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Historically, armies usually had a balance between warriors with projectile weapons (bows/guns) and close combat edged weapons (sword/pike/axe etc...).

This was necessary because ranged weapons of the time were not good enough to prevent armored-enough (or just fast-enough) force to close in with the shooters and hack them down with swords.

In some armies the same warriors fulfilled both roles (e.g. Mongols, gun-equiped cavalrymen of 30 year war, or bayonetted riflemen), but the "swordsman/pikeman" role was just as required as with separated roles. Even Mongols, after raining down arrows on an enemy, closed in for edged weapon fight - same with 30-year-war cavalry or infantry tercios.

This is obviously not the case today, where handheld edged weapons are a last-resort backup and rarely used in full-on combat outside urban fighting, or even including it.

My question is:

What was the first battle that clearly was fought - by both sides - in the modern way, with vast majority of the fighting, by design, being done by firing projectile weapons at a distance?


To clarify the question in response to comments:

  • "At a distance" - Simply means that the casualty was inflicted by a solid object propelled away from the soldier, and NOT held in the hand. In other words, a bullet shot from a gun counts. Clubbing over the head with the gun stock doesn't.[0]

  • "Vast majority" as measured by either:

    • Most importantly, casualty ratios from ranged weapon wounds vs. handheld weapon wounds.

      Yeah, a US Army infantryman today is trained and able to kill an enemy with a bayonet, an entrenching tool, a combat knife, or a pencil or toothpick if need be. But in a random infantry-on-infantry battle, how many enemy casualties are inflicted by toothpicks, how many by bayonets/knives, and how many by bullets?

    • Alternately, by attempted attacks (where attempted attack is a fired bullet or a single strike with edged weapon)

  • "By design" - meaning that your doctrine, your training, and your expected and actual battle intends for that vast-majority fighting (as defined above) to be with ranged weapon.

    This is important to eliminate useless trivial example where a small force came in for regular ancient-style sword infantry fight, got 10 people killed at a distance from a bow, got frightened and ran away before closing in because the enemy was too numerically superior. The casualty ratio is 10/0 for range weapons, but that is by accident, not design.

  • This is about personal ranged weapons (say, man-portable). Bows, rifles, muskets.

    It excludes things like artillery/airplanes/tanks.

[0] - Minor complication would be included in whether hand-thrown edged weapons count as range weapons (which might plausibly introduce as a possible answer some Javelin-exclusive battle I'm not aware of), as hand-held edge weapons (in which case "range weapons distance" must be increased to exceed throw distance), or simply ignored which introduces neither of those 2 complexities

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Only by projectile weapons ? Even today battles often end up being hand to hand. –  none Dec 20 '11 at 3:28
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@MartinBeckett - if you exclude urban combat, what is the ratio of casualties from bullets vs. edged weapons? What if you include urban combat? –  DVK Dec 20 '11 at 10:47
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The fight/battle is not fought with the purpose of two sides statically positioned N hundred meters from each other. And shooting at the enemy and that's all. It does not work like this. Preparation is done using artillery and air bombing, not by shooting from soldier's personal weapon, because penetrating force of a bullet is inefficient compared to penetrating force of the artillery shell or bomb. Shooting from personal guns begins when attack begins. You ask "by firing projectile weapons at a distance".... 1 meter is also a distance. You could clarify which distance you mean, but there is –  Andrei Dec 23 '11 at 14:57
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@All - I tried to edit the question to clarify the points addressed in comments. –  DVK Dec 24 '11 at 4:42
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This is just speculation, but it would make sense to look at the battles fought after the repeater rifle was developed. The Henry rifle was not officially adopted by the Union army during the American Civil War, but the union troops liked them. The confederate soldiers supposedly referred to the Henry as "that damn Yankee rifle they load on Sunday and shoot all week!" So, I would suspect the answer to your question is between the American Civil War and WWI. –  HTG Dec 28 '11 at 17:45

5 Answers 5

up vote 10 down vote accepted

It was more accidental than anything else, but the first "shooting" battle treated as such by history was the battle of Crecy, in 1346, during the 100 Years' War.

This was waged mainly between 6,000-7,000 longbowmen on the English side, and 6,000 (Genovese) crossbowmen on the French side. The English had perhaps 3,000-6,000 non-bow infantry and cavalry, meaning that their soldiers had predominantly missile weapons. The French did have about 12,000 cavalry, and perhaps an equal number of non-bow infantry, but these played a relatively small part in the battle.

The English enjoyed a prepared defensive position, while the French army had marched all day, arriving at 4:00 p.m. The more sensible soldiers, including King Philip wanted to wait until the following day to attack, but the French nobles, made overconfident by a 3- to 1 numerical superiority chafed impatiently, and won the day. A summer shower wet the bowstrings of the Genovese archers in open field eliminating their effectiveness (the English were able to shelter their bows.

Nevertheless, the Genovese were forced to attack against their wishes, and were slaughtered by long bows outfiring their crossbows at a rate of 3- to -1. The French cavalry charged, completing the slaughter of the Genovese, but were repulsed by the English long bowmen. And French infantry were just sitting ducks for English archery.

In round figures, the french lost about 2,000 crossbowmen, 2,000 knights, and 2,000 infantry, nearly all to long bow fire. The English lost perhaps 600, mostly to crossbow fire, with a few being killed by French knights.

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next Q: "were able to shelter their bows." - what was the usual technique for that in the field? –  DVK Feb 6 '12 at 17:51
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@DVK: I'm not quite sure of the details. But he Genovese, who had marched all day, arrived without even their wooden "stands" that would normally have provided some cover. The English were on the ground, and "dug in," meaning that they could put their bows underground. They also had time to take off spare clothes and use those to cover their bows. –  Tom Au Feb 6 '12 at 20:02
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This is an interesting answer, but I'm not sure it meets all the criteria of the question. The OP asked for a battle in which both sides intended for the "vast majority" of fighting to be done with ranged weapons. By the numbers given here, half the English force, and something like 80% of the French force, weren't equipped with ranged weapons at all. Why march thousands of men to the battle field if you're not expecting them to fight? –  Rose Ames Feb 6 '12 at 20:17
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I did say it was "accidental." But it was (arguably) the first battle when MOST of the fighting was done with missile weapons. And DVK is right; the other cavalry and infantry were there for the defense of the archers, and for "mop up," but basically in a secondary role. And the battle DOES go down in history as "advancing" the role of missile weapons. –  Tom Au Feb 6 '12 at 21:06
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@DVK - I believe that instead of covering the whole bow Archers would remove the string from their bows (Which was common practice anyway, to preserve the power of the bow) and hide them on their person (under armour, hats, clothes etc.) when it rained. Seeing as re-stringing a longbow takes a matter of seconds this practice compared to a crossbow it was one of the advantages of the Longbow. I believe that this technique is mentioned by Bernard Cornwall in many of his books (Crecy is the subject of Harlequin). –  Kobunite Jun 24 '13 at 13:26

I would disagree with Tom Au's answer. The first examples of "modern warfare" engagements where both sides expected to prevail in battle with ranged weapons took place a few months into the US Civil War.

The key is the development of the rifle versus the musket. Prior to that, firearms didn't have an effective range sufficient to counter an infantry charge. The effective range of a rifle was just under 1,000 yards, so an advance of infrantry would need to "absorb" three or more volleys of accurate rifle fire before hitting the enemy line. The result was slaughter and stalemate.

The English did have a period where their longbow was a superior weapon that neutralized lesser-equipped archers and crossbowmen, but people fighting the English did not expect to win battles with missile weapons. In fact, the main objective of someone fighting the English was to avoid the bowmen!

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This doesn't actually answer the question in the OP. –  NotVonKaiser Jun 24 '13 at 14:30

Because nobody said about naval battles, here's some nice (I hope) examples, sorry for citing Wikipedia only.

In 1178 BC or 1175 BC during the Battle of Delta distance attack was performed by Egyptian archers.

According to the Medinet Habu inscriprions, (...). Ramesses lined the shores of the Nile Delta with ranks of archers who were ready to release volleys of arrows into the enemy ships if they attempted to land. Knowing that he would be defeated in the battle at sea, Ramesses enticed the Sea Peoples and their ships into the mouth of the Nile, where he had assembled a fleet in ambush. This Egyptian fleet worked the Sea Peoples' boats towards shore. Then archers both on land and on the ships devastated the enemy.

I think that archers could have been placed on ships before this battle.

First use of artillery can be found in article about Greek fire:

Incendiary arrows and pots containing combustible substances were used as early as the 9th century BC by the Assyrians, and were extensively used in the Greco-Roman world as well.

The first naval use of cannons could be (from article about cannon):

The battle of Arnemuiden, fought on 23 September 1338, was the first naval battle using artillery, as the English ship Christofer had three cannon and one hand gun.

(The English eventually lost the battle).

During the Battle of Midway both fleets did not see each other. There were no shooting between them, only between planes and ships.

The first military submarine could be Turtle:

During the American Revolutionary War, Turtle (...) tried and failed to sink the British warship HMS Eagle, flagship of the blockaders in New York harbor on September 7, 1776.

This is not of course distance attack. The first one (or at least one of the most spectacular ever) could be German U-9's successful attack on three British warships on Sept. 22, 1914.

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"This is about personal ranged weapons (say, man-portable). Bows, rifles, muskets". The last 3 of 4 examples can't fit that restriction (the first one is interesting though - will need to look into that!) –  DVK Jun 24 '13 at 11:41
    
@DVK yes, you are right, I missed that point, sorry. –  Voitcus Jun 24 '13 at 11:45
    
I'm glad someone cited naval battles, as they weren't ruled out by the question. –  LateralFractal Oct 15 '13 at 9:37

One of the first and most obvious examples to me would be the Achaemenid Persian empire, their whole army composition was based on archery. They did use light spearmen, and the famous Anusya, but the first would only play a secondary role in the battle while the second was while an elite infantry unit also extremely skilled at archery. I can't seem to find an actual battle which is a good example. I found some information of Europa Barbarorum, a mod made by history enthusiasts:

http://europabarbarorum.heimstatt.net/index.php?mp=unit&unit=steppe%20missile%20hallatamtithanvare&text=&ownership=parthia&class=missile&category=infantry

The Achaemenid military organization was clearly made to facilitate archery, where a satâbam, or one hundred men, would mainly consist of archers who from the second rank (As the first rank consisted of spearmen who formed a defensive wall with the spârâ which in turn a decorated pavise of wicker) would continuously increment the angle, to the tenth rank. This would require a great discipline and a good number of junior officers, also ranked accordingly in a decimal manner to coordinate the formation properly. The wicker shields would be vital in outlasting the enemies in volley exchanges, but individual additions of armour facilitated this effect as well.

so 9/10 of the main infantry would be archers. Also while they did have a lot of cavalry these would have been primarily light skirmishing cavalry, that only occasionally engaged in hand to hand.

EDIT

I change my answer to the The Persian invasion of Scythia, not a single battle but an extended campaign. It was undertaken by Darius I of Persia early in his reign.*

enter image description here

As I explained above the Persian army was very much based on archery, They did still make use of light infantry, light cavalry and some heavy cavalry. The Scythian though only use of horse archery during this campaign.

Darius invaded Scythia, where the Scythians evaded Darius's army, using feints and retreating technique eastward while wasting the countryside, by blocking wells, intercepting convoys, destroying pastures and continuous skirmishes against Darius's army

So both armies had to rely on archery, the Scythians because they wanted to and the Persians because it was the only way to respond. Most casualties will therefore have been soht with bows.

  • I can't find an actual date, but Darius undertook the campaign quite early in his reign (he reigned from 522 to 486 BCE)
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Not a bad answer, though some links to historical sources would improve it significantly. –  DVK Oct 15 '13 at 12:41
    
@DVK I've been trying to find some, but the only thin i can find is wikipedia on the military history of Iran: "The usual tactic employed by the Persians in the early period of the empire, was to form a shield wall that archers could fire over. These troops (called sparabara, or shield-bearers) were equipped with a large rectangular wicker shield called a spara, and armed with a short spear, measuring around six feet long." link –  Jeroen K Oct 19 '13 at 12:21

I imagine the any action between Eurasian steppe tribes from the Mongols back to their ultimate forebears would qualify.

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As it is it would be great as a comment, or if improved it could be an answer. –  Lohoris Feb 2 at 9:10

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