No matter how sophisticated things get, it’s always going to be the infantry in a war — the ground-pounders who get things moving, sort things out, and mop things up.
Now, of course foot soldiers existed well before firearms. The role of the infantryman, for the most part, has pretty much been the same through the ages, and if you read some period accounts, it becomes obvious that they all shared similar experiences. I’m sure that if a Greek Hoplite c. 600 BC, an Augustinian Roman Legionary, a Napoleonic period British infantryman, a World War I French poilu and an American grunt in Vietnam sat down around a campfire swapping a few beakers of Flanernian wine, rum, cognac and Jack Daniels, in short order — with the help of a translator — they’d soon all be bitching about their officers, rotten army chow, long hours, bad pay, sore feet and the soldier’s sorry lot in general.
Where things would start to get a tad testy would be in the weaponry department. I’ll bet the Legionary would think his pilum (spear) was last word in individual armament, while the Brit, crushing Brown Bess to his bosom and stroking her titian-toned stock would proclaim her the “queen of battlefields.” The Frenchman and the Yank would shake their heads and launch into animated discussions extolling the merits of the Lebel and M16 — each probably feeling sorry for the other fellows that they were equipped with such second-rate weaponry. You know what, though, they’d all be right.
Given their frames of reference and taking into account the technologies of the times in which they were fighting, all were equipped with some of the best infantry arms available—arms which would have an effect far beyond their own particular periods. That’s what this piece is about—my personal impressions of the world’s most important infantry firearms. Some had longer service lives than others, but all had a great influence on history and in the further development of weaponry. I’ll present them in chronological order rather than by some subjective merit system, for as I said, in their heyday they were all the best there was.
- There were firearms before the matchlock (see above), but they were cumbersome and difficult to fire without using both hands and without taking one’s eyes off the target. By the second half of the 15th century, the touchholes of these early “handgonnes” were moved from the tops to the sides of the barrels and they were fitted with priming pans and simple S-shaped “serpentines,” which could hold a length of slow match -- hemp cord that had been steeped in a potassium nitrate solution -- in their jaws to effect a more efficient ignition. Still, the setup was awkward and needed some work. In fairly short order, it was further refined by the development of true locks -- mechanisms which involved simple springs and were more easily manipulated by long sear bars, or “trickers.” The term “lock,” by the by, comes from the fact that these early contrivances used some of the same technology as door and casket locks. The matchlock -- there were different sizes ranging from the light arquebus and caliver to the heavy musket -- allowed the infantryman to load, aim and fire with relative ease and speed, and established the preeminence of firearms over bows and arrows and pikes on the battlefield. This ultimately spelled the demise in importance of the elite, heavily armed cavalrymen and democratized the battlefield. It also helped fight a 30-year religious-political war in Europe and helped establish -- for a short time -- an interregnum in England. Warfare would never be the same.