Early firearms were inferior to longbows and crossbows in a one-on-one comparison since they were not only inaccurate, and pretty unreliable, but also had a lower rate of fire. But despite all these disadvantages, firearms were still able to almost completely replace bows and crossbows on the European battlefields during the 16th century.
That came down to 5 reasons.
- Using firearms required less training than using a Longbow
- Firearms and bullets were easier & quicker to mass produce than Longbows and arrows
- Firearms could be transported while loaded
- The power of a firearm (unlike the power of a bow) is not limited by the strength of the soldier
- The spread of quenched steel armor that could no longer be pierced by arrows
Let`s find out more!
Using firearms requires less training than using a Longbow
While a Longbow had a much higher rate of fire, depending on who you ask somewhere between 6 and 12 arrows per minute than an early firearm like the Arquebus (10-30 shots per hour) the skill level required to properly use a Longbow was also much higher.
To become a decent longbowman, years of training from a young age onwards were needed. Because of that, it is no coincidence that the English king Edward III passed a law in 1363 that forced every able-bodied man to train every Sunday after church for one hour with the Longbow.
That training made the longbowmen a feared fighting force that could even endanger the until then almost undefeatable knights, more on the English Longbow in my article here.
Contrary to that the use of an early firearm did not take years of training. Instead late medieval and early modern manuals set the time needed to transform a civilian into a capable soldier who could use his firearm and operate in formations anywhere between 2 weeks and 60 days.
The reason for that can partially be found in the fact that drawing a strong longbow needed a lot of strength in muscles that were usually not used in normal daily activities. Here you can find out more about the draw weight of English longbows and how effective these weapons were.
So it was much easier and faster to train a new recruit in how to use a firearm than to introduce him to the art of archery that required years of training to master.
And that level of limited training necessary to make a good soldier had another advantage.
If a battle was lost and a large number of skilled longbowmen had fallen then that was a massive blow since these men could not just be replaced in the short term.
By the way, the longbowmen that served in late medieval English armies were men that were hired for the individual campaign and paid per day. Here you can find out more about how much (or rather how little) English longbowmen were paid and what ways they had to make some extra income.
Instead, men had to be found who already knew how to use a Longbow and who had a lot of practice. That problem did not present itself when a large number of soldiers who were armed with firearms (like the arquebusier) had fallen.
Large numbers of fallen arquebusiers (just like other soldiers who were armed with early firearms) could easily be replaced by recruiting civilians and training them for 2 – 9 weeks. The growing population of the Late Middle Ages and the early modern period offered a large reservoir of potential recruits.
By the way, not only was it possible to train large amounts of recruits in how to properly use a firearm much quicker than longbowmen, but the same can also be said for the production of firearms and the bullets compared to the production of a Longbow and a sufficient number of arrows.
Here you can find out more about how many arrows were needed during a battle to keep the longbowmen busy and able to fight.
Firearms and bullets are easier & quicker to mass produce than Longbows and arrows
To build a Longbow, yew wood that had been dried for 1-2 years had to be available. And since every longbow needed an entire log of yew, more on the reasons for that here, large amounts of yew were needed to supply an entire army with longbows. The need for yew was so big that yew even had to be imported from all over Europe (mostly Spain and Italy), oftentimes to the displeasure of the rulers.
The Holy Roman Emporer for example asked the duke of Bavaria to please stop the export of yew to England. A plead that the duke of Bavaria did not follow. By the way, have you ever wondered if Longbows were also used by other states than England? You can find the answer in my article here.
So building a Longbow needed wood that had been dried for 1-2 years and skilled laborers. Building a firearm on the other hand only needed pieces that could easily be mass-produced and that could then be put together even by less skilled workers. And the same is true for the ammunition. Making an arrow is much harder than one might think. You need an arrowhead that has to be forged (and hardened for maximum damage), you need a straight piece of wood for the shaft (or you had to straighten that wood), and you have to put both parts together without making the arrow to bulky.
Firearms on the other hand used lead balls as ammunition. And these lead balls could easily be cast since lead already melts at relatively low temperatures. The lead balls did also not have to be perfectly round or have an exact diameter as long as the bullet could be put into the barrel of the firearm.
So it was much easier to mass-produce firearms and bullets than to mass-produce Longbows and arrows. Now one might ask about the propellant that was needed to fire the firearm. And it is true, while a Longbow is operated with pure elbow grease a firearm needed a propellant.
However, gunpowder that was made from Salpeter, Charcoal, and Sulfur became much more commonly available during the turn from the Middle Ages to the early modern period (1500).
And the fact that a firearm was no longer dependent on the strength of the soldier that used it (unlike the Longbow and to a degree also the Crossbow) had two more advantages that will be explored in the following.
Firearms can be transported while loaded
When using a Longbow it was basically impossible to draw the bow, hold, and then shot after a while (One of the reasons why the version that is often depicted in movies of archers that hold their completely drawn bows until the order to let loose is given has nothing to do with reality).
When a longbow was drawn then the arrow was let loose.
It was not possible to maneuver with a drawn Longbow to, for example, get closer to the enemy’s formation. A firearm however could be transported while loaded. And that offered several advantages.
Warfare in the Middle Ages was mostly a fight between formations of soldiers, not so many individual duels. Here you can find out more about how medieval battles worked.
Let`s assume that two formations, both partially armed with firearms advanced at each other. One of the two lost its nerves and fired before being at the optimal distance. That formation now had to reload while the other formation could come closer, take aim, and fire their weapons that did a lot more damage because of the shorter distance.
Needless to say that that was a huge advantage.
The other reason connected to the dissolution of the connection between the strength of the soldier and the damage that the weapon could deliver can be found in the fact that a firearm, unlike a bow, was not limited by the strength of its bearer.
The power of a firearm (unlike the power of a bow) is not limited by the strength of the soldier
Both the reach of a bow as well as its potential to pierce different types of armor, more on that here, was a result of the bow`s draw weight. The higher the draw weight the further the arrow could fly and the more damage it could do against an armored man.
However, the draw weight was limited by the strength of the archer. If the archer could not draw the bow the now was useless. So the reach and the damage that an archer could archive with his bow was limited by his strength.
The early firearms did not have these limitations since not the strength of the soldier but the amount of gunpowder decided on the force with which the projectile left the barrel. Of course, there were logical limitations to the amount of gunpowder that could be used since these firearms still had to be carried to still qualify as a handgun… Bigger firearms like cannons were however used in sieges, more on that here.
That dissolution of the link between the physical strength of the soldier and the damage that could be done with the long-ranged weapon came in handy since the armor technology also advanced.
The spread of quenched steel armor that could no longer be pierced by arrows
Throughout all of history up until today, there has always been a race between weapon smiths and armorers. And the turn from the Late Middle Ages to the early modern period is no exception.
After 1500AD, armorers in Milan, Italy had started to quench plate armor just like swords instead of just letting it cool down in the air. That made the plate armor even more effective than it already was but also made arrows useless against these new types of steel plate armor.
Have you ever asked yourself how steel was made in the Middle Ages? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
But because quenching plate armor was pretty difficult and made these highly effective armors extremely expensive only a small part of an army could afford them. However, even when faced with mediocre plate armor an arrow would often hit its limits.
For more information on that and the effectiveness of medieval armor, I would like to recommend you my article here.
Only if a well-made arrow hit badly made plate armor at the exact right angle and at a short distance it had a chance of piercing through. But since firearms did not have the strength of the soldier as a limiting factor they had a lot more penetrating power and could punch through plate armor of average quality at a much larger distance than an arrow could.
So there we have it, the 5 reasons why firearms replaced bows even though they were inferior in a one-on-one comparison. I hope you enjoyed our journey into the Late Middle Ages/Early Modern period. And here you can find out more about when firearms were first used in medieval Europe. The date is so early that it really surprised me when reserching for this article.
If you want to find out more about when the Middle Ages ended and the early modern period began (and why several dates could be named for that change) I would like to recommend you my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Malte Prietzel: Krieg im Mittelalter (Darmstadt 2006).