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Did medieval armies really use fire arrows ?

Posted on Sunday, 12 June, 2016 | Comment icon 14 comments

Real-life fire arrows were not as effective as in the movies. Image Credit: Ecole Rhenane
It's a form of attack used to great effect in movies - but did real soldiers ever actually use them ?
From Braveheart to Game of Thrones, archers have long been seen dipping their arrows in to a flammable liquid, setting them alight and raining fiery death down upon their enemies.

According to YouTube historian Lindybeige however, the whole idea of setting your arrows on fire before sending them flying towards someone is fraught with problems.

Perhaps the biggest problem of all is the fact that modifying an arrow to be able to stay on fire for the entire time that it is flying through the air significantly compromises its effectiveness as a long-range weapon - in particular its ability to pierce a target and to travel far enough to hit someone.
Wrapping an arrow in some sort of cloth and setting it alight is also likely to do more damage to the archer's hand than to whatever it eventually hits and making the shaft longer to compensate will simply make it too heavy and too fragile to be a useful weapon during battle.

Perhaps the only time fire arrows could be helpful is in naval combat where a carefully aimed arrow might be able to set the sails of an enemy vessel on fire or blow up a powder keg.

Overall though, these deceptively unintimidating weapons were most likely only used under certain conditions to pester and distract enemies rather than as a staple weapon during large battles.

Source: Gizmodo | Comments (14)

Tags: Fire Arrows

Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #5 Posted by Leto_loves_melange on 13 June, 2016, 5:14
Suggesting that medieval and even classical armies didn't harness fire as a weapon is ridiculous. The Byzantines used Greek fire that would have had to been ignited from a safe distance... seige equipment was fire proofed to protect against it and boiling oil used. Ingenuity was not an absent commodity on a battlefield and neither was fire.
Comment icon #6 Posted by Sundew on 13 June, 2016, 10:26
As the saying goes, "All's fair in love and war" and I suspect they used whatever was available and worked, fire included. They also used biological warfare if the stories are true, lobbing dead bodies of animals that had died of plague or other diseases over the walls of the enemy. Sadly, mankind has been very good at making war against his fellow man for a long time. 
Comment icon #7 Posted by Hammerclaw on 13 June, 2016, 11:36
After a century of huddling under the safety of electric lighting, we've forgotten how pervasive and consuming is darkness and the night. Even today, night battles are the exception and attacking at dawn not a cliché. One needs light to see one's enemies or technology to see in darkness, at the infantry level, even now, the exception, not yet the rule. Clear skies with a full moon were and are a treasured commodity. Fire, whether launched with arrows or a trebuchet, was used only when it served a purpose. 
Comment icon #8 Posted by Astra. on 13 June, 2016, 12:41
I'm not sure if I totally agree with the article. Wiki certainly says differently. Flaming arrows, bolts, spears and rockets 
Comment icon #9 Posted by CJ1983 on 14 June, 2016, 17:28
I thought flame arrows just served a specific purpose like setting homes, churches, and towers aflame. Just lob it up top, no need for an epic distance shot. I doubt shooting armor was ever intended with a fire arrow. Lighting of the arrow is not done with the hands, it's wrapped in fibers, dipped in some type of flammable oil, then lit with a torch or brazier nearby.
Comment icon #10 Posted by paperdyer on 15 June, 2016, 19:14
I have to agree that a flaming arrow wouldn't be very accurate or a distance shot.  You'd be looking to hit the broad side of a barn to set it on fire.   These debunkers.  Next they'll be telling us that Green Arrow's trick arrows wouldn't work either.
Comment icon #11 Posted by Jungleboogie on 15 October, 2016, 2:41
I recall reading that fire was a weapon used to devestating effect by Master Sleeping Dragon in the Chinese epic Romance of the 3 Kingdoms, long before medieval European archery took its turn.
Comment icon #12 Posted by third_eye on 15 October, 2016, 3:18
hmmmm .... ~   ~
Comment icon #13 Posted by unclefred on 15 October, 2016, 16:34
Also, we all know from the movies and television that longbow archers were actually 110 pound girls and women.
Comment icon #14 Posted by third_eye on 16 October, 2016, 15:50
Its not simply setting an arrow alight ... the strategy involves knowing the terrain ... the weather ... the season ... which way the winds should be blowing at what time with great preparation ... the most applicable point raised may be that it is in effect more related to psychological warfare ... shock and awe ... very effective against mounted war horses and the cavalry ... ~

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