John Smythe on archers at Kett’s Rebellion and the Prayer Book Rebellion

The fiercest advocate of the longbow during the period of the Elizabethan bow vs. gun debates was John Smythe, a nobleman and a cantankerous soldier of long experience. Smythe had first served in France during the short reign of Edward VI, and afterwards had fought in the Netherlands (on the side of the Spanish) and against the Turks in eastern Europe. The first book Smythe wrote in defense of the bow, titled Certain Discourses, based much of its authority on the historical triumphs of archery- biblical, classical, medieval, and a few from Smythe’s own time. Those from the 16th century are the only ones really of interest to us.

Let’s take a look at some of the victories of longbowmen over harquebuzers and musketeers Smythe presents, and then see if we can reconcile them with the historical record.

Continue reading

Bows Vs. Muskets in the Imjin War, part 2

More incidents from the Imjin War. These are taken from Firearms: A Global History to 1700 by Kenneth Chase. Bizarrely, Chase takes the typical position that bows were a superior battlefield weapon to firearms despite his book being full of evidence to the contrary. This quote by the Korean official Yu Song-nyong, for example, is pretty damning:

In the 1592 invasion, everything was swept away. Within a fortnight or a month the cities and fortresses were lost, and everything in the eight directions had crumbled. Although it was [partly] due to there having been a century of peace and the people not being familiar with warfare that this happened, it was really because the Japanese had the use of muskets that could reach beyond several hundred paces, that always pierced what they struck, that came like the wind and the hail, and with which bows and arrows could not compare.

The Japanese were in agreement that their musketry was a great advantage. One of the Japanese commanders wrote home in 1592:

Please arrange to send us guns and ammunition. There is absolutely no use for spears. It is vital that you arrange somehow to obtain a number of guns. Furthermore, you should certainly see to it that those person departing [for Korea] understand this situation. The arrangements for guns should receive your closest attention.

More from Yu Song-nyong:

However, the musket is a very intricate instrument, and very difficult to produce. The Jixiao xinshu [written by Qi Jiguang in 1560] says one month for boring the barrel is optimal- that is, one musket takes the labor of one person for one month before it is ready for use. The difficulty and expense are like that. In recent days, the muskets used by the supervisorate have all been captured Japanese weapons. There are not many and they frequently burst, becoming fewer by the day.

I wonder why the captured Japanese muskets were bursting. Maybe the Koreans, lacking instructors to teach them how to safely use the muskets, were overloading them with powder or were failing to fully seat the bullet against the powder.

Although the musket is superior to the bow and arrow, it is slow and clumsy when loading powder and shot, lighting the match, and aiming and shooting. As for advancing and withdrawing at will, responding to opportunities with leisure or haste, being convenient for both infantry and cavalry, and being suitable for all situations, then it is not equal to the bow and arrow.

When Yu Song-nyong talks about firearms being inconvenient for cavalry, keep in mind that he is talking about matchlock weapons. In Europe at this time, cavalry firearms were of the far more convenient snaphaunce or wheellock variety.

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. At any flat spot outside the walls, the Japanese will build earthen mounds and “flying towers.” They look down into the fortifications and fire their bullets so that the people inside the fortifications cannot conceal themselves. In the end the fortifications are taken. One cannot blame [the defenders] for their situation.

When the Japanese invaded Korea for the second time, there were more firearms on both sides.

The Japanese vanguard of a hundred or more arrived under the fortifications. They fanned out and took cover in the fields in groups of three and five. They fired their muskets at the top of the fortifications for a while, then stopped. They left and then returned again. The men on the fortifications respond with [Chinese-style] “victory guns,” and the Japanese main body sent out skirmishers from a distance to engage them. They advanced cautiously so the guns fired but did not hit them, while the Japanese bullets hit the men on the fortifications, many of whom fell dead.

The combined Korean and Chinese army launched a failed attack on the Japanese base at Ulsan:

At the foot of the hill were rotting fields; our soldiers had no place to plant their feet. The Japanese used their guns from the loopholes, and every shot struck its target…. If [the besiegers] lay prone the guns could not reach them easily; if they stood up they had to move in a crouch to avoid [being shot]. And those who lay prone suffered from the mud that covered their knees. Night and day they surrounded the fortress, and the ice and snow cracked their skin.

The Japanese commander Asano Yukinaga wrote home to his father:

When the troops come [to Korea] from the province of Kai, have them bring as many guns as possible, for no other equipment is needed. Give strict orders that all men, even the samurai, carry guns.

Bows Vs. Muskets in the Imjin War, part 1

The Imjin War was an invasion of Korea by the Japanese between 1592-1598. Although the Koreans were initially no match for the Japanese armies, the Japanese were eventually driven out thanks to Chinese military assistance and several decisive naval battles.

At the beginning of the war, the Koreans had virtually no firearms. The Japanese, on the other hand, had large numbers of them, and had trained their musketeers to perfection in their own civil wars. As a result, we have a lot of accounts of battles between the two weapons. The results are consistent with what happened elsewhere in the world: the bow was handily outperformed. Like the English, the Korean’s experience with firearms caused them to slowly but completely phase bows out of their armies and replace them with muskets. For a great write-up of this transition, see “A Korean Military Revolution?: Parallel Military Innovations in East Asia and Europe” by Tonio Andrade, Hyeok Hweon Kang, and Kirsten Cooper.

To start with, here are some exerpts from Choi Byonghyon’s translation of “The Book of Corrections”. The Book of Corrections was a collection of memoirs from a Korean minister, Yu Songnyong.

p. 27

At last, our envoys left for Japan in April 1590 [March 1590 lunar] with Yoshitoshi and others. At the moment of their departure, Yoshitoshi presented His Majesty with two peacocks, a spear, and a sword as a gift. His Majesty  ordered the peacocks to be freed in the islands of the Bay of Namyang and the musket to be kept in the armory. This was the first time that Korea came to possess a musket.*

*At first, King Sonjo and his officials and military commanders did not realize the importance of muskets, the major weapon of the Japanese army. That is why the king simply ordered the musket presented by the Japanese envoy to be put away in the state armory. A few years later, however, King Sonjo’s view of the new weapon radically changed. When Minister Kim Ungnam said that bows were superior to muskets in power, the king tried to correct him with this comment: ‘The power of muskets is five times greater than arrows’.

p. 60

The officer rode on a horse, and two soldiers from the post station walked by him slowly, holding the bridle of the horse. Hiding in ambush under the bridge, Japanese soldiers with muskets shot down the officer from his horse and cut off his head and ran off with it. Upon seeing this, our soldiers lost all their fighting spirit.

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.

p. 88

Han Kukham, the provincial army commander of North Hamgyong province, led the soldiers of the Six Garrisons and met the enemy at the Haejongch’ang warehouse. Our soldiers of the northern province being skilled at archery and horsemanship, and its flat and wide ground good for riding horses, those who were on horseback discharged arrows at the enemy, attacking them by turn from the left and right. Unable to withstand our attack, the enemy retreated to the inside of the warehouse.

By that time, it was already dark. The general opinion was that our troops should rest for the night and continue their attack on the following day, waiting for the enemy to come out. However, Han Kukham would not listen and commanded his army to surround the enemy. Using stacks of grain from the warehouse for their cover, the enemy defended themselves from flying arrows and rocks and simultaneously fired their muskets at our forces. Our troops surrounded the enemy standing close together like the teeth of a comb or stacks of firewood. Therefore, when the enemy muskets were fired, they never failed to hit their targets and, furthermore, knocked down three or four men at a time. So our army at last collapsed.

p. 101

Six or seven of the enemy took their position at the edge of the river and discharged their muskets toward our fortress. The sound of their muskets was terribly loud and intimidating, and the bullets crossed the river to fall down in the fortress. Some of the longest shots, flying over a distance of more than a thousand paces, fell on the roof tiles of Taedonggwan Hall. Some of them even drove as deep as several inches into the wooden columns of the battlements.

The enemy soldiers with red uniforms approached and saw a small group of our people sitting at Yon’gwangjong Pavilion. They mistook us for our military commanders and, crawling over a sand hill, fired their muskets, hitting two among us. However, because of the long distance, the two were not hurt seriously. I ordered Officer Kang Saik to retaliate with p’yongjon arrows*, protecting themselves with a shield. As his arrows flew all the way to the sandy beaches on the other side of the river, the enemy was surprised and eventually retreated.

* A small arrow so sharp and fast that it was able to easily penetrate armor and helmets.

p. 119

At midnight of the same day [1592.7.19 lunar], Zhao set out from Sunan and launched an attack on P’yongyang. There was heavy rain, and no guards were seen on the walls of the fortress. The Ming army entered through Ch’ilsongmun Gate, but the roads inside the walls were so narrow and circuitous that it was hard for them to pass through while riding their horses. The enemy soldiers concealed themselves and viciously discharged their firearms at their opponents. The showering bullets hit General Shi Ru and killed him, as well as many of his soldiers along with their horses. Zhao Chengxun finally ordered a retreated, but the Japanese did not chase them speedily. However, some of the soldiers who were in the rear, especially those who were stuck in the mud, were all caught and killed by the Japanese.

The last one is interesting because the Japanese were able to overcome the Chinese soldiers despite the heavy rain.

I will add a few more incidents from the Imjin War in a future post.

Martino Martini – Bellum Tartaricum, 1654

Unlike Polofox, who I posted earlier, the Italian missionary Martino Martini, the author of this history of the Manchu conquest, had actually been to China. He has little to say on the types of arms used, only this:


Pages 16-18

But the City [Leaotung] was defended by exceeding many men, who generally were all armed with musquets: the Tartars had nothing by their Scymetars, with Bows and Arrows, which they discharged with strange dexterity & Art. But because they chiefly feared the musquet bullets, they resolved by a Stratagem to make that unknown Instrument less hurtfull to them than their Enemies did imagin. For the Tartarian King commanded such as made the first onset, to carry a thick hard board for their Shield, which was as good to them as a wooden Wall; these men were seconded by other Companies who carried Ladders to climb up the Walls; an the Horse came up in the Rear. In this manner he set upon the City in four quarters, and received the discharge of their Musquets against his Wooden wall; Then in a moment the scaling ladders being applied, before they could charge again, they were upon the Walls and enterd the City; for such is the quickness and nimbleness of the Tartars (in which they excel all Nations, and idn which also they place their chief art) that in a trice, they either prevail in their Designs, or retire: and the little skill the Chineses had in the use of Musquets, was no small hinderance to this War. For the Tartars quickness and nimblenes not giving them time to charge again being astonished with the suddain inundation of armed men, they presently fled which way soever they could…


The Ming seem to have had a shortage of bullets or cannon balls, at least in Beijing. In 1644 Beijing, the Ming capital, was besieged and captured by Li Zicheng’s rebel army. Shortly after crowning himself Emperor, Li fled the city to escape the invading Manchu army. This is the second reference I have seen to cannons being fired empty:


Page 85

But, however it was, these Pilferers came in a short time to besiege the Royal City of Peking. There was in that City a vast Garrison, and as great a quantity of Artillery; but on the Quarters upon which the enemy made there assault, there was none charged with Bullets, but only with Powder.


The second comes from the scholar-bureaucrat Liu Shangyou, who had arrived in Beijing just a few months before the siege:


Lynn A. Struve, Voices from the Ming-Qing Cataclysm. Yale University Press, 2003. 11-12

On the 17th [of the 3rd month, April 23] artillery fire shook the heavens, and I knew the bandits had reached the foot of the city walls. The guns on the walls were fired empty as often as not– for lack of ammunition. Below the walls the bandits also relied on artillery for their attack; each firing of a cannon was sure to collapse a roof or topple some tiles– anything that got in the way was smashed. Their ammunition was shaped like a man’s thumb– keen and shiny, hard and slick, really effective.


The Commentaries of Messire Blaize de Montluc, Mareschal of France

Blaize de Montluc, 1500?-1577, a French soldier serving 50 or 60 years. He gives some accounts of battles which will embarrass English archers, and lend more credence to Humfrey Barwick and Roger William’s opinions that the longbow was by that time obsolete. This battle takes place just a few days after the sinking of the Mary Rose in 1545.

Being return’d to the Fort of Outreau; there was hardly a day past that the English did not come to tickle us upon the descent towards the Sea, and would commonly brave our people up to our very Canon, which was within ten or twelve paces of the Fort: and we were all abus’d by what we had heard our Predecessors say, that one English man would always beat two French men, and that the English would never run away, nor never yield. I had retain’d something of the Camisado of Bullen, and of the business of Oye; and therefore said one day to Mousieur de Tais, that I would discover to him the mystery of the English, and wherefore they were reputed so hardy: which was, that 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: but I will lay them an Ambuscado, and then you shall see if I am in the right or no, and whether a Gascon be not as good as an English-man. In antient time their Fathers and ours were neighbours.
I then chose out sixscore men, Harquebuzeers and Pikes, with some Halberts amongst them, and lodg’d them in a hollow which the water had made, lying below on the right hand of the Fort, and sent Captain Chaux at the time when it was low water, straight to some little houses which were upon the Banks of the River almost over against the Town to skirmish with them, with instructions that so soon as he should see them pass the River, he should begin to retire, and give them leave to make a charge. Which he accordingly did: but it fortun’d so, that he was wounded in one of his arms with a Hurquebuz shot, and the Soldiers took him and carried him back to the Fort, so that the skirmish remained without a head. The English were soon aware of it, and gave them a very brisk charge, driving them on fighting up to the very Canon. Seeing then our men so ill handled, I start up out of my Ambuscado sooner then I should have done, running on full drive directly up to them, commanding the Soldiers not to shoot, till they came within the distance of their arrows. They were two or three hundred men, having some Italian Harquebuzeers amongst them, which made me heartily repent that I had made my Ambuscado no stronger: but it was now past remedy, and so soon as they saw me coming towards them, they left the pursuit of the others, and came to charge upon me. We marcht straight up to them, and 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, as I had commanded, and we ran on to come to blows; but so soon as we came within two or three pikes length, they turn’d their backs with as great facility as any Nation that ever I saw, and we pursued them as far as the River, close by the Town, and there were four or five of our Soldiers who followed them to the other side. I then made a halt at the ruins of the little houses, where I rally’d my people to∣gether again, some of whom were left by the way behind, who were not able to run so fast as the rest. Monsieur de Tais had seen all, and was sally’d out of the Fort to relieve the Artillery, to whom so soon as I came up to him, I said, Look you, did I not tell you how it would be? We must either conclude that the English of former times were more valiant then those of this present age, or that we are better men than our forefathers. I know not which of the two it is. In good earnest, said Monsieur de Tais, these people retreat in very great haste. I shall never again have so good an opinion of the English, as I have had heretofore. No Sir, said I, you must know that the English who antiently us’d to beat the French, were half Gascons, for they married into Gascony, and so bred good Soldiers: but now that race is worn out, and they are no more the same men they were.
From that time forwards our people had no more the same opinion, nor the same fear of the English, that before.

Blaize de Montluc, John Underhill, John Smith and Humfrey Barwick all outright state that firearms outreach bows. Yet, many wargames have it the other way around. This inaccuracy comes from people comparing the maximum range of a bow when aimed at 45 degrees, which can indeed be hundreds of yards, especially with light arrows, to either the point blank or “effective” range of a firearm. If bows were held to the same consistent standard as firearms, the bow’s effective range would probably not be much over 40 yards.

John Smith battles Indians

This is an excerpt from chapter VI of John Smith’s third book. That is, Sir John Smith the explorer, not to be confused with Sir John Smythe, who wrote a treatise, Certain Discourses, praising the bow over the musket (though the two men have a surprising amount in common).

p. 65:

This gaue vs cause to prouide for the worst. Farre we went not ere seauen or eight Canowes full of men armed appeared following vs, staying to see the conclusion. Presently from each side the riuer came arrowes so fast as two or three hun∣dred could shoot them, whereat we returned to get the open. They in the Canowes let fly also as fast, but amongst them we bestowed so many shot, the most of them leaped overboard and swam ashore, but two or three escaped by rowing, being against their playnes: our Muskets they found shot further then their Bowes, for wee made not twentie shot ere they all retyred behind the next trees. Being thus got out of their trap, we seised on all their Canowes, and moored them in the midst of the open. More then an hundred arrowes stucke in our Targets, and about the boat, yet none hurt, onely Anthony Bagnall was shot in his Hat, and another in his sleeue.

This is similar to John Underhill’s account of the landing at Block Island. Surprisingly few (in this case no) casualties from a multitude of arrows, and the muskets are able to drive off the bowmen by outreaching them.

There are a couple more excerpts I want to post even though they aren’t strictly relevant evidence. Among Thomas Esper’s many mistreatments of Humfrey Barwick in his paper The Replacement of the Longbow by Firearms in the English Army, Esper reports Barwick’s suggestion that musketeers make up for their slow rate of fire by loading their piece with multiple bullets rather snidely. Yet, it was a common practice at the time, which the evidence shows if one is willing to look. For example, during the duel scene in Simplicius Simpliccissimus’s titular novel, he loads his musket with two bullets in preparation. Here are two examples of the practice from Smith:

Third book, chapter II, p. 45:

Sixtie or seaventie of them, some blacke, some red, some white, some party-coloured, came in a square order, singing and dauncing out of the woods, with their Okee (which was an Idoll made of skinnes, stuffed with mosse, all painted and hung with chaines and copper) borne before them: and in this manner being well armed, with Clubs, Targets, Bowes and Arrowes, they charged the English, that so kindly receiued them with their muskets loaden with Pistoll shot, that downe fell their God, and divers lay sprauling on the ground; the rest fled againe to the woods, and ere long sent one of their Quiyoughkasoucks to offer peace, and redeeme their Okee.

Third book, chatper V, p. 56:

Repairing our saile with our shirts, we set sayle for the maine and fell with a pretty convenient riuer on the East called Cuskarawaok,*the people ran as amazed in troups from place to place, and diuers got into the tops of trees, they were not sparing of their arrowes, nor the greatest passion they could expresse of their anger. Long they shot, we still ryding at an Anchor without there reatch making all the signes of friendship we could. The next day they came vnarmed, with euery one a basket, dancing in a ring, to draw vs on shore: but seeing there was nothing in them but villany, we discharged a volly of muskets charged with pistoll shot, whereat they all lay tumbling on the grownd, creeping some one way, some another into a great cluster of reedes hard by; where there companies lay in Ambuscado. Towards the euening we wayed, & approaching the shoare, discharging fiue or six shot among the reedes, we landed where there lay a many of baskets and much bloud, but saw not a Salvage.

Smith also lists the prices of many necessary provisions for colonists. The prices he gives for ammunition are significantly higher than the ones in my previous blog post.

Armes for a man, but if halfe your men be armed it is well, so all haue swords and peeces.

1 Armor compleat, light.

17 s.

1 long peece fiue foot and a halfe, neere Musket bore.

1 l. 2 s.

1 Sword.

5 s.

1 Belt.

1 s.

1 Bandilier.

1 s. 6 d.

2 pound of powder.

18 s.

6 pound of shot or Lead, Pistoll and Goose shot.

5 s.

Ming vs. Qing

This is a short excerpt from a report by a Ming commander in 1646. Lynn A. Struve, Voices from the Ming-Qing Cataclysm, page 139:

“When our troops are beaten, it is because they covet the enemy’s horses; instead of hacking at the horses to bring the riders down, they hack at the [mounted barbarians], who shoot them with short arrows that are deadly within thirty paces. All the soldier from Zhangzhou are able to fend off such arrows with their thick sleeping quilts and therefore often win. But the troops from Yanping and Jianning, relying on their firearms, have nothing with which to cover themselves, so they are defeated…”

Unfortunately there is no more context. Were the troops from Zhangzhou armed with firearms? If not, then with what? Did a musketeer’s gear prevent him from wearing a quilt as armor? Would the troops from Yanping and Jianning do any better if they’d had bows instead?