Raiders of the Lost Arquebus

The arquebus—also known/spelled as harquebus, harkbus, or (by far the best alternate) hackbut—is an old-timey muzzle-load firearm. Used from the 15th to 17th century CE, this smoothbore, low velocity, shoulder-fired gun is the predecessor of the more widely-known musket, with which it shares many similarities.

Hungary for Handguns

Admittedly, that header’s a little off, as the arquebus was more like a rifle. It was first used in combat in Hungary during the reign of King Matthias I “Big King Matt” Corvinus in the late 1400s. One in five soldiers in the Hungarian infantry was equipped with an arquebus, though they weren’t used often due to their low rate of fire. By the turn of the 16th century, only about ten percent of soldiers in all the armies of Western Europe were carrying firearms of any kind, underscoring the relative ineffectiveness of the guns of this era.

An extremely ornate arquebus on display in a German museum.

An extremely ornate arquebus on display in a German museum.

However, there is at least one major example of an effective tactical use of the arquebus. The Battle of Cerignola in 1503 pit the French against the Spanish. The Spanish military used the “pike and shot” formation to great effect, and their ensuing victory was the first time in history that a battle had been won through the use of gunpowder-powered, handheld firearms.

Russian to Innovate

In the early 1500s, those crafty Russians developed their own, slightly-modified version of the arquebus, known as the pishchal. One thousand pishchal’niki were so armed during the final annexation of Pskov in 1510, and a thousand more took part in the conquest of Smolensk in 1512. The pishchal’niki divisions were disbanded after their campaigns, but became a permanent addition to the Russian military in 1545, when two thousand soldiers were outfitted, trained, and dispersed throughout the ranks.

During the Battle of Bicocca in 1522, arquebuses were used for the first time to launch volley fire. By the mid-1500s, arquebuses were being issued to Portuguese and Spanish sailors and soldiers headed overseas to foreign lands. The weapons played at least a small part in Hernán “Grande Hern” Cortés’ conquest of Mexico.

A more workaday example of an arquebus on display in a Japanese museum.

A more workaday example of an arquebus on display in a Japanese museum.

In 1543, Portuguese traders introduced the arquebus to Japan. By 1550, the Japanese military was mass-producing their own versions of the firearms, called tanegashima (alternately known as teppō or hinawaju). Within a decade, over 300,000 tanegashima had been manufactured, and it eventually became one of the most important weapons in Japanese military history.

By the middle of the 1700s, however, the arquebus had been more or less replaced the world over by the lighter, faster musket.

Top photo credit: quinet via / CC BY
Bottom photo credit: ryochiji via / CC BY