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Another Historical Pet Peeve--Archery and Hollywood

One of my far too numerous hobbies is "primitive archery". My wife and I own replicas of medieval English longbows, and we occasionally take them out and shoot our replica arrows (some with lovely vicious "bodkin" and "broadhead" points) at evil straw bales that really need killing.

When ever we get together with friends to slaughter these bundles of vegitation, the subject of how different what we are doing is from what you see in the movies comes up.

Here a few of the observations.

Hollywood loves to have groups of archers draw their bows to full span, and then have them hold their bows drawn while waiting many suspenseful moments for their leader to drop his sword to signal the deadly storm to follow. (Think "Lord of the Rings") Here's the problem with that:

In choosing a longbow, you should pick one that is hard to pull. Not back-breaking hard, but it needs to give you some real resistance. This only makes sense. A bow is only as strong as the archer, but if the archer selects a wimpy bow, then his strength is wasted.

Now, when you are pulling one of these hefty bows, pulling it pointing it and shooting it aren't too tough. What is tough is holding it at full span. Unless you are shooting a toy bow, your arms will almost immediately start to quiver and the pain will begin. Furthermore, your bow doesn't like staying at full draw any longer than it has to either, and you could do it some real damage.

The only documentable medieval words of command for archers seem to have been "Knock" and "Streach". These make sense, and presuppose that telling an archer to draw his bow is essentially the same as telling him to shoot it.

The problem, of course, is that people think of bows through the lens of hundreds of years of firearm use. Firearms were fired in volleys, on command. This was a good idea, since it maximized the trauma of noise, death and injury that guns do so well.

It would not make sense to shoot bows in vollies. People in the open couldn't do much to protect themselves from a musket volley, but if they had shields, and the arrows come in precise vollies, they could just hide during the brief arrow storm, then rush forward--only to hide again during the next arrow storm (which they could, of course, see coming). It makes far more sense to shoot bows in a continuous stream, so there never is a time when it is safe to peek out from behind your shield.

My next archery pet peeve is the ubiquitous fire arrow. The battle at the beginning of "Gladiator" is a fine example of Hollywood's obsession with fire arrows.

Yes, fire arrows did exist, but they were for very specialized purposes. To make a fire arrow, you need to put a nasty great glob of pitch on the end of your arrow. You might also add a bit of fabric to this to keep it compact.

Since arrows aren't, as a general rule, balanced to have a nasty great glob of pitch on the end of them, there is a major drop in aerodynamic efficiency in a fire arrow. Fire arrows would suffer a serious loss of range and accuracy.

Then, of course, you would need to have immediate access to fire. There was no automatic pilot light on medieval bows, and if you had lots of archers shooting fire arrows, then they would need small fires burning all along their lines. This would, of course, seriously limit their ability to move around and still shoot fire arrows. It would also make it pretty tough to surprise anyone with your sudden fire arrow storm, as the enemy could watch you lighting and carrying around your little fires to well within the range of their own archers.

So, when would you see fire arrows?

Since they are a big logistical hassle, they would not really be a good idea in a field battle, where archers might have to maneuver quickly to close the range with the enemy or get out of the enemy's way. They would make sense in sieges though, where there could be time to deploy pitch pots, firebrands and the like, and cover behind which to do it.

So, when they were used in sieges, what would they be used for? Would they be used, in Hollywood fashion, to target people who could then do spectacular man-on-fire stunts as they fall off castle walls? Of course not. If you want to shoot a man, you will shoot him with a simple old non-burning arrow. Your odds of hitting him are far better, and it's ever so much less trouble.

People might get in the way of fire arrows, but targeting them deliberately with such a weapon is just dumb.

Fire arrows would, of course, be used primarily to set things on fire. These things could be thatch roofs, siege towers, and perhaps wooden palisades, though getting the fire hot enough to really ignite big ol' hunks of wood like you would see in a wall might be a challenge without a bit of additional fuel.

That's not a really big target set, which would mean that you wouldn't really see a lot of fire arrows on a medieval battlefield.

I have a few more archery grumbles for Hollywood, but this is enough for now.




We ride horses and have recently taken up archery with an eye to a ride-and-shoot activity. I suppose Hollywood has misrepresented the loosing of arrows while on horseback too.

Your explanation of fire arrows was interesting. It's intuitive, I suppose, but I'd never considered that shooting a castle sentry with a non-lit arrow would be more economical and odds-on than using a big blob of fire.


"I have a few more archery grumbles for Hollywood, but this is enough for now."

Man... this is great stuff, please write some more! I can use this info!

I used to shoot arrows in my free time, but it was with a modern bow.