Evolution of Warfare | How War Has Changed Over Time
Human history is filled with warfare between tribes, nations and empires. The equipment used in war has progressed from sharpened sticks and rocks to automatic guns and predator missiles. Each new piece of military technology changes the way people fight and the tactics employed. If you want to know how wars change over time, you have to understand the changes to military equipment.
How Has War Developed Over Time?
With the arrival of new technologies and innovations in weaponry, warfare has gone through huge evolutions in the past two hundred years. From muskets to drones, the United States' military ability has grown significantly. Learn more about how warfare has changed throughout the United States' history.
What Was War Like in the Revolutionary War?
The American Revolution gave the United States its independence and brought with it a form of warfare foreign to us today. The Revolutionary War bridged the gap between the hand-to-hand combat of the medieval era and the precursors of modern warfare. Most of the fighting was done on the battlefield, rather than on the sea, with the American fleet mostly confined to privateering.
Most of the land battles were fought with soldiers lining up across from each other in fields, where they would then fire at one another, usually at a range of 100 yards. Often, commanders would have their forces fire a volley before ordering a bayonet charge, which would deal the most casualties. The best way to understand this kind of combat is to know about the type of equipment soldiers used on both sides of the conflict:
Muskets and Rifles
The primary weapon of the Revolutionary War was the musket. Both the British and the Continental forces relied on the musket, with the Brown Bess, a British-made gun, the most popular model used. The French-made Charleville musket was also popular. Both muskets were long-barreled at 42 inches, with an option to attach a bayonet on the barrel.
Unlike the highly-accurate guns of today, muskets couldn't hit a target reliably past 100 yards. The common soldier could only take three or four shots a minute, with the average load time taking 15 to 20 seconds.
Rifles were not used as commonly as their musket counterparts due to how long it took to load them. Since it took anywhere between 30 seconds to a full minute to reload a rifle, it wasn't a good weapon for volleying. The rifle was more accurate than muskets, however, with snipers and light infantry using them to pick off enemies and harass troops.
How the Musket Affected Battle Tactics
Due to the inaccuracy of the musket, soldiers would try to compensate by firing in volleys, where soldiers in ranks of two or three lines would fire as many balls as possible at the enemy. In volleys, a front row of soldiers would fire. While the first row reloaded, the second row would fire, with the process repeating itself until ordered not to. Speed, rather than accuracy, was the primary object of troops fighting in lines, with the British forces trained not to aim their muskets before firing.
Attached to the musket, the bayonet was a primary feature of most guns used in the war. This sharp metal blade was around 17 inches long and could attach to the bottom of a musket. Essentially, the bayonet turned the musket into a spear that soldiers could use to protect themselves against cavalry charges and in hand-to-hand combat with enemy soldiers.
Other close-quarter weapons included swords and sabers, which cavalry and officers used for more effective close combat. Additionally, officers and sergeants on either side of the conflict carried spontoons, which were similar to pikes. Spontoons were used for close quarter combat, as well as to help officers signal. British sergeants also carried halberds, which are like spontoons, to signal orders.
Besides muskets and bayonets, artillery was another primary weapon of the war. Below are some of the most common pieces of artillery:
- Cannons: Made out of bronze or cast iron and mounted on wheels, cannons in the Revolutionary War fired large projectiles at the enemy. After firing, the recoil would push the gun backward, and a team of soldiers would have to move it back into position. They ranged in size, with the smallest firing 2-pounders and the largest firing 42-pounders.
- Mortars: Mortars were constructed on a flatbed, where an elevating wedge helped to raise the barrel so the mortar could fire a shell high up in the air, past earthworks and other defenses of the enemy, raining shrapnel on them.
- Howitzer: A mix of the mortar and the cannon, the howitzer was placed on a field carriage, firing both cannonballs and bombs at either a high or flat trajectory.
What Was War Like in the Civil War?
Starting almost 80 years after the American Revolutionary War ended, the American Civil War brought with it new tactics and equipment that made the war the deadliest conflict in U.S. history.
Though the conflict was fought for different reasons than the Revolutionary War, the Civil War's battles were fairly similar, with both sides still using linear formations on the battlefield. As the war progressed, however, trench warfare started to take a larger role. On the sea, tactics changed due to the shift from sail-powered ships to steam-powered. The primary changes to the war can be attributed to the use of deadlier equipment that allowed troops to deliver more damage faster. Some of this equipment included:
The transition from muskets to rifles was one of the primary differences between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. While muskets made opposing forces have to stand in relatively close quarters to one another to get an accurate shot, rifles allowed soldiers to shoot at a range of 1,000 yards. Unlike the early rifles that were difficult to reload, the Civil War featured rifles that could be reloaded much more quickly and with ease.
Besides the conventional rifles, Union soldiers used repeaters, which were repeating rifles that could fire multiple bullets before having to reload. These repeaters allowed users to get more shots off per minute, giving users a great advantage over the usual rifles that had to reload after every shot. One of the most famous repeaters was the Spencer carbine, which could get seven shots off in just 30 seconds.
On the battlefield, field artillery was essential since it could be easily moved around to keep up with changing strategies and deliver major firepower. One of the most famous field guns was The Napolean — a French-made bronze 12-pounder. Additionally, all types of artillery were dramatically improved with Lemont DuPont's development of powder that was more reliable, while also providing greater accuracy and firepower.
The Gatling Gun was perhaps the most famous innovation during this war, as it was the only way for an army to shoot a high rate of fire on an enemy over an extended period. The weapon could fire up to 450 rounds a minute, and the high rate of fire made it a huge threat to mass infantry formation, causing troops to have to spread out. Though the weapons were deadly, they didn't get used a lot for fear of wasting ammunition.
The Confederacy relied on receiving goods from overseas to stay supplied during the war. The Union understood this and focused their naval strategy on intercepting these supply ships before they could reach the Confederate forces. Aptly named, the Anaconda Plan aimed to blockade every southern port all the way from Virginia to Texas.
In terms of technology, the Civil War saw the arrival of Ironclads and submarines. Ironclads captured the imaginations of both sides of the war effort, as warships were just starting to utilize steam power. With most naval vessels still powered by sail and constructed out of wood, the armor plating and steam engines used on Ironclads promised a huge advantage.
The submarine was another major advancement, with the Confederacy successfully launching the only submarine of the entire war. This submarine, the H.L. Hunley, would be the first underwater vessel to attack an enemy vessel and sink it. The submarine had a hand-cranked shaft to move the craft forward and was only outfitted with a single spar torpedo for attacking an enemy ship. Shortly after sinking its first ship, the Hunley was lost at sea.
What Was War Like in WWI?
World War I (WWI) brought with it huge changes in technology and the way warfare was waged. The advances with gas, tanks, planes and other equipment led to some of the most brutal warfare and wide-spread destruction ever seen. The style of combat largely centered around trench warfare, with the days of standing in lines across fields facing the enemy finished.
The Western Front, an area of Belgium and northern France, saw the most trench warfare, with combat between Germans and Allied forces largely taking place there. The trenches were a direct result of the new technology, as the trenches were designed to try to provide soldiers protection from machine-gun fire, aircraft and chemical weapons.
If you want to know how war has changed since the Civil War, you can simply look at the death tolls. The war was so deadly that on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the British had almost 60,000 casualties. In total, the war would claim the lives of 8.5 million soldiers. In comparison, the Civil War saw 620,000 soldiers die. WWI showed just how much more destructive new technology could make war.
Find out more about the major innovations of the war and how they affected combat:
In the Civil War, the Gatling gun was the main weapon troops used to lay down rapid-fire. It was incredibly heavy and resembled a cannon. With major improvements to military technology, heavy-caliber machine guns became a critical part of the war. Hiram Maxim developed the first machine gun in 1884, but the gun was not widely used until WWI, when forces on both sides started using several similar designs.
At the beginning of the war, teams of three had to operate the machine guns, as they were heavy and difficult to use. Due to how unwieldy they were, machine guns were ideal for defensive positions, where each machine gun could rain 400 to 600 rounds of bullets on advancing enemy troops.
Trench warfare made the flamethrower especially attractive to German and Allied forces. Richard Fielder gave designs for the modern flamethrower to the German Army in 1901, but a German experimental detachment didn't test the weapon until 1911.
WWI gave the weapon a chance to shine at the detriment of those on the receiving end. The close conditions of trench warfare made flamethrowers especially dangerous, as they could catch enemy soldiers on fire without causing structural damage to the trench. The first usage of the weapon in battle came in Verdun, where German troops used it against Allied troops.
In 1915, the Germans launched 150 tons of chlorine gas into the lines of two French colonial divisions, causing one of the most well-known and brutal parts of World War I to begin. All of the other nations scrambled to deploy their own battlefield gases, trying to make them last longer and cause more damage to enemy troops. WWI would see many more types of chemical weapons used, with mustard gas being the most common.
Though aircraft was more significant in World War II (WWII), it still played a roll in WWI and steadily grew in importance as the war continued. Initially, airplanes were used primarily for reconnaissance, providing information about enemy positions. As airplane technology advanced, both sides developed designs for mono and biplane fighters and began mounting machine guns and bombs on the planes.
The idea for tanks has been around for a long time, with Leonardo DaVinci thinking about designs for one in 1482. In 1915, Britain's "Little Willie" was the first tank ever created, but it was far from perfect. The tank weighed 14 tons, crawled along the battlefield at a speed of 2 miles per hour and couldn't cross trenches — a major problem for combat primarily based in trench warfare.
Throughout the war, countries continued to improve on the early designs of tanks. At the Battle of Cambrai, close to 400 British Mark IV tanks helped capture 8,000 troops. The first tank-on-tank battle occurred in 1918, with 13 German A7V tanks clashing with 12 British Mark IV tanks at the French town of Villers-Bretonneux. In the end, six British Mark IVs were damaged, and three A7Vs were knocked out of commission.
What Was War Like in WWII?
Though many modern weapons made their appearance in WWI, WWII brought forward huge changes to the way war was waged. Instead of fighting in trenches, troops began to take cover in shell craters and foxholes, rather than hunker down in set lines. There were also more ways for troops to get to the battlefield, with motorized vehicles, railways and airplanes adding extra speed and leading to an evolution of warfare tactics.
To understand how warfare changed since WWI, consider the evolution of war weapons and the top military developments showcased in WWII:
M1 Garand Rifle
The United States military outfitted a huge number of troops with the semi-automatic M1 Garand rifle, using it as their standard-issue weapon for most infantry units. As an auto-loading rifle, it allowed U.S. troops to get the upper hand in a variety of military engagements. The gun was so effective that the U.S. supplied hundreds of thousands of them to allies during the war, and more than 4 million M1 rifles were produced before the end of the war.
By the time WWII started, airplanes had advanced significantly. Since bombers could destroy cities, hit strategic locations and cause havoc, air superiority became a key factor in the battle plans on both sides. Some of the top military airplanes used in the war included:
- B-17: The B-17, aptly nicknamed the Flying Fortress, was a huge, U.S.-made plane that had nine machine guns and could hold 4,000 pounds of bombs to drop on enemies. Weighing 65,000 pounds, it reached an impressive top speed of 287 miles per hour. Allied forces used the plane to drop an estimated 640,000 pounds of bombs on the Nazis.
- Mitsubishi A6M Zero: The Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero was one of the deadliest airplanes of the war, taking part in the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor. These long-range fighters were especially effective due to their versatility, carrying two machine guns, cannons and 132-pound bombs each. These were also the planes that Kamikaze pilots used during suicide missions.
- Supermarine Spitfire: The Supermarine Spitfire was the fighter that almost singlehandedly saved Great Britain from the initially superior Nazi Luftwaffe airforces. The Spitfires came equipped with a few different weapon combos. The planes either had two machine guns and two cannons, four machine guns and four cannons or eight machine guns.
Naval carriers were a central part of pacific combat, providing planes with a mobile airfield in the middle of the sea, perfect for fighting amongst islands. The Essex-class carrier, for example, could carry approximately a hundred torpedo-bombers, dive-bombers and firefighters, and utilized radar technology to direct flights better.
The Atom Bomb
Nuclear technology is likely the most well-known military technology first used in the war. If you're wondering how technology changed war, you can look to the atomic bomb to account for much of it. The ability to lay a city to waste with a single bomb or missile gives any country with nuclear weapons a great deal of leverage in preventing or winning a military conflict.
Famously, the United States developed the first atomic bomb, dropping it onto the city of Hiroshima, killing 80,000 people and causing a huge amount of damage to the city. When the Japenese didn't surrender, the American forces dropped another even more powerful atomic bomb onto Nagasaki, killing 70,000 people instantly. The detonation of this second bomb brought an end to the war.
World War II also saw more powerful tanks hitting the battlefields, much improved over the kinds used in World War I. Additional, naval warships and carriers played a crucial part in the Pacific and in getting troops onto mainland Europe.
What Was War Like in the Korean War?
Less well-known than WWII, the Korean War still saw an evolution of war technology. The war began on June 25, 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea. It lasted for three years, with North Korea supported by the Soviet Union and China, and South Korea supported by the United Nations, primarily the United States.
Though there was plenty of recurring technology from World War I, like the M-1 Garand and 4.2-inch mortars, there were also some new pieces of war technology, like jets and more effective body armor:
One of the defining features of the Korean War was how it brought the first large-scale jet-to-jet combat to a war. The newly formed United States Air Force (USAF) used their jets to battle North Korean forces piloting Soviet jets. Due to the jet-engine's clear superiority, the Korean war would be the last time piston-engine aircraft would take part in warfare alongside jet-engine aircraft.
The most common jet fighters were the F-86 Sabre jets that regularly fought the incredibly quick, Soviet-supplied MiG-15 jets. Bombers for the USAF included the Douglas B-26 Invader and the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, which were used to attack strategic locations like airfields and railroads.
Other Korean War Weapons and Equipment
With the North Korean army supplied with Soviet-made tanks, the South Korean and U.S. Troops needed to have rocket launchers that could pack a punch. The 2.36-inch Bazooka used in WWII couldn't punch through 5 inches of armor. To have the proper equipment to fight against the tough, highly effective, Soviet-made T34 tank, the United States premiered a 3.5-inch rocket launcher, the M20, which employed high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT) rockets against the T34 to great effect.
The Korean War saw a huge advance in the usage of body armor. Though the technology was still in its early stage, the body armor the U.S. used, such as the M-1951, protected troops against projectiles. Though the plastic or aluminum plates of these vests often couldn't stop enemy bullets, especially if fired at point-blank range, they still were effective against bomb fragments and shrapnel.
Ground-directed bombing was invented near the end of WWII but didn't get to become a central part of military options until the Korean war. This military tactic is the practice of personnel or aviation ground support equipment directing airstrikes from the ground. One example of this was the use of new radar-controlled bombing equipment, the MPQ-14, which Marine air support teams on the ground used to help direct aircraft.
What Was War Like in the Vietnam War?
The Vietnam War was one of the most divisive wars in America's history. The bloody conflict was especially difficult for the South Vietnamese and United Nations troops due to the Viet Cong's decision to avoid direct battles with the American forces.
Instead of direct confrontation, the Viet Cong opted for guerrilla tactics, where they would focus on ambushes and hit and run attacks. By using vast networks of underground tunnels and the terrain of forests and swamps, the Viet Cong conducted effective offensive operations on better armed and trained forces.
Some of the primary weapons and equipment used in this war showed an evolution of warfare, with new capabilities established:
In the war, firearms played a huge role in the fight, with the AK-47 and M16 taking center stage. Alongside these assault rifles, the M60 was a huge improvement in machine gun technology. Find out more:
- M16: The M16 was the standard service rifle for U.S. forces, and offered a huge improvement over past rifles. It had automatic capabilities, 5.56 mm rounds and could carry more ammunition than its predecessor, the M14. Rather than wood-based, it was constructed with plastic, aluminum alloys and steel.
- AK-47: The Soviet-made automatic assault rifle, the AK-47, was the weapon of choice for many in the Viet Cong and the People's Army of Vietnam. Firing 7.62 mm rounds, it was a powerful weapon that soldiers could rely on in harsh conditions, unlike the early versions of the M16. The Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China played a significant role in getting these rifles into the North Vietnamese Army's hands.
- M60: Made in the United States in the 1950s, the M60 light machine gun fired 7.62 mm rounds and was belt-fed. Two soldiers usually needed to operate it, with one soldier carrying it and another soldier acting as an assistant gunner. The weapon proved itself to be effective and was also mounted onto patrol boats, vehicles and helicopters.
Helicopters played a much bigger role in American strategy starting in 1965. Vietnam saw these aircraft used as gunships and transports, with images of American soldiers inside or near helicopters making up many photos and videos of the war. If you watch a movie about Vietnam, there will likely be some shots of helicopters throughout.
The UH-1 "Huey" is the most well-known helicopter associated with the U.S. military during the war. It served multiple branches, with the Marine Corps, Air Force, Navy and Army all using it. The helicopter's maneuverability and ability to drop troops into rough terrain was indispensable, playing such a crucial role that over 7,000 of them were deployed in Vietnam, with 3,000 lost during the war.
While aircraft, ships and tanks played a role in the war, one of the most famous developments revolved around the use of bombs. Here are the primary kinds deployed during the Vietnam War:
- Napalm: Though it was first used in WWII, napalm was a defining feature of the Vietnam War. Napalm is a gasoline mixture with a gel-like texture that acts as a highly volatile incendiary weapon. It kills either by burning or asphyxiation. Since its use in Vietnam, the explosive has been very controversial as an acceptable weapon to use in war.
- Cluster bombs: Cluster bombs contain smaller bombs inside them that help the explosive saturate an enemy position. The U.S. used this type of bombing extensively through the war.
- Booby traps: The Viet Cong's strategy of guerilla warfare used booby traps to great effect against American forces. They often constructed these booby traps using mines, artillery rounds and grenades. Pressure plates and tripwires were attached to the explosives to create a trap for American troops. By the end of the war, booby traps had injured around 45,000 U.S. troops.
Modern War Technology Evolution
In many cases, modern war technology resembles science fiction. From pilotless drones to space weapons, the military capabilities of the U.S. continue to grow.
How Has War Changed Since Vietnam?
Since Vietnam, the evolution of war weapons has allowed people to conduct war remotely. Though ground forces still play a role in battle, many pieces of military technology allow war to be waged from a distance. Some of these top pieces of military technology include:
Thousands of miles away from battlefields, troops can deploy and pilot combat drones that fly into combat zones. These drones can be used for reconnaissance, airstrikes and various other purposes. Some popular models include the General Atomics Avenger and the Boeing Insitu ScanEagle. The Avenger features an electro-optical targeting system, internal weapons storage and S-shaped exhaust, making it a deadly weapon. The ScanEagle is perfect for reconnaissance and surveying the battlefield.
2. Tomahawk Missiles
First used in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Tomahawk cruise missiles fly at subsonic speeds at low altitudes to allow them to attack a wide swath of surface targets. These missiles are jet engine-powered and utilize GPS receivers for extremely accurate targeting. The missiles are so advanced that they can be redirected to different coordinates even after launch.
3. Space Weapons
Developed during the Cold War, space weapons allow countries to shoot a range of warheads from space to targets on Earth, destroy satellites or space systems in orbit and disable enemy missiles that might be traveling through space as well. Major military powers have developed space weapons that can even destroy enemy satellites.
How Has War Stayed the Same?
At its core, warfare still requires soldiers to risk their lives to serve their country. It takes courage and discipline to put on a uniform and go into a battle. The level of heroism that the battlefield often requires is part of the reason why so many people remain fascinated by and reverent to the troops, taking trips to pay their respects at national cemeteries, museums and monuments.
See the Evolution of War Weapons and Equipment
Do you still have questions about how war has evolved? Take a trip to Volo Auto Museum. With war relics and weapons ranging all the way back to the Civil War, the Volo Auto Museum's military exhibit gives visitors a visual representation of the changing nature of war and conflict. In our exhibit, you can get a close up look at vehicles of war that have served our country over the years.