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February 2

In 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?

Guns and Bows and ArrowsFranklin'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.
  • 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.
  • No gunsmoke, thus no problems in field vision.
  • 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.
A new article by Brian TubbsGiven 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.