Why guns?

Since this seems the week for historical debates, I’ve always been curious about something. Why exactly did the early Europeans adopt the early gunpowder weapons? The accuracy sucked, as did the rate of fire. I know the long bow the English used had a much higher rate of fire and in the same range as a musket would be effective could also punch through armor. The crossbow also had higher rates of fire around the same them the musket came into use. Were crossbows more expensive to produce en masse? Could they not be volley fired with mass formations the same as gun powder weapons? Was it more difficult to train crossbowmen than musket formations? I’m sure on the long bow side it WAS more difficult to train them (though probably cheaper to equip), but it seems the benifits of rate of fire over the musket would have made them more effective in those early battles.

Assume my assumptions are correct (always a risky business :)), why were gun powder weapons adopted as personal arms (I can see, I suppose, why cannon and such were adopted as they were more effective than other siege type weapons)? Did no one try and field mass crossbows backed up by archers against Arquebus or slow match weapons? Why or why not?


I suspect that the ammo was cheaper/easier to make.

One factor involves the use of cannon against fortified targets, in this case the issues of rate of fire and accuracy were npt so great.

As for military muskets, these took tome to be accepted, but the appeal there involved the power, rather than rate of fire or accuracy. Crossbows, at least the more potent ones, took specialised strength and skill to charge. Early muskets were thought of as teeny tiny cannons, and were thought of as an equaliser between heavily armored and/or horsed troops, and the admittedly limited range and accuracy of these early weapons still could exceed the reach of the long, pointy and or heavy weapons used by the heavily armored people on big horses.

Another factor is that guns are simple. Archers take years to train properly, musketeers months or even just weeks. With the advent of guns, raising masses of inexpensive, relatively easily replaced but still reasonably effective troops became that much easier. Lose a slew of trained archers in a single battle and it might be awhile before you could replace them.

For example it has been argued that the key crippling issues for the Ottomans after Lepanto ( 1571 ), wasn’t the loss of ships ( which were quickly replaced ), but rather the thousands of crack archers that served as marines on them. By contrast the Catholic powers could much more easily replace their gunners.

  • Tamerlane

Could the psychological effect have played a role? Something that made a big bang and a lot of smoke might have unnerved opponents and entranced generals in search of something new.

It seems to me that the steps involved in loading and firing a musket would be easier to drill than those required of crossbows. The visual intimidation of ranks of musketeers all doing the same thing at the same time might be demoralizing for an enemy facing them. It would look like a large machine with one purpose.

Certainly this would have been a factor. But what about the crossbow? I remember reading that it was pretty easy to train up a crossbowman…and I would assume they could and would be fired in similar ways (i.e. en masse from mass formations on relatively flat trajectories). And with the winding mechanisms it was quicker and easier to reload (and also improved the rate of fire).

Gun powder and bullets might have been a bit cheaper than arrows or bolts I suppose (though wasn’t gun powder pretty expensive early on?). But the guns themselves had to be more expensive to produce than a bow or crossbow (well, maybe not a cross bow I guess).

But a long bow had an effective range of around 200 yards (100 yards I suppose against heavy armor) and the cross bow was around 100 yards too IIRC. While the early matchlocks couldn’t have had an effective range, even fired en masse, of more than what? 40 yards max? And the rate of fire of the two older systems had to be at least double, if not tripple or more (in the case of the bow).

If a crossbow bolt would drive through plate, and a bodkin arrow fired from a long bow would do the same, and if they fired faster…I just don’t see why anyone would have adopted the gun except maybe, as others have said, because it was a lot cheaper to produce and to train soldiers. Until the flintlock musket and the bayonette it just doesn’t seem like the gun is a better system than the older crossbow and long bow to me. Its always puzzled me why the Euro’s went that way and stuck with it until the system WAS really more effective.


My guess is it made a loud bang. Explosions are fun and make men giddy with excitement. So that and how that instilled a certain degree of terror in the enemy.

If I recall correctly, the first hand-held firearms were more like little cannons, with muskets coming along later, with rifled barrels after that.

Rifled barrels were much later, and slower to load. They were much more accurate.

First of all, this was not just a european phenomenon. the Japanese did exactly the same thing. Prior to the first arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, Japanese armies were highly bow-heavy… indeed, contrary to what people seem to think, the signature weapon of the samurai was not the sword, but the bow. But after they got a hold of guns, Japanese forces dumped bows in favour of guns as quickly as they could; by the time Tokugawa kicked the white guys out of Japan, Japan’s armies were the most heavily gunpowder-armed armies in the entire world, and produced the world’s best firearms.

It’s almost entirely due to the issue of training. The difference really cannot be overstated; an archer took years to train, abd a musketman could be trained in a couple of weeks. Archers also have to be quite strong to draw truly powerful longbows; any dork can fire a gun, as evidenced by the fact that I’ve done it.

If you had an army dependent upon archers, and you suffered heavy losses, well, that was it. Your army was toast, for at least a year, assuming your kingdom survived not having a missile-armed army for that long. A musket-heavy army could be replenished with fresh musketmen in a month.

It was, thus, not so much a choice as it was the survival of the fittest. Your bow-dependent army was out of action for a year or more when you had a bad day. My gun-dependent army was ready to go in three, four weeks. No matter what technical advantages the bow might have had at one point an army that is ready to fight will always win over an army that hasn’t even replaced its losses from the last battle.

With the line-'em-up-and-march-them-toward-the-enemy style of war, accuracy might not have been so important. If you shoot into a row of soldiers, you’re going to hit someone, even if it’s not the guy you’d targeted.

A population with lots of yeoman archers is a bit harder to control than a population of guys trained to operate government owned guns, which need government owned powder and shot to work. Although really good bows were the work of artisans, arrows were made by peasants, and commoners. In England, for generations the government subsidized archery with tournaments and prizes. That stops being necessary with the advent of the musket. You take your existing pike men, and turn them into musket infantry. At first, terror is their major weapon, but in a generation or so, the proportions of available archers, vs. available musketmen shifts.


For a long time, bows were competitive with firearms. But bows were a mature technology (although the compound bow wasn’t developed until the 1960s) and the ongoing developement of improved firearms eventually made them the clear choice.

Shock and awe, man. Is what I’m thinking.

Shock and awe, easier to train people, and at a similar size a pistol has more punch than a dagger (the dagger has the advantage of being reusable). A crossbow is BIG, not something you can carry under your coat.

There are a couple of reasons why firearms were so quickly and eagerly adopted by the major militaries of the day. One of the major ones, however, is this:

Gunpowder weapons scare horses.

If you’ve got Cavalry charging on arquebusiers, the very noise and smoke of the arquebusier’s volley can be enough to throw the horses into disarray, allowing the pikemen and other footsoldiers to close in and engage in melee.

Also, a musketball is (generally) more damaging than an arrow or crossbow, and the medieval Europeans were religious/superstitious lot… weapons involving smoke, fire, and sulphur must have seemed vaguely… unholy, or at least awesome in their power to the people on the receiving end.

As has already been mentioned, guns were very useful for siege warfare- Constantinople was only taken because the Ottomans had a rather impressive array of Cannon.

Crossbows and Bows also require a degree of physical strength (or a cranequin) and training to use, whereas pretty much anyone can point an arquebus in the general direction of an enemy army and apply a match to the the touchole.

Interestingly, the Japanese are the only culture in history to have turned their backs on gunpowder- once Tokugawa kicked the Europeans out, the Samurai reverted to swords and bows. However, they did continue to manufacture and use matchlock arquebuses and cannon on a very limited scale, and they were also well aware of the flintlock mechanism and other such advances in firearms technology, thanks to the Dutch (who had a trading post at Nagasaki). To further this historical tangent, the arrival of Commodore William Perry & Co in 1853/1854 wasn’t a surprise to the Japanese- the Dutch traders had already warned the Japanese that the fleet was coming.

I wonder if the ascendancy of firearms over the crossbow in particular was due to the bayonet. After all, with a bayonet, the musket is a missile weapon and a spear, whereas a crossbowman cannot fire and then quickly switch over to the defensive as quickly. And despite the relative ascendancy of firearms, close combat remained one of the primary factors in battles up until the ascendancy of the rifle in the Civil War era (and even occasionally after that until the ascendancy of the submachine gun.)

The English at the time of The Battle of Culloden liked to say that it was the bayonet and a new drill in its use that helped break the Jacobites, who relied more on hand to hand fighting and the Highland Charge. However, at this particular battle, the English had chosen a good place to fight and were better fed and rested than the Jacobites. All most all previous engagements had ended in Jacobian victories, so take from that what you will.

Although I’ve always imagined that unless a “primitive” army came out and fought in the field, a modern army was at fairly high risk unless it stayed in a large group, or until repeating guns were developed (like the Colt revolver.)

I think the answer is simpler than that:
The gun fanciers were geeks.
They loved toys and inventions.
And the tinkerers loved gun especially, because there were so many ways to attempt to improve them and profit from them, the same motivation as Web 2 pioneers have today.