“They shot at the skies”: soldiers and firearms of 16th century

Here is a simple secret of distinguishing bad and good books about early modern warfare. Bad books simply tell you that small firearms of the age were so inaccurate that soldiers had to come very close to the enemy in order to hit him. Good books go further and show a difference between accuracy of harquebuses and muskets in tests and in real battles. But still a question is often left unanswered – who is to blame for that inaccuracy? Soldiers or handguns? In other words, did soldiers use their firearms to its full potential? Lets dissect this problem and find the answer.


1. Harquebuses and muskets in theory.

First of all, I have to make sure that every reader understands how did these firearms look like. Early firearms can be an endless topic, because in discussing them you can use the word “standardization” only in connection with “no such thing”. But in the name of brevity I’ll just say that you can focus only on two types: arquebus (Old English harquebus, Italian sciopetta, French arquebuse, Spanish arcabuz) and musket. Both are muzzleloading and matchlock (some hunting or custom-made arquebuses could use wheel-lock). Arquebus was invented some time in the mid to late 15th century, probably in the 1450’s. Before the Italian Wars it was mainly used by Italian armies and militia of some German cities. In Italian wars the Spanish initially hired Italian infantry armed with arquebus, which proved very effective and soon arquebusiers appeared in almost every army.

The arquebus  weighed in around 5 kilos, with a barrel about 1 meter long, typically firing a 15 gram lead ball of about .66 calibre. Musket was essentially a much larger arquebus. The earliest claim for the existence of the musket is 1521, by the Spanish in the siege of Milan (although this is debated). It remained characteristically Spanish/Imperial weapon for years, not reaching France, for example, until the 1560’s. Muskets had barrels about 1.5 m long and weighed about 8-12 kilos. Because of this weight the musketeer had to use a forked rest to support the barrel when firing. This larger gun had a one inch bore, and its 50-70 gram ball could reach further and penetrate thicker armour than could that of the arquebus. Musket was particularly useful against armoured cavalry. However, only strong men, who earned extra pay, could carry it and tolerate its recoil. The weight of the musket slowly decreased through the century thanks to improvements in metallurgy that allowed for lighter, thinner and shorter barrels. The 17th century “musket” was thus little different in size from the arquebus of the early 16th, but the calibre was about 12 (balls to a pound) or 19.7 mm (40-50 gram bullets).

So lets begin from  studying the theoretical limits of  arquebuses and muskets. The best recently controlled study of early modern firearms was carried out in 1988-1989 by the staff of the Steiermärkisches Landeszeughaus in Graz, Austria. Thirteen muskets and pistols, dating from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century were chosen to be fired under rigorous test conditions in a research program conducted jointly with the Austrian armed forces. The guns were mounted on rigid frames, sighted on target, ignited electrically, and measured electronically.

Muzzle velocities for the early modern weapons from the Graz collection were surprisingly high. Ten of thirteen average muzzle velocities were between 400 and 500 m/sec. By comparison, the two modern assault rifles tested had muzzle velocities of 835 m/sec and 990 m/sec respectively, and the 9mm pistol tested at 360 m/sec, Smith and Wesson police .38 revolver at 290 m/sec, Colt .357 Magnum at 400 m/sec. Of course, the drag of the ball causes a rapid loss of momentum with distance.


Muskets were targeted at 100 meters, pistols at 30 meters. Weapons were fired against a rectangular wooden target 167 cm high by 30 cm wide, essentially the frontal area of a standing human being. The probability of scoring any hit at 100 meters (30 meters for pistols) was calculated. For smoothbore muskets the probability of any given shot to hit a man-sized target at 100 meters was little more than 50%. The two pistols were far more accurate at 30 meters, scoring 83% and 99%. The latter figure is comparable to the score of the modern pistol (99.5%). Muskets targeted at 30 meters had almost 100% probability to hit. There was almost no improvement in accuracy of guns from 16th to 18th century.

These numbers are really good, better than many expect from a smoothbore musket. They get even better if you remember that here the target was man-sized, while in 16th century infantry usually marched into battle in big formations. That would make such weapon an overkill! But that is a ballistic test, and no human being can hold the gun so steady. Also, note that the Graz test was conducted with standardized modern gunpowder made for gun collectors, which is a more powerful and stable substance than it’s 16th century predecessor.

“The ultimate reason for the inaccuracy of smoothbore firearms lies in the uncontrollable spin that any sphere must assume when it passes down die barrel. The so-called “Magnus Effect” creates an aerodynamic lift on the spinning sphere that pulls the bullet off its intended course. The effect is familiar to any golfer or tennis player who has ever sliced or hooked a shot and watched the spinning ball veer off the course or court; baseball pitchers use the effect to throw curve balls. Within the technical regime of smoothbore guns, nothing can be done to eliminate the Magnus Effect. Other features of the gun can exacerbate the inaccuracy of die gun if it is”. (Peter Krenn, Paul Kalaus and Bert Hall. Material Culture and Military History: Test-Firing Early Modern Small Arms. // Material History Review 42 (Fall 1995)).


2. Muskets out of battle.

In 18th century the problem of musket accuracy was studied in many trials. Unlike modern tests, shooting was made by humans and the target usually represented an enemy battalion instead of a single man. Moritz Thierbach, writing in 1886, summarized them. Taking an average of Prussian, Bavarian and French trials, he standardized the test to one involving 60 shots at a board-and-canvas target, roughly equal in size to the frontal area presented by an enemy battalion, approximately 30.5 meters long, by 2 meters high. From a distance of 75 meters only 60% of the bullets penetrated the target; from 150 meters – 40%; from 225 meters – 25%; and from 300 meters – only 20%.

Hanoverian experiments in 1790 showed that when fired at various ranges against a representative target (a placard 1.8 m high and up to 45 m long for infantry, 2.6 m high for cavalry) the following results were achieved: at 100 meters – 75% bullets hit infantry target, 83.3% cavalry, at 200 m – 37.5% and 50%, at 300 m – 33.3% and 37.5% respectively.

Moreover the hits by no means corresponded to kills, for the Prince de Ligne once conducted a test against a comparable target which was painted with figures of Prussian soldiers, and he discovered that nearly one-quarter of the rounds that struck the target would have passed between heads and legs, leaving the soldiers totally unscathed.

Another experiment described by Mueller (1811) involved the use of aiming versus no aiming. Infantrymen in the aiming group were encouraged to aim their muskets as hunters would instead of just pointing it roughly ahead and pulling the trigger. Each group fired 1,000 rounds against a cavalry target. The results of this experiment:

range (yd.) aimed shots unaimed shots
100 53.4% 40.3%
200 31.8% 18.3%
300 23.4% 14.9%
400 13.0% 6.5%

These results demonstrate that aimed fire is significantly better than unaimed fire, even for a smoothbore musket, especially more significant at longer ranges.

All these test have slightly diversified numbers (because of different guns, men, targets) but you get the idea. As you can see, the accuracy of smoothbore firearms in the hands of real soldiers in ideal testing conditions when fired against an “infantry-sized target” was roughly the same as the accuracy of ballistic tests against “man-sized target”. But again, that numbers show us only the full potential of early firearms. Lets see how good did they fare in battles.


3. Muskets and arquebuses in real battles.

“There are many anecdotes about early small arms, most of them contradictory. For every tale of astounding marksmanship, there are odier stories of infantry companies blazing away without causing serious damage to the enemy”. (Krenn, Kalaus and Hall, ibid.)

No one can deny that early modern firearms sometimes allowed feats of marksmanship. In November 1640, a soldier in the Spanish army deployed to put down the revolt in CataloniaŽ, fired his musket at an elderly woman who climbed a tower to raise the alarm. He hit his target, and the unfortunate woman fell to the ground. But such accuracy was not norm of the day. Exceptional snipers were known in every army – even in 16th century they were often sent forward to skirmish with the enemy. These units of “lost children” (French enfants perdu, German verlorene Haufen, Dutch verloren hoop, English forlorn hope) could fire at will from great distances and with great effectiveness. In sieges such sharpshooters found even more glory, taking enemy soldiers and commanders from unbelievable lengths. Arquebuses in their hands performed not worse than modern smoothbore hunting guns. But most soldiers were not capable of such feats. In the afternoon of the first day of the Portuguese siege of Badajoz in September 1643, when the besieging forces fired volleys at the Spanish defenders on the walls, after several hours they had only killed six or seven men and wounded about twenty.

Experience prompted to commanders that in the real battle the most effective use of arquebuses and later muskets is to advance forward and shoot from 30 meters. That could give as much as 20-30% hits in a volley. Volleys from 100 meters could score only about 2% hits. The early “Spanish heavy musket” was used at 60-80 meters but there are accounts of its effective use at 100, 150 and even 200 meters (the latter is quite doubtful, but that’s the real episode of the battle of Muehlberg, where the Spanish musketeers inflicted heavy damage to the enemy on the other side of river Elbe). In 16th century many soldiers on the battlefield wore armour, so a commander had to think not only of hitting the enemy, but also of penetrating the enemy’s shell. The Duke of Alba recommended to his harquebusiers an effective distance “of a little more than two pike lengths” – around 11 meters. In 17th century during the English Civil War armour was no longer a problem, but many infantry regiments were composed of such rabble, that officers suggested a distance of two pike length – less than 10 meters (pikes became shorter at the time).

As you can see, the real cause of inaccuracy was the inadequate quality of soldiers. I can make a long list of reasons, but lets just note that many soldiers of the early modern era received no training at all. State resources were limited and most governments only hired mercenaries and drill was rare, especially in 16th century. Spain initially had the advantage of sending raw recruits to garrisons in Italy for two years. Soon the 80 Years’ War urged the Spanish government to abandon this practice, and newly hired men were send directly into the maelstrom of battles.


That’s why every army cherished grizzled veterans. Early modern armies were mercenary only in part, because not everyone entered service voluntarily. Even if we forget about impression, which was relatively rare, many men enlisted simply because they’ve lost all other way to earn their bread. They were far from true dogs of war. In spite of the claim of longbow enthusiasts, sufficient training of an harquebusier took much time. Not so many years as a longbowman’s training, but still a lot. Combat effectiveness of raw troops was often pitiful. They broke and ran easily, they didn’t perform manoeuvres fast enough, but more important that they didn’t shoot good enough.

In 1568 a commentator described just how badly some Spanish soldiers handled their weapons:

“To  fire their arquebuses they charge them to the mouth [of the gun] with powder; they take hold of them half way along the barrel with their left hand and move their arm as far away as they can, to prevent the fire from touching them ( as they are so afraid of it); and when they light it with the wick in their other hand they turn their face away, just like those who are waiting for the bloodletter to open a vein; and even when they Žfire they close their eyes and go pale, and shake like an old house”. (Quoted after Lorraine White. The Experience of Spain’s Early Modern Soldiers: Combat, Welfare and Violence. // War In History 2002; 9; 1.)

To be used to its full potential, the matchlock guns required care about too many small things. In the heat of the battle, under enemy fire, standing over dead friends, young inexperienced soldier had to remember about:

- measuring proper amount of regular powder to charge his gun;

- measuring proper amount of fine powder to prime the gun;

- using wads to ensure tight fitting of the bullet;

- ramming powder and wad and bullet strong enough but without breaking a wooden ramrod (ram too hard and pressure burst can damage the gun, ram too loose and pressure will be weak);

- taking constant care of the burning match that could accidently ignite all that gunpowder, and the match was to be kept smouldering all the time, so a soldier had to blow it every often and adjust it’s length in time;

- pressing the buttock of your gun firmly against your shoulder when firing (assuming you have a more modern firearm: older models were made to be held in various other ways like pressing against the chest); etc.

Imagine yourself doing all of it in high speed to be ready to present! aim! fire! as your officer commands you to (and possibly on the move because fire by rotating ranks was the norm). After about 30 shots the barrel of your gun would become too hot to hold it. Its performance would deteriorate and the rate of misfires would increase as the barrel becomes fouled up with combustion residues. Expect misfires in one of every six-eight shots. And we haven’t mention the aiming part.

Most inexperienced soldiers tended to forget about recoil. As a result, they tended to fire too high. Once an English captain came under Žfire from raw Scots levies in the enemy army and declared that ‘they shot at the skies’. This tendency to fire high led Robert Munro, a Scottish veteran of the Thirty Years’ War, to counsel that soldiers should aim ‘never higher or lower than level with the enemies’ middle’. As a result the following adjustments in aim were recommended for different ranges: at 150 paces aim at the knees, at 225–300 — at the waist or chest, at 375 — at the head, at 450 — at the hat or 1 foot above the head. Frederick the Great recommended that at usual 30-50 meters the barrels must be pointed at the ground eight or ten paces (7 meters) away, to compensate for the kick of the weapon.

And that was just the soldiers’ part. Very often they received guns of a very low quality. Gunpowder was especially prone to bad production and storage and when on campaign it could deteriorate completely. Some authors even assume that pistols were in fact more accurate than most arquebuses, because pistols were a noblemen’ weapon, usually of good quality.


4. Conclusion.

To sum it all, the problem of inaccuracy was connected primarily with soldiers than with limited capabilities of their weapons. If soldiers on the battlefield could match accuracy of the testing range, that would be a quite different picture. Assuming in average two shots per minute and even 10% probability of hitting the enemy line at 300 meters, 1000 soldiers could kill 200 enemies a minute. That’s good enough but at lesser range we would see a real slaughter. But that potential was never reached. There was simply no real possibility to reach it because of many different objective factors.

So we can say that in fact it was the early modern soldier who was inaccurate, not his musket, even taking all imperfection of contemporary weapons. The real problem with early firearms was not incaccuracy but a tremendous level of care and diligence that they required to reload properly. Even bolt action rifles significantly reduced the gap between the weapon’s performance characteristics and  drawbacks of the real soldiers. AK-47 for example has a special fame of being a simple and reliable weapon of choice for the untrained riffraff.

But the soldier is not to blame too. He received inadequate training and equipment, so it would be foolish to expect more of him. We are dealing here with reality of warfare which always has certain impassable limits. Even a genius from our time with all possible knowledge of history, should he be sent to 16th century, wouldn’t be able to change the inaccuracy and other problems, no matter what could say some writers of fiction books.

I would appreciate your thoughts on the subject!


Filed under 16th century, 17th century, 18th century, Weapons

24 responses to ““They shot at the skies”: soldiers and firearms of 16th century

  1. Thanks for a great post!
    A small question about newly recruited soldiers – from your post it seems that they didn’t receive a lot of training. Was it too expensive or took too long to train them to shoot properly?

    • That was too expensive, because tax system in 16th century Europe was essentially medieval, while the costs of war escalated tenfold. So even initial hiring of an army usually required borrowing a sum equaling to about 10 annual incomes of the state. Additional subsidies were to be bought in parliaments in exchange for rights and privileges for parliaments and citizens. However, a large proportion of mercenaries for hire were already trained veterans. They were more expensive but came in formed regiments with everything they need. Also, towards the end of 16th century many states began to keep mercenaries in pay during winter months instead of disbanding them. Dutch army is especially famous for devoting winter to the drill. In fact, images in this post are from Dutch book that was maid around 1600 to help officers in drilling soldiers. It included everything one should know about using pike, arquebus and musket.

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  4. darksideoftheshrub

    This was an awesome read! I’m thinking about writing a story set during the 80 years war and this information proves very valuable to me.

  5. Nice! The 80 years war is indeed a nice subject for study. There were a lot more battles than most people know of and the sieges are a subject on it’s own.

    • I agree, sieges are even more interesting and important! Unfortunately too little is published in English by Dutch historians, so I have to read mostly English and translated Spanish academics like Parker, Israel, Tracy or de Leon. I desperately wait for Olaf van Nimwegen’s book at less than $130 :(

  6. Well, there’s Pieter Geyl who wrote a lot in English and Jamel Ostwald and me have posted abstracts of Olaf’s works in English. I am setting up a blog on the 80 Years War to cover my research on the flags and uniforms of the period, but I think the most interesting work for hstorians is Wijn’s thesis..

  7. The good news however is that all of this was markedly easier than developing the skills of a Longbow man.
    Very well written, glad I found your site.

    • And even better news that gunpowder went far beyond power limits that longbow had because of muscles and wood. Sometimes I think it would be an interesting alternative history to imagine a world where 15th century advance in armour-making took place made bows obsolete but gunpowder hasn’t been invented.

  8. Reblogged this on The Big Board and commented:
    A harbinger of things to come in terms of issues that Napoleonic era forces would face. Despite improvements in technology the hit rates are not much better than mentioned here. Coupled to this the cut and run nature of a lot of these engagements leads me to believe that close combat often did more to rout than fire power of muskets. That and the Grand Battery were to quickly become the power tools of the end of the Classical Era of Strategy.

  9. Cielo the Pachirisu

    Thank you. This is a much more detailed account than I’ve read in most places before. Most medievalists just scoff at the arquebus, when really they just wanna tout their archery.

    I was working on a fantasy series taking place in the late 15th century equivalent of technology. This will help me out quite a bit, as well as the next time I get into a debate with an archer worshipper : D. Thank you for compiling all this!

  10. Henri

    This has been a most excellent article. Thank you for taking the time to research and compile it. It confirms most of my understandings of the early modern firearms, but I’m curious whether you can solve one of the great mysteries that’s been puzzling me for years.

    First off, you’ve made the difference of the arquebus and an early musket abundantly clear here, but when we compare them to later Napoleonic firearms… what makes an arquebus an arquebus, and not a carbine?

    Napoleonic muskets have a longer barrel, so, that difference pretty much settles it for me but…
    a) carbines shoot the ball of roughly same caliber than an arquebus, so, it can’t be that
    b) carbines use a flintlock mechanism, but I’ve read both about wheellock arquebuses and carbines, so, it can’t be that either
    c) carbines tend to have a bayonet lug, so, maybe there’s something in that
    d) carbines seem to have a more ergonomic stock and a trigger guard, but… I’m kind of dubious to base the classification on those.

    Have you ever figured it out? =)

    • Thank you, Henri, for kind words!

      I think the difference between arquebus and carbine or caliver is more in time and appearance than in function. It is very clear if you see them together in some museum: the arquebus as an earlier form is just clumsier. The barrel itself is thicker, because the metal is worse, and there is so much more wood in it. The shape is also very simple, not so ergonomic as you noticed. Even muskets for a lot of sixteenth century were supposed to have a curved stock to be held against breast or cheek rather than against the shoulder.

      • Henri

        Ah! I always suspected the difference in barrel thickness, but could never confirm it. Thank you!

        So, there is no considerable barrel length difference between an average arquebus and the later carbine?

        Also, the caliver is another mystery weapon for me. Some sources claim it’s a light musket, some say it’s closer to an arquebus than to a musket (whatever that means), some say it’s an arquebus with a standardised bore, and you seem to equate it with a carbine? Is it all or none of those things? =)

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  12. Dw

    Do you happen to know the dimensions of the muskets. I know that you said it was 1.5meters and had a 1 inch more. But could you tell me the width and depth. I am doing research on them and need to know the dimensions…

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