A Phalanx Of Guns: The Spanish Tercio

1961 words - 8 pages

By the beginning of the 16th century, the gradually increasing use of firearms in European warfare, along with the resurgence of older weaponry and tactics, had brought about a calamity of mixed weaponry which military minds struggled to apply efficiently and effectively on the battlefield, challenging the way wars had been fought for centuries. The dominating infantry weapons of the era, developed primarily in response to the overwhelming dominance of cavalry in the late medieval European system, were the heavy pike and the arquebus, the predecessor to the musket of later centuries. The limitations of both weapons severely restricted the situations in which they could be used independently and remain effective, and, as the Italian Wars escalated, military leaders of Habsburg Spain began fielding a new tactical formation of combined pikes and small firearms known as the tercio. This basic formation of the army’s core, supported in varying degrees by cavalry of both light and heavy types, became a standard in Europe for much of the next two centuries and heavily influenced the development of tactics and warfare in general during the late Renaissance and Early Modern Period. The application of tested weaponry in the innovative formation of the tercio in many ways resembled the Macedonian pike phalanx of Phillip II and Alexander, not merely in its basic form and appearance, but also in the administrative techniques used in its creation and the influential legacy which each of these formations left on the areas which encountered them.
The tercio as a distinct tactical entity developed gradually over the early 1500’s as the result of efforts to reconcile the inherent limitations of the available weaponry with the conditions of field warfare and to combat the threat of the heavily armored and mobile European cavalry. Early hand-held firearms, most notably the arquebus – a shoulder mounted matchlock weapon, had already proven their worth in siege warfare, eventually replacing the crossbow as the ideal weapon for defense of walled fortifications. However, their slow rate of fire and total lack of accuracy beyond a range of 50-100 meters made them extremely vulnerable without defensive structures. Even a large mass of arquebusiers firing in unison - necessary to produce the volume of fire to be effective – could be easily crushed by fast moving cavalry as they reloaded (Hale 51). The common answer to cavalry was the pike, which quickly put a stem on, though never completely eradicated, the cavalry charges of the earlier Middle Ages. Unfortunately, aside from the exceptional performance of the Swiss pike phalanx, densely packed pike formations proved unwieldy and lacked in mobility and devastating offensive capability. In order to address these issues, Gonzalo de Cordoba, commander of the Spanish army at the beginning of the 16th century, began experimenting with field fortifications, such as trenches and palisades, to replicate the defensive scenarios...

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