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The Cyber Defense Review

Revolutions in Technology: A Consideration of the Role of Iterative Improvement in Warfare

By Dr. Nick Sambaluk, MAJ Nathan Jennings | February 01, 2016

War is about more than destruction: it is conducted in order to promote national objectives, and in particular, strategic security. International conflict is traditionally interpreted as an episodic rupture, but security is a condition to be pursued and maintained over a long term. Some military and civilian figures in the Defense Department currently ask whether “cyber bullets” can only be used once. In the digital competition that pits states and businesses against individual people and also against each other, electronic exploits offer avenues through which to threaten targets. If vulnerabilities can be readily closed or patched, then indeed an exploit, a “cyber bullet,” can be used only once, and both it and its “gun” become obsolete upon their first use.

Despite this concern, whose historical analogs will be explored in an upcoming research essay, there is clear historical precedent supporting the point that iterative improvement offers real value in the actual effectiveness of combat platforms. Iterative refinement, informed by feedback loops and dialog between the people who use weapons and the people who make them, can keep both physical and intellectual technologies current and relevant. This study begins an examination of the relationship between surprise and refinement in security technology, in order to offer a historically aware vantage for technical experts in the field to use in approaching their own tasks from a potentially new jump-off point.

One of the more impressive lineages of iterative technological improvement (and of related tactical change) concerns the introduction of practical repeating firearms. Among the Anglo-Native American frontier fighting of the 1830s and 1840s, although as seemingly alien from cyber conflict as could be imagined, enduring themes in combat effectiveness nonetheless show through. Among the standing frontier armies, as well as armed civilian settlers, the most common firearms were single‑shot muzzle-loading rifles and carbines, most of which were unrifled. In this environment, slow-loading guns were not necessarily superior instruments for attack or for defense. One Texas Ranger identified the disparity in combat power between his comrades—even those using rifled weapons—and their Native American adversaries who often relied upon ostensibly obsolete bows:

Primitive as the Indians’ [sic] weapons were, they gave them an advantage over the old single-barrel, muzzle-loading rifle in the matter of rapid shooting…. An Indian [sic] could discharge a dozen arrows while a man was loading a gun, and if they could manage to draw our fire all at once they had us at their mercy unless we had a safe retreat.[i]

Rather, the key lies in nesting design into the larger context. Technology, in themselves, are seldom “bad” and never perfect. The collaboration between their characteristics and their usage (and the situation in which these are employed) goes a long way toward determining effectiveness in combat, and in influencing threats to security and the outcome of wars. The popular dictum that form follows function is a crucial theme to use in understanding the role of technology in warfare. Design characteristics reveal themselves to users as tradeoffs, and are interpreted as such based on the contexts of a security challenge and fighting environment. For example, loaded firearms typically provided immediate lethal power even to novice users. Rifled muzzle-loading firearms provided improved accuracy at greater range. Long-barreled muzzle-loading weapons required time and it virtually demanded a stationary platform from which to reload the weapon. On a flat prairie lacking even subtle terrain features and obstructions, the long-range effectiveness lent a user advantages that did much to outweigh the time required to reload.

In actual combat, however, two important conditions were absent. One was that truly featureless, flat terrain was seldom to be found, even in the Great Plains (this is, incidentally, also true of cyberspace). Furthermore, combat is always an interaction of opposing forces, and rifle-wielding combatants discovered that their adversaries not only used terrain features, but also moved dynamically through terrain. Given the contemporary technology, the remaining options were either to concede contested ground or to fight in situations which accentuated the shortcomings of the weapons they carried without offering many opportunities to fully deploy the advantages of new technology.

European observers on the Texas frontier in 1830 noticed that Comanche warriors were going a long way toward imposing the first of these unpalatable alternatives on their Texan enemies:  “raids … became almost continuous and … garrisons were always besieged” and the defenders lost control of the hinterland and its resources.[ii] In the absence of new factors, such as reinforcement or invention of new weapons or methods, the conflict might have achieved stasis, with Comanche tribes unable to fully dislodge and expel European-American encroachment and with settlers unable to gain control of the expanses they depended on to build up their numerical and economic foothold.

However, true stasis is anathema to warfare. Even when decisive outcomes do not quickly appear, the reason is seldom because of a lack of activity. Settlers, comparatively better linked to the fruits of industrializing processes and inventions, constituted a consumer market for some kind of product that could be used as a more effective weapon on the frontier than the muzzle-loading rifle proved to be. Unable to wait indefinitely for perfected instruments, Texans attempted to use the weapons at hand in ways that might mitigate their disadvantages. This resort to adapting methods and tactics whenever weapons technologies fall short is part of a common pattern in warfare, and can be expected to continue. On the frontier, this involved the deployment of Texas cavalry in essentially a mounted infantry role. Riding provided mobility to the battle area, and fighting dismounted vastly improved both the accuracy in firing and enabled reloading to occur at all. The price was a degradation of the offensive potential that intuitively comes with riding into battle.[iii]

Adapted tactics purchased time while inventors and industry developed new technology. Samuel Colt’s February 1836 patent aimed toward building a repeating firing capability into firearms, by integrating a mechanically rotating cylinder of preassembled bullet-and-propellant packets with the ignition capabilities of the percussion cap firing system. As innovation scholars have aptly recognized, innovation is likely to emerge through the integration of inventions and the assembly of methods in new ways. Frequently, it is the combination that is new rather than the key components.[iv]

Colt hoped that his concept could be applied to a range of weapons, from relatively small and compact pistols up to rifle-size weapons that might combine long range with a new rapidity of fire. The first real fruit of the effort was the 1836 Paterson revolving pistol, which featured a cylinder with five separate ammunition chambers and a concealed trigger that deployed when the weapon was cocked, in effect providing something analogous to a safety latch on a firearm. Automatic cylinder rotation (called “double action”) permitted a user to hold and fire a gun in each hand; within seconds, a person with a pair of Patterson Colts could match the close-range firepower of ten soldiers with rifles or muskets. The revolutionary implications of such a weapon, and implicitly of the possibility of mass-producing guns of this type, simply cannot be overstated.[v]

This is particularly the case if the weapons were improved over time, through modifications inspired by experience with the new weapons, and if methods of fighting were adapted to accentuate the advantages of the technology, while still promoting the purposes of the user. The increased value derived from modifying both physical and intellectual technologies based on new information remains of particular importance in warfare.

As alluded earlier, every technology possesses characteristics that will be relatively advantageous or problematic in specific kinds of environments. No technology is “perfect,” because no environment is exactly predictable. Often, early users of the Paterson Colt noticed a limitation in reloading. Although a user could quickly fire off five shots, reloading the gun’s cylinders for further firing became difficult. Accessing the cylinder required disassembling the weapon into several pieces. This required some time, but even more importantly it required a steady platform, thus foreclosing the chance of reloading while on horseback. Fragile components and limited impact of a small powder charge and bullet caliber also detracted from the gun’s potential.[vi] Users, and their opponents, noticed that potential, but further iteration would be required in order to match the gun to the fight.

Cost proved to be a far more complex problem, which Colt attempted to solve through discounting the price. He attracted early and enthusiastic users from the Republic of Texas’s Navy and Army, and the country hasted to establish a contingent “of Mounted Gunmen, to act as Rangers” on the frontier, to be armed with Colt repeaters.[vii] But the long-term effect of the discounted sales and of the Texas habit of failing to promptly pay for arms deliveries was to force Colt into a bankruptcy while the notoriety of his weapon gradually grew.[viii] It took time for Colt to reform a new business to answer the demand sparked by the fame of the early weapons.

Technological advances facilitated new tactical methods. In one instance, the Battle of Walker Creek in June 1844, a group of Texas Rangers managed to evade a would-be ambush by Comanche warriors and instead surprised their opponents and closed with them while firing from horseback. The more established and conventional tactic in cavalry fighting involved dismounting in order to shoot firearms. This was a somewhat awkward maneuver, because it forced cavalry to expend time in getting out of the saddle. This action was undertaken within firing range, making the dismount was completely purposeless. As is often the case with methods and tactics that in hindsight seem complex and superfluous, there was once a compelling reason (at least in the minds and context of participants) in these actions. For the dismounted cavalry shooters of the 1830s,  accuracy and range improved when a shooter was stationary and reloading muzzle-loading weapons was slow but possible, whereas shooting on horseback enormously reduced shooting accuracy and made the preparation of muzzle-loading weapons virtually impossible. The repeating characteristic of Colt’s revolvers reduced meant that the users were not disarmed simply by the act of firing their weapon. Captain John Coffee Hays, the Texan commander in the skirmish, subsequently declared that “had it not been for [the Colt revolvers], I doubt what the consequences would have been. I cannot recommend these arms too highly.”[ix] Close quarters combat had long favored Comanche warriors, and the advent of reliable repeating pistols dramatically negated that advantage and altered the outcome of such firefights.

The feedback loop that allowed for iterative improvements was greatly enhanced by actual tactical experiences. Among the Texans at Walker Creek was a future business collaborator of Colt’s—Samuel Walker. His notably aggressive personal action in the fight perhaps reflected in part his confidence in the weapons he carried. Furthermore, as a partner with actual tactical experience using the weapon in combat, he was in a position to leverage his knowledge of the gun’s strengths and weaknesses in combat as a way to help ensure that future iterations of the weapon even more closely met the needs of users.

War between Mexico and the United States in 1847 provided another round of combat in which Colt designs were used and tested, this time against a European-style enemy. Comanche weapons and tactics were basically unique to combat of the southwest and western plains of the United States. Mexico’s cavalry, on the other hand, was a well-equipped and trained force constituting the cream of the Mexican army, and was constituted on the model of the well-funded cavalry arms of European armies. In short, Colt’s success against the Mexican army demonstrated that the Colt revolver, as a concept and as a specific technology, was not merely a novelty relevant only in the unique conditions of western North America. Because the Mexican cavalry’s weapons were lances and single-shot muzzleloaders, and the Patterson Colt’s weight of firepower told heavily in firefights between Texas auxiliaries and Mexican horsemen during the war.

The success and lethality of Colt’s revolvers did not save the life of Colt’s original company. Colt had promoted his weapons by distributing the first 2,000 of them at steep discounts, and the modest sales volume and low unit price had dispirited Colt’s investors to the point that Colt entered bankruptcy in the years between the Texas Revolution and the Mexican-American War. Walker’s exploits, first against Comanche and then in the Mexican-American War, prompted Colt to contact Walker with an eye toward closing the feedback loop and reconstituting an arms company. Walker’s enthusiastic reply that “with improvements I think they can be rendered the most perfect weapon in the world for light mounted troops” marked an important point in facilitating iterative technological improvements based on combat experience.[x]

Scaling up successful inventions is a key element in the innovation process. Enticing early adopters who can build a trend, a clientele, and a favorable reputation, is essentially a complex and challenging process.[xi] However, once an innovation begins to gain traction, it can appear to have emerged rapidly. Walker’s fame and connection with the project, as well as the actual results derived on battlefields, helped finally attract the interest and attention of the US government, which made an order for 1,000 Colt revolvers at a unit price of twenty-five dollars.[xii] Eli Whitney was brought into collaboration to use his Connecticut factory to help scale up production, and various subcontractors were also useful. The War Department also made a separate order for 2,000 of another improved variant of the revolver, known as a “Dragoon Colt,” for use by US cavalry, and the weapon earned a high standing among the US frontier soldiers and the Department of Texas as something that could be “relied on under all circumstances.”[xiii]

The technology itself was also refined by the time it was adopted by the U.S. Army. The ammunition size had been increased to .44 caliber. This was a change that permitted an increase both in projectile mass and propellant, with a predictable effect in the force and impact of the bullets. A reengineered design simultaneously made the Walker version of the Colt revolver easier to reload (now involving simply an exchange of pre-cartridged ammunition cylinders, rather than complete weapon disassembly) and made the now bigger gun a plausible club in case of emergency when ammunition had been exhausted in the midst of battle.[xiv]

During the Mexican-American War, Captain Hays commanded a thousand-strong mounted regiment of Texans who performed reconnaissance duties for the U.S. Army advancing into northern Mexico. This was the only contingent on either side during the war that fought using repeating firearms, and the results earned attention and acclaim. Confronted by elite Mexican cavalry units that “formed in gallant style and attacked,” Texans with revolvers eviscerated their opponents and within five minutes, these were all either killed or routed. Days later, Texans fighting dismounted in a shock troop role helped storm the city itself, and again their firepower advantage told on the enemy.[xv] Reflecting on the actions of the war, and on the improvements made in Colt technology, Samuel Walker wrote that for “Texans who have learned their value by practical experience, their confident [sic] in them is unbounded, so much so that they are willing to engage four times their number.”[xvi] Hays’s regimental adjutant, John Salmon Ford, noted that the Walker model of the Colt outranged even the Mississippi rifle and that “with the improved revolvers we felt confident we could beat any number the enemy could bring to bear upon us.”[xvii]

Its continued use in combat environments, its ongoing relevancy to firefights, and the existence of feedback opportunities allowed continual improvement of the designs, to keep Colt’s weapons applicable to combat. This is particularly important, because the dangerous, violent, and competitive nature of warfare makes a dynamic environment in which even once-superlative weapons can become obsolete or simply irrelevant to later types of combat. The .45 caliber “Peacemaker” revolver of 1873[xviii] is merely the most iconic of what is in fact a family of weapons developed in response to new information about how to meet the changing needs of Colt customers in a variety of insecure environments.

Frequently, research into new methods and technologies are treated as if they are antithetical to each other. Indeed, innovation literature emphasizes that the priorities of the one can potentially stifle the existence of the other. New discovery and sustainable adoption have to exist in balance, because in the long run they are mutually reinforcing. Adoption and iterative improvement are complementary sides of the same coin, if sustainable models are to be found—for companies of the 19th century like Colt’s, but also for more modern businesses and particularly for societies and the nation-states that protect them. Iterative improvement does not come without a price, but success and survival cannot endure long in its absence.



[1] Dr Sambaluk is an Assistant Professor of Military History at Purdue University and the Liaison for Cyber Research, Learning, Engagement, and Transaction for the Army Cyber Institute at West Point. MAJ Nathan Jennings is a student at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff Officer Course.

[i] Noah Smithwick, The Evolution of a State (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983), 159-160.

[ii] Jean Berlandier, The Indians of Texas in 1830 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1969), 119.

[iii] Darren L. Ivey, The Texas Rangers:  A Registry and History (Jefferson, NC:  McFarland & Company, 2010), 27.  For a Civil War era account reflecting the practical disparities in combat power between mounted personnel armed with muzzle-loaders and personnel armed with improved Colt repeaters, see Peter Cozzens and Robert I. Girardi, The New Annals of the Civil War (Mechanicsburg, PA:  Stackpole, 2004), 212.

[iv] William Duggan, Strategic Innovation:  The Creative Spark in Human Achievement (New York:  Columbia Press, 2007).

[v] Charles Chapel, Guns of the Old West (Coward-McCann, Inc.: New York, 1961), 156-157.

[vi] Frederick Wilkins, The Legend Begins:  The Texas Rangers, 1823-1845 (Austin:  State House Press, 1996), 64-65.

[vii] H.P.N. Gammel, editor, The Laws of Texas, 1822-1897. Ten volumes (Austin: Gammel Book Company, 1898), II: 846-848, 943-944.

[viii] Wilkins, Legend Begins, 65-67.

[ix] Texas National Register, December 14, 1844.

[x] John Parsons, Sam Colt’s Own Record of Transactions with Captain Walker and Eli Whitney, Jr. (Hartford:  The Connecticut Historical Society, 1949), 8.

[xi] Peter J Denning and Robert Dunham, The Innovator’s Way:  Essential Practices for Successful Innovation (Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press, 2010), 188, 243.

[xii] Parsons, Sam Colt’s Own Record, 25; Robert Whittington, The Colt Whitneyville-Walker Pistol (Hooks, Texas: Brownlee Books), 17, 33.

[xiii] Whittington, Whitneyville-Walker Pistol, 71, 75.  Senate Report No. 136, 30th Congress, 1st Session.

[xiv] Parsons, Sam Colt’s Own Record, 25; Chapel, Guns of the West, 153.

[xv] Samuel Reid, The Scouting Expeditions of McCulloch’s Texas Rangers (Philadelphia:  John E Potter and Company, 1848), 163.

[xvi] Frederick Wilkins, The Highly Irregular Irregulars:  Texas Rangers in the Mexican War (Austin:  Eakin Press, 1990), chapter 6; Samuel Reid, The Scouting Expeditions of McCulloch’s Texas Rangers (Philadelphia:  John E Potter and Company, 1848), 163; Parsons, Sam Colt’s Own Record, 9-10.

[xvii] John Ford, Rip Ford’s Texas, ed. Stephen Oates (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 1987), 75, 105.

[xviii] Chapel, Guns of the Old West, 157, 162, 164, 232-233.

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