Military Notes: The longbow is not a perfectible weapon
Thursday 24 September 1998
The increasing use of gunpowder during the 15th century revolutionised all existing tactical traditions and methods. The longbow and the pike had begun the downfall of the heavy armoured cavalryman and now artillery was to complete his discomfort. The longbow dropped out of use before the pike, although both archer and pikeman were the forerunners of the Western infantryman when the missile-throwing hand weapon combined in principle with the pike to become the rifle and bayonet. This, together with the steady advance of field artillery, laid the foundations for modern warfare.
One of the great puzzles of military history is why artillery and firearms replaced the longbow so rapidly when the latter, right up to the time of Waterloo and beyond, was capable of far greater range, rate of fire, and accuracy. As late as 1846 the effective range of the musket in common use in the British army was, for all practical purposes, only 100 to 150 yards - the dictum being not to fire until you could see the whites of the enemy's eyes! Why then was the bow abandoned so early in favour of the crude firearms of the period?
On the battlefield, archery has certain unavoidable drawbacks affecting both the man and his weapon. To use his longbow effectively, the archer needed space around him - he had to stand to deliver his shaft. Not only did this make him vulnerable to the elements, it also turned him into a good target; the whole course of warfare was altered when the breech- loading rifle enabled the soldier to reload his arm whilst lying down. Although rain had an adverse effect upon the rate of fire of a musket, it completely rendered the longbow useless; wind could also render the archer helpless. However, the crucial factor was that the archer had to be an athlete in the best physical conditions, whereas the man behind the gun could function even in a state of weary debility.
Although the longbow won Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt, together with a host of smaller engagements, the Hundred Years' War was won by the French. By better adapting themselves to the newly invented and primitive artillery and by using them with a superior technique, the French were able to recapture the towns and provinces lost to the English, eventually nullifying the effects of all the English victories throughout the Hundred Years' War.
Perhaps regrettably, today it is only the incurable romanticist who will claim special virtues for the longbow as against firearms. But, in the end, he will have grudgingly to admit that the firearm has proved to be what the bow could not become - a perfectible weapon. Any good shot in an average modern small-bore rifle club can get a "possible" out of every 10 shots aimed at a two-inch circle 100 yards away; he will be able to do this consistently and without hesitation.
No archer, however skilful, can be absolutely certain within several inches where a single shaft will land. It is a degree of uncertainty emphasised by an incident at the inauguration of the National Rifle Association at Wimbledon on 2 July 1860, when Queen Victoria pulled a silken cord which fired a Whitworth rifle on a fixed rest and hit only 11/4 inches from the centre of the target.
Donald Featherstone is the author of `Armies and Warfare in the Pike- and-Shot Era' (Constable, pounds 20)
tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods
tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas
comedy Erm...he seems to be back
tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa
tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 PlayStation and Xbox hacked by Lizard Squad
- 2 Katie Hopkins speaks out on childhood obesity: 'Parents of fat children should be prosecuted for child cruelty'
- 3 The Grace Dent Christmas Questionnaire
- 4 The 'Black Museum': After 150 years, public set to see exhibits from police’s grisly crime museum
- 5 British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Downton Abbey Christmas special 2014, review: Love is everywhere, actually
Felicity Jones on being Stephen Hawking's wife in The Theory of Everything: 'I didn't want her to be a saint'
EastEnders Christmas special, review: Brilliant Danny Dyer glues you to your seat
Game of Thrones season five: First preview clip shows a beardy Tyrion, a moody Cersei and a distressed Arya
The Interview finally gets US release after Sony hack and terror threats – but reviews of North Korea satire are mixed
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Rozanne Duncan: Ukip expels councillor for 'jaw-dropping' comments made in BBC TV interview
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
BBC director Danny Cohen: Rising UK antisemitism makes me feel more uncomfortable than ever
Alex Salmond has 'broken his word to the Scottish people' says Scottish Lib Dem leader