The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

Mercenaries –Back to the Future?

The inability of the feudal system to provide reliable armies gave rise to cadres of mercenaries that at first supplemented the aristocratic warriors of the feudal army, and then replaced them. By the Renaissance period, armies were largely made up of hired mercenary companies.  Aristocrats, once the knights of the feudal army, became the owners and officers of the  companies.   Mercenary companies were a key element of warfare throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries.  Many consider that they reached their greatest influence during the Thirty Years War, 1618-1648.  Toward the end of the war they began to decline in importance and by the end of the 17th Century they had largely been replaced by national professional armies.

Why did mercenary companies exist in the first place?  What advantage did they initially bring to the battlefield?

How were mercenary specialists of the Renaissance different from the contract specialists that we used today?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of mercenaries….then and now?  Is there an over-reliance on mercenaries today, or are they indespensible for many security tasks that the military simply doesn’t have manpower to accomplish?  Are logistics contractors on the battlefield mercenaries?

For a Free .pdf book on Renaissance Armies click here.


August 29, 2012 - Posted by | H100 | , , , , , ,


  1. Mercenary companies came about, at least in part, because there was a market for them. Because conflicts could arise throughout Europe and alliances constantly shifted, Mercenaries provided a quick source of capable troops for kingdoms that lacked an institutional military structure. Further, because the parties to a conflict would rely on mercenaries, the money was good. This led to expansion of the “mercenary industry.” Aside from their ability to rapidly swell the numbers of a given force, their other advantage was their technical proficiency. The latter advantage would change over time. Their fundemental disadvantage was that they fought for something that could be gotten anywhere, money. Their would always be another conflict, and survival was the only way to achieve future benefit. Thus, desertion was a very real concern. The common soldier of a nation (e.g., Sweden) maintained at least a small amount of loyalty to king and country and family at home. This loyalty could be parlayed into greater reliability, particularly as time went on and a recruit conld find a place in a newly professionalized army.

    Renaissance mercenaries are substantial different from the contract specialists of the modern era, in that the Renaissance mercenary made up the principle fighting force as opposed to providing services that might be found in the “baggage train” (e.g., support services). While security contractors provide some protective services, they do not make up the core of the fighting force upon which defeat or victory in a specific engagement depends. However, by cedeing a great deal of support services to logistical contractors, the military loses a good deal of oversight and control over activities. While the contractor will probably not desert or run out on a contract, the cost of poor quality or cost-overruns that are not properly overseen can undermine military operations or public confidence in the war effort. In that way, control and oversight of the contractors is a concern that the modern military shares with its Renaissance counterpart.

    Comment by Kenneth Mortimer, 11A | August 31, 2012

  2. The mercenary provided instantaneous increase in combat capability; experience and availability were three major advantages of having mercenaries during the period between the 16th-17th centuries. These men specialized in art of war, and the armies in this period were dependent on quality individuals, the use of the mercenaries was critical. These men typically were specialist in critical forms of combat, such as archery, cavalry or crossbows. These weapon systems provided a boost in capability with little investment. Also, the armies of this period were not paid professionals, but typically were made up of lower class citizens, such as farmers. These soldiers did not have the time or resources available to train to the proper level. The mercenary was a force multiplier, as they showed up ready to execute and typically had years of training and combat experience. The mercenary also was available to fight year round, unlike the farmer that had fields to tend, thus providing some continuity to the army. The final

    The main disadvantage of mercenaries stems for their reason to fight, for money. This was an excellent motivational tool for some; if their pay fell into arrears, they would be hesitant to continue fighting until the problem was fixed. They also were not above switching sides, as their loyalties were to those with the most money.

    The advantages of today’s mercenary are no different; they are typically highly trained and well equipped men that have experience in their field. They are ready to fight and in the right circumstances, they are a force multiplier. The disadvantages are also similar to those in the 16th-17th century, loyalty of a mercenary is difficult to track and if not properly managed can create an environment of distrust and provide our enemies with critical access to information or become an insider threat.

    Comment by Luke Jacobs | September 1, 2012

  3. Mercinaries provided the expert capability when standing armies lacked training, equipment and/or dedication and professionalism. They were driven by personal monetary (or other capital) gain. There were two primary reasons for the use or mecenaries during this period: 1) effectiveness and 2) necessity. Rulers used these specialists because, as stated earlier, of the immiturity of their own forces. Mercenaries are a plug-and-play capability- trained, experience, and ready to engage in combat with the rulers’ enemies.
    Today, “Mercs” are organized as “contract specialists”. This enables leaders to have a reasonable amount of plausable deniability. This means that, as an example, using a contracted orgainzation removes, to a degree, the direct accountability of uniformed (and even some civilians) government services.
    Logistical contractors as mercs is a subject open to opinion. ( gives the following definitions:

    1. working or acting merely for money or other reward; venal.
    2. hired to serve in a foreign army, guerrilla organization, etc.
    3. a professional soldier hired to serve in a foreign army.
    4. any hireling.

    My opinion is that any organization in direct physical support of an armed organization executing policy through force are mecenaries.

    Comment by Barry Level | September 7, 2012

  4. There does appear to be an over-reliance on mercenaries today because of the lack of military manpower. The military appears to have created a vacuum in the effort to downsize and is relying on the hiring of contractors to fill the void. The main area where the military has hired contractors to fill a mission gap is homeland installation security.

    In an effort to increase security presence, military installations nationwide are relying more and more on hired security guards to protect the installations. This makes the security guard a type of mercenary, or hired gun. A concern is what happens when an installation comes under attack. Will the contracted security guard perform to the same level as a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine in the same situation? As to date, I have not heard of any incidents where security contractors are involved with security lapses or lack of commitment. However, there is always potential for the first time. The military hopes the contractors have the same dedication as the military equivalent, but until it is put to the test, we will never know and it will be the wrong time to find out.

    Comment by Bryan J Dutcher | September 10, 2012

  5. I would like to comment on,”What are the advantages and disadvantages of mercenaries….then and now? Is there an over-reliance on mercenaries today, or are they indespensible for many security tasks that the military simply doesn’t have manpower to accomplish? Are logistics contractors on the battlefield mercenaries?

    I will answer the questions from last one to first one. In my opinion logistics contractors are not battlefield mercenaries. Battlefield mercenaries are those that take part in the Combat Action efforts, the logistics contractors are support efforts. Now, in the event that they take part of combat actions they become battlefield mercenaries.

    Yes there is an overreliance on mercenaries today. Without getting into to many classified details, many of the so called contractors that were sent to supposedly do the security task we could not accomplish, where Soldiers that got out because, Contracting companies where offereing them as much as three times( not to say four or five) what they made as Soldiers. It was very frustrating to many Soldiers to see contractors that where not doing a fourth of what a Soldier was doing and getting paid the ridiculous amount of money they bragged that they where getting paid………FRUSTRATING…….

    As far as advantages, the only one I can see is the fact that we can tell the american public, that we had less Soldiers in the battlefield. I think that we should incentivise Soldiers who are willing to stay because they are single to do these jobs before we consider hiring contractors. In addition we should consider hiring a larger Army civilian workforce as well before considering contractors.

    MAJ, MP
    CGSC, SG: 11C

    Comment by MAJ Cesar Rodriguez, SG: 11C | September 16, 2012

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