Toxophilia:  Benjamin Franklin and the Longbow [1776 CE]

In 1776 Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to General Charles Lee recommending the use of pikes and bows and arrows by the American revolutionary troops. Franklin noted that bows and arrows “were good weapons, not wisely laid aside.”  The Native American forces of King Phillip’s War [1675 CE – 1678 CE], who treasured their firearms, might have differed.  Franklin’s proposal for the bow and arrow to be resurrected was unworkable but not intrinsically foolish.  He could well have been thinking of the English longbow rather than the North American natives’ archery equipment.

The English longbow might not have been the most sophisticated personal projectile weapon of the medieval era – that distinction probably belongs to the asymmetric compound recurve bows of the horse riding archers of steppe peoples such as the Huns and Mongols, or perhaps the Chinese repeating crossbow – but it was clearly a superior weapon to the muskets used by soldiers of the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

A skilled archer could shoot four arrows from a longbow in the time it took to reload and fire a musket.  Its accuracy and penetrating power at range were superior to those of a musket.  Manufacture, though requiring considerable knowledge and skill, was not as capital intensive or technically complex as the production of firearms, gunpowder, and ammunition.  English archers stopped armored cavalry charges.  They might have considered the massed ranks of cloth uniformed soldiers of the American Revolution or Napoleonic battlefields soft targets.  Yet even in England in the early 16th century the longbow was falling out of use, and laws mandating archery practice were insufficient to revive its popularity.

Unlike Japan, where the bow was a key weapon of the aristocratic professional military class of Samurai, in feudal England the longbow was a weapon of the yeoman, English freeholders below the rank of gentry.  This is one reason England was capable of consistently punching above its weight in the Hundred Years War [1337 CE – 1453 CE] and other conflicts of the time:  it could effectively mobilize a higher percentage of its population than any other non-Nomadic state, and field cheaply equipped footmen with weaponry capable of stopping costly armored knights on horseback.

The Wars of the Roses [1455 CE – 1487 CE] significantly reduced the numbers of English archers by exposing them to, among other things, the fearsome arrow clouds of other English archers.  As it took at least 10 to 12 years to develop a full set of longbow skills, replacements were not readily available.  Musket drills could produce passable proficiency in about as many weeks, and even early firearms could penetrate plate armor.  Outbreaks of peace and stricter enforcement of poaching laws severely diminished the yeoman’s interest in practicing archery:  there was neither loot nor venison to be had.

So Franklin’s proposal of the bow and arrow was not absurd because of any deficiency in the weaponry.  It was doomed by a lack of skills, and insufficient resources and time for training.

Further Reading: 

  • Roger Ascham, tutor to Princess Elizabeth, dedicated Toxophilus to Henry VIII in 1545. It is still an indispensable introduction to English archery, however ineffective Tudor efforts to resurrect the longbow as a weapon of war were.
  • Arthur Conan Doyle’s The White Company provides a lively portrait of the longbowman at war in a narrative very loosely based on historical incidents.
  • Robert Hardy’s Longbow: A Social and Military History is a helpful summary introduction to the massive literature on the subject, as is his later collaboration with Matthew Strickland, The Great Warbow.
  • Jill Lepore discusses the preference of Native Americans of New England for the flintlock over the bow and arrow and the typical English colonists’ matchlocks in The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity.
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