The arquebus (sometimes spelled harquebus, harkbus or hackbut; from Dutch haakbus, meaning "hook gun) 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 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 efectiveness 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.
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. This was essentially the era of the arquebus. 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. This led to changes in plate design like three-quarter plate and finally the retirement of plate armor altogether.
The arquebus was fired by a matchlock mechanism and had a larger bore than its predecessors. From the middle of 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.
Arquebuses were 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, 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.
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.
The first arquebuses were introduced in 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. In the Battle of Nagashino in 1575, Lord Oda Nobunaga placed three lines of ashigaru armed with these weapons behind wooden palisades and prepared for the cavalry charge of his opponent. The use of arquebuses and other firearms was halted in Japan during and until the end of the Tokugawa shogunate by decree of the shogun. It is one of the most effective examples of disarmament and voluntary renunciation of technology.
By the later 16th century, muskets slowly began to replace the arquebus across Europe.
In terms of accuracy, the arquebus was unable to match the accuracy of a bow in the hands of a highly-skilled archer. However, the arquebus had a faster rate of fire than the most powerful crossbow, had 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 are developed, powder and shot are relatively easy to mass-produce, while arrow making is a genuine craft. It takes years before an apprentice can make commercial quality arrows without help or supervision. The weapon also had the added advantage of scaring enemies (and spooking horses) with the noise. Wind can reduce the accuracy of archery, but has much less of an effect on an arquebusier. Perhaps most importantly, 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.
A negative factor in the use of the arquebus was that ammunition which had been used once, 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.
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. 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-making was also far more dangerous than arrow making.
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 human fine motor skills.
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. 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 you 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.