I had a history teacher who argued that a major reason for the fall of the feudal system, was that the knights lost their military superiority because of development in weapon technology (longbow, pike and halberd) and tactical use of these weapons. He also stretched this argument further to say that modern democracies would not have developed now had it not been for the development of cheap and effective handguns that were easy to master and that could be used with great effect by small unorganized groups of ordinary people.

Are modern handguns one of the main reasons why modern democracies have developed? Can this thesis find support in the rise and fall of democracies in the antiquity?

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    I think this is a uniquely American conceit.
    – Andrew Vit
    Oct 31, 2011 at 9:19
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    @AndrewVit I am not American if that is what you are implying. If this is an American perspective on things, is also irrelevant with respect to whether it is true or not.
    – David
    Oct 31, 2011 at 9:28
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    @AndrewVit Coming from Norway, where a maniac killed 69, mostly youths, with a legal gun in July this year, I completely support stricter gun laws, but on the other hand, I am thinking that there might be good historical reasons for the strong opinions supporting liberal gun laws.
    – David
    Oct 31, 2011 at 10:06
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    @David - Just imagine how many people might have been alive if you didn't have strict gun laws and someone with a gun shot the maniac WAY before he got to 69. Also, not sure about Norway, but in the USA or in Russia getting an illegal gun is not exactly a hard undertaking, so gun control laws don't help from having criminals owning guns.
    – DVK
    Nov 20, 2011 at 2:12
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    What do you mean by "handgun"? I can see an argument for guns small enough to be carried by one person, but restricting it to pistols and the like seems excessive. Feb 20, 2012 at 13:43

5 Answers 5


Democratication came at the hands of improved communications, improved education, the industrial revolution and the agricultural revolution. Not at the hands of cheap weapons.

The invention of the printing press democratised knowledge. Books became significantly cheaper to make and were more widely distributed. It was possible for a wider range of thoughts to be made known. Pamphlets on political subjects were easily printed and widely read. Other advances in communication have increased further this democratisation of information. This makes it easier to mobilise the masses to action. Example, the English Civil War saw rampant propaganda via pamphleteers. The weaponry on both sides was quite similar, both having mounted cavalry, muskets and pikemen.

The Enlightenment in Europe brought improved eduction. People understood complex political systems and had the knowledge to use them to their advantage. Knowledge can be seen as continuing tool of democratisation throughout the developing world. It can be see that as the population's education improves, kings, tyrants and dictators fall and are replaced by more representative systems.

The industrial revolution changed the finances of the world. Countries no longer derived their wealth from the land. Other sources of money meant that other people, than the landed gentry, would have the financial clout to affect the politics of a country.

Agricultural Revolutions changed the balance of power too. People shifted off the land into the cities as the farms were consolidated and mechanised. A feudal system requires a peasantry and after the Agricultural Revolution in the UK, there was little peasantry left. Power shifted to the new cities and to the workers.

A second argument can be made that cheap weapons are available throughout the world today. However, rather than democratise the world, they have been tools of dictatorship and tyranny. In the less developed areas of Africa, South America, and Asia, where the previously stated factors had not yet taken effect, we saw a great many dictators. Throughout the 20th Century, dictators in the third world have used cheap weapons, such as the AK47, to build there empire and stifle democracy.

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    +1 for noting other regions have plenty of cheap weapons but no democracy
    – MichaelF
    Oct 24, 2011 at 19:38
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    In Africa and parts of Latin america, "cheap" handguns are so only for the ruling classes, and not the masses, giving them the dominance enjoyed by "knights." Yes, the industrial revolution was a factor in democracy, and one of those factors was cheap handguns.
    – Tom Au
    Oct 25, 2011 at 12:56
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    @Tom Au - AK-47 and copies of the design can be obtained throughout the world cheaply. Even a farmer in Africa can afford one. To quote wikipedia, 'In some countries, prices for AKs are very low; in Somalia, Rwanda, Mozambique, Congo and Ethiopia, prices are between $30 and $125 per weapon, and prices have fallen in the last few decades due to mass counterfeiting. Moisés Naím observed that in a small town in Kenya in 1986, an AK-47 cost fifteen cows but that in 2005, the price was down to four cows indicating that supply was "immense".' en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AK-47#Illicit_trade Oct 25, 2011 at 14:13
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    Supporting this is the fact that Britain had very, very low personal weapon ownership rates until very recently, yet was one of the words first democracies.
    – Canageek
    Oct 25, 2011 at 21:09
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    Isn't the internet worderful: mongabay.com/images/commodities/charts/beef.html the price of beef in Kenya in 1986 was almost the same as in 2005. Nov 30, 2011 at 4:50

I'm not sure. The democratization in the XIXth century was also due to the increasing power of labour movements, which was not gained by the use of weapons, but by strikes, mostly. When industrialists rule the political system, the labour class doesn't need to shoot - all they need to do to exert influence is collectively refuse to work.

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    I think that 19th century strikes often involved plenty of shooting, though.
    – suriv
    Oct 23, 2011 at 22:53
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    @suriv Yes, but the workers were not doing most of it.
    – quant_dev
    Oct 23, 2011 at 23:22

The rise of democracy and the fall of feudalism are two separate questions, though arguably the latter was a prerequisite for the former.

It is possible that cheap hand guns were a minor factor in either of these, but I doubt it was a major factor. The importance of cavalry in the Middle Ages shouldn't be exaggerated: infantry and archers were usually more plentiful and cheaper to support. Except on a plain, cavalry normally didn't have the advantage, and a good commander wouldn't let his army fight on a plain if the enemy's cavalry was superior. There were always hills and forests and swamps and whatnot, in which cavalry was fair game for archers and couldn't gain the speed required to trample infantry. Of course cavalry could be powerful, but the army with the most knights didn't always win.

The rise and fall of democracy in ancient Athens obviously has nothing at all to do with guns, nor has the rise and fall of the Roman republic.

The "fall" of the feudal system took about a millennium, and there are still vestiges of it in our modern culture. A very important underlying reason why the power of the nobility decreased from the central Middle Ages onwards was the increase in trade and the increasing power and wealth of the cities as compared to the country. The mayors of a wealthy trading port often came to be as powerful as high nobility. Of course circumstances varied across Europe, but I think this is the general picture. I think Rincewind has mentioned some important factors that facilitated or led to democracy.


If we compare the power of weapons that could be used by the state and those that could be used by the guerrillas and militants, we should conclude that the further we go into the past the closer were the means employed by the rebels and the state.

In ancient times people used cold weapons such as sword, lance and shield. Of course the state army usually had superior weapons, but one could use some non-weapon things such as knives or pitchforks or just clubs to counter-act the army.

Once the body armor was developed, it became much more difficult for irregular units to fight the pro-government forces.

The firearms already require special factories, and actually cannot be balanced by the cold weapons. In most countries possession of firearms is prohibited, and even if the rebels have some, they need bullets for them which also require technology to be manufactured. So the army can easily crush any rebellion unless the rebellion is continiously supported by a foreign power or a part of the army.

But the small arms still can be used by the rebels even if they cannot produce them. This is not the case with tanks and planes which require extensive infrastructure and trained personnel to use. With the invention of this kind of weapons the state got unprecedented superiority over any rebels unless they are openly and extensively supported by a technologically advanced power.

With the invention of the nuclear weapons the gap even further increased so now nuclear-possessing countries have ultimate military superiority not only over any rebel forces but also over any non-nuclear state.

That said, any modern army can easily crush any open rebel resistance if it is loyal to the government, the government is not threated by an even more advanced foreign force and the morality questions not considered. This was not the case of Ancient Rome for example, where the government not always was able to defeat a rebellion.

The only possible tactics for rebels now are to disguise themselves as civilians, to incite the military to take their side or to seek a foreign aid.


The availability of weapons to ordinary people has often gone hand in hand with with democratization. Early Greece and Rome were blessed by hilly terrain that allowed yeoman farmers to produce high value added crops like grapes and olives, that could be traded for cheaper wheat and cloth, leaving a surplus for them to buy their own weapons. Plus the fact that their hills were easy to defend against "slave" conscripts of nearby empires. (The following example is my own.)


The invention of the stirrup helped create the feudal system. Once riders could be stabilized in horses, not even Roman-style infantry armies, never mind peasant levies, could stand up to cavalry, meaning that rich knights on horses terrorized poor peasants, forcing them into serfdom.

The feudal system STARTED to break down when better anti-cavalry weapons (halberds and pikes) were developed, and placed in the hands of mountaineers like the Swiss (who also benefited from terrain that was not good for cavalry).

But it was the invention of the cross bow, long bow, and later gunpowder, that led to creation of missile weapons that could penetrate armor, putting ordinary peasants on close to an equal footing with knights. The later development of long-range and "repeating" rifles (and pistols) equalized things further.

It may be no accident that in the U.S., Wyoming was the first state to give women the right to vote. It was also a frontier state with the most guns (pistols) per capita, that put women on the most equal footing with men.

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    You're leaving out crossbows, which were tactically similar to early arquebuses, but required a lot less training than longbows. Feb 20, 2012 at 13:44
  • Added reference to cross bows before long bows.
    – Tom Au
    Mar 18, 2014 at 13:38
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    Cross bows date back to the 6th century BC, at least, and the longbow is even more ancient, dating back into pre-history. Accordingly I doubt their invention was in any way instrumental in the collapse of feudalism. Jan 4, 2017 at 15:45

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