A Review by Todd D. Rainer

In War in the Early Modern World, 1450-1815, Jeremy Black attempts to present the reader with evidence related to three issues; first, the global dimension of power in relation to the “rise of the West”; next, the nature and role of technological change; and, finally, the co-relation of military developments and state-building.[1]  As in Black’s Rethinking Military History, he only partly succeeds.

Black provides the reader with a self-written introduction outlining his goals, followed by nine chapters/papers written by other authors/scholars on a wide variety of topics, time-periods, and regions.[2]  While there is nothing wrong with this format in and of itself, Black neglects to link the articles in any coherent way, thus requiring the reader to draw his own conclusions.  Such a strategy would be fine if the conclusions were clear; however, in this case, they are not.

In the introduction, Black speaks of how success, victory, defeat, and loss are all culturally conditioned.[3]  This is likely true, especially as it pertains to military victory or loss. History abounds with stories of people who believe they have defeated a people while those people themselves do not believe they are defeated.  The numerous Chinese invasions of Indochina are excellent examples of this.  1257 A.D. saw the first Mongol invasion of the nation we now know as Vietnam.  The Mongol Yuan Empire, followed by Song, followed by the Ming “defeated” and then dominated Vietnam from 1257 A.D. to …about 1427 A.D.[4]  This 200+ year period was a state of constant warfare between the “conquered” South East Asians and the “victorious” Mongol and Chinese forces.  It appears that someone forgot to inform the defeated that they had been defeated.

From a scholarly point of view, while it is always good to refer to colleague’s work during one’s research, it seems less effective to attempt to make one’s point using other people’s work in its entirety. Black leaves one wondering why Black, who is so prodigious in his writing, would go this route, relying entirely on other’s work while ignoring his own writing and research. As in Rethinking Military History, it is difficult to see Black’s end.

For instance, Chapter 3, Warfare in Japan 1467-1600 by Paul Varley, in and of itself is an excellent piece of work.  However, in the context of Black’s arguments, it leaves the reader wondering what the point of the article within this context was. [5] In other words, what “revolution” are we talking about here.  Without some sort of supporting argument, Black leaves the reader to speculate.

The revolution was clearly not Japan’s system of government, which had not changed since the 12th Century.[6]  The relative strength or weakness of the Shogunates from the Kamakura period to the age of Sengoku can hardly be considered revolutionary; such fluctuations in power and effectiveness are hardly unusual in either the east of the west.[7]  The transition from individual warfare to large armies engaging each other en-masse is a natural progression seen throughout the world.  As such, this evolution of warfare can hardly be revolutionary, even in the context of Nobunaga San adopting firearms to facilitate his unification.  The expansion of Japanese armies fielded growing from 1,000 men to 10,000 men and larger is simply the nature of war.[8]  So what exactly is Black’s point in including this article in his compilation?

There are a few possible choices within the article though; the first, and most obvious, was the introduction of firearms into the volatile Japanese nation.[9]  However, merely introducing firearms into the fray may not have been much of a game-changer given that the Japanese were already well armed with weapons that were considerably more accurate and had a higher rate of fire. I contacted experts in the art of Kyudo, Japanese archery concerning this.  According to modern teachers of Kyudo, the Yumi, or Japanese bow, requires considerable skill to use effectively. It does not, however – in general – have the range of a matchlock (According to Kyudo: The Essence and Practice of Japanese Archery, by Hideharu Onuma, and Dan and Jacki DeProspero, a Yumi’s maximum effective range is 60 yards, though they are more commonly fired at about half that). [10]   However, in proficient hands the Japanese bow had a rate of fire determined only by the skill of the Samurai using it.  Conversely, the matchlock, or Tanegashima, generally had a rate of fire much slower than the bow and a range of 50-100 yards, making it on paper at least, a weapon well balanced to support the archers (and vice-versa).[11]  Additionally, ammunition was very difficult to procure, as was gunpowder – owing to a lack of sodium nitrate in Japan.[12] However, training a foot soldier to use a matchlock was far simpler than training him to use a bow.  As such, Nobunaga was able to deploy firearms to great effect and give the firearm a foothold, when coupled with the ambitions of the right man.

If this next paragraph were a chapter of a book, I would entitle it, “The Right Man.”  For without someone having the vision to put the new technology to proper (and brutal) use, it would likely prove useless.  Oda Nobunaga himself was himself a one-man revolution; he changed the way of thinking of the Japanese warrior.  He changed the very structure of a Japanese army. His unification strategy changed the very nature of the nation of Japan.  Nobunaga’s desire to seek unification, starting in 1560, led to changes within not only the way wars were fought in Japan, but changed who would fight them, how forts were used and elevated the level of betrayal and treachery amongst his opponents to never before seen levels.

Nobunaga took the proper first steps in securing the city of Sakai and Kunitomo and their gun foundries.[13]  He then went on, with a combination of good fortune, opportunism and forceful leadership to defeat Yoshimoto san’s much larger force at Okehazama in a battle that, at least by Varley’s description is reminiscent of General Sam Houston’s attack on Santa Anna’s bivouacked army at San Jacinto nearly three hundred years later.[14]  It is not clear based on this reading how much Nobunaga’s use of intelligence reports affected the outcome of the battle, what is clear is that Nobunaga used spies better than many of the other leaders he was in conflict with.[15]  However, even this surprise tactic, often associated with Nobunaga, could hardly be considered revolutionary, particularly since Nobunaga is said to have never used the element of surprise again.  The daimyo instead opted largely for the more conservative tactics of strong defenses and repelling enemy attacks.[16]  Varley even says that Nobunaga “… fought in the manner of the typical Sengoku daimyo.”[17] Where Nobunaga truly shined was in his political acumen and his willingness to create and abandon coalitions with other Daimyos.  When the Ashikaga shogun, Yoshiaki opposed Nobunaga’s ultimate rule, Nobunaga deposed him, dissolving the Shogunate and ushering in the Age of Unification.[18]

Varley then provides an appropriately detailed summary of what he considers the revolutions during the Age of Unification.  First, Varley lists continued adaptation of the gun to Japanese warfare.  Firearms added to the ability of Daimyos to field larger armies.  Its introduction and expansion changed the face of Japanese warfare, bringing the common man into the fray, taking a small fraction of power away from the elite, while creating a structure in which the Samurai could uncouple himself from the land and become a professional soldier and administrator.  The author then briefly discusses the improvements in the construction of castles and the castle building frenzy that occurred in this time.  The adoption of stone construction over wood, the massive increase in the size of the castles increased the ability of Daimyos to withstand a siege, but also drove the advancement of siege tactics within Japan.  These fortresses also increased the prestige of the men who built them.  Of the “revolutions” listed, perhaps the most important is the establishment of permanent, professional armies over the seasonal armies of the previous periods.  This establishment eliminated the need to disband armies for the agricultural season; it also allowed armies to increase in size three, four, and even ten-fold.[19]

Varley then briefly covered the ascension of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Nobunaga’s successor, and Tokugawa Ieyasu.  The complicated relationship between Nobunaga’s successors further shaped Japan.  Varley does not go into great detail about the two men’s armies or advances they may have made.  It seems that both merely carried on Nobunaga’s policies and ambitions.[20] Their meeting at Sekigahara, in 1600 changed the face of the Japanese hegemony. Ieyasu learned his lessons from Nobunaga well; his skillful coalition building, which seemingly created a confusing network of allies and enemies and allies who appeared to be enemies gave Ieyasu the upper hand when the final battle came. Tokugawa’s letter writing campaign before the battle is a good example of his leadership style and ability to manage disparate forces.[21]  The rest of Tokugawa sama’s story is, unfortunately, not a part of this essay.

The one thing that Varley does not seem to recognize is the man himself, Nobunaga.  Is it possible that some other Daimyo could have unified Japan?  Of course, but that route leads to speculation and a comparison of Daimyo that I am unprepared to commit to here.  That said I firmly believe that Nobunaga was the driving revolutionary force behind all these military, political and social revolutions. Varley calls Nobunaga a “…brutal commander of a brutal age…”, and that surely is true.[22] Even so, it was Nobunaga’s will, not the technology that forced these changes upon Japan.

Today, in popular culture Oda Nobunaga is often portrayed as some sort of villain, a monster, or even a demon.[23]  In the anime series Yotoden, Nobunaga is literally a disembodied demon.[24]  The Daimyo appears in one form or another in anime, novels, poems, and even modern video games.[25]  The mere fact that five hundred years later, fascination with the brutal, but genius man, is clear evidence of his importance.

However, as informative as Varley’s section on the unification of Japan may be – and very informative it was, this is still Jeremy Black’s book.  In the end, Black’s argument that there is some emphasis on technological change is only true on the very surface of the topic of Japanese unification.[26]  Yes, Nobunaga introduced guns into the argument.  For Nobunaga though, guns were just a means to an end, a way to get more bodies on the field of battle.  Yes, in response to the fielding of larger armies, castle technology advanced.  That sort of advancement is simply a natural evolution in reaction to a larger army whether it has firearms or not.  Effectively, there is nothing in the document that indicates that the adoption of firearms drove these advancements. As we have run into before when studying Black, he seems to take a one-dimensional view of things instead of looking at a subject from all sides.  For instance; Black quotes Robert Fulton; “It does not require much depth of thought to trace that science by discovering gunpowder changed the whole art of war by land and sea, and by future combination may sweep military marines from the oceans.”[27] A mere glance at naval history shows this to be untrue.  The boarding party was par-for-the-course in the age of sail when ships where heavily armed with canon and sharpshooters in the rigging.[28] The British recovery of the Enigma Cipher machine in WWII was the result of a boarding party.[29] Additionally, an American Navy boarding party captured at least one German U-boat (U-505).[30]  Today, Navies the world over perform boarding parties for a wide variety of reasons; (though the US Navy now calls these “maritime interception operation (MIO) teams) sanction enforcement, anti-piracy and others.[31]





Ed. Black, Jeremy.  War in the Early Modern World, 1450-1815.  New York, New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis.  Kindle Edition. 2005.

Taylor, K.W. A History of the Vietnamese.  New York, New York: Cambridge University Press. 2013.

Augustus, Peter, Naval Boarding Party Operations. Canadian Naval Review, Vol. 3, Number 4. Winter 2008.

Toll, Ian W. (2008-03-17). Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition. 2006.


[1] Ed. Black, Jeremy.  War in the Early Modern World, 1450-1815.  New York, New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis.  Kindle Edition. 2005. 1.

[2] Ibid. Table of Contents. Kindle Location 29-39.

[3] Ibid. 1.

[4] Taylor, K.W. A History of the Vietnamese.  New York, New York: Cambridge University Press. 2013. 127, 185.

[5] Chapter 3 Warfare in Japan 1467– 1600, Paul Varley Ed. Black, Jeremy.  War in the Early Modern World, 1450-1815.  New York, New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis. 1999.  Kindle Edition. 2005. Pp. 53-86.

[6] Black, 53.

[7] This is especially true in an environment such as feudal Japan where power can often be wrested by force from one’s opponents.

[8] Black, 57. Additionally, The Art of War, by Sun Tzu is rife with advice on the need to have a larger army than one’s opponent…Whether Nobunaga San had read the ancient treatise is beyond the scope of this essay, but it’s hard to believe that he would not have given its import.

[9] Ibid., 63

[10] I actually emailed three Kyudo sensei looking for stats for the Yumi.  It seems that attempts to find any sort of actual statistics though for the range and ROF of a Yumi results in philosophical discussions with modern practitioners on the purpose of Kyudo.  The Co-Authors of The Essence and Practice of Japanese Archery, Dan, and Jacki DeProspero are the source of this information.

[11] According to the DeProsperos, “The most common recording of the possible rate of fire comes from the story of Wasa Daihachiro who in 1686 during a twenty-four hour period at the Sanjusangendo temple in Kyoto hit the target 8,133 times out of 13,053 arrows fired. That would mean he fired an average of six arrows per minute over the twenty-four hour period.”  Additionally, that exercise was performed at 120 meters and the Samurai giving the demonstration struck the target 51% of the time!

[12]Black. 66.

[13] Ibid., 67.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 68.

[18] Ibid., 69.

[19] Ibid., 70.

[20] Whether true or not, this document makes it seem that way.

[21] Black, 82.

[22] Ibid., 72

[23] Though often also portrayed as heroic, energetic and benevolent.

[24] IMDb.  Yotoden (1987).  URL: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0209489/. Accessed: 07/30/2014

[25] Oda Nobunaga is a playable character in the video game Pokémon; Conquest (URL: http://www.fampeople.com/cat-oda-nobunaga).  I myself have outlined a fictional story blaming Nobunaga for the summoning of a demon which seeks to destroy his entire bloodline (in the story, the battle with said demon is the reason behind Nobunaga’s desire to unify Japan).

[26] Black, 4.

[27] Black, 5.

[28] While not providing specific examples, a search for “Boarding Party” in the index of Six Frigates the Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy by Ian W. Toll returns 16 results.  Toll, Ian W. (2008-03-17). Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

[29] The Royal Navy Museum Website. The Enigma Machine
URL: http://www.royalnavalmuseum.org/info_sheets_enigma.htm Accessed: 08/02/2014.

[30] Naval History and Heritage Command Website.  Capture of the U-505 on 4 June 1944.
URL: http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq91-1.htm Accessed: 08/02/2014.

[31] For examples, please see- Naval Boarding Party Operations, PO1 Peter Augustus.  Petty Officer Augustus is the Senior Naval Boarding Party Instructor at Canadian Forces Naval Operations School.  Augustus, Peter, Naval Boarding Party Operations. Canadian Naval Review, Vol. 3, Number 4. Winter 2008.
URL: www.navalreview.ca/wp-content/uploads/public/vol3num4/vol3num4art8.pdf Accessed: 08/02/2014.

NOTE: I myself as BT3 Rainer onboard the USS Hoel, DDG-13 have been part of interdiction duties in the North Arabian Sea on two deployments between 1987-1989.  While I personally never participated in an MIO (My duties were elsewhere), the USS Hoel’s boarding team boarded numerous vessels enforcing the embargo against Iran.