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Longbow vs. Arquebus – Who Would Win?

While reading Conquest of Peru by William H. Prescott, I was astonished to learn that the arquebus (harquebus), a 16th-century matchlock rifle, was used very similarly, at least in terms of tactics on the battlefield, as the English longbow was used in the 14th century. I was astonished because the 16th century, when the arquebus was in high use, was 200 years after the heyday of the longbow, yet they were both used almost in the same manner on the field. While the flintlock musket, however, a 17th-century invention, was used differently than the longbow, for reasons the next paragraph will explain, the arquebus was more or less a recent replacement of the longbow and therefore served a similar function as longbows in warfare.

16th-century arquebusiers typically made up a small portion of any army, while the 17th-century musketeer almost always made up the bulk of any army. This meant that arquebusiers in the 1500s had to mostly fight against cavalry and pikemen on the early modern battlefield in the same way 14th-century longbowman had to deal with cavalry and spearmen on the medieval battlefield. The 1500s were recent to the Middle Ages, whereas the flintlock musket in the 1600s was another 100 years after the invention of the arquebus. But armies have been using various handheld gunpowder weapons since the 1400s, and did so more increasingly ever since Charles VIII changed the face of warfare forever with his gargantuan horse-drawn siege-train of cannons in 1494.

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Bows and Arrows versus Matchlock Guns!

are matchlock guns better than longbows?
Matchlock guns

To compare these two grisly long-ranged weapons of war, I’ve decided to compare two well-studied but lesser-known historical battles where, exceptionally, these two weapons in discussion made up the bulk of the victorious army: (1) the Battle of Nájera (April 3, 1367), where the Black Prince, or Edward, Prince of Wales, fighting for Peter the Cruel, relied on the longbow for victory against deadly odds; (2) the Battle of Huarina (October 26, 1547), where the Demon of the Andes, or Francisco de Carvajal, fighting for Gonzalo Pizzaro, relied on the arquebus for victory against deadly odds.

Both of these battles are extraordinary because in both cases the long-ranged weapon became the decisive factor, and this was done in worlds where these weapons were typically used sparingly on the flanks of armies rather than making up the main body of armies. In worlds where men still charged on caparisoned horses, excited for the honor of breaking their lance on the field, the longbow and the arquebus made their mark, to change warfare forever. Spectacularly, this was even done while the victors were highly outnumbered!

So before I bring the longbow and the arquebus into direct comparison by listing their pros and cons, let me first summaries these two battles so you can get a sense of how important these weapons actually were for victory and the amazing odds they had to fight against. To conclude and see which weapon would win, I’ve written a fictional short story at the end of this article where the Black Prince with 350 longbowmen has to face off against the Demon of the Andes with 350 arquebusiers. So without further delay, let’s get started with the historical facts before we come to the exciting tale!

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The Battle of Nájera and the Black Prince – The Ultimate Testament for the Deadliness of the Longbow

how the black prince used the longbow for victory
The Black Prince

In the vale of Pampeluna, while dysentery racked his ranks, combined with the suffering caused by inexorable rain and hail, the Black Prince waited for the Spanish-Franco enemy, who blocked his path and held an impregnable position above the road to Burgos, to make the first move. Here the Black Prince, with his Gascon forces, English archers and Anglo-Norman mercenary captains, waited here for two weeks while storms and dysentery continued to wreak their hellish havoc on their minds and bodies.

All waiting ended when the Spanish-Franco genetours, javelin-throwing light cavalry, suddenly descended in full force from the encompassing heights. The Black Prince’s forces suffered horrendously from the attack, but he managed to sneak away in the night. He reappeared after two days in a field at Najera.

Medieval longbow compared to harquebus matchlock guns from the Renaissance early modern era
Longbow

The Spanish-Franco army, to their dismay, now found their enemy situated in a much more formidable position. That night they rested, but on the morning of the next day, April 3rd, 1367, the Spanish-Franco army charged their enemy with a massive host of cavalry.

The English archers in the Black Prince’s army, even while outnumbered and weakened by disease, slew the enemy’s horses in the thousands with their infamous longbows. The riders, lying on their backs, were shot down as well. And even after gathering into a tight phalanx to attack the English archers more cautiously, it was impossible to advance against the hailstorm of arrows, so they routed.

That day, 16,000 Spanish soldiers died. The Black Prince, taking few losses from the confrontation, was now free to continue his invasion of Castile!

Pros of the LongbowCons of the Longbow
a much faster rate of fire than the crossbowrequired years of training to use effectively
could shoot effectively up to 1,000 feet or 300 metersoften poor at penetrating the armor of the day
were light and easy to transportrendered ineffective if wet
were cheap to produce in large numbersrelied heavily on wind conditions
pros and cons of the medieval longbow
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The Battle of Huarina and the Demon of the Andes – The Ultimate Testament for the Deadliness of the Arquebus

The Demon of the Andes and how he used the arquebus for victory against unbeatable odds
The Demon of the Andes

While fleeing Peru for the sanctuary of Chile, Gonzalo Pizarro and the capitán of his 350 arquebusiers, Francisco de Carvajal, were forced to halt as their enemy, Centeno, blocked the passage ahead with a force more than double in number. But Centeno, mostly relying on cavalry, underestimated his reduced enemy who had more arquebuses than horses. The date was October 26th, 1547.

Under the careful command of the experienced Carvajal, his 350 arquebusiers were told to hold their position and wait until the enemy was but 100 paces away before firing. Leading his small force of cavalry, Pizarro charged to meet the advance of Centeno’s army, but this he did only to provide protection for Carvajal’s arquebusiers. After a time, taking heavy losses, Pizarro was forced to fall back with a few surviving cavaliers where he joined Carvajal’s company.

harquebus matchlock gun compared to medieval archery long bow and arrow
Harquebus

Of course, seeing their enemy flee, Centeno’s army was all too eager to see the completion of their efforts. They charged straight toward Carvajal’s arquebusiers, but immediately regretted it, for after the first salvo of balls killed over 100 of Centeno’s men another salvo was fired immediately afterward. And then another! This three-tier salvo was possible only because each arquebusier had three loaded arquebuses each, and this unusual surplus of arms was only due to the fact that many of Pizarro’s men had recently deserted and left their weapons behind.

The result of this three-tiered salvo was a decisive victory, for even while Centeno’s forces still outnumbered those of Pizarro’s, the tempest of balls and the sudden sight of so much death had caused them to rout and seek escape through the maintain passes. But even with all the arquebuses in Peru, this victory for Pizarro couldn’t have been possible without the patience of Carvajal, the Demon of the Andes, who, with his decades of experience in the art of war, had so carefully drilled his arquebusiers into extreme discipline.

Pros of the ArquebusCons of the Arquebus
could shoot effectively up to 1,200 feet or 366 metersrequired precious time to reload
often effective at penetrating the armor of the dayrendered ineffective if wet
required little training to use effectivelywere cumbersome to wield and transport
relied less heavily on wind conditions than bowswere expensive to produce in large numbers
pros and cons of the early modern arquebus
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Were bows ever used against black powder weapons in history?

This segment is a brief interlude for those interested. Scroll to the next headline to read my short story and learn which weapon would win.

If you want to explore the crazy worlds where these battles were allowed to take place, I’d recommend these two books–Conquest of Peru by William H. Prescott and The Age of Chivalry by Arthur Bryant.

As a vintage book collector, I had the honor of carefully enjoying vintage copies of these. But I digress and hope you’ll forgive my eccentricity. Now before we get to the short story to determine which weapon is greater, I want to ask “Can we ever study real situations in history when handheld black powder weapons faced off against bows and arrows?” The answer is Yes!

Vintage copies of The Age of Chivalry and Conquest of Peru

In my article Venice at Sea, I glossed over the fact that, in 16th-century galley warfare, the Ottomans used the Turkish recurve bow against the Venetians who heavily relied on handheld black powder weapons. It’s a testament for the deadliness of both of these weapons when I state the fact that the Venetians ended up incorporating the Turkish recurve bow into their own fleets at the same time as the Ottomans, after learning enough lessons from many confrontations with the Venetians, likewise incorporated more black powder weapons into their fleets.

Because the Ottomans were wont to use their galleys to ram their enemies and board them under the cover of falling arrows, the Venetians developed the effective counter strategy of letting the Ottomans chase them while they dashed with their oars and wreaked havoc on their pursuers with their numerous stern guns. In the case where the Ottomans managed to ram a Venetian galley, the boarding was rendered near-impossible because even the oarsmen in the Venetian galleys, being volunteers rather than slaves, were equipped with arquebuses! This history is explained in great detail in Gunpowder and Galleys by John F. Guilmartin.

The carefully translated descriptions of these battles where the arquebus was pitted against the bow and arrow, while also considering the results of history, make it easy to imagine the pros and cons of either weapon in other fictional scenarios. While the Turkish recurve bow shot from the forecastle of a galley and an English longbow shot from an embattled hilltop are very different scenarios, there are other instances in history when bows and arrows faced gunpowder weapons that I didn’t cover here. We could always study Jack Churchill and how he fought with a longbow in World War 2, but instead I’ll finally pit the longbow against the arquebus in a fictional but realistic scenario. Enjoy!

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Short Story: The Black Prince vs. The Demon of the Andes – A Fictional Battle to Determine which is Better, the Longbow or the Arquebus

Harquebus versus Longbow

*Although inspired by history, the following story is a fictional exercise to determine which weapon would win, the longbow or the arquebus.

‘Twas April 10th, 1548, less than a year after his renowned victory at Huarina, when Francisco de Carvajal was drawn and quartered by his vanquisher, Pedro de la Gasca. Mocking the priests as he was carried to the site of execution, Carvajal died the way he lived, with a jape on his lips. Now while his only regret, despite his many unforgivable war crimes, was simply forgetting to pay a humble debt before he sailed for the New World, he still never would’ve expected to be resurrected in such a Hell as what he woke up to.

Frantically searching for his limbs after he was drawn and quartered, Carvajal laughed hysterically to see that he was lying in a sunny field of grass with all his limbs attached. His laughter abruptly ended when a cavalier hastily helped him rise to his feet and said, “Capitán, the enemy is on the horizon! What must we do? We only have 350 arquebusiers, and we cannot yet determine how much of the enemy is still concealed behind the hill. A vedette has reported, however, that they are wielding large warbows instead of arquebuses.”

Carvajal’s laughter returned in the form of a gruff chuckle. “Don’t fret, chico. With 350 arquebusiers, so long as they are drilled and disciplined under my standard, can conquer much more than Peru!”

The cavalier smirked, inspired momentarily by his capitán’s confidence. “But, forgive me, Capitán. What must we do?”

Looking back to see his 350 arquebusiers basking in the sun, admiring how their accouterments glittered brilliantly in the god rays, Carvajal said, “Wait, chico.”

“Wait?” The cavalier doffed his burgonet to wipe sweat from his brow. “What do you mean, Capitán?”

Carvajal strutted away toward his arquebusiers, readying a speech in his mind to motivate their hearts, while his raspy voice carried over his shoulder for the distressed cavalier to hear. “We will hold our formation and wait for the enemy to attack. All you must do is wait, and listen for my signal to fire.”

“Aye, Capitán,” said the cavalier. He rested his arquebus over his shoulder and rushed to follow.

Meanwhile, the army of bowmen marching over the yon hilltop halted to survey their enemy below.

“Halt!” The command finished echoing back from the surrounding sierras, for the whole vega was encompassed by the steep bluffs of the Cordilleras.

The one who made the command was known as the Black Prince, dight in a full suit of black steel plate. The last thing he remembered before he woke up leading an army of 350 longbowman in this strange land was dying of dysentery in England. That year of his death had been 1376, but now as he looked down the declivity where his enemy awaited he had no idea what year it was. Such strange specimens, he mewed, studying the odd armor and weapons of his foe. The armor of his enemy was impressive, but their weapons were yet too distant as to ascertain what exactly he was up against.

One of his archers, a lanky lad with a weatherworn arming doublet and a crusty kettle hat (dressed similarly to many of the other archers) said, “I think I can hit them from here, Your Grace.”

“Well,” said the Black Prince, plucking his own bowstring like a musical chord, “demonstrate.”

Back in the level grounds of the field, Carvajal’s harangue to his men was interrupted by a loud ting sound. Shortly after, the broken shaft of the interrupting arrow, after flipping back through the air for a short time, landed next to Carvajal’s boots. Leering, he stooped to retrieve it.

“What was that?” said an arquebusier. He doffed his burgonet to observe the arrow-shaped dent on it.

Carvajal raised the arrow aloft for all his men to see. “You see this? I haven’t seen such fine craftsmanship since I served under the great Italian capitanos in the Old World. Do not underestimate this weapon while your pouches of ammunition jingle at your hips, nor compare it to the crude arrows of the Inca!”

Pausing, Carvajal was grateful to see that all but few of his men were wearing full suits of chainmail over padded jackets. Some of the more prominent cavaliers even had sobrevests emblazoned with the colors and devices of their houses, many of which he recognized from the glorious days of yore. He continued, “Shot from the right bow, this shaft can penetrate even your hauberks. You should sing thanks to the Blessed Virgin if the padding underneath your chainmail saves your life from such a finely-crafted arrow as this.”

Ting!

Another arrow jounced off an arquebusier’s helmet. Then–

Tong-ting-ting-ding-tong!

The bright sky was quickly darkened by a tempest of steel-tipped shafts, falling thickly like the ashes of the Coropuna. Carvajal spun on his heel to study the enemy surmounting the yon hill. He chortled.

Staring back at him from that prominent position was the Black Prince. He watched as his hailstorm of arrows fell on his enemy. The archers all around him groaned and sighed as their arrows hissed and their bowstrings snapped. He wished for the smell of blood, but all he saw was a waste of arrows. He descried who he thought was the enemy’s leader, by the way the man caroled around. Even from here, he swore he could hear that disgusting man’s laughter. “Lower your bows!” the Black Prince shouted.

A few last hissing arrows arched toward the enemy.

In the silence, the Black Prince looked back at his wagons. Sure, he had enough arrows to keep shooting for another hour, but then he would only run out of ammunition with a molested but chivvied and determined enemy. “We need to get closer, to shoot straight and true and give our bows more strength, or else we’ll never be able to penetrate their armor.”

Silence reigned around Carvajal as the cloudburst of arrows ceased. “Faugh,” he complained, “that was such a melodious ditty!” He looked around to see that, although many of his men were injured with bleeding wounds, only a few were in such condition as to be carried off the field.

He looked back to see that the enemy was marching down the hill, about two or three hundred paces away. He, with all his experience on the field, could not help but admire the way his enemy marched in serried formation, as if wary of some horde hiding in the passes of the surrounding mountains. Aye, he thought, come closer!

An hour seemed to pass before the marching archers halted again. Postehaste, the melodious ditty picked up its notes with renewed vigor.

Ting-tong-ting-pow!-ding-crunch!

This time, however, there were a few extra deep notes in the tune, for the archers were now on level ground with their foe and their arrows were flying straight rather than arching over the sky. While his men ducked for cover, holding up their arquebuses like bucklers, Carvajal continued his harangue.

“Don’t falter! Stand strong! All we must do is wait for them to get a little closer before the voice of Saint Michael fires from the the maws of our guns to rout them like the scoundrels they are!”

While these words echoed around their heads, the arquebusiers fell to the grass piecemeal as arrows plowed through their armor to pierce their flesh. One arquebusier deserted the formation, running for the safety of the mountain passes, fearing that an arrow would hit him next, until Carvajal picked up his own arquebus and shot the defector down.

Boom!

The report of the shot reached the ears of the Black Prince. He cringed and shuddered. He had heard many similar sounds before, while fighting the damned French. He narrowed his eyes, garnered every little detail he could see from here of his enemy’s weapons. Out of pure uncertainty, he had the mind to retreat back up the hill and wait for the enemy to attack. But he waited where he stood. Soon enough, confidence stimulated his lineaments once again, for his arrows were having great effect on the enemy.

As he grimaced patiently at the distant figure in black armor, Carvajal listened as his arquebusiers fell dead all around him. The ditty he once caroled to was no longer so harmonious. This tumult of falling arrows, he reckoned, might be the lamentation he would hear in the coldest pit of Satan’s abyss. Because he knew he would be bedeviled if he stayed in this position any longer, he shouted the unexpected order: “Advance twenty paces!”

Carvajal himself was the first to advance a pace, reloading his arquebus with the skill of a master marksman. Immediately, louder than the ditty of falling arrows was the shuffling of armor as his men advanced with him. Just a bit closer, he surmised, and those sweaty archers will regret ever being born!

Satan’s abyss indeed, he thought, for nowhere in the entire vega was a single horse or mule he could ride to get a better view and harangue his men the more. “Halt!”

The dismayed formation of arquebusiers, heavily reduced in number as they left their dying and wounded behind, stopped in their tracks, with their fingers twitching on their triggers. Many of them kissed the powderhorns hanging from their necks as if they were rosaries, and crossed themselves.

“I’m out of arrows!” said one of the archers in the Black Prince’s ranks.

The shout was soon echoed by others. The Black Prince looked back to his wagons once again. Archers were digging in the dregs for the last dozen. Before the Black Prince could think of what to do, he watched the enemy recommence their advance.

“Damn this effort,” one archer yelled. “Let’s unsheathe our swords and rush them! Then we can take back our arrows from the field as we march over their corpses, ready to fight whatever other demons this bizarre world has to throw at us.”

“Hold your ground,” said the Black Prince. “Lower your bows and collect whatever arrows you have left. Await my command to resume!”

Carvajal stopped yet again. Here, about 150 paces from his enemy, he grew a smile so wide and proud that he desperately hoped his enemy could see it under the umbrage of his burgonet. A few of his arquebusiers fired prematurely and his smile evaporated.

Boom!-boom!

“Hold your damn fire!” Carvajal rounded on his men, stirrups ringing, and spotted those who had fired prematurely by the way they were hastily reloading, upset to see that their shots were wasted with no effect on the enemy. He marched over to them and his men moved aside to make a generous path. When he reached the reloaders, he had the mind to slit their throats. Instead, he beat them over the helmet with their own arquebuses, before he calmly resumed his position in the front rank, satisfied that, despite their obvious bad nerves, no one else was firing before he told them to.

Knowing he might only have another few volleys before his archers were completely out of arrows, the Black Prince crossed himself and prayed the enemy would come just a little bit closer. He looked up to the snow-capped firmament and crossed himself again twice over, grateful as ever. For no matter how hellish this exotic place might seem, he was glad to be free of the symptoms of dysentery. He took a deep breath, eying the one he thought to be the leader of the enemy, waiting. Somehow, deep inside, he realized his greatest disadvantage. While his enemy seemed to be familiar with the harms of the bow and arrow, by the way they stood so firmly with faith in their armor, he himself was still yet uneducated in the arms of his technologically-advanced foe.

Carvajal had a similar realization, recognizing the anticipation in his enemy by the way their bodies swayed hesitantly. He plucked an arrow from his chainmail and kissed it before he tossed it to the grass and stomped on it. “Advance fifty paces!” His vainglorious command reverberated around the sierras like a church bell.

Stomp-stomp-stomp-stomp!

The Black Prince listened to the marching of his enemy while the echoes of their leader’s voice bounced around in his bascinet. A few of his archers loosed arrows before he made the command, but he only looked down at his sollerets.

Then he looked up and saw the premature arrows hit their mark to great effect and shouted, “Loose!”

Carvajal snickered as he halted at the fiftieth pace, even while the groans of men dying behind him racked the sky with horror. Finally, this was the moment he had been so patiently waiting for.

“Fire!”

Boom-boom-bang-boom!

As if every volcano in Peru had erupted at once, the slim strip of field separating the two armies instantly became beclouded in dark smoke. The stench of saltpeter reached the Black Prince’s nose before he could even muster the courage to turn around and see why all he could hear was the agonizing howls of his men, yet alone the ringing in his own ears as he readjusted his dented bascinet.

While the Andean breeze slowly toiled to make the smoke less dense, Carvajal berated his men for not reloading fast enough. He smacked one across the head and reloaded the man’s arquebus for him, faster than everyone else could finish reloading. Then, with a devilish leer on his lips, he coughed, “Fire!”

Whatever results he expected by shooting blindly in the smoke is still uncertain by the most scholarly of historians, for this renowned capitán, trained in the art of war from the best masters Europe had to offer, was infamous for never wasting a salvo if it wasn’t sure to hit its mark. What happened next certainly reaffirmed Carvajal’s belief that he was indeed in Hell. That’s all we know by reading his thoughts at this crucial moment of the battle.

With their swords brandishing in the dimmed rays of the smoky sky, the Black Prince’s archers, at least those who had survived Carvajal’s salvo, having dropped their bows, were now leaping out of the smoke toward their enemy! They rushed toward the arquebusiers, who were forced to drop their arquebuses and unsheathe their own sidearms–a gleaming assembly of swords recently smelted from mismatched metals in the forges of Cusco.

The sudden shock of seeing so many men emerging from the smoke with flourishing swords caused Carvajal to fumble and fall on his backplate. He only needed a second of reflection before he rose to his feet and fired his arquebus at the first person he saw. Unfortunately, it was the mysterious man in a full suit of black armor he shot at.

The ball ringed harmlessly off the steel breastplate of the Black Prince, for his sturdy armor had been constructed in the diligent forges of London! Running his leather-wrapped finger across the dent, the Black Prince slowly raised his head to espy the sorry man who had fired at him.

“Fall back and reload!” screamed Carvajal.

But it seemed no one could hear him over the clashing of swords. The din of metal against metal was a tune so similar yet unique to the ditty of arrows falling on armor. It was a chivalrous noise Carvajal loved to hear. Renewing his prideful smirk, he brandished his own sidearm, a long blade he had cared for since departing his homeland, forged in Castile!

Zwing! Shwong!–rang the sound of sword on sword.

Surrounded in smoke and yelping men, the Black Prince prayed that God could hear the clang of his sword as he parried, struck and parried again. It was his turn to smirk now as his next parry morphed into a riposte and he watched his long burnished blade slide into the face of his ruddy combatant. This was done before he realized his combatant was the man he had recently surmised to be the leader of the enemy.

Imbrued, his blade slid free, spraying blood across the backs of those fighting behind him. “My name is Edward, the Black Prince. Who are you?”

“They call me Carvajal, the Demon of the Andes!”

Carvajal snickered for the last time as the Black Prince’s blade came down again. But before the Black Prince could bask in his victory, watching the Demon of the Andes die at his hand, he was pummeled by a score of balls, many of which managed to plow through thinner parts of his armor. Blood disgorged from his mouth as he fell to lie with the demon he had just slain. As he died here, warmed by the blood of his enemy, he was still grateful to be relieved of the symptoms of dysentery.

From the watchful eye of the caraquenque high above, we observed that, after the smoke cleared completely, both parties had many survivors, but those of the arquebusiers were slightly greater, for their first salvo, delivered so patiently by the command of Carvajal, had managed to kill over 100 archers at once. But although more arquebusiers survived to tell the tale, none of them considered themselves victorious, for every survivor, friend and foe alike, vanished to the fastnesses of the mountain passes to pray for sanctuary.

If you’d like to see more realistic depictions of historical weapons and warfare tactics in medieval fantasy, please consider subscribing to my book launch newsletter. Thank you!

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