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Dispelling Some Myths: Would Mediaeval archers really shoot 12 arrows a minute?


‘Welsh & English longbowman used a single-piece longbow to deliver arrows that could penetrate contemporary plate armour and mail. The longbow was a difficult weapon to master, requiring years of use and constant practice. A skilled longbowman could shoot about 12 shots per minute. This rate of fire was far superior to competing weapons like the crossbow or early gunpowder weapons’ [1].


The shooting rate highlighted above is frequently asserted in television documentaries. Most recently two unconnected documentaries screened on UK television, both involving sequences on Mediæval archery, claimed 10 and 14 shots per minute respectively. Splitting the difference and one arrives at the 12 arrows stated above. This number also appears on many websites such as the one from which the above quote was drawn. The problem is that most, if not all, such claims are unreferenced, and the source of information is not mentioned. Moreover, our research has singularly failed to identify a historical source. We can only deduce that the shooting rate is a best guess at what might have been possible.


It is our understanding that levied archers were expected to provide for themselves two sheaves of arrows. At the rate of 10 to 12 arrows per minute, therefore, each archer would have shot all 48 of those they carried in less than 5 minutes of engaging the enemy. At this point it is worth quoting Strickland and Hardy (2006, 31): ‘the longbowman could shoot about ten a minute and more, though [master bowman Simon] Stanley says that with the heaviest bows he does not like to try for more than six a minute’, and argues that three a minute would still produce an “Agincourt result” [2][3].’

A typical military longbow archer would be provided with between 60 and 72 arrows at the time of battle. Arrows were not unlimited, however, so archers and their commanders took every effort to ration their use to the situation at hand. Nonetheless, resupply during battle was an option, with young boys often employed to ferry additional arrows to the archers’ positions on the battlefield. Furthermore, in contemporary images archers in battle are shown with arrows thrust through their belts and/or stabbed upright into the ground at their feet. Presumably this was an aid to reducing the time it took to ‘nock, draw and loose’. Yet, most archers would not shoot arrows at the maximum rate, as it would exhaust even the fittest, most experienced man. Not only do the arms and shoulder muscles tire from the exertion, but the fingers holding the bowstring become strained. The actual rates of shooting in combat, therefore, would vary considerably. Ranged volleys at the beginning of the battle - the so-called ‘arrow storm’ - would differ markedly from the closer, aimed shots as the battle progressed and the enemy neared.


Indeed, in tests against a moving target simulating a galloping knight it took approximately seven seconds to draw, aim and loose an armour-piercing heavy arrow using a replica war bow. In the seven seconds between the first and second shots, the target advanced 70 yards. The second shot occurred at such close range that, if it had been a realistic contest, then running away was considered the only option [3].


So, as to the hail of arrows, archers shooting heavy warbows confirm that releasing twelve arrows in one minute is possible, but that such a rate cannot be maintained subsequently. Practical experience argues for a shooting rate of about 5 to 6 arrows per minute being feasible over a period up to 10 minutes.

Endnotes:


1. Medieval Warfare website, ‘Mediæval Military Technology’, Available on-line: https://www.medievalwarfare.info/weapons.htm#bows (accessed October 29th, 2021).

2. Strickland, M. and Hardy, R., (2005), ‘The Great Warbow: From Hastings to the Mary Rose’, Sutton Publishing, p. 31.

3. Soar, H., Gibbs, J., Jury, C. & Stretton, M., (2010), ‘Secrets of the English War Bow’, Westholme, pp. 127-151.

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