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Were There Really Arrow Storms? (strangehistory.net)
74 points by IntronExon 11 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 63 comments

I recomment reading Bernard Cornwell's book Agincourt.

It has some very interesting (and gruesome) reconstructions of battles with English longbowmen - from the point-of-view of the longbowmen.

In the actual battle of Agincourt [1], ~5,000 archers and ~1,000 men-at-arms took on ~20-30,000 French infantry.

As the ~5,000 archers could fire ~12 arrows a minute, with 72-100 arrows each, the French would have had 360,000-500,000 arrows hit their lines during the battle - 10 to 20 for each Frenchman.

The article talks about the impossibility of shooting 10-12 arrows-per-minute, however it doesn't talk about how the English trained from childhood to fire a longbow - in fact, it was written into law for hundreds of years.

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Agincourt

I can’t really imagine it’s impossible to shoot 10-12 arrows a minute.

I’m an amateur archer, with a preference for traditional, sightless recurve bows. At my entirely-amateur level, I can put an arrow in the target (though not the bulls eye) at 20 yards without pausing to aim - shooting by muscle memory - at a rate of 4-5 per minute.

It’s pretty difficult for me to imagine someone with a lifetime of practice couldn’t shoot at least twice as fast as I can, with my roughly one year of practice.

They where not trying to hit a 'target', they where trying to hit a field full of moving people. So, volume of fire is more important than accuracy. Mark out a 100 foot by 100 foot target and try to see how fast you can go.

Right, which just further reinforces the statement. That volume of fire should be sustainable without concern for absolute accuracy. Spray and pray method.

Note though that the draw weights of medieval bows were way higher than a modern sport recurve bow. Estimates vary but go as high as 150 pounds--so maybe 3x typical bows used today. I don't have an opinion on how quickly trained from childhood archers could fire at the time but there was a lot of force involved.

And you can see the distortions on the musculo-skeletal system that pulling those heavy bows over and over for years inflicted on longbowmen from their remains.


When I was in Japan at one of their museums they had the leg bones from an early settler out to compare to those of a more recently decease person from Japan.

They wanted to highlight that the leg bones took on structural differences in ancient times because of the type of physical work they endured. The only modern humans that get these features now are Olympic athletes.

I'm a Pa-Kua[^1] student, one of the archery exercises is fast-shooting; 6 arrows in 30 seconds is achievable with a 2 hours/week class over a few years, so I don't see problems with 10-12/minute for someone who spends hours every day on archery.

[^1]: http://www.pakua.com/

on a heavy bow, you have to take that into account.

with a medieval diet.

Beer, with a daily potato and lamb shank once a week?

No potatoes until well after the longbow had mostly exited the battlefield. Probably more like porridge or coarse bread.

this is pre-potato, try turnip

I'm guessing you are pulling less than 80 lbs. Probably closer to 40. The article mentions that 20 a minute wouldn't be an issue at this weight but the longbows in question where over 100 lbs and often 150 lbs pull. This is what they are saying is impossible to sustain at a rate of 10-12 per minute. You might be good the first minute but would drop off quickly after that.

For those not used to the sport, most untrained adult men have issues pulling back 70 lbs more than once. With a little practice this becomes "easy" but there is definitely and learning and strength curve.

You do realize that an English longbow's pull force is probably 5 to 10 times the bow you are using?

I don't disagree though, these archers were farmers first, which builds massive strength, and archers second -- which again, builds massive strength. People today, even hobbyists, aren't training for life and death battles. Even daily training won't compare to being a commissioned soldier.

I remember seeing a medieval stylised drawing of an archer (not sure if from the Bayeux Tapestry or elsewhere) but the archer's upper body was basically a diamond shape, showing massive lat and traps development.

In an era where I would guess people were stronger anyway due to manual work, they stood out as particularly muscular.

Actually Longbow men were well paid mercenaries

What's your draw weight?

65 lbs. As others have mentioned, well under 150 lbs.

Then again, I’m a sedentary white collar that shoots for an hour a week.

An enjoyable quick history lesson showing tactics for anyone interested.


Not to take away from modern war, but Medieval times must have been really bad. I can't imagine being on the front line knowing I am probably about to be stabbed or hideously maimed at best. The march into a cloud of arrows which you can see coming in volleys would be absolutely miserable.

I find it really hard to picture myself in that type of conflict.

Yet, despite being no more clement, and that death is a constant, the idea of my D-Day craft opening up, and being raked with invisible machine gun fire is almost clinical in nature.

Airstrikes and missles are so far removed from medieval battles, it would be fair to say that you can sit in a destroyer with AC and comfortably press a button while thinking what happens at the end of your book tonight before bed. I can imagine that, but not the guilt one may feel if any.

What a difference distance makes.

Look up the Battle of Cannae, wherein Hannibal successfully encircled a force of approximately 80k Romans and killed approximately 70k of them. This wasn't bowmen vs infantry but, primarily, infantry vs infantry. The battle was effectively won once the encirclement was completed, but killing people in close quarter combat is an agonizingly slow process unless there's a rout. Encircled soldiers can't rout. The slaughter continued until darkness, and only after dark did the battle cease, leaving some survivors (night battles were exceedingly rare in antiquity).

Imagine being in the middle of an army that is being driven into a more and more compact mass of panicking humanity, knowing that you've lost and are doomed to die, but that death does not arrive for, possibly, the better part of a day! Livy reported of the Romans that, "Some were found with their heads plunged into the earth, which they had excavated; having thus, as it appeared, made pits for themselves, and having suffocated themselves."

I'd take one good charge and death by a storm of arrows over that any day.

I actually thought of the Battle of Cannae during the episode of Game of Thrones Battle of the Bastards.

Sure. I'm sure you think of it during most medieval show that has some sort of warfare, some variation of it is almost always featured, though as far as I know tactics similar to that had been used long before that particular battle.

Encirclement Is very old tactics the medieval period actually used this and much more modern tactics effectively combined arms warfare.

Encirclement was just the outcome. What was really interesting to me in the battle of Cannae was the feigned retreat.

Why would being surrounded matter in this case? It’s not like the Romans ran out of food or weaponry.

Actually, if infantry groups large enough to maintain a front meet hand to hand on flat terrain, and the soldiers are of similar strength, losses should be about 1:1 and proportional to the length of the front because the larger party can’t put more soldiers near the front than the smaller one (if anything, the larger party would be able to give its soldiers more rest)

(If the smaller group gets too small to easily keep up a closed front, this changes; it gets torn apart fast because each defender would be needed almost all the time to prevent the front from breaking, and also would face >1 enemy. Guns, spears, or artillery change things even more, as they allow the larger group to land more blows per enemy head than the smaller group _above_ the proportion of the sizes of the armies)

So, all else being equal, the much larger Roman army should have been able to break that encirclement.

⇒ either things weren’t equal (were the hastily created Roman legions less experienced or less well trained?) or was panicking the important factor?

Take 100 sword bearing barbarians and form them in a circle shoulder to shoulder facing inward. Take 120 legionaries and form them in a circle inside the barbarians circle, also shoulder to shoulder but facing outward. The legionaries circle can't hold 120 men, or even 100, it's likely closer to 90, so the other 30 legionaries have to wait inside the circle.

So now it's 100 vs. 90, each of the fighting legionaries on the circle has to fight the man in front of them, while avoiding a thrust from the extra men along side them. Meanwhile the other 30 wait, listening as their comrades are being slowly killed.

But it never begins as a circle. Instead the solid line of legionaries is outflanked, barbarians rush around them causing panic in the rear lines at both sides. The men at the end of the line are butchered quickly, they can't fight the men in front of them while being attacked from the side.

So masses of romans at the ends of the lines were killed and the survivors on the ends ran back behind the center of the line until they formed a tightly bound ball of men, those buried in the center unable to fight, while the now greater numbers of their opponents are free to attack the outer line from all directions.

”The legionaries circle can't hold 120 men, or even 100, it's likely closer to 90”

For that to happen, the radius of the circle of Romans has to be ¾ of that of the circle of barbarians. With 2 meters distance between their heads, that would make a radius of 6 meters vs 8 meters, and circumferences of 36 and 48 meters, or about half a meter per man. Tight, but yes, at that scale, the outside army has the benefit.

These armies were larger, though. At 900 defenders and the same distance between the lines, there would be 930 attackers. At 9,000 defenders, there would be 9,030.

”barbarians rush around them causing panic”.

Panic is what I put in as an option, and what surprises me. I would hope the Roman army, knowingly marching into enemy lines in a fairly shallow column would be prepared to see enemies appear in their flanks.

What you describe must have happened, but I don’t see how an army that large with such superior numbers would get there, unless its soldiers weren’t as good as those of the enemy in some way by quite some margin. Lack of leadership decreasing soldier resilience? Lack of experience?

First they weren't professional soldiers. They were farmers. Professional or not, being outflanked is terrifying.

Second, the troops weren't identical. Hannibal had very experienced mercenaries with all sorts of different weapons, and his cavalry was far better than the romans.

Third, Varro thought he'd crush the center of Hannibal's line and force the Carthaginians to panic as they fall back into the river by stacking Roman forces far deeper than usual. That shortened their line and made it easier to outflank. And pushing back Hannibals center naturally pushed his forces into an enveloping crescent shape.

Fourth, the Roman infantrymen didn't know what was going on. The wind was in their face, blowing dust. The Carthagian army made enormous noise as it attacked. The roman troops were thirsty and hungry, Varro had drawn up his troops early before they could eat or drink.

Lastly what destroyed the Roman cohesion was the loss of their cavalary. The Numidian cavalry crushed them on one side and barbarian cavalry crushed them on the other. Then the carthagians could wheel and attack the roman infantry from the back and sides, while their cavalry cut off any retreat.

I thought the Romans had good luck with the 'turtle'? Where they formed a square shield wall with archers inside...

No time to form a turtle formation. Also I think that was only used when storming walls.

Really puts a point of the phrase "to bury one's head in the sand" - doesn't it?

Thanks! Another great overview by this guy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MroGPObEZzk

I think its less of a deal considering that you'd have consumed A LOT of propaganda building you up to that moment. Also warfare probably had good opportunities for social mobility compared to other pursuits.

And lots of liquid propaganda.

I'm having trouble getting the reference..do you mean some type of drug? Or do you mean the soldiers' salary?

I think they may mean alcohol.

I would assume that they’re referring to drinking alcohol.

Indeed. The British Royal Navy was handing out rum rations until 1970. [1]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Tot_Day

Even with push button ship based missiles someone still has to do recon and assess the destruction to make sure they got the target. Maybe not the guy pushing the button, but someone.

Probably the USAF intel analysts that watch war zones through aerial cameras. They are literally 1000s of miles away but still see the full horrors of war.


Special Forces are still way, way further up the line than you think. Those that are calling in the airstrikes are, typically, within a few hundred meters of the target even still, today. Not every square inch of war ground can be targeted with satellites - boots on the ground are still the goto for tactical intelligence gathering.

I think medieval people were hardened quite a bit by what they had to endure outside of war. Almost all of them would have lost brothers and sisters in childhood, infections of the smallest of wounds could cost you a leg or kill you, famine and the plague weren’t things that only happened to strangers far away, etc.

As to that button: that’s only true if you are very much the stronger party in a conflict. I think there were quite a few Iraqi soldiers in AC units pressing buttons wondering how soon a missile fired by a Predator drone would hit them.

And somehow some people survived multiple conflicts!? It never makes any sense to me... Are these war vetarans somehow better than the others or just lucky? Perhaps both to a degree.

I don’t think they did, but if they used Time on Target (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_On_Target), they could have created a localized peak of incoming arrows per second that is significantly higher than the rate of fire.

I would guess that also would make it harder for defenders to dodge incoming arrows. Rationale: if you can see it, one incoming arrow is relatively easy to avoid, ten per square meter almost impossible. Also, the arrows would come in from different directions (the ones fired earliest almost vertically, the last ones fired almost horizontally), making it harder to see all arrows heading for you.


I was expecting - in this post-Randall Monroe world - a much more thorough accounting of the amount of sunlight blocked by 5000 in-flight arrows.

I went in with a similar expectation actually. Would be interesting to have an idea of how much light'd fall on you if you were standing under the storm.

I imagine you wouldn't really enjoy the sight whilst being under it though!

In case you didn't read it, the "What if?" book has a couple pages dedicated to this exact question (not 5000, but "how many would it take to block the sun?")

Sounds like a great candidate for a What If submission.

Speaking of, we haven't had a new What If in nearly a year now.

Here is my speculation: you cannot fit enough archers in the relatively small area from where they can still shoot at the same target and cover a significant portion of the sky with their arrows.

Unless the flight paths converge at the end.

When the arrow hits your face, you can no longer see the sun. Therefore one archer is sufficient to blot out the sun.

2 arrows.

Theoretically yes, the author just says it’s possible, but doesn’t present any evidence for it. There could be other factors that prevented this from actually happening in reality, eg the supply of arrows, the positioning of the archers, the strategy of attack etc.

A significant portion of the English economy was devoted to arrow production and archer training. They made millions of the things and reused many. Quotas were assigned for production of both.

There may be issues with some of the details of the stories. But many of those issues are more about our modern perception of what is being said. Interpreting the "darkening of the sky" as an eclipse like event is a perception problem. Nobody questions would question a contemporary account of German flak in WW2 feeling like a darkening of the sky from the perspective of a bomber crewman.

The end results speak for themselves -- you can correlate the order of battle of the English from multiple areas and the outcome of major engagements and wars are known. If the arrows were less effective than described, the French heavy infantry and cavalry would have been considerably more successful.

Perhaps in reality what happened was that there, at certain moments, was one obvious target, and all archers pointed their arrows at that target. This created the illusion, from the p.o.v. of the target of an arrow storm.

> The real problem is when we move from 1000 archers with light bows, to 1000 archers with heavy medieval bows...

And ancient battles often had more than 1000 archers. Thermopylae probably had 5,000 professional archers. That's 25,000+ arrows in the sky, focused on one area. There's no question that it would block out the sun to some degree, but how much?

To the point of the article, having 5000 professional archers likely does NOT translate to 25,000 arrows in the air at once, but rather some number lower than 5,000.

Actually..per the article, hopefully the same one we all read, given the flight time of an arrow, there were likely at least 1 if not more than 1 arrow per archer, in the air at a single time. So at least 5000 but likely more.

a video on Agincourt https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F5cIzwaxKcM (ok, the first 2 minutes are a little hocky but he also does some great Roman videos) and one one archery for reference https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDQaJKpBWgY https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSq5GX0G3Co

The arrow storm is probably a myth created by war writers.

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