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.