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.