Why The Musket Replaced The Bow – The Truth Revealed


What is better a musket or a bow? We will delve deep into the topic of musket vs arrow and finally figure out which one is better.

And why was the musket used more often despite having several disadvantages over the bow?

The Musket was better than a bow because it was cheaper to make and it was easier to teach an average soldier how to shoot a musket than a bow. In simple terms, a musket was easier to use and more cost-effective than a bow.

But let’s break down in detail the difference between the musket and the bow.

Here you have a small table showing what advantage a musket has over a bow. Just by looking at this table, you can see the final result of the debate musket vs bow. And why the musket won.

BowMusket
Range300m175m
Required Training YearsA few weeks
Cost-EffectivenessExpensiveVery cheap
AccuracyAccurateInaccurate
Damage InflictedInflicts localized damageInflicts considerable damage
How Well It Functioned In Different ClimatesUnderperforms in humid conditionsUnderperforms in humid conditions
Pros and cons of bows vs. arrows

Now, let’s delve deeper here. And examine the facts behind each category.

Range

Bow and arrow win out here over a simple musket. The fact is that a medieval English bow had an effective range of between 200 and 300 meters when fired by an experienced archer.

The Asiatic compound bows, while a lot smaller than the longbow packed immense power and could even propel arrows up to 300 meters away.

That flows in stark contrast to the early muskets, which could only propel a musket ball effectively to the range of 175 meters. There is an immense difference in the way the two were fired as well.

Most arrows were fired in an arch so the arrows fell from the sky down towards their target, while the musket balls traveled horizontally.

Believe it or not that one difference was one of the key factors that propelled the rapid adoption of muskets.

Here is what I mean.

The Problem With Arrows On the Battlefield

It’s the trajectory of an arrow.

At long ranges, an archer fires the arrow in the sky and the arrow travels in an arch to its destination. When the arrow reaches the top of the arch, it turns and starts flowing down.

How an arrow traveled

That’s sort of the problem because as it is falling the arrow can only hit an area with a small surface. Roughly the surface of an arrowhead. Which at most was 2,5 centimeters. In American terms, it was an inch. At most!

The small deadly surface area of a falling arrow is not the only issue. A lot of the time, arrows falling from the sky under their own weight lacked the piercing power necessary to pierce the heavy armor worn by the knights.

So at longer ranges, the lethality of the arrow was greatly reduced by the fact it was only able to inflict damage on a small surface and that it lacked the piercing power at longer ranges. It was many times more deadly when fired directly at the target.

With the muskets, the issue was they can be fired only horizontally. So, while arrows had a longer range than muskets, they weren’t as lethal at longer ranges. This means with the bow and arrow the longer the range less the lethality.

The solution was to avoid the arch shots of the arrow. And fire as straight toward the target as possible.

Training Required

Well, this one goes to the muskets. It is a lot easier to train a farmer to hold and fire a musket than it is
to train an archer.

Here is what I mean. Medieval and in some cases even the ancient bows had enormous draw weight. The English longbow for example had a draw weight from 80 pounds all the way up to 130 pounds as is evident here.

While, according to the French museum of Archery in Crepy-en-Valois the Mongol bows, while very small in comparison routinely had a draw weight in excess of 100 pounds.

That’s the problem.

While it is true that you can learn quite quickly to fire an arrow half-decently it is impossible to obtain the necessary muscle mass and strength necessary to repeatedly pull back a bowstring with the force of 100 pounds.

Even trained archers got tired rather quickly, I mean within two minutes of rapid firing. An average medieval archer was expected to fire between 6 and 10 arrows a minute.

That’s how many times they had to pull back the bowstring which required an immense amount of force on their part. They of course got tired. Their fingers would get affected by rapid firing since the bowstring would press upon their fingers.

So, the rapid firing would take a toll on their fingers and muscles as well.

And you know that the medieval diet didn’t really support healthy muscle growth. So, if you wanted healthy archers, you would need to feed them well on campaigns, otherwise, they would lose muscle mass, and that would affect their combat effectiveness.

Back then archery training was so time-consuming and vital for a kingdom’s defense that England at one point had a law that mandated that its subjects practice archery on a regular basis. It was that important!

How About Training With Muskets?

On the other hand, a musket man was easily trained and he was cheap to maintain. If a musket-man lost a few pounds of muscle due to poor diet or exhaustion on a campaign. He could still fire the musket almost as well.

Soldiers with muskets could be trained in a rather short amount of time. Meaning they were cheap.

No specialized training or extra muscle mass is required. They were faster to train and cheaper to maintain.

Which leads us perfectly to our next category.

Cost-Effectiveness

Here the musket wins. Again.

The problem with archery in essence it was really expensive to field an army with a good number of archers. As you have seen, it cost money to feed them. On top of that making, every single arrow and fletchings took time.

And could not be done by just any guy off the street. It took the skill of dedicated craftsmen to make every single arrow and bow.

Let us look at the bow, right? People generally come in all different shapes and sizes. If a man is 6 foot 2″ (185cm), he can not use a bow that was designed for a man that is 5 foot 6″ (165cm), at least not as effectively.

The same goes for the reverse. A shot man can not use a bow designed for a tall man. The issue is not in the draw weight but in the draw length.

The draw length of a bow is a term that describes how far back you can draw the bowstring of a bow.

Draw Length of The Bow

The longer an archer’s arms, the longer his draw length should be. The draw length of the bow also dictates how long your arrows have to be.

Meaning every archer had to have a bow that fit only him. And arrows that fit his bow.

What About Muskets?

Muskets on the other hand could be standardized. Every adult male could use a musket of the same dimensions. What can be standardized (made the same) can be mass-produced. What is mass-produced can be made cheaply.

On top of that musket balls, didn’t have to be standardized like arrows for example. So, musket balls could be mass-produced as well.

That lowered the cost to equip and field the army. And if you combine the cost savings of fielding an army of musketeers compared to an army of archers with the ease of training anyone firing a musket, you are starting to see why the musket beat the bow on the battlefield.

But let’s continue here.

Accuracy

Finally another win for the bow.

The medieval longbows’ accurate range is between 100 and 200 yards, while the Mongol bow, while much smaller had an accurate range of up to 200 yards as well.

Compare that to the effective range of early muskets in the 15th and 16th centuries, which is 100 yards, and you will see the bow is a clear winner.

As centuries progressed, the musket got improved upon and by the 18th century, a gun wielded by the English army had an effective range of 300 yards.

Now, when we are talking about accuracy on the battlefield, that doesn’t mean they were able to hit a coin from these distances. It means they had the ability to hit very close to the desired target. Given that armies fought in large formations at the time, getting close enough to the desired target was good enough.

If you miss your target, you were likely to hit his buddy standing on his right or left.

When rifles were introduced then it was over for the bow. But in terms of accuracy, the bow held a clear advantage over any musket on the battlefield for centuries.

Damage Inflicted

Musket wins here. Let’s examine the effectiveness of a musket.

How Effective Is A Musket?

The musket was extremely effective on the battlefield in terms of inflicting damage. What it lacked in accuracy it made up with the fact that a musket ball could pierce most armor available at the time. The fact that armies soon stopped wearing armor as the musket was widely adopted is a testament to that.

The musket was so effective it stopped the practice of armies wearing armor, the practice which was around for thousands of years.

Let’s look at the bow. While it did have a longer range than the early muskets it did little damage at longer ranges. Especially if fired in an arch.

So, the musket can pierce armor, what about the bow and arrow?

Not always.

While the bow and arrow are great weapons its effectiveness in piercing any armor is predicated upon it being fired as straight toward the enemy as possible. This maximized its piercing power. But it limited its range.

An arrow fired from a medieval bow at a close range could pierce medieval armor plating fairly easily, but the piercing power diminished with distance. The further away the target was the less damage the arrow caused.

If an arrow was fired in an arch the arrow would reach the top of the arch and then start falling toward the ground on its own weight. It would not have the force of the bow propelling it toward the ground, just gravity.

So, an arrow falling down on the earth was often not enough to pierce the toughest of armor worn by knights in the medieval ages.

How Well Did The Musket And The Bow Function In Different Climates?

Well, not very well. They both sucked.

The Mongol Empire in the 13th century made several invasions or raids into the Indian subcontinent and each time they had trouble with their bows.

The fact is composite bows i.e. Mongol bows don’t work well in humid climates. The composite bows are made by gluing several materials together, as you can see in this article if you click here.

The wet climate dissolves the animal glue holding the materials of the composite bow together. If the glue falls apart then so does the actual bow.

It is one of the reasons why composite bows were widely in use in arid climates of the Middle East and Asia. Elsewhere, the technology of building bows had to take different turns.

Now, modern bows do not have any humidity problems, since most have a protective coating on them to protect them from excessive moisture.

The Medieval bows did not have that.

The Arrow Fletchings In The Rain

The added concern of firing arrows generally was not a problem in humid climates but the arrow fletching. Meaning the feathers on the arrow lose their ability to stabilize the arrow when they are wet. So, while yes, technically you could shoot arrows for a while, they just lost any sense of accuracy.

This made shooting arrows in the rain next to useless.

How Did The Musket Perform In The Rain Or Humid Climate?

Poorly. As you well know muskets operated on gunpowder. Meaning if the powder got wet then it wouldn’t fire. There was that.

And the old matchlock muskets operated with a piece of string that was light on fire to ignite the gunpowder. If you could keep that fuse lit then the musket became useless.

Key components of a musket

So any kind of moisture disabled the 2 most important pieces of a musket.

  1. The gunpowder used to propell the musketball towards the enemy.
  2. The fuse which was used to ignite the powder

Humidity and the rain disabled those two vital pieces. So, the army’s most important task was to keep the powder dry in wet climates and to ensure the fuse stayed lit.

Let’s determine once and for all, is a musket a more effective weapon.

Are Muskets More Effective Than Bows?

The musket was a far superior weapon to the bow and arrow because it inflicted more damage on the enemy’s soldiers while costing less than a bow and an arrow. And while it was far less accurate than the bow, it was far easier and cheaper to train and maintain an army of musketeers than an army of archers.

The musket won because it was cheaper.

You can boil the entire argument to that. It was cheaper to raise and maintain an army with muskets and it caused more damage than an arrow, which is why the musket was a clear favorite for the battlefield at the time.

For a more detailed breakdown of what damage an arrow does versus a bullet click here for an article on arrows vs. bullets.

And go here to see what arrowheads were made of thorough history.

If you want to take a look at more modern bows and other archery equipment I invite you to click here. It will take you to Amazon where you can see the top line archery equipment and compare it to see which one fits you the best.

Take care

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