Blades and Bows Longbowmen

Medieval Armies DBA Page

Tactics: Mixing Oil and Water
Using Blades and Bows Together

By David Kuijt

Blades are the premier general-purpose troops for killing infantry. Nothing else is nearly as effective, or as immune to attack from enemy infantry. Sure, they can't easily kill enemy psiloi, but they laugh at the psiloi's feeble attempts to kill them, and can sweep them from the field or ignore them. Blades can fight in rough terrain against the best rough-terrain troops with confidence, and are the only troops that can hope to hold against a frontal assault of massed pike in the open long enough to get around their flanks and hit them in the sides. And while blades have to be careful fighting warbands, with care they can expect to come out with even chances in that matchup, and warbands haven't got the multi-purpose usefulness of blades.

So blades rule over other foot. But mounted are another story. All mounted are dangerous to blades. Sure, their combat factors are pretty equal. But speed can be a significant weapon in DBA. Speed can allow you to disengage from dangerous situations, and let you exploit opportunities quickly. The idea of a force of blades zooming around a flank and catching an enemy line off-guard is laughable. But as any commander of heavy foot knows, a force of blades is very vulnerable to exactly that sort of attack from a mounted force.

Not only are blades much slower than mounted, but they have no combat-factor advantage. Knights and cavalry in combat with blades fight even-up (+3 each), and their greater speed means that they choose when and where the combat will occur, and are more likely to turn a flank. Light horse can devil a group of blades -- the blades will never kill them, and can only drive them away briefly, and are constantly in danger of a rapid flanking attack. Blades can't win that fight, and can't even delay a force of light horse from sweeping around towards the baggage unless they are propped on rough terrain.

Bow have the opposite problem. They are fast for infantry, as fast as open-order psiloi or auxilia. They have excellent combat factors against mounted. They are almost the only foot troops that can actually kill enemy light horse. In combination with their good movement and ability to attack at range, they are quite hard to outmaneuver. It would be fair to say that bow are one of the most useful types of infantry against mounted foemen.

But against foot it is another story. Bow can drive off psiloi, but not kill them. Using the advantage of their ranged attack, bow can fight without too much of a disadvantage against auxilia, pike, or warband, but the advantage is definitely not on the bow's side. And spear or blades are a disaster. These represent well-armoured heavy foot, often with large shields; very effective against missile fire. And their performance in DBA reflects this -- spear or blades will crush bow if they ever get into contact.

Oil and Water

If you have an army with a bunch of both blades and bows, then, you have an interesting tactical problem. How to integrate the two effectively? The simplest answer is to separate them out -- have one blade wing and one bow wing. If your opponent is foolish or unlucky enough to pit his knights and light horse against your bows, and his bows and auxilia against your blades, you will gain a crushing victory.

However, most DBA players are not so obliging, and the simple formation above invites disaster. If your opponent manages to face your bows with his blades or auxilia the game will be over long before your blades get into action. So splitting the bows and blades apart is an answer of sorts, but it is very easy for your opponent to counter.

Below are some thoughts on appropriate formations and issues for bow/blade armies.

Mixed formations. Splitting the bow and blades entirely apart is rarely effective. The opposite technique, mixing them together, also has its problems. A simple alternation (bow/blade/bow/blade etc.) is a poor solution. Against cavalry it will work well enough, but against infantry much less so. The bows are too far apart to combine fire effectively on oncoming troops, thus reducing their ranged-fire effectiveness. The bow are still terribly vulnerable to enemy foot, and will quickly be recoiled off the combat line. Since they cannot fire on any unit in combat or providing an overlap on combat, they will be entirely useless, and you will be left with the unpleasant choice of leaving your blades out with double overlaps, or throwing your bow into melee. Either way, you lose.

Herse/Harrow formations. The Hundred-Year's War English solved the problem by using a formation where a mass of men-at-arms (blades) stood in the center, flanked by two groups of longbow set slightly at an angle, in a cup of sorts. The bow protected the flanks of the blades, and ideally the flank of the bow was protected by terrain. This is a risky formation in DBA. For one thing, it is very static. It relies upon your opponent agreeing to fight you in your prepared defensive position. Sadly, our enemies are rarely as stupid as the Hundred-Year's War French, who often ended up charging right up the center rather than doing anything intelligent like moving around and crushing an exposed flank.

Nonetheless, there are some useful possibilities in the general idea of having bows flanking a center of blades. Even in a mobile battlefield, single units of bow are very useful as flank-protectors on a line of blades or other heavy foot. Their faster movement and ranged-fire allows them to interdict quite a bit of terrain against mounted (the most common flanking troops). Against light foot (auxilia and psiloi) they can hold their own well enough.

Modifications of the harrow formation can also be useful in the right situation. If there is a small patch of impassable or awkward terrain in the middle of the battlefield it should be possible to create a harrow with bows on the far sides and center (angled in), surrounding two indigestable knots of blades in the two main approaches for your enemy.

Terrain interdicters. Bow don't do well in rough going. A line of two or three elements of bow in good going just outside a large region of rough going can be very useful, however. Against rough-going troops (auxilia and psiloi) it will be an even fight. Heavy foot, normally the bane of bow elements, can be blocked quite effectively this way. Pike or spear can be slaughtered if they are tempted to venture into bad going against bow standing just outside it; even blades are no great shakes at fighting out of woods into a storm of arrows.

So even though bow shouldn't go into the rough, they can be very good at screening off a body of rough that you wish to deny the enemy.

No recoils Single elements of bow are interesting units, but the ranged-fire ability of bows can mislead you. Forcing a recoil is often useful in close combat -- it gets you combat advantage on the next unit over, and if your enemy doesn't dress his line you can get a significant advantage on your next move. But ranged-fire recoils are much less use, in general.

Recoils in ranged combat disorder the enemy's line, but not usually by much. Unlike recoils in melee, where adjacent combat may be affected, a missile-combat recoil gives no advantage on further combat that turn (unless you have been clever enough to force the enemy into positions where no recoil is possible, of course). Worse still, recoils may push the enemy out of your firing range, so on his subsequent turn he is safe. This can be quite frustrating.

So you don't want to push things back, you want to kill them. It is almost always better to group your fire with bows. This means that your bow elements should be positioned to allow this. Bows start being nasty when you group them together in twos and threes.

The Changeling Maneuver

This is a neat maneuver that can only really be used effectively in armies with a lot of bows and blades. It allows the use of a flexible formation that combines many of the advantages of bows (ranged fire; ability against cavalry) with those of blades (durability; combat ability against infantry).

Bows are permitted to recoil through blades facing the same direction (DBA 1.1 rulebook, p8). Bows aren't permitted to recoil through any other element type. This allows a very interesting formation for bow/blade armies, where the initial line is all bows, backed by a line of blades. This formation is very useful against any type of mixed or combined-arms armies. Don't use it against a wall of blades (Vikings), where you just don't want your bows to come in contact with the enemy blades at all.

With the bows in front, they can shoot at any incoming mounted and disorder formations of mixed foot through concentrated shooting. If they are faced with mounted, the bow are where you want them, where they can shoot, and they will do well.

Against infantry (anything but blades) they will have the advantage of distant shooting for as long as possible, disordering the enemy line and perhaps even killing an element or two. Then, when the enemy auxilia, pike, spear, or warband hit they have small chance of inflicting any worse result than a recoil. They won't have any back-rank support (p8 : no back-rank support on the first round of close combat with bow or arty), and only one round of combat to do any damage. Because if they get a recoil on the bow, presto-chango, the bow recoils through the blades, and they find themselves facing the toughest anti-infantry troops available!

This is especially deadly against warbands, as their impetuous nature forces them to throw themselves forward into the bow's abandoned position, ending up opposing blades with a double overlap. Ouch.

Once recoiled through the blade line, the bows should run for the sides of the formation. They can't do any more good in their current position, and they aren't likely to get back into battle in the center. Their 300 pace speed is adequate to the task, though -- it shouldn't be too long before they can provide overlaps or reinforce a sagging flank, or perhaps even move forward aggressively against spear or pike armies with limited frontage.

Armies with Blades and Bows

I've focussed below on armies that have at least three blades and at least three bows. With only one or two blade or bow elements, discussion of formations and tactics for using them in concert is facile.

Max No. of Blades and Bows Army Lists
12 Early Shang Chinese (#6) [4 Bd, 8 Bw], Leidang (#106b) [8 Bd, 4 Bw]
11 Later Shang Chinese (#16a) [3 Bd, 8 Bw], Hundred Year's War English (#168) [4 Bd, 7 Lb], Free Company (#172) [5 Bd, 4 Lb, 2 of either], War of the Roses English (#179) [6 Bd, 3 Lb, 2 of either]
10 Early Burgundian (#173) [6 Bd, 4 Cb/Lb], French Ordonnance (#178) [6 Bd, 4 Lb/Cb]
9 Early Medieval Scandinavian (#131a) [6 Bd, 3 Bw]
8 Gepid or Lombard (#85) [4 Bd, 4 Bw], Later Medieval Scandinavian (#131b) [4 Bd, 4 Bw]
7 Chou and Spring and Autumn Chinese (#16b) [4 Bd, 3 Cb], Early Imperialist (#136) [4 Bd, 3 Bw], Burgundian Ordonnance (#180) [3 Bd, 4 Lb]
6 Mexican (#105) [3 Bd, 3 Bw], Khitan Liao (#114) [3 Bd, 3 Cb], Early Samurai (#127a) [6 of any combination]

Page created: September 22, 1998

The author may be contacted at kuijt@umiacs.umd.edu. Please do not use any pictures or text from this page without permission.