Today an archer at my local archery club gave me the opportunity to try his reconstruction of a 15th century crossbow. He reported that the weapon was 95#, and was loaded using a hip draw.
I shot at a foxed-shaped target 22-25 yards away. The first shot struck the body of the fox exactly where I had aimed. Amazed, and more confident on my second shot, I aimed at the fox’s head, and hit the eye.
I am extremely impressed. The crossbow was actually easier to aim and shoot than a rifle, despite having no sights except the tip of the bolt. A problem with firearms is that the shooter may anticipate the recoil, jerking their body and throwing off their aim just as they squeeze the trigger. This crossbow had no recoil to anticipate. I also found the lever-style trigger easier to squeeze without changing my aiming point, as I could press it with the strength of my whole hand rather than with one finger. Granted, the crossbow is fairly light by 15th century standards and a heavier one may not have been so pleasant.
I have been practicing archery intensely for three months now, but at the same distance, I could probably hit the fox’s head at the same distance with my 60# recurve only on maybe one in three or four shots. With my matchlock I can achieve similar accuracy to the crossbow, but I have to work harder for it, splitting my mental processes between aiming, not anticipating the significant recoil, keeping track of the match, and squeezing the trigger smoothly.
A history book I read about a year ago said that Qi Jigaung, a 16th century general famous for defeating the pirate invasion of southern China, had mostly ignored musketry and focused on contact weapons. Since it didn’t seem like there would be any bow/musket comparison I forgot about him until coming across the name again in Tonio Andrade’s The Gunpowder Age. Andrade is kind enough to provide several translated quotations highly relevant to the bow vs. gun debate. There are pages of great material. Andrade has collected many East Asian sources that I had to discover on my own. I wish that I’d bought this book years ago.
[Qi Jiguang] explained that he first understood the power of arquebuses when he lost his first battles against the Japanese pirates. “Having suffered setbacks and been thus forced to consider things, [I] used defeat to strive for victory and replaced [our] bows-and-arrows with the tactic of proficiently firing muskets.” Perhaps he was predisposed to favor guns because his father had been vice commander of the firearms division of the capital army in Beijing. In any case, Qi became a partisan of the the arquebus. “It is,” he wrote, “unlike any other of the many types of fire weapons. In strength it can pierce armor. In accuracy it can strike the center of targets, even to the point of hitting the eye of a coin [i.e., shooting right through a coin], and not just for exceptional shooters…. the arquebus is such a powerful weapon and is so accurate that even bow and arrow cannot match it, and … nothing is so strong as to be able to defend against it.” Arquebuses, used in combination with traditional weapons, allowed him to fight successfully against the pirates.
Andrade devotes several pages to the drilling techniques Qi developed for the harquebuze, casting doubt on the idea that he adopted guns because of supposed quick and easy training. Qi’s musketeers were expected to be robotically disciplined, not firing their guns until ordered, following the steps of their drill patterns without any mistakes.
So Qi drilled his troops pragmatically, writing dismissively of training regimes involving lance dances and fancy martial arts moves. The first step was to train recruits in the individual skills of their weapons, and the matchlock arquebus was notoriously tricky. As the great military historian Sir Charles Oman once quipped, “It was said that muskets would be more practical if Nature had endowed mankind with three hands instead of two.” The problem was the fuse. It couldn’t be allowed to go out, and so one had to keep it burning while pouring powder first insto the barrel and then into the flash pan. Careless arquebusiers blew themselves to pieces. European commanders famously divided the task of shooting an arquebus into multiple steps, which authors have considered to be a sign of Europe’s incipient modernity.
Qi, too, divided the process of loading and shooting into discrete steps, painstakingly training his musketeers to load and shoot according to a precise sequence. They practiced together in rhythm to a special musket-loading song:
One, clean the gun.
Two, pour the powder.
Three tamp the powder down.
Four drop the pellet.
Five drive the pellet down.
Six put in the paper (stopper).
Seven drive the paper down.
Eight open the flashpan cover.
Nine pour in the flash powder.
Ten close the flashpan cover,
and clamp the fuse.
Eleven listen for the signal,
then open the flashpan cover.
Aiming at the enemy,
raise your gun and fire.
Something interesting here (to me, at least) is that Qi’s method was to load the main charge first and the priming charge second, while in Europe it was the opposite. Qi’s countermarch technique was also opposite. European musketeers who had just fired would leave the front rank and go to the back. In Qi’s method, the soldiers in the rear rank would come forward and stand in front of the soldiers who had just fired to take their turn.
The harquebusiers were inspected frequently.
Once the equipment passed inspection, the men demonstrated their mastery of the loading sequence, carrying out the procedures as officials sang the song. Then, guns loaded, they advanced to the shooting range and lined up in ranks, a hundred paces from the target. In the Ming period, a pace was about a meter and a half, which would put the target about a hundred fifty meters away.
I hate when historical sources use “paces” as a unit of measure. You never know if it’s meant to mean a pace with one foot or both. Fortunately Andrade clarified the distance.
Incentives and punishments were collective, although individual skill was also rewarded. Qi even included in his manuals sample assessment forms, with blank spaces to be filled in with the names of soldiers and spaces for recording grades. When filling them in, a commander was to consider not just target strikes but also posture and composure. If a gunner flinched while he fired, he got a lower mark, even if he hit the target. Expectations for accuracy seem to have been quite high, and wages depended on performance in trials (and, of course, in combat).
Qi’s experiences demonstrate how important it was that harquebusiers are willing to let themselves be trained. As in other nations, there were those who clung to the old weapons.
His most pessimistic discussions of the musket seem to have referred to his experiences in northern China. Whereas he’d been able to start with a clean slate in the south, raising and training his own forces of peasant mercenaries, in the north he found himself in command of soldiers entrenched in their weapons, such as the fast lance (kuai qiang), a type of gun similar to a fire lance, with a long handle and, in some cases, more than one barrel: “In the north,” he wrote, “soldiers are stupid and impatient, to the point that they cannot see the strength of the musket, and they insist on holding tight to their fast lances, and although when comparing and vying on the practice field the musket can hit the bullseye ten times better than the fast-lance and five times better than the bow and arrow, they refuse to be convinced.”
Many people wouldn’t believe that a musket is five times more accurate than a bow and arrow, or that they were effective to the 150m Qi’s harquebuzers practiced at. Andrade speculates that Qi’s troops may have been using rifles. I don’t think so. A muzzleloading rifle must have a patch wrapped around the bullet like a little coat to help it grip the rifling as it is shot out, or else the rifling will provide no benefit. A naked lead ball would be very difficult to size against a rifle barrel. Barrels are often not of perfectly uniform size all the way down, and barrels expand and contract based on temperature. Fouling would make the bullet too hard to ram down after the first or second shot. Using a slightly undersized ball wrapped in a patch was the only satisfactory way to get the rifle to impart spin on the bullet until the invention of the miniè ball. No patch is mentioned in the loading song. The loading song specifically has the bullet rammed down first, followed by paper wadding. Paper wadding would not be necessary to secure the ball if it was already secured by a patch.
Qi’s musketeers were to carry their powder and shot in “thirty [bamboo] tubes, and put them in the leather sack, and hang it on the waist.” Descriptions from the Opium War indicate that Chinese musketeers were carrying their powder in a similar fashion about 250 years later. The problem with carrying powder in this manner was that it could spill out onto the musketeer’s clothes and get ignited by the matchcord.
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.
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. Even those who wanted to retain the bow in military service, such as Thomas Kellie, recognized that “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.
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
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.