Whenever a medieval battle is depicted in a movie you can always count on one thing: Lots of fire arrows. For some reason, movie makers just love the concept of fire arrows in battles (granted, it looks pretty cool). But were fire arrows really used in the Middle Ages? And if so, to what extent and for what purpose?
And how did fire arrows work in the first place, how did they stay lit after being shot? All of these questions shall be answered in the following!
Fire arrows could burn for 60-90 seconds and had an extra-long arrowhead with a small iron cage filled with a cloth soaked in flammable fluid (or a mixture of Sulfur, Salpeter, and Charcoal) right behind the tip. Only 2% of fire arrows caused a fire. However, their purpose wasn`t to cause a massive fire but to create chaos and keep the defenders of a besieged city or a ship occupied and from effectively defending themselves.
Let`s take a closer look!
Did medieval archers use fire arrows?
Fire arrows have been used since Antiquity so it should not come as a surprise that medieval armies also used flaming arrows. However, the use of these fire arrows (and their effectiveness) is usually massively exaggerated by movies and video games.
Fire arrows were only rarely used to great success in the Middle Ages and usually never in a field battle. That had several reasons, one of them being the problem that making fire arrows that stayed lit even after being shot took a lot more effort than making a normal arrow. But more on that in a minute.
For now, I would look at the situations in which fire arrows were used in the Middle Ages and why field battles were rarely among these situations.
The use of fire arrows in medieval field battles – a rare occasion
Unlike its use in movies, fire arrows were almost never used in medieval field battles. There were several reasons for that.
Whenever we talk about the use of weapons on a medieval battlefield (any battlefield throughout history, if you think about it) we always have to consider whether or not a further developed weapon like the fire arrow had any additional value compared to its more basic rivaling weapon (in our case a normal arrow).
A regular arrow was a pretty decent weapon, even though not extremely effective against chainmail or plate armor. The advantages of a regular basic arrow were that A. it could be shot in large numbers and B. a regular arrow had a pretty good reach, especially when shot from a longbow.
That combination made arrows effective against unarmored or lightly armored men and large numbers of arrows increased the chance that one could even find a gap in the armor of a knight wearing chainmail or plate armor.
However, for a fire arrow to be able to carry the flammable material a bigger (and heavier) arrowhead had to be added to the shaft of the arrow. To carry that additional load the shaft also had to be longer and thicker (and as a result heavier) so that the arrow did not break.
A fire arrow was heavier than a regular arrow and as a result, had a shorter reach. Additionally, an archer could shoot fewer fire arrows than regular arrows in a minute since the fire arrows. The piercing abilities of fire arrows were also inferior to the piercing ability of regular arrows.
So not only did fire arrows have a lower reach than regular arrows, but archers could also only shoot less of fire arrows than regular arrows. Now that would have been acceptable if the fire arrow would have been more efficient than a regular arrow.
But that was not the case, at least not during field battles.
The only benefit of a fire arrow over a regular arrow was that it could set flammable things (like oil or the sails of a ship) on fire. But there were no flammable goods during a medieval field battle and trying to set a soldier on fire who had already been hit by an arrow was also not necessary.
Or in other words:
When there were no flammable things on a battlefield then it did not make sense to use fire arrows that were only useful for setting flammable things on fire but were inferior to regular arrows in all other aspects.
I mean let`s just assume a fire arrow would have managed to hit a medieval soldier and pierce his armor (despite its inferior piercing qualities) deep enough to get stuck. The soldier would have probably not been seriously wounded by the arrowhead, more on the reason for that in my article here. And in case his clothing or overcoat caught fire he would have just suffocated the fire by patting his burning clothes.
So in the context of a medieval field battle, the disadvantages of a fire arrow (less reach, slower frequency of fire, and inferior piercing qualities) could not be outweighed by the advantage of a fire arrow (setting flammable goods on fire).
Because of that fire arrows were not used in medieval field battles.
Having said that. At least to a certain extent fire arrows could be useful in sieges but especially in medieval naval warfare.
The use of fire arrows in sieges & naval warfare
Ok, so we have just found out that the popular depiction of fire arrows on medieval battlefields doesn`t have much to do with the reality of how medieval field battles were fought.
There were however two types of battle where fire arrows could be used to good or even great success: Sieges and naval warfare.
Both a siege and a naval battle have a thing in common that makes them ideal for the use of fire arrows. There is a lot of flammable stuff (like thatched roofs and sails) during a siege as well as during a naval battle.
Let`s first look at the use of fire arrows in a medieval siege. By the way, here you can find out more about medieval sieges in general and why it was pretty common that besieged fortifications capitulated after an appropriate amount of time.
Most buildings inside a medieval castle or city consisted of wood with thatched roofs. In that context, it made sense to try to ignite these thatched roofs with fire arrows even though only 2% of the shot fire arrows caused a fire. But that was enough since the goal was not to torch the castle but to keep the defenders occupied and away from defending the walls.
Creating chaos within the besieges fortification was more effective than even a massive fire. The reason for that is simple.
While we know due to tests that only about 2% of the fire arrows that were shot actually caused a fire, the defenders of a besieged city did not know which 2% of the fire arrows raining down on them would ignite a fire. So to prevent the city from burning down somebody had to look at every spot where a fire arrow had gone down.
And those defenders who were making sure that the fire arrows didn`t cause any damage were then not available for defending the walls making it easier for the besieger to try to take the fortification by force. More on the methods used for taking a besieged city by force in my article here.
The pretty pitiful success rate of 2% that a fire arrow caused a fire could be drastically improved when the fire arrow was not used to try to ignite a thatched roof but a flammable substance (like oil or pitch) with which the target had been doused.
That situation was especially common in naval warfare, not only because the sails of a ship are more likely to catch fire than a thatched roof, but also because the distance between ships during a naval battle was usually short enough for soldiers to throw clay pots filled with flammable fluents (like oil or pitch) onto the opposing ships.
Those pots would break when they hit the deck of the ship dousing the surrounding areas (and soldiers) in oil or pitch. These flammable materials could then easily be ignited by fire arrows. In that case, neither the lower range nor the pitiful success rate of a fire arrow was a limiting factor since the fire arrow did only have to ignite highly flammable pitch or oil on a short distance instead of a less flammable thatched roof behind the walls of a besieged city or castle.
By the way, the same could be done during a siege when the besieged used that technique to set siege equipment (like siege towers or battering rams) on fire.
In medieval naval warfare clay pots filled with oil or pitch were often thrown onto the enemy`s ship. When those pots broke they doused their surroundings (the ship, its sails, and its crew) in a flammable fluid that could then be easily ignited with a fire arrow. The purpose was to either destroy the ship or cause enough chaos that the crew which was busy fighting the fire could not defend itself against boarding attempts.
Here, just like with the use of fire arrows during a siege the impression manifests that fire arrows (and fire in general) were mostly used during medieval sieges and naval warfare to keep the enemy occupied and from fighting with his full strength. So fire arrows were normally used to create chaos within a besieged fortification or among the crew of a ship, not for destruction.
But how did fire arrows work? How did they stay lit after being shot?
Let`s find out!
How did fire arrows work & how did they stay lit?
In a way, a fire arrow is pretty similar to a medieval torch. Here you can find out more about medieval torches, their purpose (not illuminating the interior), and how long they stayed lit. If you just stick it into a fire and wait for it to catch fire then it usually goes out before you have even shot the arrow. And even if not, as soon as you let loose the draft would have definitely muffled the fire.
So a solution had to be found. But just wrapping an arrow into cloth that was soaked in flammable fluids like oil or pitch (similar to how medieval torches were made and how fire arrows are usually portrayed in movies) didn`t really work well.
Most fire arrows had an extra-long arrowhead with a small iron cage filled with a cloth soaked in flammable fluid right behind the point. An even more effective option was to fill that cage with a mixture of Sulfur, Salpeter, and Charcoal as well as the cloak soaked in flammable fluid. Such a fire arrow could easily burn for 60-90 seconds and be hot enough to ignite thatched roofs.
Does the mixture of Salpeter, Charcoal, and Sulfur remind you of black powder? Well, you are completely right! Black powder (and even firearms) has been known in medieval Europe since such an early point in time that I was actually surprised when researching for another article.
Do you want to find out more about when the knowledge of black powder came to Europe and how the early European firearms like the „Handrohr“ from 1399 were used? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
And for more information on the treatment of arrow wounds and how arrowheads that had separated from the shaft were removed from a wound, I would like to recommend you my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Malte Prietzel: Krieg im Mittelalter (Darmstadt 2006).