Can Arrows Penetrate Medieval Armor?

Arrow penetrating chain armorI find this question fascinating. As both a gamer and a fantasy writer, I like to get as close to reality as possible, if only to make the fantastic elements of my games and stories that much more fantastic and cool. So a while back, I spent several days researching this question, and I collected a fair number of interesting resources.

To my dismay, I discovered that there are lots of factors to consider when examining this question.

  1. The specs of the bow and arrow. Draw weight, arrow type, arrowhead type (material, shape). Modern compound bows can have much higher draw weights than historical bows. Some arrowheads were designed to puncture armor, while others were designed to maximize damage to the flesh but had poor armor penetration.
  2. The specs of the armor. Assuming plate armor: thickness, carbon levels (iron, steel, and quality of the steel), tempering and hardening, layers (mail, textile). Historical armor had a huge level of variation in type and quality, making it difficult to use actual historical pieces to make generalizations. From what I’ve read, this isn’t something that we’ll get a consensus on anytime soon—yet it’s obviously a huge factor.
  3. The circumstances of the strike. Angle, distance. Most tests assume direct, perpendicular strikes. Obviously, hitting at an angle will drastically decrease the penetration. Some strikes could glance off and hit another combatant. Distance is a huge factor. Tests seem to indicate that the penetration range is around 20 to 30 yards. Beyond that, effectiveness decreases drastically.
  4. How deep is the penetration? Most tests seem to indicate that the deepest penetration was about an inch, maybe two. It usually takes at least two to three inches of penetration to damage any vital organs.
  5. Economic and social factors. Cost and availability of armor, skill of the archer, horses, mass archery. Some armors that defend very well against arrows were prohibitively expensive. Skilled archers might be able to make up for many of the problems mentioned so far. In certain historical battles, the tactics of mass archery made a huge difference.

This isn’t a simple question. It’s riddled with complicated factors that are all interrelated. I never came to a definite conclusion myself, except that in general, it seems like arrows seldom (if ever) would have penetrated plate armor. The circumstances would have needed to be just right for that to happen.

I’ve collected most of the best resources I found below, if you’re interested in digging into this question on your own. This is the only collection like this that I’ve seen. If you found it useful, or if you find anything that’s missing, please leave a comment.

 

Articles and Discussions

English Longbow Testing (PDF), an article by Matheus Bane documenting some testing he did with various types of arrowheads and armors. This test uses a clay slab behind the armor to show how deeply the arrows would have penetrated human flesh. Only the needle point bodkin penetrated plate armor deeply enough to cause a potentially fatal wound.

Testing reconstructed medieval crossbows, by Andreas Bichler. The existing medieval crossbows we have are all in unshootable condition and are sequestered in museums. This is an attempt to recreate medieval crossbows and test their performance on different types of armor.

A fascinating discussion on MyArmoury.com on the ability of the English longbow to penetrate plate armor. The folks on MyArmoury are generally smart and very well read on these kinds of subjects. It’s a long, involved discussion. Casual browsers need not apply.

This blog post from medieval recreator Will McLean was the source of one of the other links I’ve given here, and provides an interesting critique of some experimental bow shooting.

Another blog post from Will McLean discussing metallurgical findings from historical armor.

 

Videos

Longbow versus breastplate.

Weapons That Made Britain. In this episode, historian Mike Loades discusses the English longbow. This link leads to a forum where the entire show can be seen via a series of linked YouTube videos.

The following two videos document a test conducted by Mike Loades using a modern arrow-shooting machine to replicate ancient weapons. Although the arrow penetrates the breastplate, it doesn’t go deeply enough to cause injury.

 

English warbow versus tempered sheet metal. These three videos are attempts by various groups of people to test the penetration of the English warbow of various kinds of sheet metal and breastplates. Although these tests are interesting to watch, they aren’t rigorous enough to really draw conclusions from. Many of the arrows break through the plate, but there’s no way to tell how deeply and whether the strikes would have caused significant injury.

 
Crossbow against steel breastplate. This video shows some guys shooting a 1000 pound crossbow using various heads on the quarrels. None of them pierce so far that the quarrel sticks into the breastplate. It looks like a few of them might have pierced up to a quarter inch or so. With some linen padding inside, I doubt the wearer would be significantly injured—although the so-called armor breaker and the heavy quarrel look to pack quite the punch. Probably the biggest flaw in this test is that the breastplate is just propped up on a board. It gets knocked around a lot—not exactly the same as someone wearing it.

 

What do you think?

Can Arrows Penetrate Medieval Armor?

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32 Comments on "Can Arrows Penetrate Medieval Armor?"

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Jeremy Fox
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I remember you and I having this conversation on the way to Kent’s recently. One thing we mentioned was Chain Armor, which was probably what the majority of a large army would have worn… I would assume. it SEEMS that mostly only the mounted wore Plate. I have no proof of this, merely a guess. And I’m sure in small “special ops.” groups, if you will, they probably had plate. You do have one picture of a mail shirt pierced that and it looks a good few inches in, which would cause semi to severe injury. Also, there is one… Read more »
Dave
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Actually wasn’t chain mail more expensive? I thought they wore chain mail under the plate armor? I could be wrong.

Perihellion
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*Necromancer Incoming* People back in the day had balls of absolute steel. Maybe it had something to do with life being kinda shit so you don’t have as much to lose, who knows. But consider line infantry for example. Imagine the sheer terror going through you as you stand there, seeing the entire enemy line aim their guns at you. And your whole line stands there, reloading. You don’t have cover, you don’t get to run or anything, you don’t even have armor that might protect you. Considering people who just got trained for a couple months (or years maybe,… Read more »
Riotimus
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My brother has told me that in the police academy they teach to take two shots at the body, and if nothing happens, start taking head shots because the criminal is probably wearing body armor. Medieval archers could see their targets armor, and I don’t think they spent a lot of time trying to pierce it. After all, until the late middle ages, plate armor was limited to helmets and breast plates, and a man in fifty or more pounds of armor on his knees or his back with an arrow or two in his thigh or groin is about… Read more »
lalitaraja
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An archer friend was telling me that Russian yew staves were imported to make English Longbows as they had more strength than English yew, he reckoned a bow that pulled 180lbs would send an armour piercing arrow clean through the plate of the time. As well as looking at the armour look at the variety and quantity of armour piercing arrows in the museums these were made in a time of war when there was no time or expense for fancy ideas that didn’t work on the field.
Then there is this… I think you’ll enjoy the comparison with Legolas!
http://www.metacafe.com/watch/9504225/the_worlds_fastest_archer/?noFBRedirect=1#_=_

Rick
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From what I’ve been reading from a variety of sources, there are additional things to consider beyond the effectiveness of the armor. True, the plate armor knight was, essentially, the tank of the middle ages, and all but impervious to arrow attack. However, as on the modern battlefield, armored units were a comparative rarity in the fight. Plate armor was expensive, heavy, impacted mobility (if the knight was not mounted), and beyond the means of many of those in battle. Most battles were led by a few knights along with a large host of lightly armored or unarmored troops, many… Read more »
Capt. leon
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hi, my question: mongol arrows vs medieval gothic armors and mongol arrows vs armors from ancient rome

i would apreciate an answer for a fanfic that im writing,
please any answer will be helpfull

DanD
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“Modern compound bows can have much higher draw weights than historical bows.” Is not true. The draw weight is what it is, and English warbows (90-160lb depending on who’s re-creation you use) were almost definitely a stronger draw than a modern hunting bow (typically max out around 70 lbs, you might find a few heavier). The advantage of the compound is that it is easier to hold at draw, meaning that you can take more time to aim and wait for your shot. However, that being said, yes the archers are going for soft targets. Put enough arrows in the… Read more »
DanD
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Aslo:

“Lalitaraja, I would be very surprised to find that Russian yew was being imported into England during the Middle Ages.”

Russian maybe or maybe not, but the English were definitely importing far flung bow staves. The statute of Westminster 1472 required 4 bowstaves be imported for every tun of wine brought in (this was a requirement for the ships to be allowed to trade). Richard III increased it to 10/tun. The traders were mostly Venetian, but there were complaints from Germany and other locations about their Yew being logged out, so it was a widespread issue.

Somedude17
Guest
Excellent article, well written, easy to read, structured and great points that made me really think. I would like to contribute my point of view. Plate armor was work of art, but what I saw that no one adopted full plate armor except western europe. Sure it was protective shell and better in terms of relieving the wearer of concusion, wich was the main problem of chainmail and other types of armor, general protection and making non penetrative weapons useless. But lets think realisticaly. You dont need to kill the enemy, you just need to cripple him,wounded soldier is worse… Read more »
Father of Moles
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The question of whether an arrow could penetrate one inch or two inches is beside the reality that any knight is done as a battlefield threat when his armour has buckled under such a penetration.

Try walking with a small pebble inside your shoe. Now try fighting with a small jagged hole punched inward on your breastplate or your cuisse.

Adam
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Well I have a problem with one of your first statements ; ” Modern compound bows can have much higher draw weights than historical bows.” This might be true of self bows used for hunting etc., but warbows such as the English longbow were often in excess of 100 lb draw weight with ca 32 in draw length. Most compounds fall into the 60-80 lb range with a shorter draw length.

Amelia
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I am glad to see there are gamers and writers like me (and both in one person, too!) who wonder about making fantasy description as real as possible. This work of yours has been very precious to me, and I cannot but thank you!

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David
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The Mongol composite bow was said to have a maximum effective range of 350 meters. This was due, at least, partially to the fact that the Mongol arrow was lighter than the arrows traditionally used with the English longbow. The Mongols were not focused on penetrating armor. They were focused on massed arrow fire. I have read that the Mongol warrior would carry 60-100 arrows into battle. An army of 30000 Mongols could fire 1 million + arrows. If the average Mongol warrior was as skilled as I read, even if most arrows were stopped by armor, there would be… Read more »
DeBerry
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Great work Ben! I have also spent many a night wondering if a powerful bow (crossbow) could penetrate plate armor. Most plate armor weighed 60 lbs, though it was evenly distributed, it would still be very hard to catch an archer if both men we re in excellent physical fitness. I thought I would ask a few questions and see what you guys thought. Who would win in a 1v1 battle the Archer or the Knight? What if the armored knight was carrying a shield to protect his face or upper body? Would an archer be able to fire an… Read more »
DeBerry
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I think that sounds about right. I don’t think the archer’s arrow is going to be able to pierce through the armor. However, in a 1v1 scenario or small skirmish the archer could shoot and run due to their high mobility, range (light armored troop).

So basically it will come down to, is the archer skilled enough to hit a vital area not protected by the armor?

I don’t believe the knight wearing 60lbs of gear would ever be able to catch the archer.

I could see the archer exhausting all his arrows and never finding a target.

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