You’ve seen it on ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘Braveheart’, ‘Gladiator’, ‘Robin Hood‘, ‘Age of Empires’, ‘Total War’ and a long, long, etcetera of video games, movies, series and books; but you have been deceived. No, sorry: fire arrows were probably not our daily bread in ancient wars. They could be useful in certain cases, yes. Now, if you could travel back in time you would see that medieval battles were not as common as Hollywood has led us to believe.
Why? Simple, because everything indicates that they are very inefficient.
The myth has been commissioned to dismantle it, among others, historians Lindybeige (Nikolas Lloyd) y Spencer McDaniel, who have pointed out all the complications that the handling of flammable arrows in open combat would entail as a habitual tactic. The conclusion they reach is more or less the same: they would not be efficient in range, speed, or piercing capacity, the three qualities that made arrows a valuable option to attack enemies.
They are spectacular, yes; but not efficient
As Lindybeige explains, it is not easy to keep an arrow lit in mid-flight. When they are fired and move forward, making their way through the air, the fire tends to go out, just like the wick of a candle being blown out. To avoid this, the archer would have several options, such as lighting a large flame, pre-heating the arrow or using chemical products. none is perfect.
To begin with, the archer ran the risk of burning his hands or setting the bow on fire when pulling the arrow. He could use a longer pole or spike, long enough to reduce that danger; but by doing so he would add added weight to the projectile and also increase its brittleness.
Not only that. If you incorporate a cloth soaked in burning pitch or even a small cage to insert it into the tip, you may increase the chances that the arrow will not go out in mid-flight. The problem: you will add weight to the projectile and will lose capacity to penetrate enemy armor. I know, everything seems easier in gladiator battle against the Vikings.
In summary, as McDaniel explains, in the end we would have arrows with less range capacity, less precise and with a lower capacity also to circumvent the armor of the enemy. As if that balance wasn’t demoralizing enough in itself, there would be another handicap: the speed at which the archers would shoot would probably be reduced. After all, throwing an arrow is not the same as having to set it on fire first and shoot it.
Lindybeige explains that there would be another alternative, resorting to chemicals that help keep the flames alive during flight and increase their ability to catch fire once they reach the target. The tests that have been carried out with this tactic show, however, that it would not be a panacea either. The success rate in the experiments that the youtuber cites would be around 2%.
Does that mean that, despite the hype given to them by Hollywood or historical novels, flammable arrows were the most inefficient of the ancient weapons? Not quite.
There would be scenarios where yes they could be interesting, such as naval battles, where they could be used in the hope of lighting a candle or a powder magazine, or during sieges of cities to start fires and force the enemy to split his forces. What already seems more doubtful is that they were the usual and widespread tactic that we have been led to believe by blockbuster, novels and war video games set in the Middle Ages.
Now, that in the cinema or in the pages of novels they are luxurious… That is not disputed by anyone.