Another Fire Arrow Recipe

A follow-up the earlier fire arrow post. Nathanael Nye’s 1670 book “A Treatise of Artificiall Fire-Works for War and Recreation” contains another recipe. The illustration demonstrates naval use, but the description makes clear that it is also intended to be used against individuals.

Nathaniel Nye Fire Arrow

Get a long shaft of wood ; and joyne unto it an iron head, after the manner of the figure in the margen; and about the middle of that head make first a linnen bag, in form of an Egg, leaving open at the end before a hole, that it may be fitted with the composition following. Take one pound of [salt]Peter, half a pound of Gun-powder, and as much Brimstone in powder, all these ingredients being well mixed, and mingled with oyle of Petrioll : with these fill the bag round about the arrow head : then let all be bound about with wire, and for the priming of these, dip Cotton-week into Gunpowder wet with water, let the Cotton be well dried again before it be applyed. Now for the joyning of your wooden shaft to the arrow head, it ought to be done so slightly, that being fastened into any thing, those may be deceived, and pull it onely away, & to hinder that one may not pluck out the head with their hands there may be made a small hole quite thorow backwards, and so a man will be prevented in assaying to pull it off, although it stick in his fellows clothes.

Not sure what “oyle of Petrioll” is, unless Nye means petroleum. The “cotton-week” probably means cotton wick. Again, not sure why the wick should be cotton. Nye’s matchcord recipe calls for hemp or tow.

Andrew Battell of Leigh in Angola

Andrew Battell was an English trader who spent a very long time as a prisoner and conscript in Portuguese West Africa. He made multiple failed escape attempts.

After Battell’s first attempt to escape by stowing away aboard a Dutch ship, he was sentenced to military service. He spent six years in Fort Massangano before making a plan with some of the Portuguese and Egyptian soldiers to desert.

Fort Massangano, where Andrew Battell spent six years.

The fifth day, at night, we came to the river Dande, and travelled so far to the eastward that we were right against the Serras, or mountains of Manibangono, which is a lord that warreth against the King of Congo, whither we intended to go. Here we passed the river, and rested half the night. And being two leagues from the river we met with negroes, which asked us whither we travelled. We told them that we were going to Congo. These negroes said that we were in the wrong way, and that they were Masicongos,and would carry us to Bambe,where the Duke of Bambe lay

So we went some three miles east, up into the land, till we perceived that we were in the wrong way, for we travelled by the sun, and would go no further that way, and turned back again to the westward; they stood before us with their bows, arrows and darts, ready to shoot at us. But we, determining to go through them, discharged six muskets together and killed four, which did amaze them, and made them to retire. But they followed us four or five miles, and hurt two of our company with their arrows.

Battell was captured again two days later, and again sentenced to life in military service.

At that time the governor sent four hundred men, that were banished out of Portugal, up into the country of Elambe. Then I was with proclamation through the city banished for ever to the wars, and marched with them to Sowonso, which is a lord that obeyeth the Duke of Bamba; from thence to Samanibansa, and then to Namba Calamba, which is a great lord, who did resist us. But we burnt his town, and then he obeyed us, and brought three thousand warlike negroes to us. From thence [we marched] to Sollancango, a little lord, that fought very desperately with us, but was forced to obey; and then to Combrecaianga, where we remained two years. From this place we gave many assaults and brought many lords to subjection. We were fifteen thousand strong, and marched to the Outeiro, or mountain, of Ingombe. But first we burnt all Ingasia, which was his country, and then we came to the chief town of Ingombe, which is half a day’s journey to go up.

This lord came upon us with more than twenty thousand bows, and spoilt many of our men. But with our shot we made a great spoil among them, whereupon he retired up into the mountain, and sent one of his captains to our general, signifying that the next day he would obey him.

Battell is frustratingly brief in describing this long campaign, especially the battle against the twenty thousand archers. I would like to find another eyewitness for this battle, but I’m not sure it even has a name. The translator notes that “Battell seems to have been among the reinforcements despatched after the disastrous campaign in the spring of 1596. The “General” of Battell was João de Velloria, a Spaniard, who was Capitâo mór do Campo.”

Battell’s Portuguese comrades soon abandoned him as a hostage to the “Jagas”, a predatory warband, but Battell’s skill with the musket won him the respect of the Jaga’s leader.

We entered into the province of Casama, and came to one of the greatest Lords, which was called Langere. He obeyed the great Gaga, and carried us to a Lord called Casoch, which was a great warrior, for he had some seven years before overthrown the Portugals camp, and killed eight hundred Portugals and forty-thousand negroes, that were on the Portugals side. This Lord did stoutly withstand the Gagas, and had the first day a mighty battle, but had not the victory that day. So we made a sconce of trees after their fashion, and remained four months in the wars with them. I was so highly esteemed with the great Gaga, because I killed many negroes with my musket, that I had anything that I desired of him. He would also, when they went out to the wars, give charge to his men over me. By this means I have been often carried away in their arms, and saved my life. Here we were within three days’ journey of Massangano, before mentioned, where the Portugals have a fort: and I sought means, and got to the Portugals again with merchant negroes that came to the camp to buy slaves.

Samuel Champlain, Part 1

I’m going to make two or three posts on French explorers and their battles against native archery. This post will focus on Samuel Champlain, explorer of Quebec and the Great Lakes region. Champlain fought in several battles against the Iroquois on behalf of his allies, the Huron and Algonquins.

In July 1609, Champlain and two French companions, armed with harquebuses, traveled with their allies up the Richelieu River and met the Iroquois war party.

After this singing, dancing, and bandying words on both sides to the fill, when day came, my companions and myself continued under cover, for fear that the enemy would see us. We arranged our arms in the best manner possible, being, however, separated, each in one of the canoes of the savage Montagnais. After arming ourselves with light armor, we each took an arquebuse, and went on shore. I saw the enemy go out of their barricade, nearly two hundred in number, stout and rugged ‘ in appearance. They came at a slow pace towards us, with a dignity and assurance which greatly amused me, having three chiefs at their head. Our men also advanced in the same order, telling me that those who had three large plumes were the chiefs, and that they had only these three, and that they could be distinguished by these plumes, which were much larger than those of their companions, and that I should do what I could to kill them.

I promised to do all in my power, and said that I was very sorry they could not understand me, so that I might give order and shape to their mode of attacking their enemies, and then we should, without doubt, defeat them all ; but that this could not now be obviated, and that I should be very glad to show them my courage and good-will when we should engage in the fight.

As soon as we had landed, they began to run for some two hundred paces towards their enemies, who stood firmly, not having as yet noticed my companions, who went into the woods with some savages. Our men began to call me with loud cries; and, in order to give me a passage-way, they opened in two parts, and put me at their head, where I marched some twenty paces in advance of the rest, until I was within about thirty paces of the enemy, who at once noticed me, and, halting, gazed at me, as I did also at them. When I saw them making a move to fire at us, I rested my musket against my cheek, and aimed directly at one of the three chiefs. With the same shot, two fell to the ground ; and one of their men was so wounded that he died some time after. I had loaded my musket with four balls.

The translator notes that “This mode of fighting, in close array, shown also in a drawing which in the original accompanies this portion of the text, contrasts strongly with that which the Indians followed after they became acquainted with fire-arms.”

When our side saw this shot so favorable for them, they began to raise such loud cries that one could not have heard it thunder. Meanwhile, the arrows flew on both sides. The Iroquois were greatly astonished that two men had been so quickly killed, although they were equipped with armor woven from cotton thread, and with wood which was proof against their arrows. This caused great alarm among them. As I was loading again, one of my companions fired a shot from the woods, which astonished them anew to such a degree that, seeing their chiefs dead, they lost courage, and took to flight, abandoning their camp and fort, and fleeing into the woods, whither I pursued them, killing still more of them. Our savages also killed several of them, and took ten or twelve prisoners. The remainder escaped with the wounded. Fifteen or sixteen were wounded on our side with arrow-shots; but they were soon healed.

Loading the musket with multiple bullets was common. John Smith did the same thing in his skirmishes with Powhatan. Contemporary military writers Humfrey Barwick and Thomas Digges both mention the practice. Digges, an experienced artillerist, put the effective range of this “case shot” at 100 paces.

The problem with loading a musket with more than one bullet is that it increased the pressure in the barrel, and with it the chance that the weapon could explode. Indeed, in an earlier skirmish, Champlain’s musket, “bursting in my hands, came near killing me.”

Saukamappee: Plains Indians Use Guns in Battle for the First Time

This is an account by the Peigan Indian Saukamappee, whose life and times were recorded by the explorer David Thompson. Saukamappee describes the radical effect of firearms on Plains Indian warfare. Before, battles were fought with stone clubs and bows, and ended in stalemate unless one side was much larger. With only a handful of guns, Saukamappee’s side was able to turn what looked like a sure defeat by a numerically superior enemy into a victory.

After some singing and dancing, they sat down on the ground, and placed their large shields before them, which covered them : We did the same, but our shields were not so many, and some of our shields had to shelter two men. Theirs were all placed touching each other ; their Bows were not so long as ours, but of better wood, and the back covered with the sinews of the Bisons which made them very elastic, and their arrows went a long way and whizzed about us as balls do from guns. They were all headed with a sharp, smooth, black stone (flint) which broke when it struck anything. Our iron headed arrows did not go through their shields, but stuck in them ; On both sides several were wounded, but none lay on the ground ; and night put an end to the battle, without a scalp being taken on either side, and in those days such was the result, unless one party was more numerous than the other.

Later, when they had guns:

When the War Chief had viewed us all it was found between us and the Stone Indians we had ten guns and each of us about thirty balls, and powder for the war, and we were considered the strength of the battle. After a few days march our scouts brought us word that the enemy was near in a large war party, but had no Horses with them, for at that time they had very few of them. When we came to meet each other, as usual, each displayed their numbers, weapons and shields, in which they were superior to us, except our guns which were not shown, but kept in their leathern cases, and if we had shown[them], they would have taken them for long clubs. For a long time they held us in suspense ; a Chief was forming a strong party to make an attack on our centre, and the others to enter into combat with those opposite to them.

We prepared for the battle the best we could. Those of us who had guns stood in the front line, and each of us had two balls in his mouth, and a load of powder in his left hand to reload.

We noticed they had a great many short stone clubs for close combat, which is a dangerous weapon, and had they made a bold attack on us, we must have been defeated as they were more numerous and better armed than we were, for we could have fired our guns no more than twice ; and were at a loss what to do on the wide plain, and each Chief encouraged his men to stand firm. Our eyes were all on the tall Chief and his motions, which appeared to be contrary to the advice of several old Chiefs, all this time we were about the strong flight of an arrow from each other. At length the tall chief retired and they formed their long usual line by placing their shields on the ground to touch each other, the shield having a breadth of full three feet or more. We sat down opposite to them and most of us waited for the night to make a hasty retreat. The War Chief was close to us, anxious to see the effect of our guns. The lines were too far asunder for us to make a sure shot, and we requested him to close the line to about sixty yards, which was gradually done, and lying flat on the ground behind the shields, we watched our opportunity when they drew their bows to shoot at us, their bodies were then exposed and each of us, as opportunity offered, fired with deadly aim, and either killed, or severely wounded, every one we aimed at.

The War Chief was highly pleased, and the Snake Indians finding so many killed and wounded kept themselves behind their shields ; the War Chief then desired we would spread ourselves by two’s throughout the line, which we did, and our shots caused consternation and dismay along their whole line. The battle had begun about Noon, and the Sun was not yet half down, when we perceived some of them had crawled away from their shields, and were taking to flight.

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.

John Smythe on archers at Kett’s Rebellion and the Prayer Book Rebellion

The fiercest advocate of the longbow during the period of the Elizabethan bow vs. gun debates was John Smythe, a nobleman and a cantankerous soldier of long experience. Smythe had first served in France during the short reign of Edward VI, and afterwards had fought in the Netherlands (on the side of the Spanish) and against the Turks in eastern Europe. The first book Smythe wrote in defense of the bow, titled Certain Discourses, based much of its authority on the historical triumphs of archery- biblical, classical, medieval, and a few from Smythe’s own time. Those from the 16th century are the only ones really of interest to us.

Let’s take a look at some of the victories of longbowmen over harquebuzers and musketeers Smythe presents, and then see if we can reconcile them with the historical record.

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