The trebuchet



Recent reconstructions and computer simulations reveal the operating principles of the most powerful weapon of its time.

by Paul E. Chevedden, Les Eigenbrod, Vernard Foley and Werner Soedel

Centuries before the development of effective cannons, huge artillery pieces were demolishing castle walls with projectiles the weight of an upright piano. The trebuchet, invented in China between the fifth and third centuries B.C.E., reached the Mediterranean by the sixth century C.E. It displaced other forms of artillery and held its own until well after the coming of gunpowder. The trebuchet was instrumental in the rapid expansion of both the Islamic and the Mongol empires. It also played a part in the transmission of the Black Death, the epidemic of plague that swept Eurasia and North Africa during the 14th century. Along the way it seems to have influenced both the development of clockwork and theoretical analyses of motion.

The trebuchet succeeded the catapult, which in turn was a mechanization of the bow [see “Ancient Catapults,” by Werner Soedel and Vernard Foley; SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, March 1979]. Catapults drew their energy from the elastic deformation of twisted ropes or sinews, whereas trebuchets relied on gravity or direct human power, which proved vastly more effective.

Recovering Lost Knowledge

The average catapult launched a missile weighing between 13 and 18 kilograms, and the most commonly used heavy catapults had a capacity of 27 kilograms. According to Philo of Byzantium, however, even these machines could not inflict much damage on walls at a distance of 160 meters. The most powerful trebuchets, in contrast, could launch missiles weighing a ton or more. Furthermore, their maximum range could exceed that of ancient artillery.

We have only recently begun to reconstruct the history and operating principles of the trebuchet. Scholars as yet have made no comprehensive effort to examine all the available evidence. In particular, Islamic technical literature has been neglected. The most important surviving technical treatise on these machines is Kitab aniq fi al-manajaniq (An Elegant Book on Trebuchets), written in 1462 C.E. by Yusuf ibn Urunbugha al- Zaradkash. One of the most profusely illustrated Arabic manuscripts ever produced, it provides detailed construction and operating information. These writings are particularly significant because they offer a unique insight into the applied mechanics of premodern societies.

We have made scale models and computer simulations that have taught us a great deal about the trebuchet’s operation. As a result, we believe we have uncovered design principles essentially lost since the Middle Ages. In addition, we have found historical materials that push back the date of the trebuchet’s spread and reveal its crucial role in medieval warfare.

Historians had previously assumed that the diffusion of trebuchets westward from China occurred too late to affect the initial phase of the Islamic conquests, from 624 to 656. Recent work by one of us (Chevedden), however, shows that trebuchets reached the eastern Mediterranean by the late 500s, were known in Arabia and were used with great effect by Islamic armies. The technological sophistication for which Islam later became known was already manifest.

The Mongol conquests, the largest in human history, also owed something to this weapon. As a cavalry nation, the Mongols employed Chinese and Muslim engineers to build and operate trebuchets for their sieges. At the investment of Kaffa in the Crimea in 1345– 46, the trebuchet’s contribution to biological warfare had perhaps its most devastating impact. As Mongol forces besieged this Genoese outpost on the Crimean peninsula, the Black Death swept through their ranks. Diseased corpses were then hurled into the city, and from Kaffa the Black Death spread to the Mediterranean ports of Europe via Genoese merchants.

The trebuchet came to shape defensive as well as offensive tactics. Engineers thickened walls to withstand the new artillery and redesigned fortifications to employ trebuchets against attackers. Architects working under al- Adil (1196–1218), Saladin’s brother and successor, introduced a defensive system that used gravity-powered trebuchets mounted on the platforms of towers to prevent enemy artillery from coming within effective range. These towers, designed primarily as artillery emplacements, took on enormous proportions to accommodate the larger trebuchets, and castles were transformed from walled enclosures with a few small towers into clusters of large towers joined by short stretches of curtain walls. The towers on the citadels of Damascus, Cairo and Bosra are massive structures, as large as 30 meters square.

Simple but Devastating

The principle of the trebuchet was straightforward. The weapon consisted of a beam that pivoted around an axle that divided the beam into a long and short arm. The longer arm terminated in a cup or sling for hurling the missile, and the shorter one in an attachment for pulling ropes or a counterweight. When the device was positioned for launch, the short arm was aloft; when the beam was released, the long end swung upward, hurling the missile from the sling.

Three major forms developed: traction machines, powered by crews pulling on ropes; counterweight machines, activated by the fall of large masses; and hybrid forms that employed both gravity and human power. When traction machines first appeared in the Mediterranean world at the end of the sixth century, their capabilities were so far superior to those of earlier artillery that they were said to hurl “mountains and hills.” The most powerful hybrid machines could launch shot about three to six times as heavy as that of the most commonly used large catapults. In addition, they could discharge significantly more missiles in a given time.

Counterweight machines went much further. The box for the weight might be the size of a peasant’s hut and contain tens of thousands of kilograms. The projectile on the other end of the arm might weigh between 200 and 300 kilograms, and a few trebuchets reportedly threw stones weighing between 900 and 1,360 kilograms. With such increased capability, even dead horses or bundled humans could be flung. A modern reconstruction made in England has tossed a compact car (476 kilograms without its engine) 80 meters using a 30-ton counterweight.

During their heyday, trebuchets received much attention from engineers— indeed, the very word “engineering” is intimately related to them. In Latin and the European vernaculars, a common term for trebuchet was “engine” (from ingenium, “an ingenious contrivance”), and those who designed, made and used them were called ingeniators.

Engineers modified the early designs to increase range by extracting the most possible energy from the falling counterweight and to increase accuracy by minimizing recoil. The first difference between counterweight machines and their traction forebears is that the sling on the end of the arm is much longer. This change affects performance dramatically by increasing the effective length of the throwing arm. It also opens the way for a series of additional improvements by making the angle at which the missile is released largely independent of the angle of the arm. By varying the length of the sling ropes, engineers could ensure that shot left the machine at an angle of about 45 degrees to the vertical, which produces the longest trajectory.

At the same time, so that more of the weight’s potential energy converts to motion, the sling should open only when the arm has reached an approximately vertical position (with the counterweight near the bottom of its travel). Observations of the trebuchet may have aided the emergence of important medieval insights into the forces associated with moving bodies.

Swinging Free

The next crucial innovation was the development of the hinged counterweight. During the cocking process, the boxes of hinged counterweight machines hang directly below the hinge, at an angle to the arm; when the arm of the trebuchet is released, the hinge straightens out. As a result of this motion, the counterweight’s distance from the pivot point, and thus its mechanical advantage, varies throughout the cycle.

The hinge significantly increases the amount of energy that can be delivered through the beam to the projectile. Medieval engineers observed that hinged counterweight machines, all else being equal, would throw their projectiles farther than would fixed-weight ones. Our computer simulations indicate that hinged counterweight machines delivered about 70 percent of their energy to the projectile. They lose some energy after the hinge has opened fully, when the beam begins to pull the counterweight sideways.

Although it exacts a small cost, this swinging of the counterweight has a significant braking effect on the rotating beam. Together with the transfer of energy to the sling as it lifts off and turns about the beam, the braking can bring the beam nearly to a stop as it comes upright. The deceleration eases the strain on the machine’s framework just as the missile departs. As a result, the frame is less likely to slide or bounce. Some pieces of classical-era artillery, such as the onager, were notorious for bucking and had to be mounted on special compressible platforms. The much gentler release of the trebuchet meant that engineers did not have to reposition the frame between shots and so could shoot more rapidly and accurately. A machine of medium size built by the Museum of Falsters Minder in Denmark has proved capable of grouping its shots, at a range of 180 meters, within a six-meter square.

Capturing the Trebuchet’s Lessons

Later engineers attempted to capture the great power that trebuchets represented. Some of these efforts are made visible in historical records by the proliferation of counterweight boxes in the form of the mathematical curve called the saltcellar, or salinon. The counterweight boxes of the more elaborate trebuchets took this shape because it concentrated the mass at the farthest distance from the hinge and also reduced the clearance necessary between the counterweight and the frame. The same form reappeared on later machines that incorporated pendulums, such as pendulum- driven saws and other tools.

Most attempts to extend the trebuchet’s principles failed because the counterweight’s power could not be harnessed efficiently. Success came only in timekeeping, where it was not the trebuchet’s great force but rather its regular motion that engineers sought. Pendulums were a dramatic step forward in accuracy from earlier controller mechanisms.

Although the pendulum is usually associated with the time of Galileo and Christiaan Huygens, evidence for pendulum controllers can be traced back to a family of Italian clockmakers to whom Leonardo da Vinci was close. Indeed, da Vinci explicitly says some of his designs can be used for telling time. His drawings include a hinge between the pendulum shaft and bob, just as advanced trebuchets hinged their counterweights, and show notable formal resemblances to fixed counterweight machines as well. In the case of earlier clockwork, there is a marked similarity both in form and in motion between the saltcellar counterweight and a speed controller called the strob. The strob oscillates about its shaft just as the counterweight does before quieting down at the end of a launch.

Trebuchets also appear to have played a role in the greatest single medieval advance in physical science, the innovations in theoretical mechanics associated with Jordanus of Nemore. The key to Jordanus’s contribution is his concept of positional gravity, a revival in the Middle Ages of the idea of a motion vector, or the directedness of a force. Jordanus held that for equal distances traveled, a weight was “heavier,” or more capable of doing work, when its line of descent was vertical rather than oblique. In particular, he compared cases in which the descents were linear with those that followed arcs. Eventually this understanding led to the notion that work is proportional to weight and vertical distance of descent, no matter what path is taken.

The connection is clear. Engineers knew that machines with hinged counterweights, in which the weight descends essentially straight down during the first, crucial part of the launch cycle, would throw stones farther than would their fixed counterweight equivalents, in which the mass travels in a curve.

Other aspects of Jordanus’s work may show military connections as well. The suspension of the hinged counterweight, with the constantly changing leverage of its arm, may have spurred Jordanus’s related attempts to analyze the equilibrium of bent levers and to emphasize that it was the horizontal distance between the mass on a lever arm and its fulcrum that determined the work it could do. Observations of the differing distances to which fixed and hinged counterweight machines could throw their stones may have helped Jordanus in his pioneering efforts to define the concept of work, or force times distance. Jordanus’s observations are usually studied as an example of pure physics, based on the teachings of earlier natural philosophers, such as Archimedes. The closeness of his mechanics to trebuchet function, however, suggests that engineering practice may have stimulated theory. Closing the circle, Galileo later incorporated such Jordanian ideas as virtual displacement, virtual work and the analysis of inclined planes to support such newer mechanics as his famous analysis of the trajectory of cannon shot.

Galileo’s theoretical innovations came only after the replacement of trebuchets by cannon, a process that took nearly two centuries and was not fully accomplished until metallic shot replaced stones. The last instance of trebuchet use comes from the New World, at the siege of Tenochtitlán (Mexico City) in 1521. As ammunition was running critically low, Cortés eagerly accepted a proposal to build a trebuchet. The machine took several days to build, and at the first launch the stone went straight up, only to return and smash it. In view of the tremendous power of these devices, and the finesse required to make them function properly, would-be replicators should take careful note.

Further Reading

TREBUCHETS. Donald R. Hill in Viator, Vol. 4, pages 99–115; 1973. CHINA’S TREBUCHETS, MANNED AND COUNTERWEIGHTED. Joseph Needham in On Pre-Modern Technology and Science: Studies in Honor of Lynn White, Jr. Edited by Bert S. Hall and Delno C. West. Undena Publications, 1976.

BESSON, DA VINCI, AND THE EVOLUTION OF THE PENDULUM: SOME FINDINGS AND OBSERVATIONS. Vernard Foley, Darlene Sedlock, Carole Widule and David Ellis in History and Technology, Vol. 6, No. 1, pages 1–43; 1988.

ARTILLERY IN LATE ANTIQUITY: PRELUDE TO THE MIDDLE AGES. Paul E. Chevedden in The Medieval City under Siege. Edited by Ivy Corfis and Michael Wolfe. Boydell & Brewer, 1995.


University Press, 1995.

Naval Mine Warfare, WWII


EMB Mine being laid from an S-Boote. Photograph from Suddentscher Verlag.


EMC Contact Mines aboard a Leberecht Maas class destroyer in Autumn 1940. Note the trolley rails.

Hidden, unseen, and inflicting their damage below the waterline, mines were one of the most feared naval weapons of World War II. Worldwide, mines sank 534 ships, accounting for some 1.4 million tons. Only torpedoes sank more ships than mines. The same had held true in World War I, and yet most of the great naval powers entered World War II poorly prepared to deal with mines. Only Germany and the Soviet Union included strong mine countermeasures forces in their fleets, no doubt because of their mutually bad experiences with each others’ mines in World War I. They also had the largest mine inventories at war’s start.

More significantly, Germany exploited British magnetic mine technology from World War I to produce a magnetic mine of its own. It was a technical surprise that cost the British dearly in the war’s early months, but fortunately the Germans had few in stock and their production had a low priority. Moreover, the German Navy commander, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, wasted the opportunity by using them in small numbers instead of concentrating them for a decisive effect.

The British implemented countermeasures by mid-1940 and began to develop advanced mines of their own. Thus began a technological war between the Western Allies’ mine and mine-countermeasure experts and their German counterparts. It was a war the Allies eventually won, but not without difficulty or pitfalls.

Although seemingly unglamorous and unexciting, mine warfare was a critical element of naval operations in World War II. By 1943, for example, mine-countermeasure forces constituted nearly 60 percent of the German Navy, while their Allied counterparts had grown to more than 1,100 ships and boats from a force of only two dozen at war’s start.

German minefields were the deciding factor in Russo-German naval operations in the Baltic Sea, and a major hazard to Allied shipping. Axis minefields affected Allied planning for every amphibious operation in the war except Operation TORCH in Northwest Africa. The Western Allies, on the other hand, used mine warfare to choke German Baltic coastal and river commerce during the war’s final years, while Soviet minefields severely inhibited Axis naval operations in Soviet coastal waters. In each instance, the country employing mines found them to be a cost-effective weapon, particularly in circumstances and areas where the opposition had naval supremacy.

Mines can be used either offensively or defensively, with the latter being the most common. Laying defensive minefields around key ports and coastal areas was one of the first naval actions undertaken by nations entering the war. This activity also highlights where a country either felt most vulnerable or most expected an enemy attack. These minefields served to restrict maritime movements within the mined areas to “transit lanes”—areas within the minefields, or between them, in which no mines were present.

Since mines, particularly moored mines, often drift with the tide and current and are indiscriminate in what they destroy, transit lanes had to be maintained by constant clearing. Hiding the locations of the transit lanes from the enemy was a major concern as well, since he might use the lane to penetrate the minefield or lay mines within it.

Mines are classified by how they are detonated (contact or influence) or deployed (moored, bottom, or free-floating). Contact mines explode when the target makes contact with the mine. Influence mines detonate as a result of the target’s influence on the local environment—either due to the noise it makes (acoustic mines), its effect on local water pressure (pressure mines), or magnetic attraction (magnetic mines). Moored mines are secured by cable to a casing that lies on the bottom. As the name implies, bottom mines rest on the bottom, while free-floating mines float just below the surface. There are three types of free-floating mines: drifting mines drift in the surface current; creeping mines drift at a fixed depth in the subsurface current; and oscillating mines drift at varying depths within the subsurface current.

Each type of mine has its own strengths and weaknesses. All bottom mines, for example, are influence mines and must be laid in waters less than 100 fathoms deep. Otherwise, the targets may not pass close enough to detonate the mines, or they may be too far away for the blast to be effective.

Influence mines were the most difficult to detect and counter. They also drifted less than the other types of mines, and therefore were easier to “reseed” (that is, lay additional mines in the field) and sustain. Moored mines could be either contact or influence and could be laid almost without depth restrictions. They were the easiest to detect and remove, however, and had a tendency to drift with wind and current over time. This made moored minefields more difficult to maintain.

All free-floating mines of World War II were contact mines. Almost totally random weapons, they were rarely laid in fields but generally were employed near enemy harbors or staging areas, where current and tides would preclude their becoming a threat to friendly forces. They are the most difficult mines to defeat and they are such a random hazard that international law requires free-floating mines to sink within eight hours of being laid.

The mine’s primary effectiveness is in its psychological impact. Mines can be laid by any platform (ship, plane, or submarine), encountered anywhere, and they are virtually undetectable. Thus, prudent mariners avoid known or suspected minefields. More significantly, mines require more effort to clear than they do to deploy. The best minefields include a mixture of moored and bottom, contact and influence mines, but such fields are exceptionally difficult and dangerous to lay. Whatever that difficulty, however, it is little compared to what is required to clear such a minefield.

Minesweeping was the only available method of clearing mines in World War II. So-called because the original mine-clearing equipment employed a steel cable towed behind the sweeping ship to “sweep” away the mines’ mooring cables so they would float to the surface for destruction, minesweeping was a tedious and dangerous task. The ships that carried the gear were called minesweepers.

The only available mine-countermeasures equipment at war’s start was the Oropesa sweep from World War I. Essentially a “wire sweep” that trailed behind the minesweeper, the Oropesa sweep cut cables out to about eighty meters from the sweeper. Each sweeper could conduct two sweeps, one to a side, per sweep run. The lead ship in a sweep formation had to literally “lead” the unit through the minefield. The position was normally rotated since losses among lead ships exceeded 10 percent. The trail ships also faced danger because they had to avoid, as well as destroy, the mines the lead ships released. Unfortunately, the Oropesa gear could only be used against moored mines. The introduction of German bottom magnetic mines in 1939 came as a total surprise and ultimately led to the development of influence sweep gear and degaussing equipment.

The introduction of influence sweep gear in mid-1940 marked the beginning of the technology race in the mine war. The British LL magnetic sweep used alternating electric current, pulsed through a cable towed behind the minesweeper, to detonate magnetic mines at a safe distance by simulating the passage of a ship. The Germans and the British also modified aircraft, the Ju-52 and Wellington bomber respectively, to conduct influence sweeping. Carrying huge electric coils in rings attached to their fuselage and wings, these aircraft cleared suspected minefields by flying over them at altitudes of less than forty meters. Such aircraft swept large areas of influence mines but proved vulnerable to enemy fighter aircraft.

One other countermeasure to magnetic mines that all sides used after 1940 was the elimination of ships’ magnetic signatures. Since all metal ships acquire the magnetic signature of the area in which they are built, they need a major deperming or signature removal effort to reduce their magnetic vulnerability. Maintaining that magnetically neutral signature requires the installation of electric cables along the ship’s hull. Passing electric current through those cables “degaussed” the ship (that is, prevented its developing a local magnetic signature). Degaussing equipment is a major design feature of all warships to this day.

The Germans got the mine warfare lead again later in 1940 when they introduced acoustic mines. However, Raeder employed them before they were available in large numbers. The British recovered one in August 1940, and one month later put a mechanical acoustic sweep into service that could defeat the German acoustic mine. Unfortunately, sound dampening the equipment on British ships proved too expensive to implement during the war, although they did do it in minesweeping units. The Germans countered by producing a combined acoustic/magnetic mine, but the British soon developed minesweeping tactics to counter it as well.

The Allies were not idle in mine development, Great Britain developed magnetic mines in World War I and employed them again beginning in April 1940. The Germans countered by developing their own magnetic influence sweeps. They also built a specific class of magnetic sweep ships, called Sperrbrecher. Equipped with huge electric coils in their bows to project a strong magnetic field ahead of them, these specially reinforced ships had shock-mounted equipment and other damage reducing features to survive mine detonations. The Germans used these units to lead coastal convoys through suspected and likely enemy minefields. They became increasingly important in the war’s final two years, as the Western Allies, in particular, laid more and larger minefields.

The Germans began to employ mines with arming delay mechanisms in late 1941. The mines could also be set to arm from six hours to twelve days after they were laid. Hence, a field thought safe after multiple sweeps could suddenly become active. The Germans also introduced refinements in their acoustic mine sensors, lowering the frequencies monitored and targeting specific ship equipment, making it more difficult for Allied sweep gear to simulate. They also began to employ multiple polarity magnetic mines and finally, ship counters to complicate sweep efforts—that is, the mines required a variety of magnetic phenomena to detonate and allowed a preset number of ships to pass by safely before they would detonate. Thus, an area was not truly clear until the entire field had been swept to the maximum “number” that an enemy mine could be set. Moreover, the sweep gear had to simulate a wider variety of magnetic signatures to detonate the mine.

Both the Germans and Western Allies had combined acoustic/magnetic mines with ship counters and variable arming delays in service by late 1943, when the Germans introduced their latest technical innovation, the bottom pressure or “oyster” mine. These mines were detonated by the pressure wave a ship generated as it moved through the water. No minesweeper could simulate that wave since each pressure wave was unique to the size and speed of a ship.

Determined not to repeat Raeder’s mistakes from earlier in the war, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz waited until the Allied Normandy landings to employ oyster mines. By then, however, he lacked the means to lay the mines in the invasion area. Only a handful could be deployed. Had they been laid in the invasion fleet’s assembly areas, they would have had a devastating effect. As it was, after some nasty surprises, the Allies easily avoided the few areas where these mines were laid. A few were recovered and the technology incorporated into Allied mines used against the Germans in the war’s closing months.

Although the Germans developed the most technologically advanced mines of the European theater, they did not employ mines to their maximum effect. Missing several opportunities to exploit their advantages both early and late in the war, the German mine warfare effort was further weakened because it supported only naval operations. Allied mine warfare operations were more opportunistic and better integrated into their overall war effort. Thus, they employed mines effectively to cut German commerce on the Danube and other river systems critical to the German economy as part of the overall Allied strategy of attacking Germany’s infrastructure.

Allied mining was also geared to support the Allied ground campaign in Italy by interdicting German coastal convoys supporting German ground forces. A similar German mining effort directed at the Soviet river and coastal navigation system would have paid huge dividends for the German war effort on that most critical front. As it was, naval mine warfare represents yet another area in which the Germans wasted their initial lead and regained it too late to affect the war.

Additional Reading

Bekker, Cajus, Hitler’s Naval War (1974).

Campbell, John, Naval Weapons of World War II (1985).

Hartmann, Gregory K., Weapons That Wait (1979).

Hough, Richard, The Longest Battle (1986).

Khmer War Elephants


Khmerian war elephant in action. The crew consists of two men – or maybe the driver was deemed too insignificant to be depicted. It is hard to tell which of the two riders is of higher rank: the one with a javelin and shield on the elephant’s neck or the archer in the howdah. In Southeast Asia noble warriors traditionally fought sitting in front, and his rich armour and helmet also probably speak in favour of the first warrior. (Relief carvings, Angkor Thom, Cambodia, late 12th-early 13th centuries, after D. Nicolle)

Khmer elephants are depicted with a driver, armed with spear and shield, and a single archer or sometimes spearman. Those ridden by generals (identified by being shown enlarged) are accompanied by one or more parasol carriers on foot. Neither these nor elephants being shown in the background of infantry combats, Cham elephants are all crewed by a driver, a javelin-thrower, and a parasol bearer at the rear.

The artillery was Chinese-type “double crossbows” man-handled on wheels or mounted (or possibly only transported) on elephants Khmer troops in Cambodia placed double-bow crossbows on elephants. Several surviving images of the late 12th through to early 13th centuries show that it was not an experimental device. The idea of multiple crossbows was undoubtedly borrowed from China, where similar powerful installations comprising two to three bows were common at the siege and defence of fortresses. Nevertheless, only the Khmers put these crossbows on elephants’ backs.

Tuning the instruments of war

While today the thought alone may seem barbaric, the use of elephants during war was an effective tactic that wasn’t unique to Thailand. Yet before stepping onto a battlefield, elephants had to undergo training to ensure they were up to the task.

The more-aggressive male elephants were trained in loud environments amidst the sound of drums to simulate the environment of war to ensure they wouldn’t be spooked during conflict, and they were cajoled forwards into battle with the help of a spear. Sadly, such training hasn’t been left in the past; whilst the circumstances and finer details might be a little different, this concept of training such a majestic, wild animal still occurs today in Thailand. The practice of Phajaan, or crushing, is still used by mahouts who wish to make elephants rideable for tourists, a practice which is harmful for the animals and should never be done when visiting Thailand.

Historical use in Thailand

The use of elephants in war in the region began as early as the 9th-century. The Khmer Empire—now modern-day Cambodia—ruled Thailand for centuries, with war elephants an effective tool in their arsenal which helped them to conquer and subjugate those around them. The collapse of the Khmer Empire and the rise of Ayutthaya (modern-day Thailand) saw war elephants continue to be used in battle.

Ayutthaya faced many battles with the neighbouring Burma, who had a powerful military at the time, and both sides counted thousands of elephants in their ranks. Covered in armour, seating armed soldiers and capable of charging at speeds of up to 25km/h, elephants were the historical equivalent of a tank, and were feared on the battlefield. However, their most famous use in warfare in Thailand didn’t come during a general skirmish, but a bout of single combat.

Hussite Wars–Warfare




By the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, the era of heavy cavalry in the form of the armored knight was declining. In France the English longbow was reestablishing the dominance of the infantry; the Swiss pikemen were doing the same with a reborn but more effective phalanx. Neither of these developments, however, had reached eastern Europe by the time of the Hussite wars, so the German aristocrats still dominated the invading armies. On the other hand, they were hardly the only military arm deployed in combat; infantry, especially cross-bowmen, outnumbered the mounted knights.

The relative importance of the knights is the subject of much debate. Some scholars have argued that in spite of the increasing number of infantry from the lower classes, the aristocrats were still the dominant arm with their heavy cavalry. The charge of the heavy horse breaking through anything in its way was receding, but it could still play a decisive role in coordination with the other arms. The early Middle Ages (up to about 1300) actually saw few wars and few battles outside the Crusades, so the knights suffered few casualties in European warfare, which may have given impetus to the concept of their bravery and overall success.

The knights had reached the apogee of body armor by the time of the Hussite wars. Chain mail continued to be used by soldiers in the fourteenth century, but as longbows and crossbows were able to break the rings and penetrate, new, more capable defensive wear was needed. Ultimately, this led to the development of plate armor, initiated in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries and lasting well into the sixteenth century. Plate armor was developed first for the upper body and later for the limbs as well. The suits of armor for which knights are today best known were a trade-off between protection and weight. A standard suit of armor weighted fifty to sixty pounds. Thus, an unhorsed rider was at the mercy of swarming infantry, especially on muddy terrain. While astride his charger, however, armed with a strong straight sword and with a lance supported by a bracket fastened to the breastplate (an arrét de cuirasse), the heavy cavalryman of the fifteenth century remained a formidable warrior when intelligently used.

Siege warfare dominated the era, and infantry was a vital component. After the start of the fourteenth century, as battles became more frequent and casualties mounted, what had once been chivalric combat between Christian soldiers became class warfare. Perhaps the most convincing reason for the increased numbers of battles after 1300 is that infantry was beginning to dominate the battlefield. Although several battles during the Middle Ages had been fought using primarily infantry and in some instances these troops had been victorious, the myth of cavalry superiority prevailed. Perhaps the fact that the defeated aristocrats were saved for ransom while defeated peasants were without financial worth finally motivated the peasants to see killing knights as retribution for being ignored. Certainly the increasing sense of freedom and self-worth felt by Hus’s peasant followers could account for their disregard for the lifestyle, and the lives, of their “betters.”

Infantry training came from an almost guild-like organization in the cities and towns. As military historian Dennis Showalter suggests, “If each task had its specific skill, taught and supported by specific guilds and craft brotherhoods, was it not correspondingly reasonable to divide up the labor of military service, and to provide specialists in this craft as in all the others? From a few experienced captains and armorers held on retainer, the permanent armed forces of Europe’s cities and city-states tended to increase during the fourteenth century.” Infantry levies were expected to provide their own weapons and acquired some training either at fairs or under the direction of local commanders. As in all militia, training standards varied wildly and there was no training in cooperation with the cavalry. In Germanic states the basic unit of manpower was the gleve, numbering up to ten men with at least one horseman in the group. This varied, however: in Swabia a gleve denoted four horses; in Nuremberg, it meant two horses and a spearman; in Strasbourg, five horses; in Regensburg, one spearman, one archer and three horses. Further, there could be a variety of attendants, servants (who may or may not have fought), and archers. Each city had a set number of gleven they were to provide when called upon. Ten gleven were commanded by a hauptman (captain), a hundred commanded by an oberhauptman.

Infantry tended to carry what weapons were handy: townspeople used clubs or spears, peasants employed farm implements. The only infantry technology was the bow and crossbow. Although crossbows were easy to use and required little training, there were still some professionals (like the Genoese) who were specialists and widely used as mercenaries. By the early 1400s the crossbow had evolved into a sophisticated weapon made of steel. Although it could launch a bolt at a high velocity, the increased power required increased technical measures to cock the bow, which lowered the rate of fire. The crossbow’s penetrating power versus the knight’s armor led to a constant game of tag through the medieval period, and a crossbowman had minimal time to launch a bolt and reload with a cavalry charge approaching at high speed. Only large units of crossbowmen behind some sort of protective screen could hope to break a charge once it was under way. Generally, crossbowmen tried to prevent cavalry’s forming-up process with harassing fire, for they were lambs at the slaughter in an open field.

It was these types of soldiers and weapons the Hussites faced: heavy cavalry to break an enemy’s line followed by infantry to take advantage of the disorder. Thus, the best way to defend against such an assault was, as noted above, from behind some sort of protective screen. Žižka made defense the key to his battles, but kept his defense mobile by employing wagons that had been specially adapted to stop arrows or bolts and to provide a position for missile fire to cause disorder among the attackers. The concept of circling wagons to provide a quick defensive position had been used at least as early as the Roman experience in Gaul. A Gothic wagon fort was employed at the Battle of Adrianople in 378, and the practice was used regularly by the Byzantines. The Mongols likewise used the tactic, and brought the practice into Eurasia. It has been suggested that the Teutonic Knights at Tannenberg retreated into what came to be called a wagenburg, or wagon fort. The formation was also called a tabor, from the Czech word for camp. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor Dupuy call it “one of the simplest and most effective tactical systems in history.”

Žižka’s contribution was to use wagons as specially constructed war machines that could create a sophisticated defense; this became the main part of his tactics. He started with common baggage wagons and modified them for maximum defense. First, he had a quick release harness developed to get the horses away from the wagon and the harness poles made removable to get the wagons end to end as close to each other as possible. The wagons were then chained together and any gaps between them covered with a removable shield called a pavise. An extra wall of boards was suspended from the side facing the enemy, with the bottom board covering the wheels and access underneath. This board had loopholes for crossbow fire. On the opposite side an opening, often with a ramp, facilitated reinforcement and resupply. Each wagon was ten feet long and held a crew of sixteen made up of crossbowmen and hand gunners as well as soldiers with threshing flails and polearms such as halberds. Completing the wagenburg were small cannon placed between the wagons.

Even though the concept of a wagenburg was not new, Žižka perfected it by constantly training his drivers. On hand or flag signals they could very quickly deploy into circle, square, or triangle formation. Signal flags raised on the leading and trailing wagon of each file controlled the maneuvers. The wagon line moved ahead in four columns: two outer ones and two inner ones. The wheels of the tabor were large and usually iron rimmed. The front pair projected out slightly from the body, allowing one front wheel to be locked into place with the rear wheel of another tabor and chained together. The forming up and chaining together took one to two hours. Given more advance notice of the enemy approach, the Hussites would strengthen the position with ditches and throw the excavated dirt under the wagons for extra security against infiltration. The first time Žižka used the formation he had but seven wagons, but as his army grew he regularly deployed 180 wagons, which created a position some 2,500 yards in circumference.

While peasants provided the bulk of the manpower, Žižka did have some nobles in his army with cavalry expertise. They stayed within the wagenburg until the enemy charge had been broken; then the defenders would open a gap and the cavalry would engage in pursuit. The infantry were the backbone of the army, however. They were protected by whatever armor they could scavenge after the battles, so there were no standardized uniforms. Since most soldiers did their fighting behind wagon walls, helmets were the most necessary armor. The broad-brimmed iron “kettle hat” was the typical helmet of the Germanic lands and appeared in many slightly varied forms. Weapons included standard swords and maces, supplemented with peasant farm tools: knives, hatchets, pitchforks, and scythes. The threshing flail, with spikes added, became the Hussite trademark weapon. In yet another change from normal warfare, peasant women also aided in building defenses and even engaged in combat. After one battle in 1420, Hungarians captured 156 armed Hussite women dressed as men. In another battle in 1422, Hussite women fought openly alongside the men, often with the same intensity and ferocious zeal as the men, for they were involved in a holy war. The last reference to Hussite women in battle was in 1428.

Perhaps most important in the Hussite arsenal was the use of gunpowder weapons. While they certainly did not invent them or even improve on them, almost all use of such weapons to this time had been only in sieges. The handguns were basic in construction: an iron tube some sixteen inches long was fastened to the end of a short wooden pole, long enough to hold firmly under the arm but short enough for the gunner to reach the rear of the tube with a smoldering wick to light the touchhole. The weapon was somewhere between .50 and .70 caliber. It was virtually impossible to aim, so only had any effect when fired at a crowd. In German sources these are referred to as Pfeifenbüchsen or “pipe guns,” a reference to the musical instrument rather than to a tobacco pipe. In Czech the expression is pistala or pischtjala, meaning a fife. This may be the origin of the word pistol.

Some sources say slightly larger guns were mounted within the wagons, but the cramped conditions make this unlikely. The somewhat larger tarasnice (a small cannon) was mounted on a stand and placed behind the pavises between the wagons. Later, the even larger houfnice (from which comes the word howitzer) was mounted on wheels. Both handguns and tarasnice had been in general use since the 1380s, and it should be noted that Žižka didn’t make any innovations in gunpowder weaponry. It was his tactical exploitation of the devices from mobile bases that mark his contribution to warfare. As Charles Oman comments, “It was evident that these war-waggons, when once placed in order, would be impregnable to a cavalry charge: however vigorous the impetus of the mail-clad knight might be, it would not carry him through oaken planks and iron links.”

The Longbow in the Wars of the Roses

At the time of the expulsion of the English from their Continental possessions, no blame was laid at the door of the longbow, nor did there seem to be any permanent discrediting of its power. Nevertheless, as future events proved, in spite of the triple victories of Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt, to say nothing of many lesser successes, archery as a weapon of war was on the downgrade in the mid-fifteenth century. The bow still retained its supremacy as a missile weapon over the clumsy arbalest, with its complicated array of wheels and levers. In fact, the testimony of all Europe was given in favour of the longbow – Charles of Burgundy considered a corps of 3,000 English bowmen to be the flower of his infantry; thirty years before, Charles of France had made the archer the basis of his new militia in a vain attempt to naturalise the weapon of his enemies beyond the Channel. After a similar endeavour, James of Scotland had resigned himself to ill success and so turned the archery of his subjects to ridicule. Before that, however, he had ordered a law to be passed by the Scottish Parliament in 1424:

‘That all men might busk thame to be archares, fra they be 12 years of age; and that at ilk ten pounds worth of land, thair be made bow makres, and specialle near paroche kirks, quhairn upon hailie days men may cum, and at the leist schute thrusye ab out, and have usye of archarie; and whassa usis not archarie, the laird of the land sail rais of him a wedder, and giff the laird raisis not the same pane, the kings shiref or his ministers sail rais it to the King.’

In England Edward IV proclaimed that every Englishman and Irishman living in England must have of his own a bow of his own height ‘to be made of yew, wych, or hazel, ash or auborne or any other reasonable tree, according to their power’. The same law provided that buttes or mounds of earth for use as marks must be erected in every town and village, and listed a series of penalties for those who did not practise with the longbow.

Richard III was one of the kings who recognised the value of the archer; Shakespeare makes him say, just prior to the Battle of Bosworth: ‘Draw archers, draw your arrows to the head!’ There are also records telling that Richard sent a body of 1,000 archers to France to aid the Duke of Brittany. Henry VII also provided anti-crossbow legislation and sent large levies of English archers to fight for the Duke of Brittany. During this entire period English longbowmen served in many parts of the then-known world.

The introduction of gunpowder was the beginning of the end for the archer; although over 400 years were to pass before the bow and arrow were finally overcome by gun-fire, the seeds were sown in the fourteenth century at Crécy and Sluys. The making of a skilful archer was a matter of years, but an adequate gunner could be produced in a few months – it was far too easy to attain a certain amount of proficiency with the new weapons for the bow to remain highly popular. At first the longbow was vastly superior to the newly invented handguns and arquebuses, which did not attain any great degree of efficiency before the end of the fifteenth century. When they did, the bow – the weapon par excellence of England – fell into disuse, although the archer could discharge twelve or fifteen arrows while the musketeer was going through the lengthy operation of loading his piece. The longbow could be aimed more accurately and its effective range of 200 – 240 yards was greater; the hitting-power of a war-arrow, weighing about two ounces, was far greater than that of a musket-ball, weighing from one-third to half an ounce. Archers could be lined up as many as ten deep and shoot together over each other’s heads to put down an almost impassable barrage; and it was a terrifying barrage that could be seen descending. It is not outside the bounds of possibility to claim that the musket used at Waterloo in 1815 was inferior to the longbow used at Agin-court in 1415, both in range and accuracy.

Early firearms were reasonably good weapons of defence when they could be rested upon ramparts and their powder kept dry, otherwise they were far less deadly than the longbow in competent hands. In 1590 Sir John Smyth, a formidable military writer of the time, in his work The Discourse presented a wholesale condemnation of the new weapons, the mosquet, the caliver and the harquebus. The book was hastily suppressed by English military authorities; the stern, lone voice, crying for a return to the older and more effective ways of the longbow did not coincide with current military thinking. One also had to consider that the merit of early firearms lay in the prestige which they brought to the princes who armed their men with them.

In many of the battles of the Wars of the Roses, artillery was combined with archers, so that the enemy was put in a position where he had either to fall back or to charge in order to escape missile fire – just as similar tactics had won the field of Hastings for William in 1066. Edgecott Field was notable as a renewed attempt of spearmen to stand against a mixed force of archers and cavalry. Here the Yorkists were entirely destitute of light troops, their bowmen having been drawn off by their commander, Lord Stafford, in a fit of pique. This meant that Pembroke and his North Welsh troops were left unsupported. The natural result followed; in spite of the strong position of the King’s son, the rebels, by force of archery fire, quickly caused them to descend from the hill into the valley, where they were ridden down by the Northern horse as they retreated in disorder.

During the period of this war, armour had possibly reached its elaborate peak, as an old description of a knight arming for the Battle of Tewkesbury indicated: ‘… and arming was an elaborate process then, as the knight began with his feet, and clothed himself upwards. He put on first, his sabatynes or steel clogs; secondly, the greaves or shin-pieces; thirdly, the cuisses, or thigh-pieces; fourthly, the breech of mail; fifthly, the tuillettes; sixthly, the breastplate; seventhly, the vambraces or arm-covers; eighthly, the rerebraces, for covering the remaining part of the arm to the shoulder; ninthly, the gauntlets; tenthly, the dagger was hung; eleventhly, the short sword; twelfthly, the surcoat was put on; thirteenthly, the helmet; fourteenthly, the long sword was assumed; and, fifteenthly, the pennoncel, which he carried in his left hand.’

Notwithstanding the undoubted strength of this array, the archer still appeared to achieve sufficient penetration with his shafts to be considered a worthwhile part of the forces.

At Towton, on Palm Sunday, March 29th, 1461, Lord Falconbridge, commanding part of the army of Edward IV, used his archers in an interesting tactical expedient which sufficed to decide the day when both armies were employing the same weapon. The snow, which was falling very heavily, was being blown by a strong wind from behind the Yorkists and into the faces of the Lancastrians; it rendered the opposing lines only partially visible to each other. Falconbridge ordered his archers to the front, to act more or less as skirmishers. It must be explained that two types of arrows were then in use – the flight arrow and the sheaf arrow; the former was lightly feathered, with a small head; the latter was high-feathered and shortly shafted with a large head. Flight arrows were shot at a great distance and, at proper elevation, could kill at 240 yards. Sheaf arrows were for closer fighting, requiring but a slight elevation, and were often shot at point-blank range.

The advancing archers had been carefully instructed to let fly a shower of sheaf arrows, with a greater elevation than usual, and then to fall back some paces and stand. Aided by the gale, the Yorkist arrows fell among the Lancastrian archers, who, perceiving that they were sheaf arrows and being misled by the blinding snow as to their opponents’ exact distance from them, assumed that the enemy were within easy range. They commenced firing volley after volley into the snowstorm, all of which fell sixty yards short of the Yorkists until the snow bristled with the uselessly expended shafts like porcupine quills. When the Lancastrians had emptied their belts, the Yorkists moved forward and began firing in return, using not only their own shafts but also those so conveniently sticking out of the snow at their feet. Their shooting had great effect and men fell on all sides as the wind-assisted shafts came hissing into them; in a short time it was possible for the billmen and men-at-arms of Warwick and King Edward to advance comfortably forward without receiving any harassing fire from the Lancastrian archers. Needless to say, the Yorkist archers then laid aside their bows and went in with the more heavily armed infantry. It was a strategem that won the battle, and was one that could only be used when the adversaries were perfectly conversant with each other’s armaments and methods of war.

Even in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries the longbow still retained its supremacy over the arquebus and had yet some famous fields to win, notably that of Flodden in 1513, where, as will be seen from the next chapter, the old manoeuvres of Falkirk were repeated by both parties, the pikemen of the lowlands once again being shot to pieces by the archers of Cheshire and Lancashire. As late as the reign of Edward VI we find Kett’s Insurgents beating, by the rapidity of their archery fire, a corps of German hackbuteers whom the government had sent against them. Nor was the bow entirely extinct as a national weapon even in the days of Queen Elizabeth. It was in the reign of the Virgin Queen that the first really great archery writer appeared on the English scene. Roger Ascham, tutor to Elizabeth when she was a princess, was the author of the book Toxophilus, which remains the classic in the field. Allowing for certain minor differences, the phraseology and certain advances which have been made in equipment, Ascham’s book is as valuable to the archer today as it was when it was written four centuries ago. His ‘instructions’ can be, and are, used today in teaching novice archers. Ascham’s relation to the bow corresponds to that of Izaak Walton to the rod and reel.

The Fast German Submarines versus Allied Escorts

The next generation – U2502, a Type XXI with a smaller Type XXIII alongside. They would have been a formidable threat but unreliability delayed their entry into service.

German efforts to bring fast submarines into the Battle of the Atlantic. None of these newer boats was operational in the battle but it is worth considering what might have happened. The development is a fine example of the adage, ‘Requirements pull, technology pushes.’

The initial push came from Professor Hellmuth Walter, who, from about 1933, put forward a number of proposals for fast submarines using very concentrated hydrogen peroxide as the oxidant for the burning of fuel oil while submerged. This combination could be used either in a diesel engine, recycling the exhaust gases, or in a turbine. Walter wanted peroxide with a concentration of 80 per cent, when the strongest solution available was 45 per cent. This problem was overcome and in 1939–40 the experimental boat V80 was built. It had a submerged speed of twenty-eight knots on trials in 1940, demonstrating the potential of the scheme.

Four larger prototypes were built in 1942, two by Germania and two by Blohm & Voss. They were of 260–300 tons submerged and had most features of an operational submarine, achieving speeds of up to twenty-four knots. It had not been appreciated how much of the total drag of a submerged submarine was due to appendages such as open bridge, misaligned hydroplanes, even freeing ports. A small series of Type XVII boats was started, with a submerged speed of twenty-five knots, but none became operational. (U-1407 became HMS Meteorite after the war.)

There were many problems still to be overcome, not least the in-fighting within the bureaucracy of the Third Reich and the more rational arguments of those who feared the delay to the building of conventional U-boats. However, by late 1942 a design had been completed for an operational ‘Atlantic’ U-boat, the Type XVIII. It was of 1,652 tons, with a design speed of twenty-four knots submerged and an endurance of 200 miles at that speed. Two were ordered in January 1943 but they were stopped in March 1944. There were other designs to follow but little had been done when the war ended. High Test Peroxide (HTP) is a very nasty substance, causing fire or explosion when in contact with many apparently innocuous materials. RN experience after the war, first with the ex-German Meteorite and later with the two British-built Explorers, suggested that this was not the way to go.

Concerned with the delays in the Walter boats, the design office proposed to use the slippery shape of the Type XVIII for a fast battery boat, which was to become the Type XXI. There was to be a double pressure hull in a figure-of-eight configuration. The lower hull was to hold an enormous battery, three times the size of the older conventional U-boats. There were motors delivering 4,200hp to give a hoped-for seventeen knots. There were smaller motors for quiet running. Submerged displacement was 1,819 tons.

An elaborate production scheme was devised with nine hull sections built and fitted out in many factories and brought together for rapid assembly in a shipyard. Some thirty-two firms built structural sections; these were passed to one of sixteen specialist companies, which would install main and auxiliary machinery, piping, etc. In most cases, the sections were transported by canal. Finally, one of three building yards would put the sections together and carry out acceptance tests. Difficulties soon became apparent; labour of any sort was scarce and skilled labour very much so. In consequence, it was found that sections did not align correctly and installation was difficult, among many additional problems. After the war, a joint team from the rival British builders of the A class, Vickers and Chatham Dockyard, thought that both their prefabrication schemes were superior to that in Germany. The Type XXI was the first U-boat with a complete hydraulic main (telemotor system) but it was poorly designed and bad workmanship led to many leaks. Since the system was mainly outside the boat, seawater contamination was common. There was also the Type XXIII, a small, fast conventional U-boat, but it played no part in the battle.

The design of the Type XXI’s pressure hull was intended to provide a collapse depth of 330 metres, which allowed for an operational depth of 135 metres and a test depth of 200 metres. The design methods of the day could not really cope with the novel section shape and it was recognised that there were problems. Several attempts at a test dive had to be abandoned but on 8 May 1945, U-2529 finally reached 220 metres. A post-war British study suggested 500 feet as a usable depth for the Type XXI.

This pictorial illustrates the shape of the detection area for the 144 ASDIC, the ‘Q; attachment and the 147 Asdic. An advanced Type 147 ASDIC set was developed later in the war that tracked U-boats in three dimensions, giving readouts of bearing as well as range and depth.

Asdic Sets

In 1939, most destroyers had Type 128 asdic sets, sloops had Type 127 and trawlers Type 123, though there were probably a few older sets in use. Brief particulars of the more important sets follow. (For more detail see Hackmann.) Note that there were frequent updates to sets while in service; for example, the ultimate 128 was virtually identical to 144. These updates took place when the ship was in hand for other work. Information on ship-fitting is scarce and often unreliable. While this note was written with care, its complete accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Type 121. Prototype tested in Woolston in 1931. Fitted in D, E, F and G class destroyers, some cruisers and the sloop Enchantress. First production retracting dome.

Type 123. Trawlers and other auxiliaries. Introduced 1934, replacing earlier Type 122. Detachable dome.

Type 124. Updated 121. In 1934–7 fitted to C, H, J, K and Tribal class destroyers, coastal sloops and a few older destroyers. First with standard range recorder.

Type 127. Designed for sloops but very widely fitted from 1937 in older destroyers, frigates and in allied ships. Dome as 122 and electronics as 123. Some had Q (qv).

Type 128. From 1937 in destroyers; prototype in Acheron, then A (retro-fit), L and Hunt classes. Dome and directing gear as 121, electronics as 127. There were at least nineteen wartime variants, with improved recorders, helmsman display, etc. Type 128 XE became 144. Some had Q attachment.

Type 141. US set QCJ/QCL found in forty-seven flush-deck destroyers, fitted with RN range and bearing recorder. It had no dome and a few were given British domes as Type 141A.

Type 144. Started May 1941. Introduced in 1942 into destroyers and major escorts after trials in Kingfisher. It was the first set specifically intended for ahead-throwing weapons such as Hedgehog. It was a complete redesign, although many of its features were worked into later updates of 127/128.

Type 145 was similar to 144 but had portable, rather than retractable, dome for slower escorts.

Type 147. Sea trials in Ambuscade in May 1943. Very much part of a weapon system – Squid. Depth measurement.

Q attachment. 1943. Wedge-shaped beam only 3º wide in horizontal plane. Could measure depths 300–700 feet. Fitted to Types 127 and 145 without the need for docking the ship; vessels with Types 128 and 144 needed docking. Fitting took two to six days. Production from April 1943. In an attack, the ship would switch to Q at about 1,500 yards.

Late Armor


This late 15th-century suit of Italian plate armor covers the entire body. During the late 15th century and the early 16th century the art of the armorer reached its peak.


Model by Peter Wroe of Richard Beauchamp’s armour, which is in the Milanese style of about 1450.

Body protection for soldiers in the 14th century saw a general trend away from the use of mail and towards the use of plate. In Scandinavia and eastern Europe lamellar armor composed of small plates laced or riveted together became widespread; it was worn under a leather jerkin. Elsewhere soldiers increasingly wore pieces of solid plate strapped onto their mail hauberks or attached to the inside of a leather jerkin to protect vulnerable joints and limbs. For mounted soldiers, whose legs were an easy target for foot soldiers, plate leg protection was evolved, comprising sabaton (foot), greave (shin), poleyn (knee), and cuisse (thigh) sections. By the end of the century armorers were attaching the pieces of limb protection to each other by metal strips known as lames, rather than to another garment. Leather straps and loose riveting provided the necessary flexibility. Armorers also began to demonstrate their skill in designing surfaces curved in such a way as to deflect an enemy’s weapon point away from vulnerable body areas.

Two distinct styles in western European armor emerged during the 15th century-the Italian and the German. Italian armor is characterized by smoothness and roundness in the modeling of the individual pieces. Milan was an important center of manufacture. The German style, more angular and spiky, is often referred to as “Gothic”; its main centers of manufacture were Innsbruck, Nuremberg, and Augsburg. These differences are exemplified in two common forms of head protection: the smooth cylindrical shape of the Italian barbut, based on ancient Greek helmet designs, and the prominent projections of the German sallet with its pointed neck guard. However, as both countries exported armor and armorers (HENRY VIII employed first Italians and then, from 1515, Germans in his Greenwich workshops) elements from both soon blended in European armor.


KD garniture of Charles V, by Kolman Helmschmid – Augsburg, 1525.

In Germany in the early 16th century the armorers’ craft received strong encouragement from the informed patronage of Emperor MAXIMILIAN I. Among the famous makers who worked for Maximilian and his successors were the SEUSENHOFER FAMILY of Innsbruck and the HELMSCHMIED FAMILY of Augsburg. Maximilian’s name is associated with the type of ridged plate that represented the most advanced scientific design attained in European armor, combining strength and flexibility to a marked extent. A curious vagary in this period was the attempt to reproduce in metal the puffed and slashed garments of contemporary civilian fashion, even down to simulation of the stitching. From the mid-16th century changes in military strategy and increasing deployment of firearms made mobility more desirable than all-over body protection; plainer suits, often without the lower leg protection, became more common for practical purposes, while the parade or ceremonial armor of princes became increasingly ornate. The use of etching (in northern Europe) or embossing (predominantly an Italian fashion) for decoration naturally negated one of the primary functions of plate armor-to present a smooth surface off which a weapon point would glance.

Besides suits of armor for the battlefield, armorers also evolved specialist equipment to meet the rather different demands of the tournament. Heavily reinforced pieces protected the knight’s left shoulder and arm, as the side that would take the brunt of his opponent’s attack. A premium was placed on helmet design that protected the wearer against an opponent’s lance; the English great helm and German frog-mouth helm are examples of this specialist type. For foot combat this kind of helmet restricted visibility to an impractical degree, so a helmet with a visor was used instead. The need to adapt armor for different purposes led to the evolution of the garniture, in which the basic suit of armor is provided with additional matching pieces for special applications, such as a tournament or a parade. Garnitures such as those made for Henry VIII of England and Emperor Charles V and preserved in such collections as the Tower of London or the Armeria Real, Madrid, exhibit the armorers’ ingenuity in the design and decoration of these sets, which of course only the rich and powerful could afford or needed. Sometimes matching sets of horse armor were provided as well; one such set was the ceremonial armor made for Eric XIV of Sweden in 1563.

Missaglia family Italian makers of weapons and ARMOR. In the 15th century their workshop in Milan was a European leader in this field. Tommaso (died c. 1454), who retired in about 1451, handed over to his son Antonio (died c. 1495), who fulfilled commissions for a number of important clients. Some of his work is preserved in the Wallace Collection, London. After Antonio’s death the family’s place as leading armor manufacturers in Milan was taken by the NEGROLI FAMILY.

Negroli family Italian makers of weapons and ARMOR. They succeeded the MISSAGLIA FAMILY as the leading Milanese manufacturers in this field in the first half of the 16th century. Leading members were Jacopo and Filippo (active 1525-50) who made embossed parade armor as well as more practical suits. Among their clients were Emperor Charles V and Francis I of France.

Helmschmied family (Kolman family) A family of Augsburg armorers, successive generations of which worked for emperors and princes from the last quarter of the 15th century. Their work is signed with the mark of a helmet. Lorenz Helmschmied (1445-1516) made a complete set of ARMOR for horse and rider for Emperor Frederick III (1477; Vienna) and in 1491 was appointed chief armorer to Frederick’s son Maximilian (I), for whom he made many fine pieces. Lorenz’s son Kolman (1471- 1532), who worked independently from 1500, produced complete garnitures for Charles V, such as the “K. D.” garniture (c. 1526), parts of which survive in the Armeria Real, Madrid. The family workshop’s tradition of creating richly decorated parade armor was further developed by Kolman’s son Desiderius (1513-c. 1578) under the patronage of Philip II.

Seusenhofer family One of the most important German families of armorers in the 15th and 16th centuries. Konrad Seusenhofer (1460-1517) moved from Augsburg to Innsbruck in 1504 to set up a court armory for Emperor Maximilian I, and was later succeeded as court armorer by his brother Hans (1470-1555) and Hans’s son Jörg (c. 1505-80). During the 16th century, when plate ARMOR had become ceremonial rather than practical, the family made richly elaborate armor, often decorated by inlaying, gilding, etching, or carving, for the European monarchies. Konrad was instrumental in evolving the type of fluted armor, known as “Maximilian,” popular in the first three decades of the 16th century (a fusion of the German and Italian styles of armor). A fashion in armor during the 1520s was to simulate the puffing and slashing of the dress of the period, an early example being the armor made by Konrad for Archduke Charles in 1514. Other clients of Konrad’s included Henry VIII of England and James IV of Scotland.

Another fashion of the mid-16th century was for garnitures- complete “wardrobes” of matching pieces of armor for different occasions. A famous example of this is the “Eagle” garniture made by Jörg Seusenhofer for Ferdinand, Archduke of Tyrol, in 1547, which comprised over 60 separate pieces.

Further reading: David Edge and John Miles Paddock, Arms and Armor of the Medieval Knight: An Illustrated History of Weaponry in the Middle Ages (New York: Crescent Books, 1988); Alan Williams, The Knight and the Blast Furnace: A History of the Metallurgy of Armour in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period (Leyden, Netherlands: Brill, 2003).




The military history of Imperial China before the nineteenth-century Western impact shows considerable variation from period to period, depending on changing historical circumstances and the differing social bases of successive dynasties. It also shows continuity related to the persistence of the major cultural factors that came together in the Han period. These cultural factors include Confucianism, the Legalist state, and hostility to the nomads of Inner Asia. All three of these emerged individually during the Warring States period that preceded the Qin unification, but should be viewed analytically as part of Imperial China.

Military Officers and Soldiers

Over the long run of Imperial China, the military service obligation of the general population evolved from being nearly universal, as in the Qin and Han, to a burden imposed on a minority. While both the Tang fubing system and the Ming weisuo system employed the principle of soldier-farmers liable to conscription, in both dynasties this principle applied only to a minority of the population. In the Tang fubing membership seems to have been seen as a benefit in the early reigns of the dynasty, later evolving into a burden, while in the Ming weisuo membership seems to have been viewed as a burden from the beginning. In the Song the troops of the standing army were poorly paid and used for menial work, while military officer status was conferred on many officials doing low-level work disdained by true scholar-officials. Coupled with the hypertrophy of “civil” values among the educated elite, these attitudes and patterns of treatment led to the denigration of soldiers (including officers), noticeable from Song times onward and expressed in the often-quoted saying, “Good iron isn’t used for nails; good men aren’t used as soldiers.” Occasional efforts of civil officials to revive the militia ideal of classical antiquity seldom worked as intended.

Weapons and Military Technology

China has been an “advanced” country, in comparison to its contemporaries, through most of recorded history, losing ground only after the Industrial Revolution began in Britain. The major innovations in weaponry that influenced Western military history have their counterparts in China. Any list would include the crossbow, armor, the stirrup, fortifications, gunpowder weapons, and shipbuilding.

In the Qin and Han conscript armies, infantry and cavalry replaced chariots as the principal arm, and the infantry were armed with spears, bows, and in particular crossbows (nu), a weapon in whose technology the Chinese remained superior. Later descriptions of Chinese armies usually include units of archers mixed with crossbowmen, the latter presumably needing protection between rounds due to their longer reloading time. The intricate trigger latch mechanism of the crossbow was a closely guarded state secret under the Han. Battle accounts (too often, unfortunately, influenced by literary conventions) often mention the sky being darkened by clouds of arrows. Evidence for the actual conduct of battles is sketchy, but discharges of arrows (including crossbow bolts) were crucial to victory. Even though infantry bearing shields, swords, and spears existed, there is no trace of either a “phalanx” or a “legion” style of infantry fighting.

Qin Shi Huangdi’s tomb army is wearing armor, and there are many later representations of armored Chinese soldiers. Most of the armor is of the lamellar variety, in which overlapping leather or metal plates of varying size are laced together. Such armor is relatively light and flexible at the expense of protective strength, and in the West infantry and cavalry trained for shock tactics and reliance on edged weapons tended to move on to armor composed at least partly of large plates, of which there are a few Chinese examples.

The idea that the stirrup, by permitting the evolution of shock cavalry armed with the lance, was a primary factor in the creation of European feudalism has received a surprising degree of credence, though recent reevalution of the four-horned Roman saddle has undermined its central thesis.2 In China the spread of the stirrup is associated with the development of the armored cavalryman, mounted on an armored (barded) horse and armed with a lance. Literary references to “armored cavalry” occur as late as the Tang, and a vivid pictorial representation of mounted warriors looking like European knights occurs in a tomb dated to 357 c.E. Nevertheless, it may be stated with confidence that the social outcomes attributed to the stirrup in Europe did not occur in China. Knightlike cavalry were part of the ruling class of north China during the Northern and Southern Dynasties period. This class, which evolved into the governing aristocracy of the Sui and Tang, was largely Xianbi in origin but also included other Inner Asian peoples and Chinese who had adopted barbarian ways. Far from devolving into feudalism, the Sui and Tang dynasties erected a powerful and enduring version of the centralized, bureaucratic empire previously built by the Qin and Han. And, stirrupped or not, the cavalry future belonged to the Inner Asian warrior whose strength was his skill with the bow rather than the lance.

China has always been a country of cities rather than castles, and city walls were not only a means of defense but also a symbol of the city’s status in the hierarchy of rule. The walls were formidable defenses. While there are many recorded examples of long sieges and much literature on siege-craft, it remained the case that the best way to take a city was by treachery or surprise during a period of confusion, and a siege was more likely to be won by protracted blockade than by a successful assault. China’s urban fortifications did not evolve the low, relatively cannon-proof bastions of the trace italienne, as European cities did in the sixteenth century while China lived peacefully under the rule of the Ming. Afterward, the thick earthen walls of the major Chinese cities remained highly resistant to the gunpowder weapons that were becoming more prominent in Chinese warfare.

The basic formula for gunpowder was known to the Song, weapons incorporating gunpowder were used prominently during the Yuan, and in the Ming Yongle reign (1402-1424) a special headquarters was established in Beijing to coordinate the training of gunners. Firearms added to the defensive strength of the Great Wall, itself a Ming creation, and the Chinese element of the Manchu banner system seem to have been valued, in part, as artillery specialists. However, we cannot discern a “gunpowder revolution” in Chinese military history. In the Ming, Qi Jiguang’s successful and widely emulated military organization had gunners serving alongside bowmen, swordsmen, and spearmen in the same primary (squad-level) formations, and in the Qing Zeng Guofan’s Hunan Army battalions combined newer and older weapons in the same way. Firearms originated in China, but in China they remained just another missile weapon. One does not see efforts to standardize manufacture, reduce the number of calibers, or create new tactics and organizations to exploit the potential of a new weapons system.

Marco Polo’s descriptions of Chinese ships were part of his credibility problem in Europe, and Europeans also found it difficult to credit the early Ming naval voyages. It is now accepted that China built wooden ships as large or larger than any ever built in Europe, and, having invented the compass, navigated them beyond the sight of land to Africa and other distant coasts. But these capabilities did not add up to a navy; in the latter part of the Ming and in the Qing, China’s seagoing forces consisted of small ships and boats tethered to the military organizations of specific provinces.

China’s long history of technological progress provides scant comfort for theories that see certain kinds of social and political change as the inevitable result of specific technologies. Neither the stirrup nor gunpowder had the dramatic consequences in China claimed for them in Europe. With respect to shipbuilding technology, Ming China’s withdrawal from the sea was deliberate and dramatic, and had long-lasting consequences. It compares to Tokugawa Japan’s “giving up the gun.”3 In both cases, ruling establishments feared and prevented technology-driven change.

Military Institutions

Within the context of the factors of continuity and change already discussed, we may see three broad (and partly overlapping) subperiods in the evolution of Imperial China’s military institutions and practices, each of which transcends any single dynasty, and each of which came to an end due to a crisis of Chinese civilization involving the two basic military threats: domestic rebellion and foreign invasion. The first subperiod is bounded by the rise of Qin in the Warring States and the end of the last of the Six Dynasties in 589 C.E., the second by the consolidation of the Northern Wei in the fifth century and the final Mongol conquest of the Song in 1279, and the third by the Kitan conquest of part of north China in the tenth century and the fall of the imperial system as a whole in the twentieth century. We will label these subperiods Han, Tang, and Mongol-Manchu.


The two Han dynasties continued to employ the cadre-conscript army developed by the state of Qin during the Warring States, just as they continued the bureaucratic system and other Qin institutions. Similarly, the military systems of the Three Kingdoms, the ephemeral Western Jin (265-316), and the later south China regimes collectively called the Six Dynasties evolved from the Later Han state of affairs in which rival warlords controlled armies of dependent soldiers (buqu).

The career and reforms of Shang Yang (d. 338 B.C.E.) in Qin are described in a hostile and caricatured way in the sources, but they converted Qin permanently into the strongest of the seven warring states well over a century before the final Qin conquest of China. Shang Yang abolished hereditary status and created a new set of “titles of nobility” (jue) that could be conferred on any male subject, but only for success in war or agriculture. The population was organized in mutual responsibility groups and governed by officials who could not be natives of the areas they governed. These officials were rewarded (or punished) strictly for their success (or failure) in carrying out their orders. The other states contemporary with Qin undertook less comprehensive and less successful reforms, but Qin retained the leadership that Shang Yang’s reforms had conferred. Qin’s greatest general, Bai Qi (d. 257 B.C.E.), made it a deliberate policy to massacre the armies of the states he defeated in order to maintain Qin’s comparative advantage.

While the first Han emperor made a great show of moderating the severity of Qin laws and experimented with a limited revival of feudalism, in the end the Han continued most Qin institutions, including the Qin military system. For most people conscription was the most important element of that system. Men were drafted for two years, serving as infantry, cavalry, or sailors according to their background. For a small minority this meant service in the capital, and for a larger minority service along the walled defenses of the northern frontier, whose operation in Han times is understood in unusual detail from surviving contemporary documents.4 Most conscripts seem to have served their time within their native province (jun, “commandery”), whose governor (taishou, literally “grand defender”) was also their commander in case of invasion. The founding of the Han coincided closely with the unification of the Xiongnu under Maodun, and Han Wudi’s resort to war against the Xiongnu is associated with the creation of specialist cavalry forces that could fight in the Xiongnu manner, most famously by Huo Qubing (d. 117 B.C.E.). But Wudi’s wars against the Xiongnu and his annexations of territory in Korea, south China, and Vietnam were made possible by the mobilization of large numbers of mostly infantry troops, and this capacity was retained under his successors.

Guangwudi (r. 25-57), the founding emperor of the Later Han, lightened the military burden by eliminating the annual summer mobilization of the reservists. The Later Han maintained military pressure on the Xiongnu, and finally broke them up for good. Except for the adventures of Ban Chao (d. 102) in the Western Regions (now Xinjiang), which were a classic example of indirect rule maintained by locally recruited troops, the Later Han was not committed to territorial expansion. Despite coups and conflicts in Luoyang, relative peace prevailed in the provinces, along with increasing concentration of landownership. When the Later Han confronted its major military crisis, the Yellow Turban rebellion (from 184), the fastest way to mobilize large armies was to recruit among the dependent clients of already powerful notables; a breakdown to war-lordism followed quickly.

Cao Cao (155-220) was the most successful of these warlords, and his descendants were the rulers of Wei, the most powerful of the Three Kingdoms. His rivals founded Shu-Han (221-263, in Sichuan) and Wu (formally 229-280, at Nanjing). The Jin dynasty of Sima Yi and his descendants ended the Three Kingdoms and briefly ruled over a reunified China. After the rebellions and invasions of the early fourth century, the Jin ruled south China from Nanjing until 420, where four more Chinese dynasties followed until 589.

Many scholars believe that under these dynasties peasants were reduced to the status of serfs, and that armies also were composed of soldiers who were unfree dependents (buqu). While some of this theorizing is in the service of a Marxist periodization of Chinese history, it is very clear from the histories of these dynasties that a warlord pattern had developed: For whatever reason, soldiers were at the disposal of their generals, and central authority was correspondingly fragile. While expressions of disdain for soldiers can be found in the literature of the period, many eminent literary figures also exercised high military command, and the warlord founders of two dynasties (Liu-Song and Liang) had sons who compiled major literary collections (Liu Yiqing and Xiao Tong, compilers of the Shishuo xinyu and the Wenx-uan, respectively). The Sui conquest of Nanjing ended this line of evolution.


In 493 Tuoba Hong, the Northern Wei emperor posthumously titled Xiaowendi, played a trick on his Xianbi clan leaders. Pretending to lead them in an invasion of south China, he instead made them stop at the still impressive ruins of Luoyang, the capital of the Later Han and Western Jin, which he made his own capital. North China had been overrun early in the fourth century by various Inner Asian peoples who diplayed an uncharacteristic hostility to Chinese civilization. After the disorders of this period, the brief stabilization of the Northern Wei in the fifth century as the first of the important “dynasties of conquest” begins the second period of military evolution. The Northern Wei created early forms of the equal field (juntian) land system and the fubing military system that became major institutions under the Sui and Tang dynasties. Most important, the Northern Wei attempted to create a society in which the military skills of the Xianbi would be complemented by bureaucratic and literary skills of the Chinese educated elite. Later dynasties of conquest made the same attempt, and in military matters Inner Asian influence was important even in dynasties (Sui, Tang, Ming) usually considered Chinese.

After the breakup of the Northern Wei, Yuwen Tai (505-556) and his descendants ruled the northwest first through puppet emperors of Western Wei and then as emperors of the Northern Zhou, and there both the soldier-farmer (fubing) military system and the mixed Chinese and Inner Asian Guanzhong aristocracy that commanded it evolved to provide military means and leaderhip for the Sui and Tang empires. The Yuwen rulers were not of Chinese origin, while the Sui founder and the father of the Tang founder were married to sisters from the Xiongnu Dugu clan. By the end of the sixth century, surnames within the Guanzhong aristocracy did not indicate purely Chinese or Inner Asian ancestry because of intermarriage, and similarly the fubing soldiers included elements capable of fighting on foot or on horseback. Under the fubing system each headquarters (fu) commanded about one thousand farmer-soldiers who could be mobilized for war. In peacetime they were self-sustaining on their land allotments, and were obliged to do tours of active duty in the capital. These tours were usually one month long (two months for the most distant units), and their frequency depended on the distance of each unit from the capital. The fubing soldiers permitted the Sui and Tang founders to conquer China, but attempts at foreign conquest were less consistently successful. Obsessive efforts to subdue the Korean kingdom of Koguryo ultimately cost the second Sui emperor his throne and his life. Tang Taizong (r. 626-649) fought both Türks and Tibetans to peace on favorable terms, but failed to overcome Koguryo. That goal was accomplished by his son Gaozong (r. 649-683), though the final winner was not Tang China but its ally, the southern Korean kingdom of Silla, which succeeded in unifying the entire peninsula under its own rule. Japan, which had supported Paekche, the third Korean kingdom, was alarmed by these developments and responded by imitating the fubing and other Tang institutions in the Taika reforms.

Most of the fubing units were located in the northwest, and the system was best suited for the annual campaigning cycle of an expanding empire. Under Empress Wu (r. 684-705) the fubing system declined, and under Xuanzong (r. 712-756) a standing army stationed on the northern frontier evolved in its place. This army reached a strength of half a million men and eighty thousand horses by the 740s. Its Chinese personnel included many men displaced by economic changes since the founding of the Tang, and its non-Chinese personnel included Koreans, Kitan, Türks, and Sogdians. The new standing army thus preserved the Chinese-Inner Asian mixture characteristic of the early Tang, but the old Guanzhong aristocracy ceased to have much involvement with it and its higher ranks came to be filled from within. Having accepted the decline to uselessness of the fubing system, the Tang court had no central army to resist the An Lushan rebellion, and could only counter it by appealing to other frontier commanders whose social background was similar to An Lushan’s and who could move swiftly from loyalty to rebellion when their autonomy was challenged. Despite impressive successes by the court, the pattern of regional warlordism continued until the fall of Tang. While the replacement of the fubing system with the standing army was a major discontinuity in China’s military development, this discontinuity occurred in a period of peace as a result of a deliberate policy decision of the Tang government. While it led to disorder, it was not caused by defeat.

Recognizing the need for a central army as a counterweight to the troops of the regional warlords, the post-An Lushan Tang emperors created the Divine Strategy (Shence) Armies, whose eunuch commanders grew increasingly powerful as the Tang declined. The Privy Council or Bureau of Military Affairs (Shumiyuan), originally a eunuch agency, was taken over by generals during the Five Dynasties (907-960), while continuing to command the central armies (jinjun, qinjun) at the personal disposal of the emperors. The Five Dynasties were politically unstable, each ending in a violent overthrow, but they were militarily successful, since the territory ruled from Luoyang expanded and the troops were increasingly concentrated in the central armies.

The Song founder continued this system, making modifications in the interest of political stability. He retired his principal generals, turned the Bureau of Military Affairs into a department controlled by civil officials, and moved the capital to Kaifeng to make supply via the Grand Canal easier. The chain of command over the central army troops concentrated in the capital area was changed regularly to prevent any general from developing a dangerous personal ascendancy over a particular body of troops. Under the first three Song emperors, the army was efficient enough to reunify the south Chinese states (the Ten Kingdoms) with the empire, but was not strong enough to destroy the two states ruled by Inner Asian peoples (Tangut Xixia and Kitan Liao) that together dominated the northern frontier. The long-term trend in the Northern Song was for the central army to become larger and more expensive, while its soldiers became poorer and less capable militarily and its civilian administrators more intrusive and abusive. The relative ease with which the Jurchen Jin conquered Kaifeng and the rest of north China illustrated the decay to the Song military system. The Hangzhou-based Southern Song depended militarily on an exiguous combination of warlord-led improvised armies and naval power (exercised along the Yangzi as well as on the ocean). The execution of Yue Fei, the most prominent of the warlords, restored political stability even as it dimmed the hope of reconquering the north. When the Mongols completed the destruction of the Southern Song in the 1270s, they ended both the much-discussed “early modern” economic developments of the Song and the continuous line of military evolution that had begun in the Northern Wei.