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.

9 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.

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  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.

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  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.”

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  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).

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  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.

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