Myth 2: Muskets replaced bows because musketeers are easy to train
For the sake of clarifying my position and including new supporting research, this post was updated June 20th, 2020.
Or, as internet commentators like to say, it took years, even decades, of training to make a decent archer, but any peasant could be trained to use a musket in a few hours. The idea that muskets were bad weapons that only replaced bows because musketeers were easy to train appears to have originated with Prof. Michael Roberts’ theory of a 17th-century military revolution in the 1950s. Like the myth that bows outranged muskets, the idea that musketeers replaced archers because they were easy to train is completely contradicted by the evidence.
Roberts’ opinion on musket training is summarized by David Eltis in The Military Revolution in Sixteenth Century Europe (page 19) thusly:
Besides claiming that firearms were inefficacious in the sixteenth century, Professor Roberts also argued that they made training simpler and more economical. Roberts held that the bow was a weapon superior to the sixteenth-century firearm…
In fact, sixteenth-century arquebusiers, musketeers, and pikemen required considerable training to operate with effect, as did pistol-armed cavalrymen. Even those contemporaries who were sceptical of the superiority of firearms over the bow believed that firearms needed experienced owners if they were to be used to advantage. None of them argue that the new weapons economised on training.
The phase-out of bows from the English military in the 16th century inspired many military writers to opine on the advantages and disadvantages of each weapon, and whether the bow still had some use or if it should be set aside completely. Some of these authors, particularly John Smythe, Humfrey Barwick and Barnabe Riche, went into exhaustive detail. The authors hotly discuss issues such as lethality, range, accuracy, reliability, rate of shot, psychological effects of shot, and so on. But not once, not a single time, from either side of the debate, is quick or cheap training mentioned as an advantage of firearms. Check for yourself: I have made what I believe to be an exhaustive list of every published English-language commentary on bows vs. muskets in the 16th century. What we find is the opposite: a firm, repeated emphasis on the need for soldiers to be well-trained, and especially those carrying firearms.
I enjoy shooting with both muskets and bows and I want to make clear that I am not arguing that bows are easy to aim- muskets are far easier. Even after many thousands of shots with my bows I am still more accurate with a musket. A musket ball flies fairly straight and level for the first 50-80 yards and can easily and consistently hit man-sized targets at these distances. A musket usually has a front sight and many 16th and 17th century examples had both front and rear sights, but even without any sights it is possible to roughly aim by looking down the length of the barrel. Modern compound bows are complex machines that can hit targets hundreds of yards away, but medieval bows obviously had no sights at all, and require perfectly consistent form through every part of the body to aim accurately. Even after many thousands of shots with my bows I am still more accurate with a musket. I also want to make clear that I understand that many bows had very heavy draws. There are no mass-produced bows available for sale today that have a draw weight exceeding 65 pounds. Some historical bows may have had draw weights of over 200 pounds. Obviously, a weak man can not draw a such heavy bow.
Nonetheless, advocates of retaining the bow in military service, such as Thomas Kellie, actually argued that it was bows which had the advantage of cheap and easy training. Kellie pointed out that “the musquet, as all fierie weapons, is dangerous to them who are Unskilfull, for an unexpert man may spoile himselfe and many about him, which inconvenient is not subject to the Bow.”
Firearms in the 16th and 17th century were dangerous, and not just to the target. Gunpowder explosions happened frequently. The most common ignition method for firearms was the matchlock, which used a smouldering, burning rope, the “match”, to fire the gun. While loading, the musketeer would need to juggle his weapon, the match, which was burning at both ends of the rope, charging powder, priming powder, bullets, ramrod, and a monopod for the heavier muskets. All of this had to be accomplished without accidentally bringing the burning match into contact with the gunpowder. The only way to load both quickly and safely was to follow a precise set of movement, practiced until they could be performed without thinking.
Here’s Robert Barret, writing in 1598:
“The fierie shot, either on horseback, or foote, being not in hands of the skilfull, may do unto themselves more hurt then good: wherefore the same is often to be practised, that men may grow perfect and skilfull therein.” Robert Barret, The Theorike and Practike of Moderne Warre, Page 3
If anything, Barrett understates the danger. A small explosion could destroy hands and eyes. History is full of examples of larger disasters, with gunpowder explosions injuring dozens on land and sinking entire ships at sea. The explorer John Smith was forced to leave Virginia and return to England when a lit match ignited his gunpowder while he was sleeping, severely burning him. During a skirmish at the siege of Leith (1559), gunpowder was brought up to resupply the musketeers. A poorly-trained man was still holding his lit match when he reached down to scoop up his powder, and the explosion killed and injured more men than the fighting itself. Untrained musketeers were undesirable not only because they would be poor fighters, but because they could carelessly blow up the rest of the army.
Like most English military men, Barret’s opinion was that the bow and bill (a sort of halberd) were obsolete, but he didn’t think that the bows and bills England already owned should be thrown away. They could still be used by untrained men:
Gent: What, would you have them cast away their bowes and billes, having bene charged with the same already?
Capt: Not so, they may serve yet to many purposes. For all those weapons… [pikes, calivers and muskets], shall serve but for your trayned men: and your bills and bowes, which have every man, or most men can handle, shall, (if neede require) be put in place of service befitting them weapons.
Robert Barret, The Theorike and Practike of Moderne Warre, Page 25
The old bow and bill formations could degenerate into a mob and still function. Pike and shot formations required order and discipline. It wasn’t enough for a musketeer just to memorize the long reloading procedure for his weapon. The musketeer also had to maintain his place in a large and complex formation. Pikes usually formed a block in the center of a formation, and musketeers would form their own rows or columns somewhere on the front, flanks or rear. Proper safe distance had to be maintained between the musketeers, not too small lest a spark catch but not too far or the ranks and files would be disrupted. Musketeers did not simply stand in one spot while shooting either. Often sleeves were expected to detach, advance ten or twenty paces ahead of the main formation, give fire, and then orderly countermarch to the rear while the next sleeve took its place. This could be further complicated if the formation as a whole was advancing at the same time. Any man who forgot his place could obstruct the fire of his comrades, or worse, disorder the entire formation, opening a gap for the enemy to exploit.
Another suggestion to arm untrained men with bows came from Captain Yorke, writing from the siege of Rouen in 1593. In this time period, besieging armies would try to spare their trained soldiers the dangerous and backbreaking tasks of trench-digging, mining and embattling, leaving those chores instead to unarmed laborers called “pioneers”. Yorke wondered why the pioneers needed to be unarmed, because “If half the pioneers had pikes and the other half bows, they might do something beside digging, for ‘they be natural weapons and therefore need not teaching’.”*
For sure the inconveniences of war often forced raw, untrained men into battle, but this was never considered an ideal situation. Commanders wanted trained, disciplined troops, especially musketeers. A small army of veterans was superior to a larger, raw army. As Riche wrote in The Fruites of Long Experience, “Yong souldiers unprovided and sleightly trayned, are not to be drawen into the field against an Armie exercized and beaten with long practise, for unexperimented men are fitter to furnish a funeral then to fight a field.”
This was not just the opinion of armchair generals- it was state policy. Archived in the Calendar of State Papers, a letter dated May 20th, 1584 from the Privy Council to the Commissioners of Musters of the Maritime Counties ordered that a reduced number of men be trained and mustered, but that “the training of the shot is of the first importance.” Another, dated April 2nd 1588, ordered the Lord Lieutenant of Hertford to have his men “completely trained, especially the shot.” And on August 2nd, 1586, the Council informed the Earl of Huntington that “The Queen is chiefly anxious for the shot to be well trained according to your instructions.”
The practice of training musketeers was not invented out of whole cloth overnight. The old laws mandating archery practice on Sunday evenings and holidays were a far cry from the formal, supervised training that a modern army of integrated pike and shot required. The most important difference, from the government’s point of view, was that modern training required vast sums of money. Archery, John Smythe pointed out, “by a naturall inclination with good execution of lawes, came to be so perfect & excellent, without anie publique cost & charges either to King or Realme“. The state could actually raise funds from fining men who neglected to practice archery. But when training a company of musketeers, each soldier had to be paid for his time, the trainer demanded a fee, and the cost of gunpowder used for target practice and mock battles quickly added up. Further, cash prizes were often awarded to the best shots.
The costs were significant enough that early attempts to create elite cores of trained harquebusiers were frustrated by a lack of funds. An aborted 1567 plan to train 4,000 harquebusiers would have cost £16,656 per year, at a time when an ordinary person’s daily wage was eight pence. It was hoped to partially defray the costs of training by charging the public to watch.** In 1573 it was decided that there would be a distinction between the trained bands, who as their name suggests would be actively trained in the use of firearms and pikes, and the untrained masses, largely armed with bows, who would occasionally be mustered for inspection but received no formal training.
One of the reasons that firearms superseded bows, it is suggested, is that they could be mastered in a shorter time. Such an argument runs wholly counter to the growing professionalisation of military affairs. Training, in particular, was becoming ever more comprehensive and the specious argument that firearms required less, not more, training, bears all the marks of a propagandist’s sophistry. No contrast could be more pointed between the old assumption that levies were briefly trained en route for battle, and that implicit in the whole conception of the trained bands, that a certain minimum of discipline and instruction were essential.
Lindsay Boynton, The Elizabethan Militia, page 113
Practiced archers were not unavailable, if the state wanted them- the Henrican archery statue remained in force. Archers were simply less useful than firearms, and the limited defense funds were allocated to training men with the modern weapons instead. A multitude of archers would serve as a hastily-raised auxiliary in case of invasion, but the core of the army was to be trained pikes and shot.
The governments of Elizabeth and James cared less and less for bows as time went on. The privy council’s 1623 Instructions for Musters and Armes officially ordered that small groups of soldiers practice “upon Sundayes after Evening prayer, and upon Holidayes (as it hath been formerly used for the Bow)”.
But Charles I, crowned 1625, was nostalgic for archery. In 1627 Charles gave last-minute orders that 25% of the forces for the Il De Ré expedition were to be armed with bows. The army had not had such a high proportion of archers since the mid-1500’s, and the orders were received so late that some of the levies had already left their respective counties. Although probably not the 25% Charles hoped for, a force of archers still made it to the siege of St. Martin.***
Charles repealed the Henrican archery statute in 1631, citing the “divers exactions, and other unsufferable abuses committed by colour of the said Commission, to the great trouble, disquiet and discouragement of Our loving Subjects”. It seems that, if anything, the law was being enforced too well, and the fines levied for not practicing with the obsolete weapon had become distasteful.
*Quoted by Mark Charles Fissel in English Warfare, 1511-1642, p. 288
**Boynton, The Elizabethan Militia, p. 59-60
***E.T. Fox, Military Archery in the Seventeenth Century, p. 16-17