The potency of bows in warfare was not a static measure; instead, it hinged heavily on the specifics of the battle scenario and the distance to the target.
Archers were compelled to rely on arcing shots when adversaries were spaced far apart. This technique necessitated aiming above the target, thereby allowing gravity to guide the arrow’s descent onto the target.
The precise angle of aim was contingent on the distance to the target.
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Close-Quarter vs. Long-Distance Combat
In close-quarter combat, archers had the liberty to lessen the arc, and at extremely close ranges, they could fire almost directly at the enemy.
Archers often formed groups at standoff distances (typically 250-300 yards), employing arcing volley fire.
This strategy involved a group of archers launching arrows simultaneously, creating a veritable downpour of arrows on the advancing enemy.
This increased the chances of landing hits and suppressing enemy movement.
The training was pivotal in enabling archers to understand their bow’s effective range and hone their aim for long distances.
They needed to adjust their aim depending on the distance to account for the gravitational pull on the arrow, a concept akin to the adjustments made by modern long-range snipers.
Medieval Longbow Range
A medieval longbow wielded a maximum effective range of 250-275 yards when using an arcing trajectory.
Beyond this range, the arrows lost their lethal penetration power, rendering them less effective.
The closer the enemy, the more potent the arrow’s penetrating power, and the lower the archer needed to aim.
Volleyfire from a distance was typically the favored archery tactic in battles. Archers served as a form of standoff artillery, usually engaging the enemy first due to their capacity to inflict damage from a distance.
This barrage fire, involving multiple archers shooting simultaneously, was a time-tested battle tactic.
Mike Loades Debunks “The Agincourt Myth”
However, historian and archer Mike Loades offers a counterpoint to this view. He posits that archery was primarily conducted within 80 or 90 yards, a distance that facilitated lower trajectory shots with minimal arrow drop.
He substantiates this argument with the absence of medieval art depicting bows angled for long-range volleys and the limited references to long-range archery in period writings.
Loades concedes that there are some long-range volleys, such as at the battles of Agincourt and Halidon Hill, but he suggests these were outliers and involved lighter arrows to provoke enemy action.
In contrast to Loades’ theory, evidence supports using long-range volleys. In his paper “The Battle of Agincourt,” Clifford Rogers references Christine de Pizan’s work, which mentions English archers hitting a target at 213 yards.
Additionally, Humfrey Barwick, a later period author, cites 160 yards as the effective range of a longbow, a range that was reduced due to the rigors of warfare but still fell within volley range.
John Smythe, a contemporary of Barwick, estimates the engagement range for archers to be between 160 and 220 yards.
There’s also evidence of late medieval Scandinavians employing volley fire with crossbows.
In conclusion, bows played a dynamic and multifaceted role in historical warfare, with their versatility and effectiveness dependent on battle circumstances and firing distance.
Archers mastered arcing long-range shots and direct close-combat fire, highlighting the strategic value of archery.
Working in coordinated teams, they employed volley-fire tactics to suppress enemy advances from afar.
Through specialized training akin to modern snipers, archers could adjust for distance and gravity, ensuring lethal precision.
This combination of skills and tactics made bowmen indispensable battlefield assets.