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Zugzwang The Pentagon

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In the interests of helping people understand military matters more completely, at least as far as my admittedly sophomoric understanding may guide them, I am going to here endeavor to impart some limited wisdom on the nature of conflict and of larger-scale operations in general. I claim neither particular academic mastery, nor first-hand experience, but rather the collected knowledge from many years of studying military matters as a hobby. I will of course attempt to avoid any errors, but if such issues are seen by potential readers, please do point them out, preferably with citations to prove the point definitively. I hope that this exercise will help me learn as much as it will help any particular reader.

As my time is currently limited, I will begin by avoiding sweeping theses on combat, but instead focus on correcting specific errors I have seen on not only this website but in popular fiction.

#1: People of the past are not fools.
#2: In Pre-Modern Warfare, Most Deaths Happened Off the Battlefield
#3: Battles Are Historically Uncommon
#4: Artillery is both and offensive and defensive weapon, and decided historical battles
#5: Overrated ways of fighting: Horse Archers, Katanas, and the Longbow

#6 Firearms are really rather good: their obvious benefits and less-obvious drawbacks.

#1:People of the past are not fools.

Cultures change over time. The society we live in today is extremely different to the society of a century ago, and even more different than the societies a millennium hence. The cultures of the past seem primitive to societies at a high point in their development, as we no doubt are, and I would even agree that in general societies in the past are less civilized, and less prone to genius or the progression of thought as we are today. That being said, people of the past innovated constantly, and shared our human drive to improve things.

This is especially true when lives are on the line. If you are a knight in the Holy Roman Empire, and your continued life depends on the weapons and armor you bring to the battlefield, you will choose the best on offer, and artisans who make weapons will try to make their wares better to better appeal to the users. Great innovation comes in spurts: firearms, aviation, industry, brilliant inventions radically change the face of the world, but things are being constantly improved in between these punctuation marks in the development of technology.

So, as this applies to the art of violence: weapons and armor worked. Especially weapons and armor that are seen throughout history are proven by the test of time, and would not survive if not effective. The spear had a useful place on battlefields from time immemorial to arguably the 1860s (if we include bayonets) for a very good reason: they worked well. Shields were used well into the late medieval period because they worked. Just because something is used does not mean it is the best on offer: a weapon (like the spear) may be chosen because of cost efficiency, or for a hundred other reasons, and different tools will always be good in different situations, but tools that are used en masse are almost always the best choice available to the people who used them.

The corollary to this is obvious: people do not move en masse from something which works to something which does not. When a weapon is phased out, a better alternative has been found. The example that jumps to mind is when individuals question with incredulity why the nascent firearm would be adopted when the longbow was “better”. There is always a reason.

There is always a reason for a change, and that reason is almost always because an alternative is better. With the invariably incomplete record of the past, the reasons may not always be clear, and may be completely unknown, but instead of assuming that our lack of understanding implies idiocy on the part of our ancestors, the better course of action is to assume that the people of the past had a reason for their change.

One point to remember is that in the pre-modern era, ideas moved very slowly. Only with the printing press did a true spike in the transmission of ideas occur. Ideas moved slowly, and an advance in swordsmithing in Geatland could take decades to reach smiths in Cadiz. The process occurred by trade, or word of mouth, or intermarriage. It could also happen in war. An excellent example is the radical changes in formation seen in the Carthaginian armies of the second punic war, from phalanx to looser formation, from long pike to shorter roman spears and swords. War spreads ideas, and its lessons are learned very quickly.

To summarize: only good ideas are adopted en masse, and good ideas are only abandoned en masse when a better alternative is available. It may be better for different reasons, or we may not fully understand why the change was made, but in almost every case changes in weapons are to new weapons and armor more efficient in warfare.

#2: In Pre-Modern Warfare, Most Deaths Happened Off the Battlefield

This point does not need much explanation. 99.9% of the time on campaign is spent not fighting, either sitting around a city one is besieging or just walking from one place to another. Being on campaign is a very dirty, usually very hungry pursuit, and pre-modern medicine, sanitation and economies were not up to the standard. As such, huge numbers of people died on the campaign, especially because as I will mention later, battles are historically uncommon.

There is another point to be made, however. This may seem counter-intuitive, but pre-modern battles tended to have surprisingly low casualty rates at the battles themselves. Pre-modern battles were won by morale, and the armies of the day tended to lose heart and flee with less prompting than video games or books will have one believe. This did not mean that battles did not cause huge casualties to the losing side (another reason why battles were uncommon). When a battle is lost, the winning army pursues the losing army almost without exception, and it is in this pursuit that the lion’s share of casualties occur. Cavalry being the chief instrument of this pursuit, the winners ride down the fleeing losers, who without cohesion or leadership are struck down in small groups until usually darkness, or natural features, stop the slaughter. This is one of the reasons battles are usually fought in the morning: more time to chase people down. An illustrative example of this phenomenon is Alexander the Great, who indeed never lost a major battle, and suffered TREMENDOUSLY low casualty rates among his forces precisely because of this fact.

To summarize: people in the past didn’t know what sanitation is, and battles end before most of the deaths actually happen.

#3: Battles Are Historically Uncommon

Napoleon is the real game-changer here. He pushed for battles, breaking from the Frederick the Great model of positioning, sieges and intimidation. After Napoleon, and his apostles Jomini and Clausewitz, everything changed, but that is a different post entirely. Historically, the battle is a universally rare thing. It may be more common in some eras than others, but they are always less common than sieges, with very few, but important, exceptions. All the time that a medieval campaign was being conducted, sieges were happening at every major settlement. Sieges were unavoidable by the defender: cities cannot move, and armies can. Therefore, any army that wants to conduct a siege, and is large enough to conduct one, can. Fortified points were bases for the enemy that could not be left alone, they were part of the logistical chain, and they were the seats of regional governance, and thus, valuable to attackers.

They were also valuable to defenders. A defending force is much better off with a great curtain of stone to stand on/behind, with warm shelter, clean water and food stores to hand. As such, a defending commander would very much like to stay in one, rather than meeting his enemy in the field.

And that leads to my final point on this matter, which can be followed up on with a rather good video by the usually-reliable Lindybeige (youtube.com/watch?v=7IO-CooA4_Y). A pitched battle in the pre-modern world will almost never happen if both sides do not want it to happen. Ambushes happened, sure, the Teutonberg forest being the premier ancient example, but they were very hard and relied on good intelligence on one side and bad intelligence on the other side, which was remarkably uncommon. Battles are INCREDIBLY risky, and determined not only by the comparative merits of opposing forces and commander but frequently by luck, at least in some part. A defending force that is not absolutely confident in itself can usually retreat behind those walls they built for just such a purpose.

Of course, gunpowder helped change this, but with even with Vauban’s considerable innovations ignored, a defending force can always sally forth after a siege has been conducted, and before that, big walls and good supplies are a considerable boon to defending troops.

Battles can be forced, as Napoleon was so good at doing, and this was when battles happened without the wishes of both sides, but these situations where a defender was for some reason forced from his specially-constructed fortifications were rare, and as such, battles were fairly rare.

The exception to this argument is when armies move at different speeds, which happened only very rarely during the ancient world. The chief example is of course the Mongol hoards, or other steppe forces who reached strategic speeds not equaled until the truly modern period. Steppe forces, cavalry-bound as they were, were excellent at forcing battles, and were rather good at winning them, and as such their number of battles was very, very, high.

But even them, with all their battle-forcing capability, were still excellent at siegecraft. Because even once the battle is won entirely, there are all these fortifications which have to be besieged one at a time. And these sieges will always outnumber the amount of battles in the ancient world.

#4: Artillery is both and offensive and defensive weapon, and decided historical battles

Napoleon understood that, in his day, artillery won battles. He was famous for using it, and it brought him brilliant success at Jena, Austerlitz and the pyramids. Artillery was the deciding factor in battles from the days of Gustavus Adolphus all the way to the fields of Flanders in World War 1, and has was and still is used in many capacities.

Artillery started far too large to maneuver, and far too unreliable to be a major force in the ways of war. Artillery’s first real debut on the stage of history was when it battered down the walls of Constantinople, bearing its riches to the Turks. It developed in leaps and bounds, until during the Thirty Years War it became reliable enough to be safe for the crews and light enough to move around the battlefield with the troops.

Guns vary in weight, and the larger the bore the more powerful they are. The granularities of the use of artillery is a whole book unto itself, but there are important things to make note of that can be covered in this short form.

Most artillery was not kept in a grand battery on the battlefield. In sieges, guns were kept as far from the walls as could be afforded, but on the battlefield most artillery pieces were placed in front of infantry. This seems counter-productive: surely valuable artillery pieces and their defenseless crews should be screened from enemy cavalry or musket-fire? The reality is different. Artillery before the ~1840s fired something called canister shot, or a derivative thereof. Canister shot is like a modern shotgun shell: a thin canister of tin or iron containing hundreds of small metal balls, that when fired spread out in a deadly cone. The range for canister shot was much, much longer than the effective ranges of musketfire, and as such cannon would lead infantry and fire into the enemy’s ranks to great effect.

Cavalry were even more vulnerable. Canister shot proved excellent at stopping horsemen from attacking by decimating horses and riders alike, and even if cavalry managed to clear the crews from the guns, to dismount and spike them would be nothing short of suicide, since the cannon were almost always within musket range of friendly infantry.

Rifling changed this: all of a sudden the effective range of infantry fire was 500 yards rather than 100 yards, and as such canister shot was forced to retreat behind the lines of infantry. Fortunately for artillerists, cannon developed in leaps and bounds, it too being rifled and equipped with new complex shells to be fired more accurately. By 1871, German Krupp cannon were the dominant force on the battlefields of Sedan in the Franco-Prussian war, with light cannon trailing infantry and raining shrapnel while miles behind heavy guns fired the same shells, which exploded above enemy infantry, spreading the same cones of leaden death their predecessors 70 years ago had done.

In fact, artillery, though it started to change after small arms, so outpaced it's small contemporary that its heyday, WW1, in which it utterly decided conflicts until the end of the war, was still to come after its already proud showing at Sedan.

#5: Overrated ways of fighting: Horse Archers, Katanas, and the Longbow

Let’s get the most controversial out of the way first: the katana is a rather bad sword, at least compared to its contemporaries. The Japanese isles are cursed with rather bad-quality iron, and a lack of understanding of the steel-making methods of the west, and as such the Japanese made steel which needed to be pattern-welded, by folding the sword and hammering it long. This is not some special way of making swords: the Geats [I think, I may be wrong. Some ancient Scandinavian tribe, regardless], made swords in a similar method, though their way of working impurities out of steel was rather more refined, and invented a millennia and a half before.

Regardless, even ignoring the rather crap material, the katana is not much good at most things. It was never a battlefield weapon, with the real work being done by spears or bows. The katana does not permit the use of a shield, and its handguard [one of the most important parts of a sword] is rather lacking. It is rather short for being a two handed blade, and is remarkably fat. It has very, very poor armor piercing capabilities. It’s point is not excellent for thrusting, either, and when faced with the Portugese fencers in the 1600s it was trounced by the combination of rapier and main gauche. It is an excellent draw-cutting weapon, and many were works of great artistry.

It was a mark of station. It was the brand that showed the world you are a Samurai, and should be respected. It was also a weapon of extreme conservatism, becoming a religious symbol and a cultural icon, not changing significantly for nearly 600 years. As much as one might want them to be the best things ever, they are simply not. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either enamored with their considerable beauty or trying to sell you something.

The other two items are rather more difficult, as both were rather effective. However, like everything, they had their pros and cons, and were situationally extremely viable.

The English Longbow won fame at the Battle of Agincourt, and rightfully so. It did its job rather well. Its job, however, was not to kill enemy knights. The longbow was excellent at out-ranging enemy crossbowmen, hurting well-armored knights, and most importantly killing horses. There are no accounts of a longbow arrow piercing a suit of plate armor’s strong points that are reliable. There is one account that I am aware of, in which a longbow arrow pierces through a visor, but the chronicler makes it very clear this was an exceptionally unlikely event, and one that surprised those who saw it.

Agincourt was a battle that was famed for having a mass French Knight charge, and an extraordinary amount of prisoners taken. These do not make sense if the longbow could pierce plat armor. Like I said before, people in history did not do what did not work, they learned lessons. The longbow ended the famous charge by knocking out knights and most importantly killing horses, which threw their riders to the ground [incidentally, plate armor only weighs like 30 pounds: it is very easy to move around in, unless you are trying to swim. Getting up in plate armor, excluding sets made for jousts for reasons I’ll not cover here, is rather easy.] These knights were then captured while the longbowmen made short work of the unarmored soldiers to the rear.

The horse archer is a very good weapon system. It is fast, and has an excellent ability to fight at range. The steppe tribes famous for them were born in the saddle, and were masters of the form. However, there are many issues with the horse archer.

Besides the logistical problems, horse archers cannot do 2 very important things. They cannot outrange foot archers, and they cannot hold territory. They are reliant on avoiding combat, and thus can be thrust off territory, and the fact that the rider is mounted prohibits the large bows that footmen can use, hurting the range dramatically. Ironically, the English longbow would be the best weapon to use against horse archers.

Horse archers did great things, but they rely on not engaging in a straight up fight with the enemy. When this is not possible, they get wrecked. The Russians kicked the steppe nomads out of Russia by advancing slowly, building forts, and eventually forcing the steppe horse archers to fight or be shoved out of Russia slowly. The Russians had cannon which could outrange the horse archers, and were safe behind their quickly-built forts from enemy missiles.

Napoleon fought them on the open field, and once again, canister shot proved far more effective at longer ranges than the horse archer bows, and musketfire let infantry reach out and touch the horse archer, spelling their doom.

Horse archers were expensive [horses were expensive, and the archers needed a few each], they required extensive training, and were limited to harassing warfare or supporting other armed formations. They were good at all of these things, but are not the be-all end-all of medieval combat.

Ask questions, pout out mistakes, and give feedback, please. I'm alway looking to learn and help learn, and feedback is excellent motivation for me, both good and bad.

#6 Firearms are really rather good: their obvious benefits and less-obvious drawbacks.

NB: This section is intended for generalities about firearms which are usually true, but have not always been so. Everything here is true for modern firearms, and is at least entirely the case as far back as the minie ball. I would be willing to stick by all of this going back to the campaigns of Gustavus Adolphus or Jan Zizka, but the points herein become less true as firearms get older.

Firearms are really rather good. There is a very good reason every army uses guns rather than bows, pikes or cavalry. Modern assault rifles can punch a hole in dime from a very long range, very quickly, and with much more killing potential than some bloke with a sword. A firearm is, in almost every case, the best weapon for the job. The biggest exception is at the closest of close ranges, but even then: a handgun will do wonders against some fuck with a knife.

The chief advantages of firearms are myriad. First, they are very loud. This is often a good thing, especially on the battlefields of before circa-1865, when mass infantry had to be scared off the field, and when horses had to be dissuaded from charging said infantry. The sound of a firearm is a scary thing, and as will be mentioned, morale wins battles.

Firearms are easy to use. The use of a crossbow is hard to teach. The mastery of a traditional bow is a lifetime’s work. There is certainly skill in using firearms, and in the modern age the importance of training on soldiers has only ever increased, and at a frightening pace, but if you hand someone a gun they will learn to be proficient, if not skillful, much, MUCH quicker than any other weapon with the possible exception of the spear. This is more true when the ability for a soldier to aim their weapon was less important thanks to the inaccuracy of the weapon, and their targets were blocks of hundreds of men in close formation. (It should be noted that soldiers needed to become better trained in general as gunpowder influenced tactics, but the point here is that the actual use of the weapon is easy to learn)

Firearms are very deadly. People do not always die when they get shot. Adrenaline does bizarre, counter-intuitive things to a person, and in many cases enemies are not immediately debilitated like shown in movies. It also usually takes a bit for someone to die once they’ve been shot, but that is a point for a later entry. A bullet will take someone out of the fight very reliably, and will do a great deal of damage to whoever is hit. Bullets also are excellent at piercing armor, much better than other weapon systems. The English longbow may not have been able to reliably pierce plate armor, but the gun sure could, and was the chief reason for the elimination of plate harnesses from the face of warfare.

Firearms kill people from distances at which you cannot be stabbed/hit/sliced by your opponent. This does not need explanation.

You cannot avoid an accurately-shot bullet. Bullets move very, very fast. How fast depends on the weight and shape of the projectile and the charge behind it, but even subsonic rounds cannot be seen by the eye fast enough to be reacted to, let alone blocked, or dodged. Normal humans, or even truly exceptional humans, cannot get out of the way of a bullet, nor can they cut them in half. A point to remember, if a bullet hits most shields, it will actually be just as bad for the person holding it whether or not it penetrates [which it almost always will]. Wood shields splinter, and those splinters kill. Most naval deaths to cannon-fire in the age of sail were from splinters of wood. Metal spalls: flakes of metal from hard steel especially break off and work just like wood shrapnel. This spalling was one of the main reasons the T-34 was a pretty terrible tank to serve in (and a rather poor tank in general, which I might address later).

This is all fairly intuitive, but it bears repeating. Devil May Cry, or John Woo, or whatever, seems to have convinced many people here that swords can do well against firearms. There are also the perennial stories of “muh katana glorious Nippon steel cuts through gun barrel/cuts bullet”, which are simply not possible, or at least so astronomically unlikely that it could not be called reliable. Though, unlikely things do happen. Frequently on battlefields bullets which collided mid-air are found, so who knows when something with million-to-one odds will happen. (one time per million, probably)

So, the drawbacks. Until the bayonet, firearm-equipped soldiers were very vulnerable in melee. And, in the early days of the firearm, the bayonet plugged the barrel, usually being unable to remove until after the battle. Firearms are also very expensive, and had to make. At least, compared to swords. A sword is a sharpened iron bar, a spear a point of metal on a stick. A firearm is a piece of complicated machinery which requires more man hours to create, and thus costs more. They also shoot bullets, which cost money.

On this note, the chief drawback of firearms is logistics. As technology has improved, the drain of resources each soldier has on his nation has increased, and firearms were the real beginning of this trend. Guns need ammo, and especially in the case of artillery, this ammo is heavy, and you really do need a lot of it. The guns themselves are heavy also, and until the invention of the internal combustion engine a long artillery train meant a very limited strategic speed, something which was obviously acceptable to those who wanted cannon on the battlefield, but is absolutely still an important consideration.

Points to be made later:

Armor is much better than you think, and fights in armor look very odd to the uninitiated.

Historic battles are won by morale

The way people fight is defined by their culture.

Battles are won off of the battlefield: tactics are less important than one might think.

How tanks are actually used and why Kursk is a bad example

The myth of the short war, hopefully featuring quotes from Professor John Lynn

Concentration vs dispersion and the eternal debate therein

Discipline: the most important factor of war and the chief change of the Military Renaissance

Jomini vs Clausewitz: Napoleon's Inheritors.
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24 Nov 2015 15:36
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TheEvanCat Kanye Weast

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You forgot the paperwork and cleaning.

Modern warfare is paperwork and cleaning. I've spent more time behind a broom than an M4.
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24 Nov 2015 16:44 24 Nov 2015 16:54
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Zugzwang The Pentagon

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as I mentioned briefly, 99% of the time on campaign, soldiers are not fighting. Most of soldiering is walking, cleaning, cooking, watching for the enemy, and so often doing a whole lot of nothing. This ratio has changed over time, obviously, with the most fighting per day likely in the Wars of German Unification or perhaps in the invasion of Europe in 1944-5, but the principle has never been inapplicable.
24 Nov 2015 17:30 24 Nov 2015 17:46
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Dinh AaronMk اجتهاد

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as I mentioned briefly, 99% of the time on campaign, soldiers are not fighting. Most of soldiering is walking, cleaning, cooking, watching for the enemy, and so often doing a whole lot of nothing. This ratio has changed over time, obviously, with the most fighting per day likely in the Wars of German Unification or perhaps in the invasion of Europe in 1944-5, but the principle has never been inapplicable.


No, the ratio hasn't changed much. The bulk of a lot of military operations is non-combat duty. You not only have the principles of cleaning and cooking to take care of to maintain a basic level of humanity but you have the management of a large logistics framework requiring truck drivers moving porta-potties from point A to point B, medical personnel overseeing not only for the care of soldiers behind enemy lines but civilian casualties, intelligence gathering which'd be a lot of radio interception, translating, code-breaking, and finding informants without necessarily going out into the field to kill anything. You have communication operations to organize where what report goes where. Civilian operations to keep the occupied territories at least a little happy and to ensure the right information goes back home so the civilian population supporting you gets the right information.

You need people to keep security, sitting over a FOB or some deployment position to make sure that not only do people not break in to cause problems but the young privates that just came in from basic don't get drunk and bored and steal from the cantina. And then you have basic military administration with all of the non-combat field work funneling into central command where it's processed centrally with people running accounts, managing liasons with national or foreign news, and so on and so on before it hits the commander.

At the end of the day the combat duties of the entire army is rather minimal. But really: this sort of structure was not around all the time and it wasn't until Napoleon and his Grand Army that this structure that this system came into place. Prior, more men may have been devoted to combat duties than non-combat duties and would have operated in a less ideal matter. Under the Napoleonic structure you get less combat personnel but the administrative structure makes a single soldier fight with the capabilities of ten men by relieving the stress of having to do multiple functions on his own (supplying his own gear, which was the norm in medieval armies for instance; that's now all handled through the quarter master and his clerks).

So while maybe you're not always fighting in the field back then and even now: there's far few people devoted to actual combat roles than there was two-hundred years ago but doing their combat a lot more effectively.

Before Napoleon often who commanded what was up to negotiations between the commanders or even the nobility (in the context of the middle ages) but that was rarely in bureaucratic management, it was more in what part of the army they were to lord over (center, right, left flanks for basic terms) and who got what or did what during or after the fact.
24 Nov 2015 17:48 24 Nov 2015 18:01
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Zugzwang The Pentagon

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@Dinh AaronMk

This is a point worth going into more detail on, and I can see how I was unclear. While I wait, for everyone else: Dinh is absolutely right, the proportion of combat personnel has plummeted, and those combat troops are still spending the huge, huge percentage of their time not fighting.
24 Nov 2015 17:51
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Dinh AaronMk اجتهاد

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@Zugzwang

And now that is settled, time for a gift.

24 Nov 2015 23:33
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Rain Acolyte of the Smut God

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You forgot the paperwork and cleaning.

Modern warfare is paperwork and cleaning. I've spent more time behind a broom than an M4.


This, I've seen more bottles of Brasso and General Cleaner than I've ever gone through Magazines through my M16.
25 Nov 2015 18:28
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Willy Vereb The Wordy Engineer

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I have mixed thoughts on the firearms part. While largely agree certain things I feel are inaccurate.

First off, firearms were spread because they are cheap. Crossbows gradually phased out because they were so complicated and expensive. Bowmen required people who were practically born archers. Both of these weapons were approaching their zenith while firearms were at the beginning of their development. You could have monstrous longbows with pointed arrow heads which could threaten even fully armored soldiers but you also required monstrous people to operate these. You could have huge and complex arbalests to take care of anything in your way but they were slow, heavy and very expensive. Guns are just a metal tube filled with gunpowder and a lead ball.

As for crossbows requiring lots of training? I have no source to rely on but I am seriously doubt this. Crossbows are the predecessors of guns. Unlike bows their aiming method is far less up to feeling and guesswork. Contemporary guns require to strictly follow several steps and safety measures to operate. Gun drills are the origin of modern military training. The difference why crossbows required more skills is within the doctrine sprouting from the nature of these weapons. Crossbows are relatively low velocity projectile weapons which maintains most of its energy even near the end of its path but for long range shooting it has to be angled accordingly. Guns are high-velocity projectile weapons shot in a straight line which get weaker with range. Crossbows are more expensive thus comparatively rare. Guns are cheap and used in masses.
Crossbowmen were often prestigious mercenaries by this time. Gunmen were a mass infantry who were made out of peasants under a relatively short time.
You could say the whole myth of muskets being useless in anything but volley fire stems from here. No, their first use as the Handgonne was as siege weapon designed to shoot down castle defenders or in reverse. During sieges range is everything so you can bet they didn't just stand right next to the enemy's walls. Neither they were lamenting "Oh no, they shoot with arrows! There's no way we can attack them from that far!". Seriously, if anyone had a weird idea like this, just forget it. Compared to modern guns the muskets were sure less accurate. Black powder is weaker, musket balls are heavy and not even tight fit (which is no error, there are several advantages to this outside accuracy) and then there's the obviously lackluster quality control compared to nowadays. They had issues with accuracy but so did any other weapon. Bows and crossbows were no better. If anything contemporary tactics often preferred to angle both these weapons by 45 degrees and send volley of bolts and arrows as far as they could.

Okay, back to point. Muskets at average were fired from 30-50 meters. Why? Because that's how their doctrine worked and it was undoubtedly efficient. Here's a few points why they needed to do this:
1.) Muskets are direct fire weapons, any attempts at angling their bullets was unpredictable
2.) Musket balls grow weaker with distance 30-50m was the best they could be any use against armors (well, the non musket-proof kind, at least)
3.) Musketeers had far less trainign than any traditional ranged combatant in the past.
4.) 30-50 meters was the optimal distance where hundreds of guns firing at once could fill out most of the area in front of them with lead.

So yeah, this has nothing to do with people suddenly going stupid and opting for an inferior weapon. Neither the truth is "Gunz too OP, plz nerf". Guns, bows and crossbows all had their advantages and disadvantages. If we are at it let's briefly crush a myth called as "firearm phobia". This is a curious thing in fantasy where authors avoid guns because it'd render armor meaningless.
The reality was pretty much the opposite. Plate armors were partially made with firearms in mind. That and because chainmails were too cumbersome and expensive (yup, that's another common mistake of medieval fantasy, you should look it up). Plate armors pretty much existed at the same time as guns and we already pointed out that people weren't stupid during that time, either.

That is because while contemporary muskets had a chance to pierce armors from 30-50 meters this wasn't an universal fact. Actually for a truly killing blow musketeers had to let armored soldiers as close as 15 meters. Basically just barely enough to fire off a single volley. Of course this rarely happened for obvious reasons so for the rest of the medieval times heavy armors actually did their job quite well.
Of course as time went on the muskets improved, got bigger, better designed and used more powder. Coupled with their improved reliability they were an increasing sight in combat. Still, people designed armors which can handle these. This is what they called "musket-proof". Such armors usually combined two sheets of different hardness and pressed together. While such method was better than just thickening the armors it still increased the weight somewhat. In addition crafting these was an art which not everyone could do well. So yeah, with armor no longer giving a reliable protection by the 16th century full body armors gradually went out of fashion. That is because unlike the common perception knights aren't stupid to wear armor they can't comfortably move in. a medieval knight's equipment weighed about half as much as a modern soldier's and it mostly involved the plate armor with its weight distributed evenly on the body. Also while after a certain point full body armors were no longer practical the breastplates and helmets never truly died out and technically we are using these even now, even if they underwent tons of improvement.

So yeah, next time please avoid freaking out when your players wish to build muskets in your "pure medieval setting".

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26 Nov 2015 1:31
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Zugzwang The Pentagon

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@Willy Vereb

Thanks for commenting Willy, I appreciate people trying to fix wrong ideas. A lot of what you said is snackurate, and I feel like my broad overview without mentioned dates may have been a cause for confusion. However, I do have some problems with your counterpoints. I am on vacation currently, and thus do not have access to either reliable internet or most of the literature I would like to rebut your claims, but I will do my best.

“Guns spread because they were cheap”: This was certainly one of the reasons why they found prominence, but certainly not the main one. To paraphrase from the best book I have to hand in rural Wisconsin, “War Throughout the Ages” [a book that, while excellent, definitely shows its age], the very early handgonne was expensive and rare. The gunsmith was a prestigious, in-demand and difficult profession, and the earliest gunsmiths were given great deference. This is in addition to the gunpowder being both much more expensive than it became, and requiring skill on the battlefield, since gunsmiths would need to be retained since the powder was mixed on site rather than before, since no one listened to Roger Bacon when he said it should be wetted. Guns became much, much cheaper, mostly as powder became cheaper, standardized calibers were introduced by the French and later the world, and better metalworking made the guns faster to produce, but in the very earliest of days the firearm was not taken because it was cheap. It was, however, as you said, and as I pointed out above, very quick to train, at least once the matchlock became the standard and tactics had not evolved to incorporate the firearm’s advantages.

The personal firearm, and indeed gunpowder weapons as a whole were pioneered by Jan Zizka, the smartest military mind no-one has ever hear of. To quote directly from Lynn Montross, “Armor had become so stout that at ordinary battlefield ranges it resisted both arrows and crossbow bolts. Only the handgun remained effective, and Zizka eventually armed a third of his infantry with this weapon”. This was in the first half of the 15th century, and was well before standardized caliber, better powders or indeed the musket had been introduced. When these improvements became available, the firearm showed its dominance even more decisively.

Your points about crossbows are accurate. Crossbowmen are much easier to train than gunners. However, just like at the beginning of the civil war, accounting for projectile drop is difficult. My only point was that foot soldiers equipped with firearms were comparatively easier to train that crossbowmen, not that the crossbow is somehow super had to master.

“Gunmen were a mass of infantry who were made out of peasants under a relatively short time”: not necessarily. Again, here we are faced with an issue because neither of us mentioned dates, so I am wondering when you are talking about exactly. Any time past 1500 or so would be, in my opinion, incorrect. At this time, massed gunners of the French had smashed condottieri employed by Venice and Milan, and the battle of Cerignola had proved the utter, ruthless effectiveness against the Spaniards. Professional armies were outfitting soldiers that, while only at the beginning of the Early Modern period, were already becoming far more professional than the mass levies of a hundred years prior.

“Muskets at average were fired from 30-50 meters”

Certainly against heavy armors from the oldest firearms, this is true. I assume you are talking about the very beginning of firearm development, because this was snackurate then. Of course, as time went on, this range increased to ~100 yards in the Napoleonic wars, perhaps more, and firearms became more and more able to counter armor, with the standardized firearms of Adolphus or the Hugenots being far superior to the earliest weapons.

“Actually for a truly killing blow musketeers had to let armored soldiers as close as 15 meters.”

I assume you mean ‘gunner’ rather than ‘musketeer’, or ‘arquebussier’, sine muskets never faced fully armored knights in the field as far as I am aware. Also, the musket which phased out the arquebus in the 17th century were more than capable of punching through anti-musket plate armor from further than 15 meters, thanks to better powders, better shot and a longer barrel made possible by the lighter construction.

Again, this changed as firearms developed. Early in the firearm’s history this is true, certainly. But, as firearms developed, and armors developed with them to ensure this tiny killing range, the armor conked out first. The efforts to make the mounted knight a citadel failed to outlast the efforts to make the gun better, and as such armors were dropped.

“So yeah, this has nothing to do with people suddenly going stupid and opting for an inferior weapon. Neither the truth is "Gunz too OP, plz nerf".”

You’re right, of course. But, as I said, I never mentioned a date for a good reason. Firearms were not thrown out the window in the middle of the 15th century because they had value, and they were not immediately adopted by everyone because they had serious drawbacks. But, as you said: by that point, crossbows, wooden siege weapons and bows had reached their zenith, while firearms had massive potential to grow. Firearms were slowly adopted more and more as both they developed and the ways people used them developed. Men like Adolphus, Zizka, Henry IV and Cromwell adapted to the firearm and used the firearm as it changed. I am not saying that the medieval firearm was the best thing ever. I will make my previous points much more clear in this regard. However, as firearms became better they became the best method for fighting, and as such people in the past, who were not fools, used them more and more, until the fields of Jena and Borodino had tens of thousands of muskets on them and not a crossbow in sight.

In brief refutation to your other points.

“chainmails were too cumbersome and expensive”

Absolute nonsense. Chain was never the primary method proposed to stop gunfire, and unless you are talking about some bizarre variant I have never heard of, Chainmail was never ‘too cumbersome’. In fact, it is highly comfortable. I wear my set around the house, and it does not restrict my movement whatsoever. As for being expensive, it certainly was, but it was not prohibitively expensive to the increasingly affluent Europe which saw the rise of the gun. It was less cost efficient than the breastplate and brigandine, certainly, but that does not mean it was expensive. Chainmail is also less restrictive than breastplates, by the way.

“Plate armors pretty much existed at the same time as guns and we already pointed out that people weren't stupid during that time, either.

I mention this above, but you’re right. They did exist at the same time. What I am trying to say is that while plate struggled to outpace the firearm it eventually hit its limit. Also, just as weapons like the katana remained in use for social reasons, it is important to note that the European mindset of armored, noble, cavalry dominance certainly extended the life of the plate harness far past what would be seen as cost effective. Great upheavals like these always meet with conservative pressures.

a medieval knight's equipment weighed about half as much as a modern soldier's and it mostly involved the plate armor with its weight distributed evenly on the body

My prospective section “armor is better than you thinl” will talk about this, and you are mostly right. Full plate harnesses weighed somewhere around 30 pounds in the late medieval period pre-firearms, which is not a lot, and it was excellently distributed by the suit. “Half as much as a modern soldier’s” is wrong, however. Modern US army plate carriers weigh about 16 pounds. Plate armor weighs about half as much as all the gear they’re carrying, which can sometimes reach over a hundred pounds, but knights would be expected to carry similar loads when out of combat.

Remember: no one willingly goes into combat weighed down. Modern soldiers do not fight with 100 pounds of kit on their back, and knights would have been burdened with more than just their armor when not in combat.
28 Nov 2015 19:42
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Agent B52

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Point of order, the katana was in fact very good at slicing through un- or lightly armoured flesh. This is what it was designed for, and what it excelled at.

As far as splitting bullets are concerned though, well I feel it is best summed up by the following clip.


Note the still very lethal high velocity shrapnel btw.
28 Nov 2015 19:55 28 Nov 2015 19:58
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Zugzwang The Pentagon

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@Agent B52

I know that blades can in fact split bullets. Most bullets are designed to fragment, mushroom, and generally do things that make them really good at soft tissue damage and really bad at "not getting cut in half". The idea is that a human WIELDING a sword cannot move the blade to cut/block the bullet. Bullets are too fast and the human mind, let alone the human arm, is too slow in almost every case, ESPECIALLY in a battlefield situation.

I never said the katana was bad at wounding the unarmored. I assumed its use in that field was implied when I said it was a good draw-cutting sword. The katana could really fuck up an unarmored peasant. But, the point is, so can any sword, and so can spears/bows. As such, and for many, MANY other reasons, they were the dominant forces on the Japanese battlefield.

I really should make a point about battlefield weapons, and why spears were so ubiquitous.

An additional note: the katana is a very poor weapon for fighting enemies in full plate armor. This is going to be in another section, but the long story short is: armor piercing becomes pretty much moot once late medieval plate harnesses came into vogue, and the katana lacks a great many qualities that fighting people in armor requires. It has a poor stabbing point. It is curved, so half-swording is less effective. It is short, so it is a rather poor aide to grappling, and its guard is not robust enough to hook, or to really be much help in controlling an opponent's blade.
28 Nov 2015 21:34 28 Nov 2015 23:53
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Agent B52

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@Agent B52

I know that blades can in fact split bullets. Most bullets are designed to fragment, mushroom, and generally do things that make them really good at soft tissue damage and really bad at "not getting cut in half". The idea is that a human WIELDING a sword cannot move the blade to cut/block the bullet. Bullets are too fast and the human mind, let alone the human arm, is too slow in almost every case, ESPECIALLY in a battlefield situation.


I only posted that video to demonstrate that the quality of the sword has very little to do with it's bullet splitting abilities. It was intended as a clarification though I should have added that.

I never said the katana was bad at wounding the unarmored. I assumed its use in that field was implied when I said it was a good draw-cutting sword.


This point of yours however was not readily apparent. Rather than a specific set of techniques such as draw cuts, it is the way the katana curves that allows it to cut through flesh and light armour so easily. This is also the reason why various types of sabre and scimitars had curves whenever strong armour for whatever reason was not normally encountered. A good example from the Napoleonic wars is the British 1796 pattern cavalry sabre.

((As a short, humorous aside: The 1796 pattern tended to wound and maim rather than kill. Allegedly the French considered this poor sport and petitioned the British to adopt a more lethal design. The British response was a more polite form of 'lolno, working as intended motherfuckers'.))

My point is the very issue that made the katana a relatively mediocre sword, namely low quality materials, is the same issue that made it a viable weapon. A katana-wielder was very unlikely to encounter someone wearing full plate. When they did, usually during the invasions of China or Korea, it tended to not end well for them. I am trying to repeat your first point here: Ancient people were not idiots. The katana was invented and came into vogue in a region where it was very unlikely to encounter anyone with a full set of European quality plate armour.

The katana could really fuck up an unarmored peasant. But, the point is, so can any sword, and so can spears/bows. As such, and for many, MANY other reasons, they were the dominant forces on the Japanese battlefield.


While this is true, there is a difference between weapons optimised for the job. Refer to my earlier point above about the use of armour here.

I really should make a point about battlefield weapons, and why spears were so ubiquitous.


Please do, I enjoy reading your posts.

An additional note: the katana is a very poor weapon for fighting enemies in full plate armor. This is going to be in another section, but the long story short is: armor piercing becomes pretty much moot once late medieval plate harnesses came into vogue, and the katana lacks a great many qualities that fighting people in armor requires. It has a poor stabbing point. It is curved, so half-swording is less effective. It is short, so it is a rather poor aide to grappling, and its guard is not robust enough to hook, or to really be much help in controlling an opponent's blade.

Agreed.
28 Nov 2015 23:16 28 Nov 2015 23:18
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Zugzwang The Pentagon

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This point of yours however was not readily apparent. Rather than a specific set of techniques such as draw cuts, it is the way the katana curves that allows it to cut through flesh and light armour so easily. This is also the reason why various types of sabre and scimitars had curves whenever strong armour for whatever reason was not normally encountered. A good example from the Napoleonic wars is the British 1796 pattern cavalry sabre.

((As a short, humorous aside: The 1796 pattern tended to wound and maim rather than kill. Allegedly the French considered this poor sport and petitioned the British to adopt a more lethal design. The British responds was a more polite form of 'lolno, working as intended motherfuckers'.))

My point is the very issue that made the katana a relatively mediocre sword, namely low quality materials, is the same issue that made it a viable weapon. A katana-wielder was very unlikely to encounter someone wearing full plate. When they did, usually during the invasions of China or Korea, it tended to not end well for them. I am trying to repeat your first point here: Ancient people were not idiots. The katana was invented and came into vogue in a region where it was very unlikely to encounter anyone with a full set of European quality plate armour.


This is mostly true. However, the point I was trying to make [and evidently failing at. I really should get a second opinion on these before I post them. I am very bad at conveying my own thoughts.] is that the katana is a weapon that developed in a sheltered environment without foreign competition, and while it worked acceptably for its region, compared to places like europe, where different regions and ideas clashed to thrust technology forward, it stands as mediocre at best.

What I was trying to combat with this post was the unwashed weeaboos who think that 'katana #1 #1 in serbia, katana making album of serbia, katana fast rap serbia' in every single case.

"it is the way the katana curves that allows it to cut through flesh and light armour so easily"

The curve helps in many situations, and is certainly a plus in the very specific environment [killing unarmored, shieldless levies] that it was intended for, but once again: there are much better swords for cutting [the talwar, or other middle-eastern/indian weapons jump to mind], and cutting is highly specialized and usually not useful in broad situations, in contrast to the idea I am trying to disprove.

It should be noted that the katana's curve is much less than many other weapons, both early modern european swords and middle-eastern weapons, and thus lacks many of the benefits the increased curve brings [being able to hold close to the body, additional cutting force, ease of use while on horseback, decreased weight] while still lacking the tapering point and added blade control a straight edge would bring.

Also, I don't know what you count as light armor here. If the samurai lamellar suits, for example, were brought to Europe, they would probably classify as light armor during the times they were in use. If these suits are indeed the things you are referring to, the katana are fairly ineffective, since the katana as mentioned before is a really fat sword, with the curve not helping its efforts, and most lamellar of the time was made of the same metal as the katanas, which would render it very good at stopping blows from the weapon.

"While this is true, there is a difference between weapons optimised for the job. Refer to my earlier point above about the use of armour here."

The katana is optimized for cutting down the unprotected masses and providing a defensive option for samurai in close quarters. My point is that the first goal is relatively easy, and while it does the job fairly well I would argue that declaring a sword 'good' because it is better-than-average at doing the absolute easiest thing a sword can do 'cut through unarmored opponents while both are afoot in close quarters' is not absolutely reasonable.

On goal number 2, being successfully defensive, the blade is curved,decreasing reach and opposing blade control, and the handguard is SEVERELY lacking, which all hurt its ability to keep an unhorsed samurai alive. It also cannot be used easily with a shield while not having the extreme reach of late medieval two handed swords, but since shields were almost completely absent from the Japanese islands this is not particularly relevant.

On my point of 'people in the past were not dumb', the katana is actually the best example I can possibly think of as an exception. The katana remained this way in very large part by the extreme conservatism and religious pressure put on smiths to retain the style and form of the weapon. The clinging to plate harnesses may come close, but I'd still have katanas take the cake.
29 Nov 2015 0:03
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Agent B52

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@Zugzwang

I do believe we are broadly in agreement here. We both seem to agree that the katana as it stands has a reputation far in excess of it's actual effectiveness, and that it is fairly good at cutting down unarmoured opponents. Nowhere do you see me arguing that it would be effective vs a fully kitted out ~1500's era man-at-arms.

We only seem to disagree on the degree of effectiveness of a katana for it's time and circumstances, ie Japan prior to about 1850, after which the society went on to modernise, conquer, and then get a suntan.
29 Nov 2015 0:12
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Zugzwang The Pentagon

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@Zugzwang

I do believe we are broadly in agreement here. We both seem to agree that the katana as it stands has a reputation far in excess of it's actual effectiveness, and that it is fairly good at cutting down unarmoured opponents. Nowhere do you see me arguing that it would be effective vs a fully kitted out ~1500's era man-at-arms.

We only seem to disagree on the degree of effectiveness of a katana for it's time and circumstances, ie Japan prior to about 1850, after which the society went on to modernise, conquer, and then get a suntan.


I agree. I suspect I am correct, but I'll go do some more research when time permits: finals are on their way after all. Still, I always need more excuses to read about people hitting each other with sharp things.
3 Dec 2015 6:09
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Sypherkhode822 The SapientMoonworm

Member Seen 16 Jan 2017 3:59

Nothing to contribute, unfortunately, but I'd like to say that this is among the most informative articles on this site.

10/10, keep up the good work!

If I could make some requests for some further expansions:

*Early grenades.

*How to supply train across the ages (and how to fuck up the other guys supply train)

*Moar stuff on 'cowboy' fighting. How did shootouts in the actual Wild West work? (Aside from the Mexican Stand-offs) How did Native Americans raid n' stuff?
3 Dec 2015 22:46 8 Dec 2015 0:50
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Zugzwang The Pentagon

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Those are excellent suggestions! Unfortunately, finals are gnawing at my free time, ask updates may take a while, but once they're done and dusted I'll resume posting semi-regularly

EDIT: Predicted next update is coming late Wednesday or Thursday. GET HYPED.
14 Dec 2015 8:07
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Zugzwang The Pentagon

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I'm sure my legions of followers are sad at the lack of updates. My spookiest exam (ironically for the only military history course I am taking this semester) is on Monday night. After I take it, Posts are on the way.
14 Dec 2015 14:22
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Rain Acolyte of the Smut God

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@Zugzwang, I love what you're doing here. If you want another brain to pick for anything military related just go ahead and poke me. :D
14 Dec 2015 21:31
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Zugzwang The Pentagon

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A quick history then about grenades, since I don't want to study anymore. Grenades have been around for a long time. Their predecessors were used by the post-Rome Byzantines, and the first major use of gunpowder grenades was in the 11th century by the Chinese, since the Chinese had gunpowder centuries before Europe or the Middle East. The first documentation we have of white people using grenades was in the late 15th century.

Jump ahead to Louis XIV, a straight up baller who should be read about by everyone. He made the grenadier a proper unit of the military, and chose the biggest (so they could throw the very heavy grenades), bravest (because getting close enough to throw a grenade is spooky) and meanest (because after the grenade throw melee combat followed) members of the infantry. Grenadiers threw grenades from well in front of musket range, and the grenades of the 17th-early 18th century were very heavy cricket balls, thrown like shot puts.

The grenade fell out of fashion in the 18th century. With the focus on discipline and order so crucial to line tactics, a shock weapon was less effective, and since armies were restructuring to allow for linear combat on a thinner, wider and more effective scale, getting in close long enough to throw heavy grenades was becoming less and less viable. Also remember that cannon really came into their own under Gustavus Adolphus (sorry Jan Zizka, you were way ahead of your time) in the 30 years war, and by the 18th century tactics and technology had caught up and advanced: canister shot did the same thing as grenades but better, safer and more reliably.

Horse grenadiers lasted slightly longer, but even they abandoned the grenade as tactics shifted away from it. Grenadiers were still an important part of infantry makeup. One company in the Napoleonic wars in (I think) every nation's battalion was Grenadiers, who were still the most veteran soldiers of the unit (size mattered less now that grenades were not being thrown, but the requirements were still there in part).

The Napoleoninc wars had no grenades being thrown institutionally, and they did not appear throughout the 19th century as firearms became orders of magnitude better. This really changed in the Russo-Japanese war, where grenades made their debut once again. Infantry tactics had moved away from mass blocks, and artillery no longer was at the fore to rake with canister (it was in the back, being more effective with fancy shells, but that is not important to this discussion). Infantry were dug into fortified positions or moving between pieces of cover, and grenades had become MUCH lighter as much better explosives than gunpowder became readily available to national armies. Russians and Japanese threw grenades at each other in increasing numbers through the war, and set a precedent for World War 1.

World War 1 made grenades a mandatory part of infantry doctrine, and while for a time individual soldiers were designated as specialist grenadiers, the military minds realized that grenades were so useful in modern warfare that just about every infantryman should carry them. There are still specialized grenadiers, using more esoteric explosives or carrying a grenade launcher, but just about every developed nation gives just about every infantryman grenades nowadays.
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