Siege of a City

Medieval Armies DBA Page

Tactics: The Long and Short of Bows

By David Kuijt

DBA defines bows as an element of formed foot equipped with bow, longbow, or crossbow; relying on dense shooting (possibly supplemented with light spears, stakes, pavises, or shield-bearers) to stand up to enemy assaults. Loose swarms of bowmen with similar equipment that rely upon evasion are classed as psiloi instead of bow.

Historical examples of such troops abound. English or Welsh longbow, Crusader crossbow, Achaemenid immortals, Chinese or Italian crossbow, Janissary archers, and early Samurai (fighting dismounted) are just a few.

Bows in DBA are fast foot, moving 300 paces. They are +2 versus foot and +4 versus mounted, and they can fire at any legal target within 200 paces of their front. Bows are quick-killed by knights, like most foot, but they quick-kill knights that moved into contact with them this bound. Further, their high combat factors gives them an advantage against all mounted, usually sufficient to counteract the fact that they are quick-killed if they lose any combat to mounted.

Bows also have a slight advantage against large blocks of formed foot, in that units that normally can claim an increased combat factor for a second rank of similar troops (pikes, warbands, and spear) get no such advantage when being fired at by bow or on any bound where they have just moved into contact with bow.

The Classic Match-up: Bow vs. Knights

Knights are the rulers of the good-going battlefield, but bow are their achilles heel. Bow are as fast as they, can attack with fair chance of success at a distance (11% chance of a kill; 47% of a recoil), and if knights charge home against bow without favourable overlaps, the knights die 58% of the time, and the bow only 28% of the time. Few knightly foes really want to recreate the battle of Crecy, so most knights find themselves highly wary of any situation that puts them to face with enemy bow. Bow, on the other hand, relish the thought of slaughtering hordes of French knights.

Bow vs. Cavalry - this is perhaps the most dangerous mounted foe that bow normally face (ignoring elephants). The bow has the advantage, but not by much, and it is quick-killed if it loses. Bow will kill cavalry 11% of the time and recoil it 47% of the time; the cavalry, on the other hand, kills the bow 28% of the time. Recoiled cavalry will be subject to more fire, so this sort of duel is fairly even.

Bow vs. Light Horse - bow have a serious advantage over light horse, and are one of the few foot troops that can kill them. Bow kill light horse 25% of the time, push them back 47% of the time, and only die 17% of the time. Recoiled light horse are usually subject to more fire on the next turn without the ability to fire back. It doesn't take a lot of turns of this sort of abuse before they are destroyed.

Bow vs. Spear or Blade - just say no. There is little or no chance that a bow element can even recoil a spear or blade, and no chance that the spear or blade will die. On the other hand, a blade can expect to kill a bow 33% of the time it can get in melee with it, and a spear will kill a bow 25% of the time.

Bow vs. Pike or Warband - this is an interesting matchup. Bow can be quite effective against pike or warband. Both pike and warband are slow foot, +3 against foot enemies, and both often are double-ranked. But pike and warband get no back-rank support on any turn they move into contact with a bow unit, which can make it very hard for them to kill a bow.

A single bow element, used carefully, can irritate a double rank of pike more effectively than psiloi or light horse. There isn't a great chance of the bow killing a pike or warband stand without overlaps, but a clever bow can disorder the advance of pike for some time. If the pike can't come to grips and kill the bow quickly (17% chance of a kill per turn of melee), the bow has a good chance of eventually getting lucky (3% chance of a kill per turn, melee or missile). Better still, this tactic only requires any pips for the bow-user on turns where the pike and bow get a push after the pike closes (14% chance). The rest of the time the pike player is burning pips, and the recoils on the occasions when he gets into combat suffice to keep the bow safe on the bow's turns.

Warband have an advantage over pike in chasing down an enemy bow, as their impetuous rush works to their advantage. When the bow is recoiled in combat the bow player must spend a pip to withdraw out of melee.

Bow vs. Auxilia - even in good going, this battle favours the auxilia. Bow can disorder an oncoming line of auxilia, but have little chance of defeating them, and once the auxilia comes to grips with the bowmen the odds are with the auxilia. In bad going it becomes a slaughter.

Bow vs. Psiloi - foot skirmishers hate massed archers. Psiloi have little chance but to attack, and if they attack any result but a kill means they must take more massed fire from range. Bow against psiloi is a battle that the bow will eventually win. Tactics for the bow are simple -- never give the psiloi an even break. In close combat the odds are even up.

Bow vs. Bow - concentrate your fire if at all possible. Don't go for a recoil, go for a kill. Best of all is when you can fire from behind the enemy bow's front, so it cannot respond. Since recoils are always backwards on the element regardless of the direction of incoming fire, it is possible for a bow unit to stand partially behind a target, shoot it, force a recoil, and have the enemy die because it is blocking the recoil position. Nice work if you can get it.

Bow vs. Artillery - this is a dangerous situation. If you can rush the artillery, you might want to do it. But do it with ANY other troop first. If the enemy artillery has any support at all, your best tactic is to get out of range or stick some blades or spears in the line of fire.

What Are Bows Good For?

The primary advantage of bow is to fight at a distance. The other two element types with this capability (war wagons and artillery) have significant combat disadvantages, are slow moving, and can't enter bad going. Bow, on the other hand, moves quite quickly in bad going and is a flexible troop-type overall.

Bow are a great way to mess up enemy mounted. Against cavalry, light horse, and knights, you can give him the horrible dilemma of attacking before he is ready or sitting while you disorder his forces and eventually kill him at a distance. Against knights they are devastating -- one of the very few things knights fear.

Bow are great at wiping out and driving off those pesky skirmishers. Light horse or psiloi can be driven off or killed fairly quickly once they come in range. If proper use of skirmishers is part of your enemy's plan, your bows are going to be very important.

If you want to actually kill enemy elements, especially infantry, the best way to do it is to mass your fire. A single bow firing at a unit of auxilia, pike, or warband (+3) will have a 3% chance of killing it. Two bow together firing gives an 11% chance of killing the target, and with three bow firing (two overlaps) there is a 25% chance that the target will be killed.

What Else Can Bows Do?

Bow can be useful skirmishers, although you have to be careful. The purpose of a skirmisher is to delay and distract a portion of the enemy's forces. By recoiling carefully-chosen parts of an enemy's line, bow can cause the enemy to burn pips keeping his line together, and sometimes slow down the whole line. This is a risky tactic, though -- against spear and blades it can backfire as they rush to contact, and enemy mounted have the movement to concentrate force against your bow very quickly if there is any weakness or isolation of your forces. This method works best against warband and pike, which combine slow movement with relatively low factors against missile fire.

Bow can be useful outflanking forces. They are the fastest infantry that can walk around in good going relatively safe from enemy cavalry, light horse, or knights. This makes them very useful flank units on an infantry battle line. Their ability to attack at range effectively extends their battle line even farther out.

Bow can chase down single enemy mounted units. No other infantry has this ability -- if an enemy cavalry, knight, or light horse gets past your line there isn't much you can do about it with auxilia, psiloi, or any heavy foot. But a single bow element, with its combination of speed and ranged attack, can be peeled off from the battleline to deal with the threat, and have some hope of being useful and foiling the enemy's plans.

What Are Bows Bad At?

Bow's biggest weakness is well-armoured foot. Spear and Blades basically eat them for lunch, and there isn't a lot they can do about it. Your only choice there is to use your greater speed to withdraw from combat in the faint hope that things might go your way somewhere else if only you can eke out a few more turns of miserable existence.

Bows aren't much good in bad going, either. They move through it quickly enough, leading to a temptation to treat them as if they were rough-terrain troops, like some sort of long-range combat psiloi. Resist this temptation. Bows are good-going troops. Bows best combat factors are against mounted; very few mounted run around in rough going. Bad going doesn't help you against spear or blade, and it makes you very vulnerable to enemy auxilia and psiloi. The only situation where bad going is useful to a bow element is when alone and outnumbered against mounted. In the bad going their movement will be slowed, allowing the bow to shoot and then disengage.

Bows are very poor at engaging in missile combat with artillery or war wagons. If they spend any significant time in front of artillery, eventually they're going to be destroyed. Against war wagons it is even more grim. War wagons slaughter enemy bow. There is no chance of the bow winning, because it cannot double the war wagon and war wagons do not recoil if beaten.

Bow Armies

Armies with massed foot bow are common throughout history. About half armies listed have at least one bow as an option. It is interesting to note that there is one large gap where very few armies use massed foot bow. This gap starts around the rise of Greek and Roman Heavy Foot and the decline of Chariots, and continues until the rise of Heavy Cavalry and the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Of the 56 armies on pages 16 and 17 of the DBA book (armies 30c through 75a), only four have bow elements, and three of them are Oriental.

Another interesting and silly statistic: of the 15 Roman armies (8 Roman and 7 Byzantine), none of them get any Bow elements. The Lombards who took North Italy from the West Romans had Bow. The Later Ottomans, who crushed the last remnant of the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453, had Bow elements. Coincidence? I think not!

Bow, Crossbow, and Longbow are treated the same in DBA. As a final silly statistic, there are seven armies that have both Crossbow elements and some sort of Bow/Longbow elements: #98 Burmese, #145 Feudal English, #156 Navarrese, #169 Italian Condotta, #173 Early Burgundian, #174 Ming Chinese, and #178 French Ordonnance. The Feudal English army is the only one that has all three types (Bow, Longbow, and Crossbow).

Max. No. of Bow Army Lists
8 Old & Middle Kingdom Egyptian (#2), Early Shang Chinese (#8), Later Shang Chinese (#16a), Early Indian (#21a)
7 Early Achaemenid Persians (#28a) and Hundred Years War English (#168)
6 Nubian (#3), Welsh (#92), T'ang & Five Dynasties Chinese (#95), Early Samurai (#127a), Free Company (#172)
5 Neo-Elamite (#18b), Palmyran (#76), West Sudanese (#120), Feudal English (#145), War of the Roses English (#179)
4 New Babylonian (#18a), Han Chinese (#54), Korean (#78), Medieval Hindu (#83a), Gepid or Lombard (#85), Arab Imperial (#100), Leidang (#106b), Fatimid Egyptian (#118), Early Polish (#122), Papal Italian (#126), Later Medieval Scandinavian (#131b), Mongol (#154), KSJ on Cyprus (#162a), Italian Condotta (#169), Early Burgundian (#173), Ming Chinese (#174), French Ordonnance (#178), Burgundian Ordonnance (#180).

Last Updated: July 16, 1998. Minor changes to the army statistics section.

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