… a vollie of musket or hargebuze goeth with more terrour, fury and execution, then doth your vollie of arrrowes

Robert Barret, The Theorike and Practike of Moderne Warres, London, 1598

Muster certificates can, however, yield worthwhile information … for example, the remarkable way in which the musket gained ascendancy over the bow between 1573 and 1587

Lindasy Boynton, The Elizabethan Militia 1558 – 1638, David and Charles, 1971

A musketeer versus a lancer

A musketeer versus a lancer

Musketeer versus a lancer

One advantage of firearms that was recognized by several commentators of the day, but not always since, was their psychological impact. Both small-arms and heavy artillery, especially in the first half of the sixteenth century, could be remarkably inaccurate, but one should never underestimate their ability to instill raw, enervating fear in an enemy by no more than the roar of their discharge. Machiavelli (whose Art of Warre was first published in English in 1560, reprinted 1573 and 1588) believed that the noise of a single harquebus would strike more fear in a group of peasant footmen than the hostile advance of twenty armed men. Machiavelli, of course, was not a soldier, but Robert Barret was, and, in 1598, he noted that ‘a vollie of musket or hargebuze goeth with more terrour, fury, and execution, than doth your vollie of arrowes’. Even against trained soldiers, particularly pikemen, a volley of small-arms fire could be extremely unsettling and throw even the most disciplined formation into disorder. Sir John Smythe (1590) believed that a well delivered first volley was more effective than the next four put together. Sir Roger Williams wrote that against ‘great troops, the musketeers are the terriblest shot and most profitable that ever was devised’. The year before the loss of the Alderney ship, Giles Clayton in his Approuved Order of Martiall Discipline, observed that ‘many times it hath beene seene that battailes have been gotten by shotte onely, without push of pyke, or stroke of weapons’. When small-arms were backed up by artillery, just the sound of their collective discharge could be devastating. As David Eltis noted, ‘The psychological effects of artillery and harquebus fire helped to break up the order of a pike-square even faster than mere casualties alone would have done’. Werner Schodeler recalled how, at the Battle of Marignano in 1515, when all the artillery and firearms were discharged, there ‘was such a thing that one might have thought that the skies had opened with every fury, and that heaven and earth were breaking apart under enemy fire’. A more vivid picture of pitched battle is given by Luigi Collado (Practica Manuale di Artigleria, 1586) when he recalled how, in pitched battle, ‘every instant you felt cannon balls and harquebus shot whistling by your ears and every hour you saw the earth sown with pieces torn from the bodies of your companions’.
Quite apart from the sound and fury of a volleyed discharge and the scream of near misses, people were petrified by the thought of possible bullet wounds. Whereas an arrow would neatly slice the flesh and could easily be extracted, shot mashed everything before it and drove fetid bits of garment and unwashed skin deep into the wound, and since the wound could not easily be cleaned, infection was a virtual certainty. Also, whereas an arrow might glance off a bone, or leave a clean break that would easily heal, a lead ball by contrast, would shatter the bone leaving little prospect of proper mend. Furthermore, probing for a bullet with unsterilised forceps of the kind found on the wreck, was a further guarantee of putrefaction. Needless to say, the mortality rate from shot wounds was very high.

One of the main advantages of firearms was that almost anybody with reasonable eyesight could be turned, fairly quickly, into a marksman, more or less regardless of age and health. Also, even when wounded, most harquebusiers and musketeers could still pull a trigger bar. A good archer, by contrast, was the product of many years of training and had to be in top physical condition (which, in protracted overseas campaigns, they were often not because of cold, hunger and disease) to be able to draw their bow again and again with accuracy. The importance of good health can be seen from the following comment by the Hertfordshire militia that would only take archers who were ‘… Lustye in bodye, & able to abyde the wether & and canne shoote a good stronge Shoote’, because before they had made a mistake and ‘alowed manye Simple & Weake archers’ into their company.

But firearms had their disadvantages. They could not be fired anywhere near as rapidly as a bow and because of damp, or just the moody nature of gunpowder, they frequently misfired (a ‘flash in the pan’). Furthermore, if they were discharged too frequently (i.e. seven or eight times in rapid succession), they might overheat and endanger the shooter. As for the powder, not only did it have to be well ground and in perfect condition, but also it had to be the correct amount; too little and the projectile would lose range and accuracy, too much and the weapon might backfire into the shooter’s eye.

Rain, of course, was a great concern, for if the powder got wet it did not ignite. And if it did not ignite then it had to be replaced, which meant a considerable loss of time as special tools were required to clear both the barrel and touch-hole before the weapon could be repowdered, shotted and primed. For this reason, troops that did not have an advantage in firearms often preferred to fight in the rain. In such conditions it was recommended that the weapon, especially if primed, be carried with the pan and match under the armpit.

The match was another area of vulnerability. Proper match preparation and care was vital, for as Smythe wrote in his Discourses, ‘The match also, if it be not of very good substance, well wrought, and very well twisted, and kept very dry, it taketh no fire …’
Another drawback of sixteenth century firearms was that they were in frequent need of repair and spare parts. With every gun different, suitable replacement components were not always available, and usually there was a shortage of artificers capable of making and installing replacement pieces and, in general, restoring broken weapons to operational condition. Elsewhere, for instance, we mentioned the frustrations of commanders in Ireland who wrote to the Privy Council complaining that they were unable to obtain suitable wood to replace split and fractured stocks, and how, even if they were able to source the right wood, they had nobody capable of fashioning it into new stocks. By contrast, anybody could fix a bow.

One of the greatest disadvantages of firearms, particularly with muskets, was their weight. Smythe, for instance, considered the latter ‘too burdensome and heavy for soldiers to use in battles or great encounters’. Some eight years after the Alderney wreck, the commander of the English army in Ireland complained to Sir Robert Cecil (the son of Burghley) that ‘soldiers are compelled to carry muskets, which are very heavy … besides the charge of powder and lead, the weight of which, together with the musket, does clog and weary the bearer’. An army ordinance of 1600, in fact, limited the number of muskets to twelve for each company because ‘the soldier, being weak and ill fed, will not be able to carry them in his long and continued marches’. Indeed, Norreys reported from the Brittany that 500 of his men were sick and too weak to carry their weapons. Sir Roger Willaims, however, felt that pikemen, halberdiers, billmen and harquebusiers were more heavier laden than musketeers because the latter did not wear body armour and, instead of morion helmets, wore soft, broad-brimmed hats. He also pointed out that troops never marched more than ten miles without a rest and that musketeers were generally allowed to have their firearms carriaged.

Though far from being the perfect weapon, the shoulder gun had one outstanding advantage, its greater penetrating capability; and in the end it was this that settled the bow versus firearms debate, the most rancorous military dispute of the sixteenth century.