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"Why give up on the bow" Topic

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1,631 hits since 3 Jan 2013
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kahunna03 Jan 2013 10:47 a.m. PST

In Asia, the Americas, and Africa the natives quickly gave up the bow (except for some hunting) in exchange for smooth-bore muzzle loading muskets. This happened even when they had to depend on their enemies for ammo. Does anybody know (really know not just a guess) why this happened.

haywire Supporting Member of TMP03 Jan 2013 10:55 a.m. PST

more accurate, more punch, more range

Caesar Inactive Member03 Jan 2013 10:56 a.m. PST

Higher tech is a status symbol.

Personal logo John the OFM Supporting Member of TMP03 Jan 2013 10:57 a.m. PST

It took a lot of training and practice and general ability to use a bow effectively.
Muskets are easily taught.

There is also the prestige issue.

They didn't really have to depend on their enemies. Unscrupulous traders suffice.

Personal logo Landorl Supporting Member of TMP03 Jan 2013 11:00 a.m. PST

I wouldn't say more accurate. Early muskets were terribly inaccurate and unreliable.

Still, they had a powerful punch, which bows did not have. You could pepper someone with arrows, and they can still shoot their one shot killing you before they die!

MajorB03 Jan 2013 11:15 a.m. PST

Still, they had a powerful punch, which bows did not have. You could pepper someone with arrows,

If bows did not have a powerful punch, how come they were used in the Wars of the Roses against men in full plate armour?

warwell03 Jan 2013 11:20 a.m. PST

I believe that native bows were not longbows with the same draw weight as a WotR bow. Also, native arrowheads (at least in the Americas) were not metal so they did not penetrate armor as well. I've read accounts of native arrowheads failing to penetrate padded cloth jacks used by Conquistadors.

Ron W DuBray Inactive Member03 Jan 2013 11:29 a.m. PST

The weakest man could use a musket at full power, I have found that most men can not draw a 80lb bow and a good war bow draws at 100 to 120lbs. They also take a lot of work to keep up, making strings and arrows is a full time job.

nochules03 Jan 2013 11:30 a.m. PST

I think the simple answers is "For the same reasons the Europeans gave up bows in favor of firearms".

The native people that adopted firearms first tended to beat the native peoples that were still relying on traditional weapons, which in turn led those people to want to get the guns.

As to the question of the powder most often the natives would have access to more than one European nation, so if you are not getting along with the British you can always find a Frenchman to sell you powder.

Personal logo elsyrsyn Supporting Member of TMP03 Jan 2013 11:39 a.m. PST

so if you are not getting along with the British you can always find a Frenchman to sell you powder

Especially if he knows you'll likely be using it to shoot the British.


79thPA Supporting Member of TMP03 Jan 2013 12:02 p.m. PST

I believe for a combination of prestige and psychological warfare. The Westo Indians -- who were prolific slave traders for a couple of decades -- had firearms by the 1650s and frequently raided Indian tribes who did not have firearms (such as the mission Indians in Florida) or who had less firearms than they did.

1ngram03 Jan 2013 1:07 p.m. PST

"If bows did not have a powerful punch, how come they were used in the Wars of the Roses against men in full plate armour?"

against whom they had very little effect.

Against horsed knights (and others) archery was effective against the horses but any armoured man was pretty secure and plate armoured knights practically invulnerable, even Scots nobles on foot as at Flodden etc. Unarmoured foot were better targets.

Shot, however inaccurate, would and did take out knights in the heaviest armour.

MajorB03 Jan 2013 1:12 p.m. PST

If bows did not have a powerful punch, how come they were used in the Wars of the Roses against men in full plate armour?

against whom they had very little effect.

Then if they had very little effect, why did they keep on using them?

Pan Marek Supporting Member of TMP03 Jan 2013 2:17 p.m. PST

To unhorse the knights?

MajorB03 Jan 2013 2:53 p.m. PST

To unhorse the knights?

Not in the WOTE. Most men-at-arms (as they are more correctly referred to, rather than "knights") fought on foot.

goragrad03 Jan 2013 4:37 p.m. PST

Longbows were area fire weapons – fairly small chance of individual shot doing damage but when massed they provided at least a harassing effect.

Dn Jackson03 Jan 2013 5:02 p.m. PST

If bows did not have a powerful punch, how come they were used in the Wars of the Roses against men in full plate armour?

against whom they had very little effect.

Then if they had very little effect, why did they keep on using them?

Because they didn't have matchlocks or flintlocks yet.

Meiczyslaw03 Jan 2013 5:18 p.m. PST

The trick to arrows is the tips. I've shot through targets with bullet-head brass tips and a 40-lb. bow that was stopping steel field tips from a 70-lb. bow just fine.

Just because the bodkin points that historians make don't penetrate doesn't mean that the fellow on the line didn't have tips that did. Quality control of the metallurgy of the day might produce really bad points, but they might accidentally make really good ones.

So: the reason why the English used bows against armored men-at-arms is that sometimes they worked. (Good point or bad armor.) There are indications that the ones that worked could really disorder the formations that were used.

All that said, firearms are better. Trying to make a good set of arrows is more of a pain than learning to shoot them.

kahunna03 Jan 2013 5:53 p.m. PST

All this is nice conjecture, but I am looking for real information. Surely some historian/anthropologist has looked into this. Or some "native" told an explorer why.

By the way.

Presitge? OK in some cases I can see that, but it seems so universal that I can't believe that all natives would give up a good weapon for a so-so weapon?

Psy warfare? Sure the first few times you encounter them. But after that wouldn't you know that your enemy is disarmed after they shoot?

Weak bows? OK for Native American bows (they seem like basic self bows) but the Mongols gave them up and they had reasonably powerful composite bows. Correction, some Native Americans had comnposite bows.

The University of California tested the distances arrows could be shot. These tests showed: Osage bow, 92 yards; Apache bow, 120 yards; Blackfoot bow, 145 yards; Cheyenne bow, 165 yards; Yaqui Indian bow (from Mexico), 210 yards; English long bow, 250 yards.

Easier to use? That's OK if you are turning a bunch of peasants into soldiers quickly, but the natives still used them regularly for hunting (in some cases).

NY Irish03 Jan 2013 6:53 p.m. PST

I doubt you will find what you are looking for then. The Indians were pre literate so there will be no period accounts. They were too many groups involved for there to be a single answer. As Daniel Richter wrote in Facing East from Indian Country historians of the Indian must use a healthy dose of imagination to understand motive. Certainly there were critics of the adoption, but mostly from a tradition and a dependence on Euro stand point. You hear of it from Pope back in 1680, Neolin, Pontiac, Tecumseh.

Happy Little Trees Inactive Member03 Jan 2013 8:22 p.m. PST

Firearms go "bang!"

Did none of you have a childhood?

79thPA Supporting Member of TMP03 Jan 2013 9:43 p.m. PST

From Champlain in 1609:

As soon as we landed, our Indians began to run some two hundred yards towards their enemies, who stood firm and had not yet noticed my white companions who went off into the woods with some Indians. Our Indians began to call to me with loud cries; and to make way for me they divided into two groups, and put me ahead some twenty yards, and I marched on until I was within some thirty yards of the enemy, who as soon as they caught sight of me halted and gazed at me and I at them. When I saw them make a move to draw their bows upon us, I took aim with my arquebus and shot straight at one of the three chiefs, and with this shot two fell to the ground and one of their companions was wounded who died thereof a little later. I had put four bullets into my arquebus. As soon as our people saw this shot so favourable for them, they began to shout so loudly that one could not have heard it thunder, and meanwhile the arrows flew thick on both sides. The Iroquois were much astonished that two men should have been killed so quickly, although they were provided with shields made of cotton thread woven together and wood, which were proof against their arrows. This frightened them greatly. As I was reloading my arquebus, one of my companions fired a shot from within the woods, which as-tonished them again so much that, seeing their chiefs dead, they lost courage and took to flight, abandoning the field and their fort, and fleeing into the depth of the forest, whither I pursued them and laid low still more of them. Our Indians also killed several and took ten or twelve prisoners. The re-mainder fled with the wounded. Of our Indians fifteen or six-teen were wounded with arrows, but these were quickly healed.

After we had gained the victory, our Indians wasted time in taking a large quantity of Indian corn and meal belonging to the enemy, as well as their shields, which they had left behind, the better to run. Having feasted, danced, and sung, we three hours later set off for home with the prisoners. The place where this attack took place is in 43 and some minutes of latitude, and was named Lake Champlain.

For Champlain's publications and maps see: link and link

Source: Samuel de Champlain, The Works of Samuel de Champlain (Toronto, 1925), Vol 2, 89101.

79thPA Supporting Member of TMP03 Jan 2013 9:48 p.m. PST

Another link


CooperSteveOnTheLaptop Inactive Member04 Jan 2013 5:50 a.m. PST

Bows went out when gun users started lying down

FatherOfAllLogic04 Jan 2013 6:38 a.m. PST

Out in the woods a bullet is less likely to be deflected by a
branch? Go read 'A Skulking Way of War'. The author makes a case for the natives dropping the bow for firearms on a wholesale basis. He mentions the down-side of a matchlock, the smell of the burning match, but says they loved the flintlocks. A bullet is more likely to create a killing injury also. Besides, if the cursed whites use 'em, so will we!!

79thPA Supporting Member of TMP04 Jan 2013 7:17 a.m. PST

I think your last sentence is another part of the puzzle. I am sure the Indians had to think, "these guys have guns and are kicking our ass. We need to get some guns."

Martin Rapier04 Jan 2013 7:35 a.m. PST

"Surely some historian/anthropologist has looked into this. Or some "native" told an explorer why."


Some useful references on the University of Iowa page:


In particular

1992 Longbow: A Social and Military History. Lyons and Burford, New York. [Appendix has detailed description of bow and arrow physics.]
McEwen, Edward, Robert L. Miller, and Christopher A. Bergman


1975 Arrows Against Steel: The History of the Bow. Mason Charter, New York. [Discussion of effectiveness of the bow compared to firearms.]

the latter appears to be available on some dodgy file sharing sites which I'm not willing to risk.

'American Indian Archery' Laubin & Laubin (Uni of Oklahoma) supports the prestige thesis (on Page 3):


kahunna04 Jan 2013 8:31 a.m. PST

That's good info for North American Indians, but what about the rest of the world. Even the Mongols abandoned the bow for muskets (matchlock at that).

kahunna04 Jan 2013 8:32 a.m. PST

The increased deadliness is certainly a factor.

Anton Ryzbak04 Jan 2013 1:10 p.m. PST

Prior to modern synthetic bowstrings any significant level of dampness would loosen the string (and soften the glue holding together a laminated bow), muskets suffer from this problem to far less of a degree. Extreme cold also impacts the performance of a wood/composite bow while having no impact at all on a gunpowder weapon.

The differenece in impact energy is massive; a good self bow throws a 1.5oz arrow at a couple hundred feet per second (composite bows generally fire a lighter arrow at a slightly higher velocity), and old Brown Bess fires a 1oz lead ball at nearly six hundred feet per second. Remember that the energy equation is: (velocity squared x mass) and that the ball looses velocity much slower than the arrow.

Lion in the Stars04 Jan 2013 2:40 p.m. PST

Using firearms allows younger or newer soldiers to take to the field effectively. You don't need the hour+ per day practice for your entire life with a firearm simply to develop proficiency.

Heck, look at how fast firearms established themselves in Japan: From the first introduction in 1542, to equipping more than 40% of all troops by 1600. During this time, firearms also went from the expensive weapons of the samurai to the weapons of the peasant-soldier. I think the only reason that firearms didn't comprise more of the army totals is that the Japanese used mixed bow/firearm units, with the archers giving covering fire while the firearms reloaded.

kreoseus2 Inactive Member04 Jan 2013 5:28 p.m. PST

"Guns, germs & steel" covers it as well.

CooperSteveOnTheLaptop Inactive Member05 Jan 2013 5:21 a.m. PST

Mad Jack Audley shot a German with his longbow in france in 1940…

Patrice Inactive Member05 Jan 2013 6:50 a.m. PST

Firearms go "bang!"
Did none of you have a childhood?

Exactly the answer I was thinking of.

spontoon05 Jan 2013 8:51 a.m. PST

I can make you a passable musketeer in an afternoon. Twenty years of daily practice, exercise, and good physique to start with to make an anrcher.

Nasty Canasta Inactive Member05 Jan 2013 9:18 a.m. PST

Actually, most arrowheads used in the United States were metal imported directly after contact.

It was a great trade item, and later the American Fur Company on the upper Missouri were selling them in packs of 10. Much easier to purchase and time-saving than knapping them out.

By 1851 they were discarding buffalo hide lodges for canvas, and using metal plates for eating instead of buffalo scapula. White linen shirts were now seen displacing deer-hyde. The list goes on…suffice it to say if someone had something that made life easier you adopted it.

Only 14 iron arrowheads were found on the Little Bighorn battlefield in the 1984 archaeological survey as opposed to 2,000 rounds from non-government firearms.

There are those in society who still stick with typewriters and carbon paper, buggy whips, wooden shoes, and powdered wigs out of nostalgia, not because it necessarily proves to be economical.

Indian people had about as much fondness for outdated material culture as we do today.

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