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View Full Version : Did Medieval armies have "precision archers" equivalent to today's sniper?


Argent Towers
08-15-2008, 02:06 AM
I take it that in Medieval times, the preferred method of using arrows on the battlefield emphasized quantity, not quality. The idea was to get massive waves of arrows flying towards the enemy, and like, fast.

But did any armies employ a "precision archer" - someone whose role was to take out a specific man?

Tamerlane
08-15-2008, 02:54 AM
But did any armies employ a "precision archer" - someone whose role was to take out a specific man?

In terms of a specialized unit? No, I don't think so. Or at least I've never seen such a reference.

That particularly skilled archers were occasionally singled out to snipe at prominent enemies, I have no doubt ( I imagine I could probably find examples if I wracked my brain a bit more or dug around enough ).

Alessan
08-15-2008, 04:10 AM
I'm pretty sure they also employed scouts - lightly-armored men armed with bows, who performed at least some of the duties of a modern sniper.

Otara
08-15-2008, 04:41 AM
Important to realise the large difference in ranges involved.

Robin hood stories notwithstanding, longer range precision shots with bows arent exactly easy, even when the target isnt moving.

And depending on the period, archery would be particularly bad in taking out high value targets, because armour for the elite was pretty good at defeating it.

Otara

puppygod
08-15-2008, 04:52 AM
No. I mean - like Tamerlane noted - occasionally some warlord took that guy who was known as good archer and said "try take out that captain" or something, but such examples are few. Bows simply aren't that accurate at long ranges, and you need to stand to shoot arrow so all that 'sneak into enemy position and take out their high ranks without being noticed' thing is impossible.

Also culturally many of bow-using armies were used rather to sparing lives of nobility (and thus officers) and archers were usually commoner. In some times and cultures killing _enemy_ officer was capital offense for common soldier.

There were scouts, who fought as skirmishers - more of ambush and guerrilla tactic than sniping as we know it.

Lust4Life
08-15-2008, 05:20 AM
On a History Channel programme about the Long Bow it related an event in Medievil England where a knight in effect took over one of a great lords manors and defied him to take it back.

The lord was furious and agreed to meet the knight and his men with only a tiny proportion of his own retinue so that he couldn't be accused of winning the fight by numbers.

The skirmishing started and after a while the knight raised his helm for fresh air and immediatly received a fatal arrow in the face thus ending the fight.
It wa obvious that the lord had planned this from the start with one of his best archers.

This was an actual historical event not a story but I cant remember the participants names so would be glad for some help on this.

Before we start making decisions about bullying lords and David and Goliath etc. the knight was in the wrong,knew he was in the wrong and was guilty of theft on a large scale.

Oy!
08-15-2008, 09:39 AM
You're also less likely to want to take a high value target out when there's a nice juicy ransom involved in his capture and safe return. That was typical in Europe in the Middle Ages. So not only less likely, but less desirable.

Exapno Mapcase
08-15-2008, 10:05 AM
This was an actual historical event not a story but I cant remember the participants names so would be glad for some help on this.

If you saw this on the History Channel, the odds are good that it wasn't an actual historical event.

Sailboat
08-15-2008, 10:06 AM
Anecdote: This definitely happened to me when I was in the Society for Creative Anachronism.

When a bridge battle (a fight on a narrow front usually decided by momentum) stalled and the two sides were stalemated, a war captain sought me out: “Archer! Come here.” He asked me to take out a particular swordsman who was sweeping a great two-handed sword (a taped-up piece of rattan actually) and holding half the frontage by himself.

Bridge battles in the SCA are usually crowded with spearmen. I couldn’t get to the front rank and I was shorter than most of the warriors to boot. So I squirmed as far forward as possible, hooked my left elbow through the right elbow of a cooperative spearmen, and leaned out over the deep rushing water hay bales defining the edge of the “bridge”. I drew my bow as I swung out into view. The swordsman looked startled for a moment as I placed a padded arrow into his ribs at short range.

He ignored it. You’re on an honor system to “register” a blow in the SCA, and that was supposed to count as a kill, and everyone saw it…but it’s considered discourteous to argue, so I shrugged it off. The war captain thanked me and clapped me on the shoulder, dismissing me.

I later pegged someone in that line with a javelin -- I have no idea who, since I just leaped up and flung it into the seething mass. But a knight came over afterward to compliment me on the javelin cast, so I must have hit someone. :P

Sailboat

Giles
08-15-2008, 10:08 AM
The skirmishing started and after a while the knight raised his helm for fresh air and immediatly received a fatal arrow in the face thus ending the fight.
It wa obvious that the lord had planned this from the start with one of his best archers.

This was an actual historical event not a story but I cant remember the participants names so would be glad for some help on this.
Probably not the same event, but King Harold of England may have been killed by an arrow in the eye at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. (The main evidence for this is his picture in the Bayeux Tapestry).

Oy!
08-15-2008, 10:20 AM
Well, Richard I (Lionheart) of England was killed by an arrow or two (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_I#Later_years_and_death). But it wasn't a sniper per se, it was a kid trying to take revenge and Richard's own hubris, or so it's said.

Again, captains in general did not order snipers to kill off opposing captains, because they could get fat ransoms for keeping them alive. War was not just glory for these guys. It was a way to make money. Loot for the men at arms, ransoms for the knights, political power for the nobility. Everybody wins!

ralph124c
08-15-2008, 11:55 AM
I suspect that medieval armies used crossbowmen as snipers-because the crossbow (though slow in firing) was capable of being aimed better than the longbow.
Curiously, most crossbowmen were hired mercenaries (Genoese and Lombards), and they must have been pretty wary, because at Crecy, the french knights RODE over them!
Not good for morale!

Deeg
08-15-2008, 12:05 PM
My understanding is that crossbows were less accurate than good bows. However, they had the distinct advantage of requiring much less skill to fire.

To the OP, I don't think bows were accurate enough at long range for anyone to expect a sniper shot to work. It would be interesting to see the accuracy of the Olympic archers at 70 meters and try to determine if they could be used as snipers.

Quercus
08-15-2008, 12:29 PM
There's also the fairly slow speed of arrows, which makes it harder to do precision sniping from any distance. http://stortford-archers.org.uk/medieval.htm says a very very powerful shot would start at 60 meters/second, with a max range of 240 m. Even a 100 m shot would be more than 2 seconds in flight. So if you tried to take out that knight just as he took off his helmet, even if you could put your arrow on target, he'd probably have moved by the time the arrow landed.

Mops
08-15-2008, 12:44 PM
...

Again, captains in general did not order snipers to kill off opposing captains, because they could get fat ransoms for keeping them alive. War was not just glory for these guys. It was a way to make money. Loot for the men at arms, ransoms for the knights, political power for the nobility. Everybody wins!

That, and I suppose also the political value of a high-ranking captive used to be higher under the feudal system.

If you capture a high-ranking officer today, he will be replaced in his post by someone else. His former command would not be in your power.

If you captured a feudal lord in the MA, he would remain lord of his fief. Under the right circumstances (his fief not being surrounded by territories of your enemies) you had even a chance for your captive (and his followers) to go over to your side.

tdn
08-15-2008, 12:52 PM
All that having been said, my understanding is that archers did indeed focus on specific targets rather than merely firing into the crowd. An expert on the subject (SCA member? Historian? Crazy dude with a bow?) was quite certain that it made a huge difference in whether one actually hit anyone.

chowder
08-15-2008, 12:54 PM
Probably not the same event, but King Harold of England may have been killed by an arrow in the eye at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. (The main evidence for this is his picture in the Bayeux Tapestry).

Shortly before this happened he was heard to say "Stop fucking about with that, you'll have someones eye out"

Giles
08-15-2008, 01:01 PM
Shortly before this happened he was heard to say "Stop fucking about with that, you'll have someones eye out"
Right, but in Anglo-Saxon, of course. Since the Norman archers only spoke French, they thought he said, "Over here, boys! I'll take on the lot of you."

Der Trihs
08-15-2008, 05:31 PM
I suspect that medieval armies used crossbowmen as snipers-because the crossbow (though slow in firing) was capable of being aimed better than the longbow.
Curiously, most crossbowmen were hired mercenaries (Genoese and Lombards), and they must have been pretty wary, because at Crecy, the french knights RODE over them!
Not good for morale!I read some years ago that that's supposedly WHY the French used crossbowmen, instead of longbowmen like the English. Crossbowmen were easier to train, and thus more expendable, so the knights could AFFORD to just run them down. Longbowmen were trained from childhood, harder to replace, and were therefore not as expendable, and expendable people they could casually ride down were what the French nobility wanted.

BrotherCadfael
08-15-2008, 06:05 PM
Slightly off-topic, but ancient artwork from the Middle East show that the regular order of battle placed the slingers (think David) BEHIND the archers, because they had better range and accuracy. Those guys may have been the "snipers".

(So, in essence, David brought a gun to Goliath's knife fight.)

LurkMeister
08-15-2008, 06:08 PM
Shortly before this happened he was heard to say "Stop fucking about with that, you'll have someones eye out"
I thought it was "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance."

Or am I thinking of someone else? :D

Exapno Mapcase
08-15-2008, 06:15 PM
Civil War General John Sedgwick (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Sedgwick), of course. :)

clairobscur
08-15-2008, 06:55 PM
Well, Richard I (Lionheart) of England was killed by an arrow or two (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_I#Later_years_and_death). But it wasn't a sniper per se, it was a kid trying to take revenge and Richard's own hubris, or so it's said.



And he was tortured to death for his feat, which implies that "snipers" killing lords weren't exactly held in high esteem.

BarnOwl
08-15-2008, 07:14 PM
Item of interest...

A 3-hour docu-drama, China's First Emperor (which appeared on the History Channel) claims that

1. The Chinese of ~ 220 BC, laid a chrome film on swords which were more than a meter long and were no rusted when unearthed.

2. The business ends of their arrows (the Qin kingdom, anyway) were produced via an assembly line and the process was good that all arrowheads wieghed the same

3. The metal trigger for their crossbows, was similarly assembly-line produced and these were interchangeable with all other of their crossbows.

I strongly suspect that the Chinese government was involved in the making of this film, no facts, just a sense that it was very, very laudatory.

But the King Qin (pronounced chin) was protrayed as going tres paranoid in later life due to the consumption of Mercury-laced potions which his alchemists gave him in his quest for eternal life - on earth.

And Qin did unify CHINA, bending the 6 other kingdoms to his will.
I saved the movie and intend to watch it again.

AQlso, he was the one who caused all those thousands of terra cotta soldiers tobe buried with him.

Alessan
08-16-2008, 01:33 AM
I read some years ago that that's supposedly WHY the French used crossbowmen, instead of longbowmen like the English. Crossbowmen were easier to train, and thus more expendable, so the knights could AFFORD to just run them down. Longbowmen were trained from childhood, harder to replace, and were therefore not as expendable, and expendable people they could casually ride down were what the French nobility wanted.
That may be true for your average peasant crossbowman, but Italian arblasters (militia or mercenary) were the best armed, best armored infantrymen of their time, and their weapons packed a heavier punch than even the best longbow. They're one reason cities like Genoa and Venice, who had lots of money but few armored knights, remained independant for so long.

Lust4Life
08-16-2008, 08:30 AM
Probably not the same event, but King Harold of England may have been killed by an arrow in the eye at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. (The main evidence for this is his picture in the Bayeux Tapestry).


No this was much later then the Norman invasion and the two participants were AngloNormans.

chowder
08-16-2008, 12:16 PM
No this was much later then the Norman invasion and the two participants were AngloNormans.
Excuse me old chap but Harold was killed at the BoH.

Wiv an arrer right in his mincer

Tamerlane
08-16-2008, 12:36 PM
Excuse me old chap but Harold was killed at the BoH.

Lust4Life was referring to the incident in question,which he first brought up and Giles was responding to with the Hastings cite. As it happens Harold's alleged mortal arrow wound probably didn't end the fighting at Hastings, though it may have been a decisive moment for army cohesion.

casdave
08-16-2008, 01:02 PM
....and of course we are all neglecting to mention, Harold was killed not at Hastings, but at Battle, which was a significant place in itself.

msmith537
08-16-2008, 01:31 PM
Important to realise the large difference in ranges involved.


That is very important. A bow has a range of several dozen meters while a modern trained sniper can engage targets hundreds or thousands of meters away.

Snipers don't assassinate generals and other officers (although I suppose they could). They restrict enemy movement using a minimum amount of resources. When soldiers know there is a sniper in the area (usually indicated by some poor suckers head exploding) they tend to stay hidden or under cover, wait for support and so on. It's demoralizing. Remember Full Metal Jacket or Sergeant York?

A lone archer simply can't have that effect. First of all, at longer ranges you see a single freakin arrow arcing towards you and you can avoid it. Second, you can probably see where it came from. Which means you can then send a dozen guys over to kick his ass.

chowder
08-18-2008, 02:18 AM
....and of course we are all neglecting to mention, Harold was killed not at Hastings, but at Battle, which was a significant place in itself.
According to Wiki Harold was killed at the BoH.

As every schoolkid knows, or at least knew at one time

Martini Enfield
08-18-2008, 07:00 AM
I thought it was "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance."

Or am I thinking of someone else? :D

That would be US Civil War General John Sedgewick (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Sedgwick), a perennial entry in the "Famous Last Words" compendiums (and it would appear those actually were his last words, as opposed to merely being attributed to him.)

As for King Harold and his death at the Battle of Hastings (way back in 1066, kids!), I believe there's some debate as to whether the chap in the Bayeux Tapestry with the arrow sticking out of his eye is King Harold or one of his Knights; there's another fellow nearby on the wrong end of a battleaxe wielded by a horseman, and another one who appears to have come off second best against a swordsman. All of them are in the "Harold Rex Interfectus Est" ("King Harold Is Slain" area of the tapestry, hence the debate over which one is Harold.

slaphead
08-18-2008, 10:58 AM
According to Wiki Harold was killed at the BoH.

The Battle of Hastings was so-called because it was near Hastings (there being nothing else of significance nearby at the time). Whereas the town of Battle is so-called because it is on the site of the actual battle (according to the local (http://212.104.140.187/index.cfm?articleid=2373) propaganda, anyhow). It's probably techically correct to say that the Battlefield of Hastings is at Battle, not Hastings. However, at the time it wasn't there. It's a bit like saying the Battle of Waterloo took place at the Waterloo Battlefield Visitor's Centre, not at the town of Waterloo. :dubious:

Captain Amazing
08-18-2008, 12:01 PM
...and expendable people they could casually ride down were what the French nobility wanted.

Well, the French nobility wasn't in the habit of trampling their own soldiers. Crecy was a special case.

Oy!
08-18-2008, 12:09 PM
Don't be so sure. They were, after all, French. :D

Alessan
08-18-2008, 01:49 PM
Well, the French nobility wasn't in the habit of trampling their own soldiers. Crecy was a special case.

There are also certain financial advantages to massacaring all your mercenaries.

Captain Amazing
08-18-2008, 02:00 PM
There are also certain financial advantages to massacaring all your mercenaries.

Yes, but massacring all your mercenaries is also a good way to guarantee that you won't find any mercenaries to fight for you in the next battles.

But Crecy was a special case. The French knights were upset that the crossbowmen were retreated and worried because the English arrows were starting to fall amongst them.

Giles
08-18-2008, 02:00 PM
There are also certain financial advantages to massacaring all your mercenaries.
Though, if you get a reputation for doing this, it gets harder to hire the next batch of them.

ivan astikov
08-18-2008, 02:09 PM
I thought it was "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance."

Or am I thinking of someone else? :D

You're thinking of El Cid, I reckon. I was watching it yesterday afternoon and chuckling at how no horses managed to get hit. Also, that battle scene on the beach was terrible. I saw two Moors stood in the background chatting as though they'd met at the bus-stop. :mad:

chowder
08-18-2008, 02:15 PM
The Battle of Hastings was so-called because it was near Hastings (there being nothing else of significance nearby at the time). Whereas the town of Battle is so-called because it is on the site of the actual battle (according to the local (http://212.104.140.187/index.cfm?articleid=2373) propaganda, anyhow). It's probably techically correct to say that the Battlefield of Hastings is at Battle, not Hastings. However, at the time it wasn't there. It's a bit like saying the Battle of Waterloo took place at the Waterloo Battlefield Visitor's Centre, not at the town of Waterloo. :dubious:
So what would you have expected them to call the battle?

"The Battle of that place near Hastings where 'arry got his mince pie shot out wiv an arrer"

Ludovic
08-18-2008, 03:21 PM
So what would you have expected them to call the battle?

"The Battle of that place near Hastings where 'arry got his mince pie shot out wiv an arrer"They probably called it the "Battle of Hastings" because the "Battle of Battle" sounds stupid.

BMalion
08-18-2008, 04:14 PM
If they were in such a hurry to name it then they could have called it The Haste of Battle.

sqweels
08-18-2008, 04:54 PM
Don't be so sure. They were, after all, French. :D

Doesn't sound very surrender-monkeyish to me.

Oy!
08-18-2008, 05:02 PM
Oh, the French aren't known in the long haul for being surrenderers. The French are known for being obnoxious gits. If you live an an Anglo-centric country, that is. Even if the French were key to your getting and keeping your independence from that country and gave you a really nifty statue and have been allied with you in two world wars and in the entire last century.

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