Longbows vs Muskets ?

Hello ,

I often see films of reenactments of British musket battles
where each general marches a massive line of troops and goes
muzzle to muzzle with the enemy resulting in massive losses
always . I read somewhere that for accuracy esp during the US revolt the British smooth bores had to be this close for them to be effective . Then I see some history program about
British longbows (as well as the origins of the two finger
insult from which the longbow came , knew about that for a while) . The longbows seemed to have a good range at least 20-30 metres , so here is my question during the US rebelion
would longbows have been more effective than the smooth bore
muskets used by the British? , and when did guns become more effective than longbows ?.

They would be quieter and easier to load than muskets - BIG advantage for a guerilla-type force like the Americans. But… as for accuracy and range, I think a long rifle would be better (even moreso if rifled). Not to mention that a wooden stick penetrating only does cutting-and-poking-type damage, and a lead ball travelling at a signifigant fraction of Mach 1 would create splat-type damage along with the penetration. Fire an arrow at an apple, and the arrow merely knocks the apple off the stand, and maybe dislodges a chunk or two. Fire a musket, and the apple becomes applesauce.

Longbows had a range of more than 20-30 metres, though, if you were aiming at a group. That would factor in if you were hiding behind a log in the woods aiming at a British supply convoy. In those situations, a bow would have been better. But guns rapidly became a more effective weapon, and the question of gun/bow was answered in the Civil War when the Spencer repeating rifle was introduced (eliminating the bow’s reload advantage).

Summary: bow was a better close-in weapon during the early gun period, but soon became obsolete with new tactics and new weapon designs.

The technical capabilities actually turn out to be irrelevant. In many ways, the longbow was definitely superior to most of the personal firearms in the first 200 years of firearm development.

a longbow requires a *lot[/] of practice to use. A firearm can be pretty much pointed and fired. A bow requires much more effort and skill. The training (both initial instruction and constant practice) required to keep the longbow as an effective weapon simply could not be maintained without a(n expensive) full-time standing army. As the European nations moved toward developing such armies, firearms were also undergoing developments to increase, range, accuracy, and ease of use.

The brief period in which the longbow was effectively employed by British armies was the result of a a favorable conjunction of social and military customs that survived for fewer than 200 (some would say fewer than 100) years.

At least two things came into play with the introduction of the musket. The damage caused and the training needed to accurately use a long bow as opposed to a musket.

You are entirely correct that the long bow as used by English yoemen for centuries was a incredibly accurate weapon. But you must also remember that many of the yoemen trained for years (in some cases decades) to perfect that talent. The musket, while complex in its operation by modern standards, was something that could be taught in a matter of days for adaquately competent use.

Second, it was necessary for a yoeman to hit a vital area with an arrow to be effective. A ball shot even with a smooth-bore musket had incredible distructive power.

Would it have been effective during the American Revolutions for the British to have long-bow men? Well to a certain extent they did. It was not unknown for them to employ Native Americans with bows and arrows as a type of sharpshooters. This was always effective since many of the Native Americans were uncomfortable with the English tactics.

Sorry, should have read “not always”

heh well i would have had trouble with most British tactics
before 1950 , they always seem to be a bit off , proven in the Zulu wars WWI and arnheim (but that was a combined tactic)


World War I tactics were the same on every side. Of course, that doesn’t make them good ones, but to single out the British for their failure is a bit harsh. Arnhem was a cock-up caused by poor intelligence, a lack of belief in the intelligence that was received and an overly-optimistic plan for the ground forces. The tactics weren’t to blame, and the plan (IMHO) wasn’t a bad one. Bad planning and intelligence, and a desire for a spectacular success were to blame.


Gawd, I sounded pompous there. Sorry.

Actually, during the Revolution soldiers were taught not to aim, because the guns were inaccurate anyway, and didn’t have high muzzel velocities, so were only effective when the bullets came as a barrage.

[hijack]During the Revolution, the states regulated who could have guns, who they could be sold to, etc. They armed their militias by collecting the privately owned guns for the militias (relatively uncommon- if you look at how few people who joined had them, and the lengths the states went to collect them) and preventing militia members from selling them outside the militia. Back then, the right to bear arms really was determined by the state’s need to form a militia, not the individual’s right to do what he wanted with it.[/hijack]

And of course in Japan, the Samurai bowman was considered to be vastly superior to the peasant musketeer. The differenc is that a Samurai is an expensive professional who has dedidicated his entire life to warfare, while any peasant can be handed a musket and told to point it at the enemy and pull the trigger.

The fact that massed peasant musketeers were cheaper than elite Samurai archers lead to the gun being banned for centuries in Japan.

IRT the Welsh Longbowman: It was said, that to properly train a Welsh Longbowman, you started by training his grandfather. Churchyards were often planted with yew trees specifically for the manufacture of bows, and a whole day was set aside for archery practice each week. It’s labor intensive to maintain a force of longbowmen. OTOH, you make muskets and stack them in armories. When you need an army, you call a muster, pass out the arms, and have a few weeks practice and drill. Voila! Instant army!

In a stand-up fight between equal numbers of well-trained musket-armed and bow-armed soldiers, I’m thinking the fight would go to the archers, the first time. After that, the archers would start losing, as they couldn’t replace their casualties as fast as the musketmen.

And their arrows? I’d think the ability to mass produce shot and powder would be another factor in favor of the musket. How hard is it to make a good-quality arrow (without my NC lathe…)?

If you’re referring to the palm-back V-sign, please divorce yourself of this silly idea. The gesture most likely has nothing to do with archers proving they still had their fingers. The gesture has roots possibly as far back as 2000 years. While its origin, like that of all gestures, has some degree of uncertainty, nearly all the explanations offered by linguistic scholars point to it being a sexual insult. The two fingers may variously represent the female genitals, female pubic triangle, female spread legs, symbolically inserted fingers, modified cuckold sign, male double phallus, or male enlarged phallus. These last two explanations, by far the best supported, imply that the gesture is merely a modification of the infamous digitus impudicus.

Well, lead shot is certainly easier to make than a good arrow, but fletching isn’t terribly difficult, at least in the quantities needed for this purpose. For industrial scale warfare, however… That’s a different story. I’m thinking that on an industrial scale, making a musket is faster and simpler than making longbows (which require much skilled hand-work and a good stock of yew trees).

First of all, the ball punches a hole in one. The hydrostatic shock that one person brought when discussing shooting apples, has been disproved.

Second, an arrow can cut and do more damage throgh hemmorage.

third, much of the deadly power of a weapon at the time was done not by the missile, but by the ensuing infection.

fourth, To launch volleys of arrows at a field of soldiers, one needs about 2 days of training (I was an archery instructor.)

Now, that said, there had to be some other reason that guns became the weapon of choice. We are missing something.

What’s being missed is: The socio-economic implications of Muskets and Longbows.

To maintain a militarily viable force of longbowmen, you need an armed populace, they have to support their leaders (how do you make an armed populace show up for an unpopular leader? You replace the leader!), and they have to have time to practice. In the kinds of societies current in the 1500s, only one or two nations could get that together. It’s far cheaper to have speciallist build large quantities of muskets (or arquebii. Arquebusses? Oh hell with it: Matchlocks), which are easier by far to make, and can be stored until needed. When you’ve got a war, you conscript your peasants, arm them with matchlock and pike, and proceed to try to steam-roll your opponent. Not much room for the relatively egalitarian longbowman in that kind of a world, and since longbowmen are expensive to train and keep, once they went out of style, there was damned little hope of bringing them back.

For reference, look up the 30 Years War.

Hey folks,

The Sagittarius Twente University Archery Club in the Netherlands http://www.student.utwente.nl/campus/sagi/ has a very nice series of articles about archery in general, along with several about longbows specifically, and one about the decline of longbow archery-- http://www.student.utwente.nl/campus/sagi/artikel/decline/decline2.html The general gist of this article is similar to the comments already made, but it does give some references for the suppositions. Toward the end, the author sums up thusly:

“Unlike firearms, the longbow needed a great deal of practice to work up the muscles, skill to enable one to get the aim without the use of sights or other aids, and a great deal of dedication. Not only this, but the noise, fire and smoke of firearms, apart from disconcerting the enemy also, like the old war-cries and shouts, heartened one’s own side. And there was the desire of the common soldier not to be left behind in the “march of progress”. The sneers from musketeers would have made archers feel inferior, unless they could also have been armed with a pistol and perhaps rewarded with higher pay.”

Anyway, read it and see what you think.

As a slight hijack (apologies) I believe a bit of slight correction to an earlier statement is in order, and that is that musket soldiers were not taught NOT to aim, which would imply that they could just hold their muskets any which way. The Manual of Arms of 1764, (as well as earlier versions) instructed the soldier to level his firearm and look down the barrel (the command “Present!”). Also, at least in America, both British and American troops did train at “shooting at marks,” even though there were obviously limits of accuracy with a smoothbore musket. After von Steuben’s arrival in America and his subsequent efforts to train the American army, a subtle change (among many overt changes) was made to the commands of the musket drill. The previous British drill command of “Present!” (the act of leveling the firearm) was replaced with “Take Aim!” So, in general, even though everyone was aware of the poor long range accuracy of smoothbore weapons, soldiers were not relieved of the responsibility of aiming as carefully as they could.

Also, (‘nother hijack, sorry) the issue of gun ownership among colonists and various confiscations or regulations and their justification for current gun laws is probably better served in another thread, but state issuance of firearms to individual militias was not universal, and in the case of Georgia, militia members were expected to provide their own arms and ammunition. If you want, you can check my profile below and visit the website of the reenacting unit I am a member of for a copy of the Georgia Militia Act, along with links to a huge bunch of other folks who do similar costumed-gun-nut-type stuff.

Sorry for the long post and extraneous info.


“The sneers from musketeers would have made archers feel inferior”

i dunno , archers would then possibly be battle veterans as they wouldn’t get killed as often as regulars armed with muskets since they have to go close so close you can see the whites of their eyes , while archers would be possibly further back as they have superior range

oh and going muzzle to muzzle wouldn’t only be likely to get me killed it’d scare my pants off since you KNOW that
somebody is going to die in the first few exchanges , and that somebody may just happen to be you , in which case i wouldn’t mind being laughed at by musketeers for having a trusty longbow , but then i read somewhere that British fighting the scots using muskets could be defeated by charges of men with swords until the bayonette came about

In the bad 'ol days, they’d quite willingly stand in ranks and take fire. Read some of the accounts of the Thirty Years War. Not only would men stand shoulder to shoulder and receive cannon and matchlock fire, they’d manuever cohesively and willingly walk right into a bunch of 15-foot spears (pikes). Of course, they had pikemen of their own, but still, we’re not talking about charges, we’re talking about a measured stride, aiming to collide with mass of sharp pointy things.

As for range, it still doesn’t matter, because while it takes generations to train a population to support longbows, it takes just days to train someone to fire a musket or matchlock, and mere weeks to train them on formation marching. Simply because gunpowder weapons were inaccurate at first didn’t mean they couldn’t kill at range, just that you’re unlikely to hit the man at whom you were aiming. You could still kill the man behind him, or the man to either side. If you spread the archers out enough to protect them from innacurate fire, you also dilute their applied fire to the point where the musketeers can successfully march right up into effective range, so, your archers are going to take casualties. Then, the replacement effect comes into play…