Q&A: Flint and Steel Era Bows

Hi, I’m a great fan of your blog. I have this character who is basically a retired DnD Ranger in a world with magic and technology level near the Times of the napoleonic wars. Would you see any justifiable explanation for this character to use bow and arrow instead of flintlock rifles? I very much like the idea, but fear that it won’t be very realistic, given that in real world history bows went out of use centuries before, except for Native Americans that were unable to obtain firearms. Thanks!


That last bit isn’t accurate. At least in the western United States, bows have never completely gone out of use. It’s not a First Nations thing, people still use bows today. Bow hunting and fishing is a little unusual, but the practice has continued. This ignoring that recreational archery still exists.

Bows were superseded by firearms in warfare, but that had more to do with contemporary European combat doctrine. Looking at the middle ages and into early modern era, archers were lined up like melee infantry and would fire in volleys. It’s wasn’t about direct fire, instead archers would pepper enemy infantry with arrows to soften them before they reached the army’s front line forces.

By the Napoleonic era, (late 18th, early 19th century), firearms, fired in volleys, at (relatively) close range were the dominant form of infantry combat. A front line would fire, then kneel and reload while the line behind them fired. With that approach, there wasn’t much point to a bow. It’s warfare usage was less efficient.

As a hunting tool, a bow would still be more accurate than a musket. Let’s talk about why. When you fire a smoothbore firearm, the bullet tumbles in flight. This can result in a somewhat erratic flight path. Which is to say, at range, the bullet will not go where you try to put it.

The technological solution to this problem was rifled barrels. The rifling will cause the bullet to spin in flight. This stabilizes it’s trajectory and results in a firearm that will perform more reliably. This is also why your character would live in an era of muskets and not rifles.

The first rifled barrels date back to the final years of the fifteenth century, however, it would be centuries before they saw widespread use. The problem is, it’s harder to muzzle load a rifled barrel. The rifling itself needs to hold onto and spin the bullet as it leaves. If you’re trying to shove a bullet into it, you need to feed down those grooves. There were a number of novel attempts to deal with this, including an elliptical design (the Lancaster Rifle) and a spinning hexagonal design (the Whitworth Rifle.) The Lancaster Rifle also used a longer more conical bullet, more consistent with a modern bullet than it’s contemporaries. Breach loading and shell casings were still centuries away.

So, while the gun was an incredibly destructive tool, it was also inaccurate. Incidentally, this is why the volley pattern fire was the dominant battlefield use for firearms until the late 19th century. One person couldn’t reliably hit another at range, but if you put 20 rounds in the general direction of the enemy, a few of those were bound to hit something.

In comparison to a musket, reloading a bow is trivial. With a musket, you have to go through the entire process. You need to measure and load the powder, place the wadding, place the bullet, pack it all down, and then prime the firearm before you can fire. Realistically this could be performed several times per minute by a practiced shooter. (The reported numbers range from 1 to 6 RPM.) With a bow, you need to retrieve, knock, and draw a fresh arrow.

If we’re going by D&D’s archery rules (at least for 3.5e), a level 20 ranger can get off 50 to 60 arrows per minute. That’s about five times what a real person could achieve. In comparison to 10 shots from a musket, which is also unrealistically high, but by a smaller margin. Granted, anything above around level 10 trends into the range of a fantasy superhero, and a level 10 Ranger could “only” sling about 40 arrows per minute, but that’s still way too many.

Even realistically, outside of D&D, an experienced archer would be able to fire faster and more accurately than firearm user in the Napoleonic era.

The trade off, in official D&D is that a bow does less damage than a firearm. There’s a game design logic here, there’d be no reason to jump through the additional hoops to use firearms if they didn’t outperform crossbows, (which wasn’t really the case in 3.5e.) As for the real world, that’s a harder one to justify. Bullets (even musket balls) are incredibly dangerous. Arrows are incredibly dangerous. Either one of these can kill you from a single well placed shot. The idea that one does more, or less, damage than the other has some basis, but it really is a game concept, more than a real world issue. Either way, both weapons can kill in practiced hands.

It’s worth discussing the difference in producing ammunition in the field for both weapons. Fireams require more specialized hardware. You need lead, you need a casting kit. You either need powder, or need the knowledge to produce it (which is feasible if your character has some knowledge of chemistry (or alchemy, since the terms are basically interchangeable.) For arrows you need a supply of straight wood shafts (doable but time consuming), arrow heads (metal will make better heads, but in an emergency you could make them out of other materials, fetching (there’s ways to obtain it), a glue of some kind (there’s a lot of potential options), if you’re improvising arrow heads, you’ll probably need a tough, sturdy, fiber of some kind, and you’ll need a knife. Both are real options, the skills are different, but it will be easier to replace lost arrows than spent bullets. Also, arrows (or at least components from them) may be salvageable for reuse. This is not going to happen with bullets.

It’s a little anachronistic to focus on this, but since we’re talking about a ranger, it’s very relevant that the bow is a nearly silent weapon. While Skyrim’s stealth archer builds play this up to parody, there’s a legitimate point where your ranger might be able to neutralize scattered soldiers without alerting the squad. For example: a hunting party. This is an era when suppressing a firearm is impossible. Given D&D’s rangers still focus on stealth as one of their core abilities, it’s a serious option.

I tend to roll my eyes at modern characters using a bow as their preferred stealth weapon, but it’s is a viable, if cumbersome, option.

I’ve talked about this one in the past, but one major risk with firearms, in a world of magic, is pyromancy. So, at a chemical level, all explosives are simply stored energy waiting to be released. This includes everything from a match to a nuclear warhead. Releasing that energy involves introducing enough energy into the explosive to cause it to detonate. (The more energy required, the more, “stable,” an explosive is.)

If you have a mage that can throw a fireball at an enemy infantry line, there’s a pretty decent chance you’ll detonate their powder magazines. (This is also true for artillery, and for fortifications. If there’s a powder store somewhere, a mage could potentially detonate it.)

As of Fifth Edition, wizards and sorcerers have a ranged fire cantrip. (Spells that can be used an unlimited number of times.) And whether lightning is, actually lightning (meaning it’s plasma), or electrical energy, that will also detonate powder stocks.

If this wasn’t bad enough, look at the 6th level Evocation Spells on your wizard and sorcerer list. Chain lightning has been toned down significantly in modern editions, but it would still ignite any powder someone was carrying. (Unless it didn’t, “because magic.”)

In a world with magic, firearms come with some serious drawbacks. To the point that I don’t fault high magic settings which never develop the technology. They already have effective ranged options which vastly outperform early firearms technology, meaning someone would need to synthesize centuries of technological advancement at once.

Given we’re talking about a high magic world, there’s also another potential consideration. I’m pulling specifically from 3.5e and D20 Modern, because that’s the only, official, modern D&D ruleset I’m aware of, but there is one specific oversight. D&D has rules for enchanting arrows, however, D20 Modern does not have rules for enchanting bullets (as far as I can remember, and based on a quick review of the appropriate books.) This could just be an oversight, or it could be legitimate world building. It may not be possible to enchant bullets. This could be simply because the overall mass is too low, there isn’t enough room to inscribe the bullets, the loading process would destroy the enchantment, the enchantment itself would immediately detonate the gunpowder on proximity, or even the bullet itself would tear the gun apart (magical items become significantly tougher in D&D, and when you’re talking about a bullet, that’s a problem.)

Now, in general, D&D, played by the rules, is not realistic. That’s not a knock against it. This is a game about becoming a fantasy superhero, and there’s a lot of compelling hooks that can be drawn from that. However, scrutinizing the combat rules tends to result in some pretty goofy things. Credit, where credit is due, Fifth Edition has ironed out a lot of the bookkeeping. Including some of the extra attacks per turn that get downright comical when you’re looking at how fast your character is firing a bow.

If you want to check rules for D&D in the Napoleonic era, without resorting to homebrews, your best option is probably D20 Past. This was a supplement for D20 Modern, (which was a standalone book.) The downside being both were based on the 3.5 era rules. Updating these to a later version of D&D should be possible, and I still really like the D20 Modern suite of books for transplanting D&D rules into different technological eras (The default is early 2000s, but, in addition to Past, there were supplements for Sci-Fi and post-apocalyptic settings.) (I also have a soft spot for the Urban Arcana setting, but that’s a different topic entirely.)

So, there are reasons your character may still use a bow into the Napoleonic era, especially if they’re not an infantry fighter. It’s a specific tool, but it does have real applications that couldn’t be mimicked with contemporary firearms.


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