This time, as opposed to my usual posts, I will be writing about a weapon I have no personal experience of. To be precise- I have been on the receiving end of it, and I fought with archers deployed by both sides. I can use a bow (and hit a barn door if it’s not too far) but I am not a qualified archer, nor do I own a bow.
Nevertheless, I can appreciate the huge tactical effect using archers has on a battlefield for reenactors. Archers on a battlefield are a true game changer. But, not all of you will be familiar with combat archers. They are a pretty rare sight and most re-enactment societies do not allow archers to use bows and arrows in combat, except for display or educational reasons. The Vikings Society (based in Britain, for those who may not be aware) however, does allow combat archers. They must pass a strict test, the bows must not exceed certain power, arrows must be rubber-tipped and the fletching must be longer then on a normal arrow, to slow it down.
An archer has same target area as other warriors for valid hits, but they are not meant to shoot above mid-chest height. If they do, there is a real danger of hitting an opponent’s face, due to the fact that an arrow, once released, cannot be controlled.
Many of the societies that do not allow combat archers, say it is done for safety reasons- but this is not a reality I know. Archery was employed safely by the Vikings Society for decades. As long as all safety guidelines are followed, danger is minimised.
Reasons for not using archers are of course varied and I will go back to this point later- but for now let’s get into the main point of this post. The HUGE effect archers have on battles they take part in. Obviously, the first thing you will notice about bows, is their range. As well, as their ability to hit targets in second, third or even further ranks during a battle. With a bow, one can attack in any given direction with same power, speed and accuracy.
Primary targets for an archer? Warriors with two handed weapons, such as large spears or dane-axes. Warriors with no shields, or only carrying small ones. Warriors that are not paying attention and not covering themselves, or those who have their backs/sides turned to the archer for whatever reason. And, in case of The Vikings Society combat rules, “wounded” warriors, who await their chance to recover and get back in the fight (in our Society rules, we use a two-hit rule, whereas if a Valid Hit is scored on a Warrior, he does not die immediately, but is instead “wounded” and has 10 seconds in which to recover. The “wounded” warrior cannot defend himself or take any action other than to retreat a couple of steps. If within the permitted 10 seconds a second Valid Hit is scored upon a Warrior, he is out of the game. If no blow can land, Warrior recovers and can rejoin the fight).
This creates obvious strategic differences, as oppose to what happens when there is no archers, namely:
-Combatants must be more aware on the battlefield. It is not enough to fend off spears, swords etc.- one must also keep an eye out on any archers that might hit from the side, or to an exposed leg, even when battle lines are far apart.
-Warriors using two-handed weapons, or those with no shields, must be doubly aware. Ideally they would seek protection behind other warrior’s shield or behind their own battle line. Warriors with no shields would never be relied upon to hold a line without support, as archers would pick them at will. This forces more unit cohesion, more use of shields and prevents a situation where a couple of two-handed spearmen can hold a gap against a large number of foes. With archers present, they would be shot down in very short order, thus encouraging more realistic battle order and unit composition.
-Warriors with no shields, or those with two handed weapons are forced to be more careful when out of hand weapon range. Often a warrior armed with a long spear or a dane-axe can act with almost total impunity, picking targets, moving about, stepping out from their line, not using any shield cover to give them more room to maneuver and use their weapons… Not so if archers are present. When arrows are flying about, these warriors must remain cautious and protect themselves behind shields at all times. This limits the effects long weapons have on the battlefield and can force a more close-combat orientated battle, as two-handed weapons are not granted the free reign they normally have when there are no archers about.
-Flanking moves must be executed more carefully, again due to the danger that warriors, moving fast and keen on getting to their opponents to cut them down, may forget that there is danger behind enemy lines. Usually, if a band of warriors manage to get around an enemy flank, than the battle is almost as good as won. Provided the flanking force act fast and take out a good number of opponents, a flank can be rolled out quickly and chaos created in the enemy lines. With bows involved the situation is not so clear cut- there is little use from a flanking move, if your flankers get turned into pincushions, before they have the chance to take anyone out. If any flanking is to be attempted, it must be done with consideration, making sure warriors protect each other.
-Wounded warriors (if combat rules permit two, or more Hits per warrior) must be more careful and be well protected behind their own lines. Because “wounded” warriors usually (some Societies do differ) cannot defend themselves in any way whatsoever, it makes them prime targets for archers. It is up to their comrades to make sure that “wounded” fighters are well protected and cannot be taken out by a chance shot.
So, just from a few basic considerations above, it is clear how huge effect even a few archers will have on a battlefield. It is also, it must be said, very authentic and realistic to use archers in reenactment fights, as they were present in every Dark Age army and used extensively. Why then so few reenactment societies allow the use of combat archers?
Some will answer with safety concerns, citing risk of lost eyes, damaged ribs and a plethora of other risks associated with having a ballistic missile shot at you with force of anything between 20 to 40 pounds. However, I have addressed the safety concerns before and The Vikings show that use of archers on battlefield does not pose any higher risk than any other weapon, provided proper training and supervision are employed. With rubber tips, slowed-down arrows, reduced-strength bows and very strict training and testing regime, I would argue that archers are safer than many spearmen, who happily shove a 7-foot stick towards your face while “aiming for a high shot”, or near on take your knees out, while “looking for a leg shot”, sometimes holding their spear with very little control. Not to mention over-enthusiastic swordsmen and axemen, who shatter collarbones and crack ribs with cheerful abandon, claiming afterwards “I thought you were wearing padding” and grumbling about “game for tough boys” when a kick to a shield nearly takes your teeth out. These are exaggerated examples of course, but they do illustrate that a danger from a bow is no different than that from any other weapon, perhaps lesser.
The biggest reason, in my opinion, for why most societies reject archery on a battlefield, is precisely the effect it has on the game. With many societies, long, two-handed spears and axes are the kings of battle-lines, many combat systems favour these weapons (or mid-ranged weapons, like one-handed spears) overly, making their users the elite, the killers and the winners of battles. But, when archers are introduced their reign comes to an end. They must seek cover, they must adjust their battle order and tactics, they must play a different game, to the one they have been for so long. It is also worth mentioning, that many reenactment societies do not use a Two-Hit rule, but a One-Hit rule, where one Valid Hit means you are out. In that sort of game, archers become even more deadly, as a warrior stricken from afar by an arrow cannot seek cover and get back in the game- he is dead and out. This would make archers very dangerous indeed for those societies and would make early stages of battles very different to what they are now. It is this reluctance to introduce a game-changer to the system, that makes battlefield archers such a rarity. Currently, most societies are content with combat systems, where three, or four warriors with no shields can form a valid and successful battle line. They are content to allow two-handed weapons impunity and safety (apart from their opposite number of course, who will have same range) and happily make warriors able to parade without concern as long as they are out of spear range. They are also content to keep out the missile phase as a whole out of a battle.
I believe, that by doing this, they miss out. Not only on authenticity and variety, but also on strategic opportunity for a more balanced and more fluid game, a longer and more testing contest. Will the situation change? Who knows. I would like to think, that maybe a few people will read this post and be given an idea to toy with and maybe try out. A bot of a discussion and counter-argument would also be great. Because it is discussion, even if from two opposite view points, that leads to change and progress.