Image: University of Chicago students practice archery. Image by Bardon, Emmet. University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center.
Why did firearms and bullets replace bows and arrows? To many, this sounds like a stupid question with an obvious answer: the firearm succeeded the bow because it’s a superior weapon. Let’s investigate.
Strength and skills
Hand-held firearms are usually assessed or compared in terms of performance characteristics such as lethality, range, and rate of fire. However, if we apply the same criteria to bows, two difficulties quickly present themselves. First, the performance of the bow depends on the archer’s strength. The bow is a human-powered weapon and thus only as powerful as the archer who draws it. That is not the case with the firearm, where the energy comes from explosives, and the shooter’s strength is of little importance.
The force required to pull a specific bow is typically measured in pounds (lbs) and expressed as the bow’s “draw weight.” Nowadays, most recreational archers and bow hunters shoot bows with a draw weight of 30 to 70 lbs. The effort to draw such a bow corresponds to lifting a weight of 15 to 35 kg. 1 Similar draw weights seem to have been quite common throughout (pre)history, both for hunting and warfare. However, some archers used bows with higher draw weights. For example, during the heydays of the longbow in medieval England, the draw weight for war bows peaked between 100 and 140 pounds, with some archers shooting 200 pounds weapons. Composite bows had higher draw weights, too. 23456
The bow is a human-powered weapon and thus only as powerful as the archer who draws it
Second, how the bow performs depends to a large extent on the skills of the archer. 467 Both the bow and the firearm require the shooter to develop aiming skills. However, the archer first has to master “pulling the trigger.” He or she needs to perform a sequence of actions flawlessly to make an accurate shot even possible. A slight variation in body posture or a jerky string release is enough to make the arrow go off the mark. In comparison, pulling the trigger of a firearm requires less practice. Aiming is more difficult with a bow than with a firearm as well. Unless the target is very close, the archer needs to compensate for gravity and shoot the arrow in an arc – hence the word archery. 8 Because bullets travel much faster than arrows, a gunner can aim in a straight line, which is easier.
Preindustrial bow vs. modern firearm
For reasons that will become clear, I compare the modern firearm to the preindustrial bow, not the modern bow. I include self-bows (made from a single stave of wood) and composite bows (which consist of layers of different materials, usually wood, horn, and sinew). Furthermore, I assume that a relatively strong and skillful archer draws the bow. We have a pretty accurate picture of what premodern archers and their weapons could accomplish, thanks to written resources, archeological evidence, and scientific experiments with replicas of preindustrial weapons.
The lethality of a weapon is the capacity to cause death or harm. Every weapon can kill, but some are more likely to do so than others. The lethality of firearms is often defined by calculating momentum and kinetic energy of bullets. These concepts from physics indicate the ability of bullets to penetrate a target. Penetration increases with the projectile’s speed and weight. Bullets travel faster than arrows, but arrows are heavier than bullets. 9
Nevertheless, if you calculate the momentum and kinetic energy of arrows, even the most potent bow seems much less lethal than a firearm. When shot from a 170 lbs war bow, an arrow’s kinetic energy is only 96 foot-pounds, compared to 117 foot-pounds for a bullet fired from a small 0.22LR caliber pistol, 383 foot-pounds for a round fired from a 9 mm caliber pistol, and 1,300 to 2,800 foot-pounds for a projectile fired from a rifle. 10 The difference for momentum is smaller, but bullets clearly win in both cases.
Arrows are much more energy efficient than bullets. The shape of an arrow – unlike that of a bullet – favors penetration.
However, arrows are much more energy efficient than bullets. The shape of an arrow – unlike that of a bullet – favors penetration. Because of its elongated shape, an arrow’s mass per cross-sectional area (the sectional density) is much higher than in the case of a bullet. 111213 Consequently, an arrow requires much less momentum and kinetic energy to penetrate tissue to the same depth as a bullet. There is no need for a 170 pounds war bow – a bow with a draw weight of 45 lbs can kill almost any creature on this planet. Medieval English longbow archers only used such high draw weights because their arrows had to penetrate thick steel plate armor, which became common in the 1400s. 64
Image. Because of its elongated shape, an arrow’s mass per cross-sectional area (the sectional density) is much higher than in the case of a bullet. Image credit: Tim Ormsby.
However, bullets do more damage when they hit the target. Arrows penetrate tissue by slicing and cutting, similar to the damage done by a dagger or a knife. Consequently, injury is limited to the tissue incised by direct contact with the arrowhead. In contrast, bullets penetrate tissue by brute force, which can cause significant damage to tissue and organs not directly touched by the projectile. This effect becomes more pronounced as bullet caliber and speed increase and is most noticeable with rifles. 911121415
Based on wound damage alone, one could thus argue that bullets are more lethal than arrows. Small caveat, though: if the archer is skillful enough to hit vital body parts, an arrow can be just as lethal. The gunner, on the other hand, doesn’t need to aim so precisely to make a kill. Furthermore, it can be difficult – and sometimes impossible – to remove arrowheads from a victim’s body, even in a modern healthcare context. 11 Arrowheads tend to get stuck into bones, and war arrowheads often had barbs that complicated removal. 16
Range distinguishes a missile weapon from a melee weapon (used in close combat). The person holding the weapon with the most range can hit the other while the other cannot hit back. In hunting, range makes it less likely that the hunter gets killed. The maximum range of a weapon defines how far you can shoot a missile, and the effective range marks how far you can cast it with sufficient accuracy and hitting power.
Conveniently, a bowshot was a common measure of distance. In England, it was eventually standardized at 204 yards (187 meters). 6 Being a standard, this was not the range obtained by stronger archers, who used bows with higher draw weights. 2 Historical sources from the middle ages put the maximum range of a war longbow between 200 and 400 yards (183-366 meters). 46 The current record with an English longbow, established in 2017, is 412.82 m. 17 Composite horse bows obtained longer ranges, between 300 and 530 meters. 18 The current record, established in 2019, stands at 566.83 meters. 1920
Unlike a bullet, an arrow remains lethal during its entire flight
Modern firearms have a much greater maximum range than preindustrial bows. However, their effective range is similar, at least for pistols and guns (not so for rifles). For example, the maximum range of a Beretta M9 handgun – a US military weapon – is 1,800 meters, but its effective range is only 50 meters. The US Army defines the effective range of a firearm as the maximum range at which an average soldier can hit a stationary, torso-sized target with an accuracy of 51%. I could not find similar data for archers, but the available information suggests that the bow can obtain a similar accurate range.
For example, a study of a 1916 archery competition in New Jersey – when archers still shot wooden self-bows – revealed the accuracy of the five best archers, each shooting a total of 90 arrows from three different distances: 40, 50, and 60 yards (37, 46 and 55 meters). The target measured 121 cm in diameter (the typical practice target), not a human torso but a comparable size. The percentage of arrows that hit the target was 98% at 37m, 96% at 46m, and 88% at 55m. 2122
Image: English singer, poet, and archer Ingo Simon shooting a Turkish composite bow. Via Bow International.
Comparing the range of bows and firearms is far from straightforward. Bullets travel very fast initially (almost 3,000 km/h) but quickly lose speed along their trajectory. In contrast, an arrow travels relatively slowly (150-250 km/h) but loses very little speed. 23 The same characteristics that make it easily penetrate a target also help to penetrate the air. Furthermore, unlike bullets, arrows fly – they are among the first applications of aeronautics, thousands of years before the invention of the airplane. 924
As a consequence, an arrow remains lethal during its entire flight, even at maximum range. Stronger still, its lethality increases if shot at an angle of 45 degrees, compared to shooting at medium range. 46925 The arrow will gain speed – and thus momentum and kinetic energy – on its way down. In contrast, when you shoot a bullet in an arc for maximum range, it will have lost so much speed that it’s unlikely to be lethal when it hits the ground. 26 A bullet not only needs more momentum and kinetic energy to penetrate a target. It also requires more speed to compensate for its inferior aerodynamics.
Although the accurate range of bows is smaller than that of rifles (which can be effective up to a distance of several hundreds of meters or more), the maximal cast of powerful bows equals the effective range of some rifles. As we shall see later, unlike recreational archers in the West today, preindustrial archers routinely practiced their skills at the ultimate range of their weapons. 27
3. Rate of fire
The rate of fire determines how many projectiles a weapon can launch in a given time frame. The higher the rate of fire, the higher the chance that one of the projectiles will hit the target.
When visiting a modern archery shooting range, one gets the impression that bows have a much lower rate of fire than firearms. However, modern archery is 100% focused on millimeter accuracy. Aiming is a slow process that often involves fiddling with instruments and looking through sights – many modern bows are essentially sniper weapons. Previously, archers aimed intuitively, with both eyes open and fixed on the target. Intuitive aiming requires more skill – it depends on eye-body coordination, like throwing a stone – but it can be just as accurate and has the obvious advantage of speed.
Medieval English archers had to be able to shoot 10 to 12 well-aimed arrows per minute – one shot every 5 to 6 seconds. 6928 The best longbow archers could launch up to 30 missiles per minute – one every two seconds. 29 This is comparable to the sustained rate of fire for semi-automatic firearms – between 12 and 15 rounds per minute. 30 The sustained rate of fire includes the time it takes to aim, reload, and prevent overheating and malfunctioning of the firearm. For the bow, it depends on the dexterity, strength and endurance of the archer.
In the hands of skillful and strong archers, bows can produce a similar rate of fire as semi-automatic weapons, and they can outperform guns and pistols
Firearms can surpass their sustained rate of fire for a short time, ignoring the time for cooling down the weapon. Most semi-automatic weapons (which fire one bullet for each pull of the trigger) obtain a rapid rate of fire of about 45 rounds per minute. If there is no need to reload ammunition, the rate of fire can increase even further. The average shooter can fire a semi-automatic handgun at a rate of about 2 to 3 bullets per second while pointing at a single stationary target. However, military training aims to produce a well-aimed shot every one to two seconds. 30
Composite bow archers, in particular, developed ways of shooting that could compete with the rapid rate of fire for semi-automatic weapons. Horse archers launched arrows with a thumb draw, which differs from the Mediterranean draw used by self-bow (and modern) archers. The horse archer put the projectile on the other side of the bow (right side if right-handed) and pressed it against the string with a thumb ring. The thumb draw allows you to nock and launch with one continuous movement. Some Native Americans used the pinch draw – which had similar advantages. 31
Image. A Manchu archer shooting a composite bow with a thumb release. Source: Klopsteg, Paul Ernest. "Turkish archery and the composite bow: a review of an old chapter in the chronicles of archery and a modern interpretation." (1947).
Image. The thumb draw. Source: Klopsteg, Paul Ernest. "Turkish archery and the composite bow: a review of an old chapter in the chronicles of archery and a modern interpretation." (1947).
For short bursts of fire, composite bow archers kept extra arrows in their bow or string hand, allowing a higher rate of fire than when pulling arrows from a quiver. The fastest way of shooting involved laying up to five arrows on the bow parallel to each other, nocking each one consecutively. Lars Anderson, a Danish archer who revived the interest in Asian archery in the West in recent years, shoots up to ten aimed arrows in just 5 seconds – two per second. Anderson also manages to shoot three arrows in just 0.6 seconds after putting them ready on the bow. 32
4. Ammunition supply
In the hands of skillful and strong archers, bows can thus produce a similar rate of fire as semi-automatic weapons, and they can outperform guns and pistols. However, they cannot compete with automatic firearms (machine guns), which fire bullets as long as the shooter presses and holds the trigger. The machine gun appeared in the 1860s and can fire 30 rounds in just two seconds. 30
Furthermore, most archers will run out of ammunition faster than gunners. English longbow archers carried a maximum of about 25-50 arrows with them, which would all be gone after shooting a few minutes at maximal rate of fire. In contrast, US soldiers take seven magazines with a total supply of 200 bullets. 30 On their campaign in France, English archers were followed by dozens of supply wagons with spare arrows. 6
Parthian horse archers operated with a camel supply of more than 1,000 animals loaded with spare arrows
Horse archers carried more ammunition, from 60 to 80 arrows and up to 400 arrows in saddleside quivers. Their tactics were also aimed at keeping the enemy on the move, which facilitated the collection and reuse of their arrows. Horse archers could quickly ride to the supply train and back. Parthian horse archers, who defeated the Roman army several times, operated with a camel supply of more than 1,000 animals loaded with spare arrows. 25
5. Stealth & handling
A weapon’s size and the space required to use it also determine its performance. Preindustrial bows were featherlight (around 500 g) but larger than modern firearms, and the archer needed more elbow room to launch a projectile. A gun or rifle can be shot from almost any position, while a self-bow is most effective when the archer is standing. That makes it harder for the archer to conceal himself and makes the weapon unpractical in some environments. Its size and light weight also makes the bow an inferior melee weapon. Archers usually carried a sword for hand-to-hand combat. 8 In contrast, the modern firearm works as a ranged and melee weapon.
Image: A archer prepares to launch an arrow while huddled on the ground. Photo by Rudolph Martin Anderson, 1916, Canadian Museum of History. CC BY-SA 4.0.
On the other hand, the composite bow is much shorter than the self-bow. The thumb release gives the archer flexibility to be able to shoot to any direction and nearly in any position. There are also historical examples of small “pocket bows” with short draw lengths, lethal only at short range. 33 Furthermore, although the size of some bows makes it harder for the archer to conceal himself, bows partly compensate for this by being silent. The sound of a gunshot immediately gives away the position of the shooter.
When inferiority ruled: early firearms
When comparing the performance characteristics of preindustrial bows and modern firearms, it’s tempting to conclude that firearms replaced bows because they are indeed technologically superior. The difference in performance may not be as big as many people would have suspected. But even the most skillful archers from the middle ages could not compete with all types of modern firearms, especially not with rifles and machine guns.
However, bows became obsolete centuries before the advance of modern firearms. On the Europen continent, firearms – first the arquebus, then the musket – became the dominant hand-held missile weapons from the 1500s onwards. 934 The reason could not have been a better technical performance, because preindustrial firearms were in almost every respect inferior to bows. Firearms only matched bows in technical performance between the 1850s and the 1900s, thanks to industrial manufacturing methods. 925
Image: Men firing muskets. Credit: Edd Scorpio, Wikimedia commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.
The only technical advantage of early firearms was their lethality. Just like today, a bullet did more damage than an arrow. 3536 However, unlike today, actually hitting the target was quite a challenge. Compared to bows, early firearms were inaccurate, had a short range, and a low rate of fire. Before the twentieth century, gunners received no training at all because firearms were inaccurate, even in the hands of experienced shooters. 28 As late as 1793 – after roughly 300 years of use on the battlefield – a series of trials in England showed that the musket was less accurate than the longbow. 35 Around the same period, Benjamin Franklin considered arming American Revolutionary soldiers with longbows because they were more efficient than muskets. 4252837
As late as 1793 – after roughly 300 years of use on the battlefield – a series of trials in England showed that the musket was less accurate than the longbow
The main weakness of early firearms – and the last one to be solved – was their low rate of fire. The musketeer had to follow a series of manual steps for every shot. 35 In the time a man needed to load his musket and fire one round, a skillful archer could launch up to a dozen arrows towards him. During the US Civil War (1861-1865), the range of rifles had become similar to the range of war bows (200-300 yards), but the rate of fire was still as low as three bullets per minute. 9 Preindustrial firearms were also unreliable, while bows seldom failed. Even in the late 1700s, roughly 15% of musket shots misfired, increasing to 90% in wind and rain. Finally, a musket was as long as a bow and much heavier (7-9kg). 37
Image: A 17th century Dutch musket. Source: Rijksmuseum, image in the public domain.
Image: An English Civil War manual of the New Model Army showing a part of the steps required to load and fire an earlier musket. Image in the Public Domain.
The firearm also had tactical disadvantages. First, while the flat trajectory of bullets made aiming easier, it also meant that the volume of fire was limited further. 46 Archers could stand in deep formations and shoot simultaneously with several ranks at once – the archers in the back shooting over the heads of those in front. This technique, called “volley shooting”, had been in use since Antiquity. 25 In contrast, only two ranks of musketeers could shoot simultaneously (one rank kneeling, the other standing). Likewise, musketeers could only target the front ranks of an enemy force, and they could not lob their projectiles over a castle wall.
Second, archers could kill indirectly (and cause a lot of destruction) with fire arrows. These were slightly longer projectiles that carried combustible materials. Some types were for immediate use, while others required preparation in the field. 438 Their effect could be devastating in a time when people made buildings and ships from flammable materials. Defensive forces could set fire to supply wagons or siege engines of attacking armies. 6 Horse archers ignited the high grasses of the steppes to stop opposing troops. 34 Using fire arrows, bows were “firearms”, too.
The firearm was not the first weapon to replace the bow. On the European continent, the crossbow became the dominant missile weapon in warfare by the 1200s. Early firearms then largely superseded crossbows in the 1500s. 46 The crossbow, around since Ancient times, is a human-powered spring just like the bow. However, its operation is very much like that of a firearm. The projectile is locked in place, and the shooter only needs to aim to make an accurate shot. The crossbowman tensions the weapon through different mechanisms, like a stirrup, a double crank windlass, or a pulley system.
Image: crossbow with ammunition. Germany, 16th-17th century. Wood, leather, steel; overall: 37.2 cm (14 5/8 in.). Source: Internet Archive.
People often consider the crossbow technically superior to the bow, and that it largely replaced the bow in Europe only seems to confirm this. However, a comparison of the performance characteristics shows two equally valid weapons, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. A crossbow bolt was more powerful than an arrow, making it better suited for piercing armor. 39 Furthermore, a crossbowman needed less elbow room and could wear heavier body armor that would have interfered with the operation of a bow. 8 However, the crossbow was very heavy and its rate of fire was just as low as that of a firearm. Neither were crossbows suited for launching missiles in an arc.
When we compare the performance of the crossbow to that of the early firearm, a curious observation follows: the crossbow is clearly the superior weapon. It shared the low rate of fire with the early firearm, but at least the crossbow had an accuracy, range, and reliability that could match the bow. The crossbow was also relatively silent in operation and did not produce smoke (as all early firearms did). And yet, the firearm replaced the crossbow, not the other way around. Consequently, contrary to what most people assume, the bow and the crossbow were not succeeded by weapons that were superior in their technical performance. The opposite happened. Between 1400 and 1900, European armies replaced first-rate weapons by inferior weapons.
Taking the skill and effort out of killing someone
Looking at performance characteristics alone, the evolution of hand-held missile weapons in Europe seems to make little sense. Differences in manufacturing techniques don’t seem to explain it either. Bullets were cheaper to produce than arrows, but self-bows were more economical to make than firearms. The sequence from bow to crossbow and firearm makes more sense when we compare these weapons in terms of their learnability. The crossbowman only needed to aim well and could shoot in a straight line instead of an arc, which made the crossbow simpler to use than the bow. It also required less muscular strength than the bow, but the crossbow was still a human-powered weapon. The firearm did away with that.
Rather than being technically superior weapons, firearms took the skills and muscular effort out of killing someone from a distance
Rather than being technically superior weapons, firearms took the skills and muscular effort out of killing someone from a distance. The main reason most European armies switched from bows to crossbows and then firearms was the short learning curves of these weapons. Crossbowmen and musketeers required little or no training, while it took many years of practice to build an archer skillful and strong enough to be of use in warfare. 46784041 The crossbow and the firearm thus expanded the number of people in a given population that could become soldiers. That was great news for those in power because they could now build large armies quickly.
The importance of learnability is easy to forget nowadays because firearms are extremely easy to operate. With a machine gun, it’s not even necessary to aim well. In contrast, putting together and maintaining an army of archers required a lot of effort. Wherever the bow was an important weapon on the battlefield, archery practice was part of daily life. A well-documented example is England, where the longbow was retired from military service only in 1595 – roughly 400 years after most European armies had switched to crossbows and a century after the advance of early firearms.
Image: High school archery practice, 1962. Source: The Newark Public Library. Internet Archive.
The English crown forced its entire male population to practice archery. Legislation started in the 1250s and became increasingly strict in the centuries that followed. 4642438 All men between the ages of 17 and 60 had to own a longbow and were obliged to practice on Sundays and festive days. Parents had to provide boys with a bow and arrows by age seven. Other sports as football, tennis, and handball, were outlawed to eliminate distractions from archery practice.
Wherever the bow was an important weapon on the battlefield, archery practice was part of daily life
The principal mode of archery practice was shooting at the butts. These were mounds of earth, stone, and peat situated on common land that measured up to 200 meters long. These shooting grounds (known as butts, too) could be in the open countryside, within towns and villages, or on land adjoining castles or forts. 4644 Archery practice also involved prick or clout shooting, which is the art of shooting an arrow in a large arc and dropping it into a target from above at maximum range. This trained archers in volley shooting. Another form of practice was shooting at the popinjay, almost straight up into the sky. This trained archers for sieges and naval battles, where they had to hit targets high in the rigging of enemy ships.
In horse archer cultures, the type of practice was different, reflecting more mobile tactics on the battlefield. 25 The most typical military training in composite bow cultures were games where archers ran their horses over specially designed tracks, shooting sideways, backward, and up in the air at consecutive targets along both sides of the route. A 17th-century Ottoman archery manual of military horsemanship described nearly 20 different drills, sometimes combining the bow and the sword. 4 Many nomadic people taught their children to ride animals and shoot bows from a very young age. 37
For many centuries, archery was a religious duty and a sign of status in the Islamic Crescent, from Turkey to India. It developed as a martial art and a ritual practice that supported social order and spiritual development in China, Japan, Mongolia, and Korea. 4546 The focus was not just on accuracy and range but also on rapid shooting, endurance, and shooting from awkward positions. For example, a particular practice in Japan was to launch arrows while kneeling at a target 131 yards away, despite the obstacle of a low overhanging roof. Another challenge was hitting a target repeatedly over a sustained period. In 1686, one archer shot 13,053 arrows over 24 hours (9 per minute), of which 8,133 hit the mark (more than five arrows per minute). 4
Modern bows have taken part of the skill – and much of the fun – out of archery as a sport. 47 A contemporary recurve bow with sight is accurate even in the hands of absolute beginners. When shooting across greater distances, instruments help the archer to launch the projectile with the correct ballistic trajectory. Often, the fingers do not even touch the bowstring. There’s a mechanical release between the string and the fingers, and the archer pulls a trigger. The Olympic recurve bow adds stabilizers for better aiming. The compound bow, the most popular bow for hunting, has a system of cams from which the bowstring unwinds, which reduces the strength that the archer needs to hold the bow at full draw.
When the English eventually gave up archery, it was only after much debate. 62537 The English longbow, being such a versatile weapon, was not defeated by the hand-held firearm alone. It was made obsolete by a new artillery weapon, the cannon. Large groups of longbowmen standing close together were an easy target when artillery became more mobile and effective. 443 The composite bow (and the crossbow) held out much longer against the firearm and the cannon. 35454849 In China, archery disappeared from military training only in 1901 – roughly the time that firearms had finally achieved the same performance as bows. 50
In China, archery disappeared from military training only in 1901 – roughly the time that firearms had finally achieved the same performance as bows
Since the Greeks and the Romans, European warfare made relatively little use of missile weapons. Battles were mostly stationary melee fights: men bashing on each other with swords, lances, axes, pikes, halberds, and hammers. When bows and later firearms entered the battlefield, men kept standing in rigid lines, shooting into each other. 25 Mounted warriors carried swords and lances, not bows and arrows. In contrast, Eastern warfare centered around large numbers of highly mobile horse archers who would never enter a melee fight. Horse archers galloped towards an enemy, launched a volley of arrows towards them at long range, and then quickly turned around and disappeared out of sight. Such dispersed hit-and-run forces were difficult to stop with cannons. 25 49
European warfare: men standing in rigid lines, shooting into each other. Image depicts the battle of Agincourt (1415). Source: Antoine Leduc, Sylvie Leluc et Olivier Renaudeau (dir.), D’Azincourt à Marignan. Chevaliers et bombardes, 1415-1515, Paris, Gallimard / Musée de l’armée, 2015, p. 18-19, ISBN 978-2-07-014949-0
At the same time, horse archers were not interested in firearms or crossbows because their battle tactics depended on a high rate of fire. Those weapons would have forced them to completely revise their tactics, which had proven very successful – even against European cavalry with early firearms. 49 Native American horse archers also killed European colonists far into the nineteenth century. In the hands of the horse archer, the bow only found defeat when it met the repeating rifle.
Advocating for a revival of the bow and arrow – at the expense of the firearm – sounds absurd and unrealistic. But is it? Reintroducing the bow would only bring us benefits. It follows the same sound thinking behind other low-energy strategies, such as switching from cars to bicycles. The bike and the bow are both highly efficient, human-powered technologies that would be advantageous to human and planetary health.
First, reverting to the bow and arrow would be a pacifying move. If firearms made it possible for states to build larger armies and fight wider wars, then reverting to bows and arrows – and other historical missile weapons such as trebuchets, catapults, and ballistas – would bring us less extensive conflicts. It would decrease the number of people in a given population who could become effective soldiers (unless archery practice becomes ingrained in daily life again). A society that switches from cars to bicycles would similarly bring shorter travel distances and more local ways of life (unless people train by cycling dozens of kilometers per day).
Reverting to the bow and arrow would decrease the number of people in a given population who could become effective soldiers
Second, reverting to bows would make warfare less damaging to the environment. We don’t often assess weapons in terms of energy efficiency and sustainability. However, the production of firearms and bullets depends on an intricate global supply chain that involves infrastructures, factories, mines, and fossil fuels. So on top of the human suffering that firearms cause, they also pose a longer-term problem, just like other modern technologies.
On the other hand, bows and arrows can be hand-made from many natural and human-made local materials (See “When lethal weapons grew on trees”). Furthermore, artisanal production has an additional pacifying effect. Early firearms were hand-made products just like bows, and in both cases, the weapon supply was limited to what craftspeople could produce. With industrial manufacturing methods, these limits disappeared, facilitating large armies and extensive fighting.
Image: Outdoor archery practice at Palm Beach Junior College, 1950s. Source: Palm Beach State College Archives - Harold C. Manor Library - Lake Worth campus. Found at Internet Archive.
Third, low-tech manufacturing methods based on local materials also provide military self-sufficiency – the condition in which a state (or another political organisation) is able to procure or produce domestically quantities and qualities of miliary supplies, raw materials, and equipment for its survival or its foreign policy goals in general. 34 For example, modern ammunition depends on antimony, concentrated in China. Without it, we could not sustain the bullet speeds of today. 5152
It’s possible to build firearms with more local, low-tech manufacturing methods, but these would not have the same performance characteristics. For example, the British Sten machine gun – an important weapon during World War Two – can be made in a bicycle shop using minimal welding and machining. However, it was a notoriously unreliable weapon, and its maximum range was only 100 meters, easily surpassed by a skillful archer. 53
Image: A Sten gun. Source: Museum Rotterdam, via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 3.0.
Finally, replacing the firearm with the bow would reduce the damage done by missile weapons in a civilian setting, such as mass shootings, accidents, and suicides. In theory, a mass shooting could happen with a bow and arrows. However, it would take an archer years of dedicated practice, while a gunner can start out of the box. Bows are also much less likely to cause lethal accidents when not in use. Unlike firearms and crossbows, they cannot be carried and stored in a loaded position. 11 Finally, the bow is a very unhandy weapon for suicide – it would require you to pull the string with your toes while aiming at yourself. 11
Military technology leads by example
Even if you agree that reverting to the bow and arrow would bring advantages, you probably find it unrealistic. That may well be true, but in that case, it’s also unrealistic to make a transition to a more sustainable society. We cannot combine a low-tech lifestyle with high-tech weapons for several reasons.
First, military technology is one of the main drivers of technological progress. Many products that are destroying our environment were originally developed for military purposes. Second, the global supply chain that underpins modern firearms is at the heart of economic growth and all environmental problems. We cannot keep it working only for manufacturing weapons and dismantle it for all other purposes. Third, the capitalist system needs rising levels of military spending as an outlet for growing amounts of accumulated surplus capital. The global economy invests heavily and increasingly in warfare, conflict, and repression – high-tech weapons are big business. 54 55 56
Image: High school archery practice, 1962. Source: The Newark Public Library. Internet Archive.
For all these reasons, rather than keeping weapons out of the sustainability discussion – they should be our focus. If we cannot imagine low-tech warfare, we cannot imagine a low-tech, sustainable, and fair society. Switching to low-tech weapons sounds unrealistic because it would require global cooperation, but the same holds for lowering the emissions from fossil fuels. Switching to low-tech weapons sounds unrealistic because it involves “uninventing” things, but this also applies to many other problematic everyday products.
Indeed, military technology is one of the few domains in which we have collectively decided not to use certain technologies. Humanity has banned many types of weapons in warfare, such as chemical and biological weapons, blinding laser weapons, and poisoned bullets. Meanwhile, no country has succeeded in outlawing SUVs, although their danger to other road users and the environment is well-known. As weird as it sounds, military technology leads by example.