Share This Article

Firepower: Weapons Effectiveness on the Battlefield, 1630­-1850, by Major General B.P. Hughes, Sarpedon Press, 1997, $29.95.

This is one of those useful and rare references focusing on an important tactical aspect of military history that one usually finds out of print in the library catalog. But here it is, reissued in a new edition. The subject is smoothbore firearms and their rise on the battlefield. Hughes might have started his story prior to the early 16th century, when the smoothbore matchlock arquebus began to prove the effectiveness of volley fire. Nonetheless, Hughes covers a lot of firearm history, initiating his discussion with the Thirty Years’ War (1618­1648), which highlighted the standardized use of great blocks of musket infantry by the major European players. Being able to maneuver and fire by ranks and columns in these closed-square formations was a battlefield revolution–especially in dealing with cavalry. And the matchlock was still in use, despite the early development of semiautomatic locks (ranging from the wheel lock to the precursors of the true flintlock), simply because it was effective enough and cheap. By the late 17th century, however, the flintlock had become just as economical–and much more reliable–than the matchlock.

The development of the flintlock by the middle of the 18th century brought the British infantry to pre-eminence in longarm tactics. Hughes punctuates his discussion of firearm effectiveness on the battlefield with detailed maps and views of decisive engagements. The author gives a statistical analysis of firearm effectiveness in various battles, from British successes such as Blenheim (1704) and Dettingen (1743) to King Frederick the Great of Prussia’s triumph at Leuthen in 1757. Some dramatic results are in particular evidence via the British in the Napoleonic Wars, such as General Sir Arthur Wellesley’s holding action at Talavera in 1809

Hughes takes his survey up to about 1850, examining engagements such as Bussaco, Ferozeshah and Gujerat. His work remains a valued addition to one’s military history library.

William McPeak