If you have ever played a lot of wargames, like Civilization, or are a fan of history, you might ponder why bows were replaced with guns.
Modern firearms are clearly far superior to a hand drawn bow for accuracy, penetration, rate of fire and range but what about early firearms?
Why after millennia of the evolution of bows were they quickly replaced when gunpowder was introduced?
The answer may surprise you.
Europe was an early "replacer" of bows with guns but Asia, although much later, followed the same pattern around the 1800's. In the following article, we'll take a very quick look at why this occurred, or is believed to have occurred.
We have focussed on handheld firearms here not artillery pieces.
Out with the old
In Europe, military bows became obsolete around the 16th Century as firearms became more sophisticated. It should be noted that bows coexisted with guns in Asia for much longer than Europe.
The war bow had served armies very well indeed for many millennia prior to the 16th Century. One famous example of their potent killing potential was the Battle of Agincourt. In 1415, Henry V of England led an army of approximately 6000 men to devastate a much larger French force of 36,000. This victory was won in no small part by the English archers and their longbows. The French employed large contingents of crossbows, which though very powerful, lacking the range and fire rate of the longbow. Poor weather and excellent tactics enabled the English to slaughter up to 10,000 soldiers. The English dead numbering only in the hundreds.
The longbow, amongst other bows, were clearly highly versatile and potent in battle but they soon became obsolete. Within 200 years or thereabouts, after Agincourt, the bow had fallen out of military use. But why were bows replaced with guns? Asia was a different story, however. Firearms had existed there for much longer than Europe. Mongol armies have been recorded using them in the siege of Pien in China. They were employed to act as armor-piercing weapons and to great effect. Some 10th Century paintings even depict firearms of some sort being wielded by mythical creatures. Yet, bows were still in use in China as late as the 1800's.
If it ain't broke
MIT produced an article in 2011 with a potential explanation for China's delay in replacing bows completely. Timo Nieminen (A physicist at the University o Queensland, Australia) believes the delay is due to the advanced construction of their compound bows compared to Europe. He describes the Asian composite war bows as "the best bow available before the advent of modern materials and the modern compound bow".
His work seems to clear up the delay in changing from bows to guns in Asia. Compound bows of the type seen in Asia have been in use for around 2000 years and were far superior in draw length ratios. A longbow or even Japanese bow was roughly as tall as the archer whereas Asian bows of equivalent power were much smaller, usually around 110cm long. Wow! This meant the bows were lighter, smaller and easier to use compared to European examples. They were especially useful for horseback archery.
These Asian bows didn't fare well in humid climates however and this restricted their adoption in other nations. Bows from Europe and Asia were much more accurate, especially over great distances compared to early firearms. They could also, generally, be fired at a much faster rate than early firearms that took a long time to reload. So, given the relative cumbersome, slow and unreliable accuracy of early firearms why were they used at all?
New kid on the block
This obviously begs the question, what did these early guns have in their favor? Why were bows replaced with guns? Obviously, firearms have a much greater armor penetration potential when compared to bows. But they need to hit first! And you can get a similar effect from peppering the target with hundreds of arrows in the time it takes to fire one or two rounds from an early gun! However, guns had one massive advantage over bows! Archery is a highly sophisticated and skillful pursuit that takes years and years of training to become strong enough to wield and proficient enough to use. Such was the degree of mastery needed that it was law in England for all citizens to be proficient in the use of bows in case of war.
You could train a man to use an early firearm in a fraction of the time it would take to use a bow. For this reason, guns quickly replaced bows on the battlefields of Europe. In Asia, it was a slightly different story given the effectiveness of their bows. Regardless of this Nieminen states that “Economic and social factors, especially the training of musketeers as opposed to archers, were more important factors influencing the replacement of the bow by the gun than pure military 'effectiveness'". It would seem that pure "bang for your buck" ultimately spelled doom for the humble war bow. The ability to build on mass and train on mass the weapons and men who would use them ultimately outcompete the longer, slower and more expensive age-old method of life longing training with a bow.
Another advantage of guns over bows was their use as a terror weapon. Firearms are noticeably louder than bows. This would have an enormous psychological impact on the enemy troops!
Training aside there were other advantages of guns over bows that likely contributed to their adoption. Arrows tended to have a greater effective range than "shot" at this time. Early muskets were only "good" up to around 90 meters compared to archers at around 365 meters or so. Firearms were much more capable of penetrating armor and had a much faster velocity than arrows. Volleys were fantastic at staggering cavalry charges for example. This made them much harder to avoid once in the crosshairs. Although the fire rate of arrows was considerably faster than early guns they required considerably less stamina to wield and use. Finally, the supply of ammunition was probably also critical. Arrow makers or Fletchers were highly skilled professionals and supplying a large cohort of archers would be much more expensive, and time-consuming than producing a shot for early muskets.
So there you go, mystery solved! Money and time seem to be the answer to why bows were replaced with guns. Perhaps you already had your suspicions as to the reason but we do hope this help clear things up a bit. Do you agree? We welcome your comments below.