History Channel: Bows vs Crossbows vs Guns

This is a pretty silly pop history demonstration- just what one would expect from the History Channel- but still entertaining to see the power of a heavy matchlock musket.

The narrator claims that his longbow can penetrate the final suit of armor at 60 yards, but we won’t know, since he never actually hits any of the armor. With the way that the crossbow shots bounce off without leaving a scratch, it’s doubtful that the longbow would perform too much better.

Sir Roger William’s Briefe Discourse of VVarre: To prooue Bow-men the worst shot vsed in these days.

Sir Roger Williams was a celebrated veteran of the 16th century wars in the Low Countries. In his book Briefe Discourse of Warre, published 1590, one discourse is titled “To prooue Bow-men the worst shot vsed in these days.” In an earlier discourse, Williams details why he considers the musket to be the best shot, superior to the smaller caliver and arquebus. In that earlier discourse, Williams said that a musket was twice as good as a caliver. Williams begins this discourse by saying that he would prefer 500 musketeers to 1,500 archers.

William’s reasons for maligning archery are these:
1. After a few months in the field, archers lose the strength to draw their bows
2. Archers must step out from behind cover to shoot properly
3. Arrows shot at their maximum range of 240-280 yards are not very dangerous (in his earlier discourse Williams puts the maximum lethal range of a musket at 600 yards)

Just as important as what William’s objections are is what they are not. Williams does not make economic arguments, that bows and arrows are more expensive, or that quality bows were becoming rare, or that bowmen are more difficult to train, or any of the other dubious arguments put forth by the modern scholars who consider the bow technically superior to early-modern firearms.

Williams admits that bows can be effective against horses. This concurs with William Garrad’s The Arte of VVarre published 1591: “Our English bowes for want of shot and for necessitie, to gall and disorder a troope of horsemen, drawing neere to them, may serve to verie good purpose, but they must be garded with Pikes or shadowed with shot.” Garrad is not so hostile to archery, but neither soldier can name a use for archers but to injure the mounts of attacking cavalry. Williams points out how even this isn’t very useful. The archers would need to be in an entrenched position, which cavalry would be reluctant to charge, and the archers could be frightened away from their position by the superior firepower of musketeers.

Touching Bow men, I persuade my selfe fiue hundred musketers are more seruicable than fifteene hundred bow-men; from that rate to the greater numbers in all manner of seruices : my reasons are thus, among 5000. Bowmen, you shall not find 1000 good Archers, I meane to shoot strong shoots; let them be in the field 3. or 4. months, hardly find of 5000. scarce 500. able to make any strong shootes. In defending or assayling any trenches, lightly they must discouer themselues to make faire shoots, where the others shot spoile them, by reason they discouer nothing of themselues vnlesse it be a litle through small holes. Few or none do any great hurt 12. or 14. score off, they are not to be compared vnto the other shoots to line battels, or to march, either in the wings of any battailes, or before, as we terme them from the Almaine phrase forlorne hope. Diuers wil say, they are good to spoile the horsmen; I do confesse it, if the horsemen come within their shootes, and can not charge them by reason of their trenches or guards of pikes. Lightly when the horsemen approach within twelue score, the trumpets sound the charge; if it be on shot, that lies where they cannot charge, they are ill conducted that leade any great troup of horsmen to charge trenches. Commonly the Cornets or Guydons charge one an other if there be any of both sides: if not, few horsemen well conducted, will charge either trenches, or battailes of footmen, vnlesse they see a faire entrie, or the footmen begin to shake, as good Captains wil soone perceiue. If they do charge, they will be sure to be well accompanied with small shot, which soone terrifieth bowmen, especially the musketters : besides the horsemen are all well armed, in such sort that Bowmen cannot hurt the men, let them say what they list, when the men are sure the arrowes will not pierce them, they wil be the valianter: although the horses be killed, and the Masters seruice be lost for that day, notwithstanding they thinke it better to be taken prisoner sixe times, than killed once, beside the munition that belongs vnto Bow-men, are not so commonly found in al places, especially arrowes: as powder is vnto the other shot. Also time and ill weather weakneth the bowes aswell as the men. in our ancient wars, our enemies vsed Crossebows, and such shoots; few, or any at all had the vfe of long bowes as we had; wherefore none could compare with vs for shot: but GOD forbid we should trie our bowes with their Muskets and Caliuers, without the like shot to answere them. I do not doubt but al, honorable and others, which haue serued in the Low Countries will say as I doo: notwithstanding some will contrarie it, although they neuer sawe the true triall of any of those weapons belonging eyther to horse or foote, alledging antiquitie without other reasons, saying, we carried armes before they were borne. Little do they think how Caesar ended all his great actions in lesse than twelve yeeres, by their reckoning none could prooue great Captaines that followed him, which began and ended in that time, as Duke D’alua said, the longer experted, the more perfect. True it is, long experience requires age, age without experience requires small Discipline. Therfore we are deceiued, to iudge men expert because they carried armes fortie yeeres, and neuer in action three yeeres, during their liues counting all together.

Some wil say, what discipline could there be seen in the actions of the Ntherlanders and France, counting them ciuil wars: touching the Ntherlanders, the worlde doth know their warres dured 23. yeeres, whithout anie peace, putting all together not 15 months. The wars of France dured 30 yeres: true it is they had often peace, & a long time together: wherefore it cannot be compared vnto the other; notwithstanding, in these actions were imployed all the brauest Nations of Europe, their greatest Captaines, enginers, and counsellors for warre.

Baron Marbot’s Encounter with Mounted Archers at Dresden and Liepzig, 1813

Some people suppose that the only reason muskets replaced bows was the musket’s superior ability to penetrate armor. It is often suggested on various history and video game boards that a line of Napoleonic musketeers, lacking armor, would be annihilated by an equal number of archers, were the two ever to encounter one another. The theory goes that muskets, supposedly possessing inferior accuracy, rate of shot, and range relative to bows, wouldn’t stand a chance. Fortunately, there is no need to debate this on theoretical grounds because Napoleonic troops, did, in fact, have at least one major encounter with archers.

The following passages come from The Memoirs of General the Baron de Marbot. Marbot was an officer of cavalry in Napoleon’s army. In his account of the events before and during the Battle at Liepzig, 1813, Marbot recounts the oddity of men armed with only bows and arrows trying to defeat soldiers armed with musket, lance and saber.

In this first passage, Napoleon’s army is still camped around Dresden when they are attacked by 60,000 Russians, including many mounted archers. Marbot’s description of the bow’s ineffectiveness stand on their own:

During our stay on the plateau of Pilnitz, the enemy, and above all the Russians, received many reinforcements, the main one, led by General Benningsen was of not less than 60,000 men, and was composed of the corps of Doctoroff and Tolstoï and the reserve of Prince Labanoff. This reserve came from beyond Moscow and included in its ranks a large number of Tartars and Baskirs, armed only with bows and arrows.

I have never understood with what aim the Russian government brought from so far and at such great expense these masses of irregular cavalry, who having neither sabres nor lances nor any kind of firearm, were unable to stand up against trained soldiers, and served only to strip the countryside and starve the regular forces, which alone were capable of resisting a European enemy. Our soldiers were not in the least alarmed at the sight of these semi-barbarous Asiatics, whom they nick-named cupids, because of their bows and arrows.

Nevertheless, these newcomers, who did not yet know the French, had been so indoctrinated by their leaders, almost as ignorant as themselves, that they expected to see us take flight at their approach; and so they could not wait to attack us. From the very day of their arrival in sight of our troops they launched themselves in swarms against them, but having been everywhere repulsed by gunfire, the Baskirs left a great number of dead on the ground.

These losses far from calming their frenzy, seemed to excite them still more, for without any order and in all directions, they buzzed around us like a swarm of wasps, flying all over the place and being very hard to catch, but when our cavalry did catch them they effected a fearful massacre, our lances and sabres being immensely superior to their bows and arrows.

Napoleon, amused by the sight of the “cupids”, asked Marbot to capture some so that he could meet them. Marbot did so in an ambush, capturing thirty and killing many more. Napoleon rewarded with the title Baron.

Marbot would encounter horse archers yet again at Liepzig:

Facing a terrible cannonade, and continual attacks, the French line remained steadfastly in position. Towards our left, Marshal Macdonald and General Sébastiani were holding the ground between Probstheyda and Stötteritz, in spite of numerous attacks by Klenau’s Austrians and the Russians of Doctoroff, when they were assailed by a charge of more than 20,000 Cossacks and Baskirs, the efforts of the latter being directed mainly at Sébastiani’s cavalry.

With much shouting, these barbarians rapidly surrounded our squadrons, against which they launched thousands of arrows which did very little damage because the Baskirs, being entirely irregulars, do not know how to form up in ranks and they go about in a mob like a flock of sheep, with the result that the riders cannot shoot horizontally without wounding or killing their comrades who are in front of them, but shoot their arrows into the air to describe an arc which will allow them to descend on the enemy. This system does not permit any accurate aim, and nine tenths of the arrows miss their target. Those that do arrive have used up in their ascent the impulse given to them by the bow, and fall only under their own weight, which is very small, so that they do not as a rule inflict any serious injuries. In fact the Baskirs, having no other arms, are undoubtedly the world’s least dangerous troops.

However, since they attacked us in swarms, and the more one killed of these wasps, the more seemed to arrive, the huge number of arrows which they discharged into the air of necessity caused a few dangerous wounds. Thus, one of my finest N.C.O.s. by the name of Meslin had his body pierced by an arrow which entered his chest and emerged at his back. The brave fellow, taking two hands, broke the arrow and pulled out the remaining part, but this did not save him, for he died a few moments later. This is the only example which I can remember of death being caused by a Baskir arrow, but I had several men and horses hit, and was myself wounded by this ridiculous weapon.

I had my sabre in my hand, and I was giving orders to an officer, when, on raising my arm to indicate the point to which he was to go, I felt my sabre encounter a strange resistance and was aware of a slight pain in my right thigh, in which was embedded for about an inch, a four foot arrow* which in the heat of battle I had not felt. I had it extracted by Dr.Parot and put in one of the boxes in the regimental ambulance, intending to keep it as a memento; but unfortunately it got lost.

You will understand that for such a minor injury I was not going to leave the regiment, particularly at such a critical time…

Marbot’s comment that the archers were “the world’s least dangerous troops” echos Sir Roger William’s description of bowmen as “the worst shot vsed in these days” more than two centuries earlier. The low lethality of wounds inflicted by arrows is consistent with other accounts.

*Tartar arrows are long, but not four feet long. Marbot may be forgiven for overestimating the size of an arrow sticking out of his thigh.