Fire-arrows!
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Fire-arrows!

August 10, 2019


Oh, fire arrows. I’m going to have to make another video about these soon. lin-dy- uh.. oooh… yea… maybe it is time I made that video. Fire arrows! Fire arrows. They’re just so cool, aren’t they? You’ve seen them in the movies and they look like laser guns! Can you think of any ancient technology that would make it possible to light this many fires all at once, and this quickly? You’d need radios for a start. They must have used them in battles, didn’t they? I mean, they look like laser guns. There’d be people being shot with this fire and pss, burning and aaah! They must have used them, right? Right? Yeah? No. Sorry, but no. And this video is about why they didn’t shoot fire arrows in battles in the ancient and medieval world, and why it’s actually a bit of a silly idea. Uhm, now then. What I’m going to do is I’m going to show you this candle and I’m going to ask you to imagine what might happen if I go: pfffffff on this candle. Uuuuuh, what’d you think is going to happen? Make your prediction now. pffffff Were you surprised? No. Well, nor should you really be surprised that if you stick a bit of a fire on the end of an arrow and then load that into a warbow and draw it right back and let it go then the pffffff that that arrow gets as it’s shot through the air is just going to blow out the flame straight away. I had a look on the web for some copyright free images of fire arrows and was amused to see these pictures of the Purbrook Bowmen shooting a volley from South Sea Castle. To mark the opening of the new Mary Rose museum in 2013. This picture shows that one arrow lost its flaming mass almost immediately. And this arrow seems to be being snuffed out having gone about a cubit. But there are three solutions to this problem. Okay, let me take you through them. Solution number one. Big fire! A really big, blazing fire, like a torch with burning pitch or something on the end of the arrow. So that it’s just such a blaze that you couldn’t blow it out. Even shooting it from a warbow is not going to blow it out. Yep, that’s possible. You could do that. Uh, but there are some problems. One problem for instance is that you stick your blaze on the end of an arrow and then you draw back and… ow! you’re burning your hand and your bow. Oh, but that’s all right. That’s a soluble problem. What you can do is just make the arrow a lot longer. Now this is a reconstruction fire arrow. You can see this, this is the fire cage style, and it’s got a cage there for containing the fire and a spike on the front. And the arrow head is very long. This one is over 6 inches and there are much longer examples than this. So what you can do is you can make the arrow so long that it doesn’t in fact burn your hand and bow when you draw it back. Fine. And you can put so much metalwork on that it doesn’t burn through the arrow either. Okay, that’s two problems solved. Terrific. Now it will work, right? Ah… well… No, because if you shoot it, the shaft will break. Because you put so much extra weight on the end and you’ve made the shaft longer, which makes it bendier and easier to break, that it’ll break. That’s okay, that’s a soluble problem as well, because you can make the shafts thicker and stronger. Okay, so you’ve got an extra long, extra thick arrow with a big weight of burning pitch at one end of it and a load of extra metalwork. This is going to be an extremely heavy arrow. But: it’ll work! You can twang it and it will get to its target still burning. And you can go to your officer and say: “Sir! Sir! Sir! I’ve invented an entirely new form of arrow! It’s going to be revolutionary, sir!” And he’ll probably say something on the lines of: “Really, Atkins, what excellent news! We’re always looking for new military technology. Now then, let me think. Arrows, eh? Well, what we really like about arrows is that they go an awfully long way, terrific range, arrows. And uhm, they’re so penetrating. They, they, they, they penetrate into the Frenchmen and do them in. And that’s what we like about arrows.” “Ah… Can’t but help think, sir, that you’re likely to be disappointed with my new innovation.” Oh dear, Well, it does improve the penetration and range of the arrow, I take it?” “Uh, no, very considerably… the opposite of that, sir, I’m afraid.” “Oh dear. Well, back to the drawing board with you. I want arrows that go a long way and penetrate Frenchmen.” Now. If you’ve got an extremely heavy arrow, it’s not going to go very far. And if you’ve got a big head on it that’s not specifically designed for penetrating armour, then it’s not going to be as good as one that’s for instance a lot smaller and specifically designed for penetrating armour. Uhm, so. It’s very likely NOT to penetrate armour. So an arrow ‘d come along. Shhh-ponk, tonk. Land on the ground and probably won’t bother him all that much. But he could sort of kick it to one side or stamp it out if it, you know, the flame near him really is bothering him. But perhaps it does stick in his armour. Neeeaaaa, shhhhtonk. “Oh, au, uhm… mine’s uhm, mine’s on fire. My… my arrow’s… is yours on fire? Mine’s on fire. You know, even through my armour, I can feel this. It’s really getting quite hot. Ow.. it’s really getting… ow!.. It’s really getting quite hot.. oh.. pull it..? Oh, right, yeah, you can just pull it out and then…. oh uh, that seems all right now.” No one is going to just stand there until they burn to death, are they? Even if an arrow is on fire and it hits someone, it’s not going to penetrate nearly as deeply, and uhm… it’s just not going to burn them to death! It’ll be a little bit like… a little bit of that and you’ll be fine. So, they’re really not very effective in open battle, are they? But there is a second solution to the problem, and that is: You heat the arrow up. Get it really, really hot so it’s glowing orange and then shoot that. It would still have to be a little bit heavier, because you’ll need a bit more metalwork at the front, but it won’t have to be anything like as heavy as the first design. Okay! So… Let’s shoot one of those and will it be as penetrating? No, because the head won’t be anything like as hard, will it? Because you’ve just heated it up. Will it actually be all that hot? Well, it’ll be cooled quite a lot by being shot through the air. That’s an awful lot of pfffffffffff taking the heat out of the arrow, but it still might be hot enough at the other end to set fire to something. What about rate of fire? Well, rate of fire is really going to be dismal, isn’t it. Because, There are all the archers, they’re just waiting around with the arrows in a forge. Some of these guys working the bellows and uhm.. “Is it ready yet? No…” And eventually: “Okay, that’s ready for shooting.” And… Twang! and then we do another one. Now of course, you can have relays of guys. You can have archers at the front just shooting, and relays of guys running backwards and forwards with bellows and with hot arrows and so forth, but why not just have all of those guys shooting arrows? Wouldn’t that be better? Your rate of fire is going to drop through the floor. Now, they did have mobile forges that could be set up in the field, but are you going to set them all up in the right places? And how many of them are you going to need to supply your whole army during a battle? And just how many arrows can you heat up all at once? Your rate of fire is going to be very, very inefficient. And uhm, at the other end, it’s not going to be so penetrating and of course, You’re also going to uhm, sterilize and cauterize every wound that you cause to the enemy. Which is rather nice of you. No, it’s not really terribly practical. All right, uhm, solution number 3. Chemistry. Yes, what you can use is some sort of chemistry to come up with a mixture which, once you’ve set it off, you may have to ignite it, has its own internal chemical way of generating heat and perhaps carries oxygen within it, and so forth. and so that can, that can burn very rapidly and hotly and will actually not blow out and will land at the other end and perhaps set fire to something. And yes, we have reason to believe that that’s what they did. Now, in the late medieval period, of course, they had gunpowder. [Roger] Bacon was writing down his recipes for gunpowder in the twelve hundreds. And uhm, we know that in the late medieval period they had cannons. They definitely had gunpowder, so they could use a gunpowder-like mix to create something chemical that could actually do the job. But there are still problems. One problem is that, if you make it so that it burns really, really hot, so that it stands a really good chance of setting fire to something, it’ll ssshhh, burn far too fast. So you, “It’s off, it’s going, it’s going, it’s going! shhh oh, it… oooh…. no, I wasn’t quick enough. Sorry.” So what you want is something that’s going to burn quite hot for a while, and then in contact with whatever it is, it might set fire to something. Now, if it lands and hits a wooden building, say. Tsomp, and goes shhh, in a quick flare, it’s very unlikely to set fire to anything. You want it to stay hot next to that building for a reasonable while. And reconstruction fire arrows have been made that burn for about a minute and a half. Which is about right. But it’s still not a blaze. It’s just sort of a smouldering, embering, smoking, quite hot thing. Which is still pretty unlikely to set fire to anything. How unlikely? Well, that experiment has been done. People have made lots of fire arrows and have shot them into flammable things and have found that about 2% of them set fire to something. Yep, there’s a 98% failure rate. And don’t forget of course all the arrows that miss. But of those that hit, about 2% success rate. So that’s pretty dismal, isn’t it? In open battle, fire arrows are a stupid idea. But, in sieges and naval warfare, it’s not the same. You see, immediately before an attack, you could shoot loads of arrows into a town or castle, and some of them, if you shoot an awful lot in, some of them might actually set fire to something. And of course, the people inside the castle or city or whatever it is, they don’t know which 2% is going to set fire to anything, so they’re going to be rushing around, making sure that fires don’t get a grip. ‘Cause once a fire of course is, you know, blazing away, then it’s a big problem for the defenders. But it’s extremely easy for them to put individual arrows out. Most of the time you could just pick one up and just put it where it’s not going to do any harm, in the middle of the road or something. It can just smoulder quite happily there and do no one any harm. But, you are using up manpower, so you’ve got loads of guys running around, putting out fires instead of defending the walls. So, that’s one use for a fire arrow. To denude the walls of defenders slightly. And of course in naval warfare, there’s a chance that you might set fire to some rigging and do a ship a decent amount of harm, but again, they’re probably just going to put everything out. But as long as they are forced to go to the effort of putting everything out, you’re still sort of using up their military resources, so what you’re doing is not completely a waste of time. And of course, if you’re shooting burning things through gunports onto a ship that has gunpowder weapons on it, Yeah, that could be really inconvenient for the enemy. So. Fire arrows. No, they didn’t use them in open battle, that’s a stupid idea. There are a few different designs of them, and uhm… Oh, I think I’ve said my bit, really. Closed Captions: ErianDragonborn.

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  1. Fire arrows are quite well known in ancient China. They use gun power with a fuse, similar to how firework works. While it seems stupid in medieval time, it's pretty effective in China as majority of the structures in ancient China are built using wood instead of stone. Moreover, the ancient China armors for troops have a lot of flammable cloth parts in them.

  2. Incendiary explosive on the arrowhead…. could work? Just light a fuse and shoot the arrow normally. It sticks to something and is few seconds sets up in flames.

  3. The innuendo in this is making me uncomfortable. "6 inches", "thick long shaft", "a big head"? Come on…

  4. What about a dangling lit lightweight rope fired on the end of your arrow intending to light dry tinder or thatched roofs or canvass carriage covers ?

  5. What about sending a volley of accelerant arrows first to douse a target in some quick burning fuel… then send heated arrows second? The accelerant arrows could have glass tubes of fuel that shatter on impact…

  6. Always figured "Fire arrows" were more designed to set fire to the enemy battlefield than pick off individual soldiers. Moot point now I guess…

  7. After he blew out the candle I was like "oh… wind from firing it at the speed of an arrow, which is fast as fuck"

    And thus I was right

  8. “Sometimes cotton, tow, or the like substance, previously mixed with pitch, rosin, oil, or naphtha, was wrapped on the end of an Arrow, in the form of a ball”.“Which ball, when in use, was fired, and the Arrow directed towards the wooden towers and engines of the enemy; where sticking firmly, communicated a flame to every part near it. This was used with great success in naval expeditions”

    -Walter Moseley, An essay on Archery ,1792

  9. Movie makers have been shooting fire arrows for decades. Full time medieval generals probably figured it out.

  10. Hi so I know I missed the train so… Any way the subtitles said "fire arabs" and not "fire arrows"… Just wanted to let every body know to not take the subtitles serious.

    Thank you for your listening

  11. Fire arrows are very useful against extremely flammable stationary targets. Like gasoline-soaked wood. At a distance of five feet.

    Also, ‘penetrate frenchmen’ is the funniest thing I’ve heard all week.

  12. I HATE YOU! Why oh why did you destroy the myth of FIRE ARROWS. I've heard vague rumors, which I don't believe. You better not do a vid on the tooth fairy or santa🤣🤣🤣🤣

  13. i just discovered you're channel, you seem like someone who would be great to have a drunk chat with.

  14. Couldn't fire arrows be used as a visual aid to direct their archers aim.

    Ya! You see that fire arrow we shot over there. Shoot in that direction.

  15. "Fire arrows….. they must have used them right? Right? RIGHT???….No!"………………."here's a reconstruction of a fire arrow"

  16. Fire in general is difficult to make work in war. The only confirmed uses of fire in pre-flamethrower warfare, to my knowledge, were in naval battles and siege engineering. The Greek navy used their chemical mixture "Greek fire" to burn enemy ships, battles on the Chinese coast could involve derelict ships being ignited and physically shoved into an enemy fleet to force them to break formation, and fire in general is useful in breaking sieges, both as the attacker and the defender (Lindy has described as much in several videos). There is an unconfirmed use of fire arrows used by an army trained by Sun Tzu to spring a trap — the enemy army had supposedly wandered into a field doused in flax oil, and the fire arrows would ignite the oil. There are also unconfirmed uses of special arrows that replaced the usual arrowhead with a "cage" to hold hot coals (as seen in Lindy's video), to light an army's supplies or a building's thatch roof on fire.
    In general, all of these techniques had one obvious drawback: the enemy can fight any fires you set. And if you're lighting a fire from far away, you are using less fire (it's just sadly unavoidable), giving the enemy more time to fight a smaller fire. Without a flamethrower, ancient armies simply could not output the kind of fire to kill their enemies with the fire itself. Rather, fire was one weapon to be used alongside swords, spears, arrows, and all the other weapons an army or navy normally uses

  17. Nice video! What about using them for lighting signal fires or laying traps, like they did in Last Samurai? That's actually the only use I thought about when I read "fire arrows". Cause, in a siege, as you said, they won't set fire to much stuff, so you could get the monks or women do the extinguishing. 😀

  18. Em…. mine's on fire, is yours on fire?

    I was told one of the uses for fire arrows was to signal a long line of archers when to shoot during a late or very early attack. The arrow would be fired sideways in front of the line. 2 possible reasons: 1- The line is too long to be heard all the way across and would spread the message faster than shouting. 2- No shouting means less chances of alerting the enemy and would likely pass as a shooting star to guards, making them a great target as they try to see it better.

  19. Have you done a video on the use of crossbows in warfare? It seems to me that a flaming bolt would do far better than a flaming arrow, what with the sheer force behind the bowstring in a crossbow.

  20. Fire arrows are ok in fantasy settings though. In a world with actual wizards its not far fetched that they somehow made fire arrows

  21. Could fire arrows be useful to defenders of a town under siege? if you have an enemy set up outside the walls in camps made up of cloth tents and the like maybe you could burn some of those down from within your own walls. Maybe even set some tents on fire at night while the enemy sleeps causing casualties

  22. I always figured that fire arrows would be used ina seige situation anyway. hitting a person with a fire arrow seems pretty ineffective but hiting their supplies or structures seems far more useful. Ive seen how fastand easy thatch will burn, especially since back then they kept thatch together with animal fats which will keep burning quite nicely. so a barrage of hundreds of flaming arrows into a town full of houses made of wood and thatch could cause quite the problem

  23. Flaming arrows were never designed for use against people. They were made to start fires on siege machines, sails, bulwarks.and buildings.

  24. A nice dose of reality, this.

    What about "hot shot," as were shot by cannon? Could a small slug of burning-hot iron be placed in a holder in the arrowhead before shooting? Or maybe molten glass instead of metal — it's lighter weight, quickly congeals to sufficiently solid to hold its shape, and might carry enough heat to set fires.

    How about the fact that some fuels, coal, for one, are not extinguished by an air blast, but are fanned by it and glow brightly. Maybe some mix of pitch and charcoal would behave this way, or maybe just coal?

  25. So, if you have 5000 archers, 2% of them cause fire, that makes around 100 arrows that would burn. Actually, pretty high chance.

  26. i see what you mean but fire arrows did exist they coverd them in cloth soaked with oil and fat and the resulting fire burned so hot/fast it does not go out when released from a bow even if it goes mostly out the oil/fat on arrow re ignites fire when it lands

  27. I reckon an arrow with Greek Fire or its modern equivalent, Napalm, attached to it would be more effective than any other version. But then again, it's much more effective to just lob the Greek Fire on or over an enemy's walls with a trebuchet when you're laying siege. The beauty of this ancient chemical concoction is it can't be put out by water alone. It has to be suffucated by sand or something the like.

  28. @lindybeige do you know about fire projectiles from catapults?
    Another common movie trope. Using balls of hay etc. Soaked with oil and lot on fire.

    Do you know if this was actually a thing ?

  29. What about leading the enemy into a trap where you've covered the battle field with flammable materials and setting the field a blaze around the invading army

  30. The heads were usually covered with some form of tar that would not extinguish with wind. Usually what torches were covered with. Also the main point was to light the surrounding areas or fortress on fire, not the enemies themselves. Lindy again missing the most obvious points.

  31. Fire arrows actually were used, but not very often. They were mostly used in naval warfare and sieges. They were inaccurate, slow to fire and their range was limited. However they were used, but not in open battle.

  32. What technology could light all these flames at once? Signal from a horn and braziers? The warbow's draw length was 32" to the ear, in order to use a fire arrow it's simply drawn to the normal 28" to the cheek which is maybe 15lb less and still very potent, more than capable of lobbing over walls. The English in the 100 years war could barely keep up with normal arrow production, I promise Eddie 3 wasn't having that pleasure/torture device you were holding mass produced, I'm sure they had much simpler methods. I'm fairly confident they mastered the art of the torch at that point, so shoving wool and pitch onto an arrow head and figuring a way to make it effective isn't a far stretch. Some actual testing would've been nice rather than speculation. Also, I do agree the idea of them being used in field battles is ridiculous.

  33. The only time I've seen in fiction a somewhat credible use for fire arrows it was setting thatch roofed cottages ablaze or something similar I don't think anyone has argued much for them used in a battle besides as a way to force the other side to deal with the spreading fires instead of fighting directly. But that's just my author's instincts speaking I'm sure there are film reasons for making arrows fire arrows because it looks cool.

  34. If an arrow is hot/ on fire and the frenchmens immediate response is to rip it out he has a far higher chance of bleeding out

  35. Gotta give Atkins credit for thinking outside the box though! What about the psychological effect, I bet Atkins would have come back with that argument for his invention.

  36. Molotov cocktail arrowheads? Little glass vial full of flammable oil and pitch fire behind the vial to somewhat protect it

  37. I was just watching a documentary on The Naval Battle at Actium and they said Octavians forces dipped arrows in oil to fire at the enemy ships and then used catapults to throw hot coals and pitch onto enemy ships to help ignite the blaze.. Is there any possibility some of that actually happened?

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