The primary weapons of medieval archers were obviously the bow and the arrows. But because of a relatively high rate of fire (an experienced longbowman could shoot 6-12 arrows every minute), it sometimes happened that the archers ran out of arrows. When that happened they could either collect arrows that had hit the ground around them or they had to put their bows aside and join the fight as infantrymen.
In the latter of the two cases, the archers needed weapons suited for close combat. So what kind of weapons did medieval archers carry aside from their bows?
Most medieval archers did not carry swords in addition to their bows. Instead, they would often carry daggers, archer picks, small hatchets, Falchions, or agricultural tools like the billhook as sidearms that were both cheap but also effective.
Let`s find out more!
Did medieval archers carry swords?
In the following, I am going to pick the English longbowmen as an example since they are the best-known medieval archers. However, everything mentioned can also be applied to other archers in medieval Western Europe.
Before a battle, each longbowman received 24 arrows in addition to the 24 arrows he had to bring with him when he enlisted. And during the battle, a constant flow of additional arrows was brought from the baggage train to the archers. You can find out more about that system and who was responsible for bringing the arrows to the archers in my article here.
Constantly bringing in additional arrows was necessary because each longbowman could shoot 6 to 12 arrows per minute. At that rate, the 48 arrows he had to have with him at the start of the battle didn`t last for long.
So in case the archers ran out of arrows, something that probably happened kind of regularly, they had to either collect arrows from the ground around them and from the dead or they had to put their bows aside and join the melee. Here you can find out more about how close combat worked in medieval battles.
Why were swords rarely used as sidearms by medieval archers?
To be able to join the close combat in case they ran out of arrows medieval archers had to carry some form of a sidearm with them.
However, the weapon that most of us immediately connect with the Middle Ages, the sword, was not overly common among archers. And not only among archers were swords a lot less common than some movies might suggest. Here you can find more information on why swords were not that common during the Middle Ages and which weapons were instead the most common on a medieval battlefield.
In the Early Middle Ages, swords were way too expensive for the average archer. Even in the High and Late Middle Ages when swords were more affordable even for regular soldiers, most archers did not invest the money to buy a sword and would often also rather sell swords that they scavenged after a battle than keep them for themselves.
I think there are basically two reasons why most archers chose to not carry swords and to rather sell a scavenged sword than use it.
The first reason is that a sword might be an effective weapon, but only in the hands of an experienced and trained swordsman. Here you can find out more about the effectiveness of swords.
However, longbowmen who had been hired for a campaign were usually not skilled in using a sword and in the different techniques that were necessary to overcome – for example – plate armor. Here you can find a video showcasing a technique to overcome plate armor with a sword.
The second reason can be found in the relatively low pay that medieval archers received compared to even unskilled laborers. The selling of armor, weapons, and goods that could be salvaged after a battle, more on what happened after a medieval battle aside from the scavenging in my article here, was the most lucrative part of being a medieval soldier!
So most archers would rather sell swords they had scavenged after a battle to make some extra cash than to keep and use them since they were usually not trained in how to effectively use a sword.
But there are also exceptions. There is for example one regulation in which English longbowmen are required to show up with a bow, 24 arrows, and a sword when they wanted to enlist for a campaign. However, it is important to emphasize that that regulation only depicted one specific point of time and must not be seen as a general rule for all archers throughout the Middle Ages.
So even when we consider that regulation I still think that it is somewhat safe to say that for most of the Middle Ages most archers did not carry swords as sidearms. Instead, they would usually carry cheaper but still effective weapons or repurposed agricultural tools.
Let`s take a look!
What sidearms did medieval soldiers carry?
Generally, the sidearm of a medieval soldier had to fulfill two conditions. It had to be cheap and it had to be effective. Additionally, it was also beneficial if the weapon could be used without years of training, we have already touched on that requirement in the last paragraph.
Many of the sidearms that a medieval archer carried and used when he ran out of arrows were repurposed tools.
A good example of that is the billhook, an agricultural tool used by farmers and medieval soldiers to clear brushes so that the baggage train could pass. But these billhooks were not only ideal for hacking through bushes, they could also be repurposed.
The hock at the tip of the billhook was ideal for either hacking into the weakly protected armpits of a fully armored knight or even for gutting a horse. Here you can find out more about the effectiveness of medieval armor and why the armpits were always a weak spot in any kind of armor.
Another cheap and effective weapon that many archers used as a sidearm was the combination of a small hatchet and an archer pick.
The hatchet once again originally being an agricultural tool that was repurposed. That combination was especially effective against unsaddled knights who were either wounded or held down by other archers. In that case, the back of the head of the hatchet could be used to hammer onto the cap on the back of the archer pick`s handle. To get through the armor of the immobilized knight the tip of the extremely robust blade of the archer pick was put at a weak spot of the knight’s armor and then hammered through the armor by strokes with the back of the hatchets head.
Another cheap weapon that was especially used after a battle was over was the dagger that most archers carried with them. Daggers were used to stab through the eyeslits of helmets and were an effective way to kill off knights who were wounded or who were held down and immobilized by other foot soldiers.
By the way, while knights oftentimes tried to not kill other knights the regular footsoldiers did usually not show mercy. You can find out more about the 3 reasons why knights often tried to spare each other’s life in my article here.
Apart from these weapons some archers also carried Falchions, one-edged machete-like swords that were ideal for hacking.
So there we have it, the weapons that medieval archers used aside from their bows. All these weapons have one thing in common. They work best when the archers worked together.
One archer attacking a fully armored knight, even a wounded one, with a hatchet and an archer pick would have not ended well for the archer. But when 7 or 8 archers worked together and 6 or 7 of them held the knight down while one or two stabbed through his eyeslits or hammered their archer picks through his armor then these regular footsoldiers had a good chance of killing a member of the highly effective warrior class the medieval knights were.
Here you can find out more about how effective knights were. And here you can find out more about which tactics made the knights so effective and how they trained them.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Malte Prietzel: Krieg im Mittelalter (Darmstadt 2006).
Richard Wadge: Arrowstorm: The world of the archer in the hundred years war (Gloucestershire 2007).