A new study claims ease of training rather than performance was the primary reason guns eventually took over as the primary weapons of war in Europe.
The research by physicist Dr Timo Nieminen of the University of Queensland, also solves one of the great puzzles of military evolution: Why did China persist in using bows long after Europe moved to guns as the basic weapon of war, despite inventing gun powder almost 1000 years earlier.
According to the paper, which appears on the pre-press website arXiv.org Nieminen says military bows became obsolete in Europe during the 16th Century as firearms evolved.
"But in China, guns and bows coexisted for almost a millennium."
Nieminen says in China, firearms were used at least as early as 1232 by the Mongols as armour piercing weapons in the siege of Pien.
"There's an image of a demon wielding an early type of gun which has been dated to the tenth century. But 800 years later Chinese armies still used bows in large numbers," he says. "But how come?"
The best bow in the world
Nieminen believes one of the reasons was the Asian composite war bow, which is regarded as the best bow available before the advent of modern materials.
When a bow is drawn, the surface closest to the archer is compressed, while the opposite surface is in tension, so using the right materials is important.
Nieminen says the composite bow uses animal horn on the compression side and resin-sinew on the tension side, both joined to a central wooden section.
"They were hard to make, taking a year or more, but outperformed all other bows," he says.
"However, humidity was a serious problem because it weakened and eventually destroyed the glues used to bind the composite bow together."
This meant composite bows would not last long in Europe, Japan or South East Asia, where wooden bows dominated.
Typically, wooden longbows were often around two metres long, making them big and unwieldy to use. By comparison, the Asian composite bow was only 110 centimetres long making it lighter and easier to carry, while achieving a similar performance.
Nieminen says it's also important to remember that it wasn't until the development of breech loading and rifled barrels in the 18th and 19th century, that the high rates of fire and long distance accuracy of the firearm could outperform the military bow used in China for at least 2000 years.
High level of skill required
He says the biggest issue however was the high degree of skill needed to use a bow proficiently.
"In Asia, the bow was part of the people's culture, skill in its use was an important tradition for officers wanting to progress through the military ranks. So Chinese armies had a huge pool of skilled archers to pick from, European armies did not.
"Europeans therefore trained their soldiers to use firearms, which could be done relatively quickly," says Nieminen.
"For that reason, firearms quickly eclipsed the bow in Europe."
"Economic and social factors, especially the training of musketeers as opposed to archers, were more important factors influencing the replacement of the bow by the gun than pure military effectiveness."