This post is perhaps more rambling than some…
I have several areas where my hobbies and my academic interests intersect. Since childhood I have loved strategy-based board games and other “war” games on the computer or other video game systems. I believe that that is what fuels my continued interest in military history.
My love of Central Asian history and Turkology easily combines with this interest in several areas, including the military techniques and realities of both horse-archers among the steppe nomads and city defense by sedentary populations within Central Asia. These two groups often intersected, as horse archers would often raid other nomadic populations or the cities of the river valleys of Central Asia, while the city defense forces could also be mobilized to attack other cities. I assume, from my understanding of the limitations of early modern military technology, that the forces defending a city’s walls would have little success in marching against a nomadic force in the steppe.
This becomes somewhat complicated by the advent of firearms, both artillery and light arms like muzzle-loading guns. Just in May of this year, I heard an intriguing paper from Professor Scott Levi from the Ohio State University at the CESS/ASEEES conference at Nazarbayev University on “Military Technology and the Early Modern Central Asian State.” The audience learned something of the intricacies surrounding firearm technology, like the move from matchlocks to flintlock guns.
From Prof. Levi’s example, we can see there is still a great amount of research that remains to be done to increase our understanding of Central Asia during the era of the so-called Gunpowder Empires. This term usually applies to the 1300-1600s, the precise era which sees in Europe the replacement of archery and tension-based siege equipment (i.e., trebuchets) with gunpowder-propelled missiles.
What I find on my mind these days is a diversion: how and why did the various military forces and other users of military technology come to abandon the lethal weapons and techniques associated with masses of horse archers for those weapons of the stationary infantry. Specifically, how did firearms and gunpowder replace spears, bows, and edged weapons? In the case of city-centered tactics, especially in densely populated areas of Europe that saw the evolution of warfare move from city- and castle-defense to battlefield-centric wars–in other words, why there are no cities in Europe maintaining walls.
In terms of mastering the nomads, the masses of horse archers proved difficult to conquer. Even when outmatched in numbers or firepower, little prevented warriors from retreating deeper into the grasslands. Camps could be vulnerable, of course, though travelers accounts from the period give the opinion that few foreigners were able to travel in the steppe without the knowledge of outriders, scouts, shepherds, or other far-sighted steppe-dwellers. For those living in the open fields, the bow and arrow had several advantages — but were not without cost.
The bow and arrow could be produced locally, given the presence of those with the skills necessary and the time to prepare the necessary materials. Susceptible to damage from humidity, the bows of the steppe did not travel well outside the continental climate of Eurasia–in areas of high humidity, like Mughal India, steel bows traded in power and flexibility for increased effectiveness in humid environments. However, despite their relative weakness in wet climates, in their home territory the bows offered devastating penetrating force in a deceptively small package. While the famous English Longbow or Japanese Yumi could penetrate armor with ease, its users could not fire it in motion, let alone on horseback. This is not to say that the English and Japanese did not ever mount archers — but by numbers and strategic importance, mounted archery did not dominate other military techniques.
The superiority of the Eurasian bows came from its design, being both “recurve” and “reflex.” In the steppe, the experience of the Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries seemed to prove that conquest was only achievable by taking control of the cities “supporting” the nomads of the interior. Perhaps more than archery itself, the lifestyle of the nomads protected them from the necessity of meeting the Russian forces in any battle not of their choosing. From what I have read, however, the Russians seemed convinced of their superiority in terms of military force and civilization. Still, many observers mentioned with respect the bravery and athletic ability of the “natives” of the steppe and mountains south of Moscow. From the “steppe” of the American prairie comes an intriguing example of the interplay between early muzzle-loading firearms and archery:
[Viceroy Bernardo de] Galvez authorized [in his Instructions for Governing the Interior Provinces of New Spain] the sale of firearms to Indians, arguing that the use of guns would weaken Indians’ fighting ability, because the muzzle-loading rifle was less effective than the bow, which “is always ready to use.” [His Instructions] specified that guns should have “weak bolts without the best temper” and long barrels, which would “make them awkward for long rides on horseback, resulting in continuing damages and repeated need for mending or replacement.” This… would make the Natives dependent on the Spaniards for repairs and replacements. When Indians “begin to lose their skill in handling the bow,” he predicted, they would not only lose their military edge; to keep themselves continually supplied with guns, powder, and shot, “they would be forced to seek our friendship and aid.”1
Here I see two interesting points. The first is that archery and firearms could meaningfully coincide and compete with each other. The second is that the former was actually perceived by some Western observers as superior to the latter.
I can also add that the tactics of the Spanish government representatives did not seem so effective, since “After… about 1800, most Comanches began to discard muskets and pistols and to rely on their older weapons.”2 The demise of the ability of Comanche’s to maintain their autonomy came now with the arrival of gunpowder, therefore, but much later — and the causes were more likely demographic and economic than force of arms. This is especially interesting when one considers that the Comanches apparently lacked anything similar to the reflex or recurve technologies for their bows. Perhaps this was because the bow was still a relatively recent invention, as up until 1500 years before the present, the peoples of the Americas used the atl-atl. If the peoples of the North American plains had had horses throughout the last 3000 years, one wonders if there would have been any bison remaining when the Europeans arrived — but that kind of “what-if” serves almost no purpose.
1 Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire. Yale University Press, 2008: 131-132. The cited material comes from Galvez, Bernardo de. Instructions for Governing the Interior Provinces of New Spain 1786, translated and edited by Donald Worcester. Berkeley: Quivira Society, 1951: 48-49.
2 T.R. Fehrenbach. Comanches, the history of a people. 1974: 125.