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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Keith Roberts

Pike and Shot Tactics 1590-1660

Elite 179 (Osprey, 2010). 64pp. ISBN 978-1846034695.

Roberts has chosen to focus on a period of intensive warfare in Western Europe which brought in its train significant developments in the tactical deployment of troops on the battlefield and also saw the culmination of the combined use of musket and pike. In this he has identified a theme of considerable importance to the understanding of the evolution of warfare which has been largely ignored, perhaps because others have assumed that 17th century tactics have been exhaustively studied.

Focusing upon infantry tactics, Roberts takes us through the practical detail of forming a battle array. He builds this up from the level of the individual soldier to the tercios or battalions and up to the full deployment of an army. In the process he coherently demonstrates why these issues are central to the evolution of effective tactics in the period. Drawing upon the numerous military manuals of the period and illustrated with formations used by specific commanders at well documented battles, Roberts thus reveals how European commanders sought to maximize what they saw as the battle-winning potential of gunpowder weapons.  As a consequence of these tactical reorganizations, we can witness an increase in the proportion of shot to pike, partially in response to the improvements in the effectiveness of the guns, and with the progressive replacement of the lighter arquebus with the heavier musket.

The book charts the way in which the dominant late sixteenth-century tactical deployments, comprising the deep and often square tercios of the armies of the king of Spain, were challenged in the 1590s by new formations as the Dutch fought their war for independence. Further developments followed through the Thirty Years War with innovations by the Swedish army, evolving further into a composite German model by the 1640s which was the basis for most deployments during the Civil Wars in England. In some battles the different tactical approaches are seen pitted one against another. The trend is a clear one of moving to smaller units that gave greater flexibility in action and to increasingly shallow deployments that maximized the delivery of fire from the musketeers. The analysis would have been better still had Roberts extended the study to include consideration of the actual measurements for the deployments, which are provided in the military manuals. One could then have related the principles to real battlefields. Without this additional step, it is difficult to recognize where Roberts’ model may conflict with the apparent evidence of terrain and battle archaeology (e.g., as is seen at Naseby).

While this is a valuable study there are caveats. Most of the difficulties seem to result from choosing a popular publication format for what is really a technical work. In part, there is the constraint of space, so while he discussed cavalry, especially the way infantry capabilities were extended by the deployment of horse in direct support, the analysis falls down in its failure to deal effectively with artillery, which was also being developed to provided more effective close infantry support. The field guns are dismissed in just a few sentences, which is unfortunate, for much of the artillery was attached to the ‘regiments’ to form an integral part of the tactical deployment of infantry. After all, a single 6-pounder was capable at close quarters of delivering at least as many bullets as 100 musketeers. The other major concern is the failure to support such an excellent work, which is underpinned by extensive documentary research, with effective referencing. Potentially enlightening discussion is relegated to little more than assertion for it is almost impossible in the absence of edition and page numbers to track down the context of his quotes from primary sources. Thankfully the many contemporary illustrations, which make this both a visually interesting as well as useful work, are adequately referenced.

The issues tackled by Roberts were key matters for the commanders of the day, because how they trained and deployed their troops was one of the main ways in which they could influence the action.  This book allows the student of seventeenth-century warfare to better understand what the commander intended to do, and had trained his men to do, so that we can better understand both individual battles and the changing nature of warfare. It would be interesting to see the chronological scope of the study expanded earlier and later, for the changes in this 70 year period were part of a longer transition which saw the percentage of small arms increasing relative to pole arms until later, decades after the introduction of the bayonet, the pike was completely abandoned in favor of greater firepower.

Glenn Foard

University of Huddersfield, UK <>

Page Added: November 2010