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Home > Books > The British Archer > Observations on the utility of tha bow as a weapon of war.
Part I: Observations on the utility of the bow as a weapon of war.

On entering into the examination of the merits of our ancient weapons, which once gave us with inferior numbers, so decided a superiority over our enemies, it may be remarked, that, on a comparison with the effect of small arras, the total disuse of the Longbow, in the field, has been directed without due consideration, and that in the decision, as has been observed by Mason and others, blind prejudice prevailed over experience.[73]

"The Bow is evidently the only weapon, that can always afford advantage, (even to great inferiority of numbers) from its excellence depending on greater powers of strength, activity, and calm resolution, for which the English soldier has ever been justly remarked, over all the other troops of the earth."

Mr Mason clearly shews, that the Long-bow is the only efficient weapon of reach, that can conveniently be used with the pike, without being cumbersome, and he proves, that were the use of the Longbow added to our present mode of warfare, much advantage would be gained!

It appears from a statement by Marshall Count Saxe, in his memoirs, that on a computation of the balls used in a day's action, not one of upwards of eighty-five takes effect: and Mason remarks, "By the observation on battles of a later date, the effect falls infinitely short of the above proportion ; which can be clearly proved by the review of the various actions of the present day." He cites the effect of musketry, at the battle before Tournay, May 22nd, 1794, between the French and the Allies, from six o'clock, A.M. till nine at night. The French lost, at the highest calculation, 10,000 men, killed and wounded ; and the Allies 5,000. The ground was open. The French brought into action 100,000 men, the Allies 60,000. Reckoning the proportion of our infantry, at 40,000, and supposing at a moderate average, that each man expended 32 rounds, a total of 1,280,000 balls were discharged, to occasion the above loss of the enemy, making 180 shots to the disabling of one object, without bringing into computation the proportion of the loss, that might have been occasioned by the bayonet, the cavalry, and artillery, though these causes on that day, may reasonably be concluded to have occasioned half the loss. In this case, upwards of 236 shots of musketry must have been fired, to have disabled one man. The effect of a musket ball cannot be judged of, according to its great extent of range, if shot in elevation, which may be about 1,000 yards. It cannot be exactly determined, but by its efficient direction within a reasonable distance; which, as the place is levelled, is reduced, at the highest elevation to about 200 yards, and the aim at this distance is very uncertain. The common range of an ancient English-long-bow, when discharged in elevation, was from 9 to 12 (and 15[74]) score yards, and sometimes more. From the greater pressure of air on the shaft, than on the bullet, and from the gravity being in the pile, it would descend at its ultimate distance, before it had lost its force, and would then do execution, whereas, the force of ball in a like situation, would be spent.

A bullet, if it miss its direction, by overshooting the object, will most probably go to its utmost range without effect; whereas, the arrow, if it miss the front rank, may yet descend on the rear, and do equal execution; at least, one shaft in ten would strike. Here then evidently appears an advantage in favour of the bow, in point of certainty of shot, of no less than upwards of twenty to one ! and as an archer can discharge at least two arrows for one musket shot, even this proportion is doubled.

In the foregoing well authenticated anecdotes, it has been shewn, that the ancient English archer could pierce the stoutest and best tempered steel armour, such as had required three years for its completion, and the most careful management in the course of its manufacture. The present Austrian cuirassier, carries a breast plate made musket proof. Now, as we may presume that a soldier of the nineteenth century, cannot bear more weight of armour, either partially or generally,[75] than one of the days of Edward III. could, it may be concluded, that the force of the arrow must have been more effective, than the modern bullet from the common musket. In these days, however "of noise and smoke," imagination alone is left to enable us to form conjectures of the prodigious power and terrific effect of the ancient English Long-bow and arrow, as a weapon of war. We may say, that scarce a shadow remains of that substance, which once was so truly formidable to our enemies.

Mason supposes a body of 1000 archers opposed to another body, not archers, of even great superiority of numbers, " What impression," he remarks, " must it not have on the enemy, the sight, and effect of at least 6000 arrows flying on their line in a minute ! Under such flights kept up without intermission, how would it be possible for either horse or foot, to perform their evolutions, or not fall into rout and disorder, amidst such carnage, and visible danger ? Musketeers, are enabled to keep their order, as opposed to each other from not seeing the missiles sent against them."

Sir John Smith, in his discourse on weapons, says, " Bullets discharged are invisible, therefore do no ways terrify the sight; and by reason of their frequent failing in their points and blanks, do then neither kill nor hurt Howbeit, the vollies of arrows, flying together in the air, as thick as hail, do not only terrify, and amaze in most terrible sort, the ears, eyes, and hearts, both of horses and men, with the noise, and sight of their coming, (much like a tempestuous wind, preceding a tempest,) but they also in their descents, do not leave in a whole squadron, so much as one man unstricken, and not wounded with divers arrows, if the number of the archers be answerable to the number of the squadron. And therefore, for the experience that both I, and many others, both noblemen, gentlemen, and great captains of many nations that I have served amongst, have had of the small effect of weapons of fire in the field, with the reasons and differences before alledged ;—for my part, I will never doubt to adventure my life, or many lives, (if I had them,) amongst eight thousand archers, complete, well chosen, and appointed, and therewithal provided and furnished with great store of sheaves of arrows, as also with a good overplus of bows and bowstrings, against twenty thousand of the best harquebussiers and musqueteers, that are in Christendom."[76].

Sir John Smith, speaking of such "men of war," as seemed to prefer the musket to the bow, says, "by which their opinions and reports, it seemeth, that as they are utterly ignorant and without any experience of the effects of archers, so are they as ignorant of all notable histories; or else, according to the new fashion, they do believe nothing but that which they themselves have seen, which in troth appeareth to be very little." The pen of Sir John Smith, has furnished us with many interesting anecdotes and reflections on the value of archery. His opinions on the long-bow, as a weapon of war, were looked upon with much respect; he was a warm advocate for the continuation of the use of it in the field, with the fire arms of the day, and so were also many other great officers of experience.

Clement Edmunds[77] writes, "The disorder or routing of an enemy which is caused by the bowmen, cometh from the fearful spectacle of a drift of arrows : for a shower of arrows well delivered and well seconded, for a while is so terrible to the eye, and so dreadful in success, that it is almost impossible to keep the enemy from routing: for, whereas the cloud of arrows is subject to the sight[78], and every arrow, is both suspected and able to bring death sitting on the head, an enemy is as much troubled at such arrows as come fair upon him and do not hit, as those that do hit j for no man is willing to expose his flesh to open and imminent danger, when it lieth in his power to avoid it, and therefore, while every man seeketh to avoid hurt, they fall into such confusion, as besides the loss of particular men, the enemy can hardly escape disorder, which is the greatest disadvantage that can befall him. The barbed heads of arrows are not easily pulled out, which maketh the soldiers not mind the fight, untill they be delivered of them, and the horse to fling and chafe, that it is impossible they should either keep their rank, or be otherwise managed for any service."

It has been observed, that the point blank range of a musket shot, is about 120 yards, but that in action, it cannot be much depended on beyond 100. Beyond 80 toises or 160 yards, the fire of a line of infantry can seldom have a great effect.[79] The descent of a flight of arrows at nearly double this distance, suppose upon a column of cavalry, or upon a column of infantry, is as certain for killing, wounding, and throwing into disorder, as at 160 yards. Also, the strong steel pointed head of the arrow would, in some respects, give it the advantage of the leaden bullet.

Experiments have lately been made, to ascertain the claim for certainty of shot, between the musket and the bow. In order to accomplish this design, one of the best muskets was loaded with the greatest nicety, the powder used, was of the best quality, and the quantity was previously weighed, and proportioned with the utmost exactness to the weight of the ball, which was confined with muslin or fine rag, instead of paper. In short, every precaution was taken, to afford the musket its true and full effect. The victory was to be decided in twenty-one shots at a small target, distance 100 yards, and the result of the trial was, that out of twenty-one shots, the musket put eleven, and the bow fifteen, into the target. The experiment was repeated twice, but the bow continued the successful weapon.[80] This trial, however, could not shew the advantage of the bow over the musket, in its fullest point of view ; for had an army been shot at, instead of a target, every arrow which went wide of or over the mark, would have taken place, while the bullet, having passed over the heads of the front rank, would probably pass over the heads of the other ranks.

A variety of positions might very readily be shewn, wherein the bow could prove itself to be a most effective weapon, even in modem warfare .[81] The bow and musket should they ever be brought together in the field, might, with good regulations, be made materially to assist and to support each other. The arrow might frequently be called into action, to the check and annoyance of an enemy, when the musket would be wholly useless; and in many cases, in conjunction with musketry, where great unevenness of ground existed, &c. If these weapons should ever be found in aid of each other's powers, then the wonder will be more generally excited, that the bow had been so long neglected.


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