Did Archers Shoot in Volleys?
Articles Blog

Did Archers Shoot in Volleys?

August 16, 2019

Volley fire – or more correctly in archery
– volley shooting, is something that many of us are familiar with: the synchronised
nocking and shooting of arrows together in a massed formation. We see this in games and
movies all the time, and it has become as synonymous with archery as Robin Hood. This
has become one of those things that are simply assumed and stated as fact. But is it? The main problem that we have today is that
we have very few records of exactly how archery was done historically. We have some small
gems – illustrations, fragments of chronicles – but not much resembling a manual of arms
that precisely depicts how an archer fought in battle. Without being able to visualise
the battle, we have to fill in the gaps, and that typically results in what we see in film. In this video, we’ll discuss how volley
shooting might have worked, reasons why it might not have been utilised, and why it might
have been. I want to start with the “how” because
in our modern perspective, we tend to overlook the basic logistics of how armies and battles
work. Battles were not like a strategy game where
you can click on units and they respond to the god-general in the sky. “Yes m’lord!” “Zub zub!” So given that a person on the ground can’t
see the other ten thousand troops on the battlefield, how was it possible to even coordinate a volley?
You can’t exactly shout at your men to aim and shoot together when your voice can only
reach John in the front rank. For a lord or general to command the army,
there would be several things that need to be in place. Perhaps a system of flags or
banners were used to signal certain actions. Runners and messengers were definitely used,
and instruments such as trumpets and drums would have been used to set the rhythm for
marching and, likely, shooting arrows. That said, a lord or captain in charge of
a wing or a smaller unit would be expected to have a degree of autonomy. You can’t
wait for orders. This autonomy would trickle down to the individual. Many battles were
won and lost on the back of a few men who charged in at the right – or wrong – moment.
This would apply to archers as well, as a single archer would be expected to mark and
shoot a target without being told what to do, and without a flashing green marker somewhere
above. That said, even with the signalling methods
used at the time, it would not be hard to imagine how a group of archers could be synchronised.
So, it is possible to shoot in massed volleys. But did they? There are many reasons to assume that volley
shooting was not used. Some of the common ones are that a formation
of archers would have to shoot at the speed of the slowest man. It would have been impractical
to have archers hold at full draw for a single loose command. Long range arcing arrows are
less effective from that angle than direct shooting. A steady stream of arrows would
be more effective than predictable volleys. Some have also pointed out the lack of historical
sources and illustrations that show bows being aimed upward. Historian Mike Loades, in his book “The
Longbow”, raises some interesting evaluations of the use of the English longbow. He point
out that the term “volley” is ambiguous. Historic accounts often describe volleys of
arrows or depict arrows as a rain. However, rain is…constant. When you have thousands
of archers on the battlefield, there is going to be thousands of arrows in the air. This
doesn’t necessarily mean that they were shot in massed volleys. There’s also the argument that shooting
long-ranged volleys was ineffective and a waste of resources. While the English longbow
had an effective range of around 250 yards, historical descriptions of battles seem to
indicate that most of the shooting was done under 80 yards. One thing we need to remember
that an English war bow had a rather flat trajectory, so in this role the archers were
using direct shooting, again implying that they were not shooting in volleys. Arab Archery also makes a similar comment,
with the range of approximately 80 yards also being the distance where the arrow will not
go higher or lower than the point of aim, and that an archer who engages beyond the
distance is committing a mistake. At these distances and closer, direct shooting
is more effective if archers were to shoot at their own speed rather than await a command.
Individual shooting also allows an archer to spot their own arrow, and engage targets
more accurately when the fighting reaches close quarters. So if direct shooting was more effective,
were long-range volleys used at all? Yes. The accounts of the Battle of Agincourt
describe the English archers opening the battle with long-range volleys to entice the French
into battle. Generals in the Tang dynasty of China used a formation in which crossbows
would shoot in volleys and rotate to reload. We should also consider that there are prescribed
aiming methods for long-range shooting, using “underhand” with the target below the
arm, as taught in English archery and similarly described in Arab Archery. Long-range shooting would have been used in
many battles out of necessity, especially with enemy archers shooting at you. Given
that archers generally load and shoot with similar speed, they would effectively be shooting
in what we consider to be volleys with some staggered effect, even though they might not
have been specifically commanded to do so. What do we need to consider when saying yay
or nay? Firstly, our audience tends to be biased towards
English longbows and its historical record in war. Remember that not everyone used 150lb
war bow. We also have to consider other kinds of bows, some of which have a short direct
fire distance and probably would have been used for skirmishing. Of course, when we think about horse archery,
completely different tactics were used. Volley shooting would be far more difficult and far
less effective on horseback and with the bows used. Horse archery techniques tend to favour
hit and run, such as the Parthian tactics and those used by the Scythian tribes, or
the Cantabrian circle, in which the riders would continually shoot arrows at an enemy
formation as they rode past. I’d also question whether our interpretation
of how volley shooting was commanded is too rigid. The argument that an archer could not
hold at full draw would not be valid if the archer was never required to hold at full
draw. In our minds, we have the “ready-aim-fire” process, which in archery might be “Nock!”
“Draw!” and “Loose!” And while it’s true that you can’t stop and wait, it’s
not inconceivable that a command might be something like “Archers, nock!” and “Archers,
loose!” You can still execute a volley without holding onto the shot for the length of a
Dragonball Z episode. Finally, what can we conclude about volley
shooting? I think that sufficient evidence exists to
show that volley shooting was something that was practiced and used in warfare. Even today,
the archery discipline of clout shooting has its roots in this style of archery. I think that a volley, whether intended or
not, is likely to be something done to open a battle. The mistake that we make in looking
back is that we think of archers only shooting in volleys. It would be a reasonable assumption
that as the battle progressed and the distance closed, archers would shoot on their own accord. In fairness, we shouldn’t say that archers
always shot in volleys or never shot in volleys. Volley shooting was something that was historically
likely to have been done, but unlikely to be the dominant method of using a bow in battle. This is NUSensei. I hope you found this interesting,
and I’ll see you next time.

Only registered users can comment.

  1. I think the only movie that drew the bow for as you've said; 'as long as a DBZ episode' was necessary is Gladiator. The scene where Commodus had the two men executed while being in between them.

  2. Shooting in volleys would carry the perhaps unintended psychological advantage of making it so the individual archer lost track of his arrow. Considering how we have studies showing that even modern day soldiers have a tendency to "aim high" due to the natural human instinct not to kill other people, this would be massively beneficial to the psyché of the average archer in battle. "Maybe that killshot was mine, maybe it was that guy next me". "That stray arrow that hit one of our own in the back was probably someone else's arrow".

    Losing sight of your arrow could be a disadvantage as well, as the individual archer has no way of correcting their aim, and have to rely exclusively on intuition and muscle memory to shoot accurately at varied distances.

  3. The only problem with direct shooting is that you cant have the archers in ranks, because they cant shoot through each other or your other troops. When you have 1000 archers or even 250 they would have to be in a very long thin line in front of your other troops, meaning in EVERY battle you would be losing lots of your highly trained poorly armored archers trapped between the enemy and your soldiers when the melee started.

  4. Of course there was Volley fire. How else could the Persians have
    fired enough arrows to block out the sun so the Spartans could fight in the shade?

  5. "Given the length of the front and the numbers it had to accommodate it is likely that the English positioned their longbow men in wedge-shaped formations. The wedge or harrow-formation was varied in order to take account of the ground, but the majority of archers were on the flanks in an open V formation pointing towards the adversary. Placed in wedge-shaped ranks a thicker barrage of arrows was possible and this was a vital contributor to the outcome of the battle. Each longbow man carried two sheafs of 24 arrows. " http://www.longbow-archers.com/historycrecy.html

  6. Possibly volley shooting was meant to distract and disorientate rather than actually kill mass numbers, it would certainly slow an advance. You can't concentrate on your orders if there are arrows flying over your head! Also, a possible tactic, send a volley of arrows ( whistling arrows?) overhead to make the troops look up or defend overhead with shields then send another volley directly at them . Clout shooting must indicate the importance of being able to accurately drop an arrow onto a target at a set range.

  7. "The great weapon of Chinese warfare throughout its history was the bow. The most common weapon of all, skill in its use was also the most esteemed. Employed since the Neolithic period, the composite version arrived during the Shang dynasty (c. 1600-1046 BCE) and so became a much more useful and powerful component of an army’s attack strategy. Bowmen often opened up the battle proceedings by firing massed volleys into the enemy and then protected the flanks of the infantry as they advanced, or their rear when they retreated. Bowmen also rode in chariots and bows were the main weapon of cavalry." https://www.ancient.eu/Chinese_Warfare/

  8. Imagine keeping a 150-180 lb. warbow at full draw for 10 seconds. Fuck, that would be punishing to your shoulders!
    Given the fact that an individual archer didn't need to aim at a specific target during a volley, they could just release as soon as they reached full draw. It would also be unwise for commanders to tire their archers out needlessly while the enemy is still at a distance so it's likely that they just gave their unit a specific volley command that tells the archers to begin their shooting process, nocking, drawing, and releasing at their own discretion, saving their strength for situations when the enemy is at a reasonable distance.

  9. I heard that a well trained archer could have three arrows land in the target area almost simultaneously. One by firing at a higher angle and two subsequent shots at lower angles. Now this is just what I heard in a show obviously.

  10. Many movies and some games show the flaw of volley shooting, yet they still stubbornly use it. With volley shooting, marching soldiers have a clear window for turtling behind shields and they can march freely when the archers are reloading (for some reason, it takes so long). Doesn't make much sense to use a tactic that is so easily countered…

    If you think about it – but I may be wrong, just speculating – shooting a constant stream of arrows forces the enemy to defend at all times, which hinders them in few ways (reduced visibility, communication, probably movement speed and maneuverability).

    PS: apologies if it was covered in the video, wasn't paying that much attention at some parts 🙁

  11. Some interesting points you bought up their , they could have also used front rank ,2nd rank , rear rank type of shooting that way keeping the rate of arrows in the air 🤷‍♂️. It did work for musket shooting i.e. Front Rank Fire Reload , 2nd Rank Fire Reload you get the idea. What a terrible sight a 1000 arrows raining down on you 👍👍👍

  12. I wish I had gotten into archery when I was younger and didn't have arthritis in my hands. My nephew owns Striker Bows and wanted to make me a recurve but I wasn't interested at the time. They make some pretty cool stuff if you like that type of bow. 

  13. How much kinetic energy does a dropping arrow have? I think not very much. I guess a volley of arrows could have a psychological value in a battle, but not much else.

  14. Perhaps it was used as other mentioned as a way to force the other side to react, maybe move forward or backwards.

    Still, a volley of arrows will scare the heck out of most soldiers and I'm sure a few will be wounded since their shields are made of diamonds.

    Also wouldn't knocking an arrow be standard action for an archer. The equivalent of putting a bullet in the chamber? I would assume that an archer wouldn't just stand there waiting to a get a signal to knock since it doesn't really incur any serious cost to be 'pre-knocked'.

  15. I can see an advantage to the coordination of volley fire with the advance of infantry or cavalry.

    If the defensive line you are attacking is "shields up" to ward off high angle volley fire, they can't form a shield wall against an assault.

    If 2nd line infantry attempts to provide overhead cover for the 1st line with their shields, they wouldn't be able wield spears to support the shield wall.

    Intermittent fire allows the defender to decide or reject the risk of defending against plunging arrows, while volley fire forces the defender to act the way you want him to at a possibly decisive moment.

    Similarly, volley fire could be used to cover with withdrawal of infantry/cavalry by forcing your enemy to react to your fire (putting their shields over their heads for instance) rather than pressing their attack on your forces.

    I think this goes to show the multiple uses archers could serve in an engagement rather than saying they served in anyone role (direct fire, volley fire or melee combat).

  16. Zug Zug Nu! I have a question. What are the main differences in shooting with a rest, and shooting off the shelf?

    I noticed in a few of your videos some of your bows (especially your Sage) you opted not to get a rest, but instead shoot off the shelf. What are the pros and cons of each, and how do fletching and vanes interact with each?

  17. What's the supposed advantage of volley shooting? You only mentioned disadvantage but mentioned examples of it being done. Then you said that it was sometimes necessary but didn't explain how that necessity came to be. Further, I can think more disadvantages: When two arrows hit approximately the same spot, when they hit at the same time, one of them is guaranteed to be useless, but when they hit on different times, there might be a live and unwounded enemy there when the second arrow hits, regardless of whether the first one already hit someone there. But more significantly, volley shooting gives the enemy the advantage of knowing that your archers are not ready to shoot right after they did.

  18. I always wondered why archers needed some order for every shot for the exact same reasons you pointed out.
    But I still could learn something new. Thanks for another informative video.

    失礼が May I ask how your name is spelled in Kanji?

  19. One thing that can be considered is, what is do we know about how early firearms where uses.

    We have evidence showing that weapons often developed faster than tactics.

    As such we could assume archers may have acted in a similar fashion to Victorian infantry with the archers forming l
    Ranks and firing vollies by rank.

    For example the front rank would fire, then as they reloaded their weapons and readied them again the second then third ranks would fire.

    This would be repeated until the enemy was within range for soldiers to fire directly and accurately upon the enemy, at which point they would fire at will until they did not have time to reload, they would then either fall back to once again engage the enemy at range or resort to fighting using baenttes and swords.

  20. I must admit I do not practice archery nor have I researched historical warfare archery. But I would assume a possible and reasonable assumption about volley shooting and they way it could have been coordinated is a sort of trickle down effect with one experienced archer (or otherwise distinguished 'captain') leading the commands.
    The way I imagine a possible scenario is as follows:
    The captain waits for a signal via flag, drums w/e to sight the enemy frontline and loose the first arrow. This arrow could be potentially then be used as a range-finding indicitation for other archers behind him. The signal to start the volley for each individual squad would then be the first shot. The indicitation as to how high to aim and how far to draw would be the man in front or next to you for those who have obstructed vision to the front. After the first volley each archer would then begin firing at their own pace and based on their first shot resulting in an initial volley for shock value and a continuing stream of arrows thereafter.
    I do not practice archery so I might be talking out of my ass here, but do you think this could be feasible? Would basing your initial shot on the posture that the people around you assume be any use at all or just a complete waste of ammunition with a scattered and disorganized effect? (also why are you positioned with an obstructed view in the first place when that serves no purpose whatsoever?)

  21. I think it worked as a fireteam today. Over 100 m you wait for command. The officer or NCO won't ask to steady, ready or whatnot, just yells fire or identifies the target shortly and then fire. Under 100 meters you fire at will. The leader always has radio and a runner. If the radio fails, you still have a runner. Firing on command is instantaneous, most of the training is spent to instill the sense of coordination in the squad. You polish the boots with the same hand, same rhythm, march while always looking to align the whole line, even while turning. This kind of coordination can be learned. I'm talking about bigger confrontations, not patrols or something other. AND WOLOLO!

  22. Volley firing isn't really about hitting a target. It just has to land within the mass of troops. I believe volley shooting in battle was intended more to slow down and demoralize the enemy than to kill with each shot. I imagine the archers, once signaled, would shoot at will as fast as they could. As long as the arrows fall within the enemy ranks, the goal is achieved. I also think that a constant falling of arrows would slow enemy troops more than all archers shooting in unison. If I were an enemy soldier, I would find the randomness of 'fire at will' more scary than occasional unison volley. I am not a historian, just armchair theorizer. Take it for what it's worth, which may not be much.

  23. Makes me wonder — how many arrows did a typical archer (say, Agincourt etc) have on hand? People commonly trot out the number – 6-10s / shot, so lets just say 5 arrows per minute, or 50 arrows in 10 minutes. Its quite conceivable for an archert to have 50 or 100 arrows on hand, but .. several hundred? If a battle was going on for hours, could an archer keep shooting for that duration without their arm falling off? In these battles, with thousands of archers, and each one with a few hundred arrows .. if thats one hell of a load of arrows stuck in the dirt, ready to loose 🙂

  24. Volley shooting has nothing to do with direct, or indirect fire. You can shoot direct, in volley, or you can shoot indirect, out of volley. Volley fire is just everyone shooting at the same time, and it can be very effective, especially in its psychological effects on the targets.

  25. Speaking of archers in melee after reading some comments. I wonder if they were expected to know how to fight in melee. Also if any gear was actually issued to them besides bows and arrows. Such as, melee weapon, armor, boots etc. It's all too interesting.

  26. Contrary to popular belief, bows are not accurate weapons. It was hard enough to use them at all, especially the heavier draw weight variants, but hitting a moving target was pretty much impractical under battlefield conditions. Volley fire was the only reliable method of hitting anything with a degree of certainty. So yes, of course they used volley fire. I'm sure there were occasional skirmishers that would fire independently but they were the exception rather than the normal use of archers.

    Also arching fire was probably also rarely used due to how inaccurate it is. Firing directly at the advancing enemy in volleys would be how they would normally employ archers.


  28. I would add that siege battles would definitely use a volley strategy on any side that had archers available. If defending inside, archers on battlements would use volley to break apart any rush towards walls and then break into targeted shots to pick off targets that broke off, fell or were in retreat. Distance volleys will also keep a siege force at a further distance and introduce a certain amount of chaos. Outside, a volley of arrows into a courtyard will both do random damage to horses, structures and people while clearing defenders from exposed positions on battlements to cover a rush to the gate or walls. Targeted sniping will keep the battlements clear, followed by another volley to rain destruction and chaos on whatever is again moving into the open courtyards.

  29. 2:10 or the archers would notice their comrades getting ready to shoot and thus get the message to do the same (basically, it would sort of be like a domino effect).

  30. Also, battles are just one place where you would use bows and arrows.
    During sieges, guerrilla/irregular warfare, and other fights vastly different tactics would be needed.

  31. The points you make here have some backing in the scholarship around the battle of Agincourt.

    A guy who digs alot into that scholarship made a video regarding the arrows themselves : https://youtu.be/NTpOmpL4tMI

    Major point : The arrows meant for piercing armor would have shafts tapered from something like half an inch at the head, which made them a much more short ranged, direct-fire affair.

    Another video went over the expenses of arming a ship with crossbows, and a sheev of 40 bolts cost about twice as much as the actual bows. I doubt longbows and their arrows had a much better economy, frankly. Volleys of unaimed fire would have likely been extremely expensive.

  32. Thanks for the info.
    I especially appreciate how you point out that people today tend to look at video games, and movies as how things were done historically.
    At this point in my life, I don't yet shoot bows, although after I heal up from surgery, I intend to take it up.

    I've spent most of my 62 years of life in the military, and I've been downrange (I was in Baghdad, 2004).
    Most people don't understand the different types of weapons utilized in war, let alone the how and why for each.
    There are Standoff weapons, Medium Range weapons, and Close Quarters weapons.
    This isn't a hard and fast categorization however. Some weapons that are Standoff, can in a pinch be used as a Medium Range, or even (rarely) as a Close Quarters (Such as when Artillery is called in upon your own position. Called "Danger Close").
    So, flexibility exists as to how and why each weapon might be used.

    Back when Archery was king, there weren't many Long Range Weapons, except in Siege Warfare, the Trebuchet, etc.
    The Bow, however, at least as I see it in history, certainly would fill the bill as a very efficient Standoff weapon, especially if they were using Bodkins, the armor piercing arrow of the day. They would thin out your enemy very efficiently until the enemy was right upon them, which was when the foot soldiers would have to defend them.

    I apologize for being so wordy.

    Thank you again for the information.
    Do you know if anyone has done a test of riveted chain mail?

    Justin Maddox

    [email protected]

  33. It is pretty rare but not uncommon for armies to go for a volley shot due to the enemies who are pretty unpredictable. This is shown through cannon and mortar fire. Also this rare use is due to the fact that arrows take time to be mass produced and if the enemy is not in formations.

    It is only when the enemy does not do a direct cavalry charge that volley shots are able to be done as archers would be a vulnerable target. A one shot volley is different but it should be shoot at will commands during a volley shot to deter the enemy. Testudo and other shield strategies can counter those attacks which is also another thing.

  34. Even if the video is an older one… Volleys make sense for the "first" shot and than swap to "fire at will" so that the first Volley could stop/struggle enemys more than doing real damage. Maybe even use Arrows which do "sounds"… just due to common sense this feels right to me.

  35. I think in battles against well outfitted enemies volley firing would not be a good strategic choice. The predictiveness of the fire would give soldiers to enough time to hold their shields up and block some of the fire, where non simultaneous fire would offer the enemy soldiers no such power of prediction.

    That being said, there is an interesting reason why volley fire would happen spontaneously in some circumstances.

    If archers fired at enemies at their own will, the constant rain of arrows would just cause enemies to hold their shields up all the time. So firing at this time would be inefficient, so archers stop firing and wait for an opening. Because the fire stopped, enemy troops lower their shields. And this is when archers start firing again. This process repeats until it seems archers are firing in volleys.

  36. Maybe they did something like volley fire, because it could be used as an open fire… like you said in video.
    But the term volley came up later on with fire arms where it is needed. When you stay in formation with old style gun powder muskets or rifles, they produce a smoke cloud as soon as you fire. Because we are talking about old style gunpowder not modern nitro mixtures in rifles that burn with much less smoke and more power.
    But because of that smoke you had to aim and then fire all together because if you aim after your comrad next to you fires you can´t see anything anymore.
    Overall volley is a really good tactic in some cases, but mostly you would only waste arrows because the problem with volleys is that it is highly possible that one target gets hit by multiple arrows and those then stuck in one guy, while bullets even if multiple ones hit one guy, they hit through and the one behind him also gets hit with a bit slower bullets but still deadly…

  37. What I don't get is how we can't just fucking recreate these things today. We have everything we need to do it. Just get a bunch of guys with bows and have them get together to volley fire at a general area. ffs I want this to happen so bad. Same with cavalry charges. we could get a bunch of people together to train some horses to be ok with charging and smashing into things. then just have a bunch of people riding the horses and smashing into a big group of human sized / weighted dummies

  38. The main advantage of volley fire, as with early gunpowder weapons, is that it causes a rather large number of foes to get hit and fall on the ground in one moment, possibly breaking up a formation and creating gaps or stopping a forward moving force dead in its tracks.

  39. Or as my favorite historian states: "it's all determined by context, so take it with a grain of salt'

  40. It all depends on on what you're shooting at. If you're shooting at cavalry then yes to blunt the charge not kill the rider. But the only people in history to continually use cavalry as an opener were the French. Unless you're shooting at light armoured targets a volly is a waste of arrows.

    English and Welsh longbowmen were also infantryman as Well they would shoot shoot shoot and then charge in.

  41. It makes a lot more sense to shoot at will and allow every archer to fire at combatants as they would a target on a practice range.

  42. After playing a lot of total war games makes me question how archery used in war, is it realistic to volley arrow? This video gives some answer to the question regarding archery combat in war.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *