The Nemesis in China and Chinese archery in the 19th Century

China is the odd man out in the transition from archery to musketry. Almost every other nation had given up archery for firearms, the Chinese still used large numbers of archers as late as the 19th century. While firearms were certainly not unknown in China, and muskets made up a significant portion of the Qing dynasty military, the Manchus did not use firearms themselves. The Manchus (called Tartars by the west) were a nomadic people, similar to the Mongols, who had conquered the Ming dynasty in the 17th century. They fought primarily on horseback and their favorite weapons were the saber and bow.

I have wondered for a long time why the Manchus preferred to leave the most effective weapons in the hands of their Chinese subjects. Part of it is certainly that China had no serious external threats that would require a shake-up of military traditions to deal with. Wheellock and flintlock weapons were not widely available in China, those sorts of weapons being far more convenient for use on horseback than matchlocks, but that had not stopped the nearby Mongols and Tibetans from adopting the matchlock for use on horseback. Another clue comes from this account from the first Opium war:

ec84feabcba3525cb8069561be9f1524[1]It is well known that the bow and arrow is the favourite weapon of the Tartar troops, upon the dexterous use of which they set the highest claim to military distinction. The spear also, of various forms and fashions, is a favourite weapon both of Tartars and Chinese ; but the matchlock, which in all respects very nearly resembles some of the old European weapons of the same name, except that the bore is generally somewhat smaller, is of much more modern introduction, and by no means so much in favour with the Chinese ; this is occasioned principally by the danger arising from the use of the powder, in the careless way in which they carry it. They have a pouch in front, fastened round the body, and the powder is contained loose in a certain number of little tubes inside the pouch, not rolled up like our cartridges. Of course, every soldier has to carry a match or port fire to ignite the powder in the matchlock when loaded. Hence, when a poor fellow is wounded and falls, the powder, which is apt to run out of his pouch over his clothes, is very likely to be ignited by his own match, and in this way he may either be blown up at once, or else his clothes may be set on fire : indeed, it is not impossible that the match itself may be sufficient to produce this effect. At Chuenpee, many bodies were found after the action, not only scorched, but completely burnt, evidently from the ignition of the powder.

In one of the latest encounters during the war, at Chapoo, where a few of the Tartars defended themselves so desperately in a house in which they had taken refuge, they were seen stripping themselves altogether, in order to escape the effect of the fire upon their combustible clothes when the building was in flames; and many other instances of a similar kind were noticed during the war.

So it seems that the Manchus may have left firearms to the Chinese because they didn’t want to burst into flames. Yet the superiority of the musket to the bow was demonstrated:

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. An attempt was first made to save him for his coolness and courage ; but in the heat of an engagement it is impossible to control every man, nor is it probable that the officer would have allowed himself to be taken prisoner.

And the Manchus seem to have realized that their bows weren’t having the desired effect:

The strength of the Chinese army was estimated at from seven to eight thousand men, part of which appeared to be a picked body, said to belong to the Emperor’s guard ; they were fine, athletic, powerful men. It was also remarked that their arms were of a superior kind ; several improvements had been adopted; and the bow and arrow, once the favourite weapon of the Tartar soldier, had been laid aside on this occasion.

17 thoughts on “The Nemesis in China and Chinese archery in the 19th Century

  1. Hello! I practice Manchu archery and I’ve also looked into this effect and it may come from two places. After the subjugation of the Xinjiang region by the Qianlong Emperor during the middle of the 18th Century CE, the military might of the Qing was at its highest. During that campaign, the Dzungar Mongols actually employed matchlock muskets en mass while the Qing army was made of Han Chinese musketeers and Manchu Bannermen horse archers. Manchu archery proved its superiority by out shooting and out maneuvering the Dzungars. With the success of that campaign and in pacifying the entire Empire, I don’t think they saw a need to rapidly transition all of their troops to musketeers.

    And secondly, there was an ideal set out by the early Qing Emperors. They knew there was a risk in their people of becoming too sinicized. And so they enacted several policies for their people to maintain their “Manchuness”. Learning the Manchu language was mandatory alongside Mandarin Chinese. There were certain ways that Manchus had to eat with certain foods. And of course, archery was a prized skill. It helped them bring food to the table and coin to their pockets. Later on, it helped them win an Empire. The Manchu style of archery remained a staple in imperial military exams up until the very end of the 19th Century CE.

    TL;DR Manchu archery was proven effective against other matchlock musketeers at the time of the 18th Century and it was an important part of their culture.

    I learned a great deal about Manchu archery from this site here.


  2. SatsuRyu, thank you for your comment. Do you know of any specific sources regarding Manchu archers outshooting the Dzungar musketeers? In the battles I’ve found between musketeers and archers, the musketeers usually won. In the rare cases where the musketeers lost, the sources indicate that it was because they were heavily outnumbered, their powder was ruined by rain or high winds, or they were very low quality/morale troops. If Manchu archers outperformed musketeers man-for-man, it would be very unusual, since archers in the rest of the world did not. I suppose it’s possible, since the Manchu composite bow is capable of better energy transfer than more primitive designs. I’d be very interested if you had a source from a Manchu soldiers or something saying something to the effect of “our archers were much better than their musketeers”.


  3. >The Manchus (called Tartars by the west) were a nomadic people, similar to the Mongols,

    While not the main topic of the article or a blog, i would like to note what they were not.
    Neither Jurchen/Manchu warfare(or culture) was similar to the mongols nor they were nomadic…


  4. Mike Loades has a very interesting book “The Composite Bow”, I believe you can find it on the internet in PDF format. Quote from the book:

    “For the Qing military examinations candidates were required to shoot at six roughly man-size targets. Originally these targets were placed at 135 yards – quite a distance for a heavy Manchu arrow.
    After 1693 the distance was reduced to 84 yards and eventually, after 1760, to 50 yards.”

    Note that this was a target shooting, not the maximum range of course.

    However, this represents the steady decline of archery in China. So even for officers trained in warfare the decline in target shooting was almost 3 times the distance of their predecessors.

    Also, interesting quote from the same book:

    “The Qing bow’s large proportions
    were designed to propel an
    especially heavy arrow to deliver
    a thumping blow that, at short
    range, would more than match
    the impact of a musket ball. ”

    But in the hands of a trained archer bow can indeed sometimes best the not only muskets but even rifles. Not the Qing, but their predecesors Ming dynasty had a war with Dutch East India Company. Ming used different kind of bow, unfortunately we don’t have even a clear description (hence no replica) of what it was, but some sources hint that unlike Qing (Manchu) bow, it was better in range but worse in power on short distances.

    Manchus or Tartars in China were not regarded as a brave and skillful men. For example, during the Sino-Dutch war 1622-1670 we have this interesting quotes about the western view on chinese military of that time:

    “Such an event actually happened in the year 1652, when two or three
    hundred of our soldiers quite overwhelmed about seven or eight thousand armed
    Chinese, and put them to flight. Since that time, the Chinese in Formosa
    were regarded by the Hollanders as insignificant, and in warfare as cowardly
    and effeminate men. It was reckoned that twenty-five of them put together
    would barely equal one Dutch soldier, and the whole Chinese race was regarded
    in the same way, no distinction being made between Chinese peasants and
    soldiers ; if he was but a native of China, then he was cowardly and had no
    stamina. This had come to be quite a fixed conclusion with our soldiers, and
    although they had often heard about Koxinga’s brave exploits against the Tartars,
    proving his soldiers to be anything but cowardly, yet this did not seem to alter
    the general opinion. Their fighting had been against the poor, miserable
    Tartars, and no opportunity had yet been given them of showing their bravery
    against the Netherlanders, who would soon settle them, and make them laugh
    on the wrong side of their faces.”

    At the Siege of Fort Zeelandia however, dutch faced these famous Koxinga pirates, who were much more experienced and dangerous than those enemies the dutch have faced before. Here are some quotes:

    “The archers formed Koxinga’s best troops, and much depended on them, for even at a distance they contrived to handle their weapons with so great skill that they very nearly eclipsed the riflemen.

    [The Dutch] courageously marched in rows of twelve men towards the enemy, and when they came near enough, they charged by firing three volleys uniformly. The enemy, not less brave, discharged so great a storm of arrows that they seemed to darken the sky. From both sides some few fell hors de combat [unable to continue to fight], but still the Chinese were not going to run away, as was imagined.

    The Dutch troops now noticed the separated Chinese squadron which came to surprise them from the rear ; and seeing that those in front stubbornly held their ground, it now became a case of sero sapiunt Phryges. They now discovered that
    they had been too confident of the weakness of the enemy, and had not anticipated such resistance. If they were courageous before the battle, fear now took the place of their courage, and many of them threw down their rifles without even discharging them at the enemy.”


    Of course it was not pure bow vs rifle battle, but the fact that bowmen stood up to the riflemen and even “nearly eclipsed” them hints that in trained hands bowmen could be not less dangerous than riflemen.


  5. Only to the degree that history has a pro-musket bias. I do post battles where bows won when I can find them, but I simply can’t find very many. If you have have battles where bows win, I’ll post them. In real life I shoot with both muskets and bows- I like them both.

    Most of the sources on this site are from the late 15th to early 19th centuries. Firearms didn’t start to replace bows and crossbows until the late 1400s, when firearms were far superior to those of the 1200s.

    I could post more sources on very early guns, but haven’t because 1. Those sources are fewer, 2. They usually don’t distinguish between handheld and crew-served firearms, using the same word for both. It wouldn’t make sense to compare a bow with a crew-served cannon.

    Cavalry has a number of traits that blunt the advantages of firearms over bows, but nonetheless the Manchu did employ large numbers of Han musketeers.


  6. […] Finally, here is a comparison of bows to muskets in the Opium War, 1839-1842. “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.” The Chinese quickly learned that their bows were outclassed by the muskets, and in the next battle, “the bow and arrow, once the favourite weapon of the Tartar [Manchu] soldier, had been laid aside on this occasion.” […]


  7. Your website probably the biggest collection of pro-musket bias. I think the best example is the article where you argue that bowmen didn’t require more time to train than musketeers. If other topics can be debatable to some degree – this premise is the most blatantly ridiculous and the biggest sign of either your lack of knowledge or you have knowledge but you deliberately biased.


  8. I did not say that bowmen were faster to train. I said that they were cheaper to train. And I was talking specifically about the English government in the mid 1500’s. The English government didn’t spend any money training archers, but plans to raise large troops of musketeers were delayed for many years because the cost of training them was prohibitive.


  9. Yes, but no. The title says “Musketeers Were Not Easier to Train than Archers” which is misliading at best. If your blog was trying to represent something serious, it would probably avoid such clickbaiting overgeneralized titles.

    The whole article also makes 0 sense, because replacing 1 musketeer with another is much much more cheaper than replacing 1 good archer. Archers should be in constant shape to perform shooting. The very fact that training decent experienced longbowman, who would be able to shoot man-sized target at 220 yards as Henry VIII required from men who reach age of 23 and a fact that musketeers don’t require same time (even though they would hit such target at 220 yards only if they were very very luck, because as Major George Hanger said “A soldier must be very unfortunate indeed who shall be wounded by a common musket at 150 yards and as to firing at a man at 200 yards with a common musket, you may just as well fire at the moon and have the same hopes of hitting your object”.) – makes the whole argument of cost fall apart.
    Time is money.
    Decent archers require immensely more time to become decent. Novice wannabe archer will probably never launch an arrow to the 200 yards distance after half hour of introduction to the bow. While 14 year old boy can fire a musket that will fire as hard in his hands as in the hands of a veteran. Musketeer’s hardest task (if we exclude the whole marching, rotation, working in rank, discipline and cut to working with firearm itself) is to learn how to reload and point a gun in the right direction. If a dead musketeer and a dead archer leave their weapon on the field, its much easier to find replacement for musketeer than for archer.
    So the whole “easy” argument that you try to manipulate your audience into believing by tossing the facts and presenting cases that suit your premise is not true either.


  10. Can you find examples of historical military men who shared your opinion? (Hanger doesn’t count- he lived in an age when military archery was already extinct.)

    Here’s a guide to get you started:

    From all the sources I’ve read, not a single man has made the argument that bows should be retained in military service because they were easier to train. If you can find a good historical source who did, please let me know.


  11. I mistyped above. I have, indeed, found historical soldiers who advocated that bows should be retained in military service because they were easier to train. What I have not found is anyone saying that *musketeers* were easier to train.


  12. Oh so you trust only words of specific military men of specific period. I wonder how you distinguish those who are trustworthy and who are making “myth” as you constantly state through your articles. I guess I have a few ides of your method. Thank you kindly for your guide.

    Honestly, I don’t even know why I’m having this conversation and probably it’s my last visit here, because this is getting ridiculous. It’s blatantly obvious that to even pull a bow of considerable draw weigh, lets say something like 60 lbs – you need to train your body a lot harder than you need to hold a musket or load/reload a musket. And even then 60 lbs would be the lowest margin which would still not be suitable for military purposes. Forget the bow, even average crossbow with cranequin requires much more labour than the average musket.
    Human body reaches it’s peak physical strength at around 23-25 years (hence, why Henry VIII made a law specifically for the age from 23 to 60), so before 23-25 you won’t reach your full physical potential and after like 60 your body gradually loses strength. Obviously firearms don’t have that problem as long as you can carry them or use a rest.

    Yes there are men from your guide who shared my opinion:

    Barnabe Rich
    “If 1,000 English archers were mustered then after one week only 100 of them would be able to shoot farther than 200 paces (167 yd (153 m)), while 200 of the others would not be able to shoot farther than 180 paces.”

    Roger Williams:
    “My reasons are thus, among 5000 bowmen, you shall not finde 1000 good Archers, I meane to shoot strong shoots; let them be in the field 3 or 4 months, hardly find of 5000, scarce 500, able to make any strong shootes.”

    Other sources, non-military non-guide related:

    – Hugh Latimer, English Bishop
    “I had my bows bought to me according to my age and strength. As I increased in them, so my bows were made bigger and bigger, for man shall never shute well, except they be brough up in it.”

    – Scottish poet and writer, “Icon Animorum: the mirror of minds”, 1614:
    “That use of the bow (the special strength of the Turk) which was once so formidable to the world, is now neglected; ~~I suppose because this art cannot be attained without much sweat and labour of the body~~. And at this day, spoiled with ease and discipline ceasing, the soldiers will not buy valour at so dear a rate. Their bows are short and cannot be bent but by those that are skilful, but they discharge their arrows with much more violence than our guns do their leaden bullets. We saw indeed (and could scarce credit out own eyes) a piece of steel three inches thick pierced by a little arrow. And no less wonder was it that a shaft wanting an iron head, shot from a bow through the body of an indifferent tree, appeared at both sides. This art was taught to a man of great account among us, when he was at Constantinople, by an old soldier of Solyman’s, who confessed that skill by the slothfulness of his fellows was quite lost, and that there were scarce three in that vast empire which were careful to preserve in themselves that fortitude of their ancestors. He said the rest had weak bows ~~only dangerous to light-armed men~~.”

    You won’t be able to find something similar describing muskets. No competent person will say that musket required “being brought up in it” as Latimer said about the bow or a quote about how the musket ball would suddenly fly slower due to musketeers not being able to train regularly during the long campaign.

    Anyway, why trust me or some military or other men of the past, check it for yourself.

    You have a few articles here portraying modern tests with old weapons. Do the experiment.

    If you have never shot a musket, there are reenactment fairs or groups that let visitors to try and shoot old firearms. Even though they might use blanks instead of real bullets, the process doesn’t differ that drastically. You can ask them to teach you how to shoot, and if u are lucky, I can guarantee you that in like an hour at most you will understand the process and will be able to send your first bullet in the right direction.

    After that find local archery practice range or facebook archery enthusiast group near you, or archery shop, you get the gist. They may not have the traditional bows, only compound ones, it doesn’t matter in this case that much. Ask them if they have some heavy bows, something like 50 lbs or 60 lbs and ask them to give you a try at pulling that bow.

    If you have already aquired some experience with any of the weapon, you can ask your friend or brother to do such experiment and ask him/her/them about their impressions.

    Myabe then you can write an article about how pouring gunpowder, pushing bullet down the tube, holding musket, igniting gunpowder, cleaning the tube is “not easier” than pulling a string of 60 lbs weight let alone sending an arrow with it. And maybe someday I will read it, but probably not.


  13. To make the experiment even more interesting you can attach conditions like lets say in a week or in a month there is going to be a hypothetical war where you will have to take part as either a musketeer or an archer. Then for a week you go and train with both musket and bow. At the end of the week or a moth compare your wielding of a bow to your wielding of a musket. You might be sureprised, but I doubt you will write about it, since it won’t look very good for that article of yours.


  14. I’m quite shocked SwordvsMusket has ignored Ivan’s excellent and well-sourced comment. That appears to have showed everything he is asking for in an actual case, where the writer even notes the bow was matching the rifles… but he demands other commenters to show historical persons saying bows weren’t inferior? This is completely bizarre.

    SwordVMusket would be correct in the argument bows cost the state very little to train compared to muskets (as the people take up the expense). However, his point about muskets being harder to train is wrong, as demonstrated by Phillip with your own sources, in terms of time and effort to train, and in thinking this wasn’t a historical concern. Essentially, after bow culture dies, it is a 20 year investment to restart it, at least; and it is hard to justify that kind of long-term thinking.

    As I have not yet read that article, I cannot comment in detail. However, presuming that your argument is that this proves the bow must be grossly inferior, since it was economically cheaper and yet wasn’t used… that would also be wrong, as there are a lot of factors to consider: Primarily, yew was almost going extinct in England, such that a good bow was getting to cost something like a month’s pay, IIRC. Second is that enclosure destroyed the rural population which they would train into archers; you can’t train factory workers suffering from repetitive injury, cholera, malnutrition and poverty, into decent bowmen.

    As for the idea of the inferiority of the Manchus… the British were all using RIFLES by the Opium war. Even the Brown Bess was rifled, with a rear sight added, and as far as I recall training standards had improved drastically. But more than this… why is the assumption that the British musket carried the day, as opposed to the British artillery, when ONE SHIP carried more cannon than the entire local opposition, as far as I am aware. The exceptional corruption of the Qing was also a factor, when the generals were refusing to work together or fight, and had even lied about how many men they had raised so as to siphon funds. In general, given the same rifles, I doubt they could’ve won.

    Further, some interesting facts about the Ming: They did develop the flintlock, part way into the war, but decided to not use it… so they apparently were not so concerned with this self immolation which you decided was a major factor. And it is incredibly doubtful that it was an issue of machining ability or cost, since the Ming instead adopted BREECH LOADERS, as their primary innovation, even developing interchangeable barrels and plug bayonets for them. So apparently the Qing were very skilled, to be able to defeat the Ming, and it’s no wonder the best of them were considered equal to rifles in the other account.

    To be fair, I do think you have put effort into the site, making it a good source of scholarship on the issue. You also seem to be intelligent enough in your writing. So I think it’s just an issue of approaching the subject with a Priori argument and a bad premise: That the bow and the musket are in competition, despite the fact the two were used together in combined arms throughout the early gun’s history, up till the 19th century (and even into the 20th century, with China employing some crossbows against the Japanese). So while this comment is critical, I hope you won’t be dispirited by it.


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