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Friday, July 01, 2005

I sometimes think I took up writing so my penchant for acquiring useless knowledge could justify itself. I once read Ernle Bradford's terrific book on the siege of Malta by the Turks in, if memory serves, 1565. A year later I was in a development guy's office on the Warner Bros lot, and he mentioned a project they were doing on the siege of Malta.

I said, "By the Turks? In 1565?"

The other day at the Dragon Dormant medieval camping event I was able to answer a question that had been nagging at me for some time. The musketeer at Jamestown, VA, told me a properly trained soldier in "his" time could get off one musket shot in half a minute. One of the medieval archers told me he could fire 8 shots in the same amount of time.

Why did anyone shift to muskets? Arrows poke holes in people just as well. And you can fire more of them. Sure, they require a tad more training. A musket is more complicated but requires less strength and less skill. But if I had a platoon of King George's finest bearing down on me with bayonets, my longbowmen could mow them down.

Same question with crossbows. Crossbows are slower. But a clothyard arrow can punch through any amount of armor you can realistically wear. So why go to crossbows.

The answer seems to be muzzle velocity. You or I can reasonably handle a 40 lb. bow. (That's the force required to draw it back fully.) A 40 lb. bow fires an arrow at 180 feet per second. A really strong archer could use an 80 to 120 lb bow. But his range was on the order of 200 yards. Not aiming. That's firing for effect, artillery style, in the general direction of a massed enemy, hoping your arrow hits someone or other.

A light crossbow you can draw with both hands, cock, and then load and fire. That means a normal person can use a 100 lb. crossbow. That fires a bolt at 360 feet per second. Now you've got almost twice the range. (Drag increases exponentially, so doubling the pull doesn't double the range.) Also, accuracy goes up because the trigger, not your fingers, releases the string.

A musket fires semi-accurately at only 100 yards. But it has a muzzle velocity of 1300 fps. A troop of soldiers with muskets firing for effect, artillery-style, can hit their enemy at 700 yards, I am told. Which means that my archers will get shredded before they can ever get close enough.

This is a much more convincing explanation than previous ones I'd heard, e.g. it's easier to train people to fire a musket than to hit anything with a bow. Though I'm not sure the "class" explanation is wrong. In military simulations, archers tend to decimate mounted knights, just as they did at Agincourt, especially if the archers are protected by pikemen. They're cheaper, too. But the rich guys running the show were mounted knights, and they didn't trust or like archers much. Probably bothered them that a commoner with a bow could knock them off their horse from 50 yards if he ever decided to. So they decided bows were unsporting, and kept up the cavalry charges up through 1898. Folly never goes out of style.

Anyway, that's the sort of question that nags at me when the writing is going well.

Boy, this is a great job.


There's a great scene in The Three Mustateers (1973) of a man standing against the wall about to be executed by a firing squad. Bullets and a even a tamping rod hit all around him but he's left unhurt.

A testament to the accuracy of early muskets and an answer to my longtime question: why are men called "muskateers" always using swords?

By Blogger Unknown, at 11:13 AM  

Early muskets were indeed wildly inaccurate, and took two minutes to load, as well. I read somewhere on the Net that a soldier armed with a Brown Bess musket could hit a man-sized target half the time at 50 paces. Not terribly accurate, but if there are 50 soldiers firing at 50 other soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder, accuracy is less of an issue.

Rifles of the 1700s were much more accurate, but because they had no windage (the ball was the size of the barrel, instead of smaller than the barrel) they took twice as long to load.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 5:50 PM  

As a person who OWNS a bess and reguularly fires it.
A bess "75 cal" will bloody well kill you good with 1 shot anywhere in the body trunk "torso" and will put a fist size hole in you ..Is accurate if your good up to 100 meteres and if you use buck and ball "1 73.5 cal ball and lets say 4- 50 cal balls "beyond.
I can easily shoot 3 times a minute with paper cartridge accuratly.
I also have a use a bow and will tell you that very careful aim is required to make a "clean" kill..knights in the day would have to be literally bristling with arrows before being killed.
Give me a bess with a new flint and 5 cartridges, and give a bowman his bow 5 arrows AND WE STAND say 200 meteres apart.. to be honest if I am hit I have a much higher chance of living then he does....

Good post

By Blogger Parzifal Odinson, at 9:48 PM  

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