Why did soldiers in the line infantry in the 18th century not used shield as protection against the fire from the other line infantry ?

I have seen that line infantry was used this way where the one line are shooting against the other line and vice versa in wars like these: Seven Years War, American Independence War and the Napoleonic Wars.

  • A metal breastplate would be far better protection, lighter and less cumbersome. These also went out of fashion, because they didn't work and the weight was better spent on bullets to shoot the other fellow.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 0:31

3 Answers 3


The most obvious reason is that using a musket requires both hands to load and fire, so a shield would be very cumbersome. They could potentially use a free-standing pavaise, in the manner used by earlier crossbowmen, but that would limit their freedom of movement and still be impractical if you wanted multiple ranks firing.

There was a lot more movement on an 18th Century battlefield than you might think from simple descriptions of opposing lines engaging. The effective range of a musket was a hundred yards or less. As the battle went on, smoke from the guns reduced visibility to even less than that. So units would have to advance to within a relatively short distance of the enemy to engage. They would also need to re-position to outflank the enemy or avoid being outflanked themselves. Then there's always the possibility of cavalry attack where the infantry would quickly have to form squares. Having to shoulder your musket to pick up and move your heavy shield with each maneuver would quickly become tiring and, I suspect, that the shields would get left behind as the battle progressed.

And, of course, there's the additional cost of supplying the troops with shields - it was probably cheaper to recruit replacement troops than it was to supply the original ones with practical shields. The same reasoning could also be applied to supplying the troops with breastplates. While it was possible at that time to make a steel breastplate that could stop a lead bullet, the resulting armor was heavy and expensive.

  • I understand that a pavaise is a burden if one is using 'great movement tactics', but if that's not the case I still think it's strange. Also I guess it's possible for a line infantry to perform multiple ranks firing with pavaise ? Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 9:52
  • @OlePetersen one important difference is that to reload (which a soldier would spend most time doing) a muskeet he had to stand upright, while reloading a muskeet would allow (or even force) him to crouch some, giving more benefit from the pavese. And, obviously, a musket ball has way more kinetic energy so the pavese needs to be thicker / heavier, and the paveses were useless against the cannons (which were more widely used and more effective in XVIII century than in the middle age).
    – SJuan76
    Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 10:02
  • 12
    I imagine that a wall of static shields would be an inviting target for artillery and grapeshot would not only punch through them with ease but potentially send wood and metal splinters flying over a wider area causing more casualties.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 10:06

Another good reason is that a shield does not protect you against firearm. A wooden shield is easily penetrated, an iron shield would be too heavy, and modern materials like aluminium were not available.

EDIT. A shield mostly protects from bow arrows and to some extent from a sword blow. But even the earliest improved bows (Greek gastraphetes and medieval crossbows) could penetrate the shields. Not speaking of musket bullets.


This appears to relate to the balance of offensive and defensive weaponry.

"Modern" materials (and manufacturing) make it possible to produce vests and body armor that offer some protection against modern firearms. By implication, they might allow for usable shields, although shields are less useful than wearable items when you are also wielding firearms.

But in the 18th century, muskets and gunpowder represented a quantum jump in explosive power versus previous firing weapons. Defensive protectors did not keep up during this period.

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