Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Why didn't the Romans make extensive use of archers?


This is an excellent study of the actual effectiveness of archers during their heyday.  Not nearly so wonderful as we have been taught.  It is also a reminder of just how much of the past is repeated legend  fully deserving of careful study to get a glimpse of the truth.

We need to become way more appreciative of the auxilleries whose task was often to goad the nemy to attack to their front against prepared positions.  Romans were masters there.

The knights once unhorsed, became the front line phalanx to grind down the opposition.  Improving on that soon produced tercios.


The Romans did not need huge masses of archers for the following reasons.

1. The bow is not as dangerous weapon as it is shown in Hollywood. The arrow is very light and has little lethality. For heavy infantry with large shields, arrow damage is minimal. Even with the worst shelling that the Roman army experienced in its history - in the Battle of Carrhae - losses during the time the army maintained order were minimal. There were quite many wounded, but few were killed. Really terrifying Persian archers in no battle, from Marathon to Plataea, could stop the Greek hoplites and even cause them any significant damage. Strange, but many of the arrow wounds in the Iliad were in the feet (Diomedes, Achilles), which characterizes quite well the available area of damage for arrows in the presence of a large shield and helmet. All described deaths from arrows in the Iliad are attributed to one episode, where the "divine archer" Teucer shot Trojans in the thick of the battle, hiding between shots behind the huge shield of his half-brother Ajax Telamonian. Until the annoying archer was knocked down by a rock thrown by Hector, so his career did not last long. Since the Greeks had only one Ajax Greater, it was difficult to massively reproduce the practice of Teucer, and its inglorious end from a stone to the shoulder was discouraging.

2. The bow's effectiveness is questionable even against unarmored armies. "Terrifying" English (more correctly, Welsh) archers in the number of about 10,000 could not inflict damage on the unarmored Scots, of whom there were only 5,000-8,000, at the Battle of Bannockburn, as well as in the battles of Loudoun Hill and Stirling Bridge. The Battle of Falkirk was won by the English heavy cavalry in view of the betrayal of the Scottish cavalry.

3. In the battles of the Hundred Years War, the English bow proved to be an effective weapon only against cavalry, but not against infantry. The archers did not stop any attack of dismounted men at arms, which always ended in hand-to-hand combat. The English won the victory due to their position on the hill, when the French who reached them in a row were already exhausted, and also due to the fact that the French, advancing on foot up the slope, were also forced to overcome obstacles in the form of ravines, holes, plantations and palisades. War horses at the beginning of the Hundred Years War had almost no armor, which determined the colossal effectiveness of the English archers. A wounded horse loses control and becomes incapacitated, and it is very easy to injure a naked horse with an arrow. In response, horse armor appeared, consisting mainly of a muzzle and a bib, but the sides of the horse remained mostly open. Considering the high cost of armor, only a few could afford a full horse armor. But even in the best cases, horse armor in the West never covered horse's legs. In the East, where heavy cavalry from time immemorial operated in conditions of dense archery, the horses of the cataphracts were reliably protected from arrows. It seems that in the West this level of protection was never achieved. Interestingly, the English archers formed a kind of bastions, protected by a palisade, protruding in front of the battle line of foot men at arms (hernes), which allowed them to shoot the attacking knights at an angle at the unprotected sides of their horses. So, to injure and incapacitate horses was the true purpose of English archers.

4. Terrain relief. The vast plains in Asia provide archers, especially horsemen, with virtually unlimited scope for retreat and maneuver. In Europe, there are practically no vast plains and the terrain is highly rugged. As a result, the heavy infantry quickly stops shelling by advance and drives the archers either into the forest or into the river, or destroys them. At the Battle of Marathon, the Greeks simply closed the distance at a quick pace. It is difficult to estimate the losses from the archers, but their total losses for the whole battle were only 192 men (less than 2%), so the losses from the archery were minimal in any case. And here we are talking about the city militia, not about the professional army, that is, the bulk of the fighters were most likely wearing linothorax or no armor at all. In addition, Greek armor left arms and legs exposed.

5. Training foot archers for maneuvering archery is a whole different matter from just an archery. For example, English archers could only shoot from prepared positions. Without a pre-installed palisade, archers would lose their effectiveness. At the Battle of Formigny, the English archers forced to leave from behind the palisade were instantly destroyed by the French heavy cavalry. The only light infantry known in history that could effectively maneuver and fight heavy infantry were the peltasts of Iphicrates, but their weapons were javelins, not a bow. The training of such a fighter required much more time, and only a few were suitable for the role of a peltast. As a result, there were always few of them, and one mercenary peltast cost much more than a hoplite.

6. Javelins were much more dangerous weapons than arrows. The Iliad describes hundreds of deaths from javelins and only a few from arrows. In the structure of the losses of the Roman legions, the main part was accounted for by losses from “tela” or javelins. Javelins were used extensively throughout the battle, including in hand-to-hand combat, as the javelin thrower always sees the enemy accurately, as opposed to the archer. Spartacus was impaled by several javelins at the end of the battle. A skilled javelin thrower can stop a charging battle horse, as the medieval "knight killers" Almogavars have shown more than once. Anyone can use javelins, and it does not require a lot of training. Javelin is almost guaranteed to kill the enemy, while an arrow in 90% of cases only wounds. That is why the main throwing weapons of antiquity were javelins, not arrows, and the Roman legion, in terms of the effectiveness of these weapons (pilum, plumbata) and the volume of its use, far surpassed all the armies of the world. In addition to this, the range of the plumbata was close to the range of the bow, and the destructive power was an order of magnitude higher. The Romans simply didn't need ineffective bows.

7. As for effective bows, that is, easel crossbows (scorpios), the Romans always had them in abundance. Each centuria had a scorpio, meaning there were 55 scorpios per legion. Scorpios threw arrows at a distance of 300 to 700 meters, and the length of such an arrow could reach 170 cm (javelin). A scorpio arrow could pierce two horses placed next to each other. It was with such an "arrow" that Alexander the Great was wounded, and this wound never healed.

8. A legion of 5,500 soldiers thus had from 11,000 highly effective projectiles (pilum, 2 per soldier) to 27,000 (plumbata, 5 per soldier). If, as an alternative, 1-2,000 archers with an order of magnitude less lethality are offered, who outside of battle eat and drink as much as legionnaires, but are mostly useless during battle, then the choice of the Romans is obvious. They also would need an additional 50 wagons per legion to carry 270,000 arrows (to provide a similar lethality), as well as a bow repair and arrow craftsmen, another 540 kg of iron for arrowheads, etc. In general, is it any wonder that the logistics of the Romans was much better than of the "archery" armies?

As a result, light infantry in ancient Europe played a purely auxiliary role, and, in fact, was a refuge for the lower property classes who could not afford armor. They were skirmishers, that is, actually started the battle, forcing the enemy to attack. On the contrary, in Asia, since the time of Sargon the Great, huge masses of archers could be the main striking force. True, when the army received reliable armor, the effect of archers was sharply reduced. The Assyrians had many archers, because they mainly fought with armless armies, but they themselves were practically invulnerable to archers.

This is not to say that the archers did not pose a threat to the legion at all. For example, in the Battle of Magnesia, one Roman legion was destroyed. True, this was done by the light infantry in combination with the heavy cavalry. A kind of the Battle of Carrhae in miniature.

At last, the Romans always had archers. Not so many, not so high-quality, but they were enough for skirmishing. As for mercenary throwers, as Bill Soo recalled, the Romans were more willing to use slingers. Ancient authors repeatedly stressed that the sling range exceeded the range of arrows. Xenophon wrote that the 10,000 suffered greatly from the Persian slingers and could not drive them away with arrows. Moreover, the lethality of a stone weighing 200 grams is much superior to that of an arrow, and can disable even a fighter in armor (let alone lead bullets). Vegetius wrote: “Soldiers, notwithstanding their defensive armor, are often more annoyed by the round stones from the sling than by all the arrows of the enemy. Stones kill without mangling the body, and the contusion is mortal without loss of blood.” Famous throughout the ancient world, the Balearic slingers were the main export product of the Balearic Islands.

The heavy infantry did the rest.

P.S. Concerning the efficacy of archery.

  1. A shower of falling arrows or the efficacy of flat shooting.
    A cloud of arrows, rising up, covering the sun and rapidly falling down, striking everyone, piercing shields and armor, is a favorite feature of Hollywood. Looks really dangerous. But we can calculate accurately enough the speed of a falling arrow
     given its weight and air resistance. An estimation gives the falling speed without air resistance of 42.3 m/s and 27–32 m/s considering air resistance. Given the starting arrow speed of longbow of about 60–70 m/s and the weakest speed of about 45 m/s, the speed of falling arrow seems not lethal and not dangerous. A falling arrow at the maximal distance of flight definitely cannot pierce not only shield but even gambeson, and is dangerous only if hitting a naked skin. And, of course, even in this case it cannot kill or even severely wound. Therefore, flat archery is mostly a waste of arrows.
  2. There is a lot of reconstructions
     of bow and crossbow vs. plate armor, chainmail and gambeson. The unanimous conclusion: medieval bow didn’t pierce plate armor regardless of the distance and could penetrate a low-quality chainmail only at a small distance (say, less than 30 meters). It seems that at a distance over 50 m, chainmail was a perfect protection, and even gambeson protected good.
  3. It is believed that simple bow (eg, longbow) throws arrows to a maximum distance of 100 lengths of the bow (ie, about 200 m for longbow), composite bow to 120–150 lengths (ie, 150–250 m), and an elite composite bow - up to 250 lengths (ie, 400 m). This relates to easiest arrows for distance shooting. Heavy battle arrows, naturally, flight much less. Reconstructions show the actual distance of longbow of 120–180 meters depending on the arrow weight, when shooting at 45 degrees, which seems a good practical estimate.
  4. Distance of shooting depends on several factors.
    1. Draw weight and the bowman’s strength. These are bound parameters that give more power to the arrow. There are many references to extremely strong bowmen. In the "Odyssey," none of the suitors could even draw the bow, from which they were then shot by Odysseus. It can be considered a legend, but in 1795 in London, the secretary of the Turkish embassy fired an arrow from a Turkish composite bow at 442 m (officially documented). None of the English present, including Thomas Waring Jr. (the famous English sportsman archer), could even draw the Turk's bow.
    2. Bow length and the bowman’s reach. These are bound parameters that determine the draw length (ie, the time of acceleration) and, therefore, the arrow speed. It is well known that even a modest difference in the draw length (eg, drawing to chin or to ear) gives significant increase in the distance. The current record for the range of an aimed shot from a compound bow of 285 meters was set by an armless archer who drew the bow with his leg, that is, the draw length significantly exceeded the maximum possible draw with the hands.
    3. Arrow weight and length. Arrow weight increases killing power but decreases speed and distance. Arrow length limits the draw length.
  5. Thus, the long-distance archery requires longer and stronger bow, taller (longer-armed) and stronger bowman, and longer and lighter arrow. The same relates to the power archery, excluding the arrow weight.
  6. Therefore, it is not excluded that a special extremely strong and long-armed bowman with special large heavy-draw composite bow and special longer arrows (probably, Teucer from Iliad was such a bowman) could develop a huge arrow’s power that actually allowed to pierce armor at a short distance. But just as we cannot judge the speed of a person based on the speed of Usain Bolt, we cannot judge the effectiveness of archery based on the performance of outstanding athletes. Bolt's speed reaches 40 km / h, while an ordinary runner hardly reaches 28 km / h, the difference is almost one and a half times. The difference of one and a half times in the speed of the arrow (say, 70 m / s and 100 m / s) is a colossal difference.


First of all, archers forced the enemy to charge because none wants to suffer from shelling. However, if the light infantry forces were equal, armies could staying for days under the shelling with local fights, without starting the total battle (eg, Iliad). Therefore, skirmish was the main function.

Second, archery is an ancient martial art that appeared long before hand-to-hand combat. In ancient times, the outcome of battles was decided by skirmish, and an army that suffered more damage or had less stamina fled without hand-to-hand combat. We can now see this tactic in battles, for example, between African tribes. In fact, it is the only possible way of warfare without armor or shield, since any attempt to close the distance will result in the damage of those who try to do that, so the warriors are throwing at the distance of a throw of arrow or javelin. Such a war did not require special training and special weapons, any man (a hunter by definition) could participate in it.

Hand-to-hand combat is a relatively new tactic that requires special weapons, special skills, and special psychology. We can see the emergence of this tactic in the example of Shaka, who forced the Zulu, who have always adhered to the traditional tactics of throwing combat, to fight hand-to-hand. This required a fundamental change in the assagai from light throwing to heavy shock. By the way, we don’t know about archers in the Zulu since their huge shields in full human height made the archery senseless, although the appearance of these shields is of course due to arrows that should be huge effective against actually naked bodies.

I call this transition the hoplite revolution. With the development of defensive weapons and the military formation, archers are increasingly losing their importance, and the peak of this trend is precisely what we observe in the Hellenistic period.

The bow gets a rebirth with the appearance of horse archers, and especially with the appearance of stirrups. A horse archer is a difficult target, therefore less vulnerable. He is less at risk, since, even if wounded, he can leave the battle on horseback. As a result, he can safely approach and fire from a direct shot distance of 10-15 meters. He constantly changes the direction of fire, which does not allow you to defend yourself by simply raising a shield. Moreover, he can maneuver and change the position of the fire without getting tired. Finally, the addition of the speed of the arrow (70 m / s) and the speed of the horse (10-15 m / s) significantly increases the killing power of the arrow. Heavy Parthian arrows, fired from extremely close range at full gallop, pierced the Roman shields at the Battle of Carrhae - 4 cm of oak plank. Stirrups allow targeted shooting.

In fact, foot archers lost their importance as the main fighting force back in the Hellenistic period, which explains their low cost compared to hoplites. This tendency was general, even in Persia under the later Achaemenids. According to Wikipedia, there were only 1,500 archers in the Persian army at the Battle of Gaugamela
. Moreover, this number remains constant regardless of the total estimate from 50,000 to 120,000. Perhaps, the experience of the Greco-Persian wars clearly showed the Persians the true value of archers on the battlefield. Alexander's army had 7,000 light infantry, but mostly peltasts (javelin throwers), and a bunch of archers. Summary: The decisive battle that decided the fate of the Mediterranean civilization involved about 2,000 archers from both sides per 100-200,000 fighting. ONE PERCENT.

The short revival of foot archery during the Hundred Years War was associated with the lack of regular armies, poor armor or its absence in infantry, as well as the shortcomings of knightly cavalry, in particular, poor protection of horses. With the development of armor the English archers, in fact, lost their value already by the end of the Hundred Years War (15th century). Horse archers retained their military value until the 17th and even 18th century (Crimean Tatars, Oirats, Great Mughals, Marathi, etc).

P.P.P.S. Another reason for the phenomenon of medieval English archers was the rise of the heavy cavalry. In antiquity, there was essentially no heavy shock cavalry, since the horses were still small (up to 350 kg at the best, usually 250–300 kg) and there were no stirrups. It was difficult to force such a horse to charge a close formation. Cataphract did not have a footing for the strike. As a result, the Romans restrained the ramming blow of the Parthian cataphracts with shields, without resorting to pikes.

The medieval Europe military revolution is primarily associated with the breeding of large horses weighing up to 600 kg. These horses were not afraid of a close formation, and the blow of such a horse brought down up to 6-8 people standing one after another. Now, to repel the attack of the cavalry, long pikes were needed, rested on the ground, but they had to be held with both hands, which did not allow the use of shields. And since the medieval infantry usually did not have armor, they became an easy target for archers. If the infantry used shields, they couldn’t use pikes and became vulnerable to the cavalry charge. Rock Paper Scissors. So, thanks to the heavy cavalry, the archers got a second chance.

The English appreciated the potential of archers in the war against the Welsh, and began to use them against the Scots and the Irish, creating a permanent reserve of professional archers. Their creative use against the French, who did not yet know how dangerous archers were against horses, led to the defeat at Crecy and Najera (there this lesson was given to the Spaniards). Already at Poitiers, the French knights attacked on foot, and this was a huge mistake.

There was no systematic military training in the Middle Ages. French knights came to the war "as is" and for a limited period (usually up to 45 days), and essentially "took shape" during the campaign. The English army on the continent was essentially professional and constantly in action, unlike the French. In addition, the English usually went on a campaign earlier, and by the time of the collision they were gaining better shape.

The difference between an untrained and trained person is enormous. Once Floyd Mayweather entered the boxing gym, where Paul Spadafora was finishing preparations for the next fight. Spadafora offered to spar, Mayweather agreed, and Spadafora literally mocked Mayweather. The reason is simple: Mayweather was in between fights and out of shape. Against a peak Mayweather, Spadafora would hardly have had a chance.

Finally, the English knights were much poorer than the French ones, did not indulge in the excesses that wealth gives, and, as a result, were stronger and more enduring.

If we add to this that the English always took the position on the hill and covered the front with a palisade, plantings and pits, which the French had to overcome, then it is clear that by the time the French reached the English position, their endurance was reduced critically, and in hand-to-hand combat they had no chance. They could not count on the support of the infantry - they, in fact, did not have it, and the unarmored rabble that they could muster was easily scattered by the English archers. And the English knights had the support of the infantry, because, having used up the arrows, the archers took up the spears and axes, which they wielded no worse than the knights. This is the secret of how the English were able to repel three successive French attacks at Poitiers.

Thus, the English archers in the Hundred Years War performed three functions: to make a cavalry attack impossible, to cut off the infantry from the knights, and to engage in battles as infantry to support their own knights.

In fact, it was the archery infantry.

When the French returned their normal infantry and improved the protection of horses from arrows, the glory of English archers ended. Nobody pay attention to the real reason for the defeat of the English at the Battle of Patay. Yes, the French first found the English and made the right decision about the cavalry charge. Yes, the English were stretched out along the forest road and did not have time to concentrate, having settled down one behind the other in separate echelons, which led to the domino effect. But the French attack was not unexpected. The English managed to bring forward the archers and place them along the road. The archers were protected by the forest, so there was no need for fortifications. But the archers could not stop the French cavalry: it went through them like a knife through butter, and it seems that no one was even hurt. If the archers had created even a little confusion, they would have slowed down the column, the blow would not have been so terrible, and the English could have withstood. But a column of knights at full gallop on a narrow forest road is a sentence. And the root of the problem is simple: the archers were already ineffective.

But these changes were overshadowed by the use of artillery (as if two ridiculous culverins at the Battle of Formigny could decide something), so they went unnoticed.

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