Revolutionary Technology’s Impact on War

by CPT Rick Montcalm

War and the organizations that wage it are in a state of constant change. Warfare, limited in this context to the manner in which forces are organized, resourced and deployed, is evolutionary in nature; revolution occurs when a new or known technology is developed to a point of effectiveness that it completely alters the conduct and resourcing of warfare. The duality of warfare as both evolutionary and revolutionary is supported by the Prussian use of the needle rifle in the Franco-Prussian War, Allied incorporation of tanks in World War I and U.S. development and use of night-vision devices from Vietnam to the present. This is not an exhaustive account of revolutionary technologies, but each one is easily recognized for its significant contributions to battle.

Webster’s defines evolutionary as “pertaining to evolution or development.”1 Revolutionary is defined as “characterized by, or of the nature of a revolution, or a sudden, complete or marked change.”2 The two complement one another; in fact, they must coexist to ensure any given military continues to advance and balance the capabilities of its adversaries. Evolution in warfare pertains to the requirement for leaders, soldiers and organizations to adapt based on the capabilities or limitations of the tools on hand. Technology and capabilities have a revolutionary capacity if they become so significant as to change the nature of warfare. Ultimately, this leads to subsequent periods of evolutionary adaptation to employ the new system.

Needle rifle

The Franco-Prussian War of the late 1860s is the setting for the first revolutionary technology: the breach-loaded needle rifle. The needle rifle was not the first significant or effective breach-loaded rifle. For this, credit belongs to John H. Hall, an American innovator who started developing the first effective and easily employed breach-loaded rifle in 1817. Hall’s success extended beyond just the rifle; he emphasized and proved the value of mass production of interchangeable components. The U.S. War Department was so impressed with Hall’s rifle that they commissioned the production of 1,000 rifles and a dedicated facility for mass production at Harper’s Ferry in November 1818.

Despite the popularity and support for the Hall rifle, it fell into history’s margins as production efforts faced continuous problems, the program was over-budget and the inventor failed to continue adapting the weapon to address new demands and advances in ammunition. After two decades of development and production, the Hall rifle was dead in the water.3

In contrast, when German gunsmith Nicholaus von Reyse began developing the needle rifle for the Prussians, he accounted for the failures in the Hall rifle’s program and submitted the first effective model for fielding in 1833. With the backing of the Prussian royal court and military leadership, Reyse developed the first bolt-action breach-loaded rifle that incorporated percussion caps. Despite setbacks in development and performance, the needle rifle maintained Prussian support, and this commitment was justified in 1866 when Prussia entered into war with France. As an example of the needle rifle’s superiority, during the battle at Podol June 26, 1866, a 260-man company of Prussian infantry armed with needle rifles defeated a French force of 3,000 men, inflicting about 1,000 casualties.4(Figure 1.)

Prussian infantry was able to fire at a rate nearly four times higher than the French forces, which still relied on muzzle-loaded rifles and bayonet charges for combat. Also, the breach-loaded system allowed the Prussian infantry to fire from the prone position, providing more protection from the advancing Frenchmen. Add to that the ability to mass overwhelming fire against infantry in the open, followed by a counterattack using the rifle as opposed to the bayonet, and the Prussian advantage is apparent. The Franco-Prussian War continued in this manner, with French forces experiencing casualty rates as high as 50 percent in fights against much smaller Prussian formations.5 However, the rest of Europe readily identified the breach-loaded rifle’s advantage in the years after the Franco-Prussian War, and it was not long before Prussia’s neighbors balanced its advantage.

The revolution the needle rifle created was not limited just to the marked advantage it provided on the battlefield. Prussian forces also retrained and reorganized to enable small-unit tactics under junior leadership, as opposed to large formations depending on officers for movement. This change provided a massive increase in maneuver flexibility. As early opponents of the breach-loaded rifle identified, the new weapon required a more substantial supply base, a result of shooters’ ability to fire more rapidly. Although the needle rifle allowed less skilled and trained soldiers to fight effectively, Prussian leadership understood that fire-control training was critical to exploiting the weapon’s capabilities while minimizing wasted rounds.6

Despite the relatively short period the needle rifle provided the Prussians a tactical advantage, the technology remains the basis for our weapons a century and a half later. In 1866, the breach-loaded rifle demanded new innovations in training, with particular emphasis on junior-leader development; required formations to be reduced and dispersed; and set new requirements for the industrial base to support the system. In the years following the Franco-Prussian War, weapons, ammunition, training, organizations and supply systems continued to evolve to balance the capability.


The next example of revolution and evolution is the introduction of tank warfare. Early World War I concepts for the “tank” involved the use of American businessman Benjamin Holt’s tractors with continuous tracks to move artillery pieces and supplies across trenches and open terrain, replacing horses and wagons. France and Britain were quick to recognize the tractor’s potential and started developing a weaponized platform with the same mobility, ultimately leading to the modern tank as we see it today.7

The British employed the tank as early as 1916, but it was at Cambrai Nov. 20, 1917, that the British tank corps realized the full potential of tank warfare. Although the battle failed to be decisive, a mass of 400 tanks were able to penetrate a seven-mile wide stretch of German defenses six miles into enemy-held territory.8 The U.S. tank corps, under command of then-LTC George S. Patton, first experienced combat in 1918 at St. Mihiel. Much like British forces the year prior, the Americans did not achieve a decisive victory but effectively penetrated German defenses in the attack.9 Germany viewed his new capability in Allied warfare as a significant threat and responded by rapidly developing a tank to counter it. Unfortunately, the German vehicle would arrive too late and was overmatched by superior Allied technology and numbers.10 Similar to the gap in capabilities between the Prussians and French in 1866 because of the needle rifle, the tank was one of the decisive advantages shared by Allied forces in World War I.(Figure 2.)

Given the performance of tanks in World War I, development of more effective tanks became a priority for the Germans, British, French and Americans. The system changed the face of warfare, as traditional obstacles no longer stopped or significantly slowed attacks. Although the tank remained in an infantry-support role for several decades after World War I, its integration into the military reinforced the importance of combined-arms maneuver training. The rapid gains achieved by tanks could not be held or exploited without infantry forces, and tanks were vulnerable to enemy infantry and required dismounted security. This co-dependence ushered in a new era of combined-arms operations that remains to this day, as unit organization continues to evolve to maximize the combined effects of armor and infantry on the battlefield.

Tanks also proved incredibly resource-intensive, as early models used about one mile per gallon of fuel while traveling,11 employed larger munitions in greater quantities and required mechanical support in terms of material and personnel. This new and increased demand forced the military’s supply structure to adapt to ensure this new vehicle could be employed effectively. The tank has undergone continuous refinement since its first appearance as the military continues to research and employ more effective armor, more powerful and less-maintenance-intensive engines, and a wider array of weapon systems.

Night vision

The third example is night-vision capability. German forces first employed night-vision capabilities on tanks and rifles beginning in 1939, and U.S. forces quickly followed suit, with the full potential of the system fully realized during the Vietnam conflict. Early systems, while noted for their ability to support nighttime operations, were limited in widespread use because of the cumbersomeness of supporting infrared floodlights and demanding power requirements. The Vietnam conflict provided the United States the first opportunity to employ night-vision capability effectively across the force with mobile and less-demanding systems. A perfect example is the Starlight Scope, which magnified ambient infrared light (mitigating the need for infrared floodlights) and could be used on a weapon system or as a handheld viewer.12(Figure 3.)

For the commander and planner, the ability to see and act at night once again completely revolutionized how the military planned and conducted operations. Up to this point in history, nighttime operations were limited in their execution and success due to inability of forces to identify the enemy without using aids such as torches that ultimately compromised their own positions.13 Night-vision goggles and systems allowed military forces to operate 24 hours a day with near-matched capability during nighttime as during the day. This capability allowed planners to develop near-continuous operations with significantly reduced risk, and it allowed commanders to operate at an operational tempo limited only by logistics.

“The ability to see at night became a major defensive weapon in the Vietnam War,” Tom Gibson wrote in the Summer 1998 edition of Invention and Technology Magazine. “The Vietcong had previously inflicted great damage on their enemies by scouring the jungle and sneaking up on enemy soldiers in the dark. By patrolling with night scopes, U.S. ground troops could see them coming.”14

Aircraft and long-range weapon systems able to identify and engage enemy forces have redefined freedom of maneuver. Traveling at night, once favored by our adversaries, now poses the same risks as traveling in daylight. Retired GEN Barry McCaffrey, 24th Infantry Division commander during Operation Desert Storm, said in 1998 that “[o]ur night-vision capability provided the single greatest mismatch of the war.” He was specifically talking about the ability to employ long-range air- and ground-combat platforms with extreme effectiveness at night, which tipped the scales heavily in U.S. favor and ultimately proved decisive.15

Now in Generation III of development, night-vision capabilities have seen integration from initial use by snipers to full integration onto every weapon system and vehicle platform in the U.S. military. Tactical evaluations and even weapon-qualification standards mandate operating systems at night with night-vision devices.16 The logistics-support system continues to stretch to meet the demands of forces capable of maneuvering rapidly across the battlefield in daylight and limited visibility. As a result, logistics and resupply operations have become an independent combat operation. Combat-support units must now be able to resupply forward fighting units while maintaining the ability to fire and maneuver unaided to complete their mission.

The transition to effective breach-loading weapons, incorporation of mechanized forces on the battlefield and introduction of night-vision capability support the idea that revolutions in warfare result from significant technological advances. Revolution depends on the idea that a technology provides a capability so profound that it completely changes the way operations are planned, conducted and resourced; further, these advances demand force organization, employment on the battlefield and logistics-support structures to change and evolve to support the technology. Revolution is followed by these longer periods of evolution as the new technology takes hold and improves over time. The two cannot be separated or argued against one another; in fact, they rely on one another. The modern military, both in the United States and abroad, continues to evolve to meet the demands of new force structure revolving around new vehicle platforms and weapon systems. With the bounty of technology entering the force, it will be interesting to see what innovation causes the next revolution in warfare.


CPT Rick Montcalm is currently attending Intermediate Level Education at Fort Belvoir, VA, enroute to participating in the Joint Chiefs of Staff/Office of the Secretary of Defense/Army Staff internship program. His assignments include various command and staff positions in 8-1 Cavalry, 2-2 Infantry Division (Stryker Brigade Combat Team) at Fort Lewis, WA, and 1-66 Armor, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, at Fort Hood, TX. He has been deployed to Iraq (2003-2004 and 2005-2006) as a tank platoon leader, scout platoon leader and assistant S-3, and to Afghanistan (2009-2010) as an assistant S-3 (plans) and Stryker troop commander.


1 Unabridged, on-line: Random House Inc., 2011,, accessed Feb. 2, 2011.

2 Unabridged,

3 Rose, Alexander, American Rifle: a Biography, New York: Random House Publishing, 2008.

4 Knox, MacGregor, and Williamson, Murray, The Dynamics of Military Revolution 1300-2050, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7, “History of the Tank-WWI,” on-line:, 2011,, accessed Feb. 24, 2011.

8 Ibid. The British attribute the lack of decisive victory to the fact that infantry forces did not arrive in time to exploit their gains or secure the ground. In the early periods of tank warfare, the vehicles were highly vulnerable without support from dismounted infantry forces.

9 Ibid. Patton’s tank corps actually fought in foreign tanks because U.S. models did not arrive in theater before the end of the war. The lack of decisive victory at St. Mihiel is attributed to terrain, lack of gas and mechanical difficulties.

10 Ibid. German GEN Erich von Ludendorff considered the Allied use of tanks a critical factor in Germany’s eventual defeat. The Germans realized the potential of tanks too late in the war, and lacked the industrial base and supply capacity to effectively build and supply them. In contrast, in the interwar period, Germany was able to not only close the gap in capabilities but developed a series of far superior light, medium and heavy tanks that dominated World War II armor battles.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid. The Starlight Scope was first introduced to ground forces in Vietnam in 1964 in response to growing concern about enemy forces’ preference and ability to operate under cover of darkness. The Starlight Scope was deemed a first-generation system because developers were aware of its limitations. The scope could be used both mounted on a rifle and as a handheld viewer.

13 and

14 Gibson, Tom, “Seeing in the Dark,” Invention and Technology Magazine,, accessed Feb. 23, 2011.

15 Ibid.

16 Current U.S. training doctrine establishes nighttime operation as a critical component for qualifying on any individual weapon system and air- or ground-combat platform. Specific guidelines are found in aviation and vehicle gunnery and small-arms qualification manuals.

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