Armies of the late 1890s and the early 16th century are operating on practically completely different principles of war. How they fight battles is extremely different.

However in this case, they've ended up matched together in a war.

Neither side knows anything about the other. They're initially operating as they would if they were fighting a similar army of their own era's technology and tactics.

The 16th century army is a force of about 2,500 soldiers, similar to the Spanish army of the 1510s. The 1890s/1900s force is a mounted rifle force similar to that sent by Australia to fight in the Boer war of about 1,700 soldiers.

They are fighting in terrain similar to that of the Kimberly region of Western Australia. This is the home terrain of the 1890s army. The early 16th century army has no knowledge of the area, and have come across after a voyage comparable to a transatlantic crossing.

The primary question here is how these two armies operating on two fundamentally different paradigms of warfare would end up interacting in their first few battles with no starting knowledge of how the other side fights.

Beyond just the sense "The early 16th century army is slaughtered", more in the sense of well, how these two ways of fighting wars separated so far apart in time which were never meant to interact with each other would work when faced against each other.

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    $\begingroup$ Where in Kimberley? Most of Kimberley is a particularly bad place to play soldiers, and ten times worse for the 16th century force who likely have never even in their worst nightmares imagined that such terrain existed on Earth. And there won't be "first few battles". They might begin one battle, but the obsolete force will of course surrender after a few minutes. 16th century Spanish soldiers were professionals, and they would realize very quickly that they are grossly outgunned. Is the question asking about how this brief attempt to do battle would play out? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Mar 28 at 9:31
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    $\begingroup$ This is far too broad. What are the very detailed and specific distribution of equipment and specialties between the two militaries? It's so broad and so much detail is required for a reasonably objective answer that we might as well write this part of the OP's story for them. Even with the declaration of an area, there are so many choices that can be made by either army (choices are off-topic) that I can't see a way to definitively answer the question. Having seen a smaller wrestler beat a larger wrestler, it's always possible for the underdog to win... if the right choices are made. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Mar 28 at 15:22
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    $\begingroup$ "Whatever happens, we have got / The Maxim gun, and they have not." $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Commented Mar 28 at 17:41
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    $\begingroup$ "They've never interacted with this other society in any significant capacity and have no idea if they'll just be killed anyway or something" I think this mindset would apply a lot more to your Victorian army than your Renaissance Army. Your Renaissance army only fought in Europe where there were strong traditions about treatment of POWs that were rarely violated; so, they would not expect it. Victorian armies however fought in American, Africa, and Asia where these rules were often not observed. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Mar 28 at 20:07
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    $\begingroup$ This exact setup happened plenty of times in the late 19th century in colonial wars, many local forces still used matchlock firearms. The only exception being the home field advantage, and that the "renaissance" army did not rely that heavily on pikes or closed formations. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Commented Mar 29 at 5:50

3 Answers 3


Military doctrines will not be that unfamiliar to one another

In 1510, cuirassiers were already coming into play. These were cavalry armed with either arquebuses or smaller pistols, plate armor, and a sword. By the 1890s, cuirassiers were phased out in favor of dragoons which were pretty much the same thing, minus the armor.

When the Renaissance army sees the dragoons, they will deal with them the same way they would cuirassiers. They would form alternating blocks of musketeers and pikemen. Foot based musketeers would attempt to counter any caracole tactics by being able to effectively use larger guns and aim more effectively than horseback mounted gunmen, and the pikes would counter any attempt to charge them; so, the strategy of the Renaissance army will be to form up thes combined arms blocks, and try to shoot the dragoons from longer range than the dragoons could shoot them. No the musketeers do not actually have a longer reach than the dragoon's guns, but nobody knows this yet.

By 1890, the use of pikes had long since been phased out thanks to the invention of the bayonet which basically allowed a single soldier to function more or less as both a musketeer and a light pikeman. Dragoons were still in use, but just barely. Against 1890s rifles, dragoons faced the same issue that cuirassiers faced almost 400 years before: infantry could outgun cavalry. Although dragoons had guns, they focused more heavily on the charge than cuirassiers did, because in thier history, the advantages of infantry gunmen were better known; so, the Victorian army will not attempt to skirmish the Renaissance Army from horseback if they follow established doctrine.

Additionally, the Victorian era army would have a large number of mounted infantry regiments; so, even though the OP described the Victorian army as a mounted army, most of them will not fight from horseback. The mounted infantry regiments will attempt to dismount and fight in thin firing lines whereas the dragoon regiments would be trained to charge with thier sabers.

While the mounted infantry will make up the main fighting force, the dragoons standard doctrine will either be to try to flank the Renaissance army at the start of the battle to break up thier lines, try to flank the Renaissance army just after the battle starts when they are distracted, or they will be held in reserve so they can quickly reinforce any part of the fireline that starts to fail.

There is one other consideration here which is concentration of force. The Boer War was a very spread out conflict typified by raiding tactics. Individual fighting forces were rarely more than a few hundred men; so, even though the Victorian Army might have 1700 men in a general area, it will likely be spread out into several separate fighting forces that don't come together until the threat of a large and unified force is confirmed. Whereas in the Renaissance, it was more common to muster a single army to be as concentrated as possible. Furthermore, your Victorian army has telescopes and heliographs meaning they will be able to scout the primitive army... this is double edged sword for your more advanced force. On the one hand, this means they are less likely to commit dragoons to the fight resulting in unnecessary losses, but it also means they may not take the threat as seriously knowing that it is not a modern army, and under commit troops like the British did at the Battle of Isandlwana or the Americans at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

So, your first conflict may not be 1700 Victorian troops vs 2500 Renaissance troops, but rather a detachment of 200-300 Victorian troops against the whole Renaissance Army.

Expected outcome:

The mounted infantry will do very well. Thier guns are much more accurate, powerful, long ranged, and quick to reload than anything the Renaissance army has faced before. They may even have a few machine-guns which would be super bad news for the other guys. The Victorian mounted infantry could reasonably go at least 3 to one with the Renaissance musketeers who will need to survive multiple shots just to get close enough to start shooting... that said, if the battlefield does enough to inhibit engagement ranges, the musketeers might do okay.

The dragoons however will be in a really bad situation. Dragoons had no armor and no lances. They were intended to charge against artillery crews and thin lines of unarmored infantry which had a bayonet reach of no more than 6ft (2m). Instead they will be charging pike blocks which are massed, often armored infantry with a reach of about 9-21ft (3-7m). There is not a direction the dragoons can hit a pike block from which is not suicide. Unless the Victorian scouts are really bad at their jobs, these guys will not be sent to the front line at all.

Even with the Dragoons being pretty useless, the Victorian Army would be at a huge technological advantage. The only ways the Renaissance Army would stand a chance would be to catch the Victorian army when its still spread out enough to overwhelm with concentration of force, or to pick a battlefield that forces a melee.

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    $\begingroup$ The modern-ish force is specifically identified as similar to the South Australian Mounted Rifles. These were mounted infantry, who wouldn't have even thought about launching cavalry charges. They were not equipped for cavalry charges; is it hard to mount a cavalry charge with no sabers and no lances. But on the other hand they had machine guns... $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Mar 28 at 15:43
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Yes, it was the most common practice in that war to dismount and fight as infantry, but there were both mounted rifle and dragoon regiments serving in that war. there were still cases of cavalry charges such as the Battle of Bakenlaagte... though they were much more rare than they were in previous wars. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Mar 28 at 16:05
  • $\begingroup$ I've updated my answer to differentiate Dragoon and Mounted Infantry regiments $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Mar 28 at 16:41
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    $\begingroup$ You may want to add that 19th century officers had telescopes, and that mid-19th to mid-20th century forces operating in sunny climates were using heliographs to keep in contact... The technological gap between the pre-proto-Spanish tercio and the modern force is very wide. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Mar 28 at 16:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Criggie Muskets were already commonplace by 1510. The standard doctrine when being shot at was that it signaled it was time to begin your charge. The whole thinking was that once the bullets start flying, you need to close the gap before they have time to reload and shoot you again. They could not predict the meat grinder they would be running into, but neither would they have a good way of canceling the charge once it starts because if you try to stop, the guys behind you will trample you. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Mar 28 at 21:39

As far as weapons go, your 16th century force with swords, pikes, and matchlocks is not too far from swords, spears, and jezails. You can find various manuals on how a late Victorian or Edwardian military force would fight "small wars." So doctrine is actually in place for the defending side. For instance, Sir Charles Edward Callwell, right in the time period, or Sir Andrew Skeen, who served about a decade too late for you.

If the Victorian force is following best practice, they should have scouts out. These scouts will have sabers, firearms, and possibly lances. Their firearms will be much more effective than those carried by 16th century Reiters. A small party of late 19th century mounted infantry or lancers should be able to defeat a small party of 16th century cavalry, and bring back information about roughly what they will face.

The 16th century force will not be very agile in a set piece battle. Doctrine would suggest to form pike squares screened by crossbowmen, arquebusiers or musketeers, and swordsmen, with cavalry on the flanks to pounce the enemy flanks. But initially, they would send out small scounting/raiding/foraging parties until they have an enemy offering battle, perhaps near a town the enemy wants to hold.

You might have one or two defending scouting parties surprised and defeated, but not all of them. Meanwhile, the 16th century invaders might have a hard time getting scouts close to the main body of the defenders and report back, unless they are operating at night where they can see little.

Since your story is set in the homeland of the 19th century force, the defenders might well come under political pressure to deal with these "barbarian raiders" quickly, before they ravage any more civilian populations. As described, there are not enough defenders to form many flying columns of the doctrinally expected battalion-plus size. Do they split up into more, smaller columns? Or do they try to get to the "economic center of gravity" of the invaders, presumably the place where they landed their supplies? That would match how they deal with raiders on the Northern Frontier, or non-submissive kingdoms in Africa.

Note that the defenders might be expected to have a few batteries of artillery with them, perhaps the screw guns from Kipling's poem, or the 1-pounder pom-pom. These would be difficult to bring to bear against small mounted foraging parties, but hell on any formed pike squares.


Would the early 1900s army be homogeneous cavalry? They'd likely have some sort of support from larger firepower than rifles. Early 1900s firepower like artillery and machine guns meant that even contemporary infantry had extremely high casualties.

It may be boring, but I'd wager that the prominent deciding factor in the conflict would be the 16th-century force underestimating defensive firepower. Given that they are the attacking party, mis-identifying the capabilities of Gatlings or Maxims can mean extremely high casualties in a single encounter. What appears to be a lightly-garrisoned target to 16th-century eyes could in reality be a death trap.

If the 16th-century army somehow manages to navigate the situation without any major knowledge-gap blunders, I suspect their interactions in the field would be as described by Nosajimiki's answer.

  • $\begingroup$ The force is specified as being "mounted rifles": that is, infantry that uses horses for transportation. There may be some light cavalry attached as scouts, but it's not a force that fights on horseback. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Mar 29 at 0:55

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