I have two sides in a conflict, one utilizing a larger, highly trained, military of soldiers and archers. This side is invading (crossing a large body of water, with appropriate logistical hurdles implied) another side which is utilizing an equivlent of muskets but currently has a much smaller standing army.

I want to ensure the musket side is at a disadvantage in the early conflict, but I want the battle to be close. To do this I need to get a better idea of how close muskets are to bow & arrows, in particular, to get an idea of how much I need to skew numeric superiority either way to give the correct level of advantage between the two sides.

So, for example, imagine a fight with 1000 soldiers on both sides. One side is wielding early muskets, about the strength of muskets Europe had when setting up colonies on the New World. The other side has well crafted bow and arrows. Both sides are experienced and well trained with good leadership. Both sides are wearing little if any armor. Which side has the advantage? How significant is this advantage? Finally, how drastically does this change if I the archers are switch with combined arms with both archers and swordsmen (no cavalry) attacking the musketeers?

At first glance one may say muskets, but I'm not certain. My understanding is that early muskets main advantage was logistical, you could train up rank amateurs to competence in a fraction the time it took to develop a good bowman; and it was logistically easier to provide arms for rifles. I'm not certain that in combat muskets were actually superior weapons if logistics and training were not a factor.

I'm looking for historic information: I want this to be as factually accurate as possible. Ideally I'd like answers only from those with actual knowledge about the weapons on historic battles to back their answer with.


closed as off-topic by sphennings, Bellerophon, L.Dutch, Vincent, Aify Aug 7 '17 at 17:06

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    $\begingroup$ Archers, They could fire quicker and 1 arrow is roughly as dangerous as 1 musket ball. $\endgroup$ – Bellerophon Aug 7 '17 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ Asking "Who would win in a fight?" isn't asking about building a world. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Aug 7 '17 at 14:01
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    $\begingroup$ I figure this is off topic as it doesn't really focus on any aspect of building a world. $\endgroup$ – Bellerophon Aug 7 '17 at 14:10
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    $\begingroup$ The big advantage of early firearms vs. bows (and crossbows, don't forget crossbows) was that they required much less training. Making a good longbowman was a lifetime exercise; making a decent arquebusier was a matter of a few weeks of instruction. A secondary advantage was that at very close ranges, say less than 50 meters or so, a coordinated musket volley had (usually) more deadly effect than a volley of arrows or bolts. A massive disadvantage of early firearms was that you could not aim for a specific target -- they were fired in a volley in the general direction of the enemy. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 7 '17 at 14:20
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    $\begingroup$ Muskets were useful because they were faster to learn how to use and shoot than a bow. They were not about power, but ease of use - it was easier to put a lot more people firing muskets with little training than it was to train bowmen. Some modern bows are a superior weapon even against some modern firearms - they aren't widely used anymore because of the lack of convenience compared to firearms. So, if you have more musketeers than archers, maybe the musketeers have a chance. Otherwise? Eh, they're dead. $\endgroup$ – T. Sar Aug 7 '17 at 14:23

Factors for the use of black powder weapons

  1. Penetrating power. The arquebus, especially, was far more effective at penetrating plate armor. In fact, plate armor fell out of use because of the arquebus. And this power wasn't reliant on the archer's strength. While the crossbow also didn't rely on the archer's strength, they weren't as powerful as the arquebus.
  2. Training time. It took less training to bring up a unit of arquebusiers than an effective unit of archers. Archers take years to become profficient, vs. months for arquebusiers.
  3. Rate of fire. The arquebus reload time was slower than a bow, yes. But it was faster than crossbows of the time, at about 60 seconds to reload.
  4. Ammunition. An arquebusier could carry more shot and powder than an archer could carry arrows.
  5. Range. Accounts vary, but it appears that a volley of arquebusier shots could out-distance bows in many cases. Though accounts vary and argue over accuracy at long ranges, so no consensus can be confirmed.
  6. Noise. I don't find data for this, but I imagine that the first time a cavalry charge comes up against the noise of powder weapons, horses would not take kindly to this. I don't know how long it took to retrain men and horses to ignore the loud report of powder weapons, but there probably was at least some time involved.
  7. Smoke. Black powder weapons produce a great deal of smoke, which obscures the battlefield, hindering your enemy's forces.

Factors against the use of black powder weapons

  1. Rain and humidity. While bows and bowstrings won't last long in bad weather, an arquebusier literally could not fire in the rain, and even high humidity could impact their powder. Improper storage causes powder to age quickly relative to bows and arrows.
  2. Danger to the user. An arquebus could blow up in the arquebusier's face. Especially if a panicked shooter failed to manage his weapon carefully.
  3. Rate of fire. Again, slower than an archer at 30-60 seconds between shots.
  4. Smoke. Black powder weapons produce a great deal of smoke, which obscures the battlefield, hindering your own forces.

(Source for much of the above, particularly the section comparing to bows.)

History decided

It took a while. The first handgun appeared in European literature in 1326. Cavalry wasn't supplanted by infantry until the advent of the bayonet in the 1690s. (Source)

Clearly, the initial gunpowder technology wasn't sufficiently superior to existing methods of warfare to affect a sea change in warfare. Instead, we see a gradual transition from bows and cavalry to musket infantry. This indicates that the technology required some refinement and improvement over time. During this period, the strategists and tacticians of the day also had to learn how to best use this new tool.

  • $\begingroup$ When you say the arquebus has a greater range are you factoring in the ability to angle an arrow at a 45 degree angel to increase it's effective range? Also, was smoke really a disadvantage, I would imagine it hindered the enemies ability to aim as much as your own, so I would have figured the smoke would work out to a neutral effect in total, not a disadvantage? $\endgroup$ – dsollen Aug 7 '17 at 15:16
  • $\begingroup$ @dsollen the link I included (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arquebus#History) under "comparison to bows" 1st paragraph discusses range at length. $\endgroup$ – CaM Aug 7 '17 at 15:27

The maximum range of a longbow isn't a hard and fast figure recorded historically, but the useful range is quoted here between 200 and 400 yards. This will be highly reliant on the quality of the bow and the training received by the bowman.

A standard smoothbore musket could have an "effective" range of up to 175 yards but this ignores some important points on its own. A smoothbore rifle's accuracy was utterly nil for any kind of sharpshooting at virtually any range, and one rifleman on his own couldn't really be counted on to hit a target in the same way you could with a rifled weapon today. Muskets were fired en masse in a formation towards an enemy formation, with the sheer volume of fire ensuring a certain percentage of hits.

Not that bows weren't fired en masse for the same effect, but they are far less of a random shot in practiced hands. The big tell in this comparison is that while muskets had an effective range near the range at which bows were used, musket formations were instructed not to shoot until they were at a range of just 50 yards. Or famously at Bunker Hill, "til you see the whites of their eyes."

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    $\begingroup$ @T.Sar in direct fire, comparing a modern compound bow and a "modern" musket, they are surprisingly similar in accuracy. In competition shooting, the musket still uses a slightly smaller target size compared to the bow at similar distance. - That in terms of accuracy form an active competition shooter (who has also tested both weapon types). $\endgroup$ – Adwaenyth Aug 7 '17 at 14:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Ross I fired the musket only in training, but a several times european champion trains in our district and I know what results he achieves with that thing. Actually it isn't that difficult to hit, it is however relying very much on powder and bullet being very carefully selected. ;) $\endgroup$ – Adwaenyth Aug 7 '17 at 14:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Adwaenyth Ross makes a very good point. The issue isn't comparing with modern "muskets", is comparing with the early, poorly made firearms from the referenced question. WWI was far beyond already from early colonial America, in Tech levels. $\endgroup$ – T. Sar Aug 7 '17 at 14:40
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    $\begingroup$ @dsollen 200 yards would likely be something like a 15° angle, 400 more like a 35° angle with a strong bow. You literally never shoot that nowadays in competition shooting because it would be wildly inaccurate... which means to hit a target that is about a meter wide... on a battlefield it would still be accurate enough when there are a lot of people around. ;) $\endgroup$ – Adwaenyth Aug 7 '17 at 15:33
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, after closer reading the 400 yard shot is not well substantiated. I don't think many bowman would be asked to shoot further than 300. $\endgroup$ – Ross Aug 7 '17 at 15:35

With equal numbers, the archers would win. Muskets can't be aimed.
The only real use of muskets was against massed infantry: even if the shooter missed his target, he'd hit the one next to him, or someone in the next line.

An expert archer could fire one aimed shot every ten seconds
which is comparable to the four shots per minute of the musketeer, but with a better chance of hitting.

  • $\begingroup$ Yes, but are archers aiming? My understanding is that in large warfare neither side aimed, they just fired in the general direction and hoped they hit something. For archers it allowed for more arrows fired at a time and greater range (if they aimed at a 45 degree angle) $\endgroup$ – dsollen Aug 7 '17 at 15:08
  • $\begingroup$ @dsollen: Only when they're worried about the other party closing in. The point of archers was to thin out the enemy before they could get to melee range, at which point they would simply be sitting ducks. With musketeers on the other side, there's no such risk; they can take their time and pick their target at a greater effective range. Besides, arrows are bigger than musket shot, so each archer carries less ammunition than each musketeer. Best to make each shot count. $\endgroup$ – nzaman Aug 7 '17 at 15:24

At equal numbers the archers will generally win right through until WWII (the M1 was supposedly the first firearm to outclass a longbow for all the performance characteristics of range, firing rate, accuracy, and stopping power), but good archers have to be practically born to it, you can turn out a good musketeer in a week or two of intensive training. Musketeers beat archers because of weight of fire, you can have a lot more of them for the same training investment and they also have a denser formation presenting more firepower per length of front. Using ranked fire you can get the same firing rate out of a unit at a given length of front as well, you just need about three times as many gunners as you would archers. If you mean men-at-arms when you say "soldiers" that presents another issue because the fire from early muskets tended to bounce off plate armour making them almost invulnerable at range, their horses if they were riding as lancers not so much against volley fire but the men yes. Ammunition supply might actually be a decisive factor in the battle, if the musketeers run out of powder and shot, or more likely the fine priming powder, trying to deal to plate armoured foot soldiers at long range then it's going to go badly for them, just like it would for archers who get caught by heavy infantry.


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