I hope this isn't too broad, but I thought it would be useful to get some logical progressions for how my feudal-gunpowder society might develop. It's building on an earlier question I asked here, but with an important economic nuance learnt from the previous question.

The Background

One of the key enabling features of 'pike and shot' era warfare and tactics was the accompanying economic reforms that allowed states to equip and maintain large standing armies with expensive firearms en-masse.

However, what if the technological breakthrough of the muzzle-loading musket (lets say with crude rifling afforded by twisted lead bar bullets) came far earlier in time?

Either through internal innovation, or introduction from a foreign power, select specialists (lets say of the rarity and skill of knightly armourers) in high-medieval Europe (lets say 11th Century) learnt to produce these firearms.

The Question

So, the question would be: 'How would a feudal society develop if introduced to the production of firearms without the accompanying socio-economic changes that produced the pike-and-shot era?'

Specifically looking at military tactics and army composition, although if it's not too broad social changes also (if it is too broad, let me know and I'll split it into a separate question).

Edits for clarity

I am aware that primitive firearms were known and being built in the mid-middle ages, but that isn't the scenario this question is positing. To clarify further, my society is able to produce flintlock muskets with crude rifling with the comparative ease and quantity which armourers could produce armour for late-medieval knights, which is a significant difference from difficult-to-produce siege cannons and arquebuses.

To try and narrow the scope of '11th Century Europe' a little, lets choose Britain in the 1000s as a key example.

Hope that helps! If there's any further clarification, please let me know.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ In real history, the feudal society did actually receive the technology to make firearms. Before the early modern period, due to the limited economic capacity of the states, the only useful firearms were siege cannons. To be clear, they knew how make hand-cannons, and they actually did make a small number of hand-cannons, but the military importance of said hand-cannons was negligible. On the other hand, siege cannons were enormously important from the 14th century onwards. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 25, 2018 at 11:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Alex Thanks I'm aware that early medieval cultures were able to construct primitive firearms, and that these were of limited utility. However, my question was more about the earlier development of more advanced firearms (flintlock musket with primitive rifling) which are much more influential. $\endgroup$ Apr 25, 2018 at 12:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35 Thanks for the points, I'll make some edits. Well aware that the 8th century was well before anything knightly, but the prevalence of knightly armourers when knights were about maps across nicely to the intended density of my gunsmiths. $\endgroup$ Apr 25, 2018 at 12:14
  • $\begingroup$ In 9th century western Europe the Roman roads were still in use, and their importance was blindingly obvious. Yet they could not maintain them. They simply did not have the resources and organization to maintain the roads. The official definition of an army was more than 35 men together. When the 1000 men of the Great Heathen Army landed in England in 865 CE they were perceived as an overwhelming unstoppable force. 9th century western Europe is simply an unsuitable setting; try moving the setting to Constantinople, Cairo or Baghdad. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 25, 2018 at 12:19
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Ah, wasn't aware of that! The reason I chose the 9th century was to try and veer aware from the typical 'they had hand-cannons, they weren't effective' answers which glosses over the differences between crude-rifled muskets and actually crude hand-cannons. Lets pick the early 11th century instead. Late-Saxon Britain would probably be a good example. $\endgroup$ Apr 25, 2018 at 12:24

4 Answers 4


This could have a massive impact on history

For the sake of this answer I'm assuming the weapons in question are equivalent to 15th-century arquebuses. Rifled firearms were not suited to battlefield use until well into the 19th century, as they required hammering a lead ball down through the rifling, both time-consuming and especially difficult to do if the bore was fouled from previous firing.

But even a 15th-century smoothbore would have a considerable impact on military and social progression.

Military Effects

By the Thirty Years War, use of armor had largely dropped out of fashion for most combatants. While a set of plate could stop an arquebus ball at long range, such a set was extremely expensive to make, and still had to contend with contusions and broken bones from the impact.

In 11th century Europe, plate didn't exist yet. The heaviest armor most combatants had access to was conventional mail, which provides little protection against firearms.

These firearms are going to dominate the battlefield. They have the psychological impact of the early handgonnes, but actual effectiveness to boot, and beat bows and crossbows for armor-piercing ability. The inaccuracy of smoothbore firearms, as well, is often dramatically overstated- Renaissance arquebuses were capable of hits on point targets at 200m and massed formations farther still, but were virtually always deployed at shorter range to maximize effectiveness.

This means that melee weapons are not going away. As in the Thirty Years War, the short effective range of 'shot' necessitates the use of 'pike' (or other melee-armed combatants) for mutual support and protection. The exact proportion of the two will depend on their comparable effectiveness; but as a general rule a 1:2 ratio of pike:shot would be reasonable.

These are not untrained militia being handed guns, given an afternoon of instruction, and sent off to fight. With early Renaissance firearms, when matchlocks were the most common ignition type and paper cartridges had yet to be developed, operating an arquebus meant handling a lit match simultaneously with measures of powder, while standing in close formation with one's comrades. This requires training, discipline, and most importantly practice in formation. While it is less of an investment than the lifetime of practice needed to wield a longbow, it is more than what was provided to the peasant levies common in the Middle Ages.

Social Effects

The nature of these wonder-weapons is going to dramatically change how medieval societies approach war. With heavy cavalry no longer dominating warfare, the traditional military role of knights is usurped by infantry hundreds of years earlier than in the real world.

However, as mentioned these infantry are not simply peasant levies, either. They are specialists, trained in the operation of a specific weapons system. They are professional soldiers, but not nobility.

In the real world, these weapons, and the soldiers who wielded them, developed at a time when Europe could not yet afford standing armies but could afford bands of mercenaries for temporary conflict. In the 11th century, even kings will struggle to pay for professional soldiers to fight on their behalf. Given the very small size of medieval armies to begin with, it is unlikely that any such band will number more than a thousand strong.

Those bands of mercenaries will enjoy the social status of the Swiss mercenaries of the Renaissance, being regarded as masters of the battlefield, but few nations will be able to afford them. For most, armies raised from peasants and trained as combatants on an ad-hoc basis will have to suffice, while remaining hugely expensive. Without the economic advances of the pike and shot era, true mass mobilization is still beyond reach.

There are two ways this can go, socially, and I'm not convinced as to which is more likely. One is that the expense and societal burden of producing effective troops exacerbates the inequality in the feudal system, further concentrating force in the hands of the lords. The other is that the common availability of effective weapons, even in unskilled hands, may enable populist uprisings, which only started to occur on a national level from the 1400s on, to occur earlier. I'd say you have the freedom to explore either option, or use both in different contexts.


As one further note, stone fortifications were pivotal in military strategy of the medieval era. Most battles involved either attacking or defending some sort of fortification, rather than meeting on open ground. While the question does not specifically concern artillery, the early development of technologies needed to produce arquebuses would also enable effective artillery pieces.

While defensive structures were not rendered obsolete by artillery (although their design changed considerably- see the Vauban forts of the late 1600s), they did become less effective as a means of concentrating defensive force. Earlier access to artillery may lead to more social change through military conquest. Had, for example, the English won at Orléans in 1429, the political landscape of Europe could be drastically different today.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks! A most comprehensive answer, which takes a realistic look at how moderately-prevalent early firearms would develop in the cash-strapped European climate. I wonder if these musketeer-mercenaries could develop similarly to Genoese crossbowmen in both status and tactics. Popular and highly regarded mercenaries, with enough wealth to employ squires for reloading and perhaps the use of pavises to mitigate reduced rate of fire compared to bows. Especially interesting about firearms potentially fuelling populist uprisings/feudal crackdowns. Interplay between the two could be very interesting. $\endgroup$ Apr 25, 2018 at 14:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Ynneadwraith I'd say the Genoese would be a solid parallel, as they're a good example of the limited role of mercenaries during the medieval era. Given that effective firearms will make these mercenaries the centerpiece of an army rather than an auxiliary, perhaps their squires provide the 'pike' component of the pike-and-shot formation? Keep in mind that pavises will be rather less useful if they can't stand up to enemy fire, once everyone is aboard the arquebus bandwagon. $\endgroup$
    – Catgut
    Apr 25, 2018 at 14:49
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting. So as a sort of military development you could begin with mercenary gun/pike/pavise trios, with the pavise being phased out as the balance of bowmen/musketeers starts to shift in the other forces they're pitted against. $\endgroup$ Apr 25, 2018 at 14:53

As in real-life: firearms would be known but not used in massive way

You mention pike and shot warfare, but that strategy appear circa 1500. However, firearm where known since several decades. here are some examples:

If gunpowder and firearm where known since more than 150 years, why wasn't they used more? Because as you said, they need to be used en-masse to be effective, so even if the technology is known, it would be used only once the economy would be good enough to have large armies


In a recent edit, you say that your firearms are more powerfull and accurate than medieval firearms, and therefore good even if not used en-mass.

What you got is a new kind of crossbow VS longbow debate. The benefit would be that it ask less training, but cost more and are maybe less powerfull than a longbow army. Depending on the cultures, some would use it, some not.

During the 100 year war, longbow where widely used in England but not in France, why? because english were trained to use bows. Hunting rules where less restrictive than in France, they where archery event to practice during peace, and lot of other factors, so when war come, you already got experienced longbowmen. You can't take a random peasant and give him bow, he need training. It's much easyer to do this with a crossbow, that require less training.

Firearms require even less training, and have another advantage: it require no particular physical force, unlike longbow or crossbow. You can recrute much more people (younger and older people, even women if you are willing to accept that).

Basically, either you pay for training, either for equipment. Depending on the context, one would be prefer to another

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer, but there are a few key nuances missed. One of the key features of why firearms were only really useful en-masse was poor accuracy right until the advent of rifling (which my culture has a crude version of). So, the nuanced difference is actually the development of relatively accurate man-portable firearms ~700 years earlier than they were in real life. $\endgroup$ Apr 25, 2018 at 12:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Ynneadwraith just made an edit according to this. $\endgroup$
    – Kepotx
    Apr 25, 2018 at 13:33
  • $\begingroup$ Do you have a source on early firearms requiring less training than crossbows to operate? The drill instructions I've seen from the Thirty Years War suggest the opposite; untrained infantry manipulating loose powder and lit matches simultaneously in dense formation is a recipe for disaster. $\endgroup$
    – Catgut
    Apr 25, 2018 at 13:39

Given the knowledge of how to make it, a musket is far easier to make than a suit of armor. A knight's armor would contain tens of thousands of rings that had to be individually set and riveted, and dozens of plates that had to be customized to the individual in multiple fittings.

A musket is barely harder to make than a crossbow. The barrel has to be forge welded, which might take a half day for a craftsman, but the rest of the parts are similar in complexity to a crossbow and windlass--which were produced en-masse and given to the lowest levels of soldiers in the middle ages.

As soon as the knowledge of how to make accurate firearms that can be fired reliably and relatively quickly (a few times a minute), warfare and society are going to change quickly. The rich can no longer rely on a suit of armor to make them virtually invincible against the regular soldier. Rather than paying skilled lifelong soldiers, you can take a farmer out of his field, give him a gun and a few weeks of training, and send him to war.

Knights would probably take the role of dragoons, trading their armor for expensive and accurate rifles, and a few braces of pistols slung on their horse. Riding to an advantageous position, they could dismount and get off several volleys before remounting and riding to safety to reload.

If the muskets are equivalent to 17th century technology, then you might see cavalry charges used against them, and the advent of pikes to protect against that. If the muskets are more advanced, though, their accuracy and rate of fire might be enough to stop a charge in its tracks, and sword/lance cavalry would be used mostly to chase down routing enemies. Melee infantry would be quickly abandoned.


That's exactly what did happen.

The first hand held firearms appeared in the mid 14th century, the first professional standing army (in England) didn't appear for another 300 years. Firearms were expensive and inaccurate. When the first muzzle loading rifled firearms were introduced they were extremely expensive and only issued to the very best marksmen.

You're pushing it a couple of hundred years earlier than it was, but the effect is going to be much the same.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm not convinced. There's a massive difference between expensive and inaccurate 14thC firearms, and slightly less expensive but accurate 18thC firearms. One is only effective en-masse and prohibitively expensive, they other is effective in smaller numbers which isn't prohibitive. The question could probably be rephrased as 'what if medieval knights had rifled flintlocks instead of plate armour', which should hopefully illustrate the difference. $\endgroup$ Apr 25, 2018 at 13:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Ynneadwraith, the reason they don't have plate armour later on is because other people had firearms. The one is the cause of the lack of the other. The other effect firearms had is that you no longer needed to be a highly trained professional warrior to take out a full armoured knight. It doesn't matter when it happens, the sequence of events is the same. Firearms slowly make plate armour a liability rather than a benefit. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Apr 25, 2018 at 13:21
  • $\begingroup$ The idea of plate-armour vs firearms isn't the point. Perhaps I can clarify it further. How about 'In this society, knights did not develop plate armour or heavy-cavalry tactics. Instead they developed flintlocks with crude rifling. How would their military and society evolve?' $\endgroup$ Apr 25, 2018 at 13:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Ynneadwraith, much as it did, all you're doing is cutting the plate armour period short before it reached its peak. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Apr 25, 2018 at 13:31
  • $\begingroup$ I still don't buy it. The plate-armour period waned with the advent of widespread firearms/the infantry revolution in the late 16th Century, which was more a product of the death of feudalism and the advent of economies that supported a far different military structure of massed professional armies rather than a military elite and peasant levies. The tactical difference of a knight/rifleman being able to kill another knight reliably from 200-300m would produce a far different military structure than what we see in the middle ages. $\endgroup$ Apr 25, 2018 at 13:40

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .