Arrows vs Shields

.matthew.

Well-Known Member
Joined
Jan 12, 2020
Messages
1,014
From an interesting little ongoing series on historical penetration testing (this is the 3rd episode but you don't need to see the first ones).


What do you folks make of it?

I have no reason to doubt the ingenuity of medieval bowmen who might wax their arrowheads, but surely if the waxed arrows had so much penetration, the shields would have been reinforced around the arm. By this I mean - while you couldn't as Tod says make the whole shield thicker - you could add a smaller piece in front of the arm, while only adding maybe 10% to the weight. That just makes sense and would probably help a lot (and as he points out, they weren't stupid).

The rest of the shield did, in fact, stop the arrows (catching them before they hit the person) so I'd say it did its job there.

While Tod is right about the shield needing to remain light for movement, I do think he may be overestimating how much freedom of movement men had in a line of soldiers all stood shoulder to shoulder. Also historically, shields were paired most often with spears and fought mostly against spears as well (rather than the single combat sword/shield where manoeuvrability would be most valuable).

This last one is an actual question for anyone who might know. Do arrows slow down near the end of their arc? (I'm thinking they weren't often shot at point-blank range)
 
Last edited:

sknox

Member and remember
Joined
Mar 25, 2013
Messages
1,579
Location
Idaho
FWIW, you don't necessarily need shields to stop arrows. Chainmail with linen padding did a fine job. Indeed, the really effective part was the linen, which is why this was provided for the war horse as well. I don't read deeply in military history, but I do know there are several accounts of mail stopping arrows in campaigns during the Crusades.
 

.matthew.

Well-Known Member
Joined
Jan 12, 2020
Messages
1,014
Yea, some of the other testing he's done indicates the same thing, but I think a lot of historical bows were more in the 120lb range (any higher than that would take a huge amount of strength to use in battlefield conditions). Plus I'm not sure about whether the speed decreases over the arc?

Either way, being hit at that speed, even without penetration would hurt a lot, and a shield could spare you a lot of injuries.
 

Overread

Searching for a flower
Joined
Aug 22, 2007
Messages
4,271
Location
Hunting in the woods
This last one is an actual question for anyone who might know. Do arrows slow down near the end of their arc? (I'm thinking they weren't often shot at point-blank range)

This is often one of the bigger debates/arguments/issues with a lot of videos on youtube about arrow penetration. Because almost all of them tend to focus on the idea of archers being very close. There's also the issue that most are firing direct in a line rather than arching the bolts/arrows downward ark. So the results might well have a bias though as to if arrows gain or lose power that's something I don't know. I'd assume they'd lose power on the up and gain on the down but by how much variation I'm totally unsure.

Your point about impact pain is a good one, much like how a bulletproof vest will still leave you heavily bruised and can disable you if you take enough hits/hits to the right place even if its not penetrated the armour. So if you were closing in even if you were protected a shield would likely leave your core body unharmed and your arm sore; whilst without it might be your chest and other critical areas that get very sore and bashed around which might disable you or cause you to weaken enough to be more easily taken out.
 

Venusian Broon

Defending the SF genre with terminal intensity
Supporter
Joined
Dec 7, 2011
Messages
4,958
Location
Edinburgh
I have no reason to doubt the ingenuity of medieval bowmen who might wax their arrowheads, but surely if the waxed arrows had so much penetration, the shields would have been reinforced around the arm. By this I mean - while you couldn't as Tod says make the whole shield thicker - you could add a smaller piece in front of the arm, while only adding maybe 10% to the weight. That just makes sense and would probably help a lot (and as he points out, they weren't stupid).

Depends what you mean by 'a little bit'. I believe early medieval shields would have generally had metal bosses that were first used to mount the grip (and also be used offensively of course!). Could 10% extra weight of wood, as you say, provide suffient protection? From what those arrows did, I personally don't think it would. Plus how does one add this extra protection at that point in the shield - a band of thick metal perhaps? Maybe a boss would have done the job? Also, how does one fashion more wood in that area and also make it a nice shield to hold?

On the other hand, perhaps it's one of those later medieval shields that really were there for show, because the owner had plate armour. Because plate armour is generally quite good at stopping arrows. Even at near point blank range.

The rest of the shield did, in fact, stop the arrows (catching them before they hit the person) so I'd say it did its job there.

I'm less reassured after seeing the video. Are you holding your shield at arms length? Then maybe such penetration of an arrow is fine. (Historical note, I'm pretty sure I've seen ancient Greek sources point out that people could get killed by arrows going straight through their aspis.) But why aren't you holding it closer to your body? Especially if it's heavy and it's your only real protection, it seems a more comfortable place to put your shield. Holding it at arms length would likely tire your arm quickly. Most of those arrows would have done something to the man holding the shield - perhaps not killed him, but as Overread says, just injuring someone a bit might make all the difference.




While Tod is right about the shield needing to remain light for movement, I do think he may be overestimating how much freedom of movement men had in a line of soldiers all stood shoulder to shoulder. Also historically, shields were paired most often with spears and fought mostly against spears as well (rather than the single combat sword/shield where manoeuvrability would be most valuable).

Depends doesn't it ;).

If your standing in line, a bit like Harold at Hastings, then, yes, your going to be locked in a shield wall, waiting for the enemy to come to you. They just stood there and William's archers fired at them (ineffectually at first, see below!) If you are advancing, you're unlikely going to maintain cohesion.

As for spearman were paired with spearman...really depends on who was fighting who and what they had. Looking at the English-Scottish wars for example, we Scots couldn't afford many fancy troops, so most of our army was spear/pikemen. The English essentially developed an archer/dismounted knight or men-at-arm type of army to combat it, after finding out their heavy cavalry was effectively neutarilsed by pikes.

This last one is an actual question for anyone who might know. Do arrows slow down near the end of their arc? (I'm thinking they weren't often shot at point-blank range)

Again...Depends doesn't it :)

Lots of enemy off in the distance, then firing directly at them, as if you were firing a bullet from a gun in a 'straight line', wouldn't work. The arrow would lose altitude and energy the further they were off - I believe this is what the archers in Hastings did at first, aiming squarely for the shield wall. Instead the archers would have had to shoot a volley in a parabola. Thus the arrow if aimed correctly, (from Physics 101!), it will have a high velocity as it came back down and entered the body of troops. Also, unless the body of troops were in testudo formation, arrows raining down render those shields useless.

Also remember that having height really made a difference - archers firing a volley up a hill in a parabola would have shorter range as the hill would stop the arrow at a lower velocity. Those above would get extra range and penetration power.

Clearly if the enemy were coming much closer, this sort of volley becomes ridiculous and therefore shooting in a direct line makes much more sense, I feel.

However if a mass of men were coming towards you, an archer at the distance shown in the video, how many arrows could you loose in the time it would take them to charge the distance between them and you?
 

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Supporter
Joined
Nov 23, 2002
Messages
25,083
Location
UK
Though I have enjoyed some of Todd's other videos, I'm a little wary of this one.

For a start, my impression is that longbows were used to shoot high and over distance - not horizontal at close targets like a gun. If his target was 200 yards away rather than 50 feet, that would have made better sense. Additionally, longbows were for providing a blanket cover - a rain of arrows on an approaching enemy - not for accurate close-combat fire. At the range Todd is shooting at, he'd barely get a couple of arrows off before a charging enemy killed him and any other archers near him.

I'm also suspicious about the shield - that looks more like something a knight on horseback would use, not infantry. In which case, it's small and light because the knight is already well-protected.

And what's with waxing his arrows? Was that normal? Despite his explanation, I couldn't help but feel it was a modern-day cheat for trying to get the most out of them retrospectively.

So, overall, though I've liked some of his videos, this one seems to emphasize the potential power of a weapon rather than it's actual historical application. Which is what a lot of YouTube videos seem to do.

Just my initial impression. :)
 

.matthew.

Well-Known Member
Joined
Jan 12, 2020
Messages
1,014
Depends what you mean by 'a little bit'. I believe early medieval shields would have generally had metal bosses that were first used to mount the grip (and also be used offensively of course!). Could 10% extra weight of wood, as you say, provide suffient protection? From what those arrows did, I personally don't think it would. Plus how does one add this extra protection at that point in the shield - a band of thick metal perhaps? Maybe a boss would have done the job? Also, how does one fashion more wood in that area and also make it a nice shield to hold?
You don't have to add it at that point in the shield, you'd add it during manufacture after seeing it was needed. I think an extra layer of equal thickness (so about 10% of the shield at a guess) would do a hell of a lot to mitigate penetration. Get some paper and stab through it until the knife gets wedged halfway out the other side. Double up the thickness and see how far you can stab it through then. Don't do this, it sounds dangerous, but the point is that after the arrows penetrated the shafts were stopped in the wood so the arrows didn't have enough power to mitigate doubling the thickness at that point. Plus even if they did still penetrate, the normal armour on the arm would have a MUCH better chance of catching the arrowhead or mitigating damage.

I had thought of metal, but at various points throughout medieval history, metal was expensive and of course heavy as well (but I suppose that would work better than wood).

I'm less reassured after seeing the video. Are you holding your shield at arms length? Then maybe such penetration of an arrow is fine. (Historical note, I'm pretty sure I've seen ancient Greek sources point out that people could get killed by arrows going straight through their aspis.) But why aren't you holding it closer to your body? Especially if it's heavy and it's your only real protection, it seems a more comfortable place to put your shield. Holding it at arms length would likely tire your arm quickly. Most of those arrows would have done something to the man holding the shield - perhaps not killed him, but as Overread says, just injuring someone a bit might make all the difference.
If arrows are coming in at (at most) a 45 degree angle, you would be holding your shield high, and with how your hand sits in it, you'd be taking the weight on your shoulder more than anywhere else, not holding it outstretched. In fact, with the way the shield is on the arm, it would stay about the same distance from your body unless you were letting it lean against your upper arm, which isn't how they were used. Yea, it'd take more strength to hold it up than down, but that doesn't really change the distance from your body as you're basically hinging your shoulder. If you hold your arm out like you were holding a shield up, the length of your arm from chest to the outer side of your forearm (where the shield sits) is quite a long way. For me, even throwing my shoulder as far back as I can, it's still 32cm (they penetrated 22 or something on the video if I recall). Now shorter arms, weaker shields etc might get you nicked up by the heads, but still better than taking one without a shield. Besides which, any body armour would (like the arm bit) negate any leftover penetrative power much easier.


If your standing in line, a bit like Harold at Hastings, then, yes, your going to be locked in a shield wall, waiting for the enemy to come to you. They just stood there and William's archers fired at them (ineffectually at first, see below!) If you are advancing, you're unlikely going to maintain cohesion.
It's my understanding (though I look forward to being corrected lol), that battles mostly took place over quite a long time compared to say the Hollywood versions and that charging headlong into an enemy wall was not exactly a favoured tactic unless you had massive numerical superiority or no other choice. Any rapidly advancing force as you say would lose cohesion, but a slow and steady shoulder to shoulder march would be much easier - and have less chance of causing your own men to rout on contact with the enemy formation.

Lots of enemy off in the distance, then firing directly at them, as if you were firing a bullet from a gun in a 'straight line', wouldn't work. The arrow would lose altitude and energy the further they were off - I believe this is what the archers in Hastings did at first, aiming squarely for the shield wall. Instead the archers would have had to shoot a volley in a parabola. Thus the arrow if aimed correctly, (from Physics 101!), it will have a high velocity as it came back down and entered the body of troops. Also, unless the body of troops were in testudo formation, arrows raining down render those shields useless.

Also remember that having height really made a difference - archers firing a volley up a hill in a parabola would have shorter range as the hill would stop the arrow at a lower velocity. Those above would get extra range and penetration power.

Clearly if the enemy were coming much closer, this sort of volley becomes ridiculous and therefore shooting in a direct line makes much more sense, I feel.

However if a mass of men were coming towards you, an archer at the distance shown in the video, how many arrows could you loose in the time it would take them to charge the distance between them and you?
High velocity on the down yes, but I'm wondering... well... "an object forced to move faster than its terminal velocity will, upon release, slow down to this constant velocity." Would the terminal velocity of an arrow have more or less force than one just fired like in the test? or is the terminal velocity faster than the 170ft/s?

Yea, I can see height difference affecting it a lot, and as you say, archers didn't shoot in straight lines - they'd run back and skirmish, or draw a different weapon if confronted at that range.
 

.matthew.

Well-Known Member
Joined
Jan 12, 2020
Messages
1,014
@Brian G Turner
Yea, the range is what concerned me about the test most. That and the angle - people and shields would be moving and likely not present a perfect straight-on hit (which massively increases penetration of all projectiles).

I think I'd trust him on the shield as it seemed reasonable in size to ones I've seen before and he does make historically accurate equipment for his career. Perhaps it was an early shield design or something, and bigger ones were used later because these didn't stand up well enough to massed arrows?

I'm not sure on the waxed arrows either. I imagine it was probably one of those things that was discovered, but maybe at a later time period. So we could be seeing a technique to increase penetration that was used to counter the larger later shields, being tested on an earlier weaker shield?

Edit: Or maybe they waxed them which was what led to heavier shields down the line?
 

paranoid marvin

Run VT Erroll!
Supporter
Joined
Mar 9, 2007
Messages
3,429
I guess there would be lots of different scenarios, sometimes you would be fired at from close range, sometimes further away, sometimes by crossbows or bows of varying strength (as the strength and accuracy of the bowman would differ).

As a soldier all you could do was protect yourself as best you could. No armour or shield was invulnerable, and nor was it intended on being. The best you could hope for was something between you and your flesh that would help deflect or minimise the damage caused. If you wear a shield and armour you are in a better position than if you don't.

I guess it's also partly psychological as an assailant you want to make pretty sure that you can put your intended victim down before you attack him. If you can't - or you're less sure - you may opt for a softer target.

It's also a case of rock/paper/scissor. the weapons and tactics improved and so therefore did the defence against them. There was a time when the English warbow was greatly feared and highly successful, particularly in the French campaigns, until the enemy came up with tactics to negate it.
 

svalbard

Well-Known Member
Supporter
Joined
Jun 28, 2007
Messages
2,456
'SHIELDWALL!'

Just thought I'd shout that out for no apparent reason.
 

Joshua Jones

When all is said and done, all's quiet and boring.
Joined
Apr 6, 2017
Messages
1,437
Location
Maryland
I'll give a few points here...

Regarding the terminal velocity question, it's my understanding that the terminal velocity of an arrow is rather less than the firing speed of the powerful bows used at that time, and especially than crossbows. And, as already noted, the likelihood of arrows striking at a 90 degree angle is pretty low, especially given how they were typically used. Further and also previously noted, he is REALLY close to that shield... historically, the archers would have put down their bows and drawn melee weapons by that point or perhaps, if already nocked, immediately subsequent to loosing a volley.

Regarding their historical usefulness against arrows, consider what Plutarch said regarding the testudo formation (emphasis mine):
"Then the shield-bearers wheeled round and enclosed the light-armed troops within their ranks, dropped down to one knee, and held their shields out as a defensive barrier. The men behind them held their shields over the heads of the first rank, while the third rank did the same for the second rank. The resulting shape, which is a remarkable sight, looks very like a roof, and is the surest protection against arrows, which just glance off it."
Granted, some of that may be exaggeration/propaganda, but when you consider 1. there are other accounts of the Romans losing which also affirm that the testudo provided exceptional arrow protection 2. the terminal velocity and angle considerations above, and 3. that the testudo formation had serious drawbacks in close combat, and was only truly useful for protecting from arrows, it seems fair to say, at at least that point in history, shields were rather effective at stopping arrows.

The question then becomes, did the bow technology improve more rapidly than shield technology? I don't believe there is a solid historical case to be made that it did excepting crossbows, which were nearly exclusively anti-siege weapons (some rare exceptions, of course). Ultimately, it was the firearm that obsoleted shields. It should be noted, however, that for soldiers using plate armor, shields became less defensive fortifications and more close combat impact weapons/parrying items.
 

-K2-

Well-Known Member
Joined
Jun 19, 2018
Messages
2,052
As an archer, I do want to mention something most of you likely know, though some might not realize. A bow's draw weight, the amount of pull required to bring it back to a standard anchor point...typically 28", doesn't mean anything regarding the amount of force it exerts upon release and transfers to the arrow. I've read English longbows were very efficient. Regardless, even the best longbows today, made with specialized materials aren't magical missile launchers.

Add to that, the day's arrows were heavy, I suspect they weren't all perfectly spined which affects flight and energy efficiency (meaning, how much the arrow flexes during starting acceleration and subsequently throughout the flight--matched to the bow, considering it's force/speed), likely lack of helical fletching (don't know, but doubtful considering how long it took to figure out rifling) and broadhead penetration was substandard compared to the scalpel-like versions today, even from an armor-piercing aspect considering materials and heat treatments...AND likely weren't as carefully matched considering the volume. And finally as you're all noting, it begins leaning more toward gravity+arrow weight regarding impact force.

Up close like in the videos, an arrow unless you catch it at a perfect point in its oscillation (which means at a precise staggered distance) is going to strike the target somewhat sideways _(_ .

arrow_1.gif


Just some food for thought.

K2
 

Overread

Searching for a flower
Joined
Aug 22, 2007
Messages
4,271
Location
Hunting in the woods
What this is likely highlighting to us is that arrows might well have historically been used to "pin" units down. If you're hunkering under your shield from a hail of arrows then its harder to move around. For some formations that were immobile it might even allow you to isolate or lock out of combat a specific block of infantry; letting your infantry focus on others.

Certainly there's a lot more to combat than simply killing power. If anything this might be a harder thing for many more modern people to grasp because films, games and books bombard us with certain concepts. For those of us who are not students of military history, these interactions are likely some of the first points of information so they define our first impressions.
 

paranoid marvin

Run VT Erroll!
Supporter
Joined
Mar 9, 2007
Messages
3,429
A lot is down to cost; how much money does it cost to train a knight, to armour him and to provide for his horses and retinue? How much time and effort has to go into all that one man? Who may be felled by an archer/crossbowman (or illness or disease) before he has even landed a blow. In comparison an archer is incredibly cheap. He's a commoner so his life is expendable, and although he requires feeding and perhaps arming he comes to the battlefield with a single task; to stand and draw and loose until he is killed or victorious. Plus the amount you have to pay/reward him (if anything) is negligible compared to the knight or professional soldier.
 

sknox

Member and remember
Joined
Mar 25, 2013
Messages
1,579
Location
Idaho
>A lot is down to cost; how much money does it cost to train a knight, to armour him and to provide for his horses and retinue?
In the case of many medieval European knights, costs were pretty low, for they were born by the family itself, and paid for out of the estate income.

That could change, of course, and did over time. By 1500 or so, the "impoverished knight" was common enough to be a stereotype. I'm not sure actual military costs were to blame there, however. Other costs, such as attendance at court or playing host to visiting nobles, could run up costs quickly. Moreover, any number of knights saw income go down through mismanagement, so it was a complicated algebra.

Costs weren't negligible, certainly. One thinks of William Marshal who was very much a standard-issue impoverished knight, who made his way early in life by working the tourney circuit.
 

Overread

Searching for a flower
Joined
Aug 22, 2007
Messages
4,271
Location
Hunting in the woods
Depends on the archer too - English Longbowmen were not dirt cheap either. You also had to pay for them outside of war time in order to ensure that they remained in good physical condition and training in order to be able to use a warbow when/if war came. Considering that they'd operate in companies that's a lot of men you have to pay in and out of war in order to keep the option open to you.

That was one of the attractions of the crossbow and later the musket - both were weapons that you could fast-train people up in when you needed them. Then when the wars were over you can collect in the weapons to store and send the people back to the farms and it doesn't matter if they don't train over that time. So you don't have to keep paying them.

The other bonus was that you could get fresh troops with a crossbow or musket; with an highly skilled archer you didn't just have to think about paying one archer. You had to think about the next generation who were to replace them once they grew too old to fight; or if they are injured in battle.
 

.matthew.

Well-Known Member
Joined
Jan 12, 2020
Messages
1,014
I'm not sure if they ever paid people to learn the bow. I think it was just a law.

I know for certain there were laws concerning what arms and armour a man was supposed to own dependent on his assets, so it makes sense for the bow as well.

If that was the case, and bearing in mind that a longbow is actually a fairly cheap object that could also be used for hunting, it's not unreasonable to assume that they were very prevalent across the land.

The crossbow, despite its fast-train, was vastly more expensive, and medieval rulers weren't known to have much concern for the peasants time. It's much easier to believe they ordered men to train hard than it is to buy they parted with all that money.
 

sknox

Member and remember
Joined
Mar 25, 2013
Messages
1,579
Location
Idaho
>You also had to pay for them outside of war time in order to ensure that they remained in good physical condition and training in order to be able to use a warbow when/if war came.

Do you have a source for this? I agree with .matthew. that it was law--at least from Edward III on. I believe there was a statute about a certain number of days of training (without saying who did the training), and who in village (gender and age range) was to be able to turn out when called.

WRT crossbows, both Genoese and Catalans were famous for their skill with the weapon, and both hired out as mercenaries. I'm pretty sure no one paid for their training. The Catalans, at least, were noted for being able to maintain their weapons, which required both tools and skills.
 

Overread

Searching for a flower
Joined
Aug 22, 2007
Messages
4,271
Location
Hunting in the woods
I'd always heard the argument in general tv programs that the long term cost was one of the key differences in terms of upkeep of the army during periods of peace. It might be that there were other aspects of upkeep that sort of get simplified into a "cost" line when it was actually closer to training and such. Law is law but who is going to be paid to enforce that law etc... Also I'd note that the strength to use a longbow for a few shots to hunt and the strength to use one in a fast volley are different.
 

.matthew.

Well-Known Member
Joined
Jan 12, 2020
Messages
1,014
It might pay (no pun intended but it's staying) to remember that in that era, standing armies weren't really a thing. Many rulers would have a small retinue of knights and a few men-at-arms but for the most part, wars were fought through conscripted levies.

If you want something further to think about here, during the medieval period, even huge castles were often guarded by only a handful of soldiers. Even in times of war, there are reports of 30 man garrisons standing up to a siege, with many garrisons consisting of single figure numbers.

Each local lord would then be responsible for ensuring they could provide the ordered amounts of men when called up, and they would have appointed functionaries from the local villages to get the people ready. All under threat of fairly brutal (by our standards) punishment.

Medieval law was all about obligations and hierarchy, so a king (in this case Edward III on) would just give the order and those below would carry it out. I doubt it was a perfect system by any stretch, men could beg out of it or make excuses the same as today.

A question though. If you personally were to know that you would likely see a war in your lifetime, would you rather practise with the bow and serve in the relative backline, or would you prefer to be in the front line being poked by spears? Not to mention not wanting to incur the wrath of your lord for refusing.

One further note, after this law was made, archery became a very popular hobby/sport in England. People would be respected for their skill and local events would feature archery competitions etc.
 

Similar threads


Top