Recusants

While skimming through the Calendar of State Papers, Volume 3, 1591-1594, I found this.

1592?
103. [The Council to the Justice of Peace]. Transmit schedules of recusants in their respective counties; their principle houses they are themselves secretly and suddenly to visit, and take possession of their arms and armour, to be restored to them at such time as they shall dutifully conform themselves to the laws, in resorting to the church. They are to appoint honest persons in like manner secretly to disarm recusants of the meaner sort, leaving fitting proportions of bows and arrows and black bills for defence of their houses. They are to bestow the armour in their own houses till further directions. Any recusant suspected of conveying away armour should be examined on oath. Any recusant not in the schedule is to be proceeded against; the yearly revenues and the value of goods of recusants are also to be impartially certified.

A recusant was someone who refused to attend Anglican services. The imposition of the Anglican religion on England had caused rebellion in the past, and that was why the council confiscated the weapons and armor of the recusants. It is interesting that they were allowed to keep their bows and bills for self-defense. It seems that by 1592 the government had no fear of an uprising of bowmen and billmen against its army of pikemen and musketeers. The rebels of Kett’s Rebellion and the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549 had been made up of mostly bowmen and billmen and they were crushed by a combination of cavalry, pikemen and harquebusiers.

John Smythe on archers at Kett’s Rebellion and the Prayer Book Rebellion

The fiercest advocate of the longbow during the period of the Elizabethan bow vs. gun debates was John Smythe, a nobleman and a cantankerous soldier of long experience. Smythe had first served in France during the short reign of Edward VI, and afterwards had fought in the Netherlands (on the side of the Spanish) and against the Turks in eastern Europe. The first book Smythe wrote in defense of the bow, titled Certain Discourses, based much of its authority on the historical triumphs of archery- biblical, classical, medieval, and a few from Smythe’s own time. Those from the 16th century are the only ones really of interest to us.

Let’s take a look at some of the victories of longbowmen over harquebuzers and musketeers Smythe presents, and then see if we can reconcile them with the historical record.

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Bows Vs. Muskets in the Imjin War, part 2

More incidents from the Imjin War. These are taken from Firearms: A Global History to 1700 by Kenneth Chase. Bizarrely, Chase takes the typical position that bows were a superior battlefield weapon to firearms despite his book being full of evidence to the contrary. This quote by the Korean official Yu Song-nyong, for example, is pretty damning:

In the 1592 invasion, everything was swept away. Within a fortnight or a month the cities and fortresses were lost, and everything in the eight directions had crumbled. Although it was [partly] due to there having been a century of peace and the people not being familiar with warfare that this happened, it was really because the Japanese had the use of muskets that could reach beyond several hundred paces, that always pierced what they struck, that came like the wind and the hail, and with which bows and arrows could not compare.

The Japanese were in agreement that their musketry was a great advantage. One of the Japanese commanders wrote home in 1592:

Please arrange to send us guns and ammunition. There is absolutely no use for spears. It is vital that you arrange somehow to obtain a number of guns. Furthermore, you should certainly see to it that those person departing [for Korea] understand this situation. The arrangements for guns should receive your closest attention.

More from Yu Song-nyong:

However, the musket is a very intricate instrument, and very difficult to produce. The Jixiao xinshu [written by Qi Jiguang in 1560] says one month for boring the barrel is optimal- that is, one musket takes the labor of one person for one month before it is ready for use. The difficulty and expense are like that. In recent days, the muskets used by the supervisorate have all been captured Japanese weapons. There are not many and they frequently burst, becoming fewer by the day.

I wonder why the captured Japanese muskets were bursting. Maybe the Koreans, lacking instructors to teach them how to safely use the muskets, were overloading them with powder or were failing to fully seat the bullet against the powder.

Although the musket is superior to the bow and arrow, it is slow and clumsy when loading powder and shot, lighting the match, and aiming and shooting. As for advancing and withdrawing at will, responding to opportunities with leisure or haste, being convenient for both infantry and cavalry, and being suitable for all situations, then it is not equal to the bow and arrow.

When Yu Song-nyong talks about firearms being inconvenient for cavalry, keep in mind that he is talking about matchlock weapons. In Europe at this time, cavalry firearms were of the far more convenient snaphaunce or wheellock variety.

Today, the Japanese exclusively use muskets to attack fortifications. They can reach [the target] from several hundred paces away. Our country’s bows and arrows cannot reach them. At any flat spot outside the walls, the Japanese will build earthen mounds and “flying towers.” They look down into the fortifications and fire their bullets so that the people inside the fortifications cannot conceal themselves. In the end the fortifications are taken. One cannot blame [the defenders] for their situation.

When the Japanese invaded Korea for the second time, there were more firearms on both sides.

The Japanese vanguard of a hundred or more arrived under the fortifications. They fanned out and took cover in the fields in groups of three and five. They fired their muskets at the top of the fortifications for a while, then stopped. They left and then returned again. The men on the fortifications respond with [Chinese-style] “victory guns,” and the Japanese main body sent out skirmishers from a distance to engage them. They advanced cautiously so the guns fired but did not hit them, while the Japanese bullets hit the men on the fortifications, many of whom fell dead.

The combined Korean and Chinese army launched a failed attack on the Japanese base at Ulsan:

At the foot of the hill were rotting fields; our soldiers had no place to plant their feet. The Japanese used their guns from the loopholes, and every shot struck its target…. If [the besiegers] lay prone the guns could not reach them easily; if they stood up they had to move in a crouch to avoid [being shot]. And those who lay prone suffered from the mud that covered their knees. Night and day they surrounded the fortress, and the ice and snow cracked their skin.

The Japanese commander Asano Yukinaga wrote home to his father:

When the troops come [to Korea] from the province of Kai, have them bring as many guns as possible, for no other equipment is needed. Give strict orders that all men, even the samurai, carry guns.

Christine de Pizan, The Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry, 1410

Christine de Pizan, a French noblewoman, is notable not only for her poetry, but for having written this book on the virtues of martial training. The work is largely based on Vegetius’s De Re Militari, but Christine adds in plenty of commentary unique to the military situation of 15th century France.

Most interesting is her section on archery, as the book was coincidentally written just a few years before the disaster at Azincourt.

Vegetius says that as carrying a sling is very light, it is a very useful thing. It sometimes happens that a battle takes place on stony ground, or that it is necessary to defend a mountain. Even in the assault or defense of a fortress a sling can be very useful. It was formerly held in such high esteem that in some of the Greek islands mothers would not give food to their children until they had struck their meat with a slingshot blow. Along with this they taught them how to shoot with a bow or crossbow. Their teachers instructed them to hold the bow on their right side with the left hand, and then the cord was drawn by the right hand with great force and skill, the arrow near the ear, the heart and eye fixed steadily on the mark and attentively aimed. In this art young Englishmen are still instructed from early youth, and for this reason they commonly surpass other archers. They can hit a barge aimed at from a distance of six hundred feet. Vegetius says that this art must be practiced constantly even by skilled masters, for practice is necessary. Cato says in his book of arms that good archers are very useful in battle. Claudius testifies to this when he says that archers and those trained in throwing darts overcame their enemies with relatively few men; so does the valiant fighter Scipio the African.

It is rare to find a contemporary source which gives quantitative information on just how accurate archers were, or were expected to be. It is not clear if Christine had ever seen an English archer first-hand, or was repeating received knowledge. Nonetheless, it seems reasonable that an experienced archer would be able to consistently hit a “barge” from 200 yards. How big was a medieval barge? Certainly bigger than a man, probably smaller than a formed battalia.

This is practice-range accuracy, however. On the actual battlefield we could expect accuracy to drop precipitously. In the age of musketry, the percentage of bullets which could be expected to hit, both on the practice range and on the battlefield, are well documented. There is scarce information for either on arrows.