Friday, May 07, 2010

Guns and Bows and Arrows: What if the Continental Army Had Taken Ben Franklin's Suggestion?

In February 1776, Benjamin Franklin sent a letter to General Charles Lee, expressing his wish that "pikes could be introduced" along with "bows and arrows," which, Franklin added, "were good weapons, not wisely laid aside." What if the Continental Congress and the American army had taken up Franklin's suggestion?

Franklin's reasons for recommending the longbow over the musket are difficult to refute in an eighteenth century context. Those reasons were essentially the following:

*The bow was often more accurate.
*A man could shoot four arrows in the time it takes to fire and reload a musket.
*No gunsmoke, thus no problems in field vision.
*An incoming flight of arrows is rather disconcerting to the enemy.
*An arrow stuck to a man essentially immobilizes him, until extracted.
*Bows and arrows are more easily provided than muskets and ammunition.

Given the Continental Army's supply problems, one wonders why Franklin's suggestion wasn't more readily entertained.

Perhaps some of my readers have come across some information on this subject, but, based on my reading of the history, I would say the reasons Franklin's suggestion was never given serious thought are:

1) Image: Using bows and arrows was considered primitive. Having an army with uniforms, muskets, bayonets, professional training, etc. was a mark of civilization and progress. To regress back to the 1500s or to adopt tactics used by Native Americans was probably not a direction that the Continental Congress was even willing to contemplate. A more serious dimension to this was the fact that the Americans may have feared that such a direction would result in their being taken less seriously by France, Spain, and the Netherlands. They wanted these European powers to see them as a respectable nation ready to take its place in the family of nations.

2) Chivalry: The advent of gunpowder had a lot to do with the decline of armour on the battlefield. While armour provides some protection against arrows, it provided virtually none against musket balls! By the time of the American Revolution, European style warfare had evolved to armies in bright uniforms maneuvering on the open field and firing musket volleys at one another, with some artillery and cavalry thrown in for variety and good measure. To reintroduce bows and arrows would have been deemed (in all likelihood) as "ungentlemanly," much like the British viewed colonists shooting at them from behind rocks and trees.

Perhaps some of my readers could add to those reasons, but I think that (consciously or unconsciously) the above two were probably among them.

Still, one wonders if the American Revolution woud've turned out differently or perhaps ended sooner had Franklin's suggestion to Charles Lee been accepted by General Washington and the Continental Congress.

8 comments:

T. Greer said...

How about the one that knocked bows and arrows out of armies in the first place: they are hard to use. It could take years of training before they were ready to fight professionally. Muskets presented no such difficulty. Every farm hand could grab one and join the local Continental regiment. Replacing guns with bows would have made the Continental's army great weakness - inexperience and unprofessionalism - even worse.

Matt Szalwinski said...

Ironically, it is the emblem of the United States of America in which the eagle is grasping an olive branch in one claw and 13 arrows, not muskets, in the other.

Jay said...

@T.Greer

Precisely, it took more than 10 years to become expert with the long bow. Interestingly though a contingent of archers of the kind seen circa the hundred years war would have demolished a revolution era army, imagine, on foot, with no armour, grouped together and moving slowly. These guys used to destroy heavily armoured, fast moving cavalry they would have laughed to see infantry so exposed. But no one had the skills.

ATED said...

Quote:
"Ironically, it is the emblem of the United States of America in which the eagle is grasping an olive branch in one claw and 13 arrows, not muskets, in the other."

The reasoning for the 13 arrows was an analogy Franklin originally borrowed from the Iroquois people, the idea that a single arrow could be easily broken by hand over 13 arrows bound together could not be so easily broken. (Originally being 5 arrows representing the original members of the Iroquois confederacy)

Training was the issue as previously stated. Bows and arrows are certainly a valid option in limited numbers, but on the overall scale of period warfare were even limited in numbers with Native combatants due to the availability of firearms.

Alternate Historian said...

Sir with your permission I'd like to post this article on my blog (fully accredited to you of course) my email is althistorian@gmail.com and the web site is www.todayinah.co.uk - please let me know, thanks :-)

Anonymous said...

If the soldiers could shoot using the old technique: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=2zGnxeSbb3g

Arrows > Guns for sure. I'm sure the soldiers had no idea how to use bows and arrows like this though.

Unknown said...

I'd add that the best wood for traditional long bows, the yew, is native to England not North America (though some natives like ash will make good bows) but as others have said, training was the key

Unknown said...

I'd add that the best wood for traditional long bows, the yew, is native to England not North America (though some natives like ash will make good bows) but as others have said, training was the key