Julien Fehlmann

The introductions of gunpowder and the atomic bomb: business as usual or revolution in strategy? A comparative study.


Many military historians have claimed that evolutions in warfare were, in fact, ‘revolutions’. Two prominent examples of technical advances defined as such are the advent of gunpowder and the atom bomb. This essay thoroughly studies the literature on Strategy, past and present, to answer the question of whether it is really the case. It finds that, instead of a revolution, the implementation of gunpowder in warfare was a slow process. The sheer power of atomic weapons precipitated Japan’s surrender with just two bombs in 1945. However, evidence suggests that the art of war has been scaled down rather than changed as a result.



If gunpowder was perhaps discovered in China by alchemists in quest of new medicine (Andrade 2016, p.34), the atom bomb was born out of a deliberate attempt at unleashing unique destructive power. Both technologies have led to a series of developments and issues which still convey pressing contemporary concerns. The present essay seeks to understand how war-making was affected by these new technologies, as well as if they had been the magic bullet that helped win wars. Specifically, how and if the advent of new explosive devices changed the strategies applied to win or prevent wars at the time of their implementation. To answer those questions, it is first necessary to define strategy. Here, strategy is viewed as encompassing all means necessary to fulfil the aims of both survival and victory in war. In the present context, strategy will refer to the military means to achieve those goals. As such, strategic military means are those used to win a war, in contrast to tactical means which are employed to win a battle. This differentiation typically distinguishes strategic targeting (the bombing of the cities of a nation to force its surrender) and tactical targeting (the attack of military targets).

This essay starts with a very brief overview of how the introduction of gunpowder affected the conduct of war in Europe, assessing both the advent of siege artillery and that of portable firearms, in turn. Next, nuclear strategies between 1945 and 1972 in the United States (US), the Soviet Union (USSR), France, and the United Kingdom (UK) are appraised. A strong emphasis has been put on US strategies, for those have been subject to many changes, from an administration to another. Using this historical background as foundation, the argument is then furthered around a series of themes, such as changes in technology and their subsequent implications. Following this, the concepts of defence and offence, deterrence, power, and arms control are discussed. The essay concludes with a glimpse into prospects.


The first recorded use of gunpowder weapons in Europe came with Edward III in 1327 (Clifford J. Rogers in Macgregor and Williamson 2001, p.20). Their early impact was linked more to the noise they made than to their impact in battle (Clifford J. Rogers in Macgregor and Williamson 2001, p.22). Gunpowder was not a ready-to-use technology when it was introduced into Europe, and it took time to refine both its recipe and the efficiency of its launchers. Specifically, the art of gun making had to progress. Their usage flourished first in siege warfare, where their sheer weight and slow rate of fire was less an issue than on the battlefield (Hall 1997, p.211). If Harfleur was taken by Henry V in five weeks in 1415 (Hall 1997, p.64), the French, with improved cannons, recaptured the town in little more than two weeks in 1449 (Nicolle 2012, p.26). The breach of the walls of Constantinople by the Ottomans Turks guns on May 28, 1453 (DeVries in Tallett 2010, p.27) was the watershed that marked the coming of age of siege artillery (Andrade 2016, pp. 82-3). If fortifications had so far generally advantaged a defensive strategy (Clifford J. Rogers in Macgregor and Williamson 2001, p.29), improved gunpowder artillery of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries tilted the balance in favour of the attacker (Hall 1997, p.211). The advent of gunpowder artillery thus provoked a change in fortification techniques. Bastion forts were henceforth designed to withstand its fire (Parker 1996, p.106). The subsequent change in strategy was an increase in the difficulty of capturing those strongholds, which required the mobilisation of greater armies to besiege them. Scholars following this line of argument contend that wars became a series of protracted sieges in regions where such fortifications existed and that pitch-battles became unusual (Parker 1996, p.16).

Portable guns took longer to develop. Only during the sixteenth century, following the invention of the wheel-lock, were firearms able to make a difference in open battles (Hall 1997, p.213). If the matchlock arquebus was already in use in the fifteenth century in areas where skilled metalworkers were available (Hall 1997, p.95), the most significant field victories of the time were still brought upon by traditional weapons. Swiss victories at Grandson and Murten in 1476, and Nancy in 1477, demonstrated that portable firearms did not bring any significant advantage over pikes and shields. The superiority of gunpowder weapons in the long run was not yet a reality (Heuser 2017, p.50). Lock mechanisms to ignite propellants, as well as improvement in powder-making, had dramatic consequences only in the sixteenth century when their spread led to the demise of chivalry (Hall 1997, p.190). This change, however, was neither sudden nor new, but took place within a broader trend (Hall 1997, p.190): from around 1300 to 1500, the superiority of the chivalry had been blunted by spears and arrows, from Scotland to Switzerland (Heuser 2017, p.49). So much so that the fourteenth-century advances in (traditional) weaponry and tactics combined with sound strategy and leadership by Edward III was termed a “revolution in military affairs” (Clifford J. Rogers in Macgregor and Williamson 2001). From 1327 to well into the sixteenth century, therefore, gunpowder weapons did not play any significant role in open battles. During the sixteenth century, however, the Spaniards developed the tercio, a form of combined arms warfare that associated pikemen, musketeers, and arquebusiers  (Hall 1997, p.178). The end of the century saw further developments with the introduction of the volley fire, the spread of units in line formation (a return to Roman wisdom), and drill (Tallett 1992, pp. 24-6). Maurice of Orange used these tactics for defence purposes against the Spanish, while Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden applied them to offensive action along with the cavalry (Roberts 1967, p.196). These tactical changes would have broader implications because the smaller and less compact line formations required both more practice and resolve. Ultimately, the increasing costs linked to the growing size of armies and the necessity of training them fostered wider societal changes that ushered the creation of the modern state, according to Roberts (Roberts 1967). These developments are the source of the “Military Revolution” that supposedly occurred between 1560 and 1660, and that resulted in the “modern art of war,” made of disciplined conscript mass armies controlled by the state (Roberts 1967, p.218). 

If Roberts’ conclusions have not led to a consensus among military historians, his findings have nevertheless fostered a healthy debate about the importance of innovations in weaponry, tactics, strategy, and statecraft. The claims that any ‘military revolution’ had occurred between 1300 and 1700 have been contested by many scholars who rather have stressed the continuities in warfare until the industrial revolution (Black 2008). In this spirit, gunpowder changed the approach to war only slowly, and no technological innovation deserved to be called a revolution until after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars (Heuser 2010a, p.41).

The Atom Bomb

If the technology surrounding gunpowder took time to develop its full potential, things were to be different with the atomic bomb. Its first test in ‘real conditions,’ Hiroshima, was utterly devastating. From the victims to its engineers, the bomb shocked everyone.

“From the mound, Mr. Tanimoto saw an astonishing panorama. […] He wondered how such extensive damage could have been dealt out of a silent sky” (Hersey 1946, p.25) 

The full extent of the horrors suffered by the victims of Hiroshima took a long time to be understood, even for the engineers of the bomb: Oppenheimer only briefly suggested a tactical use of the weapon before the strike, but his push to spare non-combatants was resolute a couple months later (Bernstein 1991, pp.171-2). A single bomb was now capable of erasing an entire city from the map. With this new technology, and for a few years, the US held the monopoly of nuclear power. This did not mean, however, that cities had not been flattened previously through other means: in 1945, Tokyo was rejected as a potential target for an atomic strike because it was already “practically all bombed and burned out” (Bernstein 1991, p.152). Eventually, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the ultimate steps of city bombing: one among the four main airpower strategies. What was remarkable was that strategic bombing, the targeting of a nations’ citizens as a means to achieve victory as Douhet and others had advocated, using conventional bombing, did not prove to be a successful deterrent (Heuser 2010a, p.301). The atomic bomb, however, by achieving similar results in a single blow, did (Heuser 2010a, p.366)

At the end of the Second World War, the alliance fighting the Axis Powers dissolved, and mutual fear and distrust spread. No later than in October 1945 did the US issue a list of twenty urban targets in the Soviet Union (Bernstein 1991, p.171). If the atomic bomb proved successful in bringing Japan’s surrender more quickly (Heuser 2014, p.24), it did not prevent the Soviets from making territorial gains in the following years. Neither the Berlin Blockade, nor the coup in Czechoslovakia, nor the Korean War triggered an atomic response, even though the Truman administration strategy objective was “more than containment” (Leffler and Westad 2010, p.88). Similarly, the first Soviet nuclear test on August 29, 1949, much earlier than the CIA had expected (Leffler and Westad 2010, pp.378-9), did not foster any immediate US strategic change. This, however, came with the next US administration: in 1954, Dulles set out what would become known as the “Massive Retaliation” strategy: “a US response, to any aggression anywhere, of massive retaliation with nuclear weapons” (Freedman 2003, p.81). It embodied both the assumption that the US had a superior nuclear force, and that it was a rather inexpensive means to counter the USSR conventional superiority (Segal 1983, pp.13, 14, 83). The feeling of dominance in the air would be short-lived in America: in 1957, the USSR announced the successful launch of the first intercontinental missile, soon followed by the equally triumphal Sputnik mission. This meant the United States was now threatened by Soviet nuclear weapons as much as Europe (Segal 1983, p.82). 

The credibility of the doctrine of Massive Retaliation was soon to face staunch critics. Black or white deterrence was progressively dismissed during the 1960s as more options had to be made available. Counter-force (the strike of military targets) as a strategic option would complement counter-value (the strike of cities). The idea was that more flexible responses would lead to greater deterrence credibility (Segal 1983, p.14). In 1967, the US and NATO adopted a new strategy, “Flexible Response,” which referred to the idea of “graduated deterrence” (Freedman 2003, p.272). However, this new strategy and the concept of limited nuclear war it entailed did not convince the Europeans, which thought that if the USSR were to launch an attack, it would not show restraint, and Europe would become the theatre of another total war. In their view, therefore, Flexible Response was only a means to save the US from conflict (Freedman 2003, p.280). Gradually, all previous deterrence strategies were deemed impracticable. The next US strategy aimed at securing its capacity to retaliate even in the event of a first strike by the Soviet Union. “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD) was the strategy previously known during the 1950s as “stable balance of terror” (Segal 1983, p.15). The concept of MAD represents what some have described as the antithesis of strategy, something that makes war, and hence strategy, impossible (Freedman 2003, pp.234, 245). Consequently, the only way forward was arms reduction: “[w]ith the conclusion in May 1972 of the ABM Treaty and SALT-1, the paradigm of ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’ (MAD) became dominant in U.S.-Soviet strategic relations” (Shoumikhin in Blank 2011, p.104). Having attained the potential to destroy each other in any circumstances, nuclear powers, by their overwhelming capability, had made conflict between them a suicidal prospect.

If the above superficially outlines the main reflections that the US have developed since 1945, it is to note that the Soviet Union (and, de facto, the Warsaw Treaty Organisation) had a much more consistent line of thinking. Until the end of the Cold War, they never moved away from the objective of winning an eventual nuclear conflict (Heuser 1998, p.323). In a similar fashion, but for different reasons, France followed an independent path, away from her Anglo-Saxon partners. She generally doubted US support, she believed in massive retaliation throughout, and she parted ways with NATO after it adopted Flexible Response in 1967 (Heuser 1997, pp.96, 105). The British nuclear capability was developed, like France, because doubts existed about the US commitment to engage in a nuclear war in support of its European allies (Heuser 1997, p.24). However, unlike France, the UK generally believed in “nuclear sufficiency” (deterrence achieved with as small as possible an arsenal) and “Alliance solidarity” (the reliance on NATO and especially US support). The UK’s dual approach ensured both its independence and the benefits of participating in collective security (Heuser 1997, pp.91-2).

Discussion & conclusions

From the missiles fired by Edward III’s longbows to the missiles that were concerned with the ABM treaty in 1972, an enormous technological leap had been achieved. As we have seen, the deafening fire of the early European cannons yielded little damage. It took around a century for their efficiency to supersede that of traditional siege weapons like the trebuchet. Similarly, handheld firearms developed equally slowly. In stark contrast, the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki unleashed a destructive power that was not yet fully acknowledged even by their developers. Their noiseless flash marked a new era: the day had arrived when weapons had become so powerful they would (hopefully) never be used again. If the quest of military engineers had been to develop ever more potent weapons, the point was reached when those had become so powerful they could not be employed.

The introduction of gunpowder, therefore, had no immediate effect on strategy, for their refinement and implementation was so slow. By no means were the first gunpowder weapons (siege or portable) superior to their traditional counterparts. In the short term, the introduction of gunpowder weapons was neither a technological leap forward, nor did it give any strategic or tactical advantage. As Michael Roberts argued: “from the point of view of battle-tactics, the invention of firearms […] represented, for close on two centuries, a decidedly retrograde step” (Hall 1997, p.65). In contrast, the destructive power of the first atomic bomb tragically yielded what was previously achieved with thousands of conventional bombs (Budiansky 2005, p.338). But if nuclear weapons gave the US the guarantee to be safe from Soviet aggression until they developed their atomic capability, this did not prevent conventional wars from happening, nor did this stop the USSR from spreading westwards after the Second World War. Nuclear weapons, in that regard, did not change how war was conducted altogether but established some sort of threshold above which no nuclear-capable state would be threatened. The advent of nuclear weapons, therefore, did not change strategy in wars using conventional weapons, as the wars in Vietnam or Afghanistan showed. They mostly rendered nuclear war impracticable.

In the long run, however, the growing capabilities of gunpowder weapons in terms of range, power, and rate of fire led to a general trend that increasingly favoured defensive strategies over offensive ones. Yet, if the impossibility to win a war in a decisive battle culminated in the First World War, Hiroshima reversed this evolution entirely. However, as superpowers capabilities multiplied, it became clear that a nuclear war between them would mean mutual destruction. In the face of this, defence now had to lie in the capability to (counter-) attack. 

This naturally leads to the question of both the purpose of weapons and strategy in general. The development of ‘better’ weapons had, without doubt, followed the logic of being able to win wars. This prospect had been turned on its head with nuclear weapons, despite claims that victory was still possible. As Bernard Brodie argued, the purpose of the military establishment was then to avoid wars rather than trying to win them (Heuser 2014, p.95). This, however, has been true only above the aforementioned ‘threshold.’

Because victory had lost any meaning in nuclear conflict, the best way forward seemed to push for arms control (Ball and Toth 1990, p.90). One major stumbling block in the implementation of arms control, though, has been that negotiating parties fear that the process may alter their capabilities (Shoumikhin in Blank 2011, p.103). Moreover, in Putin’s Russia, nuclear weapons are still seen as a guarantee against American technological and military superiority. They remain “the ultimate unbeatable card in global power politics” (Sokov in Blank 2011, p.187). Furthermore, the arms control process is attacked from both sides: those who think that more nuclear weapons lead to more security against a potential aggressor, and those who argue that less lethal power necessarily means increased security. In-between lies the tentative negotiations that have uneasily progressed since the Baruch Plan, and which pace is unlikely to change dramatically in the near future. The US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in August 2019 and the recent Russian deployment of hypersonic missiles (Avangard and Sarmat) seem to demonstrate that nuclear weapons are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Arms control and negotiations have always been part of strategy-making. This too, it seems, is unlikely to change in the near future. 

Lastly, one of the most pressing contemporary dangers regarding nuclear weapons lies in their potential proliferation into sub-state organisations (Crenshaw 2011, p.1). If deterrence has worked against units that seek survival, states, its usefulness becomes problematic against suicide bombers. In their dealing with such issues, states might be wise to look at such threats from a different perspective. Rather than developing ways to respond to potential attacks, advanced nations may want to have a grasp on what triggers them in the first place. In the context of growing inequality, it is likely that more people may turn to violence (of any kind) as they feel steadily discriminated against. Such occurrences might be impossible to deter and exert functions that peace may not solve. Thus, the understanding of the functions that conflicts serve, as well as the aims that violence fulfils, may shed light on contemporary and future threats (Keen 2008, pp.216-9). The general reflection on the purpose of war is not new (Heuser 2010b, p.174), but may still help explain the causes of war in the twenty-first century. 

At the beginning of the new millennium, despite continuing technical progress, ironically, the descendants of gunpowder weapons have not been silenced: “[t]he death toll from small arms dwarfs that of all other weapons systems—and in most years greatly exceeds the toll of the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki” (Annan 2000, p.52). Individually, the threat weapons pose is inversely proportional to the damage they cause. But for now, their impact as a whole does not seem to follow that trend, for better or worse.


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