Warfare and the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution was a time of great change for Europe and the rest of the world. No longer was the main mode of production in the hands of the family and professional craftsmen, but instead in the hands of factory owners and cheap labor. The needs of the family, the lord or the king were no longer the main reason to research or create new technologies or weapons. Due to the advances in production and science, technological changes brought to the militaries of Europe were greatly effected by the coming of the Industrial Revolution. Factory owners, scientists and military thinking entrepreneurs now had the possibility to gain from their research and inventions by means of making great sums of money and prestige for themselves and their families. Many advances were made to the land, sea and logistical branches of the European militaries during the Industrial revolution. We will explore some of the technological advances brought on by the Industrial Revolution and their effect on already existing military equipment, and we will touch upon the new technologies invented during the Industrial Revolution that would change the way war was conducted.

Military practices had not changed in the 200 years prior to the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Every European country was still using tactical changes pioneered by the Dutch army in the 16th century at the end of the 18th century. The volley technique developed by Count Maurice of Nassau (1567-1625) and his cousin, Count William Louis (1560-1620) put into practice the notion of using volley fire. “Volley fire involved the simultaneous discharge of all men in a platoon, alternating their fire, first from the outside, right then left, and continuing the firing order toward the center of the battalion. This allowed a continuous fire to be presented to the enemy.” (Greener p.64)

Gustavus Adolphus (1611-32) of Sweden was one of the first to use the counter-march technique, where musketeers rotated their position by moving through the ranks of their colleagues, so after they had fired, they could retire to reload while others fired. The volley technique and the counter-march along with the continued use of cavalry and pike men led to a standardization of Dutch weaponry, and the creation of a disciplined field army. Firing by rank (counter-march) and more complex maneuvers required more discipline and training, and these could be best assured by permanent forces. (Black p.3-4)

Due to the costs of permanent armies and the family based economy before the Industrial Revolution, most military technological development was severely stunted or non-existent. There was a disregard of industry as the source of a nation’s power well in to the 19th century, as armies and navies were frequently used to measure power. (Fuller p.86) It wasn’t until about 1815 that radical military change and invention started appearing as a result of the Industrial Revolution. (Addington p.48) Innovation in military weaponry was mostly based on improvements to existing weapons, most noticeably firearms, artillery and warships. (Black p.53) The majority of military development came from necessity rather than innovation, greed or from the curiosity that fueled the Industrial Revolution.

The first example of military invention due to necessity was the invention and implementation of the bayonet. Although the bayonet was developed prior to the onset of the Industrial Revolution, its development dramatically altered infantry warfare. It let to the replacement of the pike, and of the pike men that were needed to wield the heavy weapon. Pikes were used to protect musketeers from attack by cavalry. Bayonets proved to be an effective cheaper alternative to the pike, and were more effective in repelling cavalry and infantry. Bayonets also proved to be useful in offensive as well as defensive campaigns. So much so that the French abandoned the pike in 1703, followed by the British in 1704. (Black p.38)

It was because of the increased factory capacity brought on by the Industrial Revolution, that the majority of European militaries could utilize the bayonet as a pre-Industrial Revolution invention. By 1815 because of the onset of the Industrial Revolution, and the reduced costs of producing bayonets, most infantrymen in all of Europe’s armies carried some form of composite weapon that incorporated a musket and a bayonet. (Black p.39) The Musket is another example of a pre-Industrial Revolution invention that was vastly impacted by the Industrial Revolution.

Before the Industrial Revolution, specialized weapon makers in small workshops created Muskets. They were expensive to make (although cheaper than a rifle), and were often the victim of mechanical failure. There was little to no standardization of the parts used in the weapons, and as a result, muskets were often discarded as soon as they were no longer functional. The French model flintlock musket was mostly handmade, and used an intricate lock, which made the weapon almost impossible to standardize. In 1798 Eli Whitney (1765-1825) pioneered the mass production of weapons by manufacturing muskets with interchangeable parts. (Black p.54 – 56) During and after the American Revolutionary War, the American’s created a system where guns and gunpowder were produced in armament plants and gunpowder mills utilizing modern machinery, which vastly increased their weapons producing power. This system of modern production was copied by the Russians following the Crimean War (1853-6). (Addington p.82)

The rifle is another example of innovations that were practical but could not be implemented as a major battlefield weapon until the shortfalls of pre-industrial production were resolved. Because the musket with its smooth bore and relative inaccuracy was the weapon of choice due to cost and supply, infantry tactics emphasized the volume of firepower rather than aimed fire. So initially rifles were not used to their full capacity. John Adams described the rifle as a weapon “that has circular grooves within the barrel and carries a ball with great exactness to great distances.” (Butterfield p. 1215)

The rifles made before the Industrial Revolution were very expensive to produce at almost double the cost of a standard musket. They also posed new problems to a soldier that was not seen with muskets during the period. Rifles usually took twice as long to load as conventional muskets, because the ball had to be introduced in to the weapon through the muzzle and worked down the barrel against the resistance of the rifling. (Addington p.3) Because of the slow rate of fire the rifle offered, they were practically useless in close quarter fighting. Close quarter fighting was not appropriate for riflemen, because their rifles were often clogged by repeated firing. This was due to the inability of the rifle to discharge any remaining gunpowder left in the barrel after firing. (Black p.42)

An attempt to alleviate the long loading time of rifles was tried in Britain in the 1740’s with the invention of the Breech-loaded rifle. A breach-loaded rifle, loads the gunpowder and projectile from the back of the barrel. Breach-loaded rifles were used on the battlefield, but could still not be frequently used, because the loading mechanism would often become clogged with powder. (Black p.43) There was also a problem called “windage,” which when the rifle was fired would push gas and gunpowder back through the breech. The result of “windage” would be the reduced traveling distance of the projectile. (Fuller p.88) It wasn’t until the invention of the cylindro-conoidal bullet, one of the Industrial Revolution’s greatest military inventions, that the escape of gas from rifles was finally solved.

The invention of cylidro-conoidal bullet had a huge effect on traditional military tactics. Captain Norton of the British 34th Regiment invented the cylindro-conoidal bullet in 1823. While on his travels in India, Norton examined blowpipe arrows and found that their base was formed of elastic material. It expanded against the inner surface of the tube and prevented any air from escaping. Norton’s cylindro-conoidal bullet was improved upon many times, before French Captain Claude Minnie (1814-1879) finally improved the bullet by adding a wooden plug in the bullets base which allowed no air or gunpowder to “wind” back as it was fired. The bullet was so effective in rifles that the British government paid Minnie 20,000 pounds for his invention. (Fuller p.88) This allowed breech-loaded rifles such as the Minnie rifle, loaded with Minnie bullets, to achieve a range and loading speed never before seen in infantry weaponry. In the Kaffir war of 1852, it was noted that British infantry skirmishers equipped with Minnie rifles and bullets were able to reach enemy soldiers at a range of thirteen hundred years. (Fortescue p. 561) The new ability to load the bullets while laying down in a defensive position, meant that soldiers could now shoot at opposing forces from a long distance while being protected by cover. This devastated traditional attack formations. (Addington p.49) Another major military invention during the Industrial Revolution that was incorporated to old technology was the percussion cap.

The percussion cap was developed in the early 19th century and was perfected in 1816 by an inventor named Joshua Shaw (1776-1860). Using fulminate of mercury, which is an explosive that detonates on contact, Shaw invented the copper percussion cap, which could ignite gunpowder in the chamber of a weapon. The percussion cap replaced the powder pan of the wheel lock and flintlock rifles. The copper percussion cap could fire a weapon in windy and rainy weather, and that was a major achievement, because it was something that the flintlock system could not do. The superiority of the percussion cap over the flintlock was shown in 1841 when a company of Sepoys (native Indians fighting for the British) defended itself against a large group of 1000 Chinese soldiers in heavy rain. The flintlock muskets used did not fire, while the percussion cap rifles performed without a single misfire. (Fuller p.87)

The cylindro-conoidal bullet and percussion cap are both examples of how the Industrial Revolution was able to change already existing technologies by improving on them. Due to their invention, old technologies such as the rifle and musket were able to take on new characteristics with much more deadly effects. While changing old technology was important during the Industrial Revolution, so were the inventions of new technologies during the era. New inventions such as war rockets and the locomotive are examples of technology that would revolutionize warfare in the late 19th century and beyond.

The idea of projectiles propelled by their own self controlled explosions was not a new idea when Benjamin Robins (1707-1751), a mathematician, proposed the idea of using rockets for military purposes to the Royal Society in 1749. Rockets were effectively used by the Chinese dating back to the thirteenth century, but were not utilized or researched for military purposes in Europe until roughly 1799. A scientist by the name of William Congreve witnessed the use of war rockets against the British at the siege of Seringapatam and took them back to the Royal Laboratory in Woolwich. Using his own money, he improved on the rocket’s design. (Black p.45) (Fuller p.89-90)

The war rocket was first used by the British in the attack on Boulogne in 1806. Mounted on boats, Congreve’s war rockets had a range of 2,000 yards and could be launched 500 at time from 10 launchers. Congreve wrote during the battle “In less than ten minutes after the first discharge the whole town was discovered to be on fire.” (Fuller p.90)

By 1810 full-scale production of 12-pound war rockets were taking place in England’s armament factories, and were soon to be used by the French. Since their invention, war rockets have continued to be an important part of military weaponry. Congreve’s work set the stage for later developments in using rockets to propel objects in to space and to achieve firepower over great distances. The development and production of the war rocket is an example of military innovation during the Industrial Revolution that would take on a more important role in the future, the same was the case with another very important invention, the locomotive.

The nature of warfare changed drastically with the invention of the locomotive in 1801 in England. After using the early locomotive on existing coal mine tracks to move goods between coalmines and shipyards, the first real railway came to be in September 1825. The first country to realize the possible military importance of the locomotive was Prussia. Prussia was the first to recognize that in order to protect itself from France, Austria and Russia, that the use of a railway system would greatly improve the speed with which Prussia could mobilize its troops against foreign forces. (Fuller p.92)

A Prussian economist by the name of Friedrich List (1789-1846) pointed out that because of Prussia’s central position between powerful enemies, Prussia could become a formidable power on it’s own if it were to develop a railway system. He noted “Germany could be made into a defensive bastion in the very heart of Europe. Speed of mobilization, the rapidity with which troops could be moved from the center of its periphery, and the other obvious advantages of “interior lines” of rail transport would be of greater relative advantage to Germany than to any other European country.” (Paret p.149)

In 1846, Prussia was the first country to use locomotive power to move a large amount of troops outside of its borders; when 12,000 Prussian soldiers, horses and arms were moved with locomotive power to Krakow. (Fuller p.93) Locomotives virtually replaced the need for troops, animals and supplies to march on their own to their places of battle. Capturing railroads also became an important strategy during times of war, because occupying forces could move supplies and troops in to enemy territory faster if they controlled the rail-heads. Had it not been for the Industrial Revolution, the locomotive might not have been invented, and the transformation in transportation and military strategy might not have occurred otherwise.

For the militaries and citizens of Europe, the years during and following the Industrial Revolution must have been an exciting and yet terrifying time. Never before in the history of the world had the capacity to bring so much death and destruction been available at such a cheap price. The Industrial Revolution had the capacity to improve on old technology such as using percussion caps in muskets, and allowing every infantry man in Europe to hold a bayonet. It also had the capacity to create technology that would revolutionize warfare into the next century such as war rockets and locomotives, but there are many more technological advances that we have not seen. There were many advances in naval technology such as the submarine and the creation of metal steamships. There were also advances in artillery during the Industrial Revolution such as stronger materials to make the barrels and lighter weight materials for faster transportation. It was an exciting time of innovation and creation, which will forever be known, for the advancement militaries around the world.

About Matthew Schroder

There is no shortage of science fiction reading here. No lack of appreciation for beards, love of coffee or obsession over blueberries.