Bows Didn’t Outrange Muskets

Myth 1: Bows outranged muskets

Bows and muskets co-existed on the battlefield for hundreds of years and during that time, there were plenty of battles between the two weapons. This blog was started mainly for the purpose of cataloging eye-witness accounts of those battles. There are some common threads running through all these accounts, facts and eyewitness opinions that keep coming up, and one of the strongest is this: in every case where one weapon is said to outdistance the other, it is the musket which has the range advantage.

I have not found a single instance of a battle where the musketeers were unable to return fire because the archers outranged them. This true of battles everywhere in the world. Some examples:

Capt. John Underhill of the Massachussets colony made a contested landing on Block Island in 1646, enduring a spray of arrows from the Pequot warriors on the  beach. Upon making it to the shore, Underhill reported that the Pequot were forced to retreat by the greater range of the New Englanders’ muskets.

…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… [Link]

Captain John Smith had a similar experience decades earlier while navigating his shallop on the Chesapeake Bay. Eight canoes of Indians attacked, lodging over a hundred arrows in his boat and his men’s shields. None of the English were hurt, and they were able to force the Indians to abandon first their canoes and then the river shore.

Our Muskets they found shot further then their Bowes, for wee made not twentie shot ere they all retyred behind the next trees. [Link]

In Europe, the most famous archers by far were the English and their longbows. Virtually all extant longbows come from the Mary Rose, an English warship which sank in 1545. A French soldier named Blaize de Montluc left an interesting account in his memoirs regarding a battle he fought against English archers a few days after the Mary Rose sank. Montluc’s soldiers were outnumbered, but they were not worried about the English archers- the Italian harquebusiers supporting them were the real threat. Montluc ordered his own harquebusiers “not to shoot, till they came within the distance of their arrows,” and then, “so soon as they were come up within arrow shot, our Harquebuzeers gave their volley all at once, and then clapt their hands to their swords,” and ran the English archers off the field. Montluc remarks:

They all carried arms of little reach, and therefore were necessitated to come up close to us to loose their arrows, which otherwise would do no execution; whereas we who were accustomed to fire our Harquebuzes at a great distance, seeing the Enemy use another manner of sight, thought these near approaches of theirs very strange, imputing their running on at this confident rate to absolute bravery. [Link]

The English were not slow to notice that their national weapon had been outclassed by modern firearms. Barnabe Riche, a warrior poet who had the distinction of living to be the oldest captain in the English military, spilled more ink that anyone else in his time on the bow vs. musket topic, and was the first to opine in a published work in 1574, where he argued:

I dare undertake that if one hundred of those thousande [archers] doo shoote above ten score [200], that ii hundred of the rest, wyll shoote shorte of ix score [180], and is not this a piece of advantage thinkest thou ? when every Calyver that is brought into the feelde wyl carry a shot xviii score [360] and xx score [400], and every Musquet xxiiii [480] and xxx score [600]. [Link]

Some of the fiercest bow vs. musket combat occurred during the Imjin War, a Japanese attempt to invade China by first passing through Korea, which lasted from 1592-1598. When the war began, the Japanese had large numbers of muskets and were well-trained in their use. Chinese handguns were mostly still of the pipe-on-a-stick variety, and the Koreans lacked muskets at all. A Korean minister who was there at many of the battles, Ryu Seong-ryong, wrote a book about the invasion known as the Book of Corrections.

After a short while a number of enemy soldiers suddenly emerged and started attacking us with ten or more muskets. The ones hit by the bullets were killed instantly. Yi immediately ordered the archers to counterattack using their bows, but their arrows fell far short of their target. [Link]

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. [Link]

If anybody can find an example of a battle where musketeers were helpless to fight back against archers who outranged them, please let me know! Right now, the evidence seems pretty clear that that musketeers always had the range advantage.

20 thoughts on “Bows Didn’t Outrange Muskets

  1. Thank you for your invaluable research. I don’t know what it is about bows (maybe it’s the romanticism of it all) that makes people forego all common sense, ignore the historical record and rule that every single king and military leader from the military revolution onwards was a complete idiot who was hell-bent on making his armies les effective, even at the cost of bankrupting the nation through the procurement of increasingly expensive military equipment (which also happened to be inferior, because reasons). Contributions like yours may be a voice in the desert, but they help correct the record when confronted with this kind of attitudes.


  2. Thanks Mike. People have been ill-served by pop historians for decades on this topic and the primary sources have only become widely available through the internet recently. Hopefully most people will be willing to reevaluate in the face of evidence.


  3. This is less maximum range and more an example of the musket having a superior accurate range in combat. It comes from William Bernard’s account of fighting in the First Opium War, “The Nemesis in China”.

    “On this occasion one of the Chinese officers, with cool determination and a steady aim, deliberately discharged four arrows from his bow at Captain Hall, fortunately without effect. Had they been musket-balls, however, he could scarcely have escaped. A marine instantly raised his musket at the less fortunate chinese officer: the aim was unerring and he fell.”


  4. It’s not specifically an issue of range, but at the skirmish at Bridgnorth in 1642 during the English civil war a party of Parliamentarian archers was able to to drive off a body of Royalist musketeers.

    Without necessarily disagreeing with your central premise here, I would like to point out that the sources relating to English archers all come at a time when archery was known to already have been in decline for a couple of generations. We know too little about bows in the heyday of military archery to really be sure of anything, but if it were possible to compare the bow of 1415 with the musket that the result might be different (or might not).


  5. I know this is old but you wanted to know about situations when bows had greater range than firearms. Well, first – English bowmen weren’t commonly known to be the best archers in Europe. Maybe in the west. In the central and east Europe the most feared and effective archers were Tatars. Now to the point – marquise Guillaume Levasseur de Beauplan during his stay in Ukraine in 1637-1638 travelled with Zaporhozian Cossacks and often in his memorials he writes about battles and skirmishers with Tatars. During these battles Cossacks were unable to shot Tatar riders with firearms but Tatars could freely shoot with their bows. Maybe you’ll have time to read something more about this.

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  6. Shockwave- thank you, I hadn’t heard of Guillaume Levasseur de Beauplan. I’m having a hard time sourcing an affordable English translation of his book. Running the French edition through a translator, he seems to have the usual compliments regarding the Tatar archer’s range and accuracy, but I don’t see a comparison with firearms or anywhere where he says that the bows outranged them. But again, that is with me trying to parse google translator and I may be missing something. Can you point me to a specific quote?

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  7. Thank you for your research and the time you take to publish on this website. Echoing Mike’s comment above, yours is a refreshingly thoughtful take on the subject.


  8. I think the real issue here is the LETHAL range of bow versus musket. Yeah, a bow could send an arrow hundreds of yards away. But to what effect? Could it slam an arrow into a human body at that range with enough force to cause serious harm? Probably not. On the other hand, musket balls-although inaccurate beyond a hundred yards, could still kill at far greater distance. And that is what really matters as most battles soldiers are not aiming at individual targets but at enemy masses of men a long distance off. This is true even to this day.


  9. “Several times I have encountered Tatars among the steppes. There were over 500 of them. But under the cover of the wagons, they could not do anything against us, although there were only 50–60 cossacks with me. We could not do anything to them either, because they did not approach the distance of the musket shot. Having made several feigned attempts to attack us, they showered our positions with arrows, as they send their arrows in the arc, twice the distance of our weapons, they retired.”

    Guillaume Le Vasseur de Beauplan – ” “Description d’Ukranie”

    Of course the arrows shot at the Cossacks were of no effect because they were taking shelter inside their wagon fort, nor would it be very precise as to be able to hit a person because of its arcing trajectory. But had the Cossacks not been in a wagon fort but formed an infantry square in the open, I wonder how the encounter would have turned out?

    “And as the power of an arrow compared to muskets are lacking in two quarters compared to muskets, it is not a technology we can respond to. The Pyeonjeon (or a “baby arrow”, a type of short korean war arrow; it’s noted for it’s exceptional range of 300~500 meters range and high penetration at close ranges even against armor) of our country has an advantage when shooting long distances, where with one arrow it can kill two men at 30~40 bo, kill one man at tens to a hundred bo, and still hit and injure a man at over a hundred or two hundred bo. Thus, we can still match the muskets of the Waejuk(Japanese). But there are not many who can do this in our country, and other than those applying to become military officials(擧子) there are few capable men, and thus we cannot rely on this skill alone as the proper way to defeat the enemy.”

    – Jeong Tak, Korean scholar official during the Imjin War –

    So it seemed that very skilled archers were capable of matching the range of musketeers, but their numbers were few. Here Jeong Tak mentioned that only the noble military class, who had the leisure time to practice archery for years, could achieve that level of skill.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you John. This Ukrainian episode is the first instance I have seen of bows outranging muskets on the battlefield. It makes sense that it would be a steppe bow, if any. My understanding is that the steppe composite recurve bow is the most energy-efficient pre-modern bow.


  11. In the 17th century, the Crimean warriors rarely entered into perestrulka at a distance against infantry and cavalry armed with firearms, preferring to attack melee using their numerical superiority.
    In the 18th century, archery against infantry and cavalry in open areas was completely useless. As a rule, the Tatars were thrown back with fire from muskets, or the Tatars immediately went hand-to-hand if they had a multiple numerical superiority.
    In addition, it should be said that the upper class in the Crimean society was armed with firearms. Bows were used only by ordinary warriors from the peasant militia.

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  12. Regarding cossacks vs tatars, it is worth noting that the quality of weapons among cossacks could be all over the place. It doesn’t have to be a musket vs bow. Heavy-ish western musket were not that popular among cossacks (and were harder to get) – so it could be a case of slightly worse firearms or gunpowder.

    So it may be an example of substandard equipment. It is also possible that cossacks would be using less gunpowder per shot (to conserve it, it did happen when facing unarmoured opponents) limiting their effectiveness – there is a description of battle between Wakou pirates and Spanish were spaniards were bulletproof because their opponents customary used less gunpowder per shot (used to facing softer targets)

    Another possibility is of course that it is shortening if actual event – Tatars were out of range of both weapons, at times would rapidly close in, release arrows and move outside before cossacks had the time to fire, and it got a bit shortened in the description (admittedly a bit stretching here).


  13. I think one issue that is often overlooked and has added to the myth that bows can outrange or at least match the range of early firearms is the issue of terrain.

    Bows have a naturally higher arc of trajectory and were used with this in mind, lobbying arrows over frontline soldiers or from concealed positions.

    Whereas muskets have a much more linear trajectory. it is almost impossible to shoot over your advancing troops and require relatively flat land or high ground to maximize range.

    Also, the sound and visuals of the musket fire were often enough to break ranks in the early years of gunpowder. If you are an archer and are told to stand toe to toe and shoot at a target that can create thunder and breath fire, I imagine that even if he was in range it would be hard to muster the courage to fight like that.


  14. The thing is, which weapon out-ranges the other is highly dependent on the skill of the shooter.

    European Harquebusiers and the Japanese were very skilled, but the musketeers of the 18th and early 19th were dirt-cheap soldiers who sometimes got as little as TWO SHOTS of practice ammunition (most armies seemed to use six, while the British gave 30)…. Thus, in an early 19th century Prussian test, against a 1.88x31m board (about the size of an infantry block), they found their troops were hitting the target about half the time at ~75m… using RIFLES. The better rifles could hit the target 3/4s of the time, at that range. The British managed about the same with the Brown Bess, against a wall the size of a block of cavalry. And to compare, you can hit a single man-sized target with a recurve bow at about 100m, with just a couple years’ practice…. So clearly, Musketeers are NOT going to be picking off men at ranges of hundreds of meters…. Once you figure those statistics, then mathematically and logically the side which can actually hit what it aims at will be better off.

    That said, it’s not that the bow was useless the moment skilled gunners were present. It was kept around until the 19th century because of its value as a horseback weapon (consider your other account, of the Joseon horsearchers driving the Japanese from the field), with its mixture of rate of fire and range filling a niche until 19th century breech-loading rifles. The Ming actually developed breech-loaders in the 17th century, along with bayonets, but these weren’t good enough to defeat the Qing.

    So, I figure the answer to the topic is a lot more nuanced than “gun good, bow bad,” or the reverse. Really, the answer is utterly simple: Men win wars, not weapons. That’s why the Kalmyks, Joseon, Comanches, Turks, and the Manchus defeated gun-toting forces in various skirmishes, battles, and even wars.


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