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”, “Barwick constantly compared the weapons with a 12-yard range in mind,” and that Barwick’s argument against the bow “indicates a lack of understanding on aiming an arrow”. 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.
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.