Ancient & Medieval Archers Shot In Volleys & On Command– Fact or Fiction?

Archers who point their bows upwards in the sky and let loose as soon as the command is given. And arrows raining down on the enemy after being shot up into the sky while an officer is shouting nock-draw-loose. Does that sound familiar? Every movie set in Antiquity or the Middle Ages has at least one such scene in it. But did that really happen? Did medieval archers really shoot in volleys? And did they really follow the nock-draw-loose commands?

Ancient and medieval archers did most likely not shoot in volleys or let arrows rain down on their enemies. Instead all medieval depictions show archers shooting their arrows more or less straight and at a relatively close distance at their enemies. Archers were also not given the nock-draw-loose command, instead every archer shot at his own pace.

Let`s take a closer look!

Did medieval archers shoot in volleys?

The concept of archers shooting their arrows up in volleys and letting them rain down on their enemies was first portrayed in the movie „Henry V*“ from 1944. (That movie is also responsible for the wrong idea that knights had to be lifted on their horses because their armor was too heavy.)

But there is one problem with the portrayal of medieval archers shooting in volleys and letting arrows rain down on their enemies:

No medieval depiction of a battle shows archers shooting their arrows up into the air so that they can rain down on their enemies. Instead all medieval depictions show archers shooting their arrows more or less straight and at a relatively close distance at their enemies. (At least in field battles, sieges are a different story).

The practice of shooting arrows right at the enemy was probably one of the reasons why late medieval archers wore plate armor (at least parts of it).

And there is one more problem with the idea of medieval archers shooting their arrows up in the air aside from medieval depictions.

When an arrow is shot more or less straight at the enemy (especially at a close distance), then all the energy and force from the bow drives the arrow forwards and allows it to do great damage. But when the arrow is shot into the air, then it loses all of the force behind it. An arrow that is shot up in the air and then falls down on the enemy line only has the force of gravity behind it, not the force of the bow. So the arrow can only do limited damage, especially compared to an arrow that is shot straight at the enemy.

That made the arrows basically useless when the enemy wore armor. However, arrows that were shot straight at the enemy could pierce the armor when several factors came together.

Ok. So it seems like ancient and medieval archers didn`t commonly shoot their arrows in the air so that they rained down on their enemies. Instead it seems more likely (and much more effective) that ancient & medieval archers shot their arrows more or less straight and at a relatively low distance at their enemies so that the arrow had the full force of the bow behind it and could do the most damage.

But what about the typical nock-draw-loose order that is given to archers in almost every movie? Did that happen?

Did ancient & medieval archers follow the nock-draw-loose command?

Well, no. Most likely neither ancient nor medieval archers followed the nock-draw-loose command.

That just didn`t make sense for archers. It did however make a lot of sense when early firearms like the Arquebus were used! Early firearms like the Arquebus could be loaded in advance and then aimed at the enemy without exhausting the gunman (actually two of the 5 advantages the early firearms had over bows). Holding a longbow with the bowstring pulled to the ears for extended periods of time was just not possible.

By the way, most people believe that firearms only came up after the Middle Ages had ended. But that is not true, firearms (and black powder) were used throughout a good part of the Middle Ages.

An English Longbowman had to be able to draw his longbow with a draw weight of 120-180 lbs for an entire battle (or until he ran out of arrows). That was a pretty demanding physical task!

The frequency with which a longbowman could draw his bow and shoot arrows depended on his individual strength. So if a standardized command like nock-draw-loose would have been given for the entire company of archers, then some of the archers wouldn`t have been able to keep up without getting exhausted, while others would have been able to shoot faster.

So it would just not have been efficient to give standardized orders to medieval archers since these orders would have to be oriented at the pace of the weakest archer. That would have meant that all other archers would have been able to shoot faster, but had to limit themselves to keep pace.

That was simply not effective. It was much more effective to allow each man to shoot at his own pace.

Speaking of archers and bows. Have you ever asked yourself how a medieval archer carried his bow? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.

And here you can find out more about the armor of English Longbowmen.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


Mike Loades: War Bow: Longbows, crossbows, composite bows and Japanese yumi (2019).*

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