Gunpowder changed the world. It took a while — the earliest gunpowder arms were too unwieldy and unpredictable to have much of an effect on the ways people fought, but in time the weapons got better and armies adapted their tactics and organization in response. Before firearms, though, the battlefield operated on a basic rock-paper-scissors relationship among three different types of troops: infantry, cavalry, and missile troops.
Before getting into the types of troops, we need to lay out a few things about pre-modern warfare.
First, battles were almost never resolved by one side eliminating the other. Devastating routs did occasionally happen, but the tactical goal in a battle was usually to drive the enemy from the field and disrupt their ability mount an organized defense, not kill them all. While the ability to kill enemy troops was essential, that killing was in the service of the larger goals of controlling territory, limiting enemy movements, and resisting the enemy’s attempts to dislodge or disrupt your own forces.
Second, the ability to communicate and coordinate across the battlefield was very limited. Flags, drums, trumpets, even runners or riders carrying reports and orders could convey some information, but there were serious limits to how much you could get across and how certain you could be that your messages had been received, plus there was always the risk that the enemy would understand your signals or intercept your messages. In an effective army, units had to function more or less independently once battle was joined. Even unit commanders had only limited control over the soldiers in their units. Well-drilled veteran units might accomplish complicated maneuvers, but for your average recruits even making a ninety-degree turn left or right was a lot to hope for. As a whole, an army functioned best when each unit had a simple, well-rehearsed role to play.
With those points in mind, here’s the basic types of forces you would find on the pre-gunpowder battlefield:
Infantry fought on foot with short-range weapons like swords, axes, spears, clubs, and so on. Infantry’s strength was solidity. Well-trained footmen could pull together into dense formations that could hold the line against opponents. Standing solidly on the ground, they could wear heavy armor, carry defensive shields, and wield long weapons like spears and pikes to keep other forces at a distance. The weakness of infantry was immobility. They moved slowly, especially if they were trying to maintain an organized formation or if they were burdened with heavy armor and weapons. Basic infantry were quick to recruit and cheap to arm since in a pinch you could just drag some peasants off their farms, give them spears, and tell them: “Stand here and keep the pointy ends towards the other guys.” Even low-quality infantry, in sufficient numbers, could be decisive in controlling territory and limiting the enemy’s movement. Better trained and armed infantry, like Roman legionaries or the Persian Immortals, could be a powerful fighting force.
Cavalry were mounted warriors, usually on horseback but sometimes also in chariots or riding other animals like camels. Early cavalry fought with light weapons like swords and short spears and were only lightly armored because early horse breeds and harnessing technology did not allow for carrying heavy weights. Later, the development of better tack (including eventually stirrups) and the breeding of larger, stronger horses made it possible for cavalry to wield heavy weapons like the lance and wear heavy armor. Cavalry’s advantage was speed and mobility. A mounted force could move quickly around the battlefield to surprise enemy troops, scatter lightly-armed forces, or chase down fleeing enemies. Cavalry’s weakness was their lack of stability. Being designed to move, cavalry could not hold a position with the effectiveness of heavy infantry. Cavalry was expensive to maintain because both horse and rider had to be trained and horses consume a lot of fodder and water. Nomadic peoples like the Mongols and Scythians had an advantage in fielding cavalry because raising, training, and caring for horses was already an integral part of their culture.
Missile troops were soldiers equipped to strike at a distance, including archers, slingers, stone-throwers, javelin-throwers, and others. The strength of artillery was range, the ability to strike enemies at a distance. Their weakness was a lack of defense. Because of the mechanics of their various weapons, these troops needed their upper bodies more or less unencumbered by protective armor, and while they would often carry hand weapons such as swords or daggers for defense, they were at a disadvantage if the fighting came to hand-to-hand range. Ranged weapons were not particularly effective at killing (reports from some battles record only one man killed for every 1,000 arrows fired), but they were good at pinning down enemy forces to keep them from joining the fight and at disrupting the order of infantry to make them more vulnerable to a follow-up attack at close range. Missile troops took a lot of training to develop the necessary strength and skill to use their weapons effectively, so they could not be raised in a hurry except from peoples like the English, Cretans, or Nubians who maintained traditions of practicing with missile weapons for hunting or sport.
Some hybrid types of troops existed, but they all had drawbacks. Heavy cavalry combined some of the speed of cavalry with the durability of infantry, but required serious investments in horse-breeding and gear. Mounted archers had both the mobility of cavalry and the range of missile troops, but also combined the expense and training requirements of both. Skirmishers, lightly-armed footmen who carried javelins and hand weapons, could both harass the enemy like missile troops and, if necessary, stand and fight like infantry, but did neither as effectively as dedicated troops.
When these different types of soldiers collided on the field, all else being equal, infantry tended to beat cavalry, cavalry tended to beat missile troops, and missile troops tended to beat infantry.
Infantry beat cavalry because they could pull together into a dense formation and present a line of spears, pikes, or shields. Horses are sensible creatures and will not charge into an obstacle that they can not see a way over, through, or around. Against infantry who stood their ground and held formation, cavalry charges were of little use. When cavalry were effective against infantry, it was usually because the infantry were already broken up, in flight, or too undisciplined to hold formation.
Cavalry, however, were good against missile forces because missile troops did not have the same defenses that infantry had. The nature of their weapons required them to be lightly armored and relatively dispersed, so they could not pull up into a defensive formation like infantry. With the speed of their mounts, cavalry could close with missile soldiers quickly and ride them down.
Missile troops were strong against infantry because of their ability to strike at a distance. Infantry had to maintain a more or less close formation to protect themselves from cavalry, but that made them an easy target for arrows, javelins, and sling stones, and being on foot and weighed down with heavier weapons and armor they had trouble coming to grips with missile troops who could usually withdraw faster than the infantry chasing after them.
As I said above: all else being equal, this is how things tended to play out, but all else is never equal. Many other factors influenced the outcome of battles, such as numbers, supplies, leadership, intelligence, terrain, weather, morale, training, equipment, and technology. Nevertheless, this basic pattern ran through pre-modern warfare and the most successful armies were those that effectively combined differently-armed soldiers to support one another.
Thoughts for writers
There’s a lot to think about if you’re writing a big battle scene: what role your characters play, how it begins and ends, what effect the result has on the rest of your story, and so on. Thinking of the types of soldiers involved can help you lay the foundation.
Start with the composition of your army. If they’re infantry, are they trained professionals or raw recruits fresh off the farm? If they’re missile troops, how much training and practice have they had with their weapons? If they’re cavalry, who’s paying for the upkeep of the horses? The nature of the society your writing about determines what kind of soldiers they can put in the field.
Once you know what kind of force you’re dealing with, you can think about how to effectively lead it into battle. Good generalship is more than just giving inspiring speeches and leading the charge. A good commander has to know the field of battle and how to deploy their forces most usefully. Knowing what your forces can and cannot do, their strengths and their vulnerabilities, is essential to their effective use in combat.
Images: Bayeux Tapestry scene 52, via Wikimeda (Bayeux, France; 11th c CE, embroidered tapestry). Chigi Vase, reconstructed frieze via Wikimedia (7th c. BCE; painted pottery). Jami’ al-tawarikh, detail of illustration via Wikimedia (1211 CE; ink on parchment). Temple of Hatshepsut via Wikimedia (Deir el-Bahri; currently Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, 15th c. BCE, fragment of wall relief).
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.