses of action would then be assigned to various underlings to develop further. His council of officers acting as a general staff would then meet to discuss the various options, though the final decision lay with the king as commander-in-chief.

When a course of action was settled upon, it was reduced to a numbered document similar to the later five-paragraph field order. All unit commanders would become familiar with not only their own tasks but those of adjacent units. One person always present at these planning sessions was the quartermaster general. This shows Gustav Adolf’s concern for proper logistic sup-port.

The troops received their provisions from magazines established along routes and kept filled through shipments from Sweden as well as enforced contributions from the countryside. A commissary staff distributed these supplies to a central location for pick-up and distribution by their counterparts at the regimental level. Local peddlers were licensed and encouraged to set up booths near the camps for the sale of small luxuries. The troops were sheltered in huts or tents in the fortified camps but as a rule they were mostly quartered in towns. A soldier could demand a bed, salt, vinegar, and a place to cook his meals from the host. All other demands were considered looting.


Gustav set the rebuilding and reorganization of the army as his top priority when he inherited the throne after his father in 1611. The first decision he had to make was whether to base the new army on mercenary forces as his predecessors had done to a large extent, or to form a national army. His decision was to base his reorganization on a national conscription system, the first in Europe. Recruiting regions were established that were responsible for raising and maintaining units. Gustav and his advisors realized that the mercenary element could not be done away with in view of the nation’s manpower needs, and the end result was that the Swedish army had a national nucleus supplemented by mercenaries. Norway also adopted universal conscription in the middle of the seventeenth century. Thus the two Scandinavian states became the earliest to resort to this method for raising armies.

The system used to raise troops in Sweden and Finland was called indelingsverket (apportionment system), and had actually begun during the latter part of Karl IX’s reign. After a rather bumpy start the system was modified in the 1620s through a ratio provision discussed in the Introduction. Each parish had to equip and feed one soldier for every ten males in the parish who had earlier been subject to conscription. All males between the ages of fifteen and sixty owed military duty, and the unlucky one out of ten was chosen by drawing lots. There were many exceptions as for nobles, for the clergy, for men serving in the mining industries, and for the only surviving son of a widow. Bonde (farmer) was the most frequently listed occupation, by far, in the enrollment register.

Parker gives some statistics for the annual conscription by the government and the numbers are surprisingly low; ranging from 8,000 in 1629 to 13,500 in 1627. He also shows the disastrous impact the system had on a typical community—that of Bygdeå. It is worth quoting directly some of what he had to say:

The parish of Bygdeå in northern Sweden, for example, provided 230 young men for service in Poland and Germany between 1621 and 1639, and saw 215 of them die there, while a further five returned home crippled. Although the remainder—a mere ten men—were still in service in 1639, it is unlikely that any of them survived to see the war’s end nine years later. Enlistment, in effect, had become a sentence of death: of the 27 Bygdeå conscripts of the year 1638, mustered on 6 July before being sent to Germany, all but one were dead within a year.

Mercenaries and contract soldiers had long constituted an important source of manpower, although probably not as important as some have concluded. They came from all over Europe: Switzerland, Germany, Ireland, Albania, Italy, and Scotland, to mention a few. Scottish regiments had served in Scandinavia since the 1560s in support of the Protestant cause, either in the armies of Sweden or Denmark. Parker put their number as high as 25,000. Conscription in occupied territories provided additional troops. Those coming from Scotland and Ireland had the problem of how to get to Sweden. Some of them came to the west coast of Sweden when there were no hostilities with Denmark. Alternative routes were north German ports or by crossing Norway. The latter route was not safe as they were to discover in 1612 when a force of about 300, under colonels George Sinclair and Alexander Ramsay, was ambushed and wiped out by a 500-man Norwegian peasant militia at Kringen near Otta, apparently in revenge for an earlier massacre of Norwegian conscripts.


The new Swedish military organization and weapons described above would have been useless without rigorous training and strict discipline. Recruits were given two weeks basic training after enrollment. Here they learned how to march to the beat of drums, how to load their muskets, and how to handle the pike. The troops were never idle. Maneuvers by units at various levels were held frequently.

Discipline was harsh but fair, and when taken together with the provision of regular pay, resulted in an army that behaved better than most in that period. The regimental staff had a judge advocate officer as a permanent member. The reason for this arrangement dates back to 1621, during the siege of Riga, when Gustav Adolf issued his field regulations. Since they proved so influential in the behavior of Swedish troops, it is worth quoting what an expert on the military staff, General Hittle, has to say about this arrangement:

Under these regulations the commanding officer of the regiment was the president of the court, and as in our present system, the other members who heard the case were chosen from within the organization that convened the court. There was a clear delineation of authority between the provost marshal and the courts, for although the provosts could arrest an individual they were prohibited from inflicting capital punishment, except under very special circumstances.

… in addition to the regimental court martial, there was to be a permanent general court martial, of which the royal marshal of Sweden was to be president and high military officers were to be members. The regimental courts had jurisdiction over thieving, insubordination, and all minor crimes, and the higher court took cognizance of treason and other major offenses.

Every regimental commander was required to read the Articles of War (as the 1621 regulations came to be called) to his troops once a month. Men accused of serious infractions had the right to appeal the verdict of the court to the monarch. Punishment for infractions of these articles was severe, and Gustav’s soldiers had a reputation for good behavior unusual for troops of the day.

In addition to those rules listed in the previous section, I note some others mentioned by Montross:

Theft, looting, cowardice and violence to women were punished by hanging.

Local thieves and harlots were drummed out of camp.

Minor culprits might be shackled or made to “ride the wooden horse” with a musket tied to each foot.

Prohibition against a rabble of camp followers. One imperial army of 30,000 fighting men is said to have been encumbered by 140,000 non-combatants—women, children and cripples which had been reduced to destitution by past devastations. The Swedish army permitted a man’s wife and family to follow the regiment. The children attended regimental schools. This allowed the Swedes to reduce their baggage train substantially and thereby increase the mobility of the army.

The effects of all these reforms and procedures were the creation of the first truly national army of modern times, one that was also, with great consistency, victorious on the battlefields.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.