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Reviewed by:
  • Firearms: A Global History to 1700, and: Battle: A History of Combat and Culture
  • Stephen Morillo
Firearms: A Global History to 1700. By Kenneth Chase. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 290 + xvii pp. $30.00 (cloth).
Battle: A History of Combat and Culture. By John Lynn. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2003. 399 + xxv pp. $27.50 (cloth); $16.95 (paper).

For world historians of military history, two related questions have tended to dominate the field in the last fifteen years. The first is the question of "Western exceptionalism": that is, to what extent if any [End Page 525] does the history of Western military practice (assuming "the West" is a coherently definable concept) set that area apart from the rest of the world in terms of military efficiency? The second is the question of the "military revolution" of the early modern period in Europe: What part did it play (as a stage in Eastern exceptionalism or as a separate phenomenon, and assuming there was such a thing) in launching Europeans into prominence on the world stage after 1500? Both questions are therefore part of the larger question of the "rise of the West" and have recently assumed, rightly or wrongly, a fairly central place in the constellation of explanations for that larger process. And both questions, more or less explicitly, inform these two books.

Neither book succeeds very well, partly because they are caught in the assumptions and debates over questions that are deeply problematic. But the books are flawed in very different and in fact interestingly complementary ways. Chase deploys a vast depth of research into sources from many different languages, especially Asian sources too often ignored in Western language scholarship. But he fits this evidence into an explanatory scheme that is far too simplistic and chronologically truncated. Lynn, on the other hand, deploys a sophisticated analytic scheme and examples drawn from a much greater chronological range, but fits too little evidence into it to make his case convincing. Ultimately, despite Chase having better "facts," this reviewer thinks Lynn comes closer to the "truth."

Chase sets out to answer the question of why, given that the Chinese invented gunpowder, Europeans were the ones to perfect it. His answer is appealingly simple, and purports to explain the pattern of gunpowder use and development across Eurasia. He claims that central Asian horse nomads were the central military problem for sedentary Eurasian societies, and that infantry with (early) gunpowder weapons were not much use against this threat. But they were useful against other infantry armies. Thus, the civilizations farthest from steppe influence, Europe and Japan, went furthest in developing guns; when a Japan unified under the Tokugawa abandoned guns for internal political reasons, this left Europe to monopolize the perfection of gunpowder weapons. Societies closest to steppe influence, such as Persia, were dominated by horsemen. An intermediate set of societies including China and, above all, the Ottomans, occupied an intermediate position in the use of both guns, usually mounted inside wagon laagers instead of carried by infantry, and cavalry. In short, Chase argues simple—indeed simplistic—geographic determinism.

As a history of gunpowder weaponry stripped of this analytic framework, this is a magnificent book. Its research is wide-ranging and meticulous [End Page 526] and will need to be taken account of by any history of warfare, especially in Asia. But the flaws in the analytic framework are so deep that it is hard to unravel them all in a short review, including the flaw that there is just enough truth in the thesis to make it superficially attractive.

The first problem is with Chase's account of the preconditions of gunpowder usage. Guns are most effectively used by infantry, so he stresses the "infantry revolution" that some European medievalists see starting c. 1300 as a necessary first step in the adoption and improvement of gunpowder weapons there—indeed as the first step in the military revolution. He posits a similar revolution at the same time in Japan, based as in Europe on pikes. But the evidence for this so-called revolution is nonexistent in both cases: effective infantry had existed before that date in Europe and would not be...