Friday, October 18, 2013

economics and gunpowder


ECONOMICS AND GUNPOWDER

The general thoughts on the introduction of gunpowder ( black powder, not smokeless ) usually parrot the line that cannon destroyed castles and kings and bullets destroyed armor and knights.  Ipso Facto, the end of tyranny.  This myth is especially prevalent here in the US where legions of patriots huddle in the dark shadows caressing their plastic poodle shooters as they shrilly proclaim yet another line in the sand simply must not be crossed and by gum if it is they WILL draw another.  Gunpowder did not spell the end of kings.  If you’ll recall they were still pretty thick on the ground through the nineteenth century.  The castle did come under peril by cannon at first, but the defense rebounded quickly thereafter as earthen works were added to back bare stone.  Once garrisons came on their own the heavy urban fortifications declined.  Knights, heavy cavalry,  were not bothered by gunpowder as much as by pike formations.  It wasn’t until the introduction of the wheel lock mechanism and the light horse that used them that the knights pretty much disappeared and almost overnight ( the wheel lock also saw the first rash of gun control laws- a weapon with a match lock would have caught ones shirt on fire if concealed ).  When some unarmored bitch with a brace of pistols could charge up right out of reach of your lance and shoot you in the face ( literally- one of the weakest armor points ) your uselessness was pretty clear. 

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Cannon might have done a better job than the trebuchet, but it was still just siege warfare ( once the walls had been reinforced ).  The end of heavy horse just transferred the battlefield emphasis to infantry.  The match lock wasn’t much of an advantage over the crossbow ( interestingly, they both cost about the same to manufacture, not accounting for their missiles ).  They both were relegated to defensive roles behind fortifications due to their vulnerability while reloading.  Actually, in a lot of ways gunpowder was a step back.  Especially considering the cost of shifting nitrates from field to powder manufacture ( France always had the advantage of food surplus, but Britain overcame that with its India possession ).  Gunpowder wasn’t as a weapon system itself all that compelling a reason to switch.  Where the advantage lie was the drastic decline in training its users.  The knight needed a lifetime of training to be effective ( not to mention the cost of keeping him, diverting resources.  Without knights, kings could free up land to their own advantage ).  Pike were needed to counter heavy horse and they might have been commoners but their skillset required heavy training, and the cost as mercenaries reflected that.  Without the need for either, the cost of war was cheaper even with gunpowder.   As weapons firing systems improved, the cost of heavy urban fortification was reduced.  The move from defensive to offensive was also a cost savings.  Of course, the arms race between nations got to the point where war got very expensive- but that had a logic all its own with energy and food surpluses and surplus populations.  Gunpowder, initially, was all about making war more affordable to its end user.

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5 comments:

  1. Lord Bison of the Great Basin and King of Coiffure;

    An interesting take on the development of European Combat, however you forgot (unless I'm too clueless a minion) to mention that these surpluses of resources provided these European Aristocrats, to fund the second and third-born sons on their subsequent 'Age of Discovery' to discover the Western Hemisphere and begin the wholesale rape and pillage of a hemisphere's indigenous population, who while not privy to the magic of nitrate based chemical explosive, were world leaders in advanced astronomy and mathematics. However not to fret since in the immortal words of Harry Koller; "God created men. Colonel Colt made them equal." The mass introduction of gunpowder provided for the above quote's gravity to be realized for the first time. This is the great aspect of the introduction of propellents. Keep keeping it real James!

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    1. Without colonization, the west never would have grown rich and powerful. But as I only had 500 words I mainly wanted to focus on the beginning. Also, Colts don't necessarily make anyone equal without the will to use them- a point I believe we've been at for a very long time. BBQ'ed babies are turning in their graves at our spinelessness.

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    2. The real leap forward wasn't when the nitrate based explosives were 'discovered' (insert Chinese laugh-track). It was when Britain experimented successufully with iron cast artillery. Before then, all the great powers thought that only bronze (very difficult and slow to produce) would suffice for black powder ordnance.


      Simple iron-cast cannons, in massive quantity, is what Britain conquered the seas with. And it's the sole reason why I'm typing this, and you're reading it, in English.

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  2. Gunpowder has been argued (likely correctly) to be the first energy revolution. Gunpowder eventually came to mean that larger armies were more effective armies once a minimum level of discipline was introduced. The supply of these larger armies has also been argued to be one of the main inputs into why the Europeans came to dominate the globe.

    Don't believe the revisionists who say firearms were no better than bows/crossbows. Contemporaries noted that wounds from firearms were much more damaging. But what do they know: they were only the people using them.

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    1. Perhaps prior to the flintlock there was little differance. But, yep, ask the American Indigs about the differance.

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