Armor and Gunpowder

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Richard Marsden
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Armor and Gunpowder

Postby Richard Marsden » Wed Dec 07, 2016 6:38 pm

Did gunpowder make armor go away?
PART 1
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Short Answer – Yes. Yes, it did. Once in awhile a commonly stated fact is true no matter how much you wish everything commonly known was wrong and that only you know the true answer to a given question.

Long Answer – Okay, everyone gone? Great. Gunpowder really did spell the end of armor, but like all things, there is more to the story than the oft stated, and largely true fact. Read on for the finer points.

Gunpowder in Europe had two distinct trajectories. Artillery and small-arms. Artillery, far and away, outpaced small-arms in Europe because castles were just asking to get blasted apart. Gunpowder used in artillery is made differently than that of small-arms. In artillery pieces the gunpowder is coarser, with larger grains or clumps of grains, which creates more space between them. This was necessary because too fine a powder used in a cannon didn't burn properly. A general rule of thumb was, the finer the powder, the smaller the arms.

The French in particular advanced artillery technology and it was profoundly useful in the latter part of the 100 Years War. Castles that normally took moths or years to defeat could be blown apart in weeks or even a matter of days. The French re-conquest of their lost territory from the English was thanks, in large part, to their artillery.

Incredibly big cannons, like Mons Meg, built in 1449, were tremendous in their power, and some behemoth cannons fired stone rounds that weighed over 100lbs, but the weight of the cannons and ammunition as well as cost made the giant artillery pieces unwieldy. The French developed lighter, more portable cannons. Instead of one big monster cannon, the French were able to bring up smaller, but more numerous cannons. These siege-trains proved effective against fortifications and against body armor.

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Mons Meg, a really really really really big cannon. That was really really really really heavy and slow.

Cannonballs had enough mass behind them that the older-style castle walls crumbled under them. Men in armor, no matter how strong that armor was, tended to die- or if they were lucky, just lose a limb. No armor could be built for a person to withstand even a smaller cannonball. Knights and other armored soldiers were at a disadvantage in a siege and their armor was no longer as useful as it had been. Cannons were for breaking down walls, but could also be used to pick off individual defenders who exposed themselves. While cannons were not tremendously accurate- they were more so than small-arms. Furthermore, the besieging army steadily dug its way ever closer to their target, shortening the range as the siege progressed. Jacques de Lalaing, a knight of the duke of Burgundy was killed by an artillery round fired from a castle he was besieging in 1453. In 1521, the man who would one day be St. Ignantius of Loyola was struck in the leg by a cannonball, he survived but the event led to his religious conversion. In 1526, the Medici Condottieri Giovanni dalle Bande Nere was struck in the leg by a smaller artillery piece and subsequently died. Armor, even of the wealthy, could not stop even the cheapest of cannons.

Pitched battles in the 15th century were relatively rare. Yes, they happened, yes they drew a lot of interest from contemporaries and historians alike, but sieges were far more common. That said, artillery began to make itself known in what pitched-battles there were during the late stages of the 100 years war. They were generally not up to the task. Artillery in pitched-battles was not as focused on a single target, say a wall and any defenders unfortunate enough to be on it, but instead had a much larger field to cover with far more targets. Their slow-rate of fire and their inaccuracy over range made them interesting, but hardly vital elements in an open battle during the 15th and 16th centuries. By the 17th century field-pieces were coming into their own, but they were not the death-knell of armored men.

Small-arms developed differently in Europe. Their use was sporadic and their value was highly suspect. The process to make the proper powder for small arms was not as advanced. Monarchs had interests in artillery, not so much in the arquebus. Other, well-established, weapons could also do the same job as the arquebus. The longbow and crossbow were about as effective as the arquebus, with their disadvantages being largely the training needed for the longbow and the slow-rate of fire, and expense of the crossbow. However, Imperial cities, with tremendous autonomy, were interested in the arquebus. A Spanish military engineer noted that a walled city tended to have more firearms than every citizen could carry! On defense, the arquebus was the most common weapon to be found in German cities even in the early 15th century.

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Arquebus, one of a dozen names for early firearms.

The weapons were slow, noisy, but terribly inaccurate over even small ranges. Worse, the moment the ball left the barrel its' speed decreased. Cannonballs had enough mass to remain highly lethal for great ranges, but the arquebus’ ball became nearly useless at range.

In 1989 the Austrians conducted a series of tests with 16th century weapons and armor to determine their effectiveness. Body armor was entirely up to the task at range. An arquebus fired at around 300 feet had the ability to penetrate armor but the ball lost nearly all of its kinetic energy. Pistols fared even worse. At 27 feet the ball could again penetrate armor, but do little else. Even more enlightening was that historical body-armor from the 16th century was able to deflect and absorb the ball completely, outperforming strips of modern metal.

However, the case is not so clear. At close range, the arquebus and pistol could penetrate armor if the armor was not made well. This was an issue that was known to contemporaries. In England metal was shipped in from the continent because local supplies were not up to the task of making the armor strong enough to resist bullets. In 1590 Sir Henry Lee warned Lord Burghley to not be deceived by good looking armor, but rather to get armor made of good metal. He conducted his own tests with and English and German breastplate and came away with the conclusion that English metal was insufficient.

In pitched battles the arquebus had middling results at first. The introduction of the weapon did not make armor disappear. Quite the contrary, armor only improved and heavy cavalry remained viable in the 14th, 15th and even 16th centuries. Upsets, such as the defeat of French armored men at Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt were the result of the longbow and not the arquebus.

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The Battle of Pavia included armored knights, field artillery, pikes, and arquebuses. The battle was a confusing mess in which historians are still trying to figure out just what happened and why. In short, the French artillery and armored knights weren't enough to win the battle.

In the Italian wars, fought in the late 15th century, the arquebus became more common for reasons that are not entirely clear. Most commonly cited are the dropping costs in small-arms and the ease of training men to use the weapon opposed to the longbow or crossbow. In these wars, the arquebus had moments of success by mimicking the English longbow in the 100 Years War.

In the 100 Years War the English set up barriers of some sort to protect their longbows. At Agincourt it was stakes driven into the ground. These obstacles slowed the enemy advance and subjected them to a literal storm of arrows, upwards to 80,000 in three minutes. The arrow-heads could penetrate deeply, and with so many arrows being fired finding a gap in the armor of a man, or his horse, was inevitable.

In the Italian Wars, a unit of men using the arquebus on an open field were little danger to knights. Armored knights could charge headlong into them and be subject to perhaps only a single volley of fire that was effective. However, if an obstacle was placed before the arquebusers then the weapon could perform as the longbows did at Agincourt, pouring volley after volley into the bogged down enemy. This was an effective method, but no more so than other ranged weapons at the time.

Armor however, could still be defeated. Bayard, famed french knight, was mortally wounded in 1524 by an arquebus ball while fighting in Italy in a short-ranged rear-guard action.

So, while in siege-craft body-armor was losing its value, it seems that even in the late 16th century it worked, if not always. Why did it vanish then?
Last edited by Richard Marsden on Thu Dec 08, 2016 8:26 am, edited 6 times in total.

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Re: Armor and Gunpowder

Postby Richard Marsden » Wed Dec 07, 2016 6:50 pm

Did gunpowder make armor go away?
PART 2

Again, the short-answer is gunpowder. Artillery could defeat armor. The arquebus on defense at closer ranges, be it from behind a fortress wall or ditch, or some-other natural barrier could defeat armor. Neither was enough to make the knight obsolete though. What drove them from the field?

Protecting the small-arms became necessary to make the weapon effective. In the 17th century pikemen acted as living barriers for the arquebusers. The pikes could engage any approaching enemy and in the meantime the arquebusers could pour on the fire. This would lead to a series of tactical changes, from the giant squares of the Spanish Tercios, to the more linear tactics of the Swedish in the late 17th century, by which point armor was at the most helmets and breastplates, and for many, no metal armor at all.

Bert S. Hall, who much of the above's research comes from, puts forth the notion that the armored knight, and with them armor, was done in by the pistol- the weakest of the firearms.

In the 16th century the effectiveness of small-arms had changed, but not drastically so. A late 15th century arquebus was just about as effective as 17th century match-lock musket in terms of the ranges needed to inflict damage. Improvements, at least according to the Austrian tests compared to other firearm tests, were not profound. They were short-ranged highly inaccurate weapons that relied on close range and a great volume of fire.

The pistol however found its use. Cavalry armed with wheel-lock pistols were used in the mid 16th century. Against infantry these Reiter would ride up to enemy infantry, then perform a circular maneuver firing their pistols as they did so. The caracole was ineffective and even by contemporaries noted for its high risk and low reward. Where the mounted pistolier came into his own was against the armored knight. Knights with lances could get close to pistoliers, but not close enough. The Reiter would be able to fire their match-lock pistols and ride away before the heavy cavalry could strike them.

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Reiters could deliver massed gunnery against the more traditionally dispersed armored heavy cavalry, who posed little threat back. Short ranges + volume = effective.

La Noue in the 16th century wrote commentary on military tactics and was perplexed. He claimed a squadron of Reiters could defeat a squadron of knights. In his estimation, a squadron of knights would give a gallant charge, but it would be a miracle if their lances struck home. Meanwhile, Reiter would fire at the last possible moment aiming for the knight's face and thigh, both considered weak points.

Monluc, another contemporary echoed the statement, suggesting the French abandon lances all-together in favor of pistols. Pistols, fired en-masse were much more ready than lances were in his estimation.

Germans, Dutch, Italians and the English quickly got the hint, but the French continued to try and make use of armored heavy cavalry with lances. The costs became prohibitive. Alvise Contrarini, a Venetian diplomat, wrote in 1572 that the French were attempting to produce bullet-resistant armor, but it became too expensive and that most horsemen did not wear it. Horses meanwhile remained vulnerable even if the riders did not.

This was echoed by the Englishman Sir Roger Williams who recollected during the Dutch War for Independence that combatants had access to bullet-resistant armor, but did not wear it.

The French eventually gave in to the change, and military writers sadly conceded the point that the days of armored men and lances were at an end. There were holdouts, writers who were convinced armor, especially for heavy cavalrymen, could remain dominant- but the reality on the field was the opposite.

Other factors, namely cost, made armor no longer viable. In the 16th and 17th century the use of pikes and small-arms relied on numbers. Numbers that only increased over time and dredged from the common classes and not the noble elite. These masses of soldiers were generally not armored, even though armor did exist and could, theoretically, protect them.

These changes were noted by the historical fencing masters we study. Meyer, Mair, Fabris and others take note that warfare was changing and this was making swordsmanship in the eyes of their contemporaries no longer useful. Meyer blamed gunpowder for the lack of interest in swordsmanship, Mair cursed artillery and spoke of those who mocked him for his interests, while Fabris noted times had changed and swordsmanship wasn't for the ramparts, but rather for the conversations between gentlemen.

Just as armor and all that went with it, such as knighthood, heavy cavalry and so forth was under continual pressure from gunpowder, so to were the masters who taught swordsmanship.

Sources
Lt. Colonel Alfred Burne The Crecy War
Bert S. Hall Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe (Main one to look at if you want to go waaayyy deep on gunpowder.)
Geoffrey Parker The Military Revolution
William Urban Medieval Mercenaries
Wiktenauer


Youtube...doing tests for us every day!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQfcRLT18IY

What do you think? Marsden all wrong? Is he too much in love with Bert S. Hall? Comment Away!

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Polish Saber Book
https://www.amazon.com/Polish-Saber-Ric%20...%20771654/ref

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Richard Marsden
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Re: Armor and Gunpowder

Postby Richard Marsden » Thu Dec 08, 2016 10:01 pm

Addition

Based on Facebook comments and questions.


HEY armor never went away!

True, but if you think it was as common in 1450 as it was in 1850 you are wrong. Yes, armor still existed. It was still used. Not quite the same as it had been though. Something is different noted by historians today and contemporaries in the 16th and 17th century.

This article seems very Western European focused what about...

You are right on the first part.

Today we have...

True, but the intent of the article was to show how and why metal body-armor in particular became less common, by far, than it had been. Same with the armored knight and his lance. Poland never ditched the lance, but France, England, Spain, the HRE did and when in the Napoleonic wars the lance was re-vitalized, it was a noted 'thing'. (See Phillip J Haythornthwaite for more)

No, here is how they really did it they...

Write an article and include sources. I'm sure you're right, but go ahead and do what I did so we can all see it.

No, armor cost too much.

Noted in the article. We don't disagree.

You spelled (x) wrong...

Fixed it! Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Foreign words always trip me up, so thanks again!

Thanks for the comments! The above answers, or addresses some of the concerns. Maybe not to your satisfaction, but I gave it a go!

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Ivan F. Gagulich
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Re: Armor and Gunpowder

Postby Ivan F. Gagulich » Wed Feb 01, 2017 4:38 pm

Awesome Article :)

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Sean Karp
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Re: Armor and Gunpowder

Postby Sean Karp » Mon Feb 20, 2017 3:10 pm

Good stuff. Thank you.

Of note, in my profile pic I'm wearing modern armor for use on a modern "horse".
"If you're a guy full of sh** without the gold medal...when you get the gold medal, you're still a guy full of sh**"- Didier Berthod, First Ascent

koisingh
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Re: Armor and Gunpowder

Postby koisingh » Sun May 14, 2017 11:13 pm

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