This question arose in the role-playing games SE

Some claim that in archery, horse archery, or hand-to-hand combat, a warrior could function effectively for at most 2-3 minutes. Therefore, frontline troops, archers, or horse archers would substitute out of combat after 2-3 minutes of intense action, a la the line change in ice hockey.

Is there any historical proof for this? More specifically, how long could a longbowman sustain fire in combat if ammunition was freely available? Would this be different for a horse archer?

The Romans apparently had a system in place for this, but I interested in knowing whether this was widespread.

  • 4
    Roman legions did this. Not as individuals, but when the front line tired, the second line took over. For archers, I suspect ammunition would be a bigger issue than fatigue. Apr 27, 2017 at 15:41
  • 4
    I doubt anyone does. The Romans didn't measure time any more granularly than "hour" and even that was a very rough division. Most likely the rotation was done when the commander believed the line to have tired. 2-3 minutes seem really low, though. People in peak physical condition can usually perform extreme exercise much longer than that. Apr 27, 2017 at 15:49
  • 3
    @StevenBurnap: Even the Gauls did this against Caesar's Legions when they could - part of Roman tactical excellence was it they could prevent horde-based opponents from performing this substitution unless vastly outnumbered. There is at least one reference in his Gallic Wars that I will attempt to track down. I suspect the rotation period was more like 60-90 minutes than 2though; think soccer rather than ice hockey. Apr 27, 2017 at 20:42
  • 1
    @Solanacea You're going to have to say "mounted archer cavalry" instead of just "archers" if you want an answer to the question you've got in another thread. I can assure you that the vast majority of human beings -- even trained warrior human beings -- would not last seven minutes in sustained, active combat. I know this from personal experience.
    – L0j1k
    May 4, 2017 at 15:54
  • 1
    @Solanacea: I am by no means in peak physical condition (anymore), but I can fire my 50-pound longbow more or less non-stop for about an hour (emptying a 20-arrow quiver, walk to the target to retrieve the arrows, walk back, fire the arrows...) before I lose interest. I would say a trained archer could fire a warbow for 5-10 minutes... given a good supply of arrows. You say this came up in RPG context: The standard RPG "combat round" is far too long to have only one arrow fired. With a bit of practice you can nock, draw, and release an arrow on a sighted target in under 3 seconds...
    – DevSolar
    May 8, 2017 at 14:02

3 Answers 3


This isn't exactly evidence, but in all the years I studied medieval and early modern history (about 20) I never heard of this practice.

Absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence. Common sense suggests that in battles that went on for long periods, something like this must have happened. The Battle of Bannockburn, for instance, went on for two days. Clearly people would have had to rest. But I don't think pulling a group of soldiers out mid fight and replacing them would have been very practical. It would be more the case, as at Bannockburn, that there was a 'break in the action' as a particular skirmish ended with the success or failure of part of an army.

That said, the vast majority of medieval battles were over pretty quickly. Some of them laughably so. The Battles of Bosworth and Sauchieburn, where Richard III of England and James III of Scotland were killed respectively, seem to have been over pretty quickly - mainly perhaps because there was no great enthusiasm for risking death for either of those highly flawed men.

In such circumstances it was just a case of hacking away until you're done, for better or worse. Or, perhaps equally common, of trying to stay out of the battle entirely until you've worked out which side is going to win. That was the spectacularly cynical tactic used by William Stanley and his large personal force at the Battle of Bosworth.

  • 5
    Wait. Your anecdote is accepted answer here? I mean your answer is basically "I never heard of this practice". This is ridiculous.
    – L0j1k
    May 15, 2017 at 16:05
  • 1
    @L0j1k. a) I'm not claiming the answer is anything that it isn't b) nobody else attempted an answer. Yay, I win 50 points. c) when dealing with the ancient/medieval world 'there's no evidence' is very often the only answer available. If there was evidence of this behaviour, maybe someone would have posted it by now, but I've got to say I think it's unlikely.
    – fred2
    May 15, 2017 at 20:33
  • 1
    The original question includes the statement that it's already been established that the Roman army did it. He asks whether it is widespread. My answer relates to the post classical period, when the answer would seem to be 'no'. Did fighters stop fighting and find a way to catch their breath after a couple of minutes (either they were dead, injured, or they won that individual fight and got out of the way), probably, but in terms of coordinated replacement of fighters every few minutes, there's no evidence.
    – fred2
    May 16, 2017 at 13:59
  • 1
    @L0j1k given there was only one answer and the bounty running out, what would have been the non-ridiculous option?
    – Solanacea
    May 16, 2017 at 19:54
  • 1
    @Rob Crawford The question asker specifically noted that he already knew it did happen in the Roman army - something I don't dispute. My question addressed whether it was widespread over the classical and medieval period (which is what he tagged the question). My answer seems to have been unpopular, to which I can only answer "excuse me for having read the question."
    – fred2
    Jul 20, 2017 at 14:41

From Book 3 of Caesar's Gallic Wars, Chapters 4 through 6:

Chapter 4

.... Our men at first, while their strength was fresh, resisted bravely, nor did they cast any weapon ineffectually from their higher station. As soon as any part of the camp, being destitute of defenders, seemed to be hard pressed, thither they ran, and brought assistance. But they were over-matched in this, that the enemy when wearied by the long continuance of the battle, went out of the action, and others with fresh strength came in their place; none of which things could be done by our men, owing to the smallness of their number; ...

Chapter 5

When they had now been fighting for more than six hours, without cessation, and not only strength, but even weapons were failing our men, and the enemy were pressing on more rigorously, and had begun to demolish the rampart and to fill up the trench, while our men were becoming exhausted, and the matter was now brought to the last extremity, P. Sextius Baculus, a centurion of the first rank, whom we have related to have been disabled by severe wounds in the engagement with the Nervii, and also C. Volusenus, a tribune of the soldiers, a man of great skill and valor, hasten to Galba, and assure him that the only hope of safety lay in making a sally, and trying the last resource. Whereupon assembling the centurions, he quickly gives orders to the soldiers to discontinue the fight a short time, and only collect the weapons flung [at them], and recruit themselves after their fatigue, and afterward, upon the signal being given, sally forth from the camp, and place in their valor all their hope of safety.

Chapter 6

They do what they were ordered; and, making a sudden sally from all the gates [of the camp], leave the enemy the means neither of knowing what was taking place, nor of collecting themselves. Fortune thus taking a turn, [our men] surround on every side, and slay those who had entertained the hope of gaining the camp and having killed more than the third part of an army of more than 30,000 men (which number of the barbarians it appeared certain had come up to our camp), put to flight the rest when panic-stricken, and do not suffer them to halt even upon the higher grounds.

Certainly there were no wrist watches, or even chronometers, on any of the battle participants, so time spans must be taken with a grain of salt, but it certainly must be clear that both sides thought it completely normal for weary combatants to step out of the line occasionally to rest. And further that the lengths of time that soldiers of the period could sustain active combat was substantially greater than the 2 to 5 minutes proposed elsewhere.

More notable than the timespan quoted is that the Gauls had time to "begin to demolish the rampart and to fill up the trench" while the battle progressed to its climax. That certainly was more than the work of just a few minutes.

Also note that the practice is so ubiquitous that it is only mentioned in consequence of the inability of the Romans to spell each other, due to being so badly outnumbered.

My answer here describes two additional occasions when Caesar describes the Gauls as practicing a continual relief of tired first-line troops.


My answer will demonstrate that human beings wear out very quickly in combat. When I say "combat" I don't mean standing behind cover and watching your enemy on the other side of the street, or being in the same grid square as enemy combatants, or marching across a field to engage the enemy while your cavalry units soften up the enemy lines. When I say "combat", I mean swinging your sword at your enemy, fighting to end the other guy's life in order to save your own, or grappling in the dirt with knives.

I assert that human beings cannot physically sustain hard combat for more than a short number of minutes. Anybody that thinks they can, I think has never had to fight, or trained for any physical activity as exhausting as combat sports. My answer will demonstrate that regardless of whether or not we have evidence of combat relief in historical battles (despite the fact that it does exist), that the lack of capacity for sustained combat in human beings would require that relief was provided in these battles. We may not know exactly how they relieved one another on the front lines, or how often, but I'll show you that it would have had to happen, and it would have had to happen fairly regularly, because even exceptional and legendary fighters wear out quickly in combat, on the order of minutes.

For my first trick, I'll use a comment under the answer to provide some actual evidence of what I'm saying: Combat sports and martial arts. Mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters are hand-to-hand combatants with no weapons and no armour fighting in ideal conditions: They're well-rested beforehand (e.g. no forced march, well-fed, ample time to sleep the night before), they're fit for the fight, and they've been training for sometimes years beforehand. This video demonstrates a trained fighter in a state of exhaustion at the start of the third round. MMA fights are individual rounds of five minutes (which is on the far end of round length in combat sports) with an entire minute between rounds to sit and rest. If humans can sustain long bouts of combat, why isn't this done in all of the various kinds of combat sports? The answer is because humans cannot sustain long bouts of combat, and rounds are broken by rest specifically because of this fact. I think it stretches credibility to try and say that human beings can sustain long stretches of combat, provided that every sport -- and especially combat sports -- provides short rounds broken by periods of rest for the competitors.

For example, here are the rules for UFC, a specific brand of mixed martial arts, which stipulates that even a championship match "is to be for 5 rounds, each round no more than 5 minutes duration, with a rest period of 1 minute between each round." Then take a look at this discussion about boxing on Wikipedia. In particular, they talk about the length of championship boxing match being between ten and fifteen rounds of a couple minutes each, with a full minute of rest between each of the rounds. Here are some rules for swordfighting matches, which specifies that the "round lasts for 60 seconds, 60 seconds rest between each round." And here is the Wikipedia page for Combatives training, the hand-to-hand combat taught the US Army infantry soldiers, which provides a competition where the "fight consists of one ten-minute round."

Modern soldiers in combat use a couple of techniques to relieve one another from sustained combat, even while advancing on the enemy. One of those maneuvers is a flanking maneuver, which provides some relief to the soldiers on the immediate front while also pressing the advantage against the enemy: "Even when not entirely successful, for example at Anzio these operations can relieve pressure on troops on the main battle front, by forcing the enemy to divert resources to contain the new front." There is also what we in the infantry call "bounding" or "bounding overwatch", which allows a second soldier or group of soldiers to advance on an enemy position and take up a new fighting position, and thereby relieve the first soldier or group of soldiers and enable them to maneuver. These most basic infantry tactics have relief built directly into them.

And for my own touch of anecdote, since that seems to be totally acceptable, I was in the US Army infantry for twelve years and deployed four times, and I've spent most of my life training and competing in martial arts of various kinds. I have to say, if you think you're going to outlast any of these trained athletes or soldiers and sustain a hard fight for more than a handful of minutes at a time, you're in for a surprise. Regardless, I encourage you to get out there and take up martial arts (or join the army) and see for yourself! Fighting is hard.

  • 5
    You make several valid points, but have missed a key element of the martial arts - they are fundamentally just as much entertainment as they are combat. The audience wants to see extreme exertion, and the round structure you describe is deliberately set to allow repeated short bursts of extreme exertion. I argue that real physical combat is much less intense most of the time. Think cycle charging by cavalry in the 18th and 19th centuries, where the horse are trotted away and then recharge. Ney's cavalry did this for near two hours at Waterloo. May 16, 2017 at 5:23
  • 3
    Remember also that a (Republican or early Empire) Roman Legionnaire's weapon is not his gladius, but his scutum; his shield. Any barbarian attempting a big overhanded swing at a Roman Legionnaire was more likely to be stuck half way through his swing than to actually land it. The fencing match in the movie Rob Roy between Liam Neeson and Tim Roth illustrates exactly the difficulty that a hulking barbarian faces when in combat against a trained unit of disciplined and well led troops. Desert Storm must have felt very similar to those on the U.N. side. May 16, 2017 at 5:28
  • 2
    There is an excerpt from Gallic Wars that I read not two months ago but now cannot find, that explicitly describes how a badly outnumbered Roman Legion, unable to substitute in-and-out even though the Gauls can, decided that there only chance was a desperate charge through the Gallic line. This actually works so well that it turns the tide and results in a mass rout by the Gauls. May 16, 2017 at 5:34
  • 1
    +1 for the most detailed answer. However, there is a straw man here. The original question is whether there is any historical evidence of soldiers substituting in and out of combat. The Q at rpg se was whether bowmen in a fantasy setting could sustain arrow fire for 7 min if their lives depended on it. I never asked "Is combat physically demanding?".
    – Solanacea
    May 16, 2017 at 19:51
  • Well... The original source question was about flying, mounted bowmen pressing an attack against the Terrasque (heh) and whether or not it's more realistic to instead have two groups involved in the assault who were passing combat back and forth for example with flanking or bounding maneuvers. Only one of the reasons I mentioned this kind of back-and-forth is due to the physical capacity of soldiers to sustain a hard fight, but I would still assert that it's one of the main reasons to do that. I think we might lose support for this question if we talk too much about the original scenario heh.
    – L0j1k
    May 17, 2017 at 23:30

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.