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
12 thoughts on “Musketeers Were Not Easier to Train than Archers”
You have made a good argument that ease of training did not drive the adoption of firearms, given an existing supply of trained archers, but your title (and strawman) seems to go further. Do you really think that someone with no experience of either weapon would take equally long to train into a useful soldier?
Muskets were newer, more expensive, and more dangerous, but they could still be “easier to train” in this sense.
You have a good point. I addressed the argument that it was ‘easier’ to train musketeers by pointing out that, from the state’s point of view, training musketeers was actually harder because it was far more expensive, but failed to directly address the argument that training archers took ‘longer’.
That is mostly because the question is a red herring- battlefield effectiveness, rather than fast training, was the reason for the displacement of bows with firearms, and the expense of training men to use firearms slowed rather than sped their adoption. The length of training never really entered into the comparison.
Still, I’ll try to answer your question. Do I really think somebody with no experience with either weapon would take equally long to train into a useful soldier?
I don’t know, because I don’t know what is considered a useful soldier.
There’s a matter of judgement in what makes a “useful soldier”, so I’d prefer to find an answer straight from the pen of a military man who has used both weapons. My personal experience with matchlocks and bows doesn’t qualify me to say. In this blog I try to be as charitable to the primary sources as possible, since it drives me crazy when modern historians, who in some cases have never even held a real weapon, casually dismiss the opinions of historical people who led real armies and fought real battles. Without a historical source I can only guess, from my limited and ignorant modern perspective, how much training is enough before a musketeer or archer becomes “useful”.
Humfrey Barwick said that pikers would be better trained in six days than a musketeer in sixty, but I haven’t seen a similar comparison made between musketeers and archers, if any comparison could be made at all, since archers weren’t being formally trained. Anyway, virtually all of the men in England had experience with archery, so it wouldn’t answer the question of which took longer to train with zero experience.
The answer might exist in Ming or Qing sources. I don’t know nearly as much about the Qing as I do about early-modern England, but it’s my understanding that 1. both archers and matchlocks were used by the Qing’s Chinese armies, 2. Non-Manchu Chinese were not allowed to own weapons privately, and 3. musketeers and archers were both formally trained, sometimes even on the same shooting ranges. Assuming I’m not wrong about one of those points, there’s a possibility that a Qing commander wrote somewhere that it takes x amount of time to train a good musketeer and y amount of time to train a good archer. It’s just too bad that very few of those sources have been translated into English.
My personal experience is that it is much easier to aim and hit a target with a musket than a bow, and it doesn’t require nearly as much physical strength, so in that sense training a musketeer would be faster. But the musketeer also had to learn things the archer didn’t: safe and hasty loading, keeping all steps in the correct order, and the formations and evolutions particular to musketry. We should not underestimate how long these took to learn. Thomas Digges complained that there were men who had spent years in the army and still couldn’t march right, and John Smythe says (with some satisfaction, since he preferred the bow) that the musketeers mustered for a demonstration at Tillbury fumbled their evolutions, and discharged their weapons into each others necks, backs and legs (they were using ‘blanks’, I think). Skirmishes, ambushes, night attacks and trench-fighting are also sometimes listed as skills that musketeers needed to learn. Even a bow partisan like Smythe concedes that these are roles better suited to firearms, and bows should be reserved for only for set battles.
English archers trained from childhood and used very heavy bows, which was an advantage for them, but I don’t think that a militarily “useful” archer necessarily had to train for years and use a very heavy bow just because the best archers did. I’d agree that it took a long time to become a *great* archer, but it takes a long time to be great at just about anything, including musketry. Modern bowhunters practice two or three months before hunting season, and they need to hit the vitals for a clean kill, a relatively small target compared to a formed battalion. (Granted, modern bows are far better than historical bows in many ways.)
Anyway, thanks for the comment.
Great post as usual!
My impression was that many Englishmen arguing in favor of firearms were somewhat impressed by how quickly a man with a musket could be turned into an extremely deadly fighting force, but their arguments tend to be misconstrued. Humphrey Barwick’s claim was that after just a few months of practice with his arquebus he could shoot *as well or better* than the best archers in england who had been practicing their whole lives.
It’s also worth noting that while John Smythe did complain about the declining popularity of longbow practice, he completely rejected the idea that there were no strong archers in England anymore or that the archers of the HYW were some godly beasts compared to the Englishmen of the 1590s:
“More∣ouer, they obiect against Archers, that men in this age are not so mightie and strong of bodie, as they haue been in former ages, and therefore cannot shoote so strong, and work so good effects with their arrowes, as their forefathers haue done in times past; which is as friuolous an obiection as all the rest: and the reason is this, that they may see by experience, (if they list) throughout England, as also amongst other Nations, as manie sonnes, as tall or taller than their fathers, or big∣ger and stronger, as they shall see lower, slenderer, and weaker.”
Both Barwick and Smythe may even have known the Mary Rose archers when they were younger. So it’s sort of interesting how this part of smythe’s arguments gets ignored given how willing many historians are to take everything else he claims about archers at face value.
Thanks for the reply. It is a more multidimensional question than I realised.
Physical strength – bow needs more, and that is definitely trainable.
Individual weapon skill – bow is a simpler set of motions (and less safety precautions needed) but aiming is harder. I speculate that an archer would improve more over time, since judging distance is more important and that is a learnable skill. Also perhaps smoothbore muskets have more intrinsic or random error from windage etc. and you cannot eliminate that with practice (the longer you shoot a modern gun the better you get too, but the improvement will be bigger with a sniper rifle than an AK).
Combat readiness/discipline (individual and group) – this is an interesting one. An untrained musketeer would be more dangerous to those around him. Also because the firing sequence is more complicated it would tend to deteriorate more under stress. OTOH I recall you posted something about how frightened archers tended to only half draw their bows, whereas you only have to pull the trigger with a musket, and aiming is easier too. I don’t know if the “group” part of the training would take longer – certainly 17th century and later infantry drill seems more complicated than anything archers were asked to do, but if you just want people to stay in place and fire volleys?
Overall I hazard a guess that the minimum training time to make a musketeer more dangerous to the other side than to his own might be equal or greater than for an archer, but once this point is achieved the learning curve would flatten out more quickly while an archer would keep improving both in physical strength and in aim. (Possibly the amount of training needed to maintain ability is also less with a musket since it is less dependent on muscle strength? Dominic Lieven in Russia against Napoleon claimed that British troops had the luxury of thirty practice rounds a year while the Russians only had six!)
There is that old Hugh Latimer quote:
“I had my bows bought me according to my age and strength, as I increased in them, so my bows were made bigger and bigger. For men shall never shoot well unless they be brought up to it.”
I’ve never seen anyone say the same of muskets (rifles, yes).
[…] Qi developed for the harquebuze, casting doubt on the idea that he adopted guns because of supposed quick and easy training. Qi’s musketeers were expected to be robotically disciplined, not firing their guns until […]
I enjoy your writing. I am
No history nerd. But it seems you haven’t fully accounted for the strength require and draw weight of a strong bow.
You would have to gradually work up different bows to be able to handle the draw weight of strong bows.
This isn’t an isn’t with muskets.
There is a proficently with muskets one could hit fairly. To the extent a person with a year or 10 years trainer wouldn’t differ too much. Imagine that difference of training with a bow. The skill gap would be huge.
I should rephrase the title of the piece: Musketeers were not cheaper to train than archers. I agree that accuracy with muskets comes easier than accuracy with bows. I’m a far more accurate shot with a musket than with a bow even though I’ve practiced archery more (though I have a lot of experience with other guns so maybe not a fair comparison). Accurate target archery is high-skill. But practicing with the musket is also a lot more cumbersome and expensive. With powder, bullets, and range fees, it costs me over a dollar a shot. Bows are cheaper and more convenient to practice casually. So long as no arrows break or disappear, half a day of archery practice and hundreds of shots costs me nothing.
The English government had the same experience. Musket training was costly, and archers weren’t even trained but self-taught at their own expense. So musketeers were harder to train in the sense that they were expensive and their numbers were bottlenecked by the cost of their training for decades.
Guessing that’s why most of Europe turned to crossbows as the compromise between muskets and bows…
[…] Period sources agree that the chief advantages of the harquebus were its greater power, range, ability to shoot unexposed from cover and the terror it inspired in its targets. I have never seen easy training mentioned in period sources as an advantage of firearms. Indeed, I’ve found the opposite: bows are considered the weapons of untrained men and the need for the thorough, “perfect” training of musketeers is stated again and again. I’ve written more on the issue of training here. […]
[…] it is important to note that relative claims of the training required for either weapon are hotly […]
[…] it is very important observe that relative claims of the training required for both weapon are hotly […]
[…] I write more on the training issue here. […]