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.

Juan de Palafox y Mendoza – The History of the Conquest of China by the Tartars

Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, Bishop of Puebla in Mexico, was privy to reports of the Manchu conquest of Ming China via the Phillipines. Though he had never been to China himself, Palafox used those reports to write a detailed history of the conquest. Throughout, the Manchu are referred to as Tartars.

Pages 521-522

The Tartars exercised their Souldiers every day before the Palaces of their Vice-Roys : There they drew up the Troops in Battalia, and fired at one another with their Muskets and Guns as eagerly, as if two Armies had been contending for Victory. They had likewise Prises, and persons appointed to take notice of, and recompense the address and expertness of those who shot with Bows and Guns every day at a mark. Whosoever hit the mark with three Bullets, or three Arrows, had given him, as a reward, a little piece of Siver Plate, fashioned like a shell, worth about four Julio’s ; ( a Julio is in value about six pence sterling : ) He who hit the mark twice had one worth about two Julio’s ; and he who hit it but once had one only of the value of one Julio. But they who missed the mark thrice were instantly bastinado’d. And to disgrace them the more, were publickly hooted and hissed at, or else had some other affront put upon them. The Tartars were not obliged to these exercises, but the Chineses of those Provinces, who had submitted themselves, that by custome they might learn not to be afraid of Guns or Arms. They designed by this continual exercise, to disaccustome them from that Effeminancy and Laziness, in which they had lain so long buried. These idle Fellows would very willingly have been excused from this trouble. But they deserved to be learnt by their Enemies the exercise of Arms, that they might carry them in their Service, since they so little concerned themselves, to make use of them in the defence of their own Country, and for the preservation of themselves.

Page 524-526

[The Manchu] Bows and Arrows are their most honourable Weapons, of which they are very proud, and take pleasure in shewing how skilfully they can shoot with them, which they do so dexterously, that several person with one draught of the Bow will let fly three or four Arrows at a time, with that force and violence, that should they at a due distance hit any man, the lightest would pierce him quite thorough. Their Bows are rather little than great. They are light but very strong and solid. Their Arrows are some long, some short, but all so strong, that they will pierce through a stiff board : The Iron heads are made four square, or triangular, but long and extraordinary well pointed and tempered.

They had no Fire Arms, when they first entred into China :  But as soon as they had possessed themselves of some places, they took out all the great Guns, Muskets and Fire Arms, which they found, and made use of them ever afterwards. But they never employed any Tartars as Cannoneers and Gunners, but only Chineses, and some few Europeans : Nor suffered any to carry Muskets or Fire Arms, but only the Chineses of those provinces which had submitted themselves, with whom they encreased their Army, that they might the sooner compleat their Conquest. As for Petards or Fire-works, they neither know how to make them or use them, nor how to spring a Mine. It may seem strange, that the Tartars would thus put their best Weapons into the hands of their new Subjects, and not learn how to handle them themselves. That they should train up both Citizens and Countrey people in their Military Discipline : For which several persons censure the Conduct of Xunchi, as likewise for entrusting the Princes of his Family with so great a Power. But this Monarch was convinced that the more he confided in his Uncles, the more he engaged and secured their Loyalty ; and by manifesting how little he feared, and how much he slighted the Chineses, he made them the more dread of his valour, and the courage of the Tartars.

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?

Baron Marbot’s Encounter with Mounted Archers at Dresden and Liepzig, 1813

Some people suppose that the only reason muskets replaced bows was the musket’s superior ability to penetrate armor. It is often suggested on various history and video game boards that a line of Napoleonic musketeers, lacking armor, would be annihilated by an equal number of archers, were the two ever to encounter one another. The theory goes that muskets, supposedly possessing inferior accuracy, rate of shot, and range relative to bows, wouldn’t stand a chance. Fortunately, there is no need to debate this on theoretical grounds because Napoleonic troops, did, in fact, have at least one major encounter with archers.

The following passages come from The Memoirs of General the Baron de Marbot. Marbot was an officer of cavalry in Napoleon’s army. In his account of the events before and during the Battle at Liepzig, 1813, Marbot recounts the oddity of men armed with only bows and arrows trying to defeat soldiers armed with musket, lance and saber.

In this first passage, Napoleon’s army is still camped around Dresden when they are attacked by 60,000 Russians, including many mounted archers. Marbot’s description of the bow’s ineffectiveness stand on their own:

During our stay on the plateau of Pilnitz, the enemy, and above all the Russians, received many reinforcements, the main one, led by General Benningsen was of not less than 60,000 men, and was composed of the corps of Doctoroff and Tolstoï and the reserve of Prince Labanoff. This reserve came from beyond Moscow and included in its ranks a large number of Tartars and Baskirs, armed only with bows and arrows.

I have never understood with what aim the Russian government brought from so far and at such great expense these masses of irregular cavalry, who having neither sabres nor lances nor any kind of firearm, were unable to stand up against trained soldiers, and served only to strip the countryside and starve the regular forces, which alone were capable of resisting a European enemy. Our soldiers were not in the least alarmed at the sight of these semi-barbarous Asiatics, whom they nick-named cupids, because of their bows and arrows.

Nevertheless, these newcomers, who did not yet know the French, had been so indoctrinated by their leaders, almost as ignorant as themselves, that they expected to see us take flight at their approach; and so they could not wait to attack us. From the very day of their arrival in sight of our troops they launched themselves in swarms against them, but having been everywhere repulsed by gunfire, the Baskirs left a great number of dead on the ground.

These losses far from calming their frenzy, seemed to excite them still more, for without any order and in all directions, they buzzed around us like a swarm of wasps, flying all over the place and being very hard to catch, but when our cavalry did catch them they effected a fearful massacre, our lances and sabres being immensely superior to their bows and arrows.

Napoleon, amused by the sight of the “cupids”, asked Marbot to capture some so that he could meet them. Marbot did so in an ambush, capturing thirty and killing many more. Napoleon rewarded with the title Baron.

Marbot would encounter horse archers yet again at Liepzig:

Facing a terrible cannonade, and continual attacks, the French line remained steadfastly in position. Towards our left, Marshal Macdonald and General Sébastiani were holding the ground between Probstheyda and Stötteritz, in spite of numerous attacks by Klenau’s Austrians and the Russians of Doctoroff, when they were assailed by a charge of more than 20,000 Cossacks and Baskirs, the efforts of the latter being directed mainly at Sébastiani’s cavalry.

With much shouting, these barbarians rapidly surrounded our squadrons, against which they launched thousands of arrows which did very little damage because the Baskirs, being entirely irregulars, do not know how to form up in ranks and they go about in a mob like a flock of sheep, with the result that the riders cannot shoot horizontally without wounding or killing their comrades who are in front of them, but shoot their arrows into the air to describe an arc which will allow them to descend on the enemy. This system does not permit any accurate aim, and nine tenths of the arrows miss their target. Those that do arrive have used up in their ascent the impulse given to them by the bow, and fall only under their own weight, which is very small, so that they do not as a rule inflict any serious injuries. In fact the Baskirs, having no other arms, are undoubtedly the world’s least dangerous troops.

However, since they attacked us in swarms, and the more one killed of these wasps, the more seemed to arrive, the huge number of arrows which they discharged into the air of necessity caused a few dangerous wounds. Thus, one of my finest N.C.O.s. by the name of Meslin had his body pierced by an arrow which entered his chest and emerged at his back. The brave fellow, taking two hands, broke the arrow and pulled out the remaining part, but this did not save him, for he died a few moments later. This is the only example which I can remember of death being caused by a Baskir arrow, but I had several men and horses hit, and was myself wounded by this ridiculous weapon.

I had my sabre in my hand, and I was giving orders to an officer, when, on raising my arm to indicate the point to which he was to go, I felt my sabre encounter a strange resistance and was aware of a slight pain in my right thigh, in which was embedded for about an inch, a four foot arrow* which in the heat of battle I had not felt. I had it extracted by Dr.Parot and put in one of the boxes in the regimental ambulance, intending to keep it as a memento; but unfortunately it got lost.

You will understand that for such a minor injury I was not going to leave the regiment, particularly at such a critical time…

Marbot’s comment that the archers were “the world’s least dangerous troops” echos Sir Roger William’s description of bowmen as “the worst shot vsed in these days” more than two centuries earlier. The low lethality of wounds inflicted by arrows is consistent with other accounts.

*Tartar arrows are long, but not four feet long. Marbot may be forgiven for overestimating the size of an arrow sticking out of his thigh.