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I noticed that in medieval movies and TV shows, when there is a big battle happening, groups of archers always synchronize their firing. I was wondering if this is something that writes made up and it eventually got picked up as how it is done, or did groups of archers actually do this.

The reason I ask is because it doesn't make any sense to me why archers would do that because there only slowing them self's down when they could be firing as fast as they possibly can. Maybe there is something I'm overlooking that someone can shade lights on.

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In later times, guns were fired synchronously, because one column of soldiers reloaded their guns while the next column fired. I don't know the relative lengths of periods necessary for "shooting" and "reloading" an archer's bow, but maybe similar reasoning is also part of the explanation here (if the observation indeed applies also outside the movie screens). –  Drux Apr 12 '13 at 5:50
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Not a historian nor archer, but one reason for this could be that one arrow is might be more easily dodged or blocked than hundreds at once. Of course this doesn't account for the guns @Drux is talking about. –  Deruijter Apr 12 '13 at 9:04
    
@Deruijter it also counts for early guns, as those were employed in the same way as archers. Their inaccuracy made volley fire a requirement to achieve a decent chance of hitting anything. –  jwenting Apr 15 '13 at 6:34
    
@Drux an english longbowman would fire about 12 arrows per minute, and could keep three in the air at all times, so probably not ;D –  Jeroen K Jan 6 at 16:15
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7 Answers

up vote 18 down vote accepted

There are a number of good accounts of the development of warfare in Europe, but the two key things you need to realise are: a) "morale" b) "mass"

Much of European warfare has been conditioned by these two abstract concepts. Broadly, morale is the capacity of a unit to continue to engage in what it is doing despite adverse outcomes and mass is the capacity of a unit to bring effective force to bear at a point.

Melee infantry operate by bringing a mass to bear on a point directly, they are only effective as a unit. To be effective at doing so, the morale of a unit must remain unbroken. When men are lost one by one it rarely causes the members of a unit to turn and consider if their position is untenable. When twenty or forty men fall at once it causes people to think.

The chief reason that archers fired on command was that this was the way to achieve a military effect, by harming the morale of units of the opposing force. The individual's personal rate of fire was not a militarily significant feature.

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+1. We are talking about the volley. My accepted answer to this question on the French Column covers this a bit too. Its kind of like the difference between swinging a hammer, and just pushing it down on the nail (even if the same overall amount of energy is applied) –  T.E.D. Apr 12 '13 at 12:07
    
I thought we would have covered this before. –  Samuel Russell Apr 12 '13 at 22:12
    
If they didnt fire together people could just move to the side with no arrows, then back again. If its a wall of every angle the only way to escape is backwards. –  RhysW Apr 19 '13 at 16:23
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Having done some archery, I can attest to the fact that you can get a lot more people on the line, shooting at the same time, if their movements are at least broadly in sequence.

The combined benefits of the physical impact of more archers in the same space, and the moral impact of a thousand arrows hitting at the same time rather than a steady stream, seem likely between them to make up for any lost efficiency through the faster archers waiting to shoot.

The other point which occurs to me is that using a war bow in battle is really tiring. Unless the enemy are in the final stretches of a charge, you don't want to tire yourself out too fast! Nor do you want to blow through your stock of arrows, as each man can carry a strictly limited number, and an archer with no arrows is a poor light infantryman.

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Not so poor that they couldn't beat up the French knights at Agincort, but otherwise +1. –  NotVonKaiser Jun 12 '13 at 20:00
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There are TWO theories of "fire," and which one is better depends on what the battle conditions are and what the general is trying to accomplish.

Admittedly, the examples below are with muskets, not archery, but you'll get the idea.

One theory of fire is "fire at will" (or what a computer programmer might call "free format.") That works best in a "broken" battle on broken ground. The classic example from the American Revolution is "Lexington and Concord."

At the battle of Quebec, on the other hand, Britain's General Wolfe defeated France's General Montcalm. The latter allowed his troops to fire at will, while Wolfe had his troops fire "in sync" followed by a bayonet charge. The advantage of "in sync" is the shock value, especially when followed by a bayonet charge. Without such factors, "fire at will" (aim, and use top speed), is probably better.

EUROPEAN archers tended to fire "in sync." But at one notable 1754 battle in what later became the United States, a mixed force of British and "American" soldiers under Britain's General Braddock was defeated by French (with muskets) and Indians (with bow and arrow) "firing at will" from ambush. The losing and dying general, Braddock, gave the "props" to a brave and capable "rookie" officer named George Washington, who had warned that synchonized fire wouldn't work in "America"--"and the rest is history."

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Synchronized fire may actually INCREASE overall rate of fire if those shooting are not highly motivated. A fearful peasant distracted by all the noise of battle will be more likely to shoot because everyone else is doing it. Each will follow the herd. Group dynamics is a powerful persuasion of behavior.

I agree that "fire at will" with a small group of motivated individuals (e.g., rangers) would be faster.

Other comments on morale and mass also apply.

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One more reason, not mentioned by other answers, is that if a group shoots at once, it is easier to correct fire in case of miss. This is difficult for each archer to control where his arrow lands, but it is easy for their commander to say "100 yards shorter".

Firing on command also gives a control to the officer what they do and that they are not thinking too much (eg. about enemy cavalry arriving).

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When there is a continuous fire, the enemy can adjust their distance, placement of shields and attention. It is not impossible to avoid singular arrows.

On the other hand, synchronous firing has the advantage that

  • The enemy could be allowed to approach at the dangerous distance. Without continuous stream of arrows the enemy cannot properly assess the degree of danger of their position.

  • Continuous stream makes the enemy to keep attention at the archers and keep their shields intact. Synchronized arrows allow to fire at times when the enemy does not expect and has no time to use the shield.

  • Separated arrows can be avoided. A numerous set of arrows is much more difficult to avoid both because it allows less options and because it is more difficult to track numerous sources at once.

  • When the mass of arrows is fired, the enemy has to stop their operation such as firing or movement for a moment so to take a defensive position. This pause can be utilized by the melee units. When firing arrows one by one, even if somebody of the enemy makes a pause, other people still continue their operation.

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1) They weren't actually aiming. With a few notable exceptions, archers were not the cream of the army - they were rabble not considered worthy of even the infantry. They couldn't be trusted to tell their right foot from their left, and fletchers and goose quills cost money - can't waste that practicing. The officers told the archers what direction to face and how high to aim their arrows, and had them let loose all in a volley. The typical unskilled archer couldn't get a gauge of how high to aim without someone nearby to check themselves against... so fire-at-will wasn't a good way to put arrows into the badguy, unless you had Immortals or Longbowmen.

2) You can deflect or dodge one arrow. Different story when there are a few dozen coming down among your ranks all at once. Likewise, it's unlikely the archer could chose and hit a particular target - a volley meant the arrows were spread through an area, rather than cluster uselessly.

3) You can effect maneuver much more quickly and with more precision if all of your archers are in the same stage of load-aim-fire, which is real handy when you suddenly see a cavalry charge change direction your way.

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Do you have any citation on archers being the lowest rank in the army? I know it is probably not the best job in the army, but it was very important (demonstrated in the Hundred Years' War) and from my understanding, archery is a very hard skill to master. –  Caesar Jun 14 '13 at 8:27
    
I think it depended on the country, but by and large bows and arrows are cheaper to make than axes and chainmail. That being said, there were a couple decrees in England in particular where peasants were admonished to stop playing town ball and start practicing archery more, so there was at some level a known desire to train that ability. –  NotVonKaiser Jun 14 '13 at 13:48
    
Had to downvote - 1) is a long assertion with no references whatsoever. –  comeAndGo Aug 28 '13 at 19:07
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