Academic journal article Kritika

The Replacement of the Composite Reflex Bow by Firearms in the Muscovite Cavalry

Academic journal article Kritika

The Replacement of the Composite Reflex Bow by Firearms in the Muscovite Cavalry

Article excerpt

The Muscovite cavalry went over to carbines and pistols during the course of the 17th century, yet firearms were not better handheld weapons than the composite reflex bow that the cavalry had been using. The carbine was a light form of musket that could be used on horseback, (1) but it had a very short range. (2) To reload the carbine on a horse was tricky, and a cavalryman had to bring his horse to a more or less full stop or dismount. In the heat of battle, the carbine was just dropped in its sling so the cavalryman could use his sword. (3) Likewise, a cavalryman could get off only one shot with a pistol (two shots if he had two pistols) and was effective only at very close range. (4) In contrast, mounted archers could get off anywhere from 6 to 15 shots a minute, and their bows had an effective range of from 350 to well over 500 yards, depending on the quality of the bow, the arrows, and the skill of the bowman. In the hands of truly expert bowmen using flight arrows, distances of from over 600 to over 1,000 yards were reported. (5) The composite reflex bow remained until the mid-19th century superior to handheld firearms in terms of accuracy, distance, and number of shots able to be discharged from horseback.

The question is, why did the Muscovite cavalry go over to carbines and pistols? And why did the Muscovite government support the replacement of the composite reflex bow with firearms? Although the evidence to answer these questions ranges from minimal at best to virtually nonexistent in Muscovite sources, I hypothesize that firearms replaced bows for reasons that had little to do with the weapons themselves. Instead, changes in tactics limiting the cavalry to a defensive role on campaign and placing it secondary in relation to infantry in battle as well as the difficulty in maintaining a sufficiently large force of horse archer athletes is probably what led to the adoption of firearms.

Our evidence does tell us that the Muscovites of the 14th through 16th centuries fought using steppe methods of warfare, including the composite reflex bow. (6) Muscovite strategies, tactics, and weaponry reflected the type of warfare conducted by the Mongols and their successors in the western Eurasian steppe. Light and heavy cavalry whose weaponry and equipment were ideally suited for steppe warfare tactics constituted almost the whole of the Muscovite army during that time.

Militaries a little further to the west, such as those of Novgorod and Lithuania, were using European methods of the day, including, in the 15th century, the armored knight with lance. The evidence from Rus' chronicles is sparse but telling. The entry of 1436 describes the Lithuanians fighting "with lances" (s " kop "i). (7) Under 1408 the Nikon Chronicle describes a battle in which the Lithuanians' weapons and style of fighting were inadequate to counter the steppe method of fighting employed by the forces of Emir Edigii (Edigei): "The proud prince Svidrigailo with his brave Lithuanians did not do well against the foreigners [inoplemenniky], [for] their weapons and all their military skills were crushed [slomibosia]." (8) The Muscovite chronicles describe the Novgorodians as also fighting primarily with lances. According to the entry for 1456, the chronicles portray a battle between 5,000 Novgorodians, who were using heavy armor and lances, and 200 Muscovites, who were using bows:

   The warriors of the grand prince, noticing the heavy armor on the
   Novgorodians, began shooting arrows at their horses. The horses
   took fright and began to rush about under them and to throw them
   from their saddles. They [the Novgorodians] were unfamiliar with
   that kind of warfare and were as dead, and their hands grew weak.
   Their lances were so long that they could not raise them, as was
   the usual manner of fighting. They dropped them onto the ground
   when their horses panicked, and they fell under their horses
   because they could not master them. … 
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