The naval weapons of Sir Richard Hawkins: musket arrows, slurbowes, fire arrows

Here’s a very interesting passage from Sir Richard Hawkins’ account of his 1594 expedition. Hawkins’ ship was attacked by a larger Spanish vessel, and his only hope for escape was to shoot through its mast and sails. Hawkins lists the many weapons his ship carried for this purpose:

[To] shoote downe his contraries Masts or Yards, and to teare or spoyle his tackling and sayles… Billets of some heavie wood fitted to the greate Ordnance, are of great importance, And so are Arrowes of fire to be shot out of Slur-bowes, and Cases of small shot joyned two and two together, with pieces of Wyer of five or sixe inches long, which also shot out of Muskets are of good effect for tearing the sayles, or cutting the tackling. Some are of opinion, that Crosse-barres and Chaine-shot, are of moment for the spoyling of Masts and Yards, but experience daily teacheth them not to bee of great importance, though neere at hand, I confesse, they worke great execution : but the round shot, is the onely principall and powerfull meane to breake Mast or Yard.

A slurbow is like a crossbow with either a gun barrel or an overhang that covers the place where the bolt would lay. The advantage of this design, I guess, is that sights can be mounted on it. You can see in the picture below where knocks have been cut for sights, which either fell off or were never put on.

Despite Hawkins’ best efforts, his ship was captured. When the Spanish admiral took inventory of his prize, he discovered something interesting:

In this discourse Generall Michaell Angell demanded, for what purpose served the little short Arrowes, which we had in our ship, and those in so great quantitie : I satisfied them, that they were for our Muskets. They are not as yet in use amongst the Spaniards, yet of singular effect and execution as our enemies confessed : for the upper worke of their ships being Muskets proofe, in all places they passed through both sides with facilities, and wrought extraordinary disasters, which caused admiration, to see themselves wounded with small shot, where they thought themselves secure ; and by no meanes could find where they entred, nor come to the sight of any of the shot.

Hereof they proved to profit themselves after, but for that they wanted the Tampkings (Tampkin is a small piece of wood turned fit for the mouth of a Peece), which are first to bee driven home, before the arrow bee put in, and as then understood not the secret, they rejected them, as uncertaine, and therefore not to bee used, but of all the shot now used now a dayes for the annoying of an Enemie in fight by Sea, few are of greater moment for many respects : which I hold not convenient to treate of in publike.

Hawkins describes arrows made for shooting from muskets. They could penetrate the thick wooden hulls of warships when soft lead bullets could not. If Hawkins is to be believed, then this is a naval weapon unique to the English. The Spanish had never encountered it before, and could not figure out how to use it themselves- a wad needed to be inserted between the powder and the arrow to catch the expanding gas. Musket arrows for naval use probably never caught on because, by the late 16th century, the old practice of ships shooting at each other from close range with muskets was giving way to the modern method of shooting from far away with large ordnance.

Francis Bacon in “Thoughts on the Nature of Things”, 1624, says that these musket arrows were made completely of wood.

And it is certain, that we had in use at one time, for sea fight, short arrows, which they called sprights, without any other heads, save wood sharpened : which were dis charged out of muskets, and would pierce through the sides of ships where a bullet would not pierce.

It seems that musket arrows and slurbows had been in use for several decades already. From an inventory of arms compiled in the “fourthe yere” of Edward VI’s reign (1550), we find musket arrows, slurbows, and fire arrows all mentioned:

Slurbowe arrowes 132, whereof 12 with firewoorkes.

Crosbowe arrowes decaied 500.

Muskett arrowes with 56 to be new fethered 892 shefe 13 arrows, and one case full for a di. culvering.

Longebow arrowes for fier works 12 shefe, and

Longbowe arrowes with firewoorks 98 shefe decaied.

From this we can gather that the arrows used in slurbows, crossbows, muskets and longbows were not interchangeable with one another. A surprise is that there are more arrows in stock for muskets than for all the other weapons combined. “Arrowes for fier works”, meaning arrows fitted with incendiary or explosive tips, are surprisingly common. None of the musket arrows are described as “fireworks”. Interestingly, there is also a case of arrows for a demi-culverin, a type of cannon.

The first European image of a cannon shows it firing an arrow.

2 thoughts on “The naval weapons of Sir Richard Hawkins: musket arrows, slurbowes, fire arrows

  1. If you’re interested I have a page saved from I think one of the later editions of William Bourne’s “The Art of shooting Great Ordinance” which includes a description of how to make fire arrows for both bows and muskets complete with illustrations. These are actual “fire works” though so evidently not the exact same type. Additionally, for the musket-arrow instead of feathers for fletching he instead recommends attaching a length of string to the back end of the arrow to keep it stabilized during flight.

    Liked by 1 person

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