Okay, so here’s is a delightfully geeky semantics question for all of you:
I was sitting in The Two Towers, and during the Helm’s Deep scene I couldn’t help but notice that Aragorn tells the archers to “prepare to fire!” For whaever reason, I started thinking about all the battle scenes I’d ever watched in movies from ancient time periods, and pretty much all of the ones I could remember had people saying “fire!” as a cue to unleash arrows, javelins, spears, etc.
So, the question: would people have actually said that or not? It seems to me like shouting “fire!” wouldn’t really have originated until guns, or at least cannons, rolled along, and the application of flame actually caused something to happen. So when did the phrase start being used commonly? Has Hollywood been lying to me all this time? Okay, okay, stupid question. Has Hollywood been lying to me about this all the time?
Of course, as a decent archer, you have your best chance hitting a target that you aim for individually at shorter range while he’s unprepared. This is the exact opposite of firing at a great range, en masse, after crying out “fire”.
My guess is that this technique was indeed used, and continued to be used after its drawbacks, in certain situations, were apparent.
Consider the testudo, turtle, formation in which an advancing army marched closely together under a gridded shield comprised of their individual shields.
Military traditions die hard, armies are regimented, hell, battles were “scheduled” only a short time ago, historically speaking. War is as much psychological as physical, even back then it was. From the first hail of whispering arrows to seeing the front line get mowed down by the first volley of gunfire from the ridge. It serves to unseat your enemy and put him on his heels. The bravest soldiers were in the front line, right?
“Loose” would make more sense than “fire,” as there is no fire whatsoever involved in shooting an arrow, and loosening both the taut stretch of the bowstring and your own grip on the nock is what is, in fact, involved. However, I wasn’t present for any battles fought with footmen and archers, and I can’t find a definitive cite for you.
Exactly the same question was asked very recently
I think the word is SHOOT!
Date: before 12th century
1 a (1) : to eject or impel or cause to be ejected or impelled by a sudden release of tension (as of a bowstring or slingshot or by a flick of a finger) <shoot an arrow> <shoot a spitball> <shoot a marble>
Well, the characters aren’t actually speaking English. The characters are speaking whatever language the characters speak in the movie (ancient greek, latin, whatever language humans speak in Middle Earth), but the speech is pseudo-translated into modern English. Since in modern English any projectile can be “fired”, the term “fire” is correct, even for arrows in a movie that takes place in a setting with no firearms.
You know what they say: Ask a delightfully geeky question, get a delightfully geeky answer.
But weren’t longbowmen acting as a sort of artillery? I remember from several movies, including Braveheart, that the bowmen would fire into the air, such that the arrows would make a great arc and come down onto the heads of the opposing army.
I remember one Western where some cowboys or soldiers were pinned down by Indians firing arrows from behind a nearby hill. The only Indian visible to them was the scout calling out range finding directions to his comrades behind the hill.
I have been in medieval battle reenactments with a large variety of time settings. A Scottish highland inter-clan warfare of the 16th century, Viking raiders attacking a French village, and lugging a scutum all week long as a roman legionaire for the history channel. I’ve done a great deal of research in military history of the ‘hands on’ sort, armour, weapons and equipment. I have met many archery buffs who have researched thoroughly and the concensus is that they said the local language’s equivalent of either “loose” or “release”.
this site contains a handy glossery of historical archery terms.
Not quite. We no longer need to apply the fire to the powder manually, but fire is still used. It is simply self-contained and automatically generated, by the primer in each cartridge, which is essentially a built-in match.
Absolutely. Archers in medieval armies weren’t even taught how to aim at an individual opponent. Their target was the center of the opposing army’s line, an area that might be twenty or thirty yards wide and ten or more yards deep (talk about hitting the side of a barn!). They were the equivalent of an artillery barrage, intended to “soften up” the opposition preparatory to a charge. In a well-directed battle featuring archers, several “flights” (barrages) would be “loosed”, with the final flight landing just before the armies collided.
It should probably also be mentioned that it was really only English armies that used massed archers to any extent. It was such a devastating weapon that by the time other countries realized how effective it was, it was too late. Their armies had already been decimated, and they were forced to sue for peace. France, the Scottish rebels, any number of English rebels, and the Welsh (who tended to produce far better individual archers than the English, but in insufficient numbers) all learned this painful lesson.
And a well trained bowman of the Welsh persuasion was supposed to be able to reasonably accurately aim plunging arrow ‘fire’. I’ve read one account where a master longbowman dropped two out of three arrows into a less than one-yard stump at some 150 yards, plunging. The third arrow struck close-by.
That’s sufficient to hit a standing or slowly marching man at that range. Multiply that manyfold, and a mass flight of arrows becomes a deadly thing, killing or wounding soldiers in all ranks, breaking up formations as the soldiers have to walk over or around their fallen comrades, dress and close ranks. It screws with formations, big time, and that screws with the commander’s ability to to manuever those formations, which reduces their combat effectiveness, not to mention reducing their size and morale.
Much of the serious killing doesn’t happen in the face-to-face fighting, but after one force or the other breaks. Lowered morale helps make units break…
From a certain book (if you ask for a cite I’ll dig it up), I read that an average (though still very well trained) English longbowman was supposed to be able to hit a man-sized target with a dozen arrows at some distance - 150 yards, perhaps…
I’d be interested in the source of that claim. Also in any other details about the claim, if you can find it. I’ve read that an English bowman could loose eight to twelve arrows per minute (opinions vary), but I can find no claims relating to the level of accuracy of these arrows. In most accounts, it isn’t mentioned at all, one way or the other. The practice butts (targets - the derivation of the phrase ‘the butt of the joke’, but that’s another topic) used were approximately man-sized, but practice and battle are very different things.
I can personally testify that nocking, drawing, aiming, and loosing an arrow every five seconds is no easy task. Doing it with an eighty or one hundred pound longbow, for several minutes at a stretch, with any kind of accuracy would be nearly impossible, in my opinion. It also wouldn’t be necessary. The sheer numbers of arrows falling on a battle line (call it an average of ten per minute per archer times five thousand archers equals roughly 50,000 arrows per minute) would make aim irrelevant. Perhaps equating massed archers with machine guns would be more accurate than the analogy to artillery.
That doesn’t really acount for “firing a torpedo”, modern torpedoes are launched by compressed air and delivered to target by an electric motor. Only at the end of its trip does the “fire” become apparent.
The factoid I’d always heard about Welsh bowman was that they were supposed to be able to fire a second arrow at another target before their first arrow had even reached its target. No cite, just a prayer that this is true, because, c’mon, that’d be cool.
While I doubt that they actually had spotters as such, (the dust of the battlewould have made spotting rather pointless, in any event), a substantial number of Custer’s men died in just this way on the Little Bighorn, pinned to earth by flights of high-shot arrows aimed into the expected location of the troops amid the dust.