When Gustavus Adolphus landed in Sweden, he was hailed as the savior of the Protestant cause. But before that could become a reality, he had hard fighting to do. To do that, he had developed one of the best armies that Europe had ever seen. Since childhood the king had been studying the art of war, and he had developed principles and techniques that would change the way war was fought.

The King as General

Overall, Gustavus was the best commander in the Thirty Years War. He was a brilliant battlefield commander, leading his army from the front. Many of the other armies were commanded by mercenaries. Their kings had to try to control them, while getting the resources they needed from the civilian governments. For Sweden the control was centralized in Gustavus. He was the battlefield commander of the major army, commander in chief of all of Sweden’s armies, and head of the civilian government. As a great commander, he was able to efficiently run the war and assign the troops where they were needed most.

The Home Front

The Swedish war machine started back on the home front. The armies were conscripted, with every tenth man being taken for the army. The army going to Germany contained about 40,000 soldiers from Sweden, and about 40,000 more recruited elsewhere in Europe. Even with the money from France, the Swedish people still had to pay heavy taxes to support these troops. Five sevenths of Sweden’s budget went to the army. Although this was a major burden for the people, they still liked their king. The house of Vasa, including Gustavus, was able to maintain their popularity because they tended to favor the people rather than the nobles.

17th century Musketeers. Source.


The Swedes had the best army, especially in artillery and cavalry. Gustavus was a military innovator, constantly looking for ways to improve his technology and tactics. He developed cannon that could be fired much more rapidly. Sometimes they could be fired quicker than muskets. He also used smaller cannons distributed throughout his army, instead of having one concentrated battery. Therefore his guns could be used on the regimental level, helping the infantry just where they were needed. The king put great emphasis on accurate firing from his gunners. Often he would aim the guns with his own hand, to drive that point home for the troops.

Scottish Mercenaries


Gustavus’s main philosophy was mobility on the battlefield. Cavalry held a major position on his battlefields. He used two types. Cuirassiers were lightly armored and armed with long swords. They were the heavy cavalry, and were used to deal a major blow to the enemy. The second type was dragoons – mounted infantrymen who could quickly ride where they were needed, and then dismount and fight as infantry.

Swedish soldier. Source.


The Swedish infantry was made lighter and more mobile than their opponents. They used preloaded cartridges, so they could reload their weapons quicker than other armies, which had to measure the powder and add the ball. Gustavus’s pikemen were also equipped for mobility, with shorter pikes and less armor. The king himself was said to be predisposed against armor, as he could not comfortably wear a breastplate because of a wound.

The tactics of the Swedish army were also different than their opponents. The units were small. Their lines were thinner, only six men deep instead of ten or more. The artillery was interspersed among the infantry. The Swedish army contained more musketeers, and they were trained to fire in volleys two rows at a time, so they could maintain a consistent, but destructive fire. All six ranks were also trained to be able to fire at once, to give a very heavy volley to break an enemy charge. Since his pikemen were more lightly armored, they could be used on the offense instead of just defense, as other armies did.


The soldiers in Gustavus’ army held their king and commander in high regard. He demonstrated great care for them, sharing in the privations of the soldiers. He tried as much as possible to pay them on time. During battles he had field hospitals established and medicine chests with the units to care for the health of those who were wounded. Because of all these things the king’s men were devoted to him, and were that much better soldiers because of it. This did not mean that Gustavus slacked on discipline. During his war with Poland he introduced his famous Articles of War. You can read the entire code of more than 150 articles here, but here are several of the most important:

Swedish cavalry engaged in battle
  • “Seeing … that all our welfare and prosperity, proceedeth from Almighty God; and that it is all mens duty to feare and serve him above all: Wee streightly hereby charge all manner of Persons whatsoever, that they by no meanes use any kind of Idolatry, Witch-craft, or Enchanting of Armes, by Devils inchantment any manner of way whatsoever. And if any herein be found faulty he shall be proceeded against according to Gods law and the Swedens….”
  • “If any shall blaspheme the name of God, either drunk or sober, the thing being proved by two or three witnesses, he shall suffer death without mercy”
  • There was a system of courts from the regimental level up to the king himself.
  • If a regiment ran away during battle, every tenth man who could not prove his bravery was hung and the rest had to carry the filth from the camp until they redeemed themselves
  • Punishments for individual soldiers included riding the wooden horse, imprisonment, fines, bread and water, but not flogging
  • “No Colonell or Captaine shall command his souldiers to doe any unlawful thing; which who so does, shall be punished according to the discretion of the Judges. Also if any … Officer … shall by rigour take any thing away from any common souldier, he shall answer for it before the Court.”
  • Soldiers who fell asleep or were drunk on watch were to be shot
  • “Hee that forceth any woman to abuse her, and the matter bee proved, hee shall die for it”
  • Soldiers could bring their wives, but other female camp followers were not allowed
  • Prayers were held in the morning and evening, and a sermon every Sunday and twice in the week when time permitted
  • Dueling was not allowed
  • No buildings were to be burnt in friendly territory, and in enemy territory only under orders from the officers with approval from the king

With all these elements, Gustavus was able to create a cohesive, well disciplined army, with tactics that integrated the infantry, cavalry and artillery. He was well prepared for the greatest war of his life.

The Thirty Years War by C. V. Wedgwood
Gustavus Adolphus and the Struggle of Protestantism for Existence by C. R. L. Fletcher

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