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:
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.
About midnight we heard a great and hideous cry, and our sentinels called, Arm, Arm. So we bestirred ourselves and shot off a couple of muskets, and noise ceased; we concluded, that it was a company of wolves or foxes, for one told us, he had heard such a noise in Newfoundland. About five o’clock in the morning we began to be stirring, and two or three which doubted whether their pieces would go off or no made trial of them, and shot them off, but thought nothing at all, after prayer we prepared ourselves for breakfast, and for a journey, and it being now the twilight in the morning, it was thought meet to carry the things down to the shallop: some said, it was not best to carry the armor down, others said, they would be readier, two or three said, they would not carry theirs, till they went themselves, but mistrusting nothing at all: as it fell out, the water not being high enough, they laid the things down upon the shore, and came up to breakfast. Anon, all upon a sudden, we heard a great and strange cry, which we knew to be the same voices, though they varied their notes, one of our company being abroad came running in and cried, They are men, Indians, Indians; and withal, their arrows came flying amongst us, our men ran out with all speed to recover their arms, as by the good providence of God they did. In the meantime, Captain Myles Standish, having a snaphance ready, made a shot, and after him another, after they two had shot, other two of us were ready, but he wished us not to shoot, till we could take aim, for we knew not what need we should have, and there were four only of us, which had their arms there ready, and stood before the open side of our barricade, which was first assaulted, they thought it best to defend it, lest the enemy should take it and our stuff, and so have the more vantage against us, our care was no less for the shallop, but we hoped all the rest would defend it; we called unto them to know how it was with them, and they answered, Well, Well every one, and be of good courage: we heard three of their pieces go off, and the rest called for a firebrand to light their matches, one took a log out of the fire on his shoulder and went and carried it unto them, which was thought did not a little discourage our enemies. The cry of our enemies was dreadful, especially, when our men ran out to recover their arms, their note was after this manner, Woath woach ha ha hach woach: our men were no sooner come to their arms, but the enemy was ready to assault them.
There was a lusty man and no whit less valiant, who was thought to be their captain, stood behind a tree within half a musket shot of us, and there let his arrows fly at us; he was seen to shoot three arrows, which were all avoided, for he at whom the first arrow was aimed, saw it, and stooped down and it flew over him, the rest were avoided also: he stood three shots of a musket, at length one took as he said full aim at him, after which he gave an extraordinary cry and away they went all, we followed them about a quarter of a mile, but we left six to keep our shallop, for we were careful about our business: then we shouted all together two several times, and shot off a couple of muskets and so returned: this we did that they might see we were not afraid of them nor discouraged. Thus it pleased God to vanquish our enemies and give us deliverance, by their noise we could not guess that they were less than thirty or forty, though some thought that they were many more yet in the dark of the morning, we could not so well discern them among the trees, as they could see us by our fireside, we took up 18 of their arrows which we have sent to England by Master Jones, some whereof were headed with brass, others with harts’ horn, and others with eagles’ claws many more no doubt were shot, for these we found were almost covered with leaves: yet by the especial providence of God, none of them either hit or hurt us, though many came close by us, and on every side of us, and some coats which hung up in our barricade, were shot through and through.
On his third voyage in 1615, Samuel Champlain again came to the aid of his native allies against an Iroquois fort. Battle was joined on the 10th of October, in what is now Madison County, New York. Champlain ordered the construction of two siege engines for the assault. The first was a tower, taller than the walls of the fort, which was carried withing a “pike’s length” of the palisade and allowed the harquebusiers to shoot down from cover. The Japanese had used similar towers during their sieges in the Imjin War, but it seems that there the towers were placed outside of arrow range rather than close the walls. The second engine was a mantlet which would allow the attackers to set fire to the walls while protected from arrows, stones and water. Champlain’s allies, lacking the discipline to follow his orders or even those of their own captains, abandoned the mantlet as soon as the battle began, preferring to rain arrows uselessly into the fort. While Champlain had been constructing the siege engines, the Iroquois had reinforced their walls so that the harquebuzes could not pierce them.
The next day, at three o’clock in the afternoon, we arrived before the fort of their enemies, where the savages made some skirmishes with each other, although our design was not to disclose ourselves until the next day, which however the impatience of our savages would not permit, both on account of their desire to see fire opened upon their enemies, and also that they might rescue some of their own men who had become too closely engaged and were hotly pressed. Then I approached the enemy, and although I had only a few men, yet we showed them what they had never seen nor heard before; for, as soon as they saw us and heard the arquebus shots and the balls whizzing in their ears, they withdrew speedily to their fort, carrying the dead and wounded in this charge. We also withdrew to our main body, with five or six wounded, one of whom died.
This done, we withdrew to the distance of cannon range, out of sight of the enemy, but contrary to my advice and to what they had promised me. This moved me to address them very rough and angry words in order to incite them to do their duty, foreseeing that if everything should go according to their whim and the guidance of their council, their utter ruin would be the result. Nevertheless I did not fail to send to them and propose means which they should use in order to get possession of their enemies.
These were, to make with certain kinds of wood a cavalier* which should be higher than the palisades. Upon this were to be placed four or five of our arquebusiers, who should keep up a constant fire over their palisades and galleries, which were well provided with stones, and by this means dislodge the enemy who might attack us from their galleries. Meanwhile orders were to be given to procure boards for making a sort of mantelet** to protect our men from the arrows and stones of which the savages generally make use. These instruments, namely the cavalier and mantelets, were capable of being carried by a large number of men. One mantelet was so constructed that the water could not extinguish the fire, which might be set to the fort, under cover of the arquebusiers, who were doing their duty on the cavalier. In this manner, I told them, we might be able to defend ourselves so that the enemy could not approach to extinguish the fire which we should set to their ramparts.
This proposition they thought good and very seasonable, and immediately proceeded to carry it out as I directed. In fact the next day they set to work, some to cut wood, others to gather it, for building and equipping the cavalier and mantelets. The work was promptly executed and in less than four hours, although the amount of wood they had collected for burning against the ramparts, in order to set fire to them, was very small. Their expectation was that the five hundred men who had promised to come would do so on this day, but doubt was felt about them, since they had not appeared at the rendezvous, as they had been charged to do, and as they had promised. This greatly troubled our savages; but seeing that they were sufficiently numerous to take the fort without other assistance, and thinking for my part that delay, if not in all things at least in many, is prejudicial, I urged them to attack it, representing to them that the enemy, having become aware of their force and our arms, which pierced whatever was proof against arrows, had begun to barricade themselves and cover themselves with strong pieces of wood, with which they were well provided and their village filled. I told them that the least delay was the best, since the enemy had already strengthened themselves very much; for their village was enclosed by four good palisades, which were made of great pieces of wood, interlaced with each other, with an opening of not more than half a foot between two, and which were thirty feet high, with galleries after the manner of a parapet, which they had furnished with double pieces of wood that were proof against our arquebus shots. Moreover it was near a pond where the water was abundant, and was well supplied with gutters, placed between each pair of palisades, to throw out water, which they had also under cover inside, in order to extinguish fire. Now this is the character of their fortifications and defences, which are much stronger than the villages of the Attigouautan and others.
We approached to attack the village, our cavalier being carried by two hundred of the strongest men, who put it down before the village at a pike’s length off. I ordered three arquebusiers to mount upon it, who were well protected from the arrows and stones that could be shot or hurled at them. Meanwhile the enemy did not fail to send a large number of arrows which did not miss, and a great many stones, which they hurled from their palisades. Nevertheless a hot fire of arquebusiers forced them to dislodge and abandon their galleries, in consequence of the cavalier which uncovered them, they not venturing to show themselves, but fighting under shelter. Now when the cavalier was carried forward, instead of bringing up the mantelets according to order, including that one under cover of which we were to set the fire, they abandoned them and began to scream at their enemies, shooting arrows into the fort, which in my opinion did little harm to the enemy.
But we must excuse them, for they are not warriors, and besides will have no discipline nor correction, and will do only what they please. Accordingly one of them set fire inconsiderately to the wood placed against the fort of the enemy, quite the wrong was and in the face of the wind, so that it produced no effect.
This fire being out, the greater part of the savages began to carry wood against the palisades, but in so small quantity that the fire could have no great effect. Tehre also arose such disorder among them that one could not understand another, which greatly troubled me. In vain did I shout in their ears and remonstrate to my utmost with them as to the danger to which they exposed themselves by their bad behavior, but on account of the great noise they made they heard nothing. Seeing that shouting would only burst my head, and that my remonstrances were useless for putting a stop to the disorder, I did nothing more, but determined together with my men to do what we could, and fire upon such as we could see.
Meanwhile the enemy profited by our disorder to get water and pour it so abundantly that you would have said brooks were flowing through their spouts, the result of which was that the fire was instantly extinguished, while they did not cease shooting their arrows, which fell upon us like hail. But the men on the cavalier killed and maimed many. We were engaged in this combat about three hours, in which two of our chiefs and leading warriors were wounded, namely, one called Ochateguain and another Orani, together with some fifteen common warriors. The others, seeing their men and some of the chiefs wounded, now began to talk of a retreat without farther fighting, in expectation of the five hundred men, whose arrival could not be much delayed. Thus they retreated, a disorderly rabble.
Moreover the chiefs have in fact no absolute control over their men, who are governed by their own will and follow their own fancy, which is the cause of their disorder and the ruin of all their undertakings; for, having determined upon anything with their leaders, it needs only the whim of a villain, or nothing at all, to lead them to break it off and form a new plan. Thus there is no concert of action among them, as can be seen by this expedition.
Now we withdrew into our fort, I having received two arrow wounds, one in the leg, the other in the knee, which caused me great inconvenience, aside from the severe pain. When they were all assembled, I addressed them some words of remonstrance on the disorder that had occurred. But all I said availed nothing, and had no effect upon them. They replied that many of their men had been wounded, like myself, so that it would cause the others much trouble and inconvenience to carry them as they retreated, and that it was not possible to return again against their enemies, as I told them it was their duty to do….
We remained in camp until the 16th of the month, during which time there were some skirmishes between the enemy and our men, who were very often surrounded by the former, rather through their imprudence than from lack of courage; for I assure you that every time we went to the charge it was necessary for us to go and disengage them from the crowd, since they could only retreat under cover of our arquebusiers, whom the enemy greatly dreaded and feared; for as soon as they perceived any one of the arquebusiers they withdrew speedily, saying in a persuasive manner that we should not interfere in their combats, and that their enemies had very little courage to require us to assist them, with many other words of like tenor, in order to prevail upon us…
…They proceeded to make a kind of basket for carrying the wounded, who are put into it crowded up in a heap, being bound and pinioned in such a manner that it is as impossible for them to move as for an infant in its swaddling clothes; but this is not without causing the wounded much extreme pain. This I can say with truth from my own experience, having been carried some days, since I could not stand up, particularly on account of an arrow-wound which I had received in the knee. I never found myself such a gehenna as during this time, for the pain which I suffered in consequence of the wound in my knee was nothing in comparison with that which I endured while I was carried bound and pinioned on the back of one of our savages; so that I lost my patience, and as soon as I could sustain myself, go t out of this prison, or rather gehenna.
Again Champlain came to the aid of the Montagnai (Innu) and Algonquin against the Iroquois. This battle is larger than the one from my first post, and this time the Iroquois barricaded themselves in a fortress.
On the following day, we all set out together, and continued our route until the morning of the next day, the 19th of the month [of June, 1610], when we arrived at an island off the river of the Iroquois, and waited for the Algonquins, who were to be there the same day. While the Montagnais were felling trees to clear a place for dancing, and for arranging themselves for the arrival of the Algonquins, an Algonquin canoe was suddenly seen coming in haste, to bring word that the Algonquins had fallen in with a hundred Iroquois, who were strongly barricaded, and that it would be difficult to conquer them, unless they should come speedily, together with the Matigoches, as they call us.
The alarm at once sounded among them, and each one got into his canoe with his arms. They were quickly in readiness, but with confusion ; for they were so precipitate that, instead of making haste, they hindered one another. They came to our barque and the other, begging me, together with my companions, to go with them in their canoes, and they were so urgent that I embarked with four others. I requested our pilot, La Routte, to stay in the barque, and send me some four or five more of my companions, if the other barques would send some shallops with men to aid us ; for none of the barques were inclined to go with the savages, except Captain Thibaut, who, having a barque there, went with me. The savages cried out to those who remained, saying that they were woman-hearted, and that all they could do was to make war upon their peltry.
Meanwhile, after going some half a league, all the savages crossing the river landed, and, leaving their canoes, took their bucklers, bows, arrows, clubs, and swords, which they attach to the end of large sticks, and proceeded to make their way in the woods, so fast that we soon lost sight of them, they leaving us, five in number, without guides. This displeased us ; but, keeping their tracks constantly in sight, we followed them, although we were often deceived. We went through dense woods, and over swamps and marshes, with the water always up to our knees, greatly encumbered by a pike-man’s corselet, with which each one was armed. We were also tormented in a grievous and unheard-of manner by quantities of mosquitoes, which were so thick that they scarcely permitted us to draw breath.
After going about half a league under these circumstances, and no longer knowing where we were, we perceived two savages passing through the woods, to whom we called and told them to stay with us, and guide us to the whereabouts of the Iroquois, otherwise we could not go there, and should get lost in the woods. They stayed to guide us. After proceeding a short distance, we saw a savage coming in haste to us, to induce us to advance as rapidly as possible, giving me to understand that the Algonquins and Montagnais had tried to force the barricade of the Iroquois but had been repulsed, that some of the best men of the Montagnais had been killed in the attempt, and several wounded, and that they had retired to wait for us, in whom was their only hope. We had not gone an eighth of a league with this savage, who was an Algonquin captain, before we heard the yells and cries on both sides, as they jeered at each other, and were skirmishing slightly while awaiting us.
As soon as the savages perceived us, they began to shout, so that one could not have heard it thunder. I gave orders to my companions to follow me steadily, and not to leave me on any account. I approached the barricade of the enemy, in order to reconnoitre it. It was constructed of large trees placed one upon another, and of a circular shape, the usual form of their fortifications. All the Montagnais and Algonquins approached likewise the barricade. Then we commenced firing numerous musket-shots through the brush-wood, since we could not see them, as they could us.
I was wounded while firing my first shot at the side of their barricade by an arrow, which pierced the end of my ear and entered my neck. I seized the arrow, and tore it from my neck. The end of it was armed with a very sharp stone. One of my companions also was wounded at the same time in the arm by an arrow, which I tore out for him. Yet my wound did not prevent me from doing my duty : our savages also, on their part, as well as the enemy, did their duty, so that you could see the arrows fly on all sides as thick as hail.
The Iroquois were astonished at the noise of our muskets, and especially that the balls penetrated better than their arrows. They were so frightened at the effect produced that, seeing several of their companions fall wounded and dead, they threw themselves on the ground whenever they heard a discharge, supposing that the shots were sure. We scarcely ever missed firing two or three balls at one shot, resting our muskets most of the time on the side of their barricade. But, seeing that our ammunition began to fail, I said to all the savages that it was necessary to break down their barricades and capture them by storm ; and that, in order to accomplish this, they must take their shields, cover themselves with them, and thus approach so near as to be able to fasten stout ropes to the posts that supported the barricades, and pull them down by main strength, in that way making an opening large enough to permit them to enter the fort.
I told them that we would meanwhile, by our musketry-fire, keep off the enemy, as they endeavored to prevent them from accomplishing this; also that a number of them should get behind some large trees, which were near the barricade, in order to throw them down upon the enemy, and that others should protect these with their shields, in order to keep the enemy from injuring them. All this they did very promptly. And, as they were about finishing the work, the barques, distant a league and a half, hearing the reports of our muskets, knew that we were engaged in conflict; and a young man from St. Malo, full of courage, Des Prairies by name, who like the rest had come with his barque to engage in peltry traffic, said to his companions that it was a great shame to let me fight in this way with the savages without coming to my assistance ; that for his part he had too high a sense of honor to permit him to do so, and that he did not wish to expose himself to this reproach. Accordingly, he determined to come to me in a shallop with some of his companions, together with some of mine whom he took with him. Immediately upon his arrival, he went towards the fort of the Iroquois, situated on the bank of the river. Here he landed, and came to find me.
Upon seeing him, I ordered our savages who were breaking down the fortress to stop, so that the new-comers might have their share of the sport. I requested Sieur des Prairies and his companions to fire some salvos of musketry, before our savages should carry by storm the enemy, as they had decided to do. This they did, each one firing several shots, in which all did their duty well.
After they had fired enough, I addressed myself to our savages, urging them to finish the work. Straightway, they approached the barricade, as they had previously done, while we on the flank were to fire at those who should endeavor to keep them from breaking it down. They behaved so well and bravely that, with the help of our muskets, they made an opening, which, however, was difficult to go through, as there was still left a portion as high as a man, there being also branches of trees there which had been beaten down, forming a serious obstacle. But, when I saw that the entrance was quite practicable, I gave orders not to fire any more, which they obeyed. At the same instant, some twenty or thirty, both of savages and of our own men, entered, sword in hand, without finding much resistance.
Immediately, all who were unharmed took to flight. But they did not proceed far; for they were brought down by those around the barricade, and those who escaped were drowned in the river. We captured some fifteen prisoners, the rest being killed by musket-shots, arrows, and the sword. When the fight was over, there came another shallop, containing some of my companions. This, although behind time, was yet in season for the booty, which, however, was not of much account. There were only robes of beaver-skin, and dead bodies covered with blood, which the savages would not take the trouble to plunder, laughing at those in the last shallop, who did so ; for the others did not engage in such low business. This, then, is the victory obtained by God’s grace, for gaining which they gave us much praise.
The savages scalped the dead, and took the heads as a trophy of victory, according to their custom. They returned with fifty wounded Montagnais and Algonquins and three dead, singing and leading their prisoners with them. They attached to sticks in the prows of their canoes the heads and a dead body cut into quarters, to eat in revenge, as they said. In this way they went to our barques off the River of the Iroquois.
We see similar themes to the other early New World battles. A few musketeers are able to hold their own against a great number of archers. The musketeers multiply their firepower by loading extra bullets. The lethality of the archers is low. Even though an arrow wound through the neck sounds very serious, it did not even put Champlain hors de combat. The muskets, on the other hand, were powerful enough to blast right through the wooden walls of the barricade.
The Indians however were cunning, and successfully adapted to resist Champlain’s muskets, as we will see in the next post.
Andrew Battell was an English trader who spent a very long time as a prisoner and conscript in Portuguese West Africa. He made multiple failed escape attempts.
After Battell’s first attempt to escape by stowing away aboard a Dutch ship, he was sentenced to military service. He spent six years in Fort Massangano before making a plan with some of the Portuguese and Egyptian soldiers to desert.
The fifth day, at night, we came to the river Dande, and travelled so far to the eastward that we were right against the Serras, or mountains of Manibangono, which is a lord that warreth against the King of Congo, whither we intended to go. Here we passed the river, and rested half the night. And being two leagues from the river we met with negroes, which asked us whither we travelled. We told them that we were going to Congo. These negroes said that we were in the wrong way, and that they were Masicongos,and would carry us to Bambe,where the Duke of Bambe lay
So we went some three miles east, up into the land, till we perceived that we were in the wrong way, for we travelled by the sun, and would go no further that way, and turned back again to the westward; they stood before us with their bows, arrows and darts, ready to shoot at us. But we, determining to go through them, discharged six muskets together and killed four, which did amaze them, and made them to retire. But they followed us four or five miles, and hurt two of our company with their arrows.
Battell was captured again two days later, and again sentenced to life in military service.
At that time the governor sent four hundred men, that were banished out of Portugal, up into the country of Elambe. Then I was with proclamation through the city banished for ever to the wars, and marched with them to Sowonso, which is a lord that obeyeth the Duke of Bamba; from thence to Samanibansa, and then to Namba Calamba, which is a great lord, who did resist us. But we burnt his town, and then he obeyed us, and brought three thousand warlike negroes to us. From thence [we marched] to Sollancango, a little lord, that fought very desperately with us, but was forced to obey; and then to Combrecaianga, where we remained two years. From this place we gave many assaults and brought many lords to subjection. We were fifteen thousand strong, and marched to the Outeiro, or mountain, of Ingombe. But first we burnt all Ingasia, which was his country, and then we came to the chief town of Ingombe, which is half a day’s journey to go up.
This lord came upon us with more than twenty thousand bows, and spoilt many of our men. But with our shot we made a great spoil among them, whereupon he retired up into the mountain, and sent one of his captains to our general, signifying that the next day he would obey him.
Battell is frustratingly brief in describing this long campaign, especially the battle against the twenty thousand archers. I would like to find another eyewitness for this battle, but I’m not sure it even has a name. The translator notes that “Battell seems to have been among the reinforcements despatched after the disastrous campaign in the spring of 1596. The “General” of Battell was João de Velloria, a Spaniard, who was Capitâo mór do Campo.”
Battell’s Portuguese comrades soon abandoned him as a hostage to the “Jagas”, a predatory warband, but Battell’s skill with the musket won him the respect of the Jaga’s leader.
We entered into the province of Casama, and came to one of the greatest Lords, which was called Langere. He obeyed the great Gaga, and carried us to a Lord called Casoch, which was a great warrior, for he had some seven years before overthrown the Portugals camp, and killed eight hundred Portugals and forty-thousand negroes, that were on the Portugals side. This Lord did stoutly withstand the Gagas, and had the first day a mighty battle, but had not the victory that day. So we made a sconce of trees after their fashion, and remained four months in the wars with them. I was so highly esteemed with the great Gaga, because I killed many negroes with my musket, that I had anything that I desired of him. He would also, when they went out to the wars, give charge to his men over me. By this means I have been often carried away in their arms, and saved my life. Here we were within three days’ journey of Massangano, before mentioned, where the Portugals have a fort: and I sought means, and got to the Portugals again with merchant negroes that came to the camp to buy slaves.
I’m going to make two or three posts on French explorers and their battles against native archery. This post will focus on Samuel Champlain, explorer of Quebec and the Great Lakes region. Champlain fought in several battles against the Iroquois on behalf of his allies, the Huron and Algonquins.
In July 1609, Champlain and two French companions, armed with harquebuses, traveled with their allies up the Richelieu River and met the Iroquois war party.
After this singing, dancing, and bandying words on both sides to the fill, when day came, my companions and myself continued under cover, for fear that the enemy would see us. We arranged our arms in the best manner possible, being, however, separated, each in one of the canoes of the savage Montagnais. After arming ourselves with light armor, we each took an arquebuse, and went on shore. I saw the enemy go out of their barricade, nearly two hundred in number, stout and rugged ‘ in appearance. They came at a slow pace towards us, with a dignity and assurance which greatly amused me, having three chiefs at their head. Our men also advanced in the same order, telling me that those who had three large plumes were the chiefs, and that they had only these three, and that they could be distinguished by these plumes, which were much larger than those of their companions, and that I should do what I could to kill them.
I promised to do all in my power, and said that I was very sorry they could not understand me, so that I might give order and shape to their mode of attacking their enemies, and then we should, without doubt, defeat them all ; but that this could not now be obviated, and that I should be very glad to show them my courage and good-will when we should engage in the fight.
As soon as we had landed, they began to run for some two hundred paces towards their enemies, who stood firmly, not having as yet noticed my companions, who went into the woods with some savages. Our men began to call me with loud cries; and, in order to give me a passage-way, they opened in two parts, and put me at their head, where I marched some twenty paces in advance of the rest, until I was within about thirty paces of the enemy, who at once noticed me, and, halting, gazed at me, as I did also at them. When I saw them making a move to fire at us, I rested my musket against my cheek, and aimed directly at one of the three chiefs. With the same shot, two fell to the ground ; and one of their men was so wounded that he died some time after. I had loaded my musket with four balls.
When our side saw this shot so favorable for them, they began to raise such loud cries that one could not have heard it thunder. Meanwhile, the arrows flew on both sides. The Iroquois were greatly astonished that two men had been so quickly killed, although they were equipped with armor woven from cotton thread, and with wood which was proof against their arrows. This caused great alarm among them. As I was loading again, one of my companions fired a shot from the woods, which astonished them anew to such a degree that, seeing their chiefs dead, they lost courage, and took to flight, abandoning their camp and fort, and fleeing into the woods, whither I pursued them, killing still more of them. Our savages also killed several of them, and took ten or twelve prisoners. The remainder escaped with the wounded. Fifteen or sixteen were wounded on our side with arrow-shots; but they were soon healed.
Loading the musket with multiple bullets was common. John Smith did the same thing in his skirmishes with Powhatan. Contemporary military writers Humfrey Barwick and Thomas Digges both mention the practice. Digges, an experienced artillerist, put the effective range of this “case shot” at 100 paces.
The problem with loading a musket with more than one bullet is that it increased the pressure in the barrel, and with it the chance that the weapon could explode. Indeed, in an earlier skirmish, Champlain’s musket, “bursting in my hands, came near killing me.”
This is an account by the Peigan Indian Saukamappee, whose life and times were recorded by the explorer David Thompson. Saukamappee describes the radical effect of firearms on Plains Indian warfare. Before, battles were fought with stone clubs and bows, and ended in stalemate unless one side was much larger. With only a handful of guns, Saukamappee’s side was able to turn what looked like a sure defeat by a numerically superior enemy into a victory.
After some singing and dancing, they sat down on the ground, and placed their large shields before them, which covered them : We did the same, but our shields were not so many, and some of our shields had to shelter two men. Theirs were all placed touching each other ; their Bows were not so long as ours, but of better wood, and the back covered with the sinews of the Bisons which made them very elastic, and their arrows went a long way and whizzed about us as balls do from guns. They were all headed with a sharp, smooth, black stone (flint) which broke when it struck anything. Our iron headed arrows did not go through their shields, but stuck in them ; On both sides several were wounded, but none lay on the ground ; and night put an end to the battle, without a scalp being taken on either side, and in those days such was the result, unless one party was more numerous than the other.
Later, when they had guns:
When the War Chief had viewed us all it was found between us and the Stone Indians we had ten guns and each of us about thirty balls, and powder for the war, and we were considered the strength of the battle. After a few days march our scouts brought us word that the enemy was near in a large war party, but had no Horses with them, for at that time they had very few of them. When we came to meet each other, as usual, each displayed their numbers, weapons and shields, in which they were superior to us, except our guns which were not shown, but kept in their leathern cases, and if we had shown[them], they would have taken them for long clubs. For a long time they held us in suspense ; a Chief was forming a strong party to make an attack on our centre, and the others to enter into combat with those opposite to them.
We prepared for the battle the best we could. Those of us who had guns stood in the front line, and each of us had two balls in his mouth, and a load of powder in his left hand to reload.
We noticed they had a great many short stone clubs for close combat, which is a dangerous weapon, and had they made a bold attack on us, we must have been defeated as they were more numerous and better armed than we were, for we could have fired our guns no more than twice ; and were at a loss what to do on the wide plain, and each Chief encouraged his men to stand firm. Our eyes were all on the tall Chief and his motions, which appeared to be contrary to the advice of several old Chiefs, all this time we were about the strong flight of an arrow from each other. At length the tall chief retired and they formed their long usual line by placing their shields on the ground to touch each other, the shield having a breadth of full three feet or more. We sat down opposite to them and most of us waited for the night to make a hasty retreat. The War Chief was close to us, anxious to see the effect of our guns. The lines were too far asunder for us to make a sure shot, and we requested him to close the line to about sixty yards, which was gradually done, and lying flat on the ground behind the shields, we watched our opportunity when they drew their bows to shoot at us, their bodies were then exposed and each of us, as opportunity offered, fired with deadly aim, and either killed, or severely wounded, every one we aimed at.
The War Chief was highly pleased, and the Snake Indians finding so many killed and wounded kept themselves behind their shields ; the War Chief then desired we would spread ourselves by two’s throughout the line, which we did, and our shots caused consternation and dismay along their whole line. The battle had begun about Noon, and the Sun was not yet half down, when we perceived some of them had crawled away from their shields, and were taking to flight.