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 whether this is something that writers made up and was eventually got picked up as how it was done, or whether groups of archers actually did this.

The reason I ask is because it doesn’t make any sense to me that archers would do that, because they’re only slowing themselves down when they could be firing as fast as they possibly can. Maybe there is something I’m overlooking that someone can shed light 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
    Commented Apr 12, 2013 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
    Commented Apr 12, 2013 at 9:04
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    @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
    Commented Apr 15, 2013 at 6:34
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    @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
    Commented Jan 6, 2014 at 16:15
  • Because otherwise the other guys could dodge the arrows. Commented Jul 5, 2015 at 13:11

11 Answers 11


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.
    Commented Apr 12, 2013 at 12:07
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    I thought we would have covered this before. Commented Apr 12, 2013 at 22:12
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    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.
    – user2201
    Commented Apr 19, 2013 at 16:23

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.

  • Not so poor that they couldn't beat up the French knights at Agincort, but otherwise +1. Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 20:00

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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    A good example of both is the movie Zulu, which is a (fairly) accurate retelling of Rourke's Drift. The commander, Chard and his second Bromhead, call for both styles of attack during the film, and in fact did so during the actual engagement. When they were being 'felt out' by Cetewayo, they called for fire at will, because there were very individualized targets. When, later in the engagement, they are charged by the infantry of Zulu warriors, they call for volley fire and basically mow the warriors down.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Jul 5, 2015 at 12:57

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.


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.

  • It’s my understanding that archerst weren’t levied peasants, but more profesionnal soldiers, as it takes lots of practice to learn to use a bow effectively, compared to the much easily-trained technique of "hold your fork towards this direction and whatever happens, don’t EVER run back".
    – breversa
    Commented Oct 9, 2020 at 14:33

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).


Battles were generally not fought till no men left but till one side fled / retreated. The casaulties were often not that high compared to the size of the army even for the side who lost. This shows that the losing army usually fled or surrendered well before coming even close to annihilation. Thus breaking the moral of the enemy was a huge (possibly the largest) factor in battle. Shooting arrows in mass makes it much scarier to the enemy. Think about it from the enemy's point of view: you are in a battle with high on adrenaline and due to it you don't really register much of what's happening around you, and certainly even less of what happens e.g. to the guys 10 meters to your side. Suppose that the enemy shots arrows continuously, continously felling a few people here and there. You might not even perceive the great majority of the arrows shot at your group and the guys they hit. But if a big volley were to come in and then a lots of guys in your vicinity were to felled by it, hearing the sudden cries of the wounded, then you would certainly perceive it. Possibly sending out volleys of arrows doesn't kill as many enemy as firing at will but it is much better at making the enemies scared.

Other possible reasons can be:

  • it is easier to coordinate a group firing in volley than people who are firing at will. Like the leader can shoot an arrow indicating where and when to shoot it and the group follow his lead. If a big group of archers were to fire at will then it would be quite difficult to coordinate them.

  • using this coordination the archers can use something like covering fire: targeting an area where e.g. the enemy cavalry's charge is going through to seriously disrupt their formation. If you can fell a large number of horses at once that is much more devastating to a cavalry charge as the falling horses hinder the other chargers.

  • you can use a volley to break the enemy's formation before your own charge.


Forcing everyone to fire in unison allows the commander to easily identify and execute shirkers, and thus increases the probability that everyone will fire. Individual arrows are also lost in the volley, and thus individual archers can have plausible deniability that they have just killed a human being.

Most military tactics are about getting the most out of an individual soldier, and "most" here is a euphemism for most violence. In Medieval times, there were very few professional soldiers - most soldiers were farmers conscripted by their villages or towns and forced to go to war. And, as has been documented throughout military history, most human beings really, really do not want to kill other human beings. Thus, in a free fire situation a conscript will generally try to do the minimum firing necessary to get home alive. This, however, doesn't match with the commander's goal of inflicting maximum casualties on the enemy. Thus most militaries would at least threaten to execute anyone who failed to perform the duty they were conscripted into.

However, to prove that one conscript out of hundreds wasn't taking shots of "opportunity" would be difficult, and increase the monitoring costs of the officers. When the monitoring costs are low, as in coordinated volley fire, an individual archer faces the very real possibility of execution if they do not fire an arrow at the appointed moment. Thus in such battle drills you will see seemingly "pointless" actions like archers holding up the arrow they are about to shoot (so that commanders can see they actually are holding an arrow to shoot) and a pause after a shot goes out (so that commanders can see they are no longer holding said arrow).

If we assume that half of archers would not fire in a free fire situation, you can see that a commander can easily double the effective damage on the enemy with good monitoring routines. However, the rates of non-firing may have been significantly higher than 50%. For example, in World War II it was well documented that only about 20% of soldiers actually fired at the enemy when in combat, which generally used small unit tactics focusing on free fire. If medieval archers were similarly averse to killing, then volley fire tactics could increase damage by 400%.

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    Welcome to History.SE! This is a great answer, but do you have any sources?
    – Luke_0
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 17:45
  • On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Gordon, is a good source for that.
    – ed.hank
    Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 23:06

The problem with this thread is that it is not clear whether people are talking about longbowmen in the 100 Years War or some other random bowmen. References to poorly trained amateur peasants would not apply to these professional troops (as it wouldn't apply to Mongol or Turkish horse archers etc either).

At Harcourt, Poitier, Crecy, Agincourt and elsewhere there were thousands of archers, so the comments about dodging one or two makes no sense. One or two posts correctly talk about having three arrows in the air at a time. 12 arrows per minute means one every five seconds and shooting over 200 yards takes 6-7 seconds, so as the third arrow is being shot, the second is travelling at its highest point and the third is accelerating downwards towards its destination. In these circumstances, people cannot (or could not) 'step out of the way' or change what they are doing.

I cannot say if having arrows land every few seconds or in a continual hail would have the greater effect on morale, but as a longbow archer with the Fraternity of St George (International Longbow Archery Association) I know that being asked to shoot to order is a PITA as you want to draw and release in a smooth motion. There might be a smooth rhythm that the archers might have fallen into though.

The counter argument is that the ventners/commanders may have told others to shoot following his own arrow so they reach the same distance, which could militate for volley fire. Put aside any thoughts that these people were ill disciplined peasants though. It was their discipline that allowed them to trounce larger and apparently better equipped foes.

If you're talking about other countries, it would be worth being specific as in Medieval times I don't believe archer levies were used in great quantities anywhere in Europe.


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
    Commented Jun 14, 2013 at 8:27
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    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. Commented Jun 14, 2013 at 13:48
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    Had to downvote - 1) is a long assertion with no references whatsoever.
    – user2590
    Commented Aug 28, 2013 at 19:07
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    Doesn't make sense to me to make untrained mobs into archers and not into infantry cannon-fodder. Untrained archers have generally no use in the battlefield - even if you have them fire in mass to an area. When firing in an arc to a distance, even a few degrees could mean huge difference and amateurs would make not just a small difference. Not speaking about the different bows behaving differently so even if everybody were to aim at the same angle, depending on the bow the results would have been greatly different (bows were handmade so differed greatly). One of the main advantages of the... Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 12:31
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    ... firearms were just the fact, that new recruits could be trained to use firearms in weeks. Archers on the other hand needed much more time. This means that to get a usable archer you had someone who had his own bow and arrows and practiced regularly. This means that archers logically shouldn't come from the lowest classes of society (like serfs), but from somewhere the middle class. Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 12:43

I've read most of the comments and the ones that make the most sense are the ones saying to group arrows together to stop people dodging them. I want to agree with that fully but I also doubt I could ever see a arrow flying towards my face. I do archery and yeah.

One arrow is enough to kill someone... but its also not enough to kill someone. Firing all at once can put multiple arrows into the same person ensuring that he wont get back up. I also believe it could be down to rhythm. Most armies use rhythm from marching to rowing. Its more frightening seeing a entire army work as a team than a bunch of people each doing their own thing.

I could be wrong but thats what makes the most sense to me. I could have gone into more detail but chose not to because there is a lot to read.

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    This answer could do with some supporting references.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 17:13

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