In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Tactics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Source Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Prehistoric
  • Contemporary: Toward the 21st Century

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Military History Tactics
Steven D. Fratt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 February 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 06 February 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0060


The study of tactics over time poses some problems for the researcher. In the original Greek and Latin, taktika/tactica meant the arranging of forces in an order of battle prior to the actual fighting. Generals knew they would lose control of their forces once the battle began, so it was crucial to arrange them and embed in them any stratagems that might catch the enemy by surprise (such as the Athenians at Marathon). The Macedonians and Romans developed armies with more tactical flexibility, so for them tactics was more than just arranging an order of battle. Tactics also entailed the maneuvering of forces during the battle, so battle handling of troops could be added to the definition. Tactical manuals of instruction were manuals of arms and small unit drill books. Until the late 20th century, most tactical studies emphasized the science of orders of battle and simply compared static, tactical arrangements of opponents as complete analysis. Ardant du Picq is one of the first tacticians to understand the study of tactics as a dynamic, moving reality in combat driven by morale. His studies provided a paradigm-changing model for tactical studies, followed by Griffith and Keegan in the 20th century. Tactical manuals now emphasized small unit combat in battle. This bibliography will include works that focus on orders of battle and those that emphasize maneuver in combat. Other problems set before us include the battle effects of technically augmented weapons and the enormous impact of huge centralized states on the size of armies in the field. Once large armies on the battlefield could no longer be seen by their generals and weapons ranges reached beyond practical sight, “grand tactics” was born—the science and art of maneuvering armies on the battlefield, but also beyond the sight of commanding generals. The introduction of the corps system during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars created the “operational” level of military art and science as a separate study apart from tactics. As the operations (bringing separate parts of the army to the battlefield) had a new profound impact on the tactical disposition of the battle, the lines between “tactics” and “operations” began to blur. In the 21st century, tactics is about the platoon in battle, backed by available operational/strategic-level firepower. Militarily speaking, the Platonic “great chain of being” has become an Aristotelian reality in tactical combat.

General Overviews

Many surveys of warfare dealing with the sweep of military history often have tactical snippets that are worthwhile. Delbruck 1975–1985 is a comprehensive classic containing a wealth of information, often in the footnotes, but is surpassed by later accounts. Lynn 2003 stresses that we must understand the human dimensions of combat within the context of specific societies and time periods. Johnson, et al. 2010 is an interesting contrast to Lynn. Its authors insist there are twenty-five universal tactical principles of war that transcend cultures. Carey 2005 and Carey 2006 are two volumes that make Archer Jones’s tactical matrix (heavy infantry, heavy cavalry, light infantry, light cavalry) the basis for their analysis of ancient and medieval battles. Boot 2006 surveys the impact of modern technologies on combat since 1500. The author provides the necessary background for understanding the evolution of modern grand tactics and operations in light of battlefield tactics. Contrasting Boot is Griffith 1991 with its revisionist views challenging modern notions of the superiority of firepower in battle over human factors. O’Sullivan 1991 reminds us of the significance of terrain in battle.

  • Boot, Max. War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History 1500 to Today. New York: Gotham, 2006.

    Boot discusses four technical revolutions that impacted warfare: the gunpowder, first industrial, second industrial, and information revolutions. Essential reading providing the technological context for modern warfare and tactics. Extensive notes. Substantial bibliography.

  • Carey, Brian Todd. Warfare in the Ancient World. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword Military, 2005.

    This first work of a two-volume set (see also Carey 2006) serves as a solid introduction to ancient warfare. Carey analyzes the main tactical systems in light of Archer Jones’s tactical matrix (heavy infantry, heavy cavalry, light infantry, light cavalry). Nice selection of key battles. Excellent diagrams and maps. Glossary and select bibliography.

  • Carey, Brian Todd. Warfare in the Medieval World. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword Military, 2006.

    Professor Carey carries his “Archer Jones”-inspired matrix analysis of combat into the Middle Ages (see Carey 2005). Good coverage of Byzantine tactics and the early Middle Ages. The Mongols and the Reconquista in Spain are welcome additions to the high Middle Ages. Separate treatments of light and heavy infantry in the late Middle Ages. Important chapter on the “military revolution” of the early modern era. Excellent diagrams and maps. Glossary and select bibliography.

  • Delbruck, Hans. History of the Art of War. 4 vols. Translated by Walter J. Renfroe Jr. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975–1985.

    Covering the period from the Persian Wars to Napoleon, a timeless classic that has chapters devoted to tactics and tactical examples sprinkled throughout the four volumes. Must be used with caution, as more recent works have superior analysis. Originally published in 1920 (Berlin: Stilke).

  • Griffith, Paddy. Forward into Battle: Fighting Tactics from Waterloo to the Near Future. Rev. ed. Novato, CA: Presidio, 1991.

    Griffith takes on tactical stereotypes of the modern age. Wellington’s men counterattacked with bayonet charges to defeat the French. Infiltration tactics broke the trench warfare stalemate during World War I. Infantry was still important in World War II. Notes; select bibliography. Originally published in 1981 (Chichester, UK: Antony Bird).

  • Johnson, Rob, Michael Whitby, and John France. How to Win on the Battlefield: The 25 Key Tactics of All Time. London: Thames & Hudson, 2010.

    The authors maintain that despite revolutions in military affairs, classic tactical principles still apply. Twenty-five examples from global military history illustrate these principles. Notes and select bibliography.

  • Lynn, John A. Battle: A History of Combat and Culture. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2003.

    Lynn argues successfully against the notion of the universal solider. Culture matters and impacts combat and tactical doctrine. Important for establishing the right context for understanding combat. Extensive chapter notes. No bibliography.

  • O’Sullivan, Patrick. Terrain and Tactics. New York: Greenwood, 1991.

    Broad discussion on how environment and geography impact the conduct of battles at the tactical level. Special attention paid to post-1945 conflicts and insurgency.

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