Archery's Ancient Ineffectiveness Explained

why is archery ineffective during ancient world

Archery was a significant part of warfare in the ancient world, but it was not without its limitations. The effectiveness of archers in ancient warfare depended on several factors, including the type of bow, strength, and quality of wood used. The use of horse archers in the East was an important development, allowing for greater mobility and the ability to shoot from horseback. However, archery was not a common feature of the Roman military, and cavalry was often more effective in countering archers than infantry. The advent of firearms eventually rendered bows obsolete, as they offered longer-range, greater accuracy, and better penetration than traditional bows.

Characteristics Values
Ineffective against certain formations Testudo, or "tortoise," formations were impenetrable to archery
Cost Arrows were expensive
Training Archers required extensive training
Terrain Mounted archery was ineffective in forested and rugged terrain
Armour Armour could protect against arrows
Rate of fire Crossbows and muzzle-loading guns had a lower rate of fire than mounted archers
Range Crossbows and muzzle-loading guns had shorter ranges than mounted archers
Cavalry Cavalry was the "dread of all archers"


Archers were expensive to train and required good vision and physical strength

Archery was a highly specialised skill that required extensive training and practice to master. Archers needed good eyesight, physical strength, and equestrian skills to be effective in battle. The time and resources required to train archers made them expensive to train.

Archery was an elite combat skill that took years to master. Archers needed to be able to accurately release an arrow while riding a horse, which required excellent equestrian skills and physical strength to remain in sync with the horse. This was extremely challenging and required a great deal of practice. In ancient societies, where most soldiers were peasants or levies, there were few professional armies and archers were in the minority.

Archery was also expensive because arrows cost money and required specific types of wood. In addition, bows were frequently made from natural materials that were used in all kinds of conditions, making them difficult to preserve. Bows were also vulnerable to damage from rain, and archers needed to train constantly to maintain their skills.

The development of firearms eventually rendered archery obsolete. Firearms had a longer range, greater penetration, and were extremely powerful compared to bows and arrows. They also did not require the same level of training and skill to use effectively. As a result, archers became obsolete on the battlefield and were replaced by soldiers armed with guns.

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Archers were vulnerable to cavalry, especially light and mobile cavalry

The use of bows and arrows, or archery, has a long history in warfare, dating back to the classical period. Archers were a common feature of ancient armies, often fighting on foot, in chariots, or mounted on horses. However, their effectiveness was limited, especially against cavalry, and they were eventually replaced by firearms.

One of the main vulnerabilities of archers was their lack of mobility compared to cavalry, especially light and mobile cavalry. Mounted archers, such as the Scythians and the Parthians, could utilise their speed and manoeuvrability to outflank and defeat infantry-based archer units. The Scythians, for example, were known for their aggressive nomadic lifestyle and their ability to strike fear into sedentary civilisations that lacked the skill of riding and archery.

The Parthians, an ancient Iranian people, invented a military tactic known as the "Parthian shot", which involved turning and shooting an arrow while galloping away from the enemy. This technique allowed them to engage and disengage quickly, making them extremely effective against slower-moving infantry units.

The use of horses also provided cavalry with greater height and impact compared to infantry. This advantage of height gave cavalry a better position for shooting arrows or throwing javelins, increasing their accuracy and range. Additionally, the ability to pass through difficult terrain gave cavalry greater mobility and allowed them to outmanoeuvre archer units.

The development of stirrups and spurs further enhanced the capabilities of cavalry. These technological advancements allowed riders to have better control and stability on horseback, making them even more effective in combat.

It is important to note that archers were not always vulnerable to cavalry. In certain situations, archers could utilise their range and firepower to defeat cavalry charges. For example, during the Battle of Mohi, crossbowmen were able to snipe and defeat a unit of Mongol light cavalry. However, in most cases, the mobility, speed, and impact of cavalry gave them a significant advantage over archer units.


Archers were ineffective against certain types of armour and formations, such as the Greek testudo formation

Archery, or the use of bows and arrows, has a long history in warfare, dating back to the classical period. However, it became obsolete with the invention of firearms in the 19th century. While archers played a significant role in many ancient battles, they had certain limitations and were ineffective against specific types of armour and formations. One well-known example of a formation that could counter archers is the Greek testudo formation.

The testudo formation, also known as the "turtle" formation, was a defensive tactic employed by Roman legionaries to protect themselves against archer fire. In this formation, legionaries created a compact rectangular formation, with the soldiers in the first row and sides holding their shields vertically, while those in the inner ranks held their shields horizontally, creating an overhead cover. This formation resembled a shelled turtle, hence the name.

The testudo formation was highly effective against archer fire, allowing the legionaries to move across the battlefield without fear of arrows. It was particularly useful during sieges, providing protection from projectiles launched from enemy walls. However, it had several disadvantages that made it vulnerable to certain types of attacks.

One major drawback of the testudo formation was its lack of mobility and speed. The compact and slow-moving formation made it an easy target for throwing machines such as onagers and ballistae. A single heavy projectile fired from a catapult or ballista could kill multiple legionaries. Additionally, the formation made it difficult for soldiers to transition into hand-to-hand combat, as they were tightly packed and unable to manoeuvre freely.

The testudo formation also left the front row of legionaries vulnerable, as their legs and heads were exposed. This made them an easy target for archers or cavalry charges. Moreover, the testudo was most effective against stationary enemies firing from a fixed position. It struggled against mounted archers who could move around the formation, attacking from multiple angles and pinning down the legionaries.

The effectiveness of the testudo formation relied heavily on the discipline and training of the soldiers. As the Roman army shifted towards semi-Romanised foederati and placed more emphasis on quantity over quality, maintaining the testudo became challenging. The formation required extensive training and coordination to be effective, and the lack of discipline within the ranks further contributed to its decline.

In summary, while the Greek testudo formation offered excellent protection against archer fire, it had several weaknesses. Its slow speed and lack of mobility made it vulnerable to projectiles and cavalry charges. The formation's effectiveness diminished when facing mobile enemies who could surround and attack from multiple directions, such as mounted archers. Additionally, the decline in the discipline and training of Roman soldiers contributed to the testudo's decreasing use in ancient warfare.

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Archers were dependent on environmental factors, such as weather and terrain

Archery was dependent on environmental factors, such as weather and terrain. Archers were vulnerable to the weather, especially rain, which could damage their bows and arrows. For example, firearms were more effective in wet weather than bows and arrows. The terrain was also a factor, as archers needed to be able to see their targets and have a clear line of fire. In addition, the type of bow and the quality of wood used were important considerations. The range of a shortbow, for instance, was only about 100 yards, while a longbow had a range of up to 200 yards.

The use of archers in ancient warfare was influenced by the environment and terrain. For example, horse archers were effective in open areas where they could manoeuvre freely. On the other hand, archers were less effective in confined spaces or rough terrain where they could not move easily. The weather also played a role, as rain and strong winds could affect the accuracy of arrows.

Archers were also used to great effect in certain environmental conditions. For example, at the Battle of Agincourt, the English archers took advantage of the mud to kill the French horses, forcing the French knights to fight on foot. In another instance, the Roman army faced challenges against Parthian horse archers at Carrhae, where the terrain and weather conditions may have been unfavourable for them.

Overall, archers in the ancient world were dependent on environmental factors such as weather and terrain, which influenced their tactics, effectiveness, and the outcome of battles. The type of bow, quality of wood, and environmental conditions were all critical aspects that determined the success of archers in ancient warfare.


Archers were eventually outclassed by firearms, which had longer ranges, higher rates of fire, and better penetration

The advent of firearms with longer ranges, higher rates of fire, and better penetration eventually rendered bows obsolete in warfare. While early firearms were inferior in rate of fire, they had a longer effective range, greater penetration, and were extremely powerful compared to any previous man-portable missile weapon. For instance, 16th-century arquebuses and muskets had 1,300 to 3,000 joules per shot, compared to 80-100 joules for a typical longbow arrow or 150-200 joules for a crossbow bolt.

Firearms were also tactically superior in situations where soldiers were shooting at each other from behind obstructions. They could penetrate steel armour without requiring the user to develop special musculature. Armies equipped with guns could thus provide superior firepower, and highly trained archers became obsolete on the battlefield.

The Battle of Cerignola in 1503 was the first major battle in Europe to be won through the use of firearms. Within 200 years of the Battle of Agincourt, which was won by the English thanks in no small part to their archers, the bow had fallen out of military use.

The ability to train soldiers to use early firearms in a fraction of the time it took to train archers was also a significant factor in the replacement of bows with guns. In Asia, the transition took longer due to the advanced construction of their composite bows, which were far superior in draw-length ratios and smaller, lighter, and easier to use compared to European bows.

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Frequently asked questions

Archery was not ineffective in the ancient world. In fact, it was a strategic asset on the battlefield until the advent of gunpowder.

Archery was limited by the availability of good archers, as only those with good vision and the physical strength to use a bow could become capable archers. Archery was also limited by the availability of arrows, which were costly to produce, and by the weather, as rain could damage bows.

Cavalry, particularly light and mobile cavalry, were the bane of archers. Shields could also be effective, but only if there were enough of them to block the hundreds or thousands of arrows that might come raining down.

Archery was eventually made obsolete by the invention of firearms, which had longer ranges, greater penetration, and did not require the same level of training to use effectively.

Archery began to be replaced by firearms in Europe in the Late Middle Ages and early modern period. It remained in use in other parts of the world until the 19th century when repeating firearms spread throughout Eurasia.

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