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
    Commented Dec 20, 2011 at 3:28
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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
    Commented Dec 23, 2011 at 14:57
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    I'm sure stone age people fought minor "battles" with slingshots/blowpipes/arrows/whatever. As such this is just a question of degrees. What is a battle? What distance is "from a distance"? Commented Dec 23, 2011 at 17:12
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    @All - I tried to edit the question to clarify the points addressed in comments.
    – DVK
    Commented Dec 24, 2011 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
    Commented Dec 28, 2011 at 17:45

7 Answers 7


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, most at least initially wounded by long bow fire. The English lost perhaps 600, mostly to crossbow fire, with a few being killed by French knights.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – MCW
    Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 11:57
  • A similar one is the Battle of Carrhae, 53 BC.
    – dodo
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 10:28

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.

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.


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.*

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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)
  • 1
    Not a bad answer, though some links to historical sources would improve it significantly.
    – DVK
    Commented Oct 15, 2013 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
    Commented Oct 19, 2013 at 12:21
  • Good answer, yet a bit speculative without detailed documentations.
    – dodo
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 14:00

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!

  • 2
    This doesn't actually answer the question in the OP. Commented Jun 24, 2013 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.

  • 1
    "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
    Commented Jun 24, 2013 at 11:41
  • @DVK yes, you are right, I missed that point, sorry.
    – Voitcus
    Commented Jun 24, 2013 at 11:45
  • 3
    I'm glad someone cited naval battles, as they weren't ruled out by the question. Commented Oct 15, 2013 at 9:37
  • The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first major battle where fleets didn't see each other, about a month before the Battle of Midway. The Turtle was the first combat submarine, but the first to sink an enemy was the Confederate ship Hunley attacking the Union Housatonic, although I don't know that the successful attack was delivered while submerged. Commented Feb 9, 2019 at 0:11

[The] 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?

"Modern" is one of these awful words that change their meaning with time. Longbows or catapults where once modern. But the question is more specific, and it requires that both sides in battle expected to inflict damage on the enemy by firing projectiles at a distance. And so, anything before the Napoleonic wars at very least is not the answer.

Historically, footsoldiers were divided into archers and infantry proper. Archers were used to "soften" the enemy, so that a direct assault by cavalry or infantry would be possible. These two different functions of footsoldiers could only be fused into one with the invention of the bayonnet. But this still doesn't answer the question: while a bayonnet equiped infantry would shoot as it charged, the final assault was still supposed to be decided by non-ranged edged weapons - the gun, with the bayonnet, used as a pike. A further change happened when armies started to expect shooting their enemies rather than stabbing them, even in the final assault.

While the fusion of infantry into one only force was quite sudden, with the bayonnet eliminating the need for separate bodies of skirmishers/chargers, this later change seems to have been much more gradual. The American Civil war battles, while probably dedided by gun power first and foremost, still featured violent final hand-to-hand clashes. The same is true for its South American equivalent, the Triple Alliance (or Paraguay) War. I am not sure of what proportion of casualties was exacted by bullets as opposed to those caused by blades (though I am sure both dwarfed in face of disenteria and other infectious diseases), but I very much doubt that the Union, Confederacy, Brazilian, or Paraguayan armies expected to damage their enemies mainly through bullets (as for the Argentinians and Uruguayans, I am pretty sure they expected the opposite).

In WWI, though, it seems clear that all armies involved - or at least the main ones - relied on machine guns as their main weapon to inflict damage. This is complicated, though, because the final assault - the conquest of a trenchline - still relied on bayonnet assault, resulting in an enourmous advantage of defences against attackers, with the known results - industrial scale senseless butchery, culminating in social unrest among the troops, with four empires being destroyed in the process by the combination of enemy onslaught and internal uprisings.

Such problems would only be solved by WWII style warfare - the use of armoured "cavalry", ie, tanks, plus tactical and then strategic use of air force.

So I would say, it was a long process, that started after the Napoleonic wars, and lasted up to WWII. At some point, there were more casualties caused by gunfire than otherwise; at a later point, military planners learned to expect this as the "normal" way of warfare.

  • You are definitely right. Today, the determining factor is not rifle and line, but modern drones and missiles. Not sure if the OP meant to ask for the first fight vastly relying on attacker drone.
    – dodo
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 10:43

Battle of Carrhae, 53 BC, between Roman general Crassus and Parthian Cavs. The Parthian army consisted of 9000 horse archers, and 1000 cataphracts. Note that the eastern cataphracts also carry projectiles. It is fair to say that ranged combat is one of their major doctrines. The Parthian did a failed charge, but then broke and routed the Roman legions mostly by distant shooting, 30-50 meters away.

Crassus' army pushed deep into the Parthian's desert area, lacking water and food. Upon learning about the presence of the Parthian army, estimated at around 10,000 cavs, Crassus's army experienced a sense of alarm and anxiety. Cassius, the top-ranking general under Crassus, initially recommended deploying the Roman forces in the traditional manner, with infantry forming the central formation and cavalry positioned on the flanks. Initially, Crassus agreed to this approach.

However, Crassus soon had a change of heart and ordered a different formation. He arranged his troops into a hollow square, with each side composed of twelve cohorts. This formation was designed to safeguard his army from being outmaneuvered by the Parthians, but it came at the cost of reduced maneuverability. As the Roman forces advanced, they reached a stream. Crassus's other generals advised him to establish a camp and postpone an attack until the following day, allowing his troops to rest. Nevertheless, Publius, one of Crassus's commanders, was eager to engage the Parthians immediately and successfully persuaded Crassus to confront the Parthians without delay.

Initially, the Parthian leader, Surena, had planned to break the Roman lines with a direct charge from his cataphracts, but he realized this wouldn't be enough. Instead, he used his horse archers to encircle the Roman formation. Crassus, the Roman leader, attempted to drive off the horse archers with skirmishers, but they were repelled by the Parthian arrows. The horse archers then engaged the Roman legionaries. Although the Romans were protected by large shields and armor, some of the arrows managed to penetrate the shields and cause injuries.

The Romans repeatedly advanced toward the Parthians in an attempt to engage in close combat, but the horse archers skillfully retreated and continued to fire at them. To protect themselves, the Roman legionaries formed the "testudo" formation by locking their shields together, making them nearly impervious to arrows. However, this formation limited their ability to fight effectively in hand-to-hand combat. Taking advantage of this weakness, the Parthian cataphracts charged the Roman line, causing panic and heavy casualties. When the Romans tried to break their formation to repel the cataphracts, the horse archers resumed their attacks.

Crassus hoped that the Romans could hold out until the Parthians ran out of arrows. However, Surena used camels to resupply his horse archers with more arrows. Realizing the dire situation, Crassus sent his son Publius with a contingent of troops to drive off the horse archers. The Parthian horse archers pretended to retreat, luring Publius' forces into an ambush. Publius and most of his men were killed, with only a few being captured alive.

The Parthian shootings continued until nightfall. Crassus ordered war cry and general advance, with little gain. After the sunset, the Parthian left contently. Covered by the dark, Crassus ordered a retreat to the nearby town of Carrhae, leaving behind 4,000 wounded soldiers who were subsequently killed by the Parthians the following morning. Finally, a few days later, the Romans were chased-up, and most of them killed or captured.

With more than 43000 well-trained soldiers, it is safe to say that if battle was mostly melee combats, Crassus would at least have a good chance.

Source: Plutarch. Life of Crassus



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

  • 3
    As it is it would be great as a comment, or if improved it could be an answer.
    – o0'.
    Commented Feb 2, 2014 at 9:10

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