Have you ever asked yourself what happened when a medieval archer ran out of arrows? While that might be a situation that is almost never portrayed (I honestly couldn`t recall one movie that shows that) it must have happened in reality at least somewhat frequently.
Let`s take English longbowmen for example. Each of them could shoot 6-12 arrows per minute. Each of these arrows had to be made, brought with the army, and then transported from the baggage train to the archers!
Large numbers of arrows were transported in the baggage trains of medieval armies from where they were brought to the archers by boys who also told them how many sheaves of arrows were left. When archers were out of arrows they either collected arrows from the dead and the ground around them or put their bows aside and joined the battle with their sidearms.
So let`s now take a closer look at what happened when a medieval archer ran out of arrows and what logistical measures were taken to prevent such a situation.
How were medieval archers supplied with arrows during a battle?
Some medieval chroniclers report that some battlefields looked as if it had snowed since the arrows (In England the arrow feathers were often geese feathers with which farmers could pay their taxes) were sticking so close together in the ground that the white arrow feathers gave the impression of snow.
Here you can find out more about the rate of fire of an English longbow and the destructive energy that hails of arrows shot from longbows had even against the – until then – almost undefeatable knights.
But for that kind of destruction, a large number of arrows was needed. And these arrows had to be produced, transported to the battlefields in the baggage train, and then distributed to the archers during the battle.
Not only did the baggage train include carts on which large numbers of arrows were transported that had been stored in the Tower of London and then sent over the English Chanel, more on that here.
Additionally, the baggage train that accompanied every medieval army also included craftsmen like fletchers or blacksmiths who constantly produced new arrows and repaired damaged ones. During a battle sheaves of arrows were taken off the carts by women and handed to boys, William Shakespeare referred to them as the boys in the Luggage, who then brought the arrows to their assigned company of archers.
Each company of archers did not only have assigned boys for transporting the arrows to the archers but also carts in the baggage train with their arrows. These carts were not placed right between the archers but kept at some distance from the actual battle for security reasons. For more information on how many arrows a medieval English archer had to carry with him (and the possible ways how he carried them) I would like to recommend you my article here.
These boys would also inform the archers about how many sheaves of arrows were roughly left so that the archers always had a rough idea of how long they could keep shooting.
But what happened when the supply of arrows was gone and the archers ran out of arrows?
What did medieval archers do when they ran out of arrows?
As mentioned above, the system of transporting large numbers of arrows with the army and using boys to bring them from the carts in the baggage train to the archers on the battlefield, had the purpose of preventing the archers from running out of arrows.
But when the battle lasted longer than expected, here you can find out more how long medieval battles lasted, or the supply was just too small because previous battles had depleted the number of undamaged arrows, or because of any other reason, then the archers could actually run out of arrows and had to find another way to keep fighting.
There were basically two ways.
Either the archers scavenged arrows from their wounded or fallen comrades and collected arrows that had hit the ground around them, or they had to put aside their bows and enter the fighting with their sidearms.
Here you can find more information on the sidearms that medieval archers used and whether or not swords were common sidearms for archers.
By the way, picking up arrows that the enemy`s archers had shot at them or using arrows that had originally belonged to fallen comrades was simple since the length of arrows was not tailored to the individual archer. In the Middle Ages every English arrow used in war had the exact same length of one ell (= 18 in / 45 cm).
I hope you enjoyed our trip into the world of the Medieval archers just as much as I did.
Should you be interested in more information about how arrowheads were removed from wounds during the Middle Ages then I would like to recommend you my article here. And here you can find out more about how common swords, in general, were during the Middle Ages.
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).