Friday, 9 November 2012

The Border Reivers: Part Four

As the sixteenth century wore on, firearms became more common place in raids and battles. ‘Gonnes’, ‘hakbutts’ and ‘daggs’ were perhaps less common in the hands of the borderers than warriors elsewhere, yet they were certainly with effect when they were present.

Throughout the sixteenth century, firearms were matchlock-operated. An average arquebus would have been around three and a half feet long, and would have fired a one and a half-ounce ball. From the 1540s, a growing standardisation began to occur in construction and performance.

Loading was, of course, a cumbersome task; later drill manuals (from the seventeenth century) listed 48 actions to reload a handgun. Early Elizabethan gunners considered twelve rounds every hour to be a pretty fair rate of fire (one round every five minutes); by the end of the sixteenth century, firing rates had greatly improved to around forty shots an hour.

Range depended somewhat on the firearm’s performance, the amount of gunpowder used per shot, and the skill of the gunner. A range of around 400 yards can be taken as extreme range, accurate range at around 150 yards (or 2-300 paces). By the late sixteenth century, when gun barrels had become somewhat longer, Gush believed that a musket could kill a man in shot-proof armour at 10 score paces, kill an armoured man at 20 score paces, and an unarmoured man at 30 score paces (1982: 12).

A significant encounter took place far away from the borders in 1544, during a skirmish between the French and Germans in the Champagne region. The French were surprised by the Germans using pistols; operated by wheel lock mechanisms, these handguns were still tricky to use from horseback, and the rider would need to carry two or three pistols to offer any sustained fire (two in holsters on the saddle, one in the boot); never the less, gunpowder and the horseman became united for good.

The pistols used by mounted troops had shorter ranges – reckoned to be accurate between 20-50 yards against large, formed bodies of men, and considerably shorter distances for single, moving targets; In 1587, ‘de la Noue wrote that effective range was three paces’ (Gush, 1982: 15). Cavalry pistols had barrels of around 18 inches in length, and would have proved difficult to reload on horseback.


The longbow was very popular on the borders – although the symbol of English martial prowess throughout the late medieval and early renaissance periods, it was also a traditional arm of the Scottish highlander, and undoubtedly filtered through to the lowlands too. Indeed, Scottish archers were noted amongst the most loyal, fierce, and reliable troops to take to the field in the Renaissance period.

The longbow was mostly constructed of yew, and its development from the medieval era onwards led to the sixteenth century longbow being six feet in length. A powerful weapon, its arrows were up to three feet long. A fine deposit of longbows was recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose in the early 1980s. Effective range was around 300 yards, although heavier arrows were probably not effective at much over 170 yards; armour could be pierced at 70 or 80 yards. It is reckoned that 6 shots could be fired every minute by a skilled longbowman, which was a far greater rate of fire than contemporary firearms. Perhaps more so than any other weapon in the sixteenth century, the dynamics of a bow were influenced by the skill of its user – both in accuracy, range and velocity of shot.

The longbow was preferred to early firearms amongst the borderers – even into the 1560s, bows were still more common than arquebusses (which seem to have been viewed as too heavy and clumsy for the fast actions that were involved in reiving).

Outside of the borders though, the skill of archery was in decline:

‘Statutes to promote the use of the bow (and discourage evil substitute recreations such as shove-ha’penny) were passed up to 1569.’
(Gush, 1982: 9)

The English recognised that their archers were no longer of the calibre which had inflicted crushing defeats upon the French in the previous two centuries, but even so, the massed firepower of longbows could not be underestimated on the battlefield. However, by the last decade of the sixteenth century, archery really had declined, and had been removed from official organisation lists in 1589/90.


Crossbows were in widespread use across Europe; a typical sixteenth century arbalest was constructed from steel and wood – the bow itself was made from the steel, and needed to be wound for firing by a windlass. Such weapons were very powerful, but lighter ‘latches’ also existed and were used from horseback – and therefore popular amongst the borderers.

Although the extreme range of a crossbow was around 400 yards, most were reckoned to be accurate only to about 60 yards; the heaviest examples could not fire more than once or twice every minute, but latches could sustain a faster rate of fire.