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]

Other writers, namely Humfrey Barwick and Roger Williams, agreed with Riche’s range estimates. I think that they are probably overgenerous.

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.

 

From the comments:

“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”

The composite bow of the kind used by the Tatars is widely regarded as the most energy-efficient pre-20th century design. I have seen many sources claim a maximum range of something like 400 yards using light arrows. Still it seems that although the Tatars could launch a projectile this distance, it was too far for them to hit anything, and they gave up despite outnumbering the cossacks 10:1.

“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 –

In another incident in the Book of Corrections, a small group of Japanese musketeers were able to hit Korean officials from a long distance across a river. I think it was the Taedong river, which is very wide. The Japanese musketeers were shocked when a Korean officer using the small arrows described above was able to match their range, although without hitting any of them.

 

51 thoughts on “Bows Didn’t Outrange Muskets

  1. another source ive been given about the expected effective range of bows vs firearms is a early ming dynasty manual, apparently pre 1400s
    of a formation of 100 men,
    40 spearmen
    20 saber & shield men
    30 archers
    10 handgunners

    the handgunners were told to fire at 100 paces
    the archers at 50 paces,
    the other soldiers engage at 20 paces
    this manual is quite early, in early 1400s we’re talking barrel on a stick style handguns, not the long barrelled arquebus style firearm.. and yet…

    Like

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