In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Pre-20th-Century Guerrilla Warfare

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Irregular Warfare Theory and Doctrine (Pre-1900)
  • Precolonial and Colonial Africa: 4000 bce to 1900 ce
  • South America

Military History Pre-20th-Century Guerrilla Warfare
Robert R. Mackey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0092


Irregular warfare is generally defined as conflict in which at least one protagonist depends in some substantive part on the use of irregular, in contrast to regular or conventional, military forces. Guerrilla warfare, asymmetric warfare, partisan warfare, and the use of conventional forces in unconventional ways are considered part of irregular warfare. This article focuses on the evolution, doctrine, theory, and practice of irregular warfare, from early antiquity to 1900 CE. It is not intended to address 20th-century and later irregular warfare; for this focus, see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article Semi-Military and Paramilitary Organizations. This article is organized by chronological sequence, as well as regional/national focus. Consequently, each section is given a short historiographical introduction before the discussion of pertinent works covering the era and/or region. In general, this article is divided into two major parts. The first focuses on the major empires of antiquity (Rome, China, Persia, etc.) up to the Early Modern era (1500 CE). The second is more nationally or regionally directed and pertains to major areas of scholarship in the field, such as the United States experience with irregular warfare during the American Civil War (1861–1865). This is not intended to slight or ignore contemporary irregular warfare conflicts during those eras; simply put, little work has emerged on non-Western and pre-1900 irregular conflicts that focus solely on the military aspect. Substantial work has been done in post-1900 irregular warfare directed toward non-Western experiences; future scholars will surely direct their attention to the rich but neglected pre-1900 field over the next few decades.

General Overviews

Most general works and references in the field of irregular warfare focus less on specific time periods and more on broad surveys of the topic. In addition, while many attempt to examine irregular warfare in a holistic manner, the bulk in reality consist of a short pre-20th-century examination and an in-depth focus on guerrilla wars after 1900. Asprey 1994, Beckett 2001a, and Joes 2007 all follow the short pre-1900/long post-1900 model, but are valuable references for understanding the overall field. A second type of approach is focused more on the general model developed by the authors using historical case studies, such as Boot 2012 and Mansoor and Murray 2012. The case study approach, while useful, is often used less to show details of pre-1900 irregular warfare than to support the author’s thesis on contemporary unconventional warfare. While the scholarship in the case study models is always sound, they tend to shy away from detailed descriptions of irregular warfare in the temporal context in which it occurred, instead tilting toward modern theories and events and using history to prove the point. The third type, detailed histories of pre-1900 irregular warfare, is somewhat harder to find. Ellis 1995 and Mackenzie 1997 are representative of this elusive general work in the area. The final type is the pure encyclopedia of events, such as Beckett 2001b, which is of great use to scholars and researchers, and opens investigation into less-well-known pre-1900 conflicts, such as those in the post-Renaissance Balkans or in the imperialist expansion into Africa.

  • Asprey, Robert B. War in the Shadows: The Guerrilla in History. New York: William Morrow, 1994.

    For decades one of the few general works in the field. Asprey’s lengthy tome suffered from a strong 20th-century bias and concentration. Pre-1900 irregular warfare is, in general, given only a cursory study, while the bulk of the work focuses on post-1900 guerrilla wars in China, Africa, and especially Indochina.

  • Beckett, Ian F. W. Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies: Guerrillas and Their Opponents since 1750. London: Routledge, 2001a.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203402450

    Beckett’s short survey, much like Asprey’s much longer War in the Shadows (Asprey 1994), focuses almost entirely on post-1900 irregular warfare. The pre-1900 period is short and is used as an intellectual basis for his 20th-century-focused thesis on the nature of guerrilla warfare. As a solid introduction to the subject, it is highly valuable; its value as a survey of pre-1900 irregular warfare is limited.

  • Beckett, Ian F. W., ed. Encyclopedia of Guerrilla Warfare. New York: Checkmark, 2001b.

    Beckett’s overview of the topic, like many others, tends to focus on post-1900 guerrilla warfare. However, hidden within many of the entries is solid pre-1900 information, especially on colonialism. The entries are varied and complete, and the work is a solid source for further research. Includes an excellent bibliography.

  • Boot, Max. Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012.

    Boot’s opus is a general survey of the ebb and flow of irregular warfare since recorded history. Given his focus on post-2001 operations in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it is not surprising that only one-fourth of the work covers the history of irregular warfare up to 1900. However, Invisible Armies does have an excellent bibliography of pre-1900 sources that provides a solid resource for scholars in the field.

  • Ellis, John. From the Barrel of a Gun: A History of Guerrilla, Revolutionary, and Counterinsurgency Warfare, from the Romans to the Present. London: Greenhill, 1995.

    The 1995 expanded edition of Ellis’s 1975 book attempts, in a single work, to adequately cover the entire expanse of irregular warfare from the Roman Empire to the 1990s. Ellis frames his work around case studies, some of which focus on the pre-1900 struggles against the Roman Empire, as well as the Middle Ages and Renaissance eras. The work is primarily from a western European viewpoint, even when discussing conflicts in Asia or Africa. A valuable short survey.

  • Joes, Anthony James. Guerrilla Warfare: A Historical, Biographical, and Bibliographical Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2007.

    DOI: 10.5810/kentucky/9780813124377.001.0001

    A solid overview of guerrilla warfare, but with limited information on the pre-1900 era, makes Joes’ work a mixed bag for scholars examining irregular conflict prior to the 20th century. The work is divided into two parts. The first provides a general overview of guerrilla wars from the 18th to the 20th century, while the second focuses on key leaders, organizations, and influential people involved with irregular warfare.

  • Mackenzie, S. P. Revolutionary Armies in the Modern Era: A Revisionist Approach. New International History Series. London: Routledge, 1997.

    A solid overview of revolutionary armies from 1640 to the Vietnam War; seven of ten chapters address pre-1900 guerrilla warfare. Included in the work are examples of guerrilla wars and partisan warfare prior to 1900. Fine overview of major conventional revolutionary armies during the period, with a balanced focus, to include discussion of non-European and non-Western irregular conflicts.

  • Mansoor, Peter, and Williamson Murray, eds. Hybrid Warfare: The Struggle of Military Forces to Adapt to Complex Opponents from the Ancient World to the Present. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    Mansoor and Murray’s anthology of essays on hybrid warfare represents a new redefinition of irregular warfare, specifically one in which conventional military forces are faced with both irregular and conventional enemies simultaneously on the battlefield. A more balanced feel than other general works and highly recommended for any student of the subject.

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