The Lion of the North: The Story of Gustavus Adolphus, Sweden’s Gunpowder King

The Lion of the North: The Story of Gustavus Adolphus, Sweden’s Gunpowder King

William McLaughlin - May 28, 2017

Once people start referring to you as the Lion of the North, you know you are doing something right. As a backup, Gustavus (Gustav) was also known as the Golden King, the founder of the Swedish Empire, father of modern warfare, and the classic “The Great.” With all of those titles, we can safely assume that Gustav did some extraordinary things.

The 30 Years’ War and Religious Strife

Gustav Adolphus was known for his ingenuity on the battlefield, but he was a master statesman, administrator, and champion of Christian ethics (for the period) as well. Gustav’s life was framed by the 30 Years’ War, and the Great king would profoundly alter the status quo of the war when he finally joined. A quick refresher; the 30 Years’ War was largely fought between the growing number of Protestant rulers and the authoritarian Catholic church and Catholic kingdoms. It was a horrible war that had multiple atrocities and slaughters of civilians throughout.

The Lion of the North: The Story of Gustavus Adolphus, Sweden’s Gunpowder King
Though nations dropped in and out throughout the war, the steady continuation of conflict led to a tremendous loss of life; possibly the largest death toll prior to WWI. Wikipedia

Seeing as the horrendously deadly war was about religion, it’s fitting that Gustav came into power through religious differences. Gustav’s cousin Sigismund, a Catholic, was pushed out of power by Gustav’s father, a popular Protestant. Gustav would ascend to the throne at just 16 years old when his father died. An industrial and talented labor force was already primed to give Gustav and Sweden an explosive entrance to Europe as a first-time great power.

Sweden Primed for Success

“The gunpowder king” isn’t an official moniker for Gustav like “Lion of the North” is, but it is certainly fitting. Gustav was a master at developing gunpowder technology and tactics, but Sweden was already heading full-steam in this direction when he took the throne.

Cannons needed iron or bronze, and a lot of it. Sweden just so happens to be rich in such materials. But early cannons needed skilled craftsmen, inventors, and technicians. Initially, Sweden didn’t have too many of these skilled laborers, but again the religious strife comes into play.

The Lion of the North: The Story of Gustavus Adolphus, Sweden’s Gunpowder King
Some of the cannons that were in use around the 16th century. Wikipedia

In a period where one could be prosecuted for their religion and even be put to death, migrations to more tolerant regions were common. Despite the ousting of a Catholic king, Sweden was still tolerant of Catholics and Protestants. People sure didn’t flee to Spain to try their luck with the inquisition, many ended up in Sweden.

Gustav’s Military Reforms: Combined Arms, Mobile Artillery, and More

Early gunpowder use in Europe was quite often a mess. Infantry had a mix of spears and muskets, crossbows, Arquebus’ and more. Artillery was heavy and static, often the cheap and plentiful cast iron variety that was inaccurate and might just explode and kill the crew. Most armies had mercenaries or levy troops that formed bulky lines dozens of ranks deep. Defensive formations were the norm and outside of the continual advancements in firearms, little innovation occurred.

Gustav radically changed the status quo and formed his army into a unique fighting unit that was unlike any other in Europe. A believer in swift offensive attacks, Gustav’s first major change was turning the usually static artillery into a mobile unit.

He did this by using slightly smaller cannons that could be pulled by just two horses and needed a smaller crew. He could no redeploy his cannons wherever he needed on the battlefield, getting effective firepower and surprising enemies who might have thought they were out of range.

Because these cannons could move about they were more vulnerable to counterattack. For this, Gustav’s artillerymen pioneered the first widespread use of canister shot. Taking musket balls or even nails and scrap metal and packing it into a canister, it was fired into charging enemies like a massive shotgun. Canister shot absolutely shredded the morale of attacking infantry and could completely halt a cavalry charge.

The Lion of the North: The Story of Gustavus Adolphus, Sweden’s Gunpowder King

For his infantry, Gustav made sure that he had men trained in specific styles of fighting, whether it was pike or shot. Cavalry was integrated into the wings or rear of much thinner infantry lines of 5-6 ranks. The thin formations allowed for rapid redeployment in the changing conditions of a battle and made it easy for the cavalry to execute a quick charge before finding safety behind the ranks again.

Such small formations seemed vulnerable, but they were often supported by other similar formations, perhaps ones with more guns. The mobile artillery was key in putting pressure on a weakened enemy or helping out a struggling line. It would have been unnerving on the other side as they had to worry about the infantry and also be ready for a sudden cavalry charge or a barrage of artillery. Flanking attacks were also made much easier by the more mobile formations.

Cavalry utilized firearms as much or more than any other European cavalry. They had range as well as shock value when charging. Gustav’s cavalry could be found all over the battlefield, they rarely sat around waiting for the one decisive charge common for most cavalry of the era.

Lastly, Gustav was adamant that his troops should be able to take on any role in his army. Cavalry were trained and skilled horsemen, but if their horse should fall during the battle they should be able to seamlessly fill in with the infantry and fire a musket. A man with a musket should be comfortable picking up a pike to defend against a cavalry charge.

Such cross-training was extremely rare in this period and Gustav saw it pay off a number of times. Most notably, a successful cavalry charge was able to capture the enemy cannons at the Battle of Breitenfeld. Instead of simply leaving or destroying the cannons, the cavalry dismounted and fired barrages of shells into the enemy army.

The Lion of the North: The Story of Gustavus Adolphus, Sweden’s Gunpowder King
History Learning

Poland and Gustav’s Shiny New Army

Though Gustav fought well and implemented some reforms, he had yet to have a complete army that embodied all his ideas and reforms through his first few wars. In a long rivalry and war with Poland, the Swedes just couldn’t gain the upper hand. That is until 1626 when Gustav worked with his trusted advisor Axel Oxenstierna to create an army with a core of highly trained Swedes instead of the core of mercenary troops common in most armies.

The Battle of Wallhof saw the debut of the new Swedish army as Gustav laid an ambush for a marching column of Poles. The Polish force lost over half of their 2,000 man force dead, wounded or captured. The Swedish force launched their swift attack with cavalry charging out from the depths of the infantry formations. When the Polish cavalry counter-attacked the Swedish infantry took cover in nearby trees and drove off the charge. The stunning victory saw no dead on Gustav’s side and a reported zero wounded, though that is always doubtful in battles with thousands of troops.

The Swedish Intervention

A peace with Poland concluded the war by 1629 and gave a fairly balanced peace. Poland was well respected at the time for having the most renowned cavalry in Europe. They were certainly a force to be reckoned with and it was a great victory for the young King to get a balanced peace out of the war.

Less than a year later Gustav would find the need to directly intervene in the 30 Year’s war. Sweden was a protestant nation, and by 1630 the Protestants active in the war against the Catholic Hapsburgs were near their breaking point. Gustav had been committed to the war against Poland, but with a peace finally signed, he was ready to enter the war against the Hapsburgs.

The Lion of the North: The Story of Gustavus Adolphus, Sweden’s Gunpowder King
The Hapsburgs were among the most dominant families throughout all of world history. Breaking up their profound power took an immense effort. Wikipedia

Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly (Tilly), was one of the reasons the Protestants were in such bad shape as he had won an impressive string of victories for the Catholic league. When Gustav and his forces landed in Germany they won enough victories to force Tilly to march north to face him.

The Battle of Breitenfeld

At Breitenfeld, the Protestants and Catholics had roughly an equal amount of power with Gustav’s Swedes and allies (Saxons) having more men but the Catholics under Tilly having far more trained and professional soldiers.

The Lion of the North: The Story of Gustavus Adolphus, Sweden’s Gunpowder King

The battle began with a trading of artillery barrages with Gustav’s well-trained crews firing two to three times faster than Tilly’s men. They had more smaller cannons and more high-quality cannons thanks to the burgeoning Swedish cannon industry. Deciding to put an end to the barrage, the Catholic cavalry charged at either flank.

Against the Saxon left, the Catholics had success, forcing a retreat. On the Swedish right, however, the professional charge met the combined arms of the Swedish cavalry. Musket-armed infantry were interspersed with the Swedish cavalry and their volleys beat back the Catholic charges several times. When they were ready, the Swedish cavalry launched a decisive and aggressive counterattack that drove the Catholic left flank of cavalry from the field.

The Lion of the North: The Story of Gustavus Adolphus, Sweden’s Gunpowder King
The opening moves. Wikipedia

Tilly had decided to commit his infantry to collapsing the Saxon and Swedish left flank and they marched in oblique order to their right. It was a smart move and this tactic would easily win the day in most battlefield scenarios, but the Swedes had other plans.

The Swedish left, now vulnerable due to their fleeing Saxon allies, did not simply wait for the disorganized Catholic infantry to envelope them. Waiting for the right moment, the Swedish infantry charged into the individually maneuvering Catholic units and turned sure defeat into a more even struggle.

Gustav’s victorious cavalry on his right took full advantage of the Catholic focus on their left; they charged the vacant field on their right and easily defeated the Catholic artillery. Again, not resting, they took over the stolen cannons and fired into the rear of the enemy infantry. The original Swedish artillery had already moved into position to fire as well.

The punishing fire from multiple angles turned the even struggle into a Catholic rout and Gustav won his first great victory. The Catholic league lost 25,000 men and all of their artillery, expensive pieces worth a great deal to the struggling Protestant cause.

The Lion of the North: The Story of Gustavus Adolphus, Sweden’s Gunpowder King
The decisive attack. None of it would have been possible without the amazing discipline and military reforms of Gustav. Wikipedia

The victory crippled the Catholic army in Germany, one that had come quite close to ending the war in a victory. Several German states that had Protestant connections decided to break from the Catholics and join Gustav, whose army grew tremendously from new recruits.

The Battle of Breitenfeld was a perfect example of Gustav’s superior tactics and training. His hard-pressed left held in the face of annihilation. His mixed unit formations repeatedly broke the enemy cavalry charges and successfully counterattacked, and his artillery performed admirably the entire time. For a unit as noble and high-class as the cavalry to immediately become artillery men during the battle was something that would happen in few other medieval armies.

The Lion of the North: The Story of Gustavus Adolphus, Sweden’s Gunpowder King

Battle of Lützen and the Early Death of Gustav

Unfortunately for the newly emboldened Protestant cause, Gustav would perish in battle just a year later. Between the two great battles, Gustav fought the Battle of Lech where Gustav employed a screening force to launch a perfect hidden crossing of a river. His screening force was so good that they killed the legendary Tilly and forced the army to retreat before his masterful flanking force could trap the army.

At Lützen, Gustav met the Catholic League’s army under Albrecht von Wallenstein. Gustav had the advantage in numbers, but Wallenstein had reinforcements on the way, so he formed defensive lines with well-dug trenches.

The Swedish forces decided to mount an assault anyway and the attack began with a heavy fog. A heavy fog is still known as a Lutzen fog in Sweden to this day. The Swedish infantry launched waves against the fortified Catholic positions with little success.

Gustav and his cavalry had immediate success on the right flank but soon became disorganized from the fog. Gustav became entirely separated from his unit and several enemy troops happened upon him. Outnumbered and outgunned, Gustav was shot and stabbed until he fell from his horse, itself shot in the neck, where he was killed by a shot to the head.

Rumors of Gustav’s death made their way around the army, but this only made the Swedes fight harder. A Swedish cannonball found its mark, killing the commander of the Catholic reinforcements, and the Swedish infantry finally broke through the trenches to overwhelm the Catholic artillery positions. It was a hard fought battle, but certainly a victory for the Protestants, with the bitter exception of Gustav’s death.

The Lion of the North: The Story of Gustavus Adolphus, Sweden’s Gunpowder King
Gustav’s funeral Wikipedia

Gustav had brought Sweden to the stage as a major European power. His victories saved the Protestant cause and made the Catholic League struggle to find answers for his devastating style of warfare. The victory at Lützen gave the Protestants time, but their cause still wavered in the years after Gustav’s death.

Eventually, the two sides were able to come to a peace, with Gustav’s decade’s old victories still giving the Protestants negotiating power. The Protestants were able to gain independence or freedom to practice and the Catholic Hapsburg dynasty saw its power wane considerably along with the overwhelming influence of the Catholic Church weakening as well.