Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.


Military Notes: The longbow is not a perfectible weapon

IN THE early 15th century artillery and the hand-held firearm were rapidly superseding the bow and edged weapons, and for the next 250 years "pike-and-shot" prevailed. Gunpowder so dominated the battlefield that armour, except for the helmet and breastplate worn by heavy cavalry and pikemen, was discarded.

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)