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How Using Flaming Arrows in Battle Wouldn’t Be a Bright Idea

Quick: think of a movie in which archers lay siege to an approaching army at night. Were the arrows on fire? As it’s something we’ve been conditioned to think about medieval warfare, we’re going to guess your mind went to lighting up the night sky with hundreds of tiny little flames. The thing is, were flaming arrows ever really a practical or, for that matter, even a possible type of weaponry?

Lloyd from YouTube’s Lindybeige, who specializes in all things medieval, gives a spirited talk on the practicality of fire arrows and points out their obvious drawbacks (puns!). In movies, we’ve grown so accustomed to seeing fire arrows in battle that we tend to take them for granted. We often seem to assume that they upgrade the hit points of regular arrows which somehow makes them universally worse to deal with. Other than the logistics of lighting hundreds of arrows quickly and reliably, Lloyd makes the case that much like a candle being blown out, a flaming arrow would likely be extinguished almost immediately upon its release from the bow. There are other things to keep in mind, like the physics of shooting an arrow and what that means for possible fire arrow design. In order to keep from burning your hands as you draw back the bow, fire arrows would have to be longer than normal, which could cause unwieldy results in accuracy and, more often than not,  breakage due to the increase in weight. Lloyd shows us a “caged” arrow that has a metal arrowhead designed to hold something flammable like oil soaked cloth or pitch, but would still be impractical in most forms of warfare.

Should your flaming arrow be able to find its target while still lit, there are still more factors that would make them fairly ineffective. This mostly involves the age-old method of someone just tamping out the fire, since it takes time for things to burn. Citing an experiment that found roughly a two percent success rate of flaming arrows when shot at flammable structures, Lloyd concludes that fire arrows might only be worth using in castle sieges and naval battles. Not wanting the structures you’re in or on to catch fire, manpower would be needed to put out the flames, thus weakening the defensive force. Even with this in mind, it’d still likely be a waste of manpower on the attacking side that could otherwise be better used by just firing more regular arrows.

Is Lloyd all fired up for no reason? Do you have proof that fire arrows were effective? Let’s discuss in the comments below!

Image: Dreamworks Pictures

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