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War-Winning Weapons: The Measurement of Technological Determinism in Military History

Author(s): George Raudzens

Source: The Journal of Military History, Vol. 54, No. 4 (Oct., 1990), pp. 403-434
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War-Winning Weapons:

The Measurement of Technological

Determinism in Military History

George Raudzens

DO better weapons win battles? They have clearly been expected to.

Dr. Richard Gatling believed his machine gun would not only

defeat the Confederacy and end slavery, but would also help stop wars.'

J. F. C. Fuller believed that armored fighting vehicles were war win-

ners.2 "Bomber" Harris promised in 1942 he could force a German

surrender by means of his heavy bombers alone.3 There are other

examples. There are also new books by military historians stressing the

importance of technology in modern war4 as there are ongoing preoc-

cupations of military planners and commanders with increases in fire-

power and its antidotes. But are there clear examples of the realization

of weapons expectations?

Even including the latest publications, weapons impact analysis, as

distinct from hardware descriptions or assessments of theoretical capa-

bilities, has not received more than marginal attention from scholars.

The several hundred latest books on weapons hardware-the guns,

tanks, ships, planes, electronics, and other devices of combat-contain

1. See p. 418 below.

2. See p. 422 below.

3. See p. 428 below.

4. Outstanding among historians stressing the importance of military technol-

ogy are Carlo Cipolla, Shelford Bidwell, Ian Hogg, Kenneth Macksey, William

McNeill, Geoffrey Parker, John Terraine, and Martin van Creveld. Their works are

discussed in more detail below. The latest thorough overview is Robert L. O'Con-

nell's Of Arms and Men (Oxford, 1989).

The Journal of Military History 54 (October 1990): 403-33 ? American Military Institute * 403

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little historical analysis.5 The much fewer recent studies of the impor-

tance of weapons demonstrate the domination of industrial armaments

mostly by showing how modern wars are fought and how new technolo-

gies have altered the methods and experiences of battle. Impact of

weapons on the outcomes of battle is not nearly so obvious, though at

times it is strongly implied. The proportional contribution to changes

made by weapons is only occasionally recognized as an important

question. Tim Travers is one of the few who attempts, for example, to

separate out and weigh up the human and the mechanical factors oper-

ating on World War I battlefields.6 But he does not demonstrate that

improved technologies had more than marginal influences on battle


The belief that industrial weapons have increased casualties is not

helpful either. There is little evidence to show that casualties propor-

tional to soldiers engaged have been much influenced by technological

change; they have gone up and down with the numbers of combatants

rather than the volume of firepower.7 Even one of the most popular

examples of technological war, Blitzkrieg, fails to support the decisive-

ness of weapons. Blitzkrieg experts seem to disagree about everything

except the idea that superior tanks and planes had little to do with its

definition or its impact.8 Even where weapons superiority seems indis-

putable, as in cases where one side had a monopoly of improved arma-

ments, the degree of technological impact is ill defined. This is the case

in examples from European colonial conquests and from experiences

with "secret" weapons such as British tanks at Cambrai or German

rockets in 1944. If there is indeed insufficient evidence to demonstrate

that improved military technology has increased casualties or won bat-

tles, then this marginality of impact seems remarkably different from

the impact of civilian technology on society in peacetime. Yet the

5. A dated but comprehensive overview of firearms histories is Ray Reilling's

Guns and Shooting: A Selected Chronological Bibliography (New York, 1951).

Janes, Brassey's, Arms and Armour Press, and dozens of other publishers specialize

in hardware studies.

6. See Tim Travers, The Killing Ground: The British Army, the Western Front

and the Emergence of Modern Warfare, 1900-1918 (London, 1987). Travers

argues that even though war machines were becoming more dominant, human

factors such as morale, leadership, skill, discipline, and so forth, remained very

important. The degree of importance is not assessed.

7. George Raudzens, "Firepower Limitations in Modern Military History,"

Journal of the Societyfor Army Historical Research 67 (Autumn 1989): 130-53.

8. George Raudzens, "Blitzkrieg Ambiguities: Doubtful Usage of a Famous

Word," War and Society 7 (September 1989): 77-94.


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War-Winning Weapons

leading historiographic examples of seeming decisiveness in fact yield

only ambiguous support for military technological determinism.

Among the most revealing tendencies in them is the absence of

rigorous definition of weapons combined with a tendency to stress that

specific pieces of technology were active ingredients in shaping military

outcomes. In some cases, especially among those who write for the

general reader, the machines become quite central. As I. B. Holley puts

it, "even the most cursory survey of military history substantiates the

premise that superior weapons give their users an advantage favoring

victory."9 Scholarly writers more often emphasize the context in which

such technology must fit and recognize weapons as parts of a system of

armaments and institutions rather than as isolated devices. But few are

clear about the boundaries of such systems. A famous case is Blitzkrieg,

treated below. To some it was only Panzers and Stukas, to some a

combination of all arms, to some a higher order of martial skills, and to

still others the proficiency of the entire German war machine. Perhaps

by a form of default, what often emerges from even the most sophisti-

cated assessments is a focus on specific machinery. Loose definitions

encourage tendencies toward technological determinism.

Most of the examples come from the gunpowder and industrial eras

of Europe. W. H. McNeill's arguments for the decisiveness of Mesopo-

tamian chariots and Chinese cross-bows are exceptional. Between 1800

and 1500 B.C. two-wheeled chariots carrying archers equipped with

compound bows overran the Mesopotamian cultures which had them-

selves risen to dominance by the early use of bronze arms and armor.

In India charioteers disrupted the Indus civilization around 1500 B.C.

and in China they consolidated the control of the Shang dynasty. They

were central to the rise and fall of whole cultures. The coming of cheap

iron from about 1200 B.C. in the Middle East, in turn, made arms and

armor available to less culturally developed but more numerous com-

petitors who displaced the "chariot aristocracies." The Assyrians for a

time gained dominance over other such iron infantry groups by profes-

sionalising their forces. They then invented light cavalry armed, again,

with composite bows, but Central Asian pastoralists took this technique

over from about the 690s B.C. and became militarily invincible for the

next two thousand years. The Iranians invented heavy cavalry to keep

the Asian nomad cavalry at bay, the Europeans-according to Lynn

White, Jr., because of the discovery of the stirrup-did the same, creat-

ing feudalism, and the Chinese relied on the cross-bow to fend off

9. I. B. Holley, Ideas and Weapons (Hamden, Conn., 1971), 175.


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Mongols, Tartars, and their relatives. The cross-bow, invented as early

as the 540s B.C., along with various gunpowder devices from about

1000 A.D., stopped the nomad cavalry often enough to prevent the

permanent disruption of Chinese culture. In the end it was only during

the sixteenth century A.D., with the widespread European introduction

of hand-held firearms, that the ancient nomad cavalry was itself con-

quered, both from the West and the East. Thus, prior to the firearms

revolution, among the main military techniques and institutional, eco-

nomic and intellectual forces generating the rise and fall of ancient

empires in East and West and exerting clearly argued forces on the

shaping of the world's cultures, the chariot and cross-bow stand out as

specific and decisively influential mechanisms.

Yet they themselves emerged from unique cultural contexts, and

stand with dozens of lesser devices-such as the composite bow (which

required either chariots or horses for best effect and thus did not pro-

duce an independent impact), metal body armor, incendiary devices,

siege engines, and even early Chinese cannon and hand guns-none of

which exerted the same kinds of influences. Both chariots and cross-

bows worked their wonders against unequally armed opponents. They

were technological monopolies. Although he presents no direct evi-

dence such as accounts by witnesses testifying to battle impacts, McNeill

is not ambivalent in his claims. But for him also the clear cases of

technological domination are rare. For most of ancient warfare things

other than weapons probably made most of the difference. 10

In the modern era there are a larger number of well-discussed

examples of military technological domination. McNeill is joined by

Geoffrey Parker, Carlo Cipolla, Paul Kennedy, and others in pointing to

the forces exerted by the European gunpowder revolution.11 The Euro-

peans had had chariots, but, according to McNeill, misused them. They

countered the nomad cavalry with their heavy knights, but these seem

to have been more effective in defense than in offence, as shown by the

Crusades. They adopted cross-bows about the same time as gunpowder,

10. W. H. McNeill, The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Forces, and

Society since A.D.1 000 (Chicago, 1982), 10-20, 36-40, 60. On stirrups, see Lynn

White, Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford, 1962). He is also

discussed in R. L. O'Connell's Of Arms and Men, 87, 90, 92.

11. See Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the

Rise of the West, 1500-1800 (Cambridge, 1988); Carlo Cipolla, Guns and Sails in

the Early Phase of European Expansion, 1400-1700 (London, 1965); and Paul

Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military

Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York, 1987).


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War-Winning Weapons

but Crecy and Poitiers might suggest that the more primitive long bows

of England were better. In the early phases of the gunpowder era, their

big and small guns seemed to exert no more influence on battles than

they had in China earlier. But by 1494, when the French king, Charles

VIII, invaded Italy, guns were becoming dominant in Europe. McNeill

and Geoffrey Parker both agree with earlier scholars that there was a

"gunpowder revolution" and that it was linked with the military ascen-

dancy of Europeans over other folk.12 So does Carlo Cipolla.13

During the fifteenth century, early siege artillery, consisting mostly

of breech-loading wrought iron "bombardes" often of gigantic propor-

tions, was increasingly used by European monarchs in the centraliza-

tion of political power, especially in France, to smash castles and town

walls and thus to suppress rival feudal lords and burghers. This artillery

did much to drive the English out of France during the latter years of

the Hundred Years War. 14 Even more dramatic was the use of artillery in

the successful Turkish siege of Constantinople in 1453; Cipolla stresses

the European character of the technology, clearly showing the superior-

ity of European gunpowder arms over earlier Asian types.1s But 1494

was the real turning point. By this date superior bronze muzzle-loaders,

mounted by Charles on carriages which not only facilitated siege opera-

tions but also enabled limited battlefield use, were available in large

enough numbers to have two powerful effects. Along with infantry

arquebuses with matchlock ignitions, the French field guns began to

shape the outcomes of land battles; all European field forces adopted

both artillery and the hand-held firearms, led by the Spanish "tercios,"

who combined arquebuses with pike, sword, and shield troops into a

winning combination.16 They were soon imitated.

In addition, from 1494 it was clear that no medieval fortification

could stand against artillery fire. The result was another revolution, this

time in defense technology. Starting with the Italians, Europe began to

build new cannon-proof fortresses, fewer and larger than medieval

works but much stronger and costlier. They were known as the trace

italienne, and those who built them, that is, the main European states,

became defensively invulnerable to all non-European armaments; in

12. McNeill, Pursuit of Power, 79, and Parker, The Military Revolution, 9-12.

13. Cipolla, Guns and Sails, 28 and elsewhere.

14. McNeill, Pursuit of Power, 83.

15. Cipolla, Guns and Sails, 93-94.

16. Cipolla, Guns and Sails, 28, and McNeill, Pursuit of Power, 89-95.


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fact they were largely invulnerable to their own firepower as well, at

least until the end of the eighteenth century.17

However, both Parker and Kennedy also point out that instead of

bringing decisive victories, within Europe these new technologies

brought stalemate. They came out of the interplay of market forces and

hostile competition between states as well as other exclusively Euro-

pean circumstances; they brought huge changes in the nature and

methods of war, but little advantage to innovators since their competi-

tors quickly imitated each new weapon.18 Geoffrey Parker sums up the

gunpowder revolution as follows:

Warfare in early modern Europe was certainly transformed by

three important, related developments-a new use of firepower,

a new type of fortifications, and an increase in army size. But the

timing of the transformation was far slower, and the impact less

total, than was once thought.19

Most victories were gained "through a strategy of attrition,"20 that

is, through the application of quantity rather than quality of the means

of military violence. Perhaps this is not a surprising conclusion if an

explicit distinction is made between changing the experience of war as

opposed to the outcomes of battle. The point remains, however, that

the new gunpowder arms did little to change battle outcomes. Even at

the point of introduction, where the innovative side had a monopoly,

the decisiveness of impact was at best modest. As Cipolla puts it, "It is

generally admitted that at Ravenna in 1512 and at Marignano in 1515

field battles were won by artillery for the first time in history, but it has

also to be admitted that other circumstances heavily influenced the

result of these battles.-"21

If better weapons within Europe had marginal effects, however,

when applied against less technologically developed people they did

17. Parker, The Military Revolution, 12; McNeill, Pursuit of Power,, 90; and

Christopher Duffy, Siege Warfare: The Fortress in the Early Modern World, 1494-

1660 (London, 1979), 1-2.

18. Kennedy, Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, 23-30, 31-72. Kennedy

argues that limited funds as well as equivalent armaments kept Europe in military

stalemate from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. M. E. Mallett and J. R.

Hale, in The Military Organization of a Renaissance State: Venice c. 1400 to

1617 (Cambridge, 1984), while arguing that such revolutionary gunpowder changes

occurred quite gradually and should not be exaggerated, agree that they were very

evenly distributed among the leading states of the day.

19. Parker, The Military Revolution, 43.

20. Ibid.

21. Cipolla, Guns and Sails, 28.


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War-Winning Weapons

appear to have spectacular impacts. The example about which there

seems to be most agreement, though only modest recognition, is the

Portuguese naval incursion into Asian trade. Coinciding with the gun-

powder revolution was the perfection of the long-range ocean-going

sailing ship, often called the Atlantic sailing ship. In its early forms as

caravel, carrack, or nao, it already had sea-keeping qualities superior to

other advanced types such as Chinese ocean-going junks, which had

been recently confined to home waters by government decree. The

new European brass muzzle-loading artillery, still very difficult to manip-

ulate by muscle-power in land war because of weight and bulk, was

mounted on the new ships, which moved it easily by wind-power; the

cannon-armed Atlantic ship, though not immensely superior to equi-

valent Chinese types, gave Europeans a unique means of projecting

military power further from base than any other people, to all islands

and continents. Bartolome Dias, Christopher Columbus, and Vasco Da

Gama were the first to demonstrate the global range of this new com-

munications equipment; their immediate followers showed its decisive

military effect.

Because the rulers of the Malabar coast were hostile, the Portuguese

had to fight their way into Asian commerce in a series of one-sided

naval battles, beginning with a major engagement off the coast in 1501.

There was a mutual one-sidedness, because the Portuguese were very

much outnumbered and because their opponents were completely


It was a massacre rather than a battle, but it should stand out in

naval history as the first recorded sea battle fought to a prear-

ranged pattern as a stand-off artillery action by squadrons sail-

ing in close-hauled line ahead.... The Atlantic-gunned sailing

ship was quite simply irresistible in the Indian Ocean.22

In subsequent sea battles the Portuguese consolidated their mari-

time ascendancy in Asian waters and supplemented it with fortified

bases equipped with European-style fortresses proof against land assaults

by under-gunned Asians. In the words of Carlo Cipolla, "The roar of

European ordnance awake Chinese, Indians and Japanese to the fright-

ening reality of a strange, alien people that unexpectedly had appeared

along their coasts under the protection and with the menace of super-

ior, formidable weapons and ruthlessly interfered with the natives' life."

European imperialism was facilitated by the cannon.23

22. Peter Padfield, Tide of Empires: Decisive Naval Campaigns in the Rise of

the West, 1481-1654 (London, 1979), 1:52.

23. Cipolla, Guns and Sails, 108.


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It played an almost equally decisive part at another turning point,

the contest between Turks and Europeans for domination of eastern

Europe and the Mediterranean. At the great galley battle of Lepanto in

1571, the Europeans carried 1,815 guns to the Turkish 750. Otherwise

the Turks were at least equally formidable. Although the role of Euro-

pean artillery here was not as prominent as off Malabar seventy years

earlier, it helped to smash or seize two hundred Turkish galleys and win

a great victory.24 By this time, however, Portuguese naval supremacy

had been successfully countered by Asian powers who had acquired an

equivalency in armaments, and the first European overseas empire

went into slow retreat.25 But superior guns had done their work against

weaker and fewer Asian guns.

The case for technological superiority seems clear. Yet other factors

were also very important in the Asian break-in. Larger numbers of guns

suggest quantitative superiority rather than technological advantage,

and the role of the essentially nonmilitary gun-platform, the Atlantic

sailing ship, was perhaps larger than that of the cannon. Furthermore,

Bailey Diffie and George Winius, in their assessment of the beginnings

of the Portuguese empire, provide good examples of superior firepower

at places like Diu in 1509 and Malacca in 151126 but nevertheless

conclude that

The capture of Malacca strongly suggests that the brilliant Por-

tuguese military feats ashore in Asia were due less to the superior

armament or technology the Europeans possessed at sea than to

a superior tenacity and coordination. As at Goa, the Portuguese

soldiers in Malacca were experienced in fighting as a team.27

They had military strength in other than just technological areas.

In the equally cataclysmic Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, superior

arms seemed to be major reasons for what William Prescott called a

"miraculous" victory.28 A mere "handful of adventurers, indifferently

armed and equipped," he argued, overthrew a mighty civilization in just

a few months of battle, intrigue, and diplomacy.29 A few hundred Euro-

peans faced thousands of Aztec warriors in repeated pitched battles,

24. Parker, The Military Revolution, 87-88, 24.

25. Ibid., 104-6.

26. B. W. Diffie and G. D. Winius, Foundations of the Portuguese Empire,

1415-1580 (Minneapolis, 1977), 241, 256-57.

27. Ibid., 259.

28. William H. Prescott, The History of the Conquest of Mexico (Chicago,

1966), 373.

29. Ibid.


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War-Winning Weapons

and generally won. In the final siege of Tenochtitlan in 1521 they

fought continuously for ninety-three days. There is no doubt that the

Aztecs contested the issue with the highest degree of resolution. There

is also no question that their arms were inferior, being wood, stone,

bone, and cotton, while Spanish equipment included small cannon,

arquebuses, steel side arms, and steel armor. Even the cross-bows of the

conquistadores had great advantages in hitting and penetrating power

over Aztecs long-bows and light javelins.30 In his description of the

battle, participant Bernal Diaz del Castillo again and again cites the

firepower of cannon, arquebuses, and cross-bows as the key to victory.

In the second desperate battle against the Tlascalans on 5 February

1519, Diaz explains that

The steadfastness of our artillery, musketeers, and bowmen

[crossbows] did much to save us, and we inflicted great casual-

ties on them.... One thing alone saved our lives: the enemy

were so massed and so numerous that every shot wrought havoc

among them.31

On the other hand, he also stressed the value of the horse. It was the

charges of the small squadron of heavy armored lancers at Otumba,

says Diaz, who won another desperate day.32 And of course the skill and

courage of the Spanish swordsmen, contrasting with inept Aztec tac-

tics, as well as a whole range of other factors, also played their part in

the victory. The Europeans had many advantages.

Most historians, in fact, play down technology. Prescott himself

concludes that intrigue and diplomacy were the most important fac-

tors. "The Indian empire was in a manner conquered by Indians."33

J. H. Parry spells out some of the doubts about technological superiority.

The army with which Cortes invaded Mexico had a few cannon,

taken out of the ships at Vera Cruz and carried along with the

army. They were hauled first by sailors, then by Indian auxiliar-

ies, and finally mounted on boats on Lake Texcoco for the siege

of Tenochtitlan. They must have been very small and probably

not very effective pieces, though no doubt their noise and smoke

made a great impression. Apart from the cannon, Cortes had

thirteen muskets. Horses were perhaps more important than

30. See Alberto Mario Salas, Las Armas De La Conquista (Buenos Aires,


31. Bernal Diaz, The Conquest of New Spain (Harmondsworth, Middlesex,

1963), 149.

32. Ibid., 303-5.

33. Prescott, Conquest of Mexico, 374.


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fire-arms.... Bernal Diaz on several occasions attributed victory

'under God, to the horse', but Cortes had only sixteen horses

when he landed and some of these were soon killed in battle. For

the most part his men fought on foot with sword, pike and cross-

bow. They had the advantage of steel over stone; but they were

not a well-equipped European army fighting a horde of helpless


Parry's figures are misleading. Up to the first breakout from Tenochti-

tlan, Diaz counted twenty-seven cavalry, eighty crossbows and eighty

musketeers in a force of thirteen hundred men.35 Nevertheless, instead

of clear assertions about the impact of conquistadore weapons advan-

tages, there is again ambivalence about technology.

There is also ambivalence about weapons advantages throughout

the subsequent European invasion of Amerindian territory during the

settlement of the Americas. None of the American tribes were better

armed than the Aztecs. Most subsequent white settlers had more

advanced, more accurate, faster shooting guns than the conquista-

dores. Yet the frontiers in North America, for example, advanced not in

response to technological and military superiorities, but at the rate of

European migration and land occupation, and at the speed of rela-

tively close agricultural settlement. Where the Amnerindians were not in

effect swamped by superior numbers of European migrants, they man-

aged to hold on to territories and cultures for very much longer than

the Aztecs, or the Incas.

Yet there are some striking examples of weapons superiority in

European-Amerindian conflict. Among the best is Samuel Champlain's

fight with the Iroquois in 1609. In order to cement the fur trading

alliance with the Huron and Algonquin Indians, on whom the survival

of New France seemed to depend, Champlain, two other Frenchmen,

and their three arquebuses joined their Indian partners on a war party

against the Iroquois living near what was later called Lake Champlain.

On the day of battle, as the two bands of warriors came together,

Champlain advanced to thirty yards range, "took aim with my arquebus

and shot straight at one of the three chiefs, and with this shot two fell to

the ground, and one of their companions was wounded who died there-

of a little later. I had put four bullets into my arquebus." When another

of the Frenchmen fired his piece also, the Iroquois broke and fled.36

34. J. H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaissance (New York, 1964), 143-44.

35. Diaz, Conquest of New Spain, 305.

36. Quoted in Morris Bishop, Champlain: The Life of Fortitude (Toronto,

1963), 128.


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War-Winning Weapons

Champlain's biographer Morris Bishop concludes that "at Ticon-

deroga, on the green shore of Champlain's lake, was fired the first

musket shot in a war that was to continue, in effect, for two hundred

years." This was the war between the French and the Iroquois, so vital in

the imperial competition for North America. "The battle was won, as we

are told, wars are usually won, by the New Weapon. This new weapon

was to transform completely the wars of red men and white, and red

men and red."37 Indeed, according to some authorities, the Iroquois

concentrated on gaining their own firearms superiority by trade with

the Dutch and English; with this advantage in musketry they became

the most formidable warriors in eastern North America during the

seventeenth century.38

While Champlain's mighty shot is clearly a technological triumph,

however, its large historical impact is no longer widely accepted.39 Nor

is the related firearms superiority of the Iroquois undisputed; the Indi-

ans allied to France were probably as heavily gunned as the Iroquois.40

Judging by the scarcity of comment on weapons technology in the

historical literature of European conflict with Amerindians in the colon-

ial period,41 and considering all the other factors involved in the white

takeover of North America, whatever influence weapons technology did

exert seems clearly to have been marginal indeed.

But what about the setting up of the British Raj in India in the

eighteenth century? European technological advantage seems clear.

Superior field artillery and tightly controlled flintlock musketry, wielded

by Europeans or European-trained sepoys, dominated all Indian battle-

fields at least from Plassy in 1757 onwards. The cruder heavy guns and

obsolete matchlocks of the Indian native forces were everywhere defeat-

ed.42 While agreeing with this view, William McNeill, however, argues

more for institutional superiority than technological advantage. It was

especially the development of close order drill, which allowed the use of

volley fire, which in turn extracted the maximum possible firepower

37. Ibid., 128.

38. See for example Richard Aquila, The Iroquois Restoration: Iroquois Diplo-

macy on the Colonial Frontier, 1701-1754 (Detroit, 1983), 37.

39. See Bruce Trigger, Natives and Newcomers: Canada's "Heroic Age"

Reconsidered (Kingston and Montreal, 1985), 307-10.

40. For a discussion of Iroquois gun supplies, see George Hunt, The Wars of the

Iroquois: A Study in Intertribal Trade Relations (Madison, Wisc., 1967), 165-75.

41. For example, probably the best book on American colonial wars says very

little on firearms. See Douglas Leach, Arms for Empire: A Military History of the

British Colonies in North America, 1607-1 763 (New York, 1973).

42. Parker, The Military Revolution, 133-36.


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and shock effect from the inaccurate, slow-loading smoothbore flint-

lock musket. Volley fire was first developed by the two princes of Nassau

at the end of the sixteenth century and subsequently refined into

machine-like perfection by Frederick the Great's Prussian infantry. This

was the real source of European global superiority during the eigh-

teenth century.43 In other words, it was also professionalism, standardi-

zation, concentration, and projection of superior resources, and dozens

of other things besides weapons superiority, which made the difference.

It was not so much the guns, but the systems which used them and the

ways they were used.

Before leaving the preindustrial world, one other example of alleged

weapons superiority stands out in English language historiography,

especially of the American kind. This is the triumph of the Kentucky

long rifle, and the story of Patrick Ferguson's breech-loading antidote

to it. Here was a case of non-Europeans seemingly applying superior

technology in the first great New World revolt against European impe-

rialism. It is still an article of faith among popular American historians

that the indigenous and ingenious Kentucky, or Pennsylvania, long rifle

played a major role in winning independence. With it farmers and

frontiersmen could pick off the Redcoats at two or three times the range

of British muskets. The American rifles were as accurate as any firearm

in existence and much more accurate than army issue Brown Bess

smooth bores. They were unique because unlike slow-loading foreign

rifles, they were fast loading. The American loading secret was the

greased patch. Instead of trying to jam the bullet into the rifling grooves

of the barrel by main force the Americans slipped their smaller bullets

down the barrel smoothly with the aid of a piece of greased cloth or

leather. The three biggest rifle victories of the Revolutionary War were

Saratoga under Daniel Morgan in 1777, King's Mountain in 1780, and

Cowpens, again under Daniel Morgan, in 1781. Saratoga and King's

Mountain are both regarded as major turning points in the war.

But did this American rifle really win the war? In the words of

hardware expert M. L. Brown, "The romantic nonsense purveyed over

the years by numerous historians has exaggerated beyond credence the

role of the American rifle in the War of Independence."44 The sup-

posedly innovative greased patch was commonly used in Europe from

at least the 1590s.45 The British had muzzle-loading Jaeger rifles every

43. McNeill, Pursuit of Power,, 128-35.

44. M. L. Brown, Firearms in Colonial America, 1492-1792 (Washington,

1980), 335.

45. Ibid., 263.


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War-Winning Weapons

bit as good as Pennsylvania rifles, though less numerous, most of the

American troops were equipped with smooth-bores just like the British,

and riflemen were cut to pieces by British bayonet charges from musket-

armed troops more often than they shot up such troops by superior

long-range shooting.46 In fact the British had the superior rifle tech;iol-

ogy. In 1776 Patrick Ferguson of the Seventieth Regiment produced

what was probably the first practical breech-loading rifle on limited

issue to regular troops, and his special unit of experts used this advanced

weapon with success on several occasions. It fired as accurately but

much more quickly than the American rifle. But Ferguson was killed by

his rifle-armed enemies at King's Mountain, a contest between two

thousand American rifles on one side and one hundred Ferguson rifles

plus one thousand British muskets on the other.47 Superior volume of

accurate fire did carry the day. Superior technology did not.

Whatever the doubts about weapons' decisiveness so far, industriali-

zation in the nineteenth century appeared to make European arma-

ments advantages over other cultures unequivocally overwhelming. The

remaining parts of Asia and Africa were overrun by means of superior

firepower. Despite all sorts of handicaps, argues Daniel Headrick,

"European forces were able to conquer large parts of Asia and Africa

empires of truly Napoleonic proportions-at an astonishingly low cost.

What made this possible was the crushing superiority of European fire-

power that resulted from the firearms revolution of mid-century."48

This revolution by the 1870s saw the perfection of breech-loading mag-

azine rifles and machine-guns with effective accurate ranges out to four

thousand meters. There are plenty of examples of their devastation.

Geoffrey Parker, who adds telegraphs, railways, and iron steamers to

the breech-loaders, points to the long-sought European ascendancy

over China and Japan gained at Canton in 1841 and at Kagoshima in

1863. He also notes the Russian victory over the Turkish navy in 1854

by means of iron-clad steamers pitted against wooden sailing ships.

"Thanks above all to their military superiority, founded upon the mil-

itary revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the western

nations had managed to create the first global hegemony in history."49

46. Ibid., and see also Joe D. Huddleston, Colonial Riflemen in the American

Revolution (York, Pa., 1978), and James B. Bright, "The Rifle in Washington's

Army," The American Rifleman, August, 1947.

47. Brown, Firearms in Colonial America, 346-47.

48. Daniel R. Headrick, The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Impe-

rialism in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 1981), 84.

49. Parker, The Military Revolution, 154.


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Headrick illustrates his firepower argument by citing a series of

African examples where small numbers of French, British, and Italian

soldiers shot to pieces hordes of primitively equipped tribespeople. In

1891, for example, "a French detachment of 300 men, firing 25,000

rounds of ammunition in a two and a half hour battle, defeated the

entire Fon army."50 In the best known case, Omdurman in 1898,

Kitchener's Maxims and Lee Metfords mowed down eleven thousand

Dervishes in five hours.5' One of the images from the battle he does not

mention is the picture of rising heaps of empty cartridge cases at the

feet of the British infantry in the firing lines. During the first general

Mahdist assault the infantry fired some two hundred thousand rounds

of small-arms ammunition alone, killing six thousand dervishes, or half

the assault force.52

Headrick does admit that even such overwhelming firepower super-

iority did not always bring victories. Occasionally ill-armed natives

could wipe out invading white forces, as at Adowa in 1896, where the

Ethiopians wiped out a seventeen thousand man Italian and auxiliary

army. He does stress, however, that the Ethiopians had accumulated a

particularly large stock of modern or nearly modern European wea-

pons.53 He does not mention Isandlwhana in 1879. About ten thousand

Zulus overran eighteen hundred men of Lord Chelmsford's command

on relatively open ground in the face of rapid and devastating Martini-

Henry rifle fire. It seems the British had trouble opening their ammuni-

tion boxes and ran out of bullets. It is also clear that Africans were

occasionally capable of overcoming superior European firepower.54 In

a special study of firearms effects of fifteenth to nineteenth century

Africa in 1971 in the Journal of African History, a number of experts

stressed that both in terms of inter-African conflict and in wars between

Europeans and Africans the impact of firearms was limited. Gavin

White in his introductory article stated that "the impact of firearms in

African warfare was not as decisive as had been expected."55 Hum-

phrey J. Fisher and Virginia Rowland, in discussing guns in the Sudan,

concluded that "while firearms may have had, on various occasions in

50. Headrick, Tools of Empire, 117.

51. Ibid, 117-18.

52. Henry Keown-Boyd, A Good Dusting: A Centenary Review of the Sudan

Campaigns, 1883-1899 (London, 1986), 224-36.

53. Headrick, Tools of Empire, 120. Note that Headrick spells "Adowa" as


54. Donald R. Morris, The Washing of the Spears (London, 1973), 374-75.

55. Gavin White, "Firearms in Africa: An Introduction," Journal qf African

History 12 (1971): 173-84.


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War-Winning Weapons

the Central Sudan from the sixteenth and perhaps even the fifteenth

century onwards, a sudden dramatic impact, yet this impact was

nowhere sustained." S6 J. J. Guy comments on the Zulu wars: "While we

cannot deny the physical damage and the demoralization caused by

British fire-power in Zululand, it is clearly misleading to emphasize the

role of firearms and the importance of the major engagements in the

Anglo-Zulu war, and to ignore the broader social and political issues

that were involved." 57

Both Headrick and Parker themselves admit that firepower was only

part of the material superiority of the Europeans. Headrick's discussion

of weapons impact covers 43 out of a total of 210 pages on the full

range of Europe's technological advantages during the imperial expan-

sion of the nineteenth century. Weapons share influence over non-

Europeans with drugs, steamships, railroads, telegraphs, and other items.

It is also obvious that Europe's resources generally were vastly superior

to "native" resources, that sheer wealth had a lot to do with domination.

Europeans could project their personnel, machines, food supplies,

medicines, and even amusements to the furthest tribes, and maintain

troops and settlers at great distances from home base. Weapons were

one superiority among many. While strong claims for firepower impact

remain, they are neither quantified as to approximate degree nor


If superior weapons sometimes won battles when only one side had

them, the cases where technology has brought victory in a context of

cultural equivalency-where the combatants have had at least equal

capability of producing and applying the latest weapons technologies,

though not necessarily in equal quantities-are still more difficult to

find. It may be that the higher the technological complexities involved,

the more ambiguous the military outcomes become. Perhaps the most

widely recognized twentieth century weapons impact examples are the

cases of machine-guns, tanks, and heavy bombers. The influence of

each, however, is disputed.

The machine-gun is a case for decisiveness in reverse. Instead of

gaining victories, it is said to have prevented them. It made the defense

superior to the offence, thus creating trenches and stalemate between

1914 and 1918; other new arms contributed to trench warfare, but the

machine-gun was the outstanding influence.

56. Humphrey J. Fisher and Virginia Rowland, "Firearms in the Central Sudan,"

Journal of African History 12(1971): 215-39, especially 237-38.

57. J. J. Guy, "A Note on Firearms in the Zulu Kingdom with Special Reference

to the Anglo-Zulu War, 1879," Journal of African History 12 (1971): 557-70.


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In 1877 Dr. Richard Gatling explained why he invented his 250 shot

per minute hand-cranked black powder machine-gun. Having seen the

very high incidence of mortality from battle wounds and illness during

the Civil War, it occurred to him that

If I could invent a machine, a gun, which could by its rapidity of

fire enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that

it would, to a great extent, supersede the necessity of large

armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease be

greatly diminished. I thought over the subject and finally this

idea took practical form in the invention of the Gatling Gun.58

The gun would diminish warfare. But his gun was the fourth main multi-

shot device of the machine-gun type introduced during the Civil War,

none of which were successful.59 After the war, however, the Gatling was

perfected and saw service in the American West against Indians and in

the British Empire where it shared battle honors with similar hand-

cranked Gardiner and Nordenfeld guns. Even more famous was the

French Montigny Mitrailleuse, which actually beat the Gatling Gun in a

French army competition. It is widely believed that if the French com-

mand had trained the Mitrailleuse crews adequately and had used it for

infantry support rather than as artillery during the Franco-Prussian war,

the French might have won, as indeed the French press had expected.

The Mitrailleuse was supposed to be their secret weapon, their edge. But

it was mismanaged.60 Perhaps it was also overestimated. In the opinion

of hardware experts it was so poorly designed that it was "the laughing

stock of most military men in Europe outside of France. . .. Actually

the Germans were fully aware of what the gun could and couldn't do,

and they merely deployed their infantry so the Mitrailleuse would waste

ammunition."'61 The French had done better with their new bolt-action

single-shot breech-loading infantry rifle, the Chassepot, which itself had

been touted as the antidote to the Prussian Dryse Needle-gun, mislead-

58. Quoted in William B. Edwards, Civil War Guns (Secaucas, N.J., 1962),


59. Ibid., 232-33.

60. For example, see C. H. B. Pridham, Superiority of Fire: A Short History of

Rifles and Machine-Guns (London, 1945), 28-29; Brian Bond, War and Society

in Europe, 1870-1970 (Bungay, Suffolk, 1984), p. 18; and Kenneth Macksey,

Technology in War: The Impact of Science on Weapon Development and Modern

Battle (London, 1986), 23.

61. W. H. B. Smith, Small Arms of the World (Harrisburg, Pa., 1962), 100.


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War-Winning Weapons

ingly credited with winning the Austro-Prussian war of 1866 by the

losing side.62

But then came Hiram Maxim's fully automatic water-cooled weapon

in 1885, and a revolution in warfare was at hand. The standard view of

its impact is that despite the firepower lessons of small wars like the

Russo-Japanese and Boer wars, in which machine-guns along with mag-

azine rifles and quick-firing recoiling-gun-carriage artillery could anni-

hilate any infantry attack, European generals seriously underestimated

the defensive potency of the new technology. Tactics were adjusted-

better by some than others-but not enough to prevent trench warfare

attrition.63 Major C. H. B. Pridham, writing before the end of World War

II, felt that if the machine-gun had been more completely utilized by

the British it would have speeded victory in World War I, and that it

remained a decisive weapon into 1945.64 Both J. F. C. Fuller and B. H.

Liddell Hart believed it dominated the World War I battlefield. As John

Ellis put it,

On the Western Front it had been the machine gun more than

anything else that had destroyed the attackers at Verdun, Cham-

pagne or Passchendale. Because of it unprotected infantry were

incapable of crossing the gap between the trench lines in suffi-

cient numbers to punch a gap through them.65

One of the most vivid recent illustrations of machine-gun impact is

Martin Middlebrook's analysis of the first day of the Somme. As the

British infantry advanced out of their trenches into No Man's Land,

The first machine-guns were soon in action and found easy

targets.... The Germans spotted some of the gaps in the British

wire and their machine-guns soon turned these narrow alleys

into death-traps.... It was in these open spaces in the middle of

No Man's Land that the German machine-gunners found their

choicest targets. From their trenches came the 'tac-tac-tac' of

the guns as they traversed to and fro along the endless lines of

advancing men. Whole waves were swept over by the fire. Wave

62. See Gordon A. Craig, The Battle of Koniggratz (London, 1964), 184-85,

and D. E. Showalter, "Railroads and Rifles: The Influence of Technological Devel-

opment on German Military Thought and Practice, 1815-1866," University of

Minnesota Ph.D., 1969, 428, 478.

63. Bond, War and Society in Europe, 101-2 and elsewhere. Until recent

writings specified below, the defensive superiority of the machine-gun was an article

of faith in military historiography.

64. Pridham, Superiority of Fire, 53-136.

65. John Ellis, The Social History of the Machine Gun (London, 1975), 169.


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after wave of the Geordies were cut down but still they kept

coming on.... Furiously the German machine-gunners fired

belt after belt of bullets into this fantastic target.66

By the end of the day 57,470 British soldiers were down, a casualty rate

of 75 percent which was never equalled in a British battle. The Germans

lost 8000 men, one for every seven they cut down.67

Denis Winter, in one of the few good and detailed historical assess-

ments of weapons performance in combat conditions, adds the follow-

ing technical reasons for the effectiveness of the machine-gun:

This rather than speed of fire was the trump card of the machine-

gun-accuracy. On its tripod the machine-gun became a nerve-

less weapon; the human factor of chattering teeth, dripping

sweat and faeces in man's pants was eliminated. A terror-stricken

man could fire his machine-gun accurately even by night. More-

over the weapon, though with the fire power of fifty riflemen,

occupied a front just two feet in length, and thus presented a

minute target to enemy snipers or batteries. The end product

was indisputable. Six machine-guns could hold up a brigade; one

gun could halt two battalions before they had got 200 yards from

their front line. In Liddell Hart's opinion it was the machine-gun

above all other weapons which held the armies fast.68

After all this supporting detail, however, neither Winter nor Middle-

brook can agree with earlier writers that the World War I machine-gun

was in fact a decisive shaper of battle outcomes. It contributed, but did

not dominate. Winter lists it as one of a group of deadly new weapons,

and not always the most effective. Often rifles were more deadly. "The

real killer was the sniper," causing more casualties overall than more

formidable seeming armaments.69 As for the machine-gun massacre of

the Somme, Middlebrook himself concludes that the slaughter was

caused by two basic British mistakes, failure to concentrate a sufficient

quantity of artillery against the objective, and the tactical error of lifting

the final artillery barrage too soon, thus allowing the Germans to get to

their machine-guns while the assaulting infantry were still some dis-

tance from the German trenches but fully exposed in open ground.70

66. Martin Middlebrook, The First Day On the Somme, 1 July 1916 (Har-

mondsworth, Middlesex, 1984), 123-25, 141.

67. Ibid., 263-64.

68. Denis Winter, Death's Men: Soldiers of the Great War (Harmondsworth,

Middlesex, 1979), 112.

69. Ibid., 90.

70. Middlebrook, First Day on the Somme, 278-87.


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War-Winning Weapons

Current leading weapons scholars do not highlight the role of the

machine-gun either. Shelford Bidwell and Dominick Graham, for

example, agree that weapons technology was a vital shaping force in

World War I, but so were logistics, and economic, social and political

factors. Of the weapons they discuss in detail they stress artillery.71 As

Ian Hogg states,

The machine gun, in the hands of both sides in the First World

War, became a potent factor. It was never a major killing device,

as has often been asserted; this dubious distinction belonged to

the artillery, since medical records eventually showed that some-

thing like 60 per cent of casualties came from artillery fire,

about 30 per cent from small arms fire, and the remainder from

grenades, gas, and other weapons.72

In his detailed assessments of World War I weapons and tactics, John

Terraine also neglects machine-guns in favor of other new armaments.73

Artillery was more devastating than all the other arms; combinations of

weapons were involved in all of the important fights, and "The idea of

the machine-gun as a supreme killer is literary, not historical."74 He

disagrees with historians such as Ellis and Pridham who believed that

the British misunderstood and misused machine-guns, to their serious

military disadvantage. Brian Bond, in his effective summation of much

of this kind of scholarship, notes briefly that "Fire power and barbed

wire ruled out mobile cavalry operations and rendered unsupported

infantry attacks suicidal,"75 and agrees that rifles and machine-guns

together "had given the defensive a marked advantage,"76 but neither

emphasizes machine-guns by themselves nor discusses the impact of

weapons in detail; weaponry as a shaping force seemed to be marginal

to the many other factors operating on war from the civilian world, and

from war back on society.

No recent scholar seems to agree with the older view that the

machine-guns exercised a specific and measurable impact on Allied

defeats, or indeed anybody's defeats. Nor has anyone seen fit to try to

71. Shelford Bidwell and Dominick Graham, Fire-Power: British Army Wea-

pons and Theories of War, 1904-1945 (London, 1982), and Shelford Bidwell,

Gunners at War: A Tactical Study of the Royal Artillery in the Twentieth Century

(London, 1970).

72. Ian Hogg, The Weapons that Changed the World (London, 1986), 28.

73. John Terraine, White Heat: The New Warfare, 1914-18 (London, 1982).

74. John Terraine, The Smoke and the Fire: Myths and Anti-Myths of War,

1861-1945 (London, 1980), 132.

75. Bond, War and Society in Europe, 102.

76. Ibid., 101.


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measure such an impact in detail, except perhaps in the negative sense

of Bidwell, Terraine, and Middlebrook.

The tank seems to be a better example of a battle winner. In many

ways its impact as an example of military technology has been more

rigorously assessed than any other allegedly decisive weapon. There

were the usual early disagreements about the impact. It won at Cambrai

in 1917 and at Amiens in 1918; clearly it won in Poland in 1939, in

France in May 1940, and in Russia between July and December 1941,

when it was the central technology of the German Blitzkrieg. But again

there are ambiguities. Its decisiveness in World War I, when it was an

Anglo-French monopoly and thus potentially in its most influential

mode, is most often measured in terms of overcoming the previous

decisiveness of the machine-gun. To John Ellis, the tank was the tech-

nological antidote to the machine-gun.77 To the principal architect of

modern tank warfare, J. F. C. Fuller,78 neither the "bayonet school" of

military thinkers, advocating frontal assaults against entrenched fire-

power, nor the "shell school," proposing to pulverize enemy trenches

by weight of artillery, had a solution to the stalemate of the Western

Front. That solution was the "tank idea," or armored warfare. The tank,

or "self-propelled armored artillery," revolutionized combat as follows:

It increased mobility by substituting mechanical power for mus-

cle; it increased security by neutralizing the bullet with armour

plate; and it increased offensive power by relieving the soldier

from the necessity of carrying his weapons and the horse from

hauling them. Because the tank protected the soldier dynami-

cally, it enabled him to fight statically; it superimposed naval

tactics on land warfare.79

At Cambrai on 20 November 1917, a massed British tank attack broke

right through the German defenses. Unfortunately this was almost as

big a surprise for the British command as for the Germans. Thus

"although this battle showed that a true solution of the stalemate had

been discovered, lack of reserves led to tactical failure, and it was not

until the battle of Amiens that on a grand scale the same solution led to

77. Ellis, Social History of the Machine Gun, 169.

78. For Fuller's role as tank warfare innovator, see A. J. Trythall, "Boney" Fuller:

Soldier, Strategist and Writer, 1878-1966 (New Brunswick, N.J., 1977), 70, 274,

and elsewhere, and Kenneth Macksey, The Tank Pioneers (London, 1981), 220

and elsewhere.

79. J. F. C. Fuller, The Decisive Battles of the Western World and Their Influ-

ence Upon History (London, 1963), 3: 279.


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War-Winning Weapons

complete success."80 When Allied victory was finally achieved, "The

nearly universal reason alleged for the German defeat was the employ-

ment of tanks in masses by the Allied Powers.81

Most historians agree with Fuller, at least in broad terms. B. H.

Liddell Hart supports his fellow tank lobbyist fully.82 In basic terms, so

does Fuller's biographer, Anthony Trythall.83 Less directly, so does A. J.

Smithers; although they still had many defects in the 1918 battles,

tanks were clearly effective in breaking German resistance, and fur-


The number of infantry lives they had saved is beyond computa-

tion. To put the figures into the hideous perspective of First War

losses, the Tank Corps had in ninety-six days suffered less than

many an infantry division in a single day on the Somme.84

The machine-gun had been overcome.

But the tanks have critics too. John Terraine points out their many

limitations in combat, especially their mechanical unreliability and

vulnerability to German field artillery, and concludes that "No tanks of

the First World War were war-winners by themselves."85 Bidwell and

Graham agree.

Between Cambrai and the breaching of the Hindenburg system

at the end of September 1918, the tanks were conceived, vari-

ously, as armoured cavalry, as armoured infantry and as self-

propelled artillery. Visionaries, looking forward to 1919, imag-

ined them as landships employed in fleets. But the dominant

fact about the tank was that it was not durable. At Cambrai, 324

fighting tanks were committed, not including supply tanks, wire

pullers, wireless tanks and tanks carrying bridging material and

cable. At the end of the first day 65 had received direct hits, 71

had broken down, 43 were ditched and many others needed

minor repairs. The casualties on 8 August 1918 were higher still

and reflected improving German anti-tank artillery. Four

hundred and fourteen started, but only 145 were runners on the

second day, 85 on the third, 38 on the fourth and 6 remained on

80. Ibid., 279.

81. Ibid., 296.

82. B. H. Liddell Hart, The Tanks: A History of the Royal Tank Regiment and

its Predecessors Heavy Branch Machine-Guns Corps, Tank Corps and Royal

Tank Corps, 1914-1945 (London, 1959), 1:154, 185.

83. Trythall, "Boney" Fuller, 35, 56, 66, and elsewhere.

84. A. J. Smithers, A New Excalibur: The Development of the Tank, 1909-1939

(London, 1988), 212-24.

85. Terraine, White Heat, 224, 238-46.


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the fifth.... Neither men nor machines were of much use on a

second day of fighting.... After the war the impression remained

among infantrymen that tanks were decisive in set-piece battles

but only a useful auxiliary in the extended fighting that followed.86

These critics argue that no single technology dominated the world

of trench warfare, though artillery came closest. They are not prepared

to support either machine-guns or tanks as battle winners. First the

stalemate and then the breakthroughs were shaped by the whole range

of complex wartime factors, both material and human. Denis Winter,

without specifically discussing tanks, relegates technology as a whole to

a subordinate role;

The artifacts of the twentieth century commingled with the

thought processes of prehistoric man. Infantry became merely

hunters and hunted, while technologists in khaki manipulated

the primitive cutting edge of their sophisticated back-up tools.87

Even Fuller himself did not emphasize the tank as an isolated piece

of war-winning technology. It was not the machine, but rather the

tactical system which he stressed. Terms like tank and armor were

merely short forms for quite complex military institutions. In explain-

ing his Plan 1919-where he proposed entire motorized and armored

armies consisting of thousands of tanks, lorries, aircraft, and other

vehicles-for the defeat of Germany in the event that the 1918 offensive

failed, he argued:

Had the war lasted another year, it would have become apparent

that in themselves tanks and aircraft were not weapons, but

instead vehicles in which anything could be carried up to their

maximum loads. Further, it would have been seen that as their

dominant characteristic was a new means of movement, made

practical by the common prime-mover, petroleum, entirely new

fighting organizations could be built around them-namely,

self-propelled armoured armies and airborne armies, and not

merely self-propelled armoured guns and airborne artillery.88

The short form for this new type of army was tank army, and Plan 1919

became the blueprint for Blitzkrieg. The point is, however, that the tank

itself-not an individual weapon in Fuller's view-was only a part of a

larger institutionalized whole.

Nevertheless was the tank itself decisive later on in Blitzkrieg? Heinz

Guderian usually shares with Fuller the status of founding father of tank

86. Bidwell and Graham, Fire-Power, 137-38.

87. Winter, Death's Men, 128.

88. Fuller, Decisive Battles, 3:379-80.


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War-Winning Weapons

warfare. He relates a conversation with Hitler in 1939 on one of the

Polish battlefields. "At the sight of the smashed artillery regiment, Hitler

had asked me: 'Our dive bombers did that?' When I replied 'No, our

panzers!' he was plainly astonished."89 But aside from such rhetorical

flourishes, much exploited by the media then and since, for the most

part Guderian, with other World War II Blitzkrieg practitioners,90

stressed that the key weapons feature of German armored forces was in

fact a combination of all arms rather than a reliance on a single tech-

nology. The panzers themselves were important, but only as parts of a

coordinated grouping of arms; artillery and panzer grenadiers with

small arms, not to mention Luftwaffe tactical air support, were all

absolutely vital.91 Fuller agreed.

But Fuller and Liddell Hart were also chagrined that it was the

Germans and not the British who built the successful Blitzkrieg instru-

ment. They, and supporting historians, have tended to explain this

failure in ways which put the focus back on the hardware. The Germans

in 1939 had a lot more tanks than the British, organized into coordi-

nated armored forces, and they had better tanks as well. The best

British tank was the Matilda, as A. J. Smithers states, named after "a

duck in a contemporary comic strip" because of the way it waddled at a

mere eight miles per hour; it could "absorb endless punishment" but

inflict very little.92 By contrast the German PZKW Is, Ils, IIIs and IVs,

while very basic, were much superior.

The German tanks were not, however, superior to the best French

tanks, and indeed proved to be inferior to the Soviet T-34s. Nor did the

Germans have the largest numbers of tanks. The French had almost as

many, and the Russians had a lot more. Blitzkrieg victories, therefore,

were not tank victories no matter how much these machines featured in

them. They were probably victories of superior tactical and operational

method rather than of technology.93 Indeed the technology in them

was neither new nor did the Germans have a monopoly or even an

edge. By 1942 and 1943 tanks fought tanks, sometimes, as at Kursk, in

89. Heinz Guderian, Panzer Leader (Aylesbury, Bucks, 1976), 73.

90. See for example F. W Von Mellenthin, Panzer Battles: A Study of the

Employment of Armor in the Second World War (Norman, Okla., 1971), xv-xvi

and elsewhere.

91. See Guderian, Panzer Leader; Charles Messenger, The Art of Blitzkrieg

(London, 1976); and Bryan Perrett, Lightning War: A History of Blitzkrieg (Lon-

don, 1985), 69-98.

92. Smithers, A New Excalibur, 266-75.

93. Raudzens, "Blitzkrieg ambiguities."


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great attrition battles where it was numbers rather than quality which

made the difference. The case for the decisiveness of the tank has not

been demonstrated technologically.

The technological analysis has been thorough. A consensus is

emerging. No scholar is now likely to credit the tank, German or other-

wise, with an unaided impact on the outcomes of modern war. Even as

part of a complex weapons system comprising major parts of modern

arms and military institutions it was not decisive. The most technically

proficient system, the German, won some battles but lost others and

the war.

But if Britain did not have good tanks on the outbreak of World War

II, it did have the only long-range heavy bomber force in Europe. While

even Fuller did not put the tank forward as a wonder-weapon, influen-

tial air war enthusiasts in Britain emphatically saw the strategic bomber

as a war-winner. It seems that one reason for the poor tanks was

because so much of Britain's rearmament money went into bombers.94

The only other force of this type was the American B-17 Flying Fortress

armada, lagging behind Britain in combat readiness but well ahead of

the rest of the world. The British Lancaster and the B-17 both have a

powerful continuing media image. The impression of decisiveness is

probably as strong as for the tank. The historical impact is probably

greater. Certainly the expectations for this new weapon were unrivalled

at the start of the war.

The story of the beginnings of air forces is familiar enough to dis-

pense with reiteration, but the prophecies for heavy bombers bear

repeating. Giulio Douhet in Italy, Billy Mitchell in America, and Hugh

Trenchard in Britain agreed that strategic long-range bombardment, of

the kind the Germans had begun against London with their Gothas and

Trenchard had started against the Ruhr at the end of World War I, could

be expanded by means of more and bigger aircraft into an alternative

to both bloody land and costly sea warfare. The answer to the slaughter

of the trenches was not tank armies. It was bombers. They would

entirely eliminate the need for ground warfare.95 Among his several

scenarios for the wars of the future Douhet postulated the case where

one belligerent had a heavy bomber force and the other had not.

94. G. C. Peden, "The Burden of Imperial Defence and the Continental Com-

mitment Reconsidered," The Historical Journal 27 (1984): 405-23; and Malcolm

Smith, British Air Strategy Between the Wars (Oxford, 1984), 310-22.

95. A short up-to-date survey of the ideas of the air innovators is in Michael

Sherry's The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon (New

Haven, Conn., 1987), 23-33.


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War-Winning Weapons

For example, take the centre of a large city and imagine what

would happen among the civilian population during a single

attack by a single bombing unit.... Within a few minutes some

20 tons of high-explosive, incendiary, and gas bombs would rain

down. First would come explosions,then fires, then deadly gasses

floating on the surface and preventing any approach to the

stricken area. As the hours passed and night advanced, the fires

would spread while the poison gas paralysed all life.... What

could happen to a single city in a single day could also happen

to ten, twenty, fifty cities.... And if on the second day another

ten, twenty, or fifty cities were bombed, who could keep all those

lost, panic-stricken people from fleeing to the open countryside

to escape this terror from the air? ... A complete breakdown of

the social structure cannot but take place in a country subjected

to their kind of merciless pounding from the air. The time would

soon come when, to put an end to horror and suffering, the

people themselves, driven by the instinct of self-preservation,

would rise up and demand an end to the war-this before their

army and navy had time to mobilize at all!96

Ronald Schaffer has called this the formula of "Douhetian terror bomb-

ing" which, without the poison gas, first the British and then the Ameri-

cans both applied to World War II.97 The British called it the doctrine of

area bombing. In both cases the object was to break civilian morale by

fire-bombing urban population centers. In neither case is it possible to

say that the heavy bombers won either the war or even battles. Nor can

it be determined to what degree, aside from some degree, they contrib-

uted to either the defeat of Germany or of Japan.

Yet the belief in the power of the four-engined bomber was very

strong. By 1932 the strategic bombing lobby in Britain had convinced

both the public and many politicians that their proposed weapon was

supreme. In the often-quoted words of Stanley Baldwin, "No power on

earth can protect the man in the street from being bombed. Whatever

people may tell him, the bomber will always get through."98 This belief

may well have shaped the Allied surrender at Munich in 1938. The

R.A.F. was too unprepared to take on the menace of the Luftwaffe, so

Chamberlain gave ground to Hitler.99 But Baldwin and the air force

96. Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air (New York, 1942), 58.

97. Ronald Schaffer, Wings of Judgement: American Bombing in World War II

(Oxford, 1985), 28, 80, and elsewhere.

98. Quoted in Uri Bialer, The Shadow of the Bomber: The Fear of Air Attack

and British Politics, 1932-1939 (London, 1980), 14.

99. Sherry, Rise of American Air Power, 77.


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lobby were wrong. As the air war opened, German fighters first swept

the British strategic bombers from the sky, and then, when the R.A.F.

switched to night bombing, their crews could not find their targets in

the dark. When the American Fortresses joined in 1942, theoretically

mounting enough .50 caliber machine-guns to blast the Luftwaffe from

their paths, they too were virtually driven out of the German sky by

fighters. In Europe "Bomber" Harris tested the area bombing theory

most thoroughly. After creating firestorms in Lubeck and Hamburg, he

became convinced that with enough planes, crews, and bombs he could

burn out so much of urban Germany the Nazis would call for a nego-

tiated settlement. There would be no need for an invasion with land

forces. In 1942 in a series of high-level memoranda he promised victory

by either 1943 or 1944. On 17 June 1942, he told Churchill

Germany, entangled in the meshes of vast land campaigns, can-

not now disengage her air power for strategically proper applica-

tion. She missed victory through air power by a hair's breadth in

1940. She missed then only through faulty equipment and train-

ing, and the tactical misdirection of an Air Force barely ade-

quate to the purpose. That is a historical fact. We ourselves are

now at the crossroads. We are free, if we will, to employ our

rapidly increasing air strength in the proper manner. In such a

manner as would avail to knock Germany out of the war in a

matter of months.100

On 3 September he argued that "the air war decision alone may well

decide all. It may end the war in our favor in a year; by no other method

can we hope to end it-either way-in years."'10l

The American bomber lobby-Hap Arnold, Ira Eaker, and Curtis Le

May-while not so specific about the date of victory, shared this faith in

their wonder-weapon. Initially, they believed that daylight precision

bombing of economically vital targets would fatally cripple the German

war machine. By 1944, however, after being themselves crippled in the

Schweinfurt ball bearing attack of 14 to 15 October 1943, in which

German fighters shot down 60 out of 288 B-17-and other costly

attacks-the Americans also accepted area terror bombing. In 1945

they joined Bomber Command in the fire-storm attack on Dresden,

and more vigorously, launching B-29 fire raids against Japanese cities. 102

Although the war did not end in 1944 as promised by Harris,

100. Quoted in Dudley Saward, "Bomber" Harris (London, 1986), 209.

101. Ibid., 222-23.

102. Schaffer, Wings of Judgement, 29-30, 39-79, and Sherry, Rise of Amerin

can Air Power, 147-76.


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War-Winning Weapons

although he complained he never got the full resources to do the job

properly, although German night fighters continued to bleed Bomber

Command right until 1945, and although the bulk of the bombs dropped

failed to create the concentrated havoc only achieved at Liibeck, Ham-

burg, and Dresden-even after the Americans in 1944 gained full

command of the daylight skies over Germany by means of their new

long-range P-38, P-47 and P-51 fighters--some scholars still consider

that the heavy bombers inflicted decisive damage on the Germans.

Harris's official biographer, Dudley Saward, argues that Bomber Com-

mand so crippled German war production, reduced manpower and

demoralized the defenders that "The ease with which the Allies swept

across the German occupied territories and Germany itself, from June

1944, . . . was unquestionably due to the long and brilliantly executed

strategic bomber offensive which was directed by Harris from February

1942 until the end of the war." 103

In March and April 1945 Curtis Le May's B-29s, flying too high for

defending fighter interception, destroyed huge areas of Tokyo, Nagoya,

Kobe, Osaka, Yokohama, and Kawasaki by generating firestorms in

highly flammable Japanese suburbs. It was probably as close as the

Americans came to realizing the hope that they would force a Japanese

surrender without an invasion of the home islands before dropping the

atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August.104 Counting the

A-bombs, the B-29s wiped out 43 percent of Japan's sixty-six largest

cities and caused some two million civilian casualties, nine hundred

thousand of them fatal. Schaffer concludes that "While bombing did not

wholly eliminate Japan's ability to make war . . . the American air

offensive severely reduced Japan's military capacity," 105 which is to say

that it was indeed decisive. Or was it just the A-bombs, as weapons in

their own right, and through spectacular psychological shock effect

additional to physical damage, which produced the decisive results?

Clearly, until they fell the Japanese refused to negotiate.

Recent American investigations on bombing impact such as those

of Shaffer and Sherry do not so much dwell on decisiveness as they do

on the morality issue of terror attacks on civilians. The debate on the

necessity of the two A-bombs, or whether Japan could have been

defeated without using them, with or without massive additional losses

of life during invasion, continues with strength. There does not appear

103. Saward, "Bomber" Harris, 402-3.

104. Sherry, Rise of American Air Power, 299-300.

105. Schaffer, Wings of Judgement, 148.


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to be a clear consensus on the question of the war-winning impact of

the A-bombs.

Nor is there consensus about the degree to which non-nuclear

bombers contributed to victory. If anything, scholarship seems to be

minimizing their impact. Japan was already crippled to the point of

military impotence in anything but home defense by the time Le May

struck in March 1945. Germany was ground to pieces by massive Soviet

and substantial Anglo-American tank, artillery, and infantry forces. The

heavy bombers, repeatedly repelled by German air defenses, were mar-

ginal auxiliaries. In his detailed analysis of Bomber Command's Battle

of Berlin from August 1943 to March 1944, Martin Middlebrook points

out some of the short-comings. Harris hoped to drive Germany to sur-

render before D-day, but the aim of his crews, despite a long series of

technological and tactical remedies, remained too poor to produce

concentrated devastation. Of 9,560 bombers which reached the target

in nineteen major raids, 625, or 5.8 percent, were shot down, about 70

percent of them by Luftwaffe night fighters; 2,690 R.A.F. personnel

died. "The Luftwaffe hurt Bomber Command more than Bomber Com-

mand hurt Berlin."106 In the Summary Report of the United States

Strategic Bombing Survey, dated 30 September 1945, the investigating

committee stated that "Allied air power was decisive in the war in

Western Europe . .. [but] the 'full effect' of the collapse caused by air

power . .. had not reached the enemy's front lines when they were

overrun by Allied forces."107 Furthermore, "Air power had not yet

reached maturity" in 1945, so clear-cut conclusions about its impact

could not be made. 108

The equivalent British survey, not made public, came to similar

conclusions. Charles Webster and Noble Frankland argue that both

reports contain many areas of doubt about the degree of bombing

impact. "There is indisputable evidence that area bombing practiced in

the strategic offensive against Germany did not produce any sensible

effect on German production of armaments until the closing

months,"109 or after Allied land forces were over Germany's frontiers.

There are other doubters of heavy bomber decisiveness, among them

106. Martin Middlebrook, The Berlin Raids, R.A.F. Bomber Command, Win-

ter, 1943-44 (London, 1988), 325. See also 306-24.

107. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey. Summary Report (Wash-

ington, 1945), 15-16.

108. Ibid., 1.

109. Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against

Germany, 1939-1945 (London, 1961), 4:40-56, quoted on 54.


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War-Winning Weapons

Charles Messenger and R. J. Overy.110 There is no doubt that a new and

important means of waging war was fully established. As Harris argued,

and as John Terraine has stressed in his history of the R.A.F.,111 the air

weapon was the only offensive arm Britain-and its allies-had for

much of the early part of the war. To the bomber crews, who suffered a

20 percent casualty rate, second only to German U-boat crews among

the most devastated fighting forces of Europe, the air battle was as

tough as any hard fought combat in history. The technology was all

pervasive, and shaped a new type of mechanized combatant. But there

is no agreement that the bombers played a major role in winning the

war either in Europe or in the Pacific. On the whole, they were a


The Germans also had a monopoly on some high technology wea-

pons. By late 1944 they had the Messerschmit 262 jets, admittedly the

best fighter aircraft of the war, with the clear technological capability of

regaining air supremacy from the American Lightnings and Mustangs.

But only some five hundred were put into combat, usually with ill-

trained pilots. They were too little and too late. There were more of

Hitler's very high technology V-is and V-2s. From June 1944 5,823 V-is

struck British targets or territory, killing some ten thousand people,

causing great damage, and inflicting costs at the rate of five pounds for

every one pound's worth of German expenditure.112 Nevertheless, "The

battle of the flying bombs was won by the Allies.... The Vi ... failed to

delay the landing in Normandy, or to cause the Allies to change their

overall plan of campaign. Any effect it had in raising German morale

was short lived." 113 The V-2 was an even better device. There was no

defense against it. As a weapon "it could have become a war-winning

one." But it did not. Of 1,403 rockets launched, 1,054 hit Britain,

killing or wounding 9,277 people,114 or inflicting 8.8 casualties per

successful missile. Again it was too little too late. William McNeill has

suggested that "If Hitler had not refused to put his full support behind

the V-2 rocket until July 1943, for example, it is hard to believe that the

110. Charles Messenger, "Bomber" Harris and the Strategic Bombing Offen-

sive, 1 939-1 945 (London, 1984), 208-9, and R. J. Overy, The Air War, 1 939-1 945

(London, 1980), 206-9.

111. John Terraine, A Time for Courage: The Royal Air Force in the European

War, 1939-1945 (New York, 1985), 682-83.

112. Norman Longmate, The Doodlebugs (London, 1981), 474-79.

113. Ibid., 473.

114. Norman Longmate, Hitler's Rockets: The Story of the V-2's (London,



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GEORGE RAUDZENS -_:-_-_--_- _-

Allied landings in Normandy could have taken place,"115 which might

have changed the results of the war. But it seems the human factor here

negated potential technological decisiveness. Not even the atom bomb

was a clear-cut war winner. Given our collective conviction about mut-

ually assured nuclear destruction, it is not even seen as a prospective

war winner anymore.

Martin van Creveld, in what is the last scholarly word on this subject

to date, argues that there were only "two situations in World War II

when technological superiority proved decisive." One was the defeat of

the German U-boats by Allied decimetric radar early in 1943, and the

other was the defeat of the Luftwaffe fighter defenses of the Reich by the

American P-51 Mustangs in 1944.116 He provides little supporting detail

or quantification; these two technologies have not been emphasized in

this way by earlier writers. In any case, van Creveld is not primarily

concerned with the relationship between technology and victory. Thus,

"although technological superiority can be very important in war, ...

technology on its own will seldom decide a war."'117 The objective of his

excellent assessment-one which clearly ranks with the works of W. H.

McNeill and Geoffrey Parker-is much broader, to demonstrate that

historically "war is completely permeated by technology and governed

by it."18 For him, technology dominates methods and practices, but

not outcomes.

So we have assertions, images, and impressions of technological

decisiveness in war but we have no detailed measurement, analysis, or

consensus. We do not even appear to have bodies of unexplored prim-

ary sources on which analysis might be based. Even in monopoly situa-

tions where technological advantages have been pronounced, effect on

battle outcomes seems to be limited to surprise situations such as that

of Champlain and the Iroquois or tanks at Cambrai, or it has been

embedded among a series of other technological and material advan-

tages. It has been more obvious in its effects on the way people fight

rather than on the outcomes of combat. New weapons have changed

115. McNeill, Pursuit of Power, 359.

116. Martin van Creveld, Technology and War: From 2000 B. C. to the Present

(London, 1989), 229. It is interesting to note that Dan Van der Vat, in his recent

study The Atlantic Campaign: World War II's Greatest Struggle at Sea (New York,

1988), agrees that centimetnc radar was important in the war on submarines (309,

339), but stresses that no single factor can be put forward as the chief reason for

victory over the U-boats (260, 352).

117. Van Creveld, Technology and War, 232.

118. Ibid., 1.


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War-Winning Weapons

soldiers' behavior. They do not seem to have prolonged or improved

soldiers' lives to the same degree. Why is war, to which Europeans have

so eagerly sought to apply new technology, so little susceptible to it,

remaining so unaltered in its primitive human dimensions? Philosophers

are busy studying the complex relationships between people and

machines.119 Maybe military historians need to have a closer look as


119. For example, see F. Rapp, Analytical Philosophy of Technology (Dor-

drecht, 1981), and S. Turkle, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit

(New York, 1984).


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Use The Journal of Military History

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