In the Middle Ages not everyone could afford a bow and arrow, so some poorer families became proficient with a pea shooter for self-defence. As Arnold de Boycott said in 1562 “Appen peas are cheaper than arrows and are easier to returne – some arrows gette stucke in things don’t they ande breake, but them peas don’t”.
Accuracy with a pea-shooter is difficult but the Penistone Pea-Shooting Prize Contest celebrates this accuracy over varying distances. The contest dates back to the Wars of the Roses when young Alec Ramsbottom protected his house from 50 Lancastrian soldiers with only a pea-shooter and ten pods of peas. Ramsbottom’s technique was to fill his mouth with peas and then fire them out rapidly aiming at the mouths of the Lancastrians. He was so accurate that he succeeded in making each soldier swallow a pea; he then shouted “them’s plague peas them you Lanky bastards.” The soldiers retreated to the nearest stream where they tried to regurgitate the peas, believing them to be detrimental to their health. This is one of the first examples of psychological warfare known to historians.
Extract from 40 Humourous British Traditions