It was the Bohemians who first showed what gunpowder could do on the battlefield if employed with imagination. Never counted among the martial peoples, the pacifistic Bohemians (Czechs) were inspired to this military prowess by religious fervor and intolerance. By the early 15th century, many Czechs had become adherents of John Huss (1369-1415), a religious reformer who attacked many of the beliefs, practices, and abuses prevelant in the Catholic Church. Huss's teachings have since earned him the reputation of being a sort of proto-Protestant. At the time, however, they merely earned him a burning at the stake as a heretic . Nevertheless, his followers persevered in their "heretical" views, which did little to endear them to the Pope. They then exacerbated things by refusing to recognize the Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund (reigned 1411-1437), as their king upon the death of Wenceslas IV (reigned 1378-1419). The combination of religious heresy and political rebellion was too much for the established authorities. In 1420 Pope Martin V (reigned 1417-1431) proclaimed a crusade against the Hussites.
Vast knightly armies were mobilized and sent into Bohemia, only to find themselves confronted by one of the most innovative and successful military systems of all time, the "wagenburg" (wagon-fort). This system was the product of the tactical genius of Ian Zizka (1359?-1424), who was the first general to win battles using gunpowder. A seasoned professional soldier, the one-eyed Zizka developed a military system based on the use of large, stoutly built wagons. This was a technique he had learned in Eastern Europe, which Zizka supplemented by extensive use of firearms, including both cannon and infantry small arms, plus a discipline not seen since Roman times. Zizka's basic strategy was to move offensively, but to fight defensively. The army, with hundreds of wagons, advanced in parallel columns across country, covered by a small contingent of cavalry scouting ahead. When a suitable defensive position was found, the wagons were chained together into a sort of fort, with the cavalry and draft animals held in the center. While some of the troops dug a ditch around the outer edge of the fort, others used heavy timbers to close all intervals, including the spaces under the wagons. Zizka's artillery, which was mounted on wheeled carts, was sometimes placed between wagons, but more frequently held in the interior of the wagon fort, emplaced on mounds of earth so they could fire over the wagons. Pikemen, crossbowmen, and handgunmen filled the wagons and the intervals, using their weapons through loopholes. Once ready, and a wagon-fort could be erected in relatively short order, Zizka's cavalry would sortie, provoking the enemy to attack, and then beat a hasty retreat into the safety of the wagon-fort. As the enemy came on, Zizka's crossbows, handguns, and cannon would let loose, keeping up the fire until the attack faltered or smashed up against the wagon wall, where the pikemen confronted them. When this happened, Zizka would counterattack with his pikes and cavalry, with the usual result that the enemy would be driven from the field.
Zizka, who eventually was blinded in his good eye as well, was unbeatable. He campaigned extensively in Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary, and Eastern and Southern Germany, even reaching the Baltic. Victory followed upon victory, as Hussite armies, which were composed primarily of peasants and burghers, repeatedly defeated knightly hosts many times their number. Zizka's enemies were never able to cope with his tactics. So succesful was he that when he died, his skin was used to top a drum so that he could continue to lead his armies to victory.
Zizka's military system was never defeated. But it was by no means unbeatable. The moving columns of wagons were vulnerable to raids and ambushes. The wagenburg was extremely vulnerable if attacked before it was properly established, and once established remained vulnerable to artillery fire. In addition, the system was unsuited to the tactical offensive. In order for it to work the enemy had to attack. Finally, the entire system was unsuited to any terrain which was not essentially a relatively open plain. That the foes of the Hussites never defeated them had much to do with their unwillingness to change their tactics, for they relied almost exclusively upon the charge of the men-at-arms, which was the least effective way to cope with Zizka's system.
Altogether his unique military system proved successful in over 30 battles. But if Zizka's enemies could not defeat his system, his friends could destroy it. Religious and political disputes fragmented the Hussite cause. Zizka's successors engaged in suicidal civil wars. By 1436 the Hussite wars were over, Sigismund reigned in Prague and the country returned to the bosom of the Church. Thus, despite its remarkable success, Zizka's system was a military dead-end. Save for its useful contribution to the evolution of the handgun, the system had little influence on military art and science.