The Society

The society in question is feudal in structure. The most advanced widespread technology defining this society is the flintlock muzzle-loading firearm (I'm undecided as to rifled or not, but leaning towards not). Their capabilities do not extend to mass production of these muskets and pistols, with the vast majority being handmade by craftsmen. The difficulty and expense with which they can be produced is roughly equivalent to the production of knightly accoutrements in the High Middle Ages.

The social structure consists of serfs and bondsmen at the base of the hierarchy. Above them are a landowner/warrior class defined by possessing the wealth to purchase and maintain a firearm (analogous to knights). Above them are the lords, with larger landowning privileges and access to greater armouries, and a feudal king above them.

So basically mid-feudal Europe, but with muskets instead of knights.

The Environment

The lands this society inhabits are largely analogous to the more difficult areas of northern Europe. The landscape is, by and large, difficult to traverse as it is heavily wooded and mountainous in many areas, making the use of heavy cannon difficult. It's bordered by high mountains on one side, sea on another, and steppe on the last (inhabited by steppe-nomads with similar access to firearms).

Most of Finland might not be a bad analogy, or perhaps areas surrounding the Carpathians.

The Question

What military structure and army composition might arise in societies in these circumstances?

I've got a rough idea of small feudal levies armed with hand weapons, acting as anchoring blocks for groups of skirmishing nobles. Use of cavalry might be difficult given the terrain.

Would this be realistic, or are there significant differences to this structure that firearms would change?

If this is too broad/opinion-based please let me know and I'll fix it!

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Muskets are useless on the battle field unless deployed in massed formations and protected by pikemen. They are by definition weapons for common soldiers, not noblemen; and they must be used by massed and well-drilled formations of professional soldiers. There is a good reason why in real history muskets emerged during the early modern period: that was the first time when states became rich enough to afford maintaining large professional armies. Ah, and as a Romanian I simply must point out that the Carpathian mountains are not at all in northern Europe... and the landscape is different. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 11, 2018 at 16:11
  • $\begingroup$ Gotcha. Would rifles (still single shot) have more of an influence in the outcome of a battle? Longer effective range, so more shots before the enemy closes the distance. Oh and I know the Carpathians aren't anywhere near northern Europe! To be honest I was struggling to find a real-world analogue, but that speaks more to my poor geographical knowledge than anything else... $\endgroup$ Apr 11, 2018 at 16:51
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Check out the Black Army of Hungary. This is dated to XV century and probably is the first example of mass use of firearms. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Apr 11, 2018 at 16:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander Thanks, that link is very intriguing! So, a possible composition of my society's armies is a peasant levy, interspersed with noble musketeers/rifleman to provide a ranged presence to the infantry formation, while the levy protects the nobleman from incoming fire and charges (from cavalry or infantry). It would also have the bonus of situating leaders (I hesitate to call medieval nobles 'commanders') in amongst the formation for morale purposes. $\endgroup$ Apr 11, 2018 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ Also, perhaps the nobles form the 'light troops' in the Black Army's doctrine, dashing out from the formation to harry the enemy and take advantage of tactical opportunities. Such daring actions would likely be favourable for impetuous martial nobility. $\endgroup$ Apr 11, 2018 at 18:14

5 Answers 5


I don't think you are going to witness much change, for the Following reasons:

1) Massed fire is one of the best uses for a musket in large scale conflict. You can only shoot the thing so fast and smooth bore guns are less accurate than rifles. Aiming one to hit a target is more of a suggestion than a directive, if you know what I mean. It does have enough power to penetrate armor within about 200 yards, maybe less. Bows and crossbows are effective to an equivalent range.

2) One of the big advantages the Musket gave to armies was that you could issue one to just about any ploughboy, and within a very short period of time, he would be an effective soldier. It took years to train good archers. It took less time than that for crossbows, but crossbows relied on muscle power to draw and load, so only the fairly strong would be used in that role. A chemically powered weapon like a musket, you hand some kid the gear and give a few days of instruction and you have someone who would be good to stand in for massed fire. In your scenario, though, your nobleman is NOT going to hand some ploughboy a very expensive personal weapon.

3) You could have the nobles engage in the sport of sniping if you gave them fine rifles instead of muskets. This could be the preferred method of combat for the truly wealthy. Less wealthy would still be mounted knights in a heavy cavalry. Even though Heavy cavalry is less useful in mountainous terrain, it still has it's place. The higher nobles would go out, find a good spot, and try to take out an opposing general from 300 yards.

4) If you want your warfare to lean toward ranged weapons, things could lean toward crossbows. Remember the goal is massed fire so that infantry is seriously weakened before they can get close enough to poke at your squishy bits. Since the training cycle is reduced, despite losing some because they are just a little too weak. You could get a lot of crossbowmen ready for a battle in a relatively short timeframe. They aren't going to be marksmen, but they can stand shoulder to shoulder and throw lots of sharp wood at the other guys. Of course way back in feudal societies, you may not have given them even crossbows, you might just give them a sharpened stick and tell them you hope they don't die (look out for the burning pi...oh dear).

I see your army going out, your conscript serfs pulling the baggage train and you occasionally giving the strongest a crossbow (no bolts, of course) to train with, learning to load aim and fire. The rest of your peasants would get a sharp stick, crappy jobs and occasionally food. They also get to walk out front to find potholes, man traps, and to draw enemy archers. Your heavy cavalry and archers are arranged beside and behind the column, surrounding your noble and expensively armed general. an experienced hunter might ride ahead to scout some suitable locations for the Lord to hide and take pot shots at the enemy.

It could work

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "you could issue one to just about any ploughboy" - not exactly true. As far as I know, firearms were never issued to feudal levies and musketeers had always been a professional force. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Apr 11, 2018 at 20:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander Historically true, but I think that has more to do with the cost of firearms than training requirements. Learning to fire a muzzle loader is not all that hard. Powder, wadding, ball. Tamp gently. Primer (or fuse or match or cap, whatever is appropriate) aim and fire. Disciplined fire takes a bit longer, but not a lot. Compare that with the amount of time it would take to train a longbowman. $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Apr 11, 2018 at 20:14
  • $\begingroup$ We can't have cheap firearms without factory production. So, it's better to feed a full time soldier than have a musket for every part-timer. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Apr 11, 2018 at 20:24
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with that, as far as it goes. $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Apr 11, 2018 at 20:27
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks man, great answer which raises a few possibilities. I like the idea of nobles taking on a 'sniping', or I suppose light skirmishing role with rifled firearms. I suppose an option for rate of fire would be to have each noble with a number of muzzle-loaders and squires to re-load between shots. You're absolutely right that as a status symbol they'd be unwilling to actively arm the peasantry with massed firearms (although this could be a future military reform as industrialisation picks up). $\endgroup$ Apr 11, 2018 at 21:01

The real issue with firearms is they produce a quantum change in warfare. In our history, there was already an "Infantry Revolution" sweeping the battlefields in the late 1300's and through the 1400's, with expensive, exquisitely trained from boyhood fighters like knights and longbowmen being replaced by levees and city men using weapons which were effective against knights, Samurai and so on, combined with tactics that allowed the effective use of these weapons by relatively untrained men.

Crossbows could deliver @ 200J of energy against targets, allowing peasants or city tradespeople to take down armoured knights, and crossbowmen could be protected by formations of pikes which prevented knightly charges and even made it difficult to attack on foot (and Swiss pikemen learned to charge against the enemy, totally upsetting the balance of power).

Firearms made the Infantry Revolution permanent, since even an arquebus in the late 1400's could deliver 1000J of energy to the target; an order of magnitude greater than any muscle powered weapon. Cannon had the same sorts of orders of magnitude difference compared to catapults, trebuchets and so on, making walled castles unviable, and putting power in the hands of those who had enough wealth to afford an artillery train (few nobles could face the Royal artillery train, the King simply had much more wealth).

While you have essentially set your story historically in the mid 1400's (firearms are expensive and still somewhat rare), this state of affairs isn't going to last. The obvious advantages of being able to rapidly field large formations of men without having to pull them from the fields and workshops for prolonged training is what gave impetus to the Infantry Revolution in the first place, and anyone who could get firearms went to great lengths to do so.

Gunners would therefor be grouped in small units. They would be treated much like crossbowmen, and be placed along the flanks of pike or pole arm formations, in order to have protection from enemy cavalry charges or advancing infantry. After firing, they may even retreat behind the pike formation in order to reload, or move to a new position to fire on targets deemed to be advantageous. Cannon will be used either to fire on fortifications, or preset to fire where the commander believes the enemy formation(s) will appear. Since cannon were not very mobile, the ability to move them around the battlefield during an engagement isn't an option.

enter image description here

Fighting in the 1600's. The formations and tactics are refined from those of the late 1400's, but a solder from the 1490's would still recognize this formation

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting, and a good answer, thanks :) sort of what I was imagining with a core of spear/pike-armed levied serfs supported by noble gunners on the flanks. I expect battles would actually be decided by push-of-pike given the relative scarcity of firearms, although it leaves a lot of opportunity for both military innovators and political instability (a revolt from the serfs could be potentially ruinous for the nobles as if their firearms could be seized the serfs would require very minimal practice to become a relatively equivalent fighting force). Lots of possibilities :) $\endgroup$ Apr 13, 2018 at 9:49
  • $\begingroup$ Actually fear of peasant revolt might be the deciding factor in restricting firearm access to peasant levies. From what I understand, feudalism was pretty much vanished by the 1600s, reducing the need to suppress the powers of serfs quite as rigorously. Roll back the social clocks but keep the technology and you have a very solid reason not to give large numbers of the oppressed masses powerful weaponry. It's not a situation that will last, but nor is any specific point in military history. $\endgroup$ Apr 13, 2018 at 9:55
  • $\begingroup$ Samurai armies near the end of the "Age of War" were heavily built from peasant levies using arquebuses, the disarming of peasants and restrictions on the manufacture and use of firearms came after the Tokugawa Shogunate had secured it's position (using firearms). This is perhaps a bit of an extreme counter-example, but the utility of firearms generally trumps other considerations on the battlefield. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Apr 13, 2018 at 12:24
  • $\begingroup$ Very interesting. So for a dash of historicity, I could set my story after a significant period with musket-armed levies. Wars won, and the feudal nobility begins to fear armed peasant revolt so attempts to restrict firearm usage to the nobility. $\endgroup$ Apr 13, 2018 at 12:32
  • $\begingroup$ Also interestingly, reading up about the Sengoku period, it seems that it also coincided with a period of economic development stemming from trade with China. Similarly, the 'pike and shot' period in Europe also coincided with economic developments and the prevalence of cash economies. I wonder how the introduction of firearms would evolve in a society without the concurrent economic developments. $\endgroup$ Apr 13, 2018 at 12:35

enter image description here

Do you know these bad boys?

They may be the unit you want in your world. Cuirassiers (first appeared in XV century). Their equipment varies, but in your timeline they would be heavily armored (almost like late medieval knights) but instead of lances they would have set of pistols (and maybe even a cavalry rifle).

Why them?

Well, they are some kind of evolved form of armored knights. When the halberd become popular, lances were no longer efficient weapons because of its range. Then the cuirassiers came, using firearms while charging instead of the lance. The range was obviously better.

Then caracole happened. It was like riding in circles in front of the enemy unit - you are close, you shoot, you drive away to reload, repeat. In our timeline it wasn't so effective, because infantry had superior firepower. And there we have this one, implausible thing. Infantry still would have greater firepower with crossbows and bows. But it may be ok, as in our timeline there were also crossbows and bows while heavy cavalry still existed.

Because firearms are very expensive, this would be a more direct evolution of knights than in our world. They'll be "super knights", who are more safe while charging because they use firearms instead of lances. Then the caracole will appear, probably around the same time as knights will start disappearing. Cuirassiers would be elite units, recruited from knights (and later nobles) because of the cost of equipment.

As time in your world passes and firearms become more mass produced, cuirassiers would evolve similar to our timeline, becoming a more sword focused cavalry with guns, than a guns focused with sword cavalry (as Gustavus Adolphus did with his cuirassiers).

  • $\begingroup$ Neat :) my gun-toting society hasn't got a particularly strong cavalry tradition (I'm thinking their difficult landscape would lean them towards more infantry and skirmishing tactics), but this sounds like a perfect tactic and military evolution for my steppe-nomads :) perhaps an invasion by them (either in the past or future) could introduce this tactic to my infantry-focused society. Defending against them could be a strong impetus to move towards musket-armed levies rather than fewer elite units in an effort to outgun the mobile nomads :) $\endgroup$ Apr 13, 2018 at 10:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Ynneadwraith Having mostly mountains doesn't means you don't need heavy cavalry. Finland (which you mentioned in question) had pretty nice light cavalry. Same is for Armenia - many mountains, still uses cavalry. It's not as strong cavalry focus as nomad or plains countries (like Mongols or Poles), but it still existed and was useful. And let's be realist - if you would be rich noble, would you like to walk between all these peasant or ride with guys like you? ;) $\endgroup$
    – Elas
    Apr 13, 2018 at 10:50
  • $\begingroup$ Oh absolutely ;) if I were wealthy in those times like hell I'd be walking places ;) I wonder what the predisposing factors towards having a cavalry tradition are (completely alternate question that). For instance, I know that the ancient Greeks had little in the way of a cavalry tradition, but the Macedonians had very effective and widely utilised cavalry despite a roughly similar culture. Perhaps it's simply exposure to other cultures with a cavalry tradition to show how effective cavalry can be. $\endgroup$ Apr 13, 2018 at 10:59
  • $\begingroup$ How rough is the ground upon which they will usually be fighting? The rougher the terrain, the worse the horses fare - you're not making a cavalry charge on broken terrain. You could consider something more akin to dragoons. They ride closer to their target, dismount to fight for a little while (leave the horses held by a squire), then back to the horses to get away when they tire. The horses are more for rapid deployment and repositioning on the battlefield than as a fighting platform (hit and run at weak points instead of slogging it out head to head with the main body of troops). $\endgroup$ Apr 13, 2018 at 17:48
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ While Cavalry is often romanticized as "charging" to break up enemy formations, it was actually far more common to leave the Cavalry in the flanks and rear to turn enemy formations or unleash the charge against enemy units which had broken, to prevent them reforming. The "Charge of the Light Brigade" or the fate of Napoleon's Cavalry at Waterloo shows what happens when you charge unbroken formations. (Even long before firearms, unbroken Infantry could almost always stand off cavalry). $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Apr 13, 2018 at 20:13

Well, the fact is that gunpowder is credited as one of the reasons behind the fall of feudalism.

With gunpowder you can have cannons, and cannons make short work of castles, so the king has a way easier time forcing any feudal lord into submission. Before cannons, the feudal lord could just entrench in his castle and wait for their enemy to leave due to lack of money or supplies or because of illness, so kings had to think twice before acting against them.

Additionally, guns are expensive, which means that only kings and a few other main nobles (who would soon become kings) can maintain them. Remember that you need to keep constantly employed a corps of artilleryman, gunsmiths and the like, and that is expensive.

  • $\begingroup$ Yeah I'm aware of the contribution of gunpowder to the fall of feudalism, which is why I set my society in rugged difficult terrain to try and preclude the use of cannon against fortifications. Also, I know guns are expensive, but I doubt they are more expensive than everything required to make a medieval knight (weapons, armour, two horses and their maintenence), especially if the society is geared up for it. It's stated in the OP that the expense for a nobleman to become a musketeer/rifleman is roughly similar to becoming a knight. $\endgroup$ Apr 11, 2018 at 16:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Ynneadwraith if it were that expensive no one would do it. Musketeers are only effective in large numbers and it's not a terribly safe job. A large mob of unarmed and unarmored peasants could easily defeat a group of musketeers with nothing protecting them. $\endgroup$
    – bendl
    Apr 11, 2018 at 19:14
  • $\begingroup$ So the covering screen/mob of peasant levies is crucial in protecting the musketeers. Out of interest, would you think rifles as opposed to muskets would make limited numbers more relevant (especially as skirmishers)? $\endgroup$ Apr 11, 2018 at 20:39
  • $\begingroup$ The rate of fire of rifled firearms in the Napoleonic wars (where they were first introduced in large numbers) was significantly slower than a regular smooth bore musket. Rifled firearms were effectively used during the Seven Years War in the Americas by British "Rangers" as well as the French and Indians, because that skirmishing warfare was conducted primarily in heavily forested wilderness. Wherever land had been cleared and cultivated, the advantage was lost to mass formations of musket carrying troops and regular Cavalry. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Apr 13, 2018 at 20:17
  • $\begingroup$ Ah perfect, that's helpful :) it was the well-wooded skirmish conflicts in the Americas I had in mind when I was thinking of my society. Forgot that when I was posting the question. I suppose that's another question in itself. How do you think warfare in the 1600s would have developed if Europe remained heavily forested? $\endgroup$ Apr 15, 2018 at 20:11

The military would probably be a bunch of small units that fight using gorilla warfare and stealth. Each team would probably be largely independent from the others and common practice would be to send them out for long periods of time. The objective would be given before they set out into the wilderness and if the team did not return within a week of the designated return time, they would be presumed dead.

They are survivalists and marksmen. They know how to survive on their own and are hard to track due to their small numbers. I could add more, but I don't really know how to explain them in greater detail.

  • $\begingroup$ That's something akin to what I was expecting. Low-level skirmish warfare utilising tactics quite similar to Rogers' Rangers during the Seven Years War. $\endgroup$ May 3, 2018 at 10:54
  • $\begingroup$ ya, its the only one that could remain affected with the described technology and terrain. What I'm curious about is how long term war between 2 armies using these tactics plays out. $\endgroup$ May 3, 2018 at 12:59

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