Part 3: infantry missile weapons

by George Gush

FIRST, THE EARLIER, pre-gunpowder weapons; there were three of any significance, not counting javelins or 'darts' which were used by Irish irregular infantry as well as by light cavalry.

The Longbow

    The traditional English weapon; it could still be a battle-winner (Flodden 1513) and up to the 1560s most English 'shot' were still archers, especially on the Border, where the bow was preferred to the heavier and clumsier arquebus. After 1589 archers were dropped from the standard company organisation, and they officially disappeared by the mid-1590s, though there are a few signs of their use in England in the early 17th Century.
    Longbows were often of yew, six foot to six foot four inches overall, and fired arrows of up to 37 inches long (though the only surviving example, which comes from our period, is 30 inches).
    There has been much debate about the performance of the longbow, but it would seem that the absolute maximum range, using the lighter 'flight' arrow (which was used in battle) was around 300 yards; with the heavier sheaf arrow used for armour-piercing it would probably be more like 170 yards, while to be accurate against individual targets or pierce mail it would come down to 80 or 100 yards; the weak points of plate armour could only be picked out at very close range.
    The high rate of fire of the longbow was one of its chief advantages - up to six shots a minute was certainly possible, and this was far above the performance of contemporary firearms (in fact Ben Franklin thought the American army of the 18th Century would do well to go back to the longbow!).
    Its decline in the 16th Century is hard to explain in view of this very good performance, but the basic cause would appear to have been a growing lack of really well-trained archers - it took a lifetime to make an archer, a few weeks at most to train an arquebusier.
    The other major factor - one easy to overlook-is that a longbow had a pull of some 80 pounds, and the performance of the bow depended entirely on the strength of the archer, whereas a puny and exhausted arquebusier could shoot just as hard and far as a fresh one.
    Lesser problems were the difficulty of getting fresh ammunition supplies and the fact that bowmen had to expose themselves to enemy fire when shooting from entrenchments; an advantage was cost - bow with arrows 6s 8d, caliver 16s 8d!
    In the late 15th Century the French still used the longbow, which they had adopted earlier, to some extent, and similar but probably rather smaller bows were used by the Scots and the Irish (in the former case being used well into the 17th Century).

The Composite Bow

    The traditional weapon of the East, used by Turkish infantry at least to the 1680s and by their cavalry and other Eastern horsemen until much later times. Constructed of laminated horn, horn and wood, or later apparently sometimes of metal, this type of bow was very effective.
    With half-ounce flight arrows distances of over 600 yards could be achieved, but these were not employed in war, and with the two-ounce, 24 inch war arrow range would be much reduced - an Arabic archery manual of the period says 175 yards, but Sir Ralph Payne-Galway states that a three-foot composite bow had a 118 pound pull, would shoot a war-arrow up to 300 yards and would pierce a half-inch plank at 100 yards; for accuracy and armour piercing range would be similar to longbow, and rate of fire would be at least as good.

The Crossbow

    Crossbows were still in very widespread use at the beginning of this period; found in nearly all European armies, they were used both in siege warfare and by skirmishers in battle. They were gradually replaced by firearms, which had much the same sort of performance (though one Polish writer suggests that by adopting firearms in place of crossbows, which they did in the 16th Century, the Polish infantry reduced their firepower to a fortieth of what it had been. Other evidence doesn't support this though). Marignano (1515) was the last battle in which they played an important role, though the French infantry preferred them to guns until at least 1523, and some remained in use up to the 1560s.
    The usual 16th Century type was the heavy 'arbalest' which had a steel bow (often blued) and wooden rifle-type stock, and was 'spanned' or drawn with the aid of a separate windlass. Lighter types or 'latches', spanned with a lever or a ratchet rather like a car jack were also in use and would probably have been used by the mounted crossbowmen who were popular during the Italian wars.
    The arbalest was as heavy as a gun (the bow could weigh 9 pounds, the windlass another 5 pounds) and almost as slow firing at one or two rounds per minute; like an arquebusier the crossbowman could take cover behind a wall or parapet and benefit by resting his weapon on it while firing. A crossbow was very accurate up to some 60 yards and might have an absolute maximum range of nearly 400 yards; the armour piercing performance of its short, heavy bolts, while probably not up to that of firearms, would be much better than the other bows, especially against plate.


    The Arquebus (or hachebuchsen, hagbut, hagbush, harquebus etc - 'hook gun'). The chief infantry firearm of the 16th Century, used by mounted men too; it remained in use for skirmishers and cavalry into the 17th Century.
    The arquebus developed from the clumsy handguns of the 15th Century, probably in Germany, by the development of a simple lock mechanism around the end of the century, by which a pivoted 'serpentine' held the glowing 'match' (cord soaked in a saltpetre solution), and dropped it on to the pan, hopefully firing the gun, when some type of trigger was pressed.
    This cheap and simple 'matchlock' mechanism was used for nearly all infantry weapons throughout the period, though in fact guns with no lock at all remained in use in the early 16th Century. The other development was a proper butt (possibly the 'hook' which gave the gun its name), in the early 16th Century often held against the chest or cheek (ouch!), later against the shoulder.
    In the earlier 16th Century arquebusses were of no particular size, the largest being almost light field guns (a German Doppelte-Doppel-Haken was seven feet long, weighed 50 pounds and fired a six ounce ball to about 500 yards). Such guns needed two men and were sometimes mounted on carts or walls. There was an unbroken range down to little half-hakes firing a ball of 20 to the pound. The most common types seem to have been about 3 feet 6 inches long, firing a 1 ounce ball and weighing around 10 pounds.
    From the 1540s there seems to have been a growing standardisation on two types; the heavier one was the musket (see below) the lighter what was called in England a 'Caliver' (from calibre, which, originally in France, was now more or less standardised). Such weapons were around four feet long, 12 pounds in weight, and had a calibre of 0.5 to 0.75 inches, firing lead balls of 10 to 16 to the pound. Maximum range of the best Italian arquebusses, carefully loaded, was said to be about 400 yards but effective range in battle and certainly accurate range would be much less.
    A target range at Augsburg in 1508 was 226 yards long; and English caliver-men of Elizabeth's reign were supposed to be able to hit the mark at 200 to 300 paces, so it might be reasonable to suppose that arquebusses would be reasonably effective up to perhaps 200 yards, at least against large targets.
    Loading was a major problem requiring at least 16 drill movements and three hands, and the need to remove and hold in one hand the lighted match, while messing about with loose gunpowder, must have made the whole procedure quite exciting. Early in Elizabeth's reign 12 rounds an hour was apparently considered fair going, and even by 1600 English calivermen only managed 40 shots an hour - and at that they claimed to fire twice as fast as musketeers!
    A factor in increasing the rate of fire was the development of the bandolier, from which dangled, usually, 12 wooden cases, each with powder for one shot; bullets were carried separately in a bag and priming powder in a flask or horn. Paper cartridges would have helped still more but, although invented in the 16th Century their first use with infantry firearms seems to have been by the Swedes in the 30 Years War (1618-48).

The Musket

    So far as I can see 'musket' was simply the name applied to the heavier and longer-barrelled types of arquebus from about the 1540s onwards; like them it required a forked rest to support it in action and the early Spanish muskets had a crew of two. The Spanish were the first to use it on any scale; their muskets differed from English, German and French ones in having a straight rather than curved stock (Sir Roger Williams, in his Brief Discourse of Warre, 1590, said the Spanish type was better for taking recoil).
    Even in Spanish service, however, the musket was greatly outnumbered by arquebusses for a long time - in the 1580s the Duke of Alva's armies in the Netherlands had only one musketeer to every seven arquebusiers; and others were slow to take up such weapons at all (the French army did not use them until 1573). By the end of the century, however, they had become standard in several armies, including those of France and Holland.
    It is difficult to give very precise details of muskets, particularly as there were 'double-' and 'half-' muskets in use as well, but a length of about six feet, weight of 16 to 20 pounds, and bullets of about 2 ounces would seem to be fairly typical in the 16th Century; in the 17th there was a strong trend toward reduction in size and weight - English Civil War muskets were 'only' 10 to 12 bore, and Gustavus Adolphus reduced the weight of Swedish ones to 11 pounds. However they retained the long barrel which gave them greater velocity and range than the lighter types of arquebus, and the use of a rest remained necessary up to the end of the period.
    There were many stories of muskets killing up to 500 yards, and they certainly would have much greater range than earlier weapons coupled with much higher armour-piercing capability - in fact the spread of the musket was probably the main cause of the decline of armour which took place at the end of the 16th and in the 17th Century. I would think that for wargames purposes muskets should be allowed at least 100 yards margin over lighter arquebusses.
    Early forms of flintlock appeared in the 16th Century, and offered considerably higher rates of fire than matchlocks, but extra expense seems to have confined them during our period to bodyguards, mounted troops and men detailed to guard artillery trains (who, surrounded by gunpowder, found it safer not to play with matches).
    Rifling was also introduced in the 16th Century, and offered much higher accuracy (one school of though attributed this to the fact that devils could not cling to a spinning ball) at the cost of much slower loading, and, possibly, reduced range. The number of rifled guns in the inventories of German arsenals of the 16th Century makes it seem as though they were probably intended for military use, and some were certainly used by 'snipers' during the English Civil War, though these were usually gamekeepers and the like who had brought their civilian weapons with them.


    Crossbows and composite bows were the weapons of open-order skirmishers; longbows were also used like this sometimes, but could also operate in closer formation, rear ranks firing overhead. Firearm infantry, unless they were detailed to form a 'forlorn' or skirmish line, were usually formed in 'order' (three feet spacing between files). Ranks fired in succession by counter-marching - either the man at the front firing and then going to the rear to reload (in which case the whole formation moved slowly back) or the man at the rear coming to the front to fire (when it advanced). In the 16th and early 17th Centuries six to ten ranks deep was usual, to allow time for reloading before getting to the front again; 17th Century reforms will be dealt with in a later article.
    Shot were normally drawn up either as wings on either side of their pikemen, or two or three ranks deep all round a pike square, but again particular national methods and so forth will be considered later.


English musketeer 1586. Note match, bandolier, flask and rest.

  A Lansknecht ramming the charge home in his arquebus.
  by Hans Sebald Beham, 1540
  Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nurnburg

A matchlock heavy arquebus or musket of the 17th Century as shown in the Tower of London.

An early arquebus, again from the Tower of London.

A German crossbow-man of the early 16th Century, showing firing position.

Mid-16th Century 'Latch' (left) & 'Arbalest' with moulinet or windlass attached for loading with stirrup for foot of loader (right)

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