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Inspired partially by the question regarding whether an army made entirely of spearmen would be effective, and partially by the battle of Agincourt, I am wondering whether an army made up entirely or mostly of bowmen could be effective.

My setting for this question is as follows. Nation has very little access to mass amounts of metal for armor or large bladed weapons, but all kinds of wood, string, feathers for fletching, etc. Also, this country for insert reason, there are many realistic possibilities can't have a large standing army. Therefore, it defends itself by requiring all male citizens between the ages of 15-45 to maintain a bow and arrows, practicing weekly both as an individual for accuracy, and with a squad (known as a "flight") for discipline and speed in a mass firing, "blot out the sun" situation. Because of the fact that they have relied on the bow for such a long time, they have essentially perfected the art of bow and arrow-making, and have long-ranged, extremely powerful bows as well as access to any type of armor-piercing arrowhead you'd like, such as a bodkin.

Would an army, in any ancient up through late medieval period, made entirely of highly skilled, well-equipped, yet unarmored and unsupported bowmen have a chance against a well organized enemy army?

Additional, potentially pertinent information. They have seasoned commanders, who understand how to use terrain and formations to their advantage. Any battle they fight will be defensive, and their borders are well-protected by either walls or swamps. Enemy forces will likely be smaller most/all of the time. Arrow supply isn't an issue, since they rely entirely on the bow, they have arrow reserves that are essentially infinite. Additionally, since every male citizen is required by law to be available for active service at 15, and starts training even younger, the learning curve for mastering the longbow isn't an issue either. However, again, if the enemy makes it to their line, their melee ability is pretty much zero.

Bonus points if you can advise on what type of bow they should use, whether a standard longbow or something more like a composite bow would be better, as well as what type or types of arrows.

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  • $\begingroup$ A well organised army of what? and how many? and what are the specific logistics regarding walls, hills, visibility (is it foggy or night-time), relative numbers of different types of enemy? Strategic thinking of the commaders is also a vital detail that can turn arround a conflict. Could you focus the question on a specific issue that can be answered here please. $\endgroup$ – BLT-Bub Feb 23 at 7:35
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    $\begingroup$ if it horse archer maybe, since we have mongol as an example, although the real deal in mongol force actually their lancer, the horse archer is just to harass and lure the enemy to get flanked, but it not impossible either aslong you have enough horse to replenish and ammo. but normal archer is unlikely, enemy can just bring more shield for example and archer can easily flanked by cavalry $\endgroup$ – Li Jun Feb 23 at 9:02
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    $\begingroup$ @LiJun: As far as I remember, the Mongols were not exactly known for fighting defensive battles exclusively... In fact, I cannot remember even one battle where the Mongols stayed on the defensive. (This is a requirement of the question.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Feb 23 at 9:04
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    $\begingroup$ Shorter: If their commanders are stupid enough to cling to a defensive position then the enemy can simply pin the defending army and go around them to conquer the country. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Feb 23 at 9:05
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    $\begingroup$ If they can make bows and arrows they can make spears and clubs, also leather and cloth armor are real things. $\endgroup$ – John Feb 23 at 12:59
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No

Trained, armoured archers are a major asset for an army but there are many things that an army needs to do that they cannot. Unarmoured archers are still useful, but considerably less so due to their vulnerability. By the late medieval period, practically all archers were wearing armour and were armed with melee weapons so that when the enemy did close in they could fight effectively. Even given the miraculously favourable circumstances that the proposed archer-only army enjoys (always outnumbers their enemy - more on that later - always has good defences to fight from, always has plenty of arrows), one platoon of invading armoured archers wearing a mix of plate and "chainmail" will mop the floor with two platoons of unarmoured archers.

However, any competent enemy will not send in an outnumbered force, no matter how superior their equipment. The OP has specified that "Enemy forces will likely be smaller most/all of the time." In a word - no. General principle - the defenders choose the ground, the attackers choose the time. The time the attackers will choose is when they have more troops.

When the archer-only nation is attacked, their attackers can be expected to use the techniques developed throughout history for reducing defensive fortifications using engineers and siege engines. These techniques include large mobile shields and barricades specifically designed for protection against archers. Protected by such items, the engineers will undermine the wall and/or the trebuchets will smash breaches in them unopposed - unarmoured archers cannot sortie out from the walls to attack the besieging forces without being cut down. Once the walls are down the enemy infantry will be able to move forward using shields for protection and seize the walls. After the walls are down then cavalry can roam the nation doing what they like - foot archers will lack the speed to interfere with them effectively. Once all the fields are burning, the archers will be forced to negotiate the terms under which they will serve their new overlords who understand combined arms operations.

However, the premise behind the nation is rather implausible. A nation entirely surrounded by either swamps or a hideously expensive wall, which cannot afford a large standing army to defend the wall but can afford to always have all possible defensive locations fully supplied with effectively unlimited arrows? Not very believable.

Regarding types of bows and types of arrows - both will depend on:

  1. what materials are available; and
  2. likely enemy characteristics.

Materials - English bows were often made of yew or ash because these were the good bow-making woods available in England. Chinese bows were made from different materials because different trees grew there. If no trees are available, laminated animal bones can be used to make a bow. In practical terms, the botany and/or zoology of the area will dictate what the bow is made of. Ditto for the shafts and fletching of the arrows.

Enemies - Different types of arrowhead are desirable for defeating different types of armour. There is no universal "best" arrowhead, it depends on the equipment your enemy is likely to be using. This Lindybeige video on "Arrows" is a fairly enjoyable discussion of some medieval arrowhead types and what types of armour they were designed to attack. In brief - it depends.

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  • $\begingroup$ I've also seen a video where they tried a 200 lbf bow—and that's as high as you get, only the best and strongest men can shoot that—against a plate and they only made superficial dents. So enemy who can field some knights in full plate will be basically invulnerable until they get to melee range, and then still at big advantage. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Feb 23 at 20:38
  • $\begingroup$ … Lindybeige also has one, but the one I saw is this one from Tod's workshop. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Feb 23 at 20:43
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It depends on your logistics, your terrain, your commanders, and your intelligence, amongst other aspects

There are many ways to wage battle. The elements you describe, being an archer-only army, a swamp / jungle, and sufficient resources - are all parts of a battle, but battles are won with more than these - logistics, a smart commander, good intelligence and ability to use terrain to advantage amongst them.

The Art of War is an ancient text that lays out some of the complexities of battle, where many factors influence outcomes, not just one aspect. Some of the main broad messages include:

  • Use everything you have to your greatest advantage, to their disadvantage - ie. you have archers, they have mixed troops. Use this. You have difficult terrain (swamps and trees, and walls) use this against them too.
  • All battles have some element of deception - How is your intelligence? Do you know where they are, how much, and can you deceive them? Do they know you have archers only and how prepared would they be?
  • Logistics is equally important - are your troops well-supplied? Are theirs? Can you cut off their supply lines, can you let them become overconfident.
  • It also comes down to smartness of your commanders. Are they well trained, do they have excellent command and control of your troops, is morale high, are they well-informed, can your commanders exploit opportunity, and use timing and strategy?

So I would say: Yes, you can have an army of archers. However outcomes of battles are complex, and I would say the following points would enable your army to best operate:

  • Use the swamps, walls and jungle: Your archers main advantage is battle-at-a-distance. Use terrain to prevent close quarter combat. Use deception to keep your enemy from knowing where to move and stay in the line of fire. Use intelligence to know when to retreat to lure the enemy into an indefensible position.
  • Use your archers to their best: Your archers can typically move deftly (not as fast as cavalry) and retain energy and endurance being usually lightly armoured. This means with well developed knowledge of terrain, you could surround the enemy, react to their plans quickly, as long as you neutralise their cavalry. Therefore, preventing horses from entry is paramount (use swamps, water, traps, and your walls, to do this). Ensure your archers are all knowledgable and have a decentralised command structure, allowing flexibility as the conflict develops. The ability to organically divide or combine forces is very effective against a foreign army, also opening up the ability to deceive them and exhaust them.
  • Use logistics against them: You are on home ground, they are not. Your archer only army can ambush their supply lines and prevent them from having food, weapons resupply, and reinforcements, whereas you need to ensure ample amounts of those. Starve them and wear them down.
  • Use intelligence: Ensure your lands are riddled with scouts with near-instant communication. Ensure also lands around your nation are constantly monitored. Half the battle is knowing when, where, and the disposition and condition of an enemy is for you to position your own troops and develop a way to defeat them. As Sun Tsu said: "it is best to win without fighting".

To answer your other question: I would use as many different bow types and arrow types as possible, combined with as many different training as possible too, to widen the capability of your archers. Also your troops need to be trained in asymmetric warfare methods, as well as coordinated methods, to ensure a wide range of strategies are able to be deployed.

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First - any battle would be offensive. Need to be. Otherwise you would face forces that comes toward you. So anyone who would be (cause of the movement) under the lobe of arrow flight would be save.
And the archers would be ripe for cutting.

So you would need to have time, place and wind on your side. Only available if you are attacking.

Arrowheads - you need to change your thinking. You cannot have wide access to large amount of quantity and type of arrowheads and complain they don't have materials for swords. Or you stick only with stone/obsidian and wood/bone arrowheads.

You battles would look like this

enter image description here

With a success rate like this

enter image description here

And in the first link in the background you see the reason for need to be offensive. Any halfwitted dude with shield will be protected. only way he would not be is when he don't expect a battle.

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    $\begingroup$ What film are the GIF images from? 😆️ $\endgroup$ – John Feb 23 at 19:27
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    $\begingroup$ First is 2014 Hercules second is American Gods. Funilly enough both of them star Ian McShane $\endgroup$ – SZCZERZO KŁY Feb 23 at 20:06
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No, army solely of bowmen will not be effective. Bow, and especially longbow, as a military weapon is highly overrated. Mounted archers were effective, but only because they were supported by heavy cavalry and infantry. Likewise, English longbowmen were supported by men-at-arms, and had the advantage of choosing the terrain for battle. If you only have bowmen, all the enemy has to do is send heavy infantry protected with pavises / tortoise to push them out of position, and then run them down with cavalry. Problem solved!

Generally speaking, a combined-arms army will beat a specialist army 90% of the time.

Also, there is no reason why you cannot have a combined-arms force with citizen militia. Take a look at Swiss militia, armies of Italian city-states, or even Byzantine thematic army (though last ones were in fact professionals). Further, English longbowmen were, in fact, trained for close-quarters combat and equipped as such. They were not as good at it as professional men-at-arms, but they were not helpless either - their "melee ability" was pretty much definitely well above zero. At Agincourt IIRC, English longbowmen actually ran out of arrows - and even so, English men-at-arms in the center were hard-pressed by the French, until English longbowmen whipped out pollaxes and daggers and attacked French men-at-arms from the flanks.

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I think it may be difficult to win a battle, let alone a war with bowmen -- at Agincourt it was the mud and the skill of the English/Welsh archers as footsoldiers that carried the day. And the French won that war when they realised that the bow was a defensive weapon and they would win by not attacking. You will need an offensive arm too. Nothing wrong with adding spear/pike/halberd to the mix.

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Yes

But you have to put them on horses.

enter image description here

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