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November 3, 2021

Bows vs Guns

By Seth Isaacson

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During the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin, America's most prominent intellectual, suggested the Continental Army adopt bows as well as pikes. Though Franklin’s idea was rooted in history, his proposal was quickly discarded. But why?

While firearms had been used for centuries, the bow and arrow had been used for millennia by that point, dating back at least as far as 70,000 BCE. So why did firearms eclipse the bow, and why were bows considered so impractical for warfare by the late 18th century that Franklin's proposal gained no traction?

Since we are discussing this in the context of the American Revolution, we'll compare European bows to flintlock muskets, and take a closer look at the advantages and disadvantages of each weapon.

A pair of engraved Snaphance Italian pistols. The snaphance was one of the earliest forms of flint and steel ignition.

Advantages of the Bow

In Franklin's letter to Charles Lee on Feb. 11, 1776, he wrote:

"...I still wish with you that Pikes could be introduc’d; and I would add Bows and Arrows. Those were good Weapons, not wisely laid aside.

1. Because a Man may shoot as truly with a Bow as with a common Musket.

2. He can discharge 4 Arrows in the time of charging and discharging one Bullet.

3. His Object is not taken from his View by the Smoke of his own Side.

4. A Flight of Arrows seen coming upon them terrifies, and disturbs the Enemy’s Attention to his Business.

5. An Arrow sticking in any Part of a Man, puts him hors du Combat ’till ’tis extracted.

6. Bows and Arrows are more easily provided every where than Muskets and Ammunition.

The English Longbow was a devastating weapon on the medieval battlefield.

In addition to Franklin's comments, which are largely correct, I would add:

·         Bows and crossbows are quiet and thus better for ambushes.
·         Arrows can be recovered and reused.
·         Bows are easier and cheaper to produce than firearms.
·         Bows like the English longbow are more accurate over greater distances than a musket in the hands of a well-trained archer.

A Germanic/Swiss Renaissance style sporting crossbow dated to the mid 16th century to early 17th century. Crossbows shared many of the same advantages as bows, though were more complex to produce.

Advantages of Guns

There are plenty of reasons why a country like England that was famous for its archers switched to firearms and why numerous Native American tribes quickly adopted firearms as their main weapons whenever they were available, particularly east of the Mississippi, and why often when one tribe had greater access to firearms they were able to overpower their less well-armed foes and neighbors.

A rare documented Jacob Dickert Pennsylvania Militia contract flintlock American Long Rifle with bayonet, from the George Moller Collection.

·         While Franklin noted the sight of arrows as have a psychological shock effect, the booming of guns and muzzle flash also has a psychological effect on the opposing force. This is particularly amplified in cases where the opposing force is unfamiliar with firearms and their limitations.
·         Firearms require far less training to use proficiently enough for battle, especially when used in traditional linear warfare.
·         Because less training is involved, individual musketeers/infantrymen are more expendable and armies could be built, rebuilt, and expanded more easily.
·         An 18th century musket mounted with a bayonet also served as a pole arm and could fight opponents likewise armed with muskets and bayonets like the British Royal Army.
·         Firearms double as clubs even if they can’t mount a bayonet.
·         Firearms are more durable, especially if properly maintained.
·         Firearms were better at piercing armor and shields.
·         Lead balls are lighter than arrows and many more can be carried.
·         Lead balls are easier to create than arrows. Granted, gunpowder is also necessary, though can be produced in large batches where arrows require individual assembly for each of their many components.
·         Generally speaking, a direct hit from a musket ball packs significantly more force and generally produces more significant wounds than a common arrow.

Why did Guns Replace Bows?

Given both weapons had their advantages, why was the bow laid aside? The key to capitalizing on the bow’s advantages was training.

English archers famously trained their whole lives in bowmanship, and the physical impact of this strenuous specialization can even be seen in archaeological investigations of their bones. Since guns had already replaced bows long before the American Revolution, the Continental Army did not have trained archers ready to be armed with bows and arrows. Indeed, they barely had time to train the men in the basics of being proficient soldiers let alone time and the expertise needed to raise companies of reliable archers.

Archery required far more extensive training than learning to fire a gun.

This begs a question though: why did England and its colonies and the rest of Europe leave archery behind in the first place? Many scholars focus heavily on the reduced need for training in order to make a man proficient in the use of a musket compared to a bow. Any poor farm hand or vagrant could be trained to load and fire a musket and fire it accurately enough to pour fire into the enemy ranks in a short time. When European battles often included massive clashes of men, numbers matter. Losing men mattered too, but compared to an archer that took years to train, an infantryman with a musket was fairly expendable.

Early on, the fact that guns could penetrate armor and still deal significant damage more readily than a bow and arrow also helped lead to an end of the era of the heavily armored knight, since a peasant with a gun could now take him out, and this must also be considered. For the American Revolutionaries, this was less of a concern since armor had long been discarded by the late 18th century.

The age of armored knights came to end after firearms became widely adopted in Europe.

Given the advantages of firearms, the lack of trained archers in the colonies, and the fact that we were ultimately able to procure enough firearms to arm the men, it is no surprise that in the long run guns, not bows, were the main weapons of the Continental Army.

How Guns Conquered the World

As you move closer to the modern day, the advantage firearms have over bows only grows greater. Bows generally remained cheaper and quieter, but with improvements in firearms including repeating firearms, breech loading rifles, metallic cartridges, etc. firearms became the clear choice, and firearms helped comparable small European armies dominate large portions of the globe.

Firearms played a primary role in European colonilization.

If you look at many of the major battles during the 19th century European colonization of Africa and Asia, you will find numerous examples of vastly outnumbered guntoting European soldiers holding off massive assaults of opponents who were armed with traditional weapons like the bow. Also, for most of this period, the Europeans were still using single shot rifles, the advantage was still clear.

Documented Revolutionary War era attributed British short land new pattern "Brown Bess" flintlock musket. From the George Moller collection.

Guns vs Bows in the Old West

Similar events also played out in the American West where superior firearms often led to devastating defeats of Native Americans who were trying to maintain control of their lands. One of the more famous examples of this is the Battle of Walker’s Creek.

The Colt Paterson became a force multiplier on the Texas frontier.

Fifteen Texas Rangers armed with Colt Paterson revolvers and led by Captain Jack Hays fought off Yellow Wolf’s estimated 75 Comanche warriors in a running battle. Had they been armed with single shot pistols, the Comanches would have likely had the upper hand with their bows, but the extra firepower of the Colt revolvers allowed them to hold off and kill many of the Comanches in the battle.

The situation was most famously reversed at the Battle of Little Bighorn where it was the Native Americans who had more advanced repeating firearms among their vast array of weapons while the outnumbered 7th Cavalry fought primarily with single shot Springfield Trapdoor rifles. Notably, some of the warriors also used bows in the battle.

The Henry Rifle was one of several types of repeating guns used by the Native Americans at Little Bighorn.

The Legacy of the Bow

One key counterpoint to the advantage of firearms over bows is the use of composite bows in the Ottoman Empire and parts of of Asia, interestingly the very part of the world where gunpowder and firearms first originated. Though Oda Nobunaga famously used matchlocks to defeat his rivals and unify Japan, in some parts of Asia, bows remained culturally and militarily entrenched and were prominently used into the 1800s, especially for cavalry.

Oda Nobunaga employed thousands of matchlocks in his campaign to overthrow the Ashikaga shogunate.

Mongol and Ottoman horse archers were and are among the most famous bow and arrow armed combatants the world had ever seen. In many cases, the production of the best composite bows in places like the Ottoman Empire was actually more complex and time consuming than producing muskets and thus, expensive.

Even where the bow remained in use long after the introduction of firearms, advancements in firearms led to the replacement of bows with firearms as the primary weapons of war of the major armies of the world by the end of the 19th century, and though there are rare examples of men like Jack Churchill taking a longbow and broadsword into battle as late as WWII, firearms are firmly secure as the main weapons of soldiers around the world.

The Bow Today

Though the bow and arrow and muzzle loading firearms have been eclipsed by modern firepower and could hardly be considered suitable for warfare today, both classic weapon types remain in use in the present. In many parts of the world archery and muzzle loading have been kept alive via hunting.

In the U.S., many states have special “primitive” hunting seasons set aside for archers and muzzle loaders. They are also often employed by reenactors interested in getting in touch with their heritage, and many find enjoyment in learning to be proficient with both weapons even if they are only punching holes in targets.

Both have also remained part of popular culture, but here the bow and arrow reigns over muzzle loaders (though certainly not guns as a whole), due in part to the romanization of talented archers such as the long famous Robin Hood along with new characters like Katniss Everdeen in 'The Hunger Games' series and Daryl and others in 'The Walking Dead'. Bows have also lingered on with appearances in various video games as stealthy weapons for dispatching zombies in games like 'The Last of Us' or for traditional hunting in games like 'Red Dead Redemption 2'.

The Evolution of Guns

Ever since the first cannons were invented in China 800 years ago, the firearm has changed the face of warfare. The history of the gun is the history of the modern world. Rock Island Auction Company frequently plays host to a vast array of historic weaponry, and December's Premier Firearms Auction is no exception.

From Japanese matchlocks and high art wheellocks, to Colonial-era flintlocks and onward, December's auction features an extensive collection of firearms throughout the ages. And the best part is, everything can be examined firsthand when the Rock Island Auction Company Preview Hall opens for exhibition on Tuesday, December 2nd at 10 a.m. It's one of the most comprehensive displays of historic firearms available for public viewing, and a true testament to the impact the gun played in shaping the world we know today.

Sources/Further Reading:

Esper, Thomas, “The Replacement of the Longbow  by Firearms in the English Army.” i no. 3 (1965): 382-93.

Lanan, Nathan, "The Ottoman Gunpowder Empire and the Composite Bow," The Gettysburg Historical Journal 9, no.1.

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