The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

H102: 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 Toward the end of the war they began to decline in importance and by the end of the 17th Century they had largely been replaced by national professional armies.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?

August 25, 2016 - Posted by | H100, military history, Professional Military Education


  1. An interesting comparison between the mercenaries of the past and some more modern day mercenaries may be that of their will to fight and their profit margin. In the past, mercenaries still likely held to some level of honor in addition to their search for profit. Today, it could be possible to argue that all honor is absent when it comes to mercenaries. An interesting example of this comes from a story about a former Soviet fighter pilot and his search for employment after the collapse of the Soviet Union. After the collapse, the pilot found himself on a mission to bomb the Nagorno-Karabahk as a mercenary for Azerbaijan. On that flight he was shot down and found himself as a prisoner. When asked later, he did state that he felt a level of freedom he had not felt since the Soviet collapse, but now wondered if he would see his family again. This is an interesting perspective for someone who was supposedly working as a mercenary for the money, but found a sense of purpose as well. This is all paraphrased, if you want to read more, here’s the link to the full story:

    Comment by Justin Reddick | August 26, 2016

  2. Mercenaries existed to boost the Army force. Keeping a standing army was inefficient due to the burden it places on a country to maintain them. According to Gunther E. Rothenbery mercenaries were “competent enough in combat”. However, they were loyal as long as they were paid. They brought a skill level to the battle field that would take years for a commander to raise without a standing army but without loyalty to a country they were prone desertion.

    Comment by Jeffery Hoover | August 27, 2016

  3. As Jeff articulated mercenaries were a means to an end for leaders. They provided a capability that leaders were either not able to provide or were unwilling to provide. With the advent, or at least the acknowledgment of nation-states replacing religion as the predominant entity in how conglomerations of individuals identified themselves with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, standing armies nearly became a pre-requisite for leaders to ensure the survival of their states. As such mercenaries began to decline as leaders like Maurice of Nassau and Gustavus Adolphus deemed loyalty and discipline as important elements for effective fighting forces than sheer numbers. Through discipline a leader could mold his army into an effective fighting force and recuse himself of the need for mercenaries. Interestingly though, mercenaries continued to play a major role in many armies through the end of the 17th century. Even Adolphus made consistent use of mercenaries during his campaign in the Thirty Years War.

    As for the role of mercenaries on todays battlefield, I think it depends on your definition of a mercenary. In my mind a mercenary doesn’t hold an allegiance to a nation. As much as we may have our qualms about organizations like Blackwater I don’t think those kind of organizations will deviate from supporting America or at the worst fighting against America. To me that is a key distinction between Renaissance era mercenaries and “contract specialists” of today at least as it relates to those who support US forces today.

    Comment by A.J. Redden | August 28, 2016

  4. All, the thing that I thought was most interesting about the Lion of the North was how he used his musketeers. He had them in two or three ranks of musketeers and they fired simultaneously, usually at point blank range. Then he would have the pikeman come in and clean up until the guns were reloaded. This ‘Swedish salve’ was much more effective at breaking the enemy’s morale and a great way to combined arms.

    Comment by Adam Bushey | August 29, 2016

  5. I enjoyed our reading this week. The thing that I found most interesting was that it was not until the American civil war that we started the process of combining the benefits of technology (rail, steamboats, telegraphs, muskets, and artillery) into a unified effort.

    Comment by adamjbushey | September 1, 2016

  6. Although the H103 blogpost has not been made yet, I wanted to provide my favorite quote from the reading: “To promote civil order, and to beuild morale among troops …. governments increasingly took good physical care of their men, quartered them in barracks, provided them with doctors and hospitals, fed them liberally, and established great fixed permanent magazines for their supply.” ~ Makers of a modern strategy.

    Comment by adamjbushey | September 6, 2016

  7. An interesting article, that provides us with the source of a problem that it exists now with different form in the different countries. I would like to answer the questions through steps. First, the mercenary companies exist in the first place because it was the only way to be known to get a contract. In the early beginning, the strong people ( warriors) were hired directly, then their number increased and the number was higher than the need, also, they used a big quantity of resources ( food, water, and others). After that as a result , there was a decision to fire some of them, then those fired warriors met each other, and they begin to think in making a kind of union and get training to be stronger. that attract many to join them then they become the only tool to hire a warrior who is talented and well trained. there were many advantages, that they initially brought to the battlefields, for example, the contract was not with a person it was with the company, which mean that the king by getting that contract, he would not need to get specific persons and train them, feed them, and if lost they will affect the productivity of the society. he saved all of that by getting the contract with a company that is responsible for all the previous things. Second, in my opinion, the mercenary specialists of the Renaissance is not different from the contract specialists that we used today. they are very similar and both are giving the political system many advantages, and disadvantages. The advantages, we can say that both provide the requirement for a specific period of time,they are professional; the contract will make the political system save insurance money and other side money that it could pay if contracted with individuals or make it by its resources; and also it provide focus for the military forces to reach to professionalism. In the other hand, the disadvantage or the real problem is the loyalty, the contractor will bring people who could be loyal to the company or their nationality which could be aginst us.Third, In my opinion, logistics contractors on the battlefield are mercenaries because sometimes their loyal or not for the government, and from here the secret become not secret and soles get lost.

    Comment by mohamedmillataryleader | November 3, 2016

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