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.


While skimming through the Calendar of State Papers, Volume 3, 1591-1594, I found this.

103. [The Council to the Justice of Peace]. Transmit schedules of recusants in their respective counties; their principle houses they are themselves secretly and suddenly to visit, and take possession of their arms and armour, to be restored to them at such time as they shall dutifully conform themselves to the laws, in resorting to the church. They are to appoint honest persons in like manner secretly to disarm recusants of the meaner sort, leaving fitting proportions of bows and arrows and black bills for defence of their houses. They are to bestow the armour in their own houses till further directions. Any recusant suspected of conveying away armour should be examined on oath. Any recusant not in the schedule is to be proceeded against; the yearly revenues and the value of goods of recusants are also to be impartially certified.

A recusant was someone who refused to attend Anglican services. The imposition of the Anglican religion on England had caused rebellion in the past, and that was why the council confiscated the weapons and armor of the recusants. It is interesting that they were allowed to keep their bows and bills for self-defense. It seems that by 1592 the government had no fear of an uprising of bowmen and billmen against its army of pikemen and musketeers. The rebels of Kett’s Rebellion and the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549 had been made up of mostly bowmen and billmen and they were crushed by a combination of cavalry, pikemen and harquebusiers.

16th Century Prices of Weapons

Great factoids in this book.

Page 105:

Bow, best sort- 3s. 4d.

” second- 2s. 6d.

” third- 2s.

Sheaf of livery arrows- 5s.

Sheaf of arrows, 8 or 9 inch the feather- 2s. 4d.

Page 106:
35 lb. of big shot for the ordnance at 2d. the lb. – 5s. 10d.

Page 107:

274 lb. of powder- 14l. 14s. (about 1s. a pound)

Page 112:

Corselet- 30s.

Caliver- 20s.

Harquebus- 8s.

Pike- 2s.

Bow and sheaf of arrows- 5s. 4d.

Sword- 6s.

Barrel of Gunpowder- 6l. 19s.

20 bullets- 2d.

From these figures, we get that a sheaf of 24 arrows cost 2s. 4d. At 1s. a pound for powder and 2d. a pound for lead, and assuming that half a pound of powder is needed for each pound of lead, we get a price of 8d. for 12 musket shots or 20 caliver or harquebus shots. Bows are still so much cheaper than the firearms that the archer could purchase several sheafs with the difference. I have never heard of archers carrying any more than 96 arrows, or 4 sheafs, which would have cost 9s. 4d., less than half the price of a caliver  and a third of a corselet. Thus while powder and lead was cheaper than arrows, the price of arrows is not a satisfactory explanation for the obsolescence of the bow in England.

In 1599 the bows and arrows finally disappeared from the muster rolls.The musket gained ground ; no more, perhaps, by its value, than by the special recommendation of the deputy lieutenants, 18th April, 1596, signed Sir Matthew Arundel, Sir George Trenchard, and Sir Ralph Horsey, ” to encrease armour and weapon, especially corslet and musket.” Nichols writes, that at Leicester, the queen, in 1598, ordered the bows and arrows to be refused and supplied with muskets. 
Page 114

Alonso De Contreras Witnesses the Accuracy of a Greek Archer

“I put the Greeks ashore, and went on my way with the caramuzal to the Arm of Mayna, which is not far distant. This Arm of Mayna is a district of the land which is in the Morea, a barren land, and its inhabitants are Greek Christians. They have no houses, but exist in grottos and caves, and are great robbers. They have no elected chief, but they obey him who is the most valiant; and though they are Christians, never, as it seems to me, do they act as such. The Turks have found it impossible to subdue them, although they live in the heart of the Turkish lands. Nay, it is the Turks whose cattle they steal, and sell them to others. They are great archers. One day I saw one of them bet that he would shoot an orange off the head of a son of his with an arrow at twenty paces; and he did it with such ease that I was amazed.”

The Life of Captain Alonso De Contreras: Knight of the Military Order of St. John, Native of Madrid, page 83, as translated by Catherine Alison Phillips.

List of arrow wounds suffered by US soldiers, late 19th century

Here is a rare opportunity to get hard numbers of the lethality of arrow wounds. This book is A Report of Surgical Cases Treated in the Army of the United States from 1865 to 1871. In reports of 83 arrow wounds, 26 are fatal, or 31%. Excluding men who suffered multiple wounds, 21 out of 76 died, or 27%. Most of the fatalities occurred when “…the three great cavities, or the larger bones or joints were involved…”.

On page 86 there is an analytic review of gunshot wounds. At a high level, there is an 38% fatality rate.

I will look through later and try to exclude cases of multiple wounds, pistol wounds, suicides, accidents, etc. Since the soldiers are not using muskets by this period, the data is not entirely relevant. I will seek sources on musket lethality elsewhere as well.