English Books on Bow vs. Musket Issue

Here is, I hope, an exhaustive list of every published English writer who commented on the bow vs. musket debate up until the start of the English Civil War. Included is a short summary of their position and a link, if available, to a transcription.


Barnabe Riche, A Right Exelent and Pleasaunt Dialogue, 1574

“The shotte shall be able to preiudice the Archer, who shal not be able to shoote halfe the grounde towardes him agayne. Farther when the Shotte shal take advantage almost in everi ground to shrowd himselfe, where the Archer must remaine an open mark uppon the plaine or els to occupy his Bow to smal efect…. Archers maye do verye good seruice, althoughe it be not to incounter with shotte.”



Thomas Styward, The Pathwaie to Martiall Discipline, 1582

“These bands of archers being brought to service by the callevers, although that the callevers be counted to be of greater force then they be of, & the archers be not used in the field so much as they have bene, yet having light shafts made to shoot 12, or 14, score, may kepe their place shooting altogither over the heads of the caleevers, to the blemishing and very great anoie of the enemie.”



Roger Williams, Briefe Discourse of Warre, 1590

“Bow men [are] the worst shot used in these days…  I persuade my selfe five hundred musketers are more serviceable than fifteene hundred bow-men.”



John Smythe, Certain Discourses, 1590

“The Long Bowes (which our such men of warre have so much condemned) being in the hands of such soldiers Archers as can well use them, are weapons of singular advantage and effect for battailes and great encounters, both against horsemen and footmen, and chieflie being so evill armed, as all Nations in these our daies both on horsebacke and on foot are, because that the Bowe is a weapon wonderfull readie in all seasons, both of faire & foule weather (which Mosquets and Harquebuzes are not) and doth wound, gall and kill both horses and men, if the arrowes doo light upon anie disarmed parts of them.”



Thomas Digges, An Arithmetical Warlike Treatise Named Stratioticos, 1590

Not to be confused with Digges’s 1579 book, An Arithmetical Militarie Treatise

“If I should place any weapon within the bodie of my battaile but Pikes onely, it should be long bowes, who may in deede when the Pikes are couched, play over their heads upon their enimies faces w’out any danger to their fellowes, which no other shot in truth can wel do, but Bowes only.”

No free transcription available


William Garrard, The Arte of Warre, 1591

“The Archer serves to small purpose, but when he is shadowed with some Trench or Bulwarke free from harabuse or musket shot: In that lying a band of Hargabusiers, he doth second them in any invading onset, and then a whole flight of Arrowes, so that they be light and able to flie above twelve score, will mercilously gaule any maine battaile of footmen or Squadron of horsmen…. Unless necessitie constraine, and that harabusiers be wanting, Archers may well be spared.”


Gyles Clayton, The Aprooved order of Martiall discipline, 1591

“Wee use not the weapons which hath beene used in olde time, as Cros-bowes, long bows, black Billes, with such other like weapons.”



Matthew Sutcliffe, The Practice, Proceedings, and Lawes of armes, 1593

“Archers in assaults, and defence of townses cannot do like service to mosquetiers, and calivers, for neyther can they hit so right, nor so mortally. In pight fields I thinke them nothing inferiour to them [In fixed battlefields I think bows are not inferior to firearms], for being armed with jackes, as they shoulde bee, when they come to gripes, they drive the shot to his feete, and shooting manie rankes one over an others head twelve arrowes shall fall before one boullet”

No free transcription.


Humfrey Barwick, A Breefe Discourse, 1594

“I never sawe any slaine out right with an arrowe, and but with Quarels few, but with Harquebuze and Pistoll shot, I have been at severall times, where 20000. hath beene slaine outright, besides manie wounded and maimed.”

This is the most famous anti-archery tract, and also the most detailed, with the sole exception of the two books here by Barnabe Riche.



John Smythe, Certen instructions, observations and orders militarie,  1594

This book is much longer than Smythe’s previous work, and he goes into much greater detail of how he would wish his hypothetical archers to be commanded and deployed. Smythe also proposes a plan for equipping mounted crossbowers and archers.



R.S., A Briefe Treatise, To prooue the necessitie and excellence of the vse of archerie, 1596

This small pamphlet is not very interesting as it merely summarizes the arguments of John Smythe, quoting him at length.

Access to the transcription requires a login.



Barnabe Riche, A Martial Conference, 1598

Riche revisits the bow vs. gun issue after 24 years. In that time, he has become even less charitable towards the bow. Although Riche goes into as much depth as Smythe and Barwick, unfortunately this work has received no attention, despite being a more enjoyable read due to Riche’s many comedic asides.

“With three or foure hundred musketiers they would displace two thousand Archers, and without any manner of danger to themselves, by reason of their farre shooting.”

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Robert Barret, The Theorike and Practike of Moderne Warres, 1598

“They may shoot thicke, but to small performance, except (as I said) upon naked men or horse. But should there be led but eight hundred perfect hargubusiers, or sixe hundred good musketiers against your thousand bowmen, I thinke your bowmen would be forced to forsake their ground… and moreover a vollie of musket or hargubuze goeth with more terrour, fury, and execution, then doth your vollie of arrowes.”



Barnabe Riche, The Fruites  of long Experience, 1604

This is sort of a second part to A Martial Conference, and Riche does not go into as much length on the longbow debate as he did in his previous book, choosing instead to focus on other military matters.

“For our ancient English weapon the Long-bow, I am sure there be manie that would gladlie maintaine the excellency of theat… yet for my part I could wish they were but half so effectual as some ignorant men would willingly persuade.”


John Bingham, Tactics of Aelian, 1616

“And surely it may not bee denied, that the force of fireweapons of our time doth farre exceed the height of all old inventions for anoyeng the enemy. And, when I have given them the first place, I will not doubt to give the second to bowes and arrowes being so farre from casting them of, that I would rather follow the wisdome of the Graecians; whoe albeit they esteemed arrowes the best flieng weapons, yet thought it not amisse to hold in use slinges, and dartes.”



William Neade, The Double-Armed Man, 1625

Neade invented a bow which could be fastened onto a pike. That way, the pikemen would have something to do while the musketeers were shooting at each other. Effectively, bowmen could be added to the brigade without reducing the number of pikes or muskets. The concept was embraced by King Charles I.

“Wheresoever the Pike or the Musket are servicable, there will the bow be servicable also. Besides, in raine or moist weather the Bow is usefull: Also with our showers of arrowes we can shoot into any Towne, Castle, Fort or Trench, as likewise to shoot fire-workes.”

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Thomas Kellie, Pallas Armata, 1627

“This Bow is verie steadable in warlike service, and although the use thereof is almost quite extinguished by the furious execution which the Musquet appeareth to make, yet I will prove it to surpasse the Musquet in manie respects.”

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Anon, A New Invention of Shooting Fireshafts in Long-bowes, 1628

The author argues that the practice of armoring pikemen was wasteful, as armor couldn’t stop a musket bullet, and pikes almost never encountered one another in those days. Money saved on corslets could instead be spent on longbows to shoot fireworks, which the author argues would be more useful, as they could support the musketeers by shooting over their heads.

“I seek not to perswade the use of Bowes in steed of Guns, but that by due accouplement of both, ore hands might in lesse roome bee brought to fight at once; a part of chiefest excellence in marshalling of men.”


William Neade, Obiections against the vse of the bovv vvith the pike: and the answers thereunto, 1630

I haven’t gotten a look at this one yet. It would be interesting to know what the objections to the double-armed man concept were. Whatever they were, there must have been some validity to them, as the double-armed man saw very little service.

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Gervase Markham, The Art of Archerie, 1634

By this time England had completely replaced the smaller harquebuses and calivers with the larger and more powerful muskets. Markham wished that bows be reintroduced to fill the role which harquebuses once had, to wing the muskets as the muskets winged the pikes.



William Barriffe, Military discipline, 1635

“Notwithstan∣ding, if one halfe of them had bowes fastened unto their Pikes (being able and well practised men) they might, whilest the Muskettiers are in firing, be dealing of their doles about: and although their arrowes did not happen to wound mortally, yet the whisteling noyse, the terrour of the sight, and the severall hurts (which could not chuse but be many) would be a great abatement to the stoutest courages.”


7 thoughts on “English Books on Bow vs. Musket Issue

  1. Great work! Very interesting to see all of it at once. If only someone would do the same for non-English view on crossbows (I haven’t seen any contemporary treatise with discussion of crossbow vs musket, but I guess there should have been something…)


  2. Thank you for the comment, Averrones. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog in the past and it’s a pleasant surprise to know that you’ve seen mine.

    There are a few comments on crossbows which I know of. Of course it isn’t anywhere near as much as the longbow debate got in England, since nobody had as much of an emotional attachment to their crossbows as the English did to their longbows.

    When comparisons are made between firearms and crossbows, same arguments are used as for vertical bows. Crossbows and vertical bows are often even mentioned in the same sentence.

    John Smythe in his 2nd book, Certen Instructions, argues at some length that mounted crossbowers and archers are superior to petronels and pistoliers. He does not make any distinction between the crossbowers and archers to indicate if he believes one superior to the other, or give any explanation of why he wanted both instead of one or the other.

    Sir Roger Williams says that “In our ancient wars, our enemies vsed Crossebows, and such shoots; few, or any at all had the vse 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.”

    A French writer, Fourquevaux, writing 1548, speaks favorably of bows and crossbows and advocates retaining a small number. Like Smythe, no distinction is made between bows and crossbows. His arguments are typical: bows and crossbows are more reliable, especially in wet weather. Bows and crossbows are “readier in shooting” and more accurate. Although they have a shorter range than harquebuses they can still kill unarmored or poorly armored men within 100 or 200 paces. Fourquevaux thinks that bowmen and crossbowmen could beat twice their number of harquebuzers at short range. Nonetheless when he describes his ideal army 90% of the ranged troops are harquebusers.

    A modern historian, Sean Machlachan, writes this Medieval Handgonnes: “Chroniclers report that one of the main advantages of handgonnes was that they caused panic in the ranks of the Tatars, the Russian’s worst enemy. Often a volley would send the Tatars running before they even had a chance to close. The handgonne’s greatest victory came in 1480 at the river Ugra, where the Musocvites arrayed a large number of cannon and arquebuses and drove the Tatars off the river bank, forcing an early end to their planned invasion. This battle was the first step in overthrowing Tatar domination over Russia. handgonnes had become so effective that the last mention of the crossbow being used as a weapon of war in Russia was in 1486.”

    Cockle, in the introduction of his Bibliography of English Military Books up to 1642, says that a MS by Lampo Birago “which was written in 1454, is the earliest known treatise exclusively on artillery, and contains an interesting comparison between the crossbow and the hand-gun*. Like [Paolo] Santini’s it has never been printed.
    *Promis. Santini, in 1452, uses the same arguments in favour of the bow as Smythe uses in 1590.” I have tried to find these two manuscripts, without any luck. An Italian speaker who tried to help said that they aren’t to be found anywhere online.


  3. Thank you!

    Unfortunately, my primary (legal) job and family duties do not leave me time to continue with my history blog, but I have your blog in RSS reader, so I follow every post with great interest.

    It surprises me that bows and crossbows are often mentioned together in the debate vs firearms. Late medieval crossbows with steel bows were quite complex and powerful mechanisms, so one would expect difference in how they were used compared to light crossbows or bows. There is a good article by Baumgartner on French reluctance to adopt firearms in the beginning of the 16th century due to preference of crossbows (published in Heirs of Archimedes book which I heartily recommend). However, little can be found in contemporary sources on how these crossbows were used in battles compared to the firearms. Overall, it is true that crossbows are not studied today as well as longbows…

    As for the Russian army, it is true that crossbows did not see much usage in Russia, but bows were widespread (composite ‘eastern’ type). Ugra battle is an example of using firearms to defeat the enemy while they were crossing fords on the river. Even though firearms and light artillery began to be used in great numbers in the 15th century by the infantry in defensive battles, it was not enough. Large numbers of archers were used in infantry even in the end of the 16th century, while constant opposition with nomadic enemies required the army to put main focus on fast cavalry, so mounted archery was in vogue even in the 17th century. In the 17th century the government began to require feudal cavalry to be armed with firearms, and finally it led to true superiority over Tatars. But there were no attempts to argue for bows vs firearms: the issue was the price, not the usefulness of rearmament.


  4. In response to Averrones point:

    The Russian empire continued to make use of mounted archers into the 19th century, with their irregular cavalry the Bashkirs, Kalmyks, Kazakhs, Cossacks (who did sometimes use bows even then), etc.. It thus seems odd to suggest arming cavalry with guns in the 17th century would lead to dominance over the Tartars, since awards were given and songs sang in honour of the irregulars, who marched into Paris. While the Bashkirs were slandered by Marbot in this conflict, the Kalmyks were reported to have fought to great effect, as well as in the Northern War against Sweden, where they defeated cavalry and infantry regiments, at one point taking 300 Swedish rifles as trophies.

    Sources: http://www.kalmykia.net/2016/hells-devils-how-russias-steppe-warriors-took-on-napoleons-armies/#more-6711 , https://www.kalmykiatour.com/2008/kak-kalmyckie-vojska-pomogli-petru-velikomu/

    Meanwhile in the Americas, Francis Parkman noted that around 1800, the Comanches and settlers were realizing the bow was superior to the gun for mounted hunting of buffalo, abandoning their muskets and pistols (which also says a lot for the killing power of the bow). The Comanches won many victories against the settlers with their bows as well, until the invention of repeating firearms (which the Comanches adopted, winning more victories). It was also noted that Cossack gunners could not hit Tartar horse-archers from their skirmishing range, while they had to take cover from their arrows, as told by Guillaume Levasseur.

    So I expect the parallel you draw between Russian cavalry using firearms and defeat of the Tartars is a false correlation. Rather, it seems Russia’s growing industry which allowed them to produce more firearms was itself an effect of growing victory against the Tartars, rather than the introduction of firearms to cavalry leading to a victory. Additionally, artillery likely played a bigger role than personal weapons did.


  5. >>>the Kalmyks were reported to have fought to great effect, as well as in the Northern War against Sweden, where they defeated cavalry and infantry regiments, at one point taking 300 Swedish rifles as trophies.
    Just because of the bows?

    >>>Meanwhile in the Americas, Francis Parkman noted that around 1800, the Comanches and settlers were realizing the bow was superior to the gun for mounted hunting of buffalo, abandoning their muskets and pistols (which also says a lot for the killing power of the bow).
    Mounted hunting?

    >>>The Comanches won many victories against the settlers with their bows as well, until the invention of repeating firearms (which the Comanches adopted, winning more victories). It was also noted that Cossack gunners could not hit Tartar horse-archers from their skirmishing range, while they had to take cover from their arrows, as told by Guillaume Levasseur.
    This allows for multiple options.


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