The Pike and Shot of the Spanish Tercio

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The Spanish Army was transformed in the first part of the 16th century into the most formidable military force of its age. By the 14th century, infantry were gaining ascendancy over heavy horse on the battlefield. Archers and gunners were able to shoot many of them down before they could get to grips, and dense, impenetrable blocks of pikemen and halberdiers could then bring them to a standstill.

But as the importance of infantry rose, tacticians and drillmasters found themselves grappling with the problem of integrating firepower and shock-action. What were the correct proportions of arquebusiers to pikemen? Where should the arqubusiers be deployed, on the flanks of the pikemen or across their front? How should the arquebusiers operate to maximise the fire of their slow-loading, short-ranged, wide-shooting weapons?

A 16th century arquebusier.

It was the Spanish who pioneered the new methods of infantry fighting. The Spanish tercios became the military elite of Renaissance Europe. Numbering 3,000 men – the equivalent of a modern brigade – the tercio was formed of 12 companies of about 250 men each, with the companies divided roughly evenly between arquebusiers and pikemen. Generally, the pikes formed a central block, perhaps ten or more ranks deep, while the arquebusiers operated on the flanks, also in great depth. The pikemen required depth to ensure a solid enough formation to resist opposing phalanxes when it came to ‘push of pike’. The arquebusiers, on the other hand, were deployed in depth to maximise fire.

Arquebus and musket

The 16th century saw steady improvement in firearms. The primitive hand-gun had consisted simply of an iron barrel with a vent at the top attached to a wooden stock. Discharge was achieved by applying a hand-held, slow-burning match-cord to the powder in the vent. Since this was a two-handed operation, the wooden stock had to be gripped under the arm, making it impossible to do more than simply point the weapon in the approximate direction of the enemy.

The Spanish encouraged experiments with new firearms. To increase accuracy, the barrel was lengthened. To permit aiming, a pan beside the barrel was substituted for the vent at the top, and a matchlock, operated by trigger mechanism, was added to the stock. The result – the arquebus – was a weapon that enabled an infantryman to deliver effective aimed fire at up 150yds. The musket – introduced by the Spanish from the 1560s onwards – was a heavier calibre version of the same basic weapon: it required a forked rest to support its weight and was slower to load, but it was effective at up to 300yds.

Fire drill

Two problems remained. Both arquebus and musket were highly inaccurate, so that individual marksmanship was impossible, and only massed volley-fire could be effective. And rates of fire were painfully slow. A musket drill book issued in 1606 specified no less than 42 separate movements involved in preparing the weapon to fire. One round per minute was a good rate. Arquebusiers and musketeers simply could not shoot accurately enough and fast enough to stop a charge of enemy shock-troops.

A 16th century pikeman.

One consequence of this was their dependence on pikemen for protection at close-quarters. Another was the preoccupation of 16th century drillmasters with finding ways to maximise fire. Spanish commanders imposed strict fire-discipline. Arquebusiers were formed up in depth and trained not to fire without orders. The procedure was for the front rank to deliver a single massed volley on command, and then to retire to the rear to reload. The second rank would then step forward, aim, fire on the order, and retire. And so on, such that a Spanish tercio could deliver volley after volley against an advancing formation.

The Spanish tercio was the model for the rest of Europe for almost two centuries. But students often surpass their masters – especially when they are rebels with a cause. The Dutch Protestants, in time, would bring the methods of the Spanish to a yet higher level of perfection. The Spanish Empire would eventually be halted by a nation of petty-traders fighting amid the dykes and windmills of their watery homeland.


  1. Good article that get’s to grips with the beginnings of fire armed infantry. However it is a bit over the top saying the Dutch rebels stopped the Spanish Empire. The Spanish Empire was bogged down on multiple fronts against the Dutch, French, English, HRE protestants and Swedes (by assisting the Imperials), and the Ottomans and their pirates. Nevertheless the empire endured and was the biggest until the 19th century.

    • Jim Smith, I’m glad to see you are an avid and knowledgeable reader. For most history taught, speaks of only the Spanish discovery of the Americas and the Spanish Armada’s failure in invading England, and not of its many triumphs. Your statement is accurate and states the vigor and endurance of the Spanish empire. Thank YOU!
      Luis G. Tamayo Romero

  2. Good article, concise and makes good points. Although I have to agree with the previous comment by john about the over the top portrayal of the Dutch rebels. On a another note, the article does not mention the “Rodeleros” that made up a third of the soldiers in a Spanish Tercio (“tercio” means third in spanish, a reference to it being a 1/3 pikemen, 1/3 arquebusiers and 1/3 rodeleros) The rodeleros were armed with a sword and a steel round shield and their role was to get in close and break enemy pike formations when the close combat began.

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