When did infantrymen with firearms become more effective than horse-mounted archers?

As I understand it, the reason that early personal firearms were popular for infantry use was not so much that they were more effective on the battlefield than well-trained horse archers, but that it was far easier to train an infantryman to use an early firearm than to train a new horse archer. The former task could be done in weeks, while the latter could (and did) take years.

However, setting training/logistics issues aside purely for the sake of argument (and I know that in real warfare, you never set those issues aside) - at what point did firearm-equipped infantry become genuinely more combat-effective than skilled horse-mounted archers loosing arrows from powerful compound bows?

Gah! Typo in title. Could a mod fix?

Most societies didn’t use horse archers, and the ones who did were primarily steppe peoples…Mongols, Turks, and so on. Firearms were primarily used as a substitute for regular, non-mounted archers.

I’m under the impression that there’s been considerable debate about this, but we can probably narrow it down.

When the Mary Rose, a ship in Henry VIII’s navy, sank in 1545, it was well-stocked with longbows. I recently saw a documentary about the recovery of a ship from Elizabeth I’s navy, which was stocked with firearms instead. That would suggest that we’re looking at the period between 1545 and 1603.

I don’t know the answer to the OP, but I know it was the invention of the machine gun that finally made cavalry obsolete. Made it too easy to sweep a field of fire across a whole cavalry line and just mow down those nice big targets like stalks of wheat before a scythe.

Probably with the introduction of repeating arms.

Previous to that, you have one shot with a rifle, and perhaps some close range shots with small arms (assuming you’re carrying any), then you’re down to your blades. Whereas the rider with the bow is limited only by the number of arrows he carries.

That may give a good date for the shift from crossbow to musket, but OP specified a different question: when would the shift have occurred if training were not an issue. I’ve heard the claim that even during the Napoleanic Wars, crossbows would have been a better weapon if there were sufficient skilled archers. (Cost was also an issue, a good crossbow costing more than a musket, I think.)

Weapons may not be “well-ordered,” which may also complicate the question. If an army switched entirely to bows, their enemy might vary its response. (Crossbows are less effective than muskets, I think, against, e.g., armored knights.)

Battle of Breitenfeld.

At that point, Gustavus Adolphus proved that well-ordered musketeers could take on anybody. And with only a few ranks, at that.

I’m not clear: Is the OP asking at what point infantry with firearms became an equal match against horse archers, or at what point infantry became an adequate substitute for them?

I’m not clear either, now I look at it (my previous answer was on the assumption of muskets replacing longbows for infantry use, as per Captain Amazing’s post earlier).

I think Mr Excellent needs to clarify the question before we can go any further, because as things stand it looks like we’re comparing apples to oranges – horse archers had an entirely different role on the battlefield to infantry (however they were armed). Plus, if we’re setting aside the issues of training and logistics, how exactly are we gauging combat effectiveness? Accuracy? Range? Rate of fire? Mobility?

Longbows were what I was talking about, not crossbows (and the OP was asking about compound bows, which is different again). Let’s try not to complicate more than it already is. :smiley:

I went with rate of fire as the gauge myself, obviously.

Certainly it took a lot more to train an archer (or a horse archer) than it did to train someone to use a musket. Years (or decades) to train the former, months to train the latter. Also, though bows seem pretty low tech, in actuality a horse bow a la the Mongolians or Huns was actually a pretty time consuming and resource intensive undertaking, while the early (and even latter) matchlock and flintlock (but not the wheel-lock) weapons were actually pretty simple to build in quantity. But it was the training that really took a bite in resources and time.

I’d go with the answer given by others and set the time in the late 1500’s to early 1600’s (Gustavus Adolphus period), when several factors came together to create a dominant weapons system. Before that I think it was a toss up between archers and musket wielding troops.

Of course, as some others have pointed out, it’s kind of an apples to oranges comparison, since to be accurate you’d really have to compare horse archers to fire armed mounted cavalry. I’d still say it was around the same period, though I’m less sure there, as I think the wheel-lock pistol and the caracole were in use sometime in the mid-16th century, but I’m not sure about that.


I would say it was the advent of the rifled musket (i.e., the American Civil War.) For the first time the common infantryman could produce a killing fire at a range of a quarter mile or more. The later refinement of organizing the defensive line into three-man fire teams in which the two men loaded and passed weapons to the best shot increased this domination.

The best test of this question is probably when forces with muskets actually had to defeat horse-mounted archers: when Russia began to conquer central Asia. The Russian conquest of the Siberian Khanates spanned the era from the late sixteenth century to the middle of the seventeenth century. So I would say then.

It was more than just the relative ease of training that made the musket win out. The musket may have been less lethal than the bow, but the musket had a greater moral effect; it was loud and made a great deal of smoke. As Napoleon put it “two armies are two bodies which meet and try to frighten each other” and firearms are more frightening. On a range the longbow from the 14/15th century is a much more accurate and faster firing weapon than the Brown Bess musket from the 18th/early 19th century, but formations with muskets didn’t supplement formations of trained archers on the battlefield. They entirely replaced them despite being the “less effective” weapon.

It had already won out over the bow by then, but another advantage the musket had from the mid-17th century on was the bayonet. There wasn’t a need for men armed with pikes and spears to keep the enemy at bay, the musket could be its own spear.

Russian infantry, trained similar to contemporary European models, fought against the Tatar cavalry in the 16th century under Ivan the Terrible (campaigns on the Volga against Kazan and Astrakhan and then the two Crimean invasions http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russo–Crimean_War_(1571) ) and then in late 17th century under Golitsyn and Peter the Great, again against Crimea. For Golitsyn’s catastrophe in Crimea which allowed Peter the Great to oust regent Sophia see here Crimean War (disambiguation) - Wikipedia .

The fact that the Russians generally won probably indicates that their firearms did not (usually) allow the Tatar cavalary to inflict a major battle of annihilation. They could harass them continually, interfere with the (scarce) water supplies in the steppe and avoid heavy losses (except when forced into a head on battle as in 1571) but they couldn’t stop the infantry and artillery from reducing the major fortresses.

Regarding the obsolescence of horse cavalry, it was a long process; they were unable to deal with smoothbore muskets but retained their use long after the introduction of the Maxim machine gun. Barring exceptional circumstances no one was foolish enough to do a traditional cavalry charge against rifled muskets; but cavalry was already impotent against smoothbore muskets a half century before that. A properly formed infantry square in the Napoleonic era was essentially invulnerable to cavalry, though it made a juicy target for artillery. It would take exceptional circumstances for a square to be broken. At Quatre Bras British infantry was taken by surprise and unable to fully form squares before French Cavalry impacted them, and at Garcia Hernandez a French infantry square broke when a horse brained at close range did what no living horse would, it kept going at full gallop and crashed into the French infantry, making a hole in the line. From 1815 'til 1914 cavalry could not be expected to break infantry, but it was still undisputed in its other traditional roles of reconnaissance, screening, raiding, and still sometimes riding down a defeated enemy preventing their escape.

It might be surprising with how much WW2 has been portrayed as a mechanized blitzkrieg war, but the mass of the German army had to rely on horses for supply transport, as did the USSR and every other nation save the US and the Commonwealth who were able to provide enough trucks to fully motorize their supply line, but there were never enough trucks to motorize the poor bloody infantry who had to spend most of their time marching. In this environment cavalry still had its uses. The USSR and to a lesser extent Germany and it’s allies still used large numbers of cavalry divisions in the Eastern Front and in an anti-partisan role Balkans. Barring odd circumstances the horse was just a means of transport, fighting was done dismounted. When 90% or so of the armies on the Eastern Front marched on their own two feet and used horses to move supplies and only 10% was fully mobile with tanks, infantry transported in trucks or occasionally halftracks and their supplies and artillery moved by trucks a force that could move on horseback still had a role to fill. In some of the very rough terrain to be found such as the Pripet marshes, horse cavalry was more useful than motorized or mechanized transport.

Also too, note that the legendary Mongol horse-archer military was a pretty temporary thing. Horse archers, in addition to all their other problems, required a damn lot of resources simply to maintain in the field. In large sections fo the world, it couldn’t be done without massive transportation. The Mongol conquests ended almost right at the point where they didn’t have large steppes availavle to feed on. Moreover, they conquered as much ebcause of the great weakness most if not al of their conquests displayed: they were isoltaed, with small or non-existent militaries, and what they fought were often civilians hastily gathered. In fact, the Mongols didn’t fare so well once they actually fought against trained, disciplined armies, even with inferior weaponry.

Do you mean the Mongol utter military dominance was a pretty temporary thing in historical terms? I can certainly agree with that.

But the use of horse-archers as the primary component of Mongolian military power lasted into the 18th century. The last sizable encounter I can think of won by a more or less traditional Mongol army was in 1731 at Hoton Nor Lake, where ~20,000 nomadic Zunghar troops trapped and eventually largely wiped out a ~10,000 man Qing expeditionary force. The Zunghars surely would have had some some gunpowder weaponry ( the Qing Chinese would have had more ), including “fowling pieces” and probably some light camel-transported cannon, but the core of their military effectiveness was still the bow.

Gotta step up for my not-really-peeps and rather strongly disagree with the above. The classical Mongol empire faced as professional of armies as existed at that time, including that of the Jin and Sung dynasties in China. That the Mongol forces were more professional by dint of Genghis Khan’s radical reorganization is unquestionably one of their greatest advantages ( having a couple of genuine military geniuses was the other big one ). Nonetheless few of their opponents were lightweights. The Jin and Sung deployed comparatively huge armies, as did the Khwarizm Shahs. Nor did the Mongol expeditionary armies had any great numerical superiority over their European counterparts. And when faced with adverse terrain in China, while rapid advances definitely did stop, the Mongol war machine did prove ultimately able to adapt, witness the conquest of the Southern Sung.

There was nothing novel about Mongol horse-archery. It was not that dissimilar to the tactics that had been practiced by the Scythians and every other nomadic steppe nation from the first millenium B.C. to the 18th century as above. It just was professionalized and brought to a temporary peak of effectiveness by an organizational genius, supported by an unusually brilliant general staff.

I’m not sure about that. If “well ordered” means they had developed the tactic of volley fire, where each line of shooters fires, moves back to be replaced by the next line of shooters, while reloading, they can “buy time” to reload while keeping the pressure on. Individual rate of reloading and firing becomes less important.