“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

38 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.

    • Graham Webb

      This is very interesting thankyou. I’m especially interested in the adequate accuracy at 300 yards. It is the only plausible explanation for me for the move away from bows and particularly the more powerful crossbows. Musket simply had more power which gave greater range. Those who assert the musket only fired at 100 yards should try using a bow. At 100yards and under I can hit a lot more often than with a musket. The indian tribes who were amed with muskets would have had no advantage over those without and we know the arming of tribes was a threat to the settlers and rose some indiean tribes above others.

      One thing that is not addressed here is the use of the rest. Throughout the ECW rests were ordered with every musket. We can see orders for them in their multiples of thousands all throughout the war. If the troops were untrained and likely to fire high would they not be better shots with a rested weapon. We all fire better with a rested weapon so why is it only the wight of the ealier weapons that necesitate the use of the rest? I’d like to see some studies of rests versues non rests. If my men shot better than the enemy with rests than without them, I would want them to use them as it cold tilt the encounter in my favour.

      Thanks again. Very interesting article.


      P.S. I’m putting this on my GoingBANG FB page because it will be of general interest there and it is in the public domain here. Any problems with that, please let me know.

      • The difference the rests made seems negligible in the heat of the battle, especially as the black powder smoke made impossible to take long-distance aim. Also, since battles were rare compared to all other war activities, soldiers were prone to throw rests away and the army commanders were not so eager to spend their own money (since usually financing was decentralized, not straightforward from the state coffers). So rests began to disappear along with the heaviest muskets.

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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? =)

        • I think that the barrel length of carbine and arquebus is roughly the same or arquebus is somewhat longer but not much – comfortable to use without a fork. But there were no standards for arquebuses, it’s just a modern common usage.

          Caliber is an arquebus standardised to fire bullets of 24 to pound – here is an excellent page about it: http://engerisser.de/Bewaffnung/weapons/Caliver.html

          • Henri

            Thanks again! =)

            • James Gordon

              John Cruso, writing in 1632 in Militarie Instructions for the Cavallrie says:
              “Moreover, by the late orders refolved on by councel of warre, the Harquebusfier….muft have the harquebufe of two foot and a half long (the bore of 17 bullets to the pound rowling in)” whereas “a carbine or petronell ther barrell 2 1/2 foot long, the bullet 24 in the pound, rowling in”

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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…

  13. Shannon Love

    Respectfully, I disagree that poor training caused poor accuracy and range.

    1 ) I think you misinterpreted the Graz findings.

    Specifically, they didn’t find that the weapons 17th Century weapons had a roughly 50% hit rate, they found that a 50% hit rate was the best possible hit rate under ideal laboratory conditions, fired from a fixed mount and using modern powder.

    “The Graz accuracy data reveal quite unequiv- ocally how poor the early modern weapons were. Only one musket (STG 1288) had a significantly better than chance probability of hitting the target. (Not surprisingly, it was rifled; but see the poor scores of the other two rifled muskets, G 284 and RG 272.) The scatter area (enclosing rectangle) for four of the 13 guns tested was larger tiian die target area, and for two others it was nearly as large as the target. If we eliminate from comparison die one cancelled test and the two pistols, dien six out often long-barrelled weapons scattered their bullets so badly that diey effectively hit the intended target solely by random varia- tion. Keep in mind that the guns were sighted on the target from their firing blocks; none of this variation can be attributed to human error in aiming.” [p106]

    In other words, 50% hit rate on a man sized target at 100m was the performance ceiling, not the mainline (most common) outcome. It started at that poor rate and then went down hill from there.

    2) The paper also found that both penetration of armor and damage to tissue dropped off rapidly with range.

    (A) historical composite armor of steel and linen combined to prevent serious injury even if the steel layer was penetrated. [p106] (B) That the size of a wound dropped by 50% from 9 to 100 meters indicating a mirroring drop in transmitted energy (C) A shot that caused a wound of volume 395cm^3 without armor caused only a 25cm^3 wound with armor, indicating a serious reduction in energy transmission to tissue.

    The authors conclude:

    “The artificial wound data and the evidence concerning the protective value of armour are also very valuable results of the Graz tests. They show that, while firearms were capable of inflicting horrible wounds, this ability was restricted to very close-range fire. The ability to cause lethal wounds declines sharply as distance increases. … The twin characteristics of musket fire — inac- curacy and lack of penetrating power — helps explain why the European battlefield saw a shift in the balance of power between tradi- tional heavy cavalry (gens d’armes, “knights in armour”) and infantry only late in the 16th cen- tury, long after the introduction of muskets. Early guns simply were very ineffective weapons against properly armoured knights.”

    Looking at the data, [Table 1, Table 2] it’s clear that the smoothbore weapons of the 17th century faired little better. The inherent limitation of range and accuracy of smoothbores under idea conditions clearly placed strict physical limits on both range and accuracy regardless of the skill of the wielder.

    3) If the difference between historical accuracy at range and the possible accuracy at range came down to training and experience, then we would expect to see significant and obvious performance differences between units within armies and between armies. We would really see big differences in performance between veteran units, especially professional mercenaries who stayed active for year after year, and short enlisted units.

    Such differences appear readily when the quality of the technology is equal e.g. pikes and advantage goes to the best trained and organized e.g. maintaining formation and maneuvering. If training paid off in pikes, why not firearms?

    Training did obviously improve rate of fire. E.g. the Swedish Yellow Brigade clearly had a significant advantage in rate of fire owing to their extensive training, so did the Dutch and later the New Model Army. Yet neither the Swedes, Dutch or New Model showed any significant advantages in killing power at range. Why train for rate of fire but not accuracy and range if all three were possible?

    It’s also impossible to qualify elite units like the Yellow Brigade or the New Model Army as untrained “rabble”. If anyone could have trained to significantly improve accuracy and range with existing technology, they could and would have do so.

    4) If training could explain the 2-3 fold difference between theoretically possible accuracy at range and the historical accuracy and range, then elite/veteran units could have brought that tremendous advantage in firepower to bear with impunity on lessor trained opposites. They could have hit like artillery, devastating at ranges the enemy could not respond to.

    Commanders would likely begin to use them like artillery, putting them at the fore to do as much damage as quickly as possible at the longest ranges. Just like artillery, commanders would have husbanded elite/veteran and not exposed them to artillery or close range with inferior units.

    Instead, veteran unit superiority showed in the ability to maneuver while maintaining formation and to keep doing so while sustaining casualties. Instead of being pushed to the fore to inflict damage, veteran units were more likely to be held back from the front as a reserve or put in a key location that had to be held.

    Either way, it was their ability to function within the enemies killing ground that made them elite, not their ability to hurt the enemy while remaining aloof.

    5) When rifles entered the battlefield in mass in the mid-1800s, outshooting and outranging became apparent and widely used as tactics which quickly drove the rifle technology to greater accuracy at greater ranges. After training for rate of fire for over 250 years, armies suddenly changed gears and started training for accuracy at range. If they could have done so at anytime in the smooth bore era, somebody would have tried it or bumped into it by accident.

    6) Its really hard for us in the industrial age to really understand just how different technology was back then. Today, we all assume that technology is standardized, mass produced and that one instance of a particular model or part is interchangeable with another and has the exact same behavior. In the pre-industrial era that was emphatically untrue.

    Compared to the industrial era, the smoothbore era lacked the predictability and interchangeability that the repeatable precision of the industrial era brought. Every part was different (each nut had its bolt, each screw its tap), each gun was different each bullet and ball different, each batch of gunpowder different, each part of a barrel of gunpowder was different and the same gunpowder was different as it aged or the humidity changed.

    Sometimes, all the components of the system aligned and soldiers could make great shots but just as often they aligned the other way and they got a misfire or blowback.

    Tactics had to be built around the presumption of unpredictability technology giving unpredictably killing power at range. Meanwhile, training focused on the attributes of the technology such as rate of fire and formation training could substantially affect.

    • Dear Shannon, thank you very much for taking time to write such a thoughtful comment! It is a rare possibility to have an interesting discussion.

      I think that you are very right but there were some misunderstanding. Essentially, I think we have the same position.

      Let’s see how I can clarify the points you’ve made…
      1) I can’t see how I misinterpret the ‘Graz’ probabilities of hitting a man-sized target. Throughout the post I took the 50% exactly as you say – as a theoretical ceiling achieved in laboratory conditions. I even pointed out that they had used the modern gunpowder, which had been too good by Early Modern standards. The difference is I don’t agree with their conclusion. 50% hit rate is ‘a chance’ only if you make just one shot. It is a very high probability for multiple shots in military conditions.

      2) Graz tests for armour penetration I think can be ignored due to usage of a modern steel plate 3-mm thick and horse barding. You’ll get better discussion of penetration in a great book by Williams ‘The knight and the blast furnace’.

      3) and 4) ‘Yet neither the Swedes, Dutch or New Model showed any significant advantages in killing power at range. Why train for rate of fire but not accuracy and range if all three were possible?’ – I agree with you that veterans mostly mattered for discipline. But actually, there was a significant difference between effective range of veterans and raw recruits. For raw recruits even a 100m range was too much. That’s why both armies in the English Civil War almost immediately after the battle of Edgehill went down to a simple but effective tactics of a single volley from about 10m followed by charge. Henceforth close fire from about 30m would become the distinctive feature of the British infantry in 17th-18th centuries. See the recent book by David Blackmore, ‘Destructive and Formidable’ which is the best available on British infantry fire in period of 1642-1765.

      Also, many musketeers were trained exactly for long range skirmishing. See any monograph on the Spanish army in 16-17ths centuries: they formed ‘mangas’ of three rows by 5 files that were sent out forward to target the advancing enemy. However, there was no practical sense in taking troubles to teach a lot of people to shoot long-range. Quality of gunpowder was a recurrent problem, as well as finding money for high-quality muskets. What was happening on the battlefields was the most effective way of war considering all factors in play. I firmly stand against those who think that Early Modern generals were foolish enough to miss feasible opportunities to gain advantage over the enemy. Rate of fire was far more important than accuracy, because it was more effective. Better to fire 10 bullets from 30m with 30% hit rate than 2 bullets from 100m with 80% hit rate. That is the usual military wisdom. Dozens of elite pilots in superb planes are less effective overall than hundreds of ordinary pilots in cheap planes. One ‘best in the world’ ship is less effective than swarms of mediocre ships.

      That’s why you find most spectacular records of Early Modern sniping at sieges where rate of infantry fire was not relevant at all. It is also interesting how a number of commanders who were shot rose from the beginning of the 16th century (See Mallett, ‘Condottieri and their masters’).

      5) It all comes down to cost-benefit evaluation. Rifled weapons first appeared in the 16th century, elite skirmishers used them as early as in 18th century, but only from the mid 19th century they began to make a difference. The reason? Minié ball. Only that technological advancement provided a rate of fire that made reasonable to invest into longer range shooting. It would be foolish to try to invest into accuracy before because the improvement of accuracy would not be good enough compared to ‘5 balls a minute’ fire rate. That’s why in dire situations early modern soldiers even used very fast ‘tap loading’ i.e. reload without a ramrod, simply hitting the ground with the musket butt to drive powder and ball home. Accuracy of such ball would be awful and the hitting force too, but at 30m it was enough. At 100m benefits of tap loading to rate of fire were negated by fall in accuracy. You see, only the end effect matters.

      Also, consider finances. In 16-17th centuries ordinary taxes were not sufficient for waging wars, but extraordinary taxes were mostly granted to monarchs for the incoming or ongoing war. Financial capabilities to invest into training or technologies were very limited. Money went into buying whatever was available at this very moment.

      6) You are absolutely right. The technology was unpredictable. The question was never about the quality of individual firearms. Elite weapon masters could make very precise weapons: that’s why nobles had good hunting muskets and wheel lock pistols sometimes were more accurate than mass-produced muskets. This matter is nailed down in Agoston, ‘Guns for the sultan’. In 17th century it was obvious for contemporaries that Ottoman weapon masters could make wonderful single muskets that outclassed best European ones (damask barrels, just imagine it) – but it didn’t matter because Ottoman mass-production was of the far lower quality than the European. European armies fought better because only mass production counts and their quality of mass-produced weapons was better.

  14. russell1200

    I think it was Frederick the Great who coined the phrase about having to shoot a mans weight in bullets at him in order to kill him. Oddly enough, this is still true in modern warfare (it’s the deadliness versus dispersion issue).

    The other huge factor in making it hard to hit anything is that after the first volley, the firer was sitting in a cloud of smoke. The first shot would also have been the most carefully loaded. Thus you get things like “wait till you see the white of their eyes” phraseology. Trying to make that first punch really count (granted with militia who didn’t know how to platoon fire).

    I am curious if they also had the issue of panicky recruits failing to properly fire their weapon and continually loading more rounds on top of the unspent one already in the bore. I recall that it wasn’t uncommon to find mini-rifles with up to six unloaded rounds in the barrel in discarded muskets on the Civil War battlefields. Granted I don’t know if it was as easy to screw up in that fashion with a match lock as a percussion lock. My guess is that it was.

    • Yes, smoke and botched reload were major resons why long-distance (I mean 100m) massed sustained fire was of limited effect and thus useful only in some circumstances. English Civil War armies were right to adopt tactics of single close-range (as little as 10-15m) volley followed by attack with muskets used as clubs. To be successful and reliable tactics always has to be based on less-than-average skill of soldiers.

  15. NJHoepner

    Another thing you can think about regarding multiple reload…the recoil on these weapons, given the relatively slow-burning black powder and the poor “seal” of the bullet to the bore, was not that strong (having fired them myself). The misfire rate could be as high as 25%…and if you are in a crowd of men, most of the weapons go off on command, you may just not notice in all the smoke, noise, and excitement that yours did not. Even as late as the U.S. Civil War, muskets were found with ten rounds loaded, one after another…the poor soldiers loaded and loaded and loaded again, forgetting to put the percussion cap in, so never actually fired. Excitement does strange things to people.

  16. Neil Lynch

    Very much enjoyed the article. Reading this in conjunction with looking at the Spanish Armada and their use of the Arquebus. Aside from being at close range, in conjunction with the generally poor accuracy of the weapon itself, I would wonder how they could hit anything from a rolling / pitching ship.

    • Thank you!
      I doubt the arquebus was of much use in the see, but for the special circumstances of firing into a mob of enemy soldiers while the ships are locked and men are in hand-to-hand combat… I don’t remember the source, but I’ve read some years ago that muskets became much more prominent at see not only because of the ncreased range but also because of their essential ability to break through the wooden bulwarks.

      • Russell1200

        Benerson Little, ex-navy seal, who has done a lot of primary research for his “Sea Rover Practice”, notes that the French privateers, of roughly the same period, reduced the number of cannon in order to increase the number of firearms able to fire. He even notes a French commander with the sly insult that the English privateers didn’t do this because they didn’t want to give up their fancy stern accommodations. Given that we are in the transition from personnel killing cannon fire, to ship killing cannon fire, you would very much suspect that firearms would be important. As to the movement of the ships, this was at close quarters, and at some point the ships would be lashed together. Preliminary fire would likely be at folks manning the rigging and firing positions in the rigging.

        • Thank you, that is most interesting. Giving the sturdiness of ships in that age and the requirement to man the rigging, killing personnel could be quite efficient.

  17. johankaell

    In late 17th and early 18th century the swedish army whent against regular doctrine of line volley fire.

    Each soldier fired thier weapons only once. First line at 80 paces and second line at 40 (or 60 and 30). After that they drew steel and charged.

    Part if this was to faster ‘get to grips’ with the enemy, but also that close combat was considered more effective. Standing around to reload took to much time and was counterproductive in keeping the initiative.

    In essence, they used the guns just as a complement to get into naked steel range where the real damage was considered to be made.

    Usually the enemy routed and victories against forces considerably larger was won in this manner.

    • There is a new wonderful book on firing methods in 17-18th centuries – Destructive and Formidable: British Infantry Firepower 1642-1756 by David Blackmore. I recommend it highly, although there are some typically British issues (i.e. sometimes British army is depicted as too superior to the French one and others).
      It tells how untrained armies of the English Civil War learned from the Swedish experience and turned to the tactics of close-distance volleys of 3 rows at once, followed by charge with pikes and muskets held like clubs. In later decades as the army professionalism grew and flintlock muskets spread the British used the constant close-distance fire without the necessary charge. Usually fire-fight on 30 yards ended fast with one side fleeing. The French are described as preferring 100-yards distance.
      Anyway, it was not until the middle of the 18th century that fire alone could stop determined charges, and even then ordnance was essential, not just musketry.

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