MEDIEVAL MYTH BUSTING - Arrows vs Armour

Ichon

Ad Honorem
Mar 2013
3,728
So you also believe in this fantastical magical disappearing steel that the English had. None of you people can explain why the hardened steel has disappeared from all of your "plate cutters" but can be easily found on extant compact broadheads. Try shooting plate with a hardened Type 16. It is just as good at punching through armour as the Type 10. The Type 10 was used on "byker" arrows. They were designed to harass and gall the enemy at range, which is why they were not "steeled". The Type 16 was used on heavier arrows at short range.
There is quite a bit of textual first source evidence that some arrowheads were hardened or had something done to them that we haven't found many examples of in the archaeological record so I wouldn't be that dismissive though I agree that the bodkin type doesn't make sense as an armour piercer.

Oscillation of the arrows... it doesn't seem to make a huge difference on the physics from what I know though I am not an expert there- all the hunters I know and most tests indicate the shorter the distance the better the penetration power of all arrows so saying that an arrow is oscillating and somehow takes away from ability to penetrate is just a reach when longbow proponents don't get the results they want in tests.

Without even getting into penetration via recreation simply tests measuring the speed and momentum of arrows shows a rapid decrease the further an arrow travels so any small oscillation is more than offset by the decrease in speed and momentum.

The more interesting aspects to me are what a literal arrow hail would do vs a charge of an armoured infantry line or even cavalry with decent protection for the horses. I definitely don't think it was the straight killing power of the arrows that provided most of the benefit though certainly they could and did kill- just not enough to stop the enemy on their own. Every English battle with longbowmen still came down to melee even when fighting unarmoured men and similarly Mongol and Turkic sources talk more about maintaining discipline and exploiting enemy by manoeuvre and charging in at the right time than simply standing off and launching volleys of arrows which would assuredly be the preferred method if that was all that was necessary.

I am not as familiar with Japanese, Korean, and Chinese sources though I've read translated experts that talk about how close range arrows and bolts were to actually penetrate armour/shields. The idea seemed far more about disrupting the enemy formations and forcing them to respond in some way allowing other arms to fight at their best.
 
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Jan 2019
21
Northumberland-England
So you also believe in this fantastical magical disappearing steel that the English had. None of you people can explain why the hardened steel has disappeared from all of your "plate cutters" but can be easily found on extant compact broadheads. Try shooting plate with a hardened Type 16. It is just as good at punching through armour as the Type 10. The Type 10 was used on "byker" arrows. They were designed to harass and gall the enemy at range, which is why they were not "steeled". The Type 16 was used on heavier arrows at short range.

If the plate quality was a "moot point" then why bother to bring it up? Apparently it only becomes a moot point after an ill-considered argument is dismantled with proper evidence.

Go back and read post #34 in this thread.
Well Dan, I did go back and re-read your post. I think you are comparing apples and bananas. The type 16's mentioned by David Starley had steel edges welded to the barbs/tip. The heads I'm referring to were case hardened, a much simpler process. The latter could be mass produced, while the former would take a skilled smith longer to produce. Henry V took 1.5 million arrows on the Agincourt campaign. Mark Stretton mentions in 'Secrets of the English War Bow' that the type 10's are the easiest heads to make, taking around 10-15 minutes. By contrast a broadhead is difficult to make. The one he details in the book is admittedly a large swallow tail, but the process is similar. He reckons 45 minutes to properly construct a broadhead. The smaller type 16 may well have taken less time, but add in the steel welding to each head and the times could be similar, or even more disparate, I'm no arrow smith.

Assuming this is the case, then a medieval smith working a 12 hour shift could theoretically produce around 48 Type 10's whereas if he was constructing broadheads, he would only able to produce a piddling 16 heads per shift. Even taking into account case hardening of the Type 10's, the imbalance in production time would convince any hard nosed Royal procurer that the bodkin was the way to go.

And taking your point that the only heads to show traces of 'steeling' were type 16's, then it's no surprise as case hardening is a surface treatment only, which would decay in time. Whereas the steel edge of the type 16 would in theory last much longer.
 

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
5,002
Australia
We have plenty of texts stating that the English had flight arrows. Inventories of the time include "byker" arrows (byker means to harass or irritate). Smythe specifically said that a fouth of each sheaf should consist of these arrows. Which head out of the ones we have in the archaeological record do you think they put on those arrows?

There were no arrowheads on the Mary Rose. All that remained was the rust outline of them on the surface on which they were resting. However, the overall shape of many of them could be determined from that rust pattern and around a quarter of them were some kind of bodkin with the rest determined to have been some kind of broadhead.

FWIW case hardening doesn't completely disappear in the ground no matter how thin it is. The process changes the crystalline structure underneath as well. Even if the hardened steel has disappeared it is still possible to tell whether it had been case hardened.
 
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Mar 2016
72
Germany
I think we should not become too restrictive on either side. Some remarks:

Bows in the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age and earliest Iron Age were not exactly longbows with the peculiar oval form or the D-form but flatbows. They were as long as the longbows, as high or higher than a human. Longbows were mainly found from the 1st c. BC onwards in Germanic regions. The average draw weight of these early flatbows (which were as main weapons of the time very very sophisticated bows) was beween 40 and 80 lbs, judging/guessing from reconstructions, perfect for hunting.

I think the heavy and increasing draw weight of the crossbows, recurve bows and self bows in the later medieval period had to do with an arms race. If penetration is no goal at all, there is no need to make bows ever stronger up to the utmost human body restrictions (up to 200 lbs seemingly), or make crossbows cumbersome and slow in case by insane draw weights. I think they wanted to penetrate armor. BTW the armor won the arms race.

So I think arrows were also meant to penetrate armor and humans even if some armor could not be penetrated for several reasons. Contemporary arguments from the 16th c. AD, when one of the big negatives of longbows was given as utter incompetence to pierce through pistol proof armor, would have made no sense if penetration was not one goal in archery. It is equally difficult to understand why sources about the battle of Agincourt mention the fear of French knights that the sides of their helmets and visors could be penetrated by arrows, as weaker parts of the armor, if penetration was of no interest for archers.

The sources about Agincourt are relatively clear that the archers shot for a longer time, during the attack by horse on them and during the advance of the French vanguard by foot (the strongest department), and also during the later melee of the French and English men-at-arms. It is quite probable that they shot volleys on longer distance and took sniping shots at close distance. They were a versatile force.

Casualty rates for Agincourt are difficult to come by. They rate from 1500 to 100000 French in the sources. 4000 to 5000 dead French were quite often mentioned. If we take into account that the battle seemingly lasted about 2 to 3 hours but was not all the time melee, that there were about 1900 English men-at-arms and 7000 archers, and that the French cavalry was about 500 to 1000 and the French vanguard which attacked about 5000 to 6000, then in the end a part of the 5000+ French men-at-arms fought against 1900 English men-at-arms. They formed densely packed columns to achieve this and reach the English flags, not a very wise move. If we give 50 dead horsemen during the cavalry attack (too much I think), then I doubt that the rest of the deaths of the French were only achieved by the front line of the English men-at-arms. Especially as only the English vanguard under York seemed to have had the most intense fighting (and most of the English casualties). I think many French were also killed by archers, with arrows and other weapons, later on.
 
Jan 2019
21
Northumberland-England
The majority of the English (and Welsh) archers were positioned on the flanks of the main body of men at arms, as well as a small force (200-ish) in a meadow/clearing adjacent to the French line on the Tramcourt side of the field. This smaller force was positioned without the knowledge of the French and would have shot directly into the sides of their vanguard. Both this small force and the main body would have been shooting into the sides of the French, giving some credibility to the claims regarding penetration of the sides of armour and visors etc.

Anyone interested in the development of the arrowheads under discussion should try to pick up a copy of Hugh Soar's 'Secrets of the English War Bow', in particular the chapter by Mark Stretton outlining the manufacture of military arrowheads during the medieval period. It was written in 2006, but it's still (in my humble opinion) one of the most informative on the subject.
 
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sculptingman

Ad Honorem
Oct 2009
3,671
San Diego
Very interesting. Tends to confirm the 'crowd crush' theory at Agincourt as opposed to the longbow legend.
The Crowd Crush was caused by arrows. Very few arrows killed or injured armored Knights- but on the muddy terrain, they DID bring down horses. Horses were not nearly as well protected as their riders.
Even a forest of arrows sticking out of the mud would cause horses to trip- or veer into neighboring horses. Once the horses started going down, there was a domino effect on the horses charging behind them, because the mud made it impossible to stop quickly.
as the horses went down the riders in their super shinny and slippery armor were tangled up in, and under the flailing hooves of heavy horses- with a smooth breast plate or back plate firmly pressed into the mud- the suction would have made it impossible for even the strongest knight to so much as sit up, much less stand and escape the field. ( Ever had a boot or shoe pulled off by the suction of mud? Now imagine lying in it wearing something even smoother weighing 60 pounds- like a suction cup on a glass window)
The Knights were injured by the horses- and those uninjured were stuck to the ground like rats in a glue trap. Henry's men on foot waded in and simply forced knives and bodkins between between the joints of knights who could do precious little to ward them off.

It was a blood bath because the common fighting men had never before had aristocrats helpless at their hands. Whereas Knights would have taken them hostage for lucrative ransoms- the common men had a chance to settle the score of a lifetime of bowing their heads to the armored extortionists of the aristocracy.
 

Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
3,008
MD, USA
I think we should not become too restrictive on either side. Some remarks:

Bows in the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age and earliest Iron Age were not exactly longbows with the peculiar oval form or the D-form but flatbows...
Oh? I had understood that Oetzi's bow (3500 BC) is roughly D-section, and pretty sure a number of Germanic and Scandinavian Iron Age bows are as well. Obviously that doesn't mean they have the same draw weights as later English warbows! Just nitpicking!

Matthew
 

Ichon

Ad Honorem
Mar 2013
3,728
I think the heavy and increasing draw weight of the crossbows, recurve bows and self bows in the later medieval period had to do with an arms race. If penetration is no goal at all, there is no need to make bows ever stronger up to the utmost human body restrictions (up to 200 lbs seemingly), or make crossbows cumbersome and slow in case by insane draw weights. I think they wanted to penetrate armor. BTW the armor won the arms race.

So I think arrows were also meant to penetrate armor and humans even if some armor could not be penetrated for several reasons. Contemporary arguments from the 16th c. AD, when one of the big negatives of longbows was given as utter incompetence to pierce through pistol proof armor, would have made no sense if penetration was not one goal in archery. It is equally difficult to understand why sources about the battle of Agincourt mention the fear of French knights that the sides of their helmets and visors could be penetrated by arrows, as weaker parts of the armor, if penetration was of no interest for archers.

The sources about Agincourt are relatively clear that the archers shot for a longer time, during the attack by horse on them and during the advance of the French vanguard by foot (the strongest department), and also during the later melee of the French and English men-at-arms. It is quite probable that they shot volleys on longer distance and took sniping shots at close distance. They were a versatile force.
Sure- armour was not 100% proof against arrows even when it was the fanciest plate available because of the eye slits, visors open to breathe, less armour in certain places, and the horses being overall less armoured. But it would take a relatively lucky shot to incapacitate a well-armoured knight though with 100,000s of arrows loosed I'd guess there were still quite a few lucky shots. Agincourt should be celebrated as much or more for the terrain and conditions and the placement of the archers on the flanks as well the French charging right in. English longbowmen were defeated at other battles that get talked about a lot less when the conditions weren't so perfect as a prepared defensive position and enfilade longbow volleys.

The concept of an arms race is very legitimate though since the proscriptions against crossbows seem to have been far stricter that might be because only England could field the number of archers that most other states used crossbowmen whose weapons could sometimes penetrate knightly armours up to plate when the later perfected Gothic, Italian, and English plates were at their peak. Crossbows were being fielded in the 1100s in quantity and the English were doing the same with Longbowmen in the 1200s while Agincourt was in 1415 so there are a few centuries of development in that period. We can see the rapid adoption of guns with both longbows and crossbows falling out of the inventories of most European armies rather quickly while armour persisted so it seems the arms race continued as armour benefited from continual improvements in technology until the cost of a suit of armour was made impractical vs the cost of a gun and a ball that could defeat most points on that armour.

There also is the persistent idea of arrows penetrating and killing being their only useful role on the battlefield which I don't agree with at all. Quite a few modern weapons get very few kills but are still incredibly useful. A weapon's killing ability is not always the primary reason to use it.
 
Oct 2011
510
Croatia
We can see the rapid adoption of guns with both longbows and crossbows falling out of the inventories of most European armies rather quickly while armour persisted so it seems the arms race continued as armour benefited from continual improvements in technology until the cost of a suit of armour was made impractical vs the cost of a gun and a ball that could defeat most points on that armour.
Actually, it was not the cost, but the weight of the armour that was the problem - as power of gunpowder weapons improved, armour became thicker and thicker. This in turn led to gradual shedding of armour so the protection could be concentrated on more important areas. Eventually, armour was alltogether discarded.