So one of our readers posed us this question.
In the movies, such as 2004’s Troy, we see archers firing arrow upon arrow into an oncoming army. How accurate is this in reality though? Wouldn’t they run out of arrows after just a few minutes? What happened when archers ran out of arrows during a siege? And how well could arrows be stockpiled to prevent such a shortage?
I don’t have any specific time period in mind, just any time when archers were still in common use. Perhaps the period of the English Longbowman.
We thought why not answer this. We did some research and this is what we have found.
When you are talking about the period of the English Longbowmen you are essentially talking about Henry V and his campaign in France culminating with the battle of Agincourt first and foremost, and I can tell you for Henry stocking enough arrows for his archers was a huge task requiring a national effort.
England was bankrupt and haphazardly managed when Henry V took the throne, and he spent much of the first part of his reign reforming every part of the government. The greater part of this involved consolidating his recently reconquered Welsh holdings and doing a massive audit and restructuring of the Royal estates, both of which generated a tremendous amount of ready cash. He also started reforming his military on the supply and organization side.
You are absolutely right that archers could run out of arrows in a few minutes of battle. An archer had to be able to fire ten arrows in a minute, and good archers could fire much quicker. Arrows were carried in sheaves of 24, archers carried 2 sheaves on them and a few spares, so a typical English Longbowman of Henry V’s day could expend their entire combat load in between 4 and 8 minutes of steady firing. Realistically they probably would not fire at max rate for a stretch of 4-8 minutes very often, but still, they needed an ample supply to fight a battle lasting hours.
The arrows themselves are difficult. They are made of multiple pieces which each have their own supply train and manufacturing difficulty. For long range arrows the arrow head is made of iron, but two compounds, a hard edge and a softer core to absorb shock on impact, a 30 inch shaft constructed of lighter wood which has to be basically perfectly straight or it’s useless. The fletchings are made of goose feathers, and this requires the plucking of a lot of geese. Shorter range arrows are a little shorter, heavier, made of a thicker piece of hard wood like ash and have a head called a bodkin which is very narrow for penetrating armor at close range.
Almost immediately on taking the throne Henry V appointed fletcher (a professional arrow maker) Nicholas Mynot Keeper of the King’s Arrows and set him up in the Tower of London with a staff and healthy budget for building up stocks. This was a separate job from the King’s Bowyer, responsible for making bows and with the right to commandeer any wood in the country for that purpose. The Keeper of the King’s Arrows began production and farmed production out to other fletchers, making orders for arrows in the tens of thousands.
The production of arrows required arrow heads made by smiths by the barrel, tens of thousands of shafts, and goose feathers literally in the millions (there is an order recorded for over 1.1 million goose feathers for the King’s arrow making facilities, and that is one single order). Because of all this planning, effort, and expenditure of resources Henry V was exceptionally well equipped when he set off for France. I would caution you though that while Henry V is the obvious example for a question on the logistics of English Longbowmen he was an uncommonly capable administrator and not every monarch would have been so well prepared for a campaign.
Robert Hardy’s Longbow: A Social and Military History goes into a lot of detail on all things Longbow related, I find Juliet Barker’s Agincourt very valuable for information on Henry V’s campaign preparations.
so how reusable were arrows after a battle?
Clearly, after the battle arrows would be gathered, checked out, the bad ones discarded and the remainder placed back in stocks, because archers would certainly have operated under the principal that you can never have too much ordnance (this is a common trait for soldiers in all eras). As far as how many arrows would have been collected by this means I am not sure, I would caution anyone from expecting archers to wander the field during battle collecting arrows though, this would have been entirely too dangerous, and in many cases impossible since the arrows were being fired into masses of enemy troops, which is a bad place for the guy who just shot the arrows to mosey on up to.
So maybe the French would use the same arrows the English just threw at them?
Unlikely, for a couple of reasons.
The French weren’t big on archery in a military setting. They liked crossbows, but not war bows. So they didn’t field hordes of archers like the English did. The French attitude towards a bow was that it was a hunting weapon. War was for the noble knights to charge in and fight hand to hand.
The consequence of this though is that what bows the French used were of a much more manageable poundage. They weren’t the 120lb draw weights of the English. They were more akin to the weight of today’s recurves. Something you can hold at draw.
So even if you were a French archer and did manage to recover a perfectly intact, undamaged English arrow, using one meant for a 120 lb bow in a 60 lb bow would be inaccurate. It would be too stiff and too heavy. And the opposite scenario would also be true. The English couldn’t use an arrow spined for a 60 lb bow in their long bows. It would’ve been inaccurate and dangerous (chance the arrow would shatter).
From the The Book of Archery, 1841,
While Englishmen, from childhood to age, retained an enthusiastic attachment for the bow, the French abandoned it so soon as the penal enactments were relaxed, returning to the use of the arbalist, which in course of time gave place to the arquebuse. The preference thus given to an arm requiring no exertion of bodily strength, would seem to imply a difference in the physical conformation of the two nations. When exercising with the same weapon, the one exhibited a vast superiority of manly vigour over the others, the French archer rarely considered his arrow effective beyond one hundred and forty, and found its extreme range limited to three hundred yards; the Englishman sometimes killed man or horse, at two hundred and forty, and cast his flight shaft a full quarter of a mile.