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Japanese Tanegashima arquebus of the Edo period centre of the rack (teppō)
Example of an arquebus

The arquebus (pronounced ɑr-kə-bus or -kwə-bus) (sometimes spelled harquebus, harkbus[1] or hackbut; from Dutch haakbus, meaning "hook gun"[2]), or "hook tube", is an early muzzle-loaded firearm used in the 15th to 17th centuries. The word was originally modelled on the German: Hakenbüchse, this produced haquebute. It then copied the Italian word: archibugio; which gave arquebuse (French), arcabuz (Spanish) and arquebus (English)[3]. In distinction from its predecessor, the hand cannon, it has a matchlock. Like its successor, the musket, it is a smoothbore firearm, but it is lighter and easier to carry. It is a forerunner of the rifle and other longarm firearms. An improved version of the arquebus, the caliver, was introduced in the early 1500s. 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).[4]

Heavy arquebuses mounted on wagons were called arquebus à croc. These carried a ball of about 3.5 ounces.[5]



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 until the mid-17th century, when the light flintlock versions came to be called fusils or fuzees.[6]


A collection of arquebuses from the Topkapi palace, Istanbul.

As low-velocity firearms, they were used against enemies that were often partially or fully protected by steel-plate armour. Plate armour 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) armour 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 the armor of knights and other heavy cavalry, depending highly on the power of the arquebus and the quality of the armor. This led to changes in armor usage like three-quarter plate and finally the retirement of plate armor from most types of infantry.


The arquebus was fired by a matchlock mechanism and had a larger bore than its predecessors. From the middle of the 16th century, newer wheellock mechanisms were used instead of older matchlocks. 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.

Firing sequence


An arquebuser installing his weapon. The wooden flasks hanging from his belt each contain the ammunition for one shot

Arquebuses were a standard weapon of the "Divine Engine Division" 神机营 of the Chinese Ming army in the late 14th century. In campaigns to drive Mongols out of China a strategy combining cavalry and arquebuses was common practice. In 1387, the Chinese army developed a three-line method near the Burma border to destroy elephant formations of rebels. The three-line method allowed two lines to reload while the other would fire. Such tactics allowed a balance of mass firepower to compensate for poor accuracy with a reasonable rate of fire.

The first European usage of the arquebus in large ratios was in Hungary under king Matthias Corvinus. Every third soldier in the Black Army of Hungary had an arquebus.[citation needed] 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.

Arquebuses were used in the Italian Wars of the first half of the 1500s. 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 (Fernão Mendes Pinto), 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 were being produced in large quantities, and they were often seen on the battlefields 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. (Popular records stating he used a Maurice-style three-line formation are incorrect according to onsite evidence.) While many believe that during the Sakoku the political power of the samurai led to muskets being banned in Japan, this is a misconception brought on by romantic views.[citation needed] In actuality, the Japanese were fully capable of manufacturing their own muskets[citation needed], and the shogunate even created several political positions to oversee their manufacture and inventory.

The arquebus compared to archery

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. 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. The weapon 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 arquebusier. 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.

Arquebus ammunition which had been used could not be picked up and reused, unlike bolts and arrows. This was a useful way to reduce the cost of practice, or resupply oneself if control of the battlefield after a battle was retained.

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.[7] 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. 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 unless using the 'continuous fire' strategy, where one line would shoot and reload while the next line shot. 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 soldiers with 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. ^ The free online dictionary by Ultralingua 4.49
  2. ^ Etymology of Arquebus.
  3. ^ The structures of Everyday Life (1981), F.Braudel, p392
  4. ^
  5. ^ This article incorporates content from the 1728 Cyclopaedia, a publication in the public domain. [1]
  6. ^ Harold L. Peterson (1965), Arms and Armor in Colonial America: 1526-1783, ISBN 0-486-41244X, p. 12-14.
  7. ^ 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. 

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

ARQUEBUS (also called harquebus, hackbut, &c.), a firearm of the 16th century, the immediate predecessor of the musket. The word itself is certainly to be derived from the German Hakenbiihse (mod. Hakenbiichse, cf. Eng. hackbut and hackbush), " hook gun." The "hook" is often supposed to refer to the bent shape of the butt, which differentiated it from the straight-stocked hand gun, but it has also been suggested that the original arquebus had a metal hook near the muzzle, which was used to grip the wall (or other fixed object) so as to steady the aim and take up the force of recoil, that from this II. 21 the name Hakenbilhse spread till it became the generic name for small arms, and that the original form of the weapon then took the name of arquebus a croc. The French form arquebuse and Italian arcobugio, archibugio, often and wrongly supposed to indicate the hackbut's affinity with the crossbow ("hollow bow" or "mouthed bow"), are popular corruptions, the Italian being apparently the earlier of the two and supplanting the first and purest French form haquebut. Previous to the French wars in Italy, hand-gun men and even arbalisters seem to have been called arquebusiers, but in the course of these wars the arquebus or hackbut came into prominence as a distinct type of weapon. The Spanish arquebusiers, who used it with the greatest effect in the Italian wars, notably at Bicocca (1522) and Pavia (1525), are the originators of modern infantry fire action. Filippo Strozzi made many improvements in the arquebus about 1530, and his weapons were effective up to four and five hundred paces. He also standardized the calibres of the arquebuses of the French army, and from this characteristic feature of the improved weapon arose the English term "caliver." In the latter part of the 16th century (c. 1570) the arquebus began to be displaced by the musket.

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