The Spanish tercio was the premier infantry unit of the late 15th and 16th century, as exemplified at their one-sided demolition of the French army at Pavia in 1525. The tercio was a mixed unit of pike and shot, where the shot took the form of the arquebus. The pikemen provided an impenetrable barrier behind which the gunners would have time to reload (30-60 seconds, or more) and fire in deadly volleys. With excellent defensive capability and excellent firepower in the short to medium range, tercios were regarded as nearly invincible for a century.
The pike was used in a similar fashion as long ago as Alexander and his sarissa-wielding phalanxes. Crossbows were used in Europe from the 11th century at least, and in China earlier.
In an alternate Earth with no technological changes from our own, is it possible for a crossbow and pike formation to achieve battlefield dominance in the 15th century (before the age of the arquebus)?
Possible reasons for the crossbow not being more highly esteemed in the 15th century include:
- Social and political dominance of heavy horsemen
- The best crossbows are made of steel, and steel weapons are expensive by the thousands
Some relevant information about crossbows:
- The Genoese heavy crossbow of the 15th century weighted 18 lbs, had a pull of 1200 lbs, a range of 450 yards, and a reload time of 1 minute with a windlass.
- The is no good hard data on accuracy, but a crossbow was probably less accurate than a bow and more accurate than the later arquebus.
- The crossbow is claimed to be able to penetrate armor at 200 yards. A test of a modern bow against chain mail showed penetration from a 108 J arrow (this is the 70 lb pull, modern bow in the tests) at 20 yards. A replica 850 lb pull crossbow had firing energy of 147 J (3rd post down); so we could assume that a 1200 lb crossbow could reach maybe 200 J. The drop off of energy over distance is an open question.
- Keep in mind also that the English longbow isn't producing any more energy than this, yet was effective against heavy cavalry at Crecy, Agincourt and other battles. A knight is just as well stopped by killing his horse, even if his plate mail resists all bolts.