Why is simultaneous firing more effective in warfare?

You often see depictions of archers, crossbowmen or soldiers armed with early firearms making simultaneous shots in a formation for greater effect. Sometimes there might be someone shouting something like “Ready. Aim. Fire!” to set the pace.

Wouldn’t the firing speed of a squadron be based on the slowest reloader? So presumably some of the soldiers might be able to fire their weapon faster than the firing speed of the overall unit.

Let’s say a musketeer or archer fires 3 shots per minute. Why would 50 shots fired at once every 20 seconds be more deadly than say 5 shots every 2 seconds with each man firing at their own pace? The trajectory of a single bullet or arrow isn’t based on any other bullets fired at the same time, so why would a volley of arrows or other projectiles be more deadly? It’s not like you can react to a musket ball coming at you to raise a shield or some similar cover.

If simultaneous squad based firing is historically accurate, and I’m assuming it is, there must be some reason for it. Is a volley of arrows really more deadly than the same arrows fired over a longer period?

I think one of the tactics is to have rapid volleys. Let’s say 3 rows of men together. Row 1 fires, then moves back, row 2 moves up to fire, row 3 reloads. You get 3x the firepower concentrated in one location. If you tried to do it without being rigidly paced, you’ll have soldiers trying to move in position while other soldiers are trying to fire, or reload.

Simultaneous fire wasn’t used 100% of the time. It was usually used for the first volley from a line infantry group, who would then sometimes devolve into individual shot-by-shot fire depending on the time period, unit discipline, and prevailing military theory. But you are right in that after the first volley individual fire could be more effective due to increased rate of fire, and being able to take better advantage of opportunities that present themselves.

But officers wanted to wait until the right moment to fire off the first shot (from a line infantry group,) because the soldiers had already loaded their weapons carefully into a clean weapon, so the first shot is the deadliest. They didn’t want scared soldiers firing off their weapons half-cocked.

And if the soldier was good enough to hit from a longer range, they would have been given a better gun and made a skirmisher, who were allowed to shoot at their leisure.

Not any more deadly to the individual soldier, but far more deadly to morale. If you see 15 or 20 of the guys all around you go down in the first volley of incoming fire, you are not going to want to stick around for the next one.

I’m wondering if a volley of arrows is indeed deadlier. After all you can see arrows coming, and could possibly avoid one. Hundreds of them saturating the area, not so much.

In the movie Zulu! (based on actual events), there is an excellent depiction of the effectiveness of volley fire. Three or four ranks of soldiers fired upon command against a far superior force of warriors armed with primitive weapons and held them off. Otherwise they would have been overrun.

Isn’t that a contradiction? :slight_smile:

Volley fire had much more of a shock effect on troops trying to wade through it. Basically, if you are in a large formation with thousands of other guys moving forward together, it’s more of a shock to you when you see large numbers fall together than if you see a guy fall here or there…even if in the end as many people actually die. Also, since at least in the early gun powder days an individual shot might go pretty much anywhere, seeing the enemy fire to no visible effect would boost your morale, while seeing a whole line of soldiers fire and a dozen or so of your mates fall over screaming would have a lowering effect on your overall morale.

Also, in the gun powder days the sound would be more shocking when lines of men fired together. Bow fire I think it was the sight of hundreds of shafts rising up and then coming down that would have been the biggest shock to morale and to moving forward in the face of a rain of arrows.

That said, volley fire wasn’t always used even in the black powder gunfire days. The French, for instance, used columns of troops who IIRC pretty much held their fire until the last minute, and then only the fronts and sides would fire and the column would then charge (granted, I’m getting this from fictional book like the Sharpe series, so it may or may not be accurate). A lot of times after the initial volleys troops would be told to fire as quickly as they loaded (especially in ship board actions…at least as long as the Hornblower and Aubry books are accurate ;)).


Individual fire from a musket is largely wasted. They were inherently inaccurate to begin with, and adding in fouled bores and shaky shooters just made things worse. Volley fire was a way to put a lot of lead on target at the same time.

As for arrows, a disciplined force would all be capable of maintaining the same rate of fire throughout the ranks. If you couldn’t, they’d demote you back to pikeman or spear-carrier.

Even today, time-on-target fire is used for maximum impact on the receiving troops.

Longbowmen would shoot volleys of arrows in a parabolic arc, causing a hail of arrows to fall on the enemy. Presumably, this would take out whole chunks of the advancing line, which is probably more harmful from a logistical standpoint than taking out random individuals. Not to mention being pretty damn scary, as orther posters have noted.

At some point after the volleys of firings, normally the commander orders: “Fire at will!”

At least that what happens in the movies. :wink:

It seems to me that volley firing would be a way for the commander to have better control over his troops. Soldiers aren’t just shooting. They could be advancing or retreating. If a commander senses that the opposing army is about to charge, he might want his men to hold their fire until the enemy is charging, and not be caught in the middle of reloading when it happens.

Black powder generates lots of smoke, through which you can’t see well to aim. Volley fire allows everyone to aim before the enemy is hidden by your mate’s smoke.

Depends where the first shot went. :eek:

Will frakking hates it when that happens, too!

And I always liked the guy.

I never understood why everyone wanted to fire at him.

Will knows why.

I’d heard that in the musket days they did volley fire because they didn’t want one dude shooting off his musket with a big flash of flames, sparks, and embers, while the dude next to him was fiddling with his gunpowder.


As another example ( which I’ve used before ), the Austrians preferred volley fire when fighting most opponents, but tended to switch to free-firing when engaging Ottoman forces. That’s because the highly motivated but very undisciplined Ottoman troops had a tendency to take advantages of gaps in fire to close and engage in melee. Not only were the Ottoman regulars more dangerous close in on their own merits ( lack of drill and discipline made them weaker at range relative to European opponents, but a high esprit de corps and a cultural emphasis on feats of personal bravery made them ferocious when engaged ), but Austrian troops seemed to have also had a somewhat atavistic dread of ‘the Turk.’ Such that their lines were more liable to buckle if directly assaulted.

Not that much of a risk, really. All the flames, sparks and embers are generally headed in one direction, while gunpowder was meted out from a small flask (and later prepackaged in paper along with the ball).