Friday, March 25, 2011

Book Review 1: 'Fighting Techniques of the Early Modern World'

I am on the hunt for some answers. My big question is "What is “push of pike”? In this post, I will look at a popular book that discusses weapons and combat in the period and place that interests us- Early Modern Europe, about 1500 to about 1650. Fighting Techniques of the Early Modern World is an important book to look at for a couple reasons. First, it is not overly scholarly. That is, this book is not written with language that is too elevated for most readers; further, it is not bogged down with evidence for claims, examinations of counter-arguments, or footnotes and sources. Instead, the book presents a simplified overview of the most important and widely used strategy, tactics, weapons, troop types, and combat techniques of the period. These subjects are painted with a wide brush. They are broadly characterized while minutia and exceptions are ignored. Conclusions/claims about a subject are almost always merely asserted without argument backing up the claim. These features make the book  a good resource for those of us who are just getting started or who desire a general overview of the period.
Here I will give a review of Fighting Techniques in light of the PoP Question. I shall present the most helpful data and analyze the conclusion the author draws, if any. My goal is to see what the book has to offer us in towards the PoP question (see What Is Push Of Pike? The Question Stated, March 11, 2011). We shall see which questions it gives answers to, and how far it take us towards some sound conclusions.

Most of the discussion pertinent to PoP is given in the first chapter, The Role of Infantry. Beginning in the 15th century with the Swiss, the thread of pike and shot combat is traced through the Landsknechts, Tercios into the 16th century battle at Pavia, the Dutch Reforms and the Swedish synthesis during the 30 Years War.
                Swiss: The Swiss are described as aggressive and quick in the charge, formed in dense columns of pikemen supported by halberds (pp. 8, 9, 11). Surprisingly, the Swiss pikemen receive the best attention in the section on cavalry (p. 70). Here we are told that the Swiss had been using the pike since at least the battle of Laupen in 1339, but that the Swiss pike block reigned by about 100 years later. Here is the meat of the description.
 “The huge Swiss pike block, protected at first by crossbows and handguns and then by arquebuses, became the dominant instrument for waging war, and was widely copied. It was an offensive weapon, which steamrolled its way over its enemies on foot and brushed aside those on horseback, and it could defend itself against cavalry from any direction.               
This is a good start at describing how the Swiss fought during the 15th and 16th centuries, but there is a lot left to do.
Landsknechts: The Landsknechts are characterized as more defensive in their use of pike formations. We are told that Pike and double-handed sword armed Doppelsoldner were stationed in the front of the pikemen in order to “cut their way into the enemy’s formation, making a gap that could be exploited by their own pikemen (p. 12).” The author’s are helpful to note that the Landsknecht pike was as sometimes as short as 14 feet (4.2m), and generally shorter than the Swiss pike.
                Spanish: The authors describe the Spanish Tercios as they were from about 1500 to the last decade of that century. The tercios were generally about a third pikemen. Another portion was  made up of sword and buckler armed light infantry, at times up to a third of the tercio, other times only making up a small contingent. The rest were missile troops, mostly crossbow, but  with increasingly large numbers of arquebus armed soldiers. [I want to point out that the authors note the use of sword-buckler troops for attacking fortifications (pg. 14). The shielded swordsmen, used by many nations, but probably most heavily by the Spanish, will be an area of continued focus in this blog.]
                A brief quote by Machiavelli describing of a pike engagement between the Spanish tercios and Swiss pikemen is given. Here it is.
“When they engaged the fight, the Swiss pressed so hard upon the enemy with their pikes that they soon opened their ranks, but the Spaniards, under the cover of their bucklers, nimbly rushed in with their swords and fought them so furiously that they slaughtered the Swiss and gained a complete victory.”

This is an oft cited passage from The Prince detailing the fighting mechanics of Spanish and French troops at the Battle of Barletta in 1502. Machiavelli’s excellent description gives us insight into how pikemen, as least the Swiss kind, fought and the authors are to be commended for including it. What we can gather from this quote is that when the Swiss came to a push of pike, they closed in with the Spanish pike formation so physically near as to push Swiss bodies aside and out of file and rank order. I shall leave a detailed examination of Machiavelli’s text for a later date and take for granted that the Spanish shield-buckler soldiers were grouped with a large formation of pike armed soldiers.
Neither  Machiavelli in this quote nor the authors anywhere in this book comment as to why the Swiss charged so quickly and came into combat so closely with the Spanish. I shall not posit an answer here since we want good evidence for any claims. Nonetheless, we can collect several good nuggets here: (1)That at least around the beginning of the 16th century, the Swiss fought so closely and so aggressively with enemy pike formations that their own pikes at times became disarrayed and their front ranks were breached with space enough for enemy troops to exploit by rushing in. (2) The Swiss were not prepared for, and probably not used to, sword and buckler armed troops taking advantage of such a weakness.
                The Battle of Pavia: The authors spend a couple pages discussing the increasing use of firearms and the experimentation of all armies in figuring out the best way to integrate pike, shot, mounted troops, artillery and other troop types. The sixteenth century is described as an age of experimentation and Pavia was a proving ground. At Pavia, the authors say that Swiss pike units engaged in “some brief ‘push of pike’ with a Spanish tercio after which the Swiss withdrew from the field. Further, two groups of mercenary Landsknechts are said to have engaged in hand to hand fighting where one large formation was decimated due to the “fierce melee.”
Again, the authors provide no further comment on these engagements and we are left to guess about what pike combat looked like. For example, from the Swiss description, we are somewhat justified to assume that the Swiss did not always fight in aggressive, do-or-die charges. Whatever manner they fought in on this occasion (only 23 years after Barletta mind you), they were able to disengage and make a safe retreat from the field.
                The Landsknechts on the other hand are described as having a tougher go of it. One group of Landsknechts were ‘wiped out’ by two groups of opposing Landsknechts, one charging the front and the other the flank. In the case of Landsknechts, whatever way the pikemen fought in, the outnumbered group of pikemen could not make a safe retreat and gross casualties resulted.
                What accounts for the grave differences between these two pike engagements? The authors do not say. The Swiss, who are characterized throughout the book as ‘swift’ and ‘aggressive’ make a safe retreat. The Landsknechts, who are characterized by the authors as more defensive than the Swiss, but no less skilled in pike fighting, are seen at Pavia either slaughtering or being slaughtered by one another. Neither pressing an attack upon an enemy until they are annihilated nor fighting to the last man can be accurately described as defensive!
                The Dutch Reforms: While not mentioning how the Dutch fought with the pike, there are four plates from de Gheyn’s famous military manual. We are told one is the “push of pike”, but the image receives no further detail. We are left to wonder if the soldier attacked by thrusting his spear using his arms and core muscles, or if he was to press home a pike attack by stepping forward and pushing the weight of his body and the forward momentum of his advance.

Fighting Techniques of the Early Modern World is really an excellent book and worth the money for those interested in an overview of infantry, cavalry, artillery, sea and siege warfare. But my aim is not to advertise or critique the book, but instead to discuss its help answering our questions.  Towards these ends, the book provides only negligible help. The book is supertitled Fighting Techniques and has combat skills in the subtitle. Because of these reasons, I expect to get a few more miles out of it concerning the techniques used by infantry soldiers in battle, as well as better descriptions of the skills necessary, learned and successfully employed in combat. Techniques and combat skills are mentioned, to be certain, but they are painted with too broad a brush, there are virtually no sources given, and the details given are always very short and too open to guesswork and interpretation to be very much help. A sad note about the book is that the contemporary art included is never cited and those of us who would love to investigate further images of battle are left, once again, guessing.

 "The Battle of Pavia" Hans Schaufelein, c. 1526
 Though it is unnamed and unsourced in Fighting Techniques, this image is said to show a push of pike in action. Note the two variations of holding the pike depicted.

The Book: Fighting Techniques Of The Early Modern World:  1500-1763, Equipment, Combat Skills, and Tactics. Jorgensen et al (Thomas Dunne Books, New York: 2007). Publisher’s price: 29.95; Amazon price is around 15-20$, found here -


  1. Certainly my own reading of secondary sources suggests that the Swiss moved quicker and more aggressively on the battle field; they surprised Charles the Bold on occasions.
    I suppose in wargame terms they were at an advantage in the charge but equal or even disadvantaged in the melee (due to disruption).
    But the sword and buckler success does beg the question why this particular troop type? Hadn't other armoured infantry fought the Swiss to no avail: is it something to do with shields, training, combination, preparation?
    Other examples of pikes are the wars of the early Tudors.
    There were German pikemen at Stoke field in 1487 but they were wiped out by a much larger, feudal force. At Flodden in 1513 an European trained Scottish army with pikes was defeated, after initial success, by the English after becoming literally bogged down after charging down hill. The English had men at arms, bills but most of their bows turned up later.
    As for the speed of the Swiss over others, I wonder whether it was because their units were mono-armed while Tercios and Landsknechts blended pikes, swords and missile troops (I understood that the swiss missile troops were usually separate from the main units).
    Until the Spanish and other powers mastered and blended the different units they may have been slower and more restricted eg charles the bold's attempts at mixing up his units came to naught against the Swiss.
    But when battlefield control over differing arms was achieved successfully as a system (rather than as a result of the superority of an individual command as in the ancient warfare), then complex armies became far more deadlier. If you want, it marks the beginning of the modern age of warfare.
    anyway more thoughts and questions.
    Good luck with the blog.

  2. Great stuff here, I hope your blog keeps going forward and you don't lose steam. I am also investigating this era of history for use in wargaming and D&D, so I will be paying attention to your blog.

    I found your blog by searching for 'push of pike' and, like you, have yet to find a really godo definition that can be translated into gaming terms...

  3. Very interesting stuff, keep up the good work. I'm interested in the French Wars of Religion, like the ECW&TYW but with Gendarmes heavy cavelry, Landsknechts and the swiss as well.

    All the best


  4. Although I'm more from the role playing & story telling field, I think you touch an intriguing subject! Makes me wonder about wargaming and role play combat rules again :-) Cheers


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