Lindybeige: Fire Arrows


Lindy proposes several different possible compositions of fire arrows, and why he believes they wouldn’t work. I don’t know how common fire arrows might have been in the classical period or middle ages, or how they would have been constructed. Fortunately however we do have a recipe for fire arrows from 1628, titled A New Invention of Shooting Fire-Shafts in Long-Bowes. Published anonymously, this short pamphlet advocates for the use of small explosives attached to arrows for use against musketeers, cavalry, ships and enemy fortifications.

The publication of the pamphlet was timed well. The bow had been ordered out of service in 1589 after seeing little combat during Elizabeth’s reign. Nonetheless there were still frequent calls to reintroduce archery. A major attempt to do so was undertaken in 1627, when counties were suddenly ordered to arm 24% of their levies as archers for the Il de Re Expedition. French sources record that English arrows were shot over the walls during the siege of St. Martin. The next year, with the encouragement of Charles I, the privy council ordered that William Neades’ invention of a bow fastened to a pike, known as the “Double Armed Man”, be given a test run in the Artillery Garden. The author of A New Invention¬†intended that the fireworks be used in tandem with¬† Neade’s bow.

It is not clear whether fire-arrows were ever constructed and used in the manner described by the pamphlet, quoted below. However, fire-arrows were used during this period, for example, by Royalist besiegers to burn down buildings in Lyme Regis during the civil war.

(The source for all of the above is E.T. Fox, Military Archery in the Seventeenth Century.)

This is the construction Anon describes for his proposed fireshafts:

Let the Fire-shafts have one end feathered and shaped, after the manner of an ordinary arrow, and the other end fitted with a pipe of latten, ten inches long or more, at discretion, a bearded head of iron fast glued into it, with a socket of wood, & a touch-hole made close by it, with some little reverse to stop the arrow from piercing so deepe into a mans cloaths, the flanques of a horse, or other marke of easie passage, as to choake the fire. The shaft may be made fast within the pipe (if men so please) with hard waxe; which melting as the pipe groweth hote, will make it very difficult to draw the arrow from where it lights.

Arrowes to make a blaze by night, as also those that are to shoote into the sailes of a ship or enemies tent, must have the touch-hole within an inch of the shaft, and the reverse a little above the touch-hole, to stay the arrow while the marke takes fire.

The pipe must be filled with this mixture bruised and very smal & hard ram’d in; Gunpowder & salt-peeter a like proportion, & brimstone halfe so much, with some small quantity of camphir (if men please) to make it operate more strongly where the mark is wet. If the mixture burne too quicke, adde brimstone, if too slowe, adde powder.

To stop the touch-hole that the mixture runne not forth, & to take fire when you mean to shoote, seeth cotten-candlewicke in vinegar and gunpowder bruised very small; and when it is throughly soaked and well dryed, take a small quantity (rolled a little in the former mixture) and stop the touch-hole therewith.

The Fire-shaft being made, and filled in this manner, take the Bowe with a match well lighted into your left hand, after the manner of Musquettiers; then hold the Arrow ready nocked in the Bowe, after the manner of Archers. Lastly, give fire, return your mach, and deliver the Arrow.

What is described is a pipe fastened to the shaft of an arrow with wax. The pipe would be made of latten, an alloy of copper and zinc common in this period, with an iron arrowhead fastened to the top. filled with gunpowder, saltpeter, sulfur and camphor and ignited by means of a fuse made from a candlewick soaked in gunpowder and vinegar.The addition of salt-peter and camphor made the gunpowder burn faster and hotter. The addition of sulfur, “brimstone”, made the mixture easier to ignite. The archer lit the fuse by means of a “match”, a gunpowder-soaked rope which was also used by musketeers to ignite their priming powder.

Lindy argues that fire arrows would not have been useful because they wouldn’t have penetrated well, but Anon designed his fire arrow specifically so that it would not penetrate deeply and thus extinguish the fire.

Would the fireshaft have functioned more like a simple incendiary, or a small grenade shooting out fragments of copper to wound men standing close to where the arrow landed? Either way, the flaw of a such a weapon is obvious. It could prove as dangerous to one’s own side as the enemy. Military men considered poorly-trained musketeers, clumsily trying to juggle their musket and match in one hand in and powder charge in the other, more hurtful than commodious. An archer with a bag full of twelve or twenty-four fireshafts would have posed an even greater risk of accidental explosion.