Pequot War: John Mason’s Special Providences

More anecdotes from the Pequot Wars, these from John Mason’s account.

The first demonstrates the low penetrating power of arrows:

I shall mention two or three special Providences that GOD was pleased to vouch safe to Particular Men; viz.two Men, being one Man’s Servants, namely, John Dier and Thomas Stiles, were both of them Shot in the Knots of their Handkerchiefs, being about their Necks, and received no Hurt. Lieutenant Seeley was Shot in the Eyebrow with a flat headed Arrow, the Point turning downwards: I pulled it out my self. Lieutenant Bull had an Arrow Shot into a hard piece of Cheese, having no other Defence : Which may verify the old Saying,
A little Armour would serve if a Man knew where to place it. Many such Providences happened ; some respecting my self ; but since there is none that Witness to them, I shall forbear to mention them.

The second, the power of a musket:

And as we Marched, there were two Indians standing upon a Hill jeering and reviling of us : Mr. Thomas Stanton our Interpreter, Marching at Liberty, desired to make a Shot at them; the Captain demanding of the Indians, What they were? Who said, They were Murtherers: Then the said Stanton having leave, let fly, Shot one of them through both his Thighs; which was to our Wonderment, it being at such a vast distance.

Full text here:

Pequot War: John Underhill’s Landing on Block Island

The Pequot War was a series of small battles fought between the English colonists of New England and the Pequot tribe, 1636-1638. Two of the English captains John Mason and John Underhill, would later write accounts of the war. Of the two, Underhill’s is the more readable and informative.

This section tells of the English militia’s landing at Block Island, 13 miles off the coast of Rhode Island. Note the line, wee gave fire upon them, they finding our bullets to out-reach their arrowes, they fled before us.

But some knowing them for the generality to be a warlike nation, a people that spend most of their time in the studie of warlike policy were not perswaded that they would upon so slender termes forsake the Island, but rather suspected they might lye behind a banke, much like the forme of a Baracado: my selfe with others rode with a Shallop made towards the shore, having in the Boat a dozen armed souldiers drawing neere to the place of landing, the number that rose from behind the Barracado, were betweene 50. or 60. able fighting men, men as straite as arrowes, very tall, and of active bodyes, having their arrowes nockt, they drew neere to the water side, and let flie at the souldiers, as though they had meant to have made an end of us all in a moment; they shot a young Gentleman in the necke thorow a coller for stiffenesse, as if it had beene an oaken boord, and entered his flesh a good depth; my selfe received an arrow through my coate sleeve, a second against my Helmet on the forehead, so as if God in his providence had not moved the heart of my wife to perswade mee to carrie it along with me which I was unwilling to doe, I had beene slaine.

[Here Underhill goes on a long tanget about the treatment of women in the colonies]

But to the matter,the Arrowes flying thicke about us, wee made hast to the shore, but the suffe of the Sea being great, hindered us, so as wee could scarce discharge a Musket, but were forced to make hast to land : drawing neere the shore through the strength of wind, and the hollownesse of the Sea, wee durst not adventure to runne ashore, but were forced to wade up to the middle, but once having got up of our legges, wee gave fire upon them, they finding our bullets to out-reach their arrowes, they fled before us; in the meane while Colonell Hindecot made to the shore, and some of this number also repulsed him at his landing, but hurt none: wee thought they would stand it out with us, but they perceiving wee were in earnest, fled; and left their Wigwams or houses, and provision to the use of our souldiers : having set forth our Sentinels, and laid out our Pardues, wee betooke our selves to the guard, expecting hourely they would fall upon us; but they observed the old rule, ’tis good sleeping in a whole skin, and left us free from an alarum.

John Underhill’s full account of the war is available here:

A Brief Discourse by Humfrey Barwick- Modernized Transcription

Humfrey Barwick’s pamphlet, full title A Breefe Discourse, Concerning the force and effect of all manuall weapons of fire, and the disability of the Long Bowe or Archery, in respect of others of greater force now in vse, is the most important single source of information concerning the bow vs. musket issue. Sir Roger Williams touched on the issue only briefly. Sir John Smythe, a partisan for the retainment of the longbow, wrote a lengthy discourse,  but Smythe’s argument dealt more with the use of bows in ancient battles than contemporary realities. Barwick’s discourse was written particularly to expand on Williams’ arguments and to debunk Smythe.

Barwick was, like Williams, a veteran of the wars in France and the Low Countries. With years of experience in both the bow and the firearm, Barwick is well-qualified to speak on the subject. Barwick firmly takes the position that the musket is technically superior to the longbow, possessing greater range, accuracy and lethality.

Many modern scholars take it as a given that the longbow was superior in all three categories, and additionally that the bow was capable of a far greater rate of shot. They argue that the musket could only have replaced the bow for economic reasons. For example, a lack of quality wood to make bow staves, or musketeers being faster to train. Barwick thus present a major problem to the modern scholar who takes the economic position. The typical response is cite him out of necessity, but then ignore, disparage or outright lie about the content of his discourses.

The worst culprit of this is Thomas Esper, whose award-winning (!) paper, The Replacement of the Longbow by Firearms in the English Army, published 1965, has been cited uncritically in many papers dealing with early modern firearms since. Esper says that “Barwick did not claim that the harquebus had an accurate range greater than 8-10 yards” (lie), “Barwick constantly compared the weapons with a 12-yard range in mind,” (lie) and that Barwick’s argument against the bow “indicates a lack of understanding on aiming an arrow” (Esper thinks he knows better than a man who was raised shooting the longbow). Esper ultimately writes off Barwick as a prejudiced snob.

Esper could expect to get away with this in 1965, when Barwick’s discourses were not widely available. Bow Versus Gun, edited by Ernest Heath, which contained Smythe and Barwick’s discourses, was not published until 1976. Today, Barwick’s discourses are available to everyone with an internet connection.

the_norseman has transcribed and translated the first nine of Barwick’s discourses into modern English (the 10th-18th discourses dealing with miscellaneous military subjects, such as the training and accoutrements of footmen and plans for repelling a Spanish invasion). Click below:

Given that Elizabethan English is very hard to understand and that Humfrey Barwick was not a very good writer, I’ve decided to create a modern transcription or translation of his work. In short what you are getting here is not the original in all of its Elizabethan glory, but my modernisation. I realise this may disappoint some people, but consider that I am writing this to be a source for my online friends.

Musket Accuracy at 80 Yards

My copy of Firearms: A Global History to 1700 by Kenneth Chase has just arrived. Cracking it open near the middle, I landed on the section concerning Guns and Bows. Thankfully, Chase doesn’t repeat the line, common in history books written for a casual audience, that firearms were somehow less effective than bows until the American Civil War.

Chase does, however, compare bows and firearms in terms of reliability, rate of shot, and accuracy.

Chase claims that firearms misfired up to 50% of the time, citing Tallett, War and society in early-modern Europe, p. 23. This assertion is extremely dubious. Nobody would use a weapon that was so unreliable.

Chase then makes a brief comparison of accuracy. Citing page 138 of Saracen Archery, Chase says “The Turkish mamluks were also expected to hit a 38-inch circle at a range of 75 yards with five out of five arrows, and a good archer might hit a target the size of a man on horseback one out of four times at a range of 280 yards.”

By contrast, Chase says that the smoothbore musket “had no chance of hitting a man-sized target at more than 80 yards.”

Really? No chance? Zero percent? Murphey has no problem hitting a smaller than man-sized target dead center at 80 yards:

In a test at the Provincial Armory in Graz, Austria, the muskets were tested at a range of 100 meters (109 yards) against a target 167cm x 30cm, or about the height and width of a short man with no arms. The pistols were tested at 30 meters. The muskets had significantly more than “no chance” of hitting at 100m.

I suspect that period firearms might have even performed better than the results of the Graz test indicate. Three of the muzzleloaders tested were rifled: G 284, RG 272, and STG 1288. Only STG 1288 displayed better accuracy than the smoothbores- but STG 1288 was also the only muzzleloader loaded with a bullet larger than the bore. The report does not mention what sort of wadding or patch was used, if any. Lack of a patch would explain why the rifles provided with sub-caliber bullets didn’t perform better than the smoothbores, as the bullet could not engage the rifling. If the test was really performed without wadding or patch, that is an unfortunate oversight. Also consider, that at the time the Graz tests were performed, the weapons are hundreds of years old. While when the weapons were actually in use on the battlefield, they would have been relatively new. The test writeup mentions that two pieces were rejected because of weakness in the metal. If two pieces had become too dangerous to shoot in the years since they were built, then time, moisture and the notorious corrosivity of black powder residue could have also worn the pieces enough to negatively affect accuracy.

This post deals only with theoretical accuracy against man-sized targets. Tests against targets the size of close-order units, and accuracy under real combat conditions, are another matter.