Part 2: Infantry weapons and organisation

by George Gush

THE END OF the 15th Century and the first half of the 16th were a period of experiment, with various firearms and bows in the hands of missile troops, or, as English writers tended to call them, the 'shot', and many different shock weapons also in use - sword, bill, halberd, pike, axe and so on.
    By the mid-16th Century some 'best buys' in the field of weapons had emerged, and most Western European armies at least settled down to a combination of pikes and arquebus, with a gradually increasing proportion of muskets among the latter. By the early 17th Century the musket had taken over and pike and musket ruled the battlefield until, in the second half of the century, the development of the bayonet, by making it possible for the musketeer to defend himself against cavalry, made the pike redundant.
    A somewhat similar picture of gradual standardisation appears in the field of organisation; at the end of the 15th Century armies were usually composed of feudal levies of mercenaries, both usually in companies or bands of non-standard size, and for combat these were usually formed temporarily into, three large 'battles' (originally van, main battle and rear).
    The early 16th Century was still an age of mercenaries, with Lansknechts fighting against the German Empire, Catholic Italians helping to crush Catholic rebels in the West of England and so on, and this remained true later though by the second half of the 16th Century troops were beginning to be hired on a more permanent basis. They were still a very mixed bag though - the 'Spanish' armies for example did contain a few Spaniards, but also Italians, Burgundians, Walloons, Germans and Swiss - and soldiers hired on a temporary basis remained important. Partial exceptions were to be found on the outskirts of Europe: England continued to rely on a militia system. Sweden established a national conscript army in the 1560s (though like later attempts of the same type this had limited success) and the Turks had the only large permanent regular standing forces in the world.
    In these circumstances the basic administrative unit of all armies was the company, originally the captain-contractor and the mercenaries raised by him. Companies were usually from 100 to 160 strong, but those of the German Lansknechts were originally 400, and there was little standardisation in such matters. The company was not generally a tactical unit, and several would be united - originally in an ad hoc manner upon the battlefield - to form a larger battle group. The larger groupings gradually became more permanent in the early 16th Century, and large tactical units arose - the Spanish Tercios and various 'Legions' being the main ones - to last, in the former case, right through the period with considerable success.
    Rather smaller 'Regiments', often created temporarily for a single operation or campaign, were also used, for example by England, and late in the 16th Century 'Battalions' of 55O plus, modelled originally on the Roman cohort, were introduced to give greater flexibility - a regiment or brigade being composed of several such battalions (earlier the word 'battalion' had been applied to the large medieval-style 'battle').
    As well as this sort of development, there was a gradual change in the proportion of shock to missile weapons within infantry formations, both being necessary since no missile troops of the period could stop a cavalry charge by their fire, nor, usually, stand up to cavalry once they reached close quarters. At the beginning of the period 'dry pikes', unsupported by shot and relying upon close-quarter combat alone, were not uncommon, and only 1/16th of the original Lansknechts were shot, but the proportion of missile-men steadily grew, and, by the 1580s they would usually form about half the total: by this time the pikes were really supporting the shot rather than the other way round. By the second quarter of the 17th Century two shot to one pikeman was considered the ideal, though it was not often attained in practice. Gustavus Adolphus favoured a larger proportion of pikes, roughly 2:3.
    In addition there were, throughout the period, units composed of missile men only, but they were not very common and were sometimes formed temporarily for 'particular purposes: groups of arquebusiers or musketeers were often 'commanded' (detached) to support cavalry or to, form a skirmish-line or 'forlorn', for example. The Turkish Janissaries were all missilemen from the start though fully capable of shock-action too.
    The composition and organisation of the forces of the various powers will be dealt with in more detail in later articles.

Infantry shock weapons

The Pike

    In the hands of Flemish and Swiss, this was the weapon which helped to end the middle ages by making it possible for the despised and lower-class foot soldier to face his mounted, armoured 'betters' in open battle.
    Pikes had a long shaft, usually of ash, and a head which might be leaf- or lozenge-shaped, but could be just a spike, sometimes square in section. The head was held on by metal languets running at least two feet down the shaft, to stop opponents chopping the head off.
    At the beginning of the Italian Wars pikes were usually ten feet long, but the Swiss then or perhaps earlier lengthened them to 18 feet. Others, including the Italians, followed suit, but the Germans and the Spanish preferred a shorter weapon about 13 feet long. English pikes, at least in the 17th Century, were 16 to 18 feet long and this probably represents the popular range, though pikemen were much given to hacking off a foot or two of the butt-end to lighten their burden. Gustavus Adolphus officially shortened Swedish pikes to 11 feet in the 1620s.
    The pike was useless as an individual weapon, and pikemen to be effective had to be formed in deep (often square) and close-packed formation. For receiving cavalry close order - 18 inch spacing between files - was supposed to be used, and elaborate tables existed for arranging varying numbers of pikes in optimum formation. Positions for attacking and receiving cavalry are illustrated; for any manoeuvring pikes had to be vertical, of course, and good drill and reasonably open ground were essential. Pikemen could cover two ranks of 'shot' with their projecting pikes - one rank standing and one kneeling.

Other staff weapons

    As the illustrations indicate; there were a variety of these in use in the early part of the period. Most were mounted on shafts six to eight feet in length; their disadvantage was that men armed with them were much less able to stand against a cavalry-charge than were pikemen, and this was why the Swiss, originally halberdiers, had adopted the pike. Their advantages were, firstly, their armour-piercing qualities (the tin-opener look of several is no accident!) and secondly their superiority to pikes in anything like an individual combat; once pikemen were halted, or their formation broken, they could not defend themselves against these terrible blades - as the victory of English bills over Scots pikes at Flodden in 1513 showed.
    Bills were the English weapon par excellence, and remained in large-scale use until late in the 16th Century (in 1584 there were 2,500 billmen on the Scots border, compared to 2,400 pikemen), and they were also used by the French and Italians. Glaives were particularly associated with the Welsh and the Spanish.
    The 'bardische' type of poleaxe was in use by the Russian Streltsy and some Polish infantry until late in the 17th Century and some were eventually equipped with a spike on the butt so that they could double as musket-rests. Two-handed axes were also used by the Scots and by Gallowglas in Ireland, until the early 17th Century. Otherwise, however, the more unusual weapons like the Lucerne Hammer had largely disappeared by the mid-16th Century. The halberd was widely used to support pikes in the early part of the period, halberdiers in relatively small numbers guarding the colours in the midst of the pike mass, issuing out to attack the enemy flanks when the pikemen were halted. The number of such men tended to be reduced, and by the 17th Century the halberd was mainly a weapon of bodyguards, NCOs and so forth: the Partisan too survived to the 17th Century, but only as symbol of an officer's authority.

Infantry swords

    The development of sword is a topic on its own and cannot really be covered here, but some characteristic types are illustrated; in general Western European infantry carried straight two-bladed cutting swords; officers sometimes carried thrusting rapiers. The sword as primary weapon among infantry had largely vanished by the 1550s, but it had become more or less universal by the same period as a secondary weapon.
    Two-handed swords deserve a mention; they were particularly popular with the Swiss and the Lansknechts (usually officers carried them) and the Scots claymore of the 16th and 17th Centuries was also a two-handed weapon; their function was much like that of the staff weapons already mentioned.
    By the 16th Century the Turks and other Easterners usually carried single-bladed, curved, cutting swords, and these were also found among Poles, Hungarians, Cossacks and Muscovites.

Infantry shields

    Large oblong 'pavises' propped up or held to shelter crossbowmen, especially in sieges, were probably still in use at the beginning of the period. Otherwise, shields were beginning to disappear from the infantry, probably because both pike and firearm required the use of both hands, and because a shield offered little protection against a bullet. They were officially abolished in Germany by the Emperor Maximilian when he carried out his reorganisation of German forces at the end of the 15th Century, and German shields of the type illustrated would probably be rare after this.
    Surviving rather longer were the 'buckler', 'Target', 'targe' and 'rondarche', all circular, usually convex, and intended to be used in conjunction with a sword; most were 24 to 30 inches in diameter though there were also mere 'fist shields' about ten inches across; a spike or even a pistol was sometimes fitted in the centre; chief users were Spanish and some Italian sword-and-buckler men in the early Italian wars, the Scots Highlanders who carried their version into the 18th Century. In England and Europe after about 1520 'targeteers' seem to have been largely confined to colour-guards and the like. Shields were often carried by (or for) officers in the 16th Century; this was probably mainly for show, but a shot-proof German buckler of 1603 in the Tower was presumably meant for use. The German wooden shields were heraldically painted, but surviving metal bucklers are either plain steel or have their surface engraved, or inlaid with other metals. Eastern infantry shields were quite widely used but will be considered later.


An early 16th Century army advancing in three 'Battles' - in fact, Henry VIII's army. (British Museum Prints Department). Visible are pikemen, musketeers, bowmen, light and heavy cavalry, artillery and camp followers.

A Bill, mainly used by the English (Tower of London);
two Bardische poleaxes from Eastern Europe (Tower of London);
German infantry shield (see text) of the 1480s (Tower of London).

A 17th Century Targeteer showing the engraved surface of the round shield, by this time more ornamental than utilitarian.

F a Venetian 'Schiavona' or Stradiot sword.
G 'Shable' (sabre). A light cavalry sword copied from the Hungarians and Poles (both around 36 inches long).
H ferocious in appearance but ineffective in comparison with, for example, a Bill, was the Morgenstern'.
I another weapon which had practically disappeared by the mid-16th Century, the Lucerne hammer.

A two-handed sword.
B Lansknecht sword-typical hilt and guard.
C Cinquedea - a large dagger or short sword popular in Italy at the beginning of the 16th Century.
D and E typical 16th Century sword hilts - 'E' often found on East European swords

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Next: Part 3: infantry missile weapons

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