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Tanegashima arquebus of the Edo period

The arquebus (/ˈɑrkɨbʌs/ ARK-ə-bus or /ˈɑrkwɨbʌs/ AR-kwə-bus) (sometimes spelled harquebus, harkbus or hackbut; from Dutch hakebusse, meaning "hook gun"[1]), or "hook tube", is an early muzzle-loaded firearm used in the 15th to 17th centuries. In distinction from its predecessor the hand cannon, it has a matchlock. Like its successor the musket, it is a smoothbore firearm, but was initially lighter and easier to carry.[2]

It is a forerunner of the rifle and other longarm firearms. An improved version of the arquebus, the caliver, was introduced in the early 16th century. The word is derived from the English corruption of calibre as this gun was of standard bore, increasing combat effectiveness as troops could load bullets that would fit their guns (before, they would have to modify shot to fit, force it in, or cast their own before the battle).

Heavy arquebuses mounted on wagons were called arquebus à croc. These carried a ball of about 3.5 ounces (100 g).[3]


In the early 16th century, the term "arquebus" had a confusing variety of meanings. Some writers used it to denote any matchlock shoulder gun, referring to light versions as caliver and heavier pieces fired from a fork rest as musket. Others treated the arquebus and caliver synonymously, both referring to the lighter, forkless shoulder-fired matchlock. As the 16th century progressed, the term arquebus came to be clearly reserved for the lighter forkless weapon. When the wheel lock was introduced, wheel-lock shoulder arms came to be called arquebuses, while lighter, forkless matchlock and flintlock shoulder weapons continued to be called calivers. In the mid-17th century, the light flintlock versions came to be called fusils or fuzees.[4]


A collection of arquebuses from the Topkapı Palace, Istanbul.

As a low-velocity firearm, the arquebus was used against enemies who were often partially or fully protected by steel-plate armor. Plate armor worn upon the torso was standard in European combat from about 1400 until the middle of the 17th century. Good suits of plate would usually stop an arquebus ball at long range. It was a common practice to "proof" (test) armor by firing a pistol or arquebus at a new breastplate. The small dent would be circled by engraving to call attention to it. However, at close range, it was possible to pierce even heavy cavalry armor, heavily dependent on the power of the arquebus and the quality of the armor. This led to changes in armor usage, such as the three-quarter plate, and finally the retirement of plate armor from most types of infantry.

The development of volley fire - by the Dutch in Europe, and by the Chinese and the Portuguese in Asia - made the arquebus of practical advantage to modern militaries. Volley fire allowed armies to turn their usual formation into a rotating firing squad with each row of soldiers firing a shot then marching to the back of the formation to reload. Inspired by reading Aelian's descriptions of the use of ranks and the counter march by soldiers of Imperial Rome in the context of the Roman sword gladius and spear pilium, William Louis, Count of Nassau-Dillenburg in a 'crucial leap' realized that the same technique could work for men with firearms.[5] In a letter to his cousin Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange in December 8, 1594 he said:

"I have discovered evolutionibus [a term that would eventually be translated as "drill"] a method of getting the musketeers and others with guns not only to practice firing but to keep on doing so in a very effective battle order (that is to say, they do not fire at will or from behind a barrier....). Just as soon as the first rank has fired, then by the drill [they have learned] they will march to the back. The second rank either marching forward or standing still, will then fire just like the first. After that the third and following ranks will do the same. When the last rank has fired, the first will have reloaded, as the following diagram shows:.[6]

Once volley firing had been developed, the rate of fire and efficiency was greatly increased and the arquebus went from being a support weapon to the primary focus of most early modern armies.[7]


The arquebus had a larger bore than its predecessors. Until the middle of the 16th century, they were fired by a matchlock mechanism, after which the newer wheellock mechanisms were used instead. The flared muzzle of some examples made it easier to load the weapon. The name 'hook gun' is often claimed to be based on the bent shape of the arquebus' butt. It might also be that some of the original arquebuses had a metal hook near the muzzle that may have been used for bracing against a solid object to absorb recoil. Since all the arquebuses were handmade by various gunsmiths, there is no typical specimen.

The trigger mechanism of an early arquebus most often resembled that of a crossbow: a gently curved lever pointing backward and parallel to the stock (see illustration of Spanish arquebusier below). Squeezing the lever against the stock depressed a sear which was in turn linked to the base of the serpentine that held the match. The serpentine then brought the match into the flash pan to ignite the priming, firing the weapon. By the later 16th century, gunsmiths in most countries had begun to introduce the short trigger perpendicular to the stock that is familiar to modern shooters. However, the majority of French matchlock arquebuses retained the crossbow-style trigger throughout the 17th century.


Battle of Nagashino, Oda Nobunaga used 3000 Arquebuses.

The first usage of the arquebus in large numbers was in Hungary under king Matthias Corvinus (r. 1458–1490).[8] Every fourth soldier in the Black Army had an arquebus in the infantry, and every fifth regarding the whole army, which was an unusual ratio at the time. Although they were generally present in the battlefield King Mathias preferred enlisting shielded men instead, as the arquebus had a low rate of fire. The same applied for the primitive cannons and bombards, which were ineffective compared to siege engines, especially against a stone stronghold.[9] Arquebusiers were very effective against cavalry and even other infantry, particularly when placed with pikemen in the pike and shot formation, which revolutionised the Spanish military. An example of where this formation was used and succeeded is the decisive Battle of Cerignola (1503), which was one of the first battles to utilise this formation, and was the first battle to be won through the use of gunpowder-based small arms.

The Arquebus also evolved in Russia in the early 1500s as a smaller version of a larger, hand-held artillery weapon. The arquebusiers, or pishchal'niki as the Russians called them, were seen as integral parts of the army and ‘One thousand pishchal'niki were outfitted at treasury expense and participated in the final annexation of Pskov in 1510, as well as the conquest of Smolensk in 1512, but were disbanded after each campaign. They were revived in 1545 when two thousand pishchal'niki (one thousand on horseback) were levied by the towns and outfitted at treasury expense.’ Their use of mounted troops was also unique to the time period. The Russians developed their pishchal'niki as a skilled tradesman and gave them extra incentives through farming and made their trade something passed on from father to son and not something for which one was conscripted.[10]

Arquebuses were used in the Italian Wars of the first half of the 16th century. Portuguese and Spanish conquerors also made use of the weapon overseas. Arquebuses were carried by some of the soldiers of Hernán Cortés in his conquest of Mexico in the 1520s, and arquebuses played an important role in the victories of Cristóvão da Gama's small and outnumbered army in his 1541–42 campaign in Ethiopia. Arquebuses were also used in the Moroccan victory over the Songhai Empire at the Battle of Tondibi in 1590.

Arquebuses were introduced to Japan in 1543 by Portuguese traders, who landed by accident on Tanegashima, an island south of Kyūshū in the region controlled by the Shimazu clan. By 1550, copies of the Portuguese arquebus referred to as "tanegashima, teppō or hinawaju" were being produced in large quantities. The tanegashima seems to have been based on snap matchlocks that were produced in the armory of Goa India, which was captured by the Portuguese in 1510[11] and within ten years of its introduction upwards of three hundred thousand tanegashima were reported to have been manufactured.[12] The tanegashima eventually became one of the most important weapons in battles all over Japan. Oda Nobunaga revolutionized musket tactics in Japan by splitting loaders and shooters and assigning three guns to a shooter at the Battle of Nagashino in 1575. Tanegashima were widely used during Hideyoshi's unification of Japan and later the Japanese invasions of Korea in 1592.

Maurice of Nassau increased the effectiveness of the arquebus in military formations when he adapted standardized weaponry and utilized volley fire techniques. After outfitting his entire army with new, standardized arms in 1599, Maurice of Nassau made an attempt to recapture Spanish forts built on former Dutch lands. In the Battle of Nieuwpoort in 1600, he administered the new techniques and technologies for the first time. The Dutch marched onto the beach where the fort was located and fully utilized the countermarching tactic. By orienting all of his arquebusiers into a block, he was able to maintain a steady stream of fire out of a disciplined formation using volley fire tactics that until then had not been utilized in combat. The result was a lopsided victory with 4000 Spanish casualties to only 1000 dead and 700 wounded on the Dutch side.[13]


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Demonstration of Tanegashima in Himeji Castle

Bajō-zutsu, Japanese arquebus for equestrian

The arquebus was unable to match the accuracy of a bow in the hands of a highly skilled archer. The arquebus did, however, have a faster rate of fire than the most powerful crossbow, a shorter learning curve than a longbow, and was more powerful than either. The arquebus does not rely on the physical strength of the user for propulsion of the projectile. This makes it easier to find a suitable recruit. It also means that an arquebusier loses less of his battlefield effectiveness than an archer or crossbowman when he loses strength due to fatigue, malnutrition or sickness. The arquebusier also had the added advantage of frightening enemies (and horses) with the noise. Wind can reduce the accuracy of archery, but has much less of an effect on an arquebus. Perhaps most important, producing an effective arquebusier required much less training than producing an effective bowman. During a siege it was also easier to fire an arquebus out of loopholes than it was a bow and arrow. It was also possible to load an arquebus (and indeed any smoothbore gun) with small shot rather than a single ball. Small shot did not pack the same punch as a single round ball but the shot could hit and wound multiple enemies.

The arquebus required a much lower level of skill than the typical archer. Most archers spend their whole lives training to fire with accuracy, but with drill and instruction, the arquebusier was able to learn his profession in months as opposed to years. This low level of skill made it a lot easier to outfit an army of them in a short amount of time as well as expand the small arms ranks as the technology and tactics made them more viable in combat. This idea of lower skilled, lightly armoured units was the driving force in the infantry revolution that took place in the 16th and 17th centuries and allowed early modern infantries to phase out the longbow.[14]

An arquebusier could carry more ammunition and powder than a crossbowman or longbowman could with bolts or arrows. Once the methods were developed, powder and shot were relatively easy to mass-produce, while arrow making was a genuine craft requiring highly skilled labor.

Arquebuser arming his weapon

The arquebus was more sensitive to humid weather. At the Battle of Villalar, rebel troops lost the battle badly partially due to having a high proportion of arquebusiers combined with the battle taking place in a rainstorm which rendered the weapons nigh-useless.[15] Gunpowder also ages much faster than a bolt or an arrow, particularly if improperly stored. Also, the resources needed to make gunpowder were less universally available than the resources needed to make bolts and arrows. Bows do not really consume anything the way an arquebus consumes gunpowder. Finding and reusing arrows or bolts was a lot easier than doing the same with arquebus bullets. This was a useful way to reduce the cost of practice, or resupply oneself if control of the battlefield after a battle was retained. A bullet must fit a barrel much more precisely than an arrow or bolt must fit a bow, so the arquebus required more standardization and made it harder to resupply by looting bodies of fallen soldiers. Gunpowder production was also far more dangerous than arrow production.

An arquebus was also significantly more dangerous to its user. The arquebusier carries a lot of gunpowder on his person and has a lit match in one hand. The same goes for the soldiers next to him. Amid the confusion, stress and fumbling of a battle, arquebusiers are potentially a danger to themselves. Early arquebuses tended to have a drastic recoil. They took a long time to load making them vulnerable while reloading unless using the 'continuous fire' tactic, where one line would shoot and, while the next line shot, would reload. They also tended to overheat. During repeated firing, guns could become clogged and explode, causing pieces of metal and wood to break off, which could be dangerous to the gunner and even those around him. In this context it should be added that reloading an arquebus requires more fine motor skills and movements than reloading a bow or crossbow. This is a disadvantage in a combat situation since stress has a very negative impact on fine motor skills.

An arquebuser fires his weapon amidst the smoke produced by his neighbouring comrades.

Furthermore, the amount of smoke produced by black-powder weapons was considerable, making it hard to see the enemy after a few salvos, unless there was enough wind to disperse the smoke quickly. (Conversely, this cloud of smoke also served to make it difficult for any archers to target the opposing soldiers that were using handguns). Prior to the wheellock, the need for a lit match made stealth and concealment nearly impossible, particularly at night. Even with successful concealment, the smoke emitted by a single arquebus shot would make it quite obvious where a shot came from – at least in daylight. While with a crossbow or bow a soldier could conceivably kill silently, this was of course impossible with an explosion-driven projectile weapon like the arquebus. The noise of arquebuses and the ringing in the ears that it caused could also make it hard to hear shouted commands. In the long run, the weapon could make the user permanently hard of hearing. Bows and crossbows could shoot over obstacles by firing with high-arcing ballistic trajectories in order to reach the enemy when the person or object had some frontal but no overhead cover (such as when troops are in melee with the enemy) — albeit with much less accuracy.

See also


  1. Etymology of Arquebus.
  2. Smoothbore Musketry
  3.  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chambers, Ephraim, ed (1728). "ARQUEBUSS". Cyclopædia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (first ed.). James and John Knapton, et al. p. 342. 
  4. Harold L. Peterson (1965), Arms and Armor in Colonial America: 1526–1783, ISBN 0-486-41244-X, p. 12-14.
  5. Military Revolutions, Past and Present by Geoffrey Parker in Recent Themes in Military History. Ed Donald A Yerxa. University of South Carolina Press 2008 at p13
  6. Geoffrey Parker (2008) footnote 4 p 21
  7. Geoffrey Parker (2007). 'The Limits to Revolutions in Military Affairs: Maurice of Nassau, the Battle of Nieuwpoort (1600), and the Legacy' The Journal of Military History, Vol. 71, No. 2. pp. 333-40
  8. Rázsó, Gy. (1982). "The Mercenary Army of King Matthias Corvinus". In J. M. Bak and B. K. Kirily. From Hunyadi to Rákóczi: War and Society in Late Medieval and Early Modern Hungary. New York. pp. 125–40. 
  9. E. Kovács Péter (2008). "Mátyás Idegen Zsoldosserege(A „Fekete Sereg”)" (in Hungarian) (pdf). Mátyás, a reneszánsz király. Budapest, Hungary: Officina Kiadó. p. 92. ISBN 978-963-9705-43-2. Retrieved 1 October 2010. 
  10. Michael C. Paul (2004). “The Military Revolution in Russia, 1550-1682” The Journal of Military History, Vol. 68, No. 1. pp. 24-5
  11. The bewitched gun : the introduction of the firearm in the Far East by the Portuguese, by Rainer Daehnhardt 1994 P.26
  12. The connoisseur's book of Japanese swords, Author Kōkan Nagayama, Publisher Kodansha International, 1998, ISBN 4-7700-2071-6, ISBN 978-4-7700-2071-0 P.30
  13. Parker 347-53
  14. Clifford J. Rodgers(1993). “The Military Revolutions of the Hundred Years’ War” The Journal of Military History, Vol. 57, No. 2. p. 257
  15. Seaver, Henry Latimer (1966) [1928]. The Great Revolt in Castile: A study of the Comunero movement of 1520–1521. New York: Octagon Books. pp. 325. 
  • Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. Encyclopædia Britannica Cambridge University Press 

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