The Military Revolution—Dutch and Swedish Reforms I

My troops are poor Swedish and Finnish peasant fellows, it’s true, rude and ill-dressed; but they smite hard and they shall soon have better clothes.

GUSTAV II ADOLF [Gustavus Adolphus]

The early campaigns of Gustav Adolf and the beginning of Sweden’s rocky rise to power. This was a time when some of his innovations in weapons and tactics were in the embryonic stages and he fought the campaigns with a mixture of old and new. It was therefore a training ground and educational experience for the young king. We see the widespread improvements in armaments and tactics, the products of a military genius, which were to ultimately make Sweden a formidable military power.

The transition from the Middle Ages to the modern era that took place mainly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries brought momentous changes to almost every aspect of life. These changes affected the arts, literature, politics, economics, science, technology, and the military.

Our main concern is with the military changes—or the military revolution as it is most frequently called in the literature. It can be argued persuasively that military changes were the driving force behind the political.

War was almost continual during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This state of affairs resulted, as was to be expected, in developments in weaponry, tactics, and extended durations of wars. The military changes, primarily in technology and weapons, started in the mid-fifteenth century on an evolutionary scale. However, as John Childs points out, changes that took place over several centuries cannot be labeled as revolutionary. It is only when these changes picked up speed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that they became revolutionary in nature.

The advances in technology in the late middle ages led—gradually at first—to modifications of all aspects of war by the early 1700s. During this period military operations devastated the population and countryside, and, as the monopoly of violence rested securely with the Crown, the accompanying increase in the size of armies and costs led to the rise of absolutism and autocracy across the continent.


The armies prior to the Thirty Years War were relatively small and they were primarily mercenary based. Because of the expenses involved in training, nations increasingly moved toward permanent military establishments and away from the use of militia forces which were disbanded during the winter. Roberts has pointed out that the quick spread of technology was influenced by the use of mercenary forces that learned new technology in the service of one nation and then took that knowledge with them when they shifted employers.

Rapid growth in the size of armies characterized the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This stemmed from a number of factors such as the proliferation of wars, rise in population, sophisticated armament, increased specialization, and a large expansion of the support base.

The imperial forces numbered approximately 20,000 at the beginning of the Thirty Years War while the Protestant opposition amounted to some 12,000. A little more than a decade later the Catholic forces numbered over 150,000 and those under Swedish command were even larger.

New armaments, the move toward large standing military establishments, growing requirements for a large and sophisticated support base, and prolonged wars resulted in a steep rise in military expenditures and this led to major political changes in most countries. Downing has pointed out that the cost of a single cannon was equivalent to the feeding of 800 soldiers for a whole month. The whole transition in armament involved large expenses.

Economic considerations, then as now, dictated strategy. Countries were unwilling to risk the destruction of their armies—expensive investments— and therefore wars were for the most part short and indecisive in nature. Major engagements were avoided. The rare attempts to mount rapid and decisive campaigns usually failed because of poor communications and consequent lack of speed.

The solution adopted by most continental powers to deal with the steep increase in the costs of war was to raise standing armies. This transition took place in most countries in the last half of the seventeenth century. This did not mean that mercenaries disappeared from the scene. They continued to account for a sizable portion of a nation’s army, even into the nineteenth century. In the Thirty Years War, Sweden switched the burden of maintaining its armies to the territories in which they operated through what became known as the “contribution system.”

Since the 1950s we have entered a similar period with respect to advances in technology. The standing armies in most Western countries have been severely curtailed in size since the 1970s as we went to an all-voluntary system where personnel costs increased at the same time as there was an explosion in high cost technology. The cost of most military hardware has skyrocketed. The cost of a modern fighter or ground support aircraft as compared to similar aircraft in World War II tells the story, and this problem is prevalent across the board. It seems evident that we are now facing changes similar to those of the seventeenth century—increased centralization, heavy tax burdens, and the possible loss of individual freedoms.

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed a decline of the cavalry arm of most armies (Russia, Poland/Lithuania, and Turkey being notable exceptions). This change had been in progress well before that time period. The battlefield became more and more infantry dominated as the weapons of foot soldiers improved and became more effective. This required organizational and tactical changes.

In grappling with this problem in the early 1500s, Spain opted for an organizational structure resembling the Greek phalanx. The troops were armed with a mixture of pikes and firearms. The infantry, which gained prominence on the battlefield, was organized into units of 3,000 men (tercio), perhaps better known to the English reader as the “Spanish square.” It was devised, partially, as a means of making the matchlock handgun a more effective infantry weapon. Like the Greek phalanx, the “Spanish square” was expected to sweep everything before it.

The pikemen were in the center of these 100 by 30 man squares and the musketeers on the flanks. However, these formations reduced tactical flexibility because of their unwieldiness on the battlefield. Despite these shortcomings the Spanish square dominated the battlefields of Europe for over a century.

The heavy cavalry which had been in decline for centuries underwent a further decline as infantry weapons and artillery became deadlier. In the seventeenth century the ratio of cavalry to infantry had declined to about 25 percent. The light cavalry, however, was still very useful for pursuit, skirmishing, screening, and the interdiction of lines of communication.


It gradually became obvious that the Spanish system needed to be modified to make it more flexible and to make better use of manpower. The first important steps in the modification process were taken by Maurice of Nassau and Prince of Orange (1567–1625) who was a general in the United Provinces in their ongoing rebellion against Spain. He had an excellent theoretical and practical knowledge of warfare, and used the Roman legion as the model for his organizational reforms. The reforms that Maurice initiated resulted in a revolution of military organization and tactics during the seventeenth century.

Maurice’s primary contribution to the art of war can be found in the tactical employment of manpower. He sought battlefield flexibility by a reduction in both the size and depth of the infantry formations. Maurice modified the tercios by subdividing them into units of 580 men in ten ranks.

This new formation became the beginning of the modern linear formation. The companies were organized into battalion-size units with pikemen in the center and musketeers on the flanks. The objective was to allow the musketeers to deliver continuous fire by ranks before countermarching to the rear to reload. We thus see that the musketeers and pikemen were still linked in one unit but were no longer mixed so that a large number of soldiers were ineffective. With a maximum battalion front of about 250 meters this formation avoided the waste of manpower found in the Spanish square. The number of soldiers who could effectively use their weapons was virtually doubled.

While the pikes were supposed to protect the musketeers from cavalry attacks, the smaller units were more vulnerable to attacks on their flanks and rear than in the Spanish square. Maurice attempted to avoid this danger by adopting a checker-board battle formation, the spaces between battalions of the first line covered by echeloned battalions in the second line and by trying to rest the flanks on natural obstacles. If this was not possible, the flanks were protected by cavalry. The battalions were grouped into “brigade” formations in three distinct lines.

As Childs notes, the army reforms of Maurice of Nassau required extensive training and a high level of discipline—contributing factors leading to standing national forces. The success of the system required intensive training over all kinds of terrain and this is one of Maurice’s most important contributions. This training also made officers adept at handling and changing formations, and it was an effective way to keep troops busy between campaigns. Such practices as marching in step date from this period.

Maurice was also ahead of his time in experimenting with new weapons such as explosive shells. He insisted on the use of field fortifications, and developed new innovations that would reduce the time of sieges. He adopted field glasses for observation and had a great interest in mapmaking.

Maurice’s innovations did not solve all the problems associated with the Spanish square. The pikeman’s role was the same as before and the musketeers were still wed to the pike formation. In some ways, the new linear formation was not much more effective in defense than the system it replaced. The changes that Maurice brought about can be viewed as a transition between the earlier gunpowder era and the system adopted by Gustav Adolf. Gustav’s modifications to Maurice’s system basically lasted to the French Revolution, with minor modifications. Together, Maurice and Gustav’s fundamental concept of linear formation and mobility lasted until the twentieth century.

The science involving fortifications and sieges was also transformed. The old medieval stone walls were quickly demolished by cannon firing iron ammunition. New fortifications capable of withstanding cannon fire were expensive and beyond the means of most small states.

Geoffrey Parker mentions some other changes that took place in this period such as the emergence of military academies, the enactment of an embryonic form of “laws of war,” and the proliferation of writings on the art of war.


It is easy to both overstate and understate the achievements of Gustav Adolf. There are examples of both extremes in the literature covering the period. It is true, as pointed out by Colonel Dupuy that many of Gustav’s innovations were adopted from others and, furthermore, he was not the only one during the period who sought to improve the military system. And Lynn Montross observes that with few exceptions, Swedish military reforms owed in some measure to the experiments by others … . A talented organizer, Gustavus began where his predecessors left off, taking the best of their ideas and combining them with his own.

Maurice of Nassau and Gustav Adolf were not simply military theorists but military practitioners. However, it is hard to find anyone who so successfully bridged the gap between concept and practice or fitted the pieces together in an integrated system as did Gustav. Aside from Genghis Khan, Gustav Adolf is the only great captain who won fame on the battlefield using an instrument mainly of his own design. Liddell Hart, who accords Gustav the title of “Father of Modern War,” writes that His outstanding achievement is in fact the tactical instrument that he forged, and the tactical “mechanism” through which this worked its triumphs.

Gustav’s accomplishments were many. He created mobile field artillery, made combined arms operations possible, restored the role of cavalry, and developed the modern role of infantry. He was more than the author of the linear tactics of the eighteenth century—he laid the foundation for the infantry tactics of the twentieth century. He organized the first national army and created the first effective supply service, imposed a system of discipline, and laid the foundation of military law.

Dupuy describes the army Gustav Adolf inherited thus:

At the time Gustavus Adolphus assumed the Swedish throne in 1611, the Swedish Army was in deplorable condition: poorly organized, under strength, short on pikes, musketeers equipped with the obsolete arquebus, and badly led. Administration was virtually nonexistent, recruitment at low ebb, morale poor …

To this can be added Sweden’s dire financial straits and a sense of weariness after nearly a century of almost continuous wars.

Gustav Adolf was not merely a copier or product improver; he introduced many changes of his own. We shall now look at some of these, both refinements and those based on originality.


The basic Swedish infantry tactical unit was the battalion or squadron consisting of 408 troops. This organization was still slightly pike heavy. There were 216 pikemen to 192 musketeers. Both pikemen and musketeers were arranged in three rectangular formations, each with a depth of six ranks. The difference was that all the pikemen were located in the center of the battalion formation with a frontage of 36 men while the musketeers were formed into two equal groups, one on each side of the pikemen. The frontage of each musketeer formation was 16 troops. Dupuy notes that an additional 96 musketeers were often attached to the battalion, performing out-posting, reconnaissance, etc. This formation enabled the battalions to deliver formidable firepower.

While Lord Reay, a contemporary English observer, among others, has left diagrams, there was no standard formation for the brigades, which were tactical units. They were “task organized.” Both size and formation depended on the battlefield, the enemy, strength of the battalions, and the experience of the troops. However, they usually consisted of between one full-size two-battalion regiment, and two reduced strength regiments. The numerical size usually varied between 1,000 and 2,000 men but this larger number strained the span of control. The three-battalion brigade in Figure 2 had 1,224 troops. Two regimental guns were usually attached and cavalry was often found in the rear, between the lines of infantry.

FIGURE 1: Standard Swedish Battalion Formation.

FIGURE 2: One Possible Swedish Brigade Formation.

Gustav Adolf also introduced “volley firing,” since the inaccurate match -locks and flintlocks were more effective when fired simultaneously. The volley fire was normally obtained by advancing the rear ranks of musketeers into the three-foot intervals between the musketeers in the front of them. This became the basis for European infantry tactics. According to a Scottish colonel, Robert Monro, who fought in the Swedish army as a mercenary for about six years, Gustav adopted a somewhat different method for delivering volley fire. According to Monro, Gustav had his first rank advance ten paces before the troops fired. The first rank then stopped in place to reload while the next rank passed through them to deliver its volley. This procedure was repeated for each rank. It had the advantage of always closing on the enemy and shortening the distance to the targets with each rank delivering increasingly accurate fire. Gustav had in effect changed the countermarch into an offensive operation.

There is some conflict or confusion in the literature when it comes to the Swedish use of volley fire. Dupuy writes:

Further, the countermarch was so executed that the whole formation moved forward, and the fire was, in effect, a small-arms rolling barrage. During this movement, the musketeers were protected by the pikes while they reloaded. Later, Gustavus introduced the salve, or salvo, further increasing the firepower of his line. In the salvo, three ranks fired simultaneously. This made continuous fire impossible, but it proved effective just before a climatic charge by producing a volume of fire in a few minutes at close quarters that in the countermarch would have taken a half-hour or more.

I have found that the full salvo by three ranks of infantry was used sparingly. The musketeers would be rather helpless after delivering such a salvo since they all had to reload at the same time and offensive action by the pikemen to cover the infantry after a full salvo was problematic unless the second line of three ranks had closed up to the first.

Robert Frost writes that on the third day of the Mewe engagements, the first line of Swedish musketeers had fired a salvo at the Polish infantry when they were swept off the high ground by hussars before they could reload. On the previous page he writes that the hussars, after driving the first Swedish line off the high ground were stopped by a salvo from a second line of Swedish infantry.

There are others who doubt that a full salvo was ever used. David Parrott contributed an article to Michael Roberts’ book Military Revolution Debate and on page 35 of that book Parrott questions both the effectiveness of the salvo and whether it had ever been used. Frost recognizes Parrott’s disagreement in a note. In that note he labels Parrott’s comment as unfounded and goes on to give an accurate description of a salvo: The salvo was specifically designed for use against cavalry attack, where two salvos in quick succession by two lines each three ranks deep was all that the defenders had time to deliver. The two lines of Swedish infantry at Mewe appear to have been more separated than was customary, and the two salvos were therefore not delivered in quick succession.

Gustav also made important changes in infantry weapons and equipment. Despite the fact that body armor was fast disappearing, the Swedish pikemen wore breastplates and greaves. A problem with the pike was that it was frequently severed by enemy cavalry using swords. To overcome this problem, Gustav sheathed the upper portion of the pike with a thin layer of iron. To compensate for the increased weight this caused, the pike was shortened from sixteen to eleven feet.

The arquebus was done away with and replaced by the matchlock musket. However, the earlier matchlock was also a heavy piece of equipment and required a fork rest to fire, adding to the weight a musketeer had to carry. In 1526, while engaged in his Polish campaigns, Swedish manufacturers invented a lighter musket with mechanical improvements permitting quicker loading. The heavy iron fork was also replaced by a thin double ended pike, known as a “Swedish feather.” It had a dual purpose. In addition to serving as a rest for the musket, it was also useful as a palisade stake in presenting an obstacle for enemy cavalry. The consequent reduction in the weight that a musketeer had to carry allowed him to be armed with a saber. Both the saber and the Swedish feather gave the infantry some defense against cavalry attacks.

By the end of the seventeenth century the flintlock had almost completely replaced the matchlock. The flintlock was generally less accurate and had a slower rate of fire than the improved matchlock. These were undoubtedly the reasons for the resistance by many practitioners to its adoption. However, the advantages were also great. First, it was less vulnerable to weather. Second, it removed the intrinsic and obvious danger of a lit match. Third, by the removal of the danger of accidents with lit matches, troops could be placed closer together, thus increasing the volume of fire delivered from a given space. To that can be added another important advantage of the improved musket: its increased penetration; the ball could penetrate some of the body armor of the day.

The introduction of the bayonet also took place during the seventeenth century. The plug bayonet appeared first in France in 1647. Forty years later the plug bayonet was replaced by the socket bayonet, where the bayonet is fastened to a socket on the musket barrel. By the first quarter of the eighteenth century the bayonet had replaced the pike.

The Swedes also standardized the caliber and the powder charge. Although the paper cartridge was apparently not a Swedish invention, they seem to have been the first to put it to full use as standard infantry equipment. The cartridge contained a carefully measured fixed charge with a one ounce ball attached. Each soldier carried fifteen cartridges in a cloth bandolier across his chest. When reloading all a soldier had to do was to bite off the end of the cartridge and push it into the musket with the ramrod. This saved many motions in reloading and represented a significant increase in fire power. In large measure due to constant training in the 1620s, the Swedish army improved reloading speed to the point where the six ranks of musketeers could maintain a continuous barrage.

The Swedish battalion bore a clear resemblance to those of Maurice. However, without the attached musketeers, it was slightly smaller. Both organizations were primarily defensive in nature but could be used offensively if properly reinforced and supported. To acquire an offensive capability several battalions had to be combined into a brigade adequately supported by cavalry and artillery.

The weaknesses of the linear formation were that it was no longer able to adequately defend its own flanks and rear. This problem increased with progressively fewer ranks in order to maximize firepower to the front. Gustav Adolf’s triangular and checkerboard brigade formation compensated for this weakness since the flank units could turn to present the enemy with a new front.


The Swedish cavalry was manned by volunteers, and most were light cavalry. The Swedish horses were small but performed well against the bigger horses in the continental armies. By 1630 Gustav Adolf had a cavalry force of 8,000 native Swedes and Finns. A high morale was maintained by regular pay supplemented with bonuses in the form of land or rental income.

Gustav realized, under the conditions then prevailing, that battles could not be won by firepower alone, and that he needed the shock power that only cavalry could provide. He discarded both the caracole and the customary deep cavalry formations. He formed the cavalry in six ranks as he used for the infantry but later changed that to three ranks. Although he had done away with the caracole the riders still carried pistols, but only the first rank fired and the others used them for emergencies. The main weapon was the saber. Firepower support was provided by musketeer detachments deployed between the cavalry squadrons. After an initial salvo to disrupt the enemy line, the musketeers reloaded while the cavalry charged. The reloading exercise was primarily to be ready for a second charge or to cover a cavalry retreat. The light regimental artillery guns could also lend fire support if needed.

The Swedes, like other armies of the period, employed dragoons. In the case of the Swedes, these were basically mounted infantry armed with carbine and saber. They were useful for a variety of tasks such as quick raids, skirmishing, and foraging. Through the employment of small units in this manner, Gustav Adolf was able to concentrate the organization and training of his regular cavalry for shock tactics only. A company of cavalry consisted of 115 men and a cavalry regiment had an average strength of 800 to 1,000.

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