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.

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