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

  • Introduction
  • Origin of the Idea
  • General Overviews
  • “The” Military Revolution: Basic Works
  • Early Conceptualization and Recent Historiography

Military History Military Revolutions
Mark Charles Fissel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0212


“Military revolutions” are theoretical constructs and case studies used to explain the “modernization” of warfare and identify watershed transformations in how wars originated and were fought. Historians, social scientists, politicians, and military professionals disagree on how many military revolutions (if any) occurred, or their duration. The military revolution debate raises profound questions about the nature of historical causation (e.g., technology as an independent agent of change) and multiculturalism (e.g., the subversion of historical research to legitimize alleged cultural superiority). It has become a cross-disciplinary controversy, drawing in political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, and archaeologists, as well as historians from diverse fields of specialization. Finally, the military revolution debate has generated subfields such as the “revolution in military affairs” (explicitly) and the “western way of war” (implicitly).

Origin of the Idea

The idea of a “military revolution” originated from a January 1955 lecture by Michael Roberts (see Roberts 1956, cited under “The” Military Revolution: Basic Works), who stated that military developments in the late 16th and early 17th centuries were so profound that they utterly transformed not only the conduct of warfare but also the nature of government and the development of the “state.” Roberts thus raised the fundamental problem of distinguishing decisive historic change from the continuity inherent in the flow of time. Furthermore, Roberts’s theory posed problems in the use of language in history writing. Did the application of the term “revolution” explain or rather distort factual understanding of historical events? Geoffrey Parker embellished and revised the idea of military revolution (see Parker 1976 and Parker 1988, cited under “The” Military Revolution: Basic Works). In doing so he underscored the challenge of periodization of history, as well as the dominance of imperialism as reflected in the rise of the West historiography and the controversy over a Western Way of War. In the end, the idea of a military revolution posited a turning point in history, though the fixation of the point, its chronological parameters, and its veracity raise methodological questions for numerous historical fields.

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