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  • Were There Really Arrow Storms? February 10, 2018

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval , trackback

    There are a number of antique and medieval references to massive numbers of arrows creating arrow storms in battles. Some readers will remember, for example the arrows blotting out the sun at Thermopylae: ‘Good, we shall fight in the shade etc’. But did these arrow storms really take place? Just how many arrows could an army get in the sky at one time? Let’s imagine a battlefield in which side A and side B are fighting for some foolish cause. Side A has 5000 infantry and side B has four thousand infantry and a thousand archers. How many arrows could side B get in the air over a minute?

    Let’s start with 1000 archers with a light bow in their hands, drawing from thirty to fifty pounds. A recent post on American Indian archery established that a champion archer could get eight arrows off before one hit the ground. Even if we reduce this to a more conservative five, a thousand archers could get 5000 arrows in the air over fifteen seconds. A light bow also does not put an unreasonable strain on the archer. Fifteen arrows over a minute sounds extremely reasonable and probably pessimistic: fifteen thousand arrows over sixty seconds constitutes, surely, an arrow storm. It would be necessary to establish how long they are in the air.

    The real problem is when we move from 1000 archers with light bows, to 1000 archers with heavy medieval bows, such as those that punched out the French at Agincourt and Crecy. The draw weight on these bows was over a hundred and often closer to one hundred and fifty pounds. You would need not only skill but immense strength to draw said bows. There are a lot of bold claims made for just how many arrows can be shot in a minutes from a heavy bow, with talk of shooting twelve to twenty arrows, routinely and ‘minimum ten a minute’. This sounds far too optimistic.

    Mark Stretton* of the English War Bow Society reports that drawing on a 140 pound bow he can shoot an exceptional ten arrows per minute. However, he adds the rider that he could not shoot twenty in two minutes. In other words ten would be what we might call sprint shooting. Certainly medieval warbowmen could reach ten a minute like Mark, perhaps even a couple more, but claims of twenty in a minute are absurd. ‘[MS] regards six per minute as more achievable for consecutive minutes with such a bow.’ At sprint speed then side B could get 10,000 arrows in the air in a minute; at a more relaxed pace they would manage a very respectable 6,000.

    The difference between the a light bow and a heavy bow is substantial, then, in terms of the arrow storm. The light archer would probably not have a ‘sprint’ speed, in that the strain on his body and hands was not so great. The heavy archer would have to pace himself in battle. The light archers in force B could get perhaps fifteen thousand arrows in the air over a minute. The heavy archers in force B could get anything from six to ten thousand in the air over the same time. Both surely constitute a ‘storm’: though the short bow created a more impressive visual effect. The noise as the arrows sailed through the air, found their targets, and as they bounced off metal must have been terrifying.  Presumably 6000 heavy arrows caused much more damage than 15000 ‘light’ arrows?

    There is a lot written about how many arrows archers carried (which would have to be factored into the calculation above). A typical answer is between two dozen and six dozen. However, perhaps in the end the most important extra variable is not the number of arrows, but rather the distance between the enemy and the archers. Save in unusual circumstances the enemy’s only chance in an arrow storm would be to enter hand-to-hand fighting with the enemy asap. As soon as the ground was covered between the two, the archer’s job was effectively over: unless he could fight off the flanks or shoot over his own side. The archer, once the enemy closed, lifted an axe and hoped for the best.

    Other thoughts on these numbers: drbeachcombing AT gmail DOT com And any really convincing videos of an arrow storm?

    *Correspondence reported in Mike Loades’ excellent book Longbow.

    Joe writes, 10 Feb 2018, Very thought provoking article on Arrow Storm. I would advance several points: 1. Duration of the storm is dependent as the effective range of the bow is fixed. That is, against a cavalry charge storm duration would be shorter and of higher intensity than against an infantry advance. 2. Endurance might not be of concern in the first scenario as the charge would be either completed, or, defeated within a minute of coming within long bow range 3. Against infantry, there is no need for the long bowman to operate at max rate of fire as infantry can not close the distance as fast as horse. The bowman can operate at a reduce rate of fire and still decimate the enemy. 4. Both General Physical Preparation and Specific Physical Preparation was probably higher in the long bowman of the past as compared to today’s practitioners. Consider grip strength, few today really train hand strength and those that do can have incredible hand strength. Until recently, freaky hand strength was common among physical culturists because of the cheap metal the bars and dumbbells were made out of; handles had to get thicker and thicker as weight increased, this developed tremendous hand strength. No doubt those farmboys had a different level of conditioning (GPP) before they moved on to SPP needed by a bowman.

    JH, 10 Feb 2018, Maybe if you thought about the infantry and cavalry as support for the archers instead of the classic “the archers support the infantry and cavalry”. It would put things in a  very different light. The infantry especially would be a fixing force. In other words when the enemy closed the gap they would hold a line at which the enemy (infantry or cavalry) would pile up against leaving a large mass for the archers to shoot into presumably from the wings. They wouldn’t have to hold long, a few minutes say, think of the number of arrows the archers could deliver from the flanks into the mass of men and horses at close range. Then at the right moment you launch your cavalry to break up and pursue the enemy. I believe that is what the English did, their doctrine being archers first with the other arms supporting, while the French held on for a long time to the idea of cavalry first and infantry and archers supporting. It’s hard to fault the French for this especially in the early battles after all that’s the way it had been for almost a thousand years. But after getting their asses shot up pretty good for about a hundred years you’d think they’d learn, but they we are talking about the French.

    Bruce T, 11 Feb 2018: Instead of “short” and “long” perhaps you should use “light” and “heavy” instead [corrected in text above]? The short composite bow of the steppe hit as hard and shot nearly as far as the longbow, which was nearly two times it’s length. The composite bow was the primary weapon there. Any good tome on the region will describe the techniques and methods used by the mounted archers of the steppe in warfare. I find it very interesting, but I’ve been hit in the head a few too many times. If you want to look at how the bow is used in combat, perhaps you should look into work by ethnologists studying tribes in New Guinea where the bow has traditionally been a primary weapon until very recently. Among certain ethnic groups there are what are called “Little Wars” fought mostly with the young men of each group in the front and the range at roughly 40-50 yards. As it’s fairly easy to dodge and arrow at that range, deaths are rare, but minor wounds are common. It’s basically a territorial shouting match with a chance for few of the young men to get blooded. The name of the next stage is, if things escalate that far, is called “Real War”. It’s the experienced warriors facing off on a prepared ground with arrows,spears, and axes. It’s essentially a flurry of arrows and spears at a range of inside 20 yards, flat trajectory, full impact shots, and then at it in a melee of axes, knives and clubs. Once there had been enough killing and bloodshed, they generally broke it off, much like modern day gang fights. Finally there’s the “Big War” if the situation escalates beyond the “Real War”. Every man in the village, or tribe, heads out to the primary village of the group they’ve been bumping heads with. They raid the village in a surprise attack annihilating everyone they can get their hands on. They then looted and burned the village and headed home. I wouldn’t be surprised if they send in a volley of arrows or two in the initial stages to induce panic and say, “Guess who’s here?”