Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

‘Gunpowder Age’: A strong and thorough new study of ‘global military history’

This is one of the best books I've read in awhile — indeed, I think since "Comanche Empire."

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This is one of the best books I’ve read in awhile — indeed, I think since Comanche Empire. (And yes, I still have Empire of the Summer Moon on my reading pile, but I promise to get to it.) I found this book, by Tonio Andrade, a history professor at Emory University, to be of similar interest and quality.

Andrade concludes that “modern warfare began in Song China” because that is when — around 1000 A.D. — that gunpowder was first used in combat. At first it was a incendiary weapon. It wasn’t used to shoot projectiles for another few hundred years, around 1280. Those first guns were small handheld devices.

The gun appeared in Europe about 50 years after that. We still don’t know how it got there, he says. He says that it probably was the Mongols or people working with them.

He then asks, “Why did the classic gun emerge in Europe and not China? … When did China fall behind Western Europe, and why?” These two questions are at the heart of the book.

Building on the revolutionary work of Geoffrey Parker, Andrade argues that in the 1370s, the northern French developed heavy artillery. Until then, guns were really anti-personnel weapons. When cannons were developed that could hurl balls of 200 or 300 kilograms, the nature of European warfare changed. Suddenly sieges could be wrapped up in days, rather than weeks. “When modern guns met ancient walls, the walls lost,” he notes.

European walls became thicker during the 1400s, giving us the words “bulwark” and “boulevard,” which are two words for pretty much the same thing — heavy sloped earthworks built to strengthen brittle walls. The late 1400s were the age of muzzle velocity. That is, as guns got longer and thinner, their projectiles emerged from the barrel with more velocity. But it took much longer for European scientists to begin to understand the significance and complexities of air resistance.

Andrade argues, persuasively, that you can’t understand the military history of Europe without understanding China’s, and vice versa. For example, the Chinese used drill to increase the rate of infantry fire centuries before Maurice of Nassau started doing that in Europe in the 1590s. They had done it with the crossbow, long before the invention of firearms, when presented with the problem of how to have a unit survive between volleys.

This is “global military history.” I hadn’t come across that term before, but having read this book, I endorse it. Does anyone know of other books that might fit that category?

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1