Pike & Shot Tactics

pike and shot formation

The tactics used by military commanders during the civil wars were mainly based upon methods developed in the Spanish Netherlands, where the Dutch had been fighting for independence from Spain since 1568, and in Germany and central Europe, where the Thirty Years' War had broken out in 1618.

During the century-and-a-half preceding the civil wars, the dominance of armoured cavalry equipped with shields and heavy lances was brought to an end in European warfare by the emergence of mixed units of infantry armed with pikes and hand-held firearms. The "pike-and-shot" era marks the transition from medieval to early modern styles of warfare.

The Spanish Tercio

The first successful implementation of pike-and-shot infantry tactics was achieved by Spanish armies in Italy fighting against the French. After a major defeat at the hands of French heavy cavalry and Swiss mercenary pikemen at the battle of Seminara in 1495, the Spanish general Gonzalo de Cordoba initiated a reform of the Spanish army in which infantry was organised into formations of around 1,000 men, called colunelas, comprising mutually supporting pikemen, arquebusiers and a small number of swordsmen. Supported by artillery, the concentrated firepower of the arquebusiers was intended to break enemy formations while the pikes gave protection from attacks by cavalry or enemy infantry. Using these tactics in combination with defensive field works, Cordoba's heavily outnumbered colunelas gained a notable victory over the French at the battle of Cerignola in 1503, which is generally regarded as the first battle in European history to be won by the use of gunpowder.

Spanish infantry tactics evolved during the first half of the 16th century as the Italian wars continued. During the 1530s, the colunela was superseded by the tercio, a larger formation numbering up to 3,000 men and probably originally formed by an amalgamation of three colunelas. In its typical form, the tercio comprised a massive central block of pikemen in a square or rectangular formation with ranks of arquebusiers lining each face of the square. Smaller squares of arquebusiers were deployed at each corner of the main square. The positioning of the arquebusiers meant that the tercio could concentrate firepower on an attack from any direction, while the arquebusiers could fall back into the main square under cover of the pikes if threatened.

A field army would generally deploy brigades of at least three tercios, with one forward and two behind in a triangular formation supported by cavalry on the flanks. Although cumbersome and slow-moving, the massive firepower of the Spanish tercios proved highly effective, particularly as the arquebus was gradually superseded by the musket, a heavier, slower-loading weapon but with greater range and greater armour-piercing potential.

Attempts to arm cavalrymen with matchlock pattern firearms were thwarted by the difficulty of handling lighted match on horseback. However, the development of wheel-lock pistols initiated a new style of mounted warfare. Abandoning the traditional heavy lance, armoured cuirassiers rode into battle armed with carbine, pistols and sword. In theory, their objective was to use gunfire to break up an enemy formation before advancing to fight at close quarters with swords. However, mounted pistoleers proved to be no match for infantry armed with pike and musket, and the traditional role of cavalry as shock troops was abandoned. Cavalry tactics devolved into elaborate manoeuvres like the caracole, which was intended to bring as much firepower to bear upon the enemy as possible but had little practical effect. The importance of cavalry had declined significantly by the end of the 16th century.

The Dutch System

The Dutch struggle for independence from Spain (the Eighty Years' War) began in 1568. Prince Maurice of Nassau (1567-1625) was appointed captain-general of the Dutch army in 1587 and introduced a series of administrative reforms that transformed it into a professional standing army capable of challenging the forces of Spain. Maurice instigated the formation of permanent units by ending the practice of disbanding soldiers each year when the campaigning season was over. Equipment and weapons were standardized throughout the army and high standards of discipline and drill were introduced. Inspired by his study of ancient Roman military doctrine, Maurice also initiated a major reform of Dutch infantry tactics.

Maurice planned to emulate the flexibility of the Roman legions by creating units based upon the cohort to counter the formidable but unwieldy Spanish tercios. Dutch regiments were re-organised into two or more battalions, ideally comprising 550 men each, the same number as the classical cohort. The Dutch battalion was made up of 250 pikemen and 300 shot. The pikes formed the centre of the battalion with musketeers and arquebusiers deployed on each flank. Sometimes a body of musketeers would be sent forward as skirmishers.

Under the Dutch system, the central pike block drew up in ranks between five and ten men deep, while the flanking shot drew up in ranks of between eight and twelve men. The shot were drilled to perfect the countermarch, in which the front rank would fire a volley, then turn about and march to the rear down the intervals between the files to reload their weapons. The second rank would then step up, fire their weapons and turn about in the same way. This continued until the front rank had returned to its original place, by which time their guns were reloaded and ready to fire again. In this way, the Dutch battalions could keep up a continuous fire for as long as their ammunition lasted. When threatened by cavalry, the shot could retire behind the pikes without disrupting the formation of the battalion.

The Dutch battalions were deployed in three lines of battle. They were staggered in a "chequerboard" formation, adapted from the Roman acies triplex (triple battle order), so that the gaps between the front line battalions were covered by those behind. While the second line could be used to support the front line, the third line was a reserve or rearguard, which was only committed to battle as a last resort, either to reinforce a final push for victory or to cover a withdrawal. Cavalry were usually deployed on the flanks armed with pistols and carbines. Their primary role was to support and defend the infantry.

Although influential, Maurice's reforms were largely theoretical. The war against Spain was fought mainly as a series of sieges and strategic manoeuvres, with few set-piece battles. However, Maurice led the reformed Dutch army to a notable victory over the Spanish tercios at the battle of Nieuport in July 1600.

The Swedish System

The tactical system initiated by Prince Maurice of Nassau was developed further during the Thirty Years' War by the Swedish king Gustav II Adolf, usually known by his latinised name as Gustavus Adolphus (1594-1632). The reforms introduced by Gustavus were shaped by his experiences during Sweden's war against Poland (1626-9), where he was impressed by the superiority of the Polish cavalry.

Gustavus divided his infantry regiments into two units of around 500 men each, which were known as squadrons and were equivalent to the Dutch battalions. The principal Swedish battlefield unit was the brigade, which was formed either from four squadrons deployed in a diamond pattern or, more usually, from three squadrons deployed in an arrowhead formation.

Gustavus initially sought to increase the firepower of his infantry in order to compensate for the inferiority of the Swedish horse. Swedish squadrons maintained the central pike block flanked by musketeers, but the formations were shallower than in the Dutch system, with ranks six men deep. This presented a broader front which brought more firepower to bear on the enemy. Like the Dutch, Swedish musketeers were drilled to maintain a continuous fire by use of the countermarch. However, Gustavus added the tactic of "doubling the files" when the enemy drew near, in which the rearmost ranks of shot moved up to fill the gaps between the frontline ranks, thus transforming a six-rank formation into three ranks. The front rank would kneel, the second rank would crouch and the third rank would stand. When commanded, all three ranks would fire simultaneously to deliver a devastating salvo, the "Swedish salvee". If the enemy stood firm, the musketeers would reload behind the shelter of the pikes to fire another salvo. As soon as the enemy faltered, the Swedish infantry charged forward to break them in hand-to-hand combat.

The formidable firepower of the Swedish infantry was increased by the use of light field artillery pieces that fired a three-pound shot and were manoeuvrable enough be moved with the troops in battle. As many as twelve field guns were attached to each brigade.

Gustavus also reformed the role of cavalry on the battlefield. Like the infantry, Swedish cavalry regiments were re-organised into two squadrons. Each squadron comprised four companies of 125 men so that the theoretical strength of a full regiment was 1,000 men. Gustavus realised that mounted pistoleers could not compete with well-trained musketeers in a firefight and that the elaborate manoeuvring between bodies of horse on the flanks was a waste of their potential. In order to increase the firepower of the cavalry, Gustavus placed musketeer "plottons" of fifty men in amongst them. The longer range of the musketeers gave the Swedish cavalry an immediate advantage against enemy horse in the opening stages of combat.

The caracole was abandoned and more aggressive cavalry tactics adopted. Swedish cavalry were deployed in three ranks and trained to charge to close range of the enemy. The first and second ranks would then fire one of their pistols before advancing with drawn swords, keeping the other pistol in reserve for the melee. The third rank attacked with drawn swords, keeping both pistols charged for the melee. Swedish cavalry were equipped as harquebusiers rather than as heavily-armoured cuirassiers in order to increase their speed and manoeuvrability.

The tactics adopted by Gustavus Adolphus proved successful in the great battles of Breitenfeld and Lutzen, and set the pattern for European cavalry tactics for decades to come. The emphasis on smaller infantry units in both the Dutch and Swedish systems was also highly influential, rendering the Spanish tercio formations obsolete by the mid-17th century.

Civil War Tactics

There were no standing armies in Britain prior to the civil wars, but many Englishmen and Scots who became senior officers in Royalist, Parliamentarian and Covenanter armies had gained military experience in Protestant European armies, especially in the Dutch and Swedish service. Many Irish Confederates and a few Catholic Royalist officers had served in the Spanish and Imperial armies.

Apart from the cadre of professional veterans, the majority of officers and men had no practical military experience when the wars broke out in 1642. However, many had learned the rudiments of drill and weapons handling in Trained Band militia units. There was also a proliferation of drill-books and theoretical texts available through which newly-commissioned officers could study contemporary developments in drill, tactics and military formations.

The Dutch style was by far the best known system among English officers in 1642. Both the Parliamentarian and Royalist captain-generals, the Earl of Essex and the Earl of Lindsey, had commanded regiments in the Dutch service. At the battle of Edgehill, the first major battle of the English Civil War, both commanders planned to deploy their forces broadly in accordance with Dutch practice. However, the King's nephew Prince Rupert insisted upon re-deployng the Royalist army in the more complex brigade formation of the Swedish style. Although Rupert's knowledge of battle tactics was derived mostly from his study of military textbooks, he was supported by the Earl of Forth, who had attained the rank of lieutenant-general in the Swedish army under Gustavus Adolphus. Forth was appointed captain-general of the Royalist army when Lord Lindsey angrily resigned his commission.

Rupert's preference for Swedish cavalry practice, with its emphasis on shock tactics over firepower, was a primary reason for the success of the Royalist horse during the early part of the English Civil War.

The few surviving detailed battle plans from the civil wars suggest that tactical thinking moved from adherence to the Dutch style early in the war towards the latest developments from the Thirty Years' War as it unfolded in central Europe. At Marston Moor, Prince Rupert abandoned the pure Swedish style that he had followed at Edgehill and drew up the Royalist infantry in three lines with squadrons of cavalry supporting the second line and a cavalry reserve behind the third line. The cavalry on the flanks were deployed in a chequerboard pattern, with units of musketeers supporting the first line. At the battle of Naseby, Rupert again drew up the infantry in three lines supported by cavalry. The third line was composed of alternating units of horse and foot in a style that may have been influenced by the Duc d'Enghien's successful deployment against the Spanish at the battle of Rocroi in 1643.

The surviving Parliamentarian plan for Marston Moor suggests that the Dutch style favoured by the Earl of Essex had been superseded by the influence of the Scottish officers who had fought in the Swedish service. The Parliamentarian and Scottish horse on the flanks were deployed in three lines, with each line supported by units of musketeers; the infantry were brigaded in the Swedish style. The officers of the New Model Army, which was first formed in 1645, adopted an aggressive approach to strategy and tactics that was strongly influenced by Gustavus Adolphus and which proved highly successful in the New Model's campaigns throughout the British Isles.


Philip Haythornthwaite, The English Civil War 1642-51, an illustrated military history (London 1983)

C. Jorgensen, M. Pavkovic, R. Rice, F. Schneid, C. Scott, Fighting Techniques of the Early Modern World 1500-1763 (Staplehurst 2005)

Stuart Reid, All the King's Armies, a military history of the English Civil War (Staplehurst 1998)

Keith Roberts, Cromwell's War Machine, the New Model Army 1645-60 (Barnsley 2005)

Keith Roberts, Pike and Shot Tactics 1590-1660 (Osprey 2010)


The Pike and Shot Society

Wikipedia article on pike-and-shot era warfare

Early 17th Century Drill, illustrated and animated

The Spanish Army of the Thirty Years War