Saturday 16 March 2019

A New Korea

One of the interesting things that can happen when the idea of world wargaming hits a research library is the unexpected. Someone, somewhere, has hit upon an idea that might just give some insight into wargaming, world history and probably a few other things which are not quite so expected.

I have just finished rebasing my old Early Modern period Koreans. Again, they are cobbled together from Irregular figures and fit the 100 AP DBR condensed scale army lists. Now, my recent interaction with said lists has been less positive than it might have been, but given that I already have the toys, and no historian will be harmed by the rebasing exercise, I went ahead and did it.

Subsequent to the rebasing activity, I read an interesting paper:

Andrade, T., Kang, H. H., Cooper, K., 'A Korean Military Revolution? Parallel Military Innovations in East Asia and Europe', Journal of World History 25, no. 1 (2014), 51-84.

As you may be aware, I am interested in the idea of a military revolution, mooted originally for Northern Europe around the end of the sixteenth century or so. Various historians are attempting to fit the story that the idea gives us around what happened in different places. Hence we obtain a Chinese military revolution, an Indian (or Mughal) revolution, and a Japanese one and so on. The key element of such debates turns on the influence and impact of gunpowder in these places, preferably before great numbers of Western ships and troops arrived.

The interest in Korea is, of course, focussed around the Japanese invasion of the 1590s.  By that time the musket was well embedded in Japanese military culture. Meanwhile, the Chinese had also been adapting to gunpowder weapons, probably for a much longer time than anyone else. Korea seems to have been a bit of a minor backwater in such things, along the same lines as England was in the middle of the sixteenth century. Korea had a mostly cavalry effective army, with part-time peasants as the rest.

The impact of the Japanese invasion was the major introduction of the musket or arquebus. There is some debate as to whether the Japanese fired the weapon en mass, as European armies were learning to, or exactly how it was used. Some argue that volley fire was used at Nagashino in 1575, others dispute it. Probably it was used in Japan by 1615. The development is intriguingly similar to that in Europe.

Of course, the use of a matchlock musket imposes certain restraints on the units using it. It is a bit slow to load, and so units are needed in depth. The Koreans developed a system of a unit five deep, and they sort of countermarched. That is, the first pair stepped beyond the sergeant, gave fire and returned to their places, and were followed by the second pair, and so on, the hope being that the first pair would have been reloaded by the time the fifth pair had discharged their weapons. This is, of course, comparable, but not exactly the same as, European countermarch systems.

The Koreans were aware of the problems with matchlock weapons systems, such as the fact that they do not work terribly well in wet weather. Thus they retained archers, to second and augment the firepower from the guns. A seventeenth-century source advises four thousand matchlock men, three thousand archers, two thousand mounted archers, one thousand heavier cavalry and a thousand sword and spearmen.

The idea here is that the musketeers open fire at about 100 paces and fire by the above-outlined method. When they have ‘exhausted’ their fire, the archers step up and deliver their fire. If the enemy get too close, the third layer of sword and spear armed troops (called in the sources ‘Kill Units’) step up and see the enemy off. Once they have done so, the musketeers and/or archer can resume their fire. The kill units, the authors argue, fulfil the role taken by pikemen in the West.

The authors go on to discuss the actions in the Amur region between Manchu forces and Russian Cossacks. The Manchu had, by the 1650s taken suzerainty of Korean and added highly regarded Korean musketeers to their forces, which greatly assisted seeing off the Cossacks. The authors concede that the numbers were small and the outcome of two small battles can hardly be determinative of how Korean and European forces would have fared in action against each other, but the implication is that it would not have been a pushover for the West.

Korea was not averse to incorporating foreign ideas into its armed forces. Captured Japanese soldiers were recruited, as was a Dutchman. Where the Korean ideas about how to use muskets came from is unclear. It might have been parallel development, it might be from Ming innovation and copied during the Sine-Japanese war, it might have been from the Japanese or their own invention. History does not tell us.

We do know that Western influence, including that of the Dutchman Jan Jansoon Weltevree, or Pak Yon to the Koreans, improved Korean cannons significantly. However, the most likely influence on musket tactics is the Japanese, and this suggests something of a difference between east and west. The Korean musketeers used by the Manchu were valued for their accuracy, which indicates they were using fowling pieces. The authors suggest that the Koreans were good marksmen and drilled to deliver continuous fire, rather than the Western inaccurate fire (but lots of it).

This suggests to me that the Japanese and Korean musketeers were using weapons which were slower to reload than their Western counterparts and that again to me, suggests a reason why the Koreans retained archers to cover the gaps in musket fire. Alongside financial and logistical constraints and a cultural preference for archery (again, we could compare with England here) the use of archers to cover the problems with muskets seems logical, if not inevitable. 


  1. Maybe they just spent more time aiming than it being a case of the weapons being harder to load - though aiming a matchlock must be risky ;-)
    Have you come across any information on whether they had rifling in Korea at that time?

    1. No information at all about rifling, I'm afraid. Perhaps someone more up in Japanese information might be able to comment.

      In accuracy a lot depends on the windage between ball and barrel. At the ball proceeds down the barrel it hits the sides and that imparts spin. the tighter the fit, the less the spin and so the more likely the ball is to go in a straight line. I guess fowling pieces were tighter fits than workaday western muskets.