Bows and Arrows

Though Franklin did propose using them in the Revolution, there was no chance of it. Though thee British contemplated going back to the longbow in 1815 after Waterloo’s abysmal small arms performance, Napoleon’s nation at arms had expanded the size of military forces by too much to go back to the lifelong training needed to make the bow effective.

Thought the Indians were still using the bow well into the 19th century, they preferred the musket almost as soon as they saw a flintlock. Before the Civil War the percussion cap increased ignition reliability by orders of magnitude, and the expaning base bullet increased accuracy and range. The bow was completely dead as a primary military weapon for centuries before Franklin’s suggestion.

It’s customary to provide a link to the column in question, and here it is.

It’s also customary to welcome a poster to the SDMB who doesn’t know that, but since your join date is 2003, you already knew, and just forgot, right? :slight_smile:

Started a thread on a similar subject a few years ago (Something like why use muskets instead of crossbows). It comes down to ease of training, ease of use, rate of fire and logistics in the end. Once bayonets were added to the weapon (especially once ring bayonets instead of the plug type), it became a weapons system that, taken as a whole, was simply better than bows or crossbows (though, IIRC, mounted archers using composite bows were still used until fairly late in the game).

It doesn’t seem intuitive to us today (or, seeming in BF’s day either) because we see movies where archers hit targets with inhuman precision and speed and power, driving shafts through enemies seemingly with ease, even when they are orcs armored in what looks like heavy plate and it’s simply a poncing elf able to shoot two armored baddies at a time and still keep his hair neat and trim. :stuck_out_tongue:

The reality was a bit different than the Hollywood version, though.


Would access to modern compound bows or crossbows change the situation?

Assuming you had the parts and expendables to logistically support then I’d say definitely. I know that a modern crossbow has a lot more power, range, accuracy and higher rates of fire (and using the right tips could probably punch through just about any armor available, let alone against unarmored troops), plus they are really easy to learn to use…certainly you could train up troops to hit large bodies of troops at 100+ yards in fairly short order.

Modern bows would be very similar and have incredible ranges. The trouble would be maintaining and supporting your troops with those types of weapons in the black powder times. Basically, if you could manufacture and maintain weapons like that you could build modern fire arms, which would be even more effective.


I’ll accept that you need decent strength and lots of training to get the most out of a longbow, but who says you need to utilize it optimally? Wikipedia has the effective range of the longbow at 180 meters, compared to 75-100 meters for the flintlock musket. All you need is enough men to blanket an area more than 100 meters out with arrows. So long as you’re using a comparable formation of men as the enemy (Company? Battalion? Somebody wanna educate us?), they ought to be able to decimate an enemy formation of muskets before they can get into firing range.

After all, they weren’t counting on the minutemen to be sharpshooters. They just needed to show up.

Link that thread if you can find it.

Probably a regiment, which is made up of companies and platoons. I don’t think that the Battalion formation was used as much in the times we are probably talking about here, least not from my fictional reading.

As to the other, you not only need a lot of strength (and remember, it’s strength over time…you have to do this over and over again), you need the training. Hell, just stringing a longbow can be dangerous since if you fuck up it can be nasty. Plus, you’d need the skills and materials to make and maintain the bows.

In order to get the ranges and the rates of fire needed you’d need to have archers trained much better than the training given to standard musket troops. Plus, when the formations closed those musket troops would fix swords and charge and your archers would be totally fucked. :stuck_out_tongue:

No, they weren’t sharpshooters, but they needed to do more than just show up. They needed to be able to march in formation, to stand up to fire and deliver fire of their own, and to be able to do at least rudimentary formations. It’s much easier (and quicker) to train people to do these things (and load and fire) than to train good archers. Even when the Brits relied completely on bows they never had enough of them. And losing even one was almost as big a loss as losing a well trained man at arms or a knight (well…maybe not THAT bad).


Here was the thread I was talking about earlier called Why Guns?


But how difficult is it to train archers in massed volley fire, as opposed to shooting accurately? The reason line infantry was effective was not because the soldiers were good shots, it was because when 100 men in line abreast all fire in the same direction at once, it’s bad news for the enemy arrayed in front of the line.

So what you want out of your archers is the ability to deliver lots of shots in the same direction fast, not accuracy. I’m sure that one musket ball is deadlier than one arrow, but try telling that to the infantryman with an arrow in his arm–he’s still a casualty.

Although the effect of volleyed arrows on infantry arrayed in line might not be all that devastating, because you need a high arcing trajectory to hit the narrow line. There you would need good archers, or maneuver them to deliver enfilading fire.

I’m surprised Cecil didn’t mention the psychological component. Even if you were much more effective with a bow vs. a gun, your gun would be *much *more intimidating to your foe. This is due to the gun’s loud report (bang!) and smoke.

From what I understand it’s pretty difficult and time consuming to train archers to fire accurately enough to matter in massed volley fire. Even leaving aside the logistics of bows, string and arrows, think about it logically…everyone who used archers (or crossbows) pretty much dumped them for gunpowder weapons as soon as they could, and by the time of the Revolution guns far outmatched bows/crossbows, especially using mass fire tactics. If bows or crossbows still had utility then someone would have still been using them and fighting against musket armed enemies, and that just didn’t happen afaik (at least not to any benefit of the poor suckers using bows…probably native American Indians against gun wielding Europeans).

For one thing, if you did have archers you’d also need to have some sort of screening force to go with them. Pikemen or spearmen…otherwise the other side would simply soak up the casualties until they could get their cav in range and then…no more archers. If we are talking about during the Revolutionary War then I suppose you could have your musketmen screen your archers, but the thing is that once the enemy closed to a few dozen yards your bowmen would be useless and since you thinned out your musket line the enemy would crush it in a charge while you pulled your bowmen out. Or you’d need to have your highly trained bowmen drop their bows and grab pikes or something to help out in the melee phase of the fight. Any way you cut it the enemy would have a pretty large advantage in numbers in a close action.

There were reasons why the Euro’s abandoned bow and crossbow weapons in favor of the gun. In the early days it was a balance (that’s what that earlier thread I linked too was about), but by the Revolution it was no contest. On every single facet guns were better tools of war than bows.


FWIW an early draft of Cecil’s mentioned it all those items; there was a problem with length and many things (as is typical) had to be shortened or cut.

Cecil did mention the psychological effect of seeing men mowed down en masse, which leads me to ask: was being assigned to the front rank essentially a death sentence? And while war has always entailed risks, sometimes severe risks, was infantry warfare at the time based (even more than in other periods) on the presumption that after X number of battles, none of your original soldiers would still be alive?

One thing that was really overlooked in Cecil’s article is the pointy thing at the end of the musket. These days, we think of bayonets as last ditch weapons, but back in the days of the Napoleanic wars and U.S. Revolutionary war, bayonets played a much more important role on the battlefield. George Washington himself got his butt kicked up and down the battlefield by British troops, and one of the reasons why was the bayonet. While at Valley Forge, besides starving to death and generally having a miserable time, George Washington (with some help from a couple of famous French and Prussian dudes) taught his men how to fight properly with bayonets. When they came out of Valley Forge, they were finally able to go toe to toe with the British army, instead of turning away and running like girls when they saw a line of British troops marching towards them with a long row of pointy things on the front of their muskets.

If you have a group of archers, if they get overrun by infantry, they have to drop their bows and draw their swords, and as a practical matter they can only carry relatively short swords due to everything else that they are carrying and dealing with. So what you really need to protect your archers is a group of men armed with pikes.

A musket replaces both the bow and the pike. Fire the musket and attack the enemy at a distance, then lower the musket and use it as a pike. That is why most muskets were as long as they were. They were specifically designed to be used as pike style weapons. So instead of having a group of archers who don’t do anything when the battle is up close and person and a separate group of pikemen who don’t do anything when the battle is at a distance, now you’ve got all of your men fighting all of the time.

Bayonets accounted for roughly a third of all battlefield casualties in the Napoleonic and Revolutionary wars. By the time of the U.S. Civil War, better weapons and tactics made the bayonet almost obsolete, accounting for less than 1 percent of battlefield casualties. Most military weapons still accept a bayonet these days, but they stopped being of primary importance on the battlefield in the mid 1800s.

This may have been cut out of Cecil’s article for length, but IMHO it’s pretty important as to why muskets took over the battlefield.

Nah. When men fired by rank, the men were staggered a bit so that they could all fire, as this picture illustrates.

So you may have been a bit less likely to be hit in a rear rank, but the rear ranks certainly weren’t using the front ranks as human shields.

You are correct on both counts. You might find these interesting:

  • Franklin also proposed bringing back pikemen. (Parton, James Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin London: Trubner & Co., 1864.)

  • Not wanting to be left behind, even archers tried using bayonets – an illustration from 1789 shows bows with a bayonet screw-mount. (Longman, C. J. and Walrond, Col. H. Archery London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1901.) Whether these ever saw a battlefield…I could find no record of whatsoever.

Cecil and Ed do a ton of great work together for columns, and it’s a shame that some things get left out for length. I’ve suggested that they find a way to lengthen the columns, but that’s not possible for many reasons. So as their Gal Friday, I try to help out where I can to give additional info when folks ask about it on the Straight Dope message board.

Edited: removed repetitive text.

Was there a significant difference in the design and performance of the English longbow and the kinds of bows American indians used? Or is “longbow” a generic term for anything that’s not a crossbow or compound bow?

Everything I have read claims there is a huge difference in accuracy, durability, and power of the bows, with the longbow being much better than native American bows. However, I do not have a citation handy to back that up, nor can I recall any quantitative differences.

Native American longbows (or flat bows IIRC) had lighter draws than English longbows (sorry, no cite either, but IIRC a Native American lb would have a draw between 30-40lbs max, while an English longbow built for battle would be 50, 60 even 80lbs+). In addition they (Native Americans) didn’t use pile or bodkin heads, instead they used bone or stone heads (though they probably got metals after the Euros arrived…not sure about that though, they might have just traded up to muskets and not bothered trying to upgrade their bows much). The arrows weren’t as heavy either (since the bows had lighter draws).

Also, a lot of Native American tribes used shorter hunting bows mainly…bows designed (obviously) for hunting game, not for warfare. They would have been easier to use from horseback, for one thing.

The only bows I know about (historically) that could measure up to the English Longbows for power and accuracy were eastern re curve composite short bows and Japanese longbows. I’ve seen a couple of shows where they test them against each other for speed, accuracy and killing power and while there are trade-offs to each, they are pretty comparable. Native American bows (long or short) just weren’t even in the same universe, which makes sense if you consider that they weren’t designed for war, but instead more general purpose tools.

Disclaimer: I’m not bow expert and much of the above is just stuff I’ve picked up from friends who are bow enthusiasts and from some historical reading (mainly fiction) concerning English Longbows. So, huge grain of salt time.

Definitely agree it was an important factor.

I don’t think a longbows stave would be rigid enough to make an effective pike or spear. I’ve seen examples of people using them as quarter-staves, but even there it would be a last ditch weapon, since you’d be pretty likely to destroy the bow using it that way. Not that an English longbow was all that hard to make, but it still took time and effort to make a good one, and if you used it as a club you’d probably be out of luck trying to use it as a bow again later on.