Musketeers Were Not Easier to Train than Archers

Myth 2: Muskets replaced bows because musketeers are easy to train

Or, as internet commentators like to say, it took years, even decades, of training to make a decent archer, but any peasant could be trained to use a musket in a few hours. Like the myth that bows outranged muskets, the idea that musketeers replaced archers because they were easy to train is completely contradicted by the evidence.

The phase-out of bows from the English military in the 16th century inspired many writers to comment on the advantages and disadvantages of each weapon, and whether the bow still had some use or if it should be set aside completely. Some of these authors, particularly John Smythe, Humfrey Barwick and Barnabe Riche, went into exhaustive detail. Although the authors hotly discuss issues such as lethality, range, accuracy, reliability, rate of shot, the use of formations, grounds of advantage, and so on, not once, not a single time, from either side of the debate, is quick or cheap training mentioned as an advantage of firearms. What we find is the opposite: a firm, repeated emphasis on the need for soldiers to be well-trained, and especially those carrying firearms. Advocates of retaining the bow, such as Thomas Kellie, recognized this: “Also the musquet, as all fierie weapons, is dangerous to them who are Unskilfull, for an unexpert man may spoile himselfe and many about him, which inconvenient is not subject to the Bow.”

Firearms in the 16th and 17th century were dangerous, and not just to the target. Gunpowder explosions happened frequently. The most common ignition method for firearms was the matchlock, which used a smouldering, burning rope, the “match”, to fire the gun. While loading, the musketeer would need to juggle his weapon, the match, which was burning at both ends of the rope, charging powder, priming powder, bullets, ramrod, and a monopod for the heavier muskets. All of this had to be accomplished without accidentally bringing the burning match into contact with the gunpowder. The only way to load both quickly and safely was to follow a precise set of movement, practiced until they could be performed without thinking.

Jacob de Gheyn’s The Exercise of Armes, first published 1607, contains 117 drawings illustrating step-by-step the proper use of the musket, caliver and pike.

Here’s Robert Barret, writing in 1598:

“The fierie shot, either on horseback, or foote, being not in hands of the skilfull, may do unto themselves more hurt then good: wherefore the same is often to be practised, that men may grow perfect and skilfull therein.” Robert Barret, The Theorike and Practike of Moderne Warre, Page 3

If anything, Barrett understates the danger. A small explosion could destroy hands and eyes. History is full of examples of larger disasters, with gunpowder explosions injuring dozens on land and sinking entire ships at sea. The explorer John Smith was forced to leave Virginia and return to England when a lit match ignited his gunpowder while he was sleeping. During a skirmish at the siege of Leith, gunpowder was brought up to resupply the musketeers. A poorly-trained man was still holding his lit match when he reached down to scoop up his powder, and the explosion killed and injured more men than the fighting itself. Untrained musketeers were undesirable not only because they would be poor fighters, but because they could carelessly blow up the rest of the army.

Like most English military men, Barret’s opinion was that the bow and bill were obsolete, but he didn’t think that the bows and bills England already owned should be thrown away. They could still be used by untrained men:

Gent: What, would you have them cast away their bowes and billes, having bene charged with the same already?

Capt: Not so, they may serve yet to many purposes. For all those weapons… [pikes, calivers and muskets], shall serve but for your trayned men: and your bills and bowes, which have every man, or most men can handle, shall, (if neede require) be put in place of service befitting them weapons.

Robert Barret, The Theorike and Practike of Moderne Warre, Page 25

Another suggestion to arm untrained men with bows came from Captain Yorke, writing from the siege of Rouen in 1593. In this time period, besieging armies would try to spare their trained soldiers the dangerous and backbreaking tasks of trench-digging, mining and embattling, leaving those chores instead to unarmed laborers called “pioneers”. Yorke wondered why the pioneers needed to be unarmed, because “If half the pioneers had pikes and the other half bows, they might do something beside digging, for ‘they be natural weapons and therefore need not teaching’.”*

For sure the inconveniences of war often forced raw, untrained men into battle, but this was never considered an ideal situation. Commanders wanted trained, disciplined troops, especially musketeers. As Riche wrote in The Fruites of Long Experience, “Yong souldiers unprovided and sleightly trayned, are not to be drawen into the field against an Armie exercized and beaten with long practise, for unexperimented men are fitter to furnish a funeral then to fight a field.”

This was not just the opinion of armchair generals- it was state policy. Archived in the Calendar of State Papers, a letter dated May 20th, 1584 from the Privy Council to the Commissioners of Musters of the Maritime Counties ordered that a reduced number of men be trained and mustered, but that “the training of the shot is of the first importance.” Another, dated April 2nd 1588, ordered the Lord Lieutenant of Hertford to have his men “completely trained, especially the shot.” And on August 2nd, 1586, the Council informed the Earl of Huntington that “The Queen is chiefly anxious for the shot to be well trained according to your instructions.”

The practice of training musketeers was not invented out of whole cloth overnight. The old laws mandating archery practice on Sunday evenings and holidays were a far cry from the formal, supervised training that a modern army of integrated pike and shot required. The most important difference, from the government’s point of view, was that modern training required vast sums of money. The state could actually raise funds from fining men who neglected to practice archery. But when training a company of musketeers, each soldier had to be paid for his time, the trainer demanded a fee, and the cost of gunpowder used for target practice and mock battles quickly added up. Further, cash prizes were often awarded to the best shots.

The costs were significant enough that early attempts to create elite cores of trained harquebusiers were frustrated by a lack of funds. An aborted 1567 plan to train 4,000 harquebusiers would have cost £16,656 per year, at a time when an ordinary person’s daily wage was eight pence. It was hoped to partially defray the costs of training by charging the public to watch.** In 1573 it was decided that there would be a distinction between the trained bands, who as their name suggests would be actively trained in the use of firearms and pikes, and the untrained masses, largely armed with bows, who would occasionally be mustered for inspection but received no formal training.

Practiced archers were not unavailable, if the state wanted them- the Henrican archery statue remained in force. They were simply less useful than firearms, and limited defense funds were allocated to training men with the modern weapons instead. A multitude of archers would serve as a hastily-raised auxiliary in case of invasion, but the core of the army was to be trained pikes and shot. The governments of Elizabeth and James cared less and less for bows as time went on. The privy council’s 1623 Instructions for Musters and Armes officially ordered that small groups of soldiers practice “upon Sundayes after Evening prayer, and upon Holidayes (as it hath been formerly used for the Bow)”. But Charles I, crowned 1625, was nostalgic for archery. In 1627 Charles gave last-minute orders that 25% of the forces for the Il De Ré expedition were to be armed with bows. The army had not had such a high proportion of archers since the mid-1500’s, and the orders were received so late that some of the levies had already left their respective counties. Although probably not the 25% Charles hoped for, a force of archers still made it to the siege of St. Martin.*** Charles repealed the  Henrican archery statute in 1631, citing the “divers exactions, and other unsufferable abuses committed by colour of the said Commission, to the great trouble, disquiet and discouragement of Our loving Subjects”. It seems that, if anything, the law was being enforced too well, and the fines levied for not practicing with the obsolete weapon had become distasteful.

*Quoted by Mark Charles Fissel in English Warfare, 1511-1642, p. 288

**Boynton, The Elizabethan Militia, p. 59-60

***E.T. Fox, Military Archery in the Seventeenth Century, p. 16-17

Bows Didn’t Outrange Muskets

Myth 1: Bows outranged muskets

Bows and muskets co-existed on the battlefield for hundreds of years and during that time, there were plenty of battles between the two weapons. This blog was started mainly for the purpose of cataloging eye-witness accounts of those battles. There are some common threads running through all these accounts, facts and eyewitness opinions that keep coming up, and one of the strongest is this: in every case where one weapon is said to outdistance the other, it is the musket which has the range advantage.

I have not found a single instance of a battle where the musketeers were unable to return fire because the archers outranged them. This true of battles everywhere in the world. Some examples:

Capt. John Underhill of the Massachussets colony made a contested landing on Block Island in 1646, enduring a spray of arrows from the Pequot warriors on the  beach. Upon making it to the shore, Underhill reported that the Pequot were forced to retreat by the greater range of the New Englanders’ muskets.

…once having got up of our legges, wee gave fire upon them, they finding our bullets to out-reach their arrowes, they fled before us… [Link]

Captain John Smith had a similar experience decades earlier while navigating his shallop on the Chesapeake Bay. Eight canoes of Indians attacked, lodging over a hundred arrows in his boat and his men’s shields. None of the English were hurt, and they were able to force the Indians to abandon first their canoes and then the river shore.

Our Muskets they found shot further then their Bowes, for wee made not twentie shot ere they all retyred behind the next trees. [Link]

In Europe, the most famous archers by far were the English and their longbows. Virtually all extant longbows come from the Mary Rose, an English warship which sank in 1545. A French soldier named Blaize de Montluc left an interesting account in his memoirs regarding a battle he fought against English archers a few days after the Mary Rose sank. Montluc’s soldiers were outnumbered, but they were not worried about the English archers- the Italian harquebusiers supporting them were the real threat. Montluc ordered his own harquebusiers “not to shoot, till they came within the distance of their arrows,” and then, “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,” and ran the English archers off the field. Montluc remarks:

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. [Link]

The English were not slow to notice that their national weapon had been outclassed by modern firearms. Barnabe Riche, a warrior poet who had the distinction of living to be the oldest captain in the English military, spilled more ink that anyone else in his time on the bow vs. musket topic, and was the first to opine in a published work in 1574, where he argued:

I dare undertake that if one hundred of those thousande [archers] doo shoote above ten score [200], that ii hundred of the rest, wyll shoote shorte of ix score [180], and is not this a piece of advantage thinkest thou ? when every Calyver that is brought into the feelde wyl carry a shot xviii score [360] and xx score [400], and every Musquet xxiiii [480] and xxx score [600]. [Link]

Some of the fiercest bow vs. musket combat occurred during the Imjin War, a Japanese attempt to invade China by first passing through Korea, which lasted from 1592-1598. When the war began, the Japanese had large numbers of muskets and were well-trained in their use. Chinese handguns were mostly still of the pipe-on-a-stick variety, and the Koreans lacked muskets at all. A Korean minister who was there at many of the battles, Ryu Seong-ryong, wrote a book about the invasion known as the Book of Corrections.

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. [Link]

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. [Link]

If anybody can find an example of a battle where musketeers were helpless to fight back against archers who outranged them, please let me know! Right now, the evidence seems pretty clear that that musketeers always had the range advantage.

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.

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