Honour and the Sword deals largely with guerrilla-style warfare as the Occupied Army fights to repel the Spanish invaders, but the methods they use are naturally closely related to those of the battlefields of their day.
The seventeenth century is within the period of warfare characterized as pike and shot, but it is the shot which most concerns our characters, since firearms are better suited to the business of ambush.
However, the main drawback of firearms was the length of time it took to load them. An arquebus such as Jacques first uses might only get off one shot a minute, while even the relatively sophisticated snaphance could only aspire to three.
Extract from a musketeer’s manual, presumed 17th century, showing some of the loading process
This sequence of Jersey musketeer Kevin Lees demonstrating the loading and firing of a matchlock musket was shot during the making of the trailer for Honour and the Sword.
Something this slow was obviously of limited value in a battle situation, and to us in the machine-gun age can seem quite ridiculous. Director Richard Lester makes full comic play with the idea in his film The Three Musketeers, in which the hapless Bonacieux threatens the men who come to arrest him with a Just you wait! and then proceeds to take two minutes attempting to load a wheel-lock pistol...
In the seventeenth century it was less funny, and musketeers who lacked the protection of pike during the reloading process were fairly described as enfants perdus or more simply a forlorn hope. Increasing the rate of fire was a factor which influenced almost every aspect of firearms strategy at this time, as in the caracole observed by Stefan Ravel, where cavalry discharge their pistols and then retreat to the rear in order to give themselves time to reload. The equivalent for infantry was the countermarch where ranks of musketeers fired in turn, a tradition armies maintained for centuries until the adoption of the machine gun. One of the best illustrations in film comes in Zulu, which is set in 1879 and features the relatively modern Martini-Henry rifle, but still shows both the stationery and advancing techniques of the countermarch common at the time of the Thirty Years War.
The Occupied Army of Honour and the Sword is largely composed of amateurs, and finds its own solutions to the problem. They are also fortunate in the number of wheel-lock weapons at their disposal, since these were both quicker and simpler to load. Jean-Marie Mercier lists some of their advantages in this section from the unpublished manuscripts describing his first lesson in musketry by Stefan Ravel:
He made it seem terribly easy.
He began by showing us how the wheel-lock mechanism actually worked, how it used a spring-wound wheel to strike a spark which fired the powder without our needing so much as to light a match. He said it was a lot quicker and safer than a matchlock and much more discreet, because there wasn't the flare of the match to give away our position before we fired.
The snag, he said is that it doesnt always work. Keep it dry, squeeze the trigger carefully, and it can still sometimes misfire. So youve got to improve the odds all you can.
He showed us how to measure the powder, and promised wed have bandoliers with ready-measured doses when it came to real action, though he said we had to be very careful if we were in an ambush with them, because the little flasks used to rattle and could give away our position....
Wheel-lock muskets were still relatively new and expensive at this time, and likely to have been standard only in a private army such as the Seigneurs Household Guard from which these particular guns came. An infantryman in the regular army would almost certainly have still been issued with a matchlock, as is the case in In the Name of the King. Here we see some of the practical difficulties of such a weapon, as Ravel passes out a handful of slow-match lengths with the instruction ‘They’re lit – just blow.’ There would be no time in a battle to relight the match, and a soldier needed to blow constantly on the smouldering threads to keep them burning for the next shot. The dangers of this are evident when one is loading powder with the other hand, and we see at least one result of them in the stand at the baggage train at La Marfée.
The wheel-lock pistol, however, was much more common, and indeed essential to a cavalryman who would be required to fire one on horseback.
German wheel-lock, dating from about 1580
These were still a long way removed from the modern concept of the pistol, being altogether much longer and more unwieldy. Pistol length varied considerably, as can be seen in these 17th century examples in the Musée de l'Armée,
but they were still usually too bulky to be carried on the person. A cavalrymans holsters were not on his belt, but on his horse. Ravel does sometimes carry a pistol stuck in his belt, but we should remember that Jacques describes Stefan as the only man he knew who could swagger while he was standing still ...
Jacques himself demonstrates the more conventional use of the pistol in In the Name of the King. He carries two at the Battle of La Marfée, one holstered on each side of his horse, and both are loaded before the action starts. In the attack he carries a pistol rather than the sword, presumably with the strategy of shooting down the first rank of the enemy before assailing those behind with the blade. We note he uses the left-hand pistol first ‘because the right’s easier to grab in the chaos of battle’, and when he finally fires he is careful to turn the gun ‘sideways, so the powder fell right against the vent’. In all of this he is demonstrating the practice of a well-trained cavalryman, in noticeable contrast to the hit-and-run business of Honour and the Sword.
Firearms, of course, are only part of the picture, and both books place considerable emphasis on the role still played by the pike.
Wallhausen's 1617 study of pike and sword
The pike had a crucial function in the battlefield, and no understanding of 17th century warfare is complete without an appreciation of their role.
It was a formidable weapon, especially against cavalry. Pike at this time could easily be as great as fifteen foot in length, and while some were little more than long-handled spears, others added unpleasant refinements to their design. When local blacksmith Colin Lefebvre begins to manufacture heads for the shafts, for instance, he tells us with some relish the importance of the crescent he is adding for the purpose of disembowelment.
A terrifying weapon in the infantry charge, the pike was perhaps even more valuable as a defence. An infantry square, such as those frequently adopted by the Spanish tercios, would bristle on the outside with extended pike, and it would take a very brave horse to charge right onto the levelled blades.
Again it is Jacques who tells us most about this process at the battle of La Marfée, when he describes his first assault against Spanish pike: ‘I heard the order, then the great thud as they slammed their butts into the ground, thrusting the pike forward at an angle, horse-breast high, and the full strength of the earth to take the impact.’ Here we can see modern re-enactors demonstrating this exact defensive technique, with the second rank aiming their weapons higher to strike the cavalrymen in their saddles:
More famous, however, is the role played by pike at the Battle of Rocroi when the tercios formed square. I cannot improve on the descriptions given by Jacques and Corvacho in their interviews for In the Name of the King, but this painting by Arturo Perez-Reverte inspired by the film Alatriste provides an effective illustration as to how it might have looked in those final crucial stages:
However, the improvements in firearms were already beginning to give them precedence over pike. In the 1640s some French battalions still maintained an almost 50% ratio between pike and shot, but this steadily decreased as the century wore on. One of the most important jobs of the pike had been to protect the ‘shot’ during the reload, but even this was eroded by the invention of the socket bayonet. Simple ‘plug-in’ bayonets made a gun impossible to fire, but the ‘socket’ created a dual-purpose weapon which could stab as well as shoot, and the pike was on its way to becoming obsolete.