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Michael Wiethop




Location: St. Louis
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PostPosted: Mon 03 Jun, 2013 1:35 pm    Post subject: Thought experiment- What if guns came 200 years late?         Reply with quote

Sorry for the clumsy title, but I couldn't think of anything else suitable that would fit.

Just a silly thought experiment- How might weapons, armor, and warfare in general have changed over time if the development of gunpowder and firearms had been delayed for, say, 200 years or so? How this delay might have happened isn't really relevant, since this is just an exercise in thinking about weapons and armor development and not an attempt to create a plausible alternate history.

For a start, arms and armor changed a bit in the 15th and 16th centuries. Plate armor became more articulated, could cover the entire body, and was becoming more affordable to foot soldiers. Crossbows could be very powerful steel weapons spanned by windlasses. Horse armor advanced as well, and Emperor Maximilian I even owned a full suit of armor for his horse that covered the legs, belly, and eyes and left almost nothing exposed.

By the 17th century firearms had already directly influenced the development of armor and weapons. Suits of armor became thicker to protect against gunfire, limb armor was shed to save weight, and crossbows and trebuchets had largely fallen out of use.

But suppose guns came later than they did historically? How might things have changed?

I'm guessing that plate armor would continue to spread in popularity, and perhaps there would be more complete armor for horses, but was there much more room for improvement? It seems to me that plate armor reached its peak in coverage and protection against non-gunpowder weapons in the early to mid-16th century, and I can't think of any ways to improve it. As for weapons, maybe someone would have eventually hit upon the idea of the compound crossbow to make spanning easier or to create a crossbow that was no more difficult to span but which packed more power. After all, pulleys were a well-known technology and without firearms, there would have been an impetus to improve crossbows further. I can't think of any ways to improve upon trebuchets with the technology of the 17th or 18th centuries, however. And perhaps instead of musketeers armies would have continued to heavily use well-armored pikemen and crossbowmen to counter knights and crush other infantry.

I don't know too much about arms and armor, though, and I'm interested to see what more experienced members can come up with!
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Timo Nieminen




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PostPosted: Mon 03 Jun, 2013 2:39 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

If the early development of guns had been delayed by 200 years, it would have changed the early history of the Ming a lot. Maybe stopped them from winning the end-of-Yuan civil wars.

If the gun came 200 years later, and the gun came to the West via the Mongol conquests, the gun might have missed this bus, and had to wait for later transmission to the West. Might have stopped the conquest of the Americas (or might not). It would have left Western ships less capable in battle compared to other shipping. Perhaps the Med is an Ottoman lake?

If the Rest of the World remains the same, and we can ignore the interaction between the West and the Rest, which is what is usually meant, then you have already given a plausible outcome.

But consider: a key element in the transformation of warfare over that time was improvements in state finances. More money was available, and armies became larger. (The desire for larger armies also drove rulers to seek increases in money; it wasn't just one-way.) Is enough armour available for the larger armies? What is better - larger numbers of less armoured soldiers, or just more soldiers? The number of armoured cavalry will be restricted by the number of warhorses of sufficient strength (the historical growth in armies led to use of horses which would not have been usable in a fully-armoured role).

Now consider fortress warfare without guns!

"In addition to being efficient, all pole arms were quite nice to look at." - Cherney Berg, A hideous history of weapons, Collier 1963.
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Michael Wiethop




Location: St. Louis
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PostPosted: Mon 03 Jun, 2013 3:54 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thanks for the swift reply!

I agree that the lack of gunpowder would have seriously hampered European efforts to control maritime trade. Cannons gave the Portuguese the firepower they needed to take over some of the spice trade despite operating so far from home against superior numbers. The Ming would probably also have been at a disadvantage, although they could have used the massed crossbow tactics of their ancestors. I'm not so sure the Ottomans would have benefited from the lack of gunpowder, though, since it was just as useful to them as to their enemies. And firearms seem to have played only a small role in the initial Spanish conquest of the Americas, though their lack would certainly have hurt English attempts to establish colonies there.

I hadn't considered the cost of armor as much of an obstacle. Partly I was betting on armor making techniques continuing to improve so as to reduce the cost of plate as had happened in previous centuries, and partly because I assumed armor was usually bought by individual soldiers rather than by the state. Of course, rulers with the money would try to equip and train standing armies, so then cost would be an issue.

Without cannons, sieges wold present a bit of a problem, since trebuchets simply can't match a cannon's power and the other methods (starvation, negotiation, undermining, ladders, towers, rams, etc) are slow and can be more easily countered than cannon fire. Maybe a better trebuchet or something totally new could help besiegers, but then walls could always be thickened to counter this. I've wondered if cannons helped monarchs to destroy the castles of rebellious vassals and thus helped with monarchs' attempts to increase the centralization of power, and if that's true, then a lack of cannons might have made this more difficult.

I still have no idea how 16th-century plate armor could be improved upon, though. It seems like it had reached its peak since it covered everything, had very few exposed gaps, gave excellent protection, and probably couldn't be made lighter without new materials or a compromise in protection.

And what exactly do you mean about the horses? How did the growth of armies lead to horses unable to bear the weight of heavy armor? Did it increase the demand of horses, and so to keep down costs smaller horses were used?
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Joe Fults




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PostPosted: Mon 03 Jun, 2013 4:29 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I'm going to say that I think outcomes pretty much stay the same but the start of European expansion just moves slower along the timeline. Still, once Europe reaches the technological tipping point to expand, I think it does without much more difficulty. All that really changes are the dates! Unless you say another culture gets to a number of key technologies and mainstreams them first, Europeans booming 200 years later maybe makes some changes and conquests harder, but I don't think it changes the fundamental dynamics of technical advantage, migration, disease and ultimately expansion.
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Benjamin H. Abbott




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PostPosted: Mon 03 Jun, 2013 6:06 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

In Europe, you'd presumably see crossbows, warbows, pike blocs, and men-at-arms persist about two hundred years longer. With handheld firearms or artillery, I suspect short weapons - shields, halberds, bills, two-handed swords, etc - would remain important. Military writers like Niccolò Machiavelli and Sir John Smythe recommended short weapons because of their advantages in committed melees. Tactical innovations could perhaps make bows and crossbows more effective, but I imagine grand melees between heavily armored infantry and cavalry would decide many battles. English armies might well still be using the bow and bill when guns finally come along.

Regardless of the price of armor, I can't see good soldiers discarding it en masse in an environment in which it protected against the majority of opposing weapons. Production resources could go toward armor instead of guns. Arguably, the lack of firearms might retard the expansion of armies seen in the early modern period and place more emphasis of the recruitment of skilled warriors.

Read my historically inspired fantasy fiction in here. I walk along a winding path set by Ludovico Ariosto, William Morris, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Ursula Le Guin.

Out of doubt, out of dark to the day's rising
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To hope's end I rode and to heart's breaking:
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Larry Bohnham





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PostPosted: Mon 10 Jun, 2013 12:43 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I take it your question was more directed at weapons and armor trends sans effective, man portable firearms, so I'll stick to that.

My experience is that fighting men are very conservative and cautious when it comes to "new fangled" things. Change generally requires some pressure in order to occur, and firearms were the primary pressure that caused the reduction of armor on the battle field. Most paradigms reach their zenith just as they become obsolete or displaced. So it seems with metal armor. Other than the increased use of through hardened steel instead of iron or case hardened steel, the harness of al whyte plate had reached its technical peak by roughly 1450. By the early 1500's, an armorer could build a harness that fully enclosed a man with complete articulation, eg. Henry VIII's harness, if you had the $$$$ to pay for it.

Since the English didn't set the long bow aside until well into the 17th century (Featherstone), I think it would have remained the mainstay of their forces. The continent was satisfied with the steel cross bow. Since it could defeat most plate at close range, there would be little pressure to deviate from that pattern. I suspect that most of the impetus would have been to develop a better "can opener" if you will, ie hammers, spikes, etc. I think the sword would have receded a bit in popularity for the common soldier, simply because they were expensive and not as effective in untrained/low trained hands against plate. The sword would have remained the status symbol of the nobility, of course.

Pure speculation. I would not be surprised if horse borne forces diverged into light and heavy categories. A fully armored horse and rider is not ideal for fast scouting or raiding and more suited to a "shock" charge over a close distance. Who in that society would have comprised the lighter force is difficult to say. Perhaps paid mercenary companies or low born professionals held on paid retainer in a monarch's/great lord's army?

I think the trend to larger forces on the battle field was as much a function of the increase in population after the Black Death era as anything else. There were just more people to go around, many of whom needed gainful employment. Wars and war filled periods often correlate to spikes in population (WW I and II, for instance).

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"Henry, get down off that horse with that sword, you'll put someone's eye out!" Mrs. Bolingbroke's advice to her son, Henry, on the eve of the battle of Agincourt
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Lafayette C Curtis




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PostPosted: Sat 22 Jun, 2013 12:47 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Larry Bohnham wrote:
Pure speculation. I would not be surprised if horse borne forces diverged into light and heavy categories. A fully armored horse and rider is not ideal for fast scouting or raiding and more suited to a "shock" charge over a close distance. Who in that society would have comprised the lighter force is difficult to say. Perhaps paid mercenary companies or low born professionals held on paid retainer in a monarch's/great lord's army?


This already happened in the real world. The late 15th century saw men-at-arms departing from their former multirole status (able to fight as heavy cavalry, light cavalry, or heavy infantry as the occasion demanded) and specialising in the heavy cavalry role as the light cavalry role was taken over by lighter troops such as coustiliers, mounted archers (who increasingly lost ther bows and adopted lances instead), or chevaux-legeres. They also seem to have become less eager to dismount as their infantry role was taken over by cheap but competent infantry that could be recruited in far larger numbers (such as the Swiss and the Landsknechts). It's worth noting, however, that good old Maximilian (before he became Emperor) still dismounted with his men-at-arms to stiffen his infantry in a very late 15th-century battle against the French.
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Doug Lester




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PostPosted: Sat 22 Jun, 2013 1:08 pm    Post subject: What if         Reply with quote

What if is a very hard game to play. Personally I think that there are multiple reasons for the decline of armor and I believe that the advent of the shoulder or hand held firearm is over rated. Late middle ages and renaissance plate armor was proofed against musket fire. Myth Busters showed replica paper and metal lamellar armor could resist shot from a replica 18th century flintlock pistol. I think that part of the problem also arose from the difficulty and expense of outfitting large numbers of troops with even partial plate armor. I was reading about the Swiss and Landsknect pikemen and it was noted that maybe only the first three or four ranks in the pike square were armored in plate. Those farther back tended to be unarmoured. Pictures of bowmen from that time also showed them frequently unarmoured.

Science, manufacturing, and metal work wouldn't have held still for 200 years awaiting the introduction of firearms onto the European battle scene. It would have carried on. Things that were developed in parallel with firearms development would still have been invented. That probably would have sped up the development of firearms once they arrived. So in the end much might not have been delayed. There would have undoubtedly been a period starting out where firearms were involved in the opening of the battle and abandoned during the general melee in favor of poll arms and edged weapons. That would have just advanced more quickly to the multiple shot shoulder and hand held firearms. The 200 year delay in the introduction of firearms would not have been a 200 year delay in development of them.
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Benjamin H. Abbott




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PostPosted: Sun 23 Jun, 2013 10:28 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Few if any wearable armors could stop a heavy musket ball except at long range. The weight of the evidence indicates that firearms played a critical role in reducing the importance and prevalence of armor.
Read my historically inspired fantasy fiction in here. I walk along a winding path set by Ludovico Ariosto, William Morris, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Ursula Le Guin.

Out of doubt, out of dark to the day's rising
I came singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
To hope's end I rode and to heart's breaking:
Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall!
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Kyle Eaton





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PostPosted: Fri 05 Jul, 2013 8:01 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Definitely would see more historical castles not built to defend against cannon. I say armour would still be upgraded to maximillian-style armour, and possibly further improved. Pikemen would remain the dominant force on the battlefield next to cavalry.
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