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Hear hear,

with the latest arcane technology, archers on the battlefield are able to shoot "smart arrows". Smart arrows are propelled by a little unit of magiteck, which allows the archer to control the arrow' movements finely. This includes sharp turns, sudden accelerations, and the ability to bypass obstacles or shields.

Experienced magiteck archers are said to be able to obtain such a fine level of control on their projectiles that they can center a knight's helmet eye-slits from 200 meters distance.
In the modern battlefield, traditional archer squadrons used to battering down the enemy with a constant rain of arrows are slowly being replaced by "smart archers", with a lower rate of fire, but an unparalleled ability to make every arrow count.

Please keep in mind that:

  • The magiteck propeller on each arrow has limited power, meaning the arrow cannot keep going forever and will run out of power after around 5 seconds from being triggered.
  • The common practice among smart archers is to activate the propeller just before landing, to kill a specific target, correct aim, or just increase dramatically the piercing power.
  • While smart arrows cannot pierce well made plate, their added power makes them dangerous against any lighter armor. Experienced archers will often targets joints, holes, or other weak spots.
  • Smart archers need to see the arrow in order to control it. While the effective range of arrows might be around 300m, those are not usually able to leverage the greater accuracy.

a smart archer.
An example of controlled arrow on a small distance: x

Would armor evolve in this context? What defensive measures would an army take against such archers?

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    $\begingroup$ "Need to be able to see a target" and "shooting through armor eyeslits at 200m" are somewhat in conflict there.. $\endgroup$ Nov 16, 2023 at 16:44
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    $\begingroup$ Questions of the form "How do you defend against this minimally specified thing that I'm not going to tell more you about, that involves several other things I'm not going to tell you about" do not necessarily get the best answers. $\endgroup$ Nov 16, 2023 at 17:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Liquid - I was going to make the same observation - Being able to see something as fine as a joint line or eye slit at 200m with medieval technology is just not happening. $\endgroup$ Nov 16, 2023 at 19:21
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    $\begingroup$ The obvious thing to do is to only send the youth and elderly into battle. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Nov 17, 2023 at 1:59
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    $\begingroup$ @TheDemonLord: Do note that the archer needs to see the arrow, not the eye slit/joint line... though given how thin an arrow is, I guess it doesn't change much... $\endgroup$ Nov 17, 2023 at 12:43

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First, let's look at the limits of your technology

Medieval war bows had tremendous draw weights. Estimates of 180 lbs are not uncommon. (I've drawn a 100 lbs. bow. It's a difficult draw if you're not trained to it.) And they threw heavy arrows — nothing at all like our modern hunting arrows. While one or two claims of 300 fps hover in the Internet aether, most people believe your average arrow speed was about 180 fps (55 mps).

Now... you have magic arrows. One wonders why bows are even involved. Maybe they aren't! You don't say, but even if they're not, everything I just said has value. Why?

An effective range of 300 meters means at traditional speeds the archer has 5.5 seconds to affect their plan — and the target has 5.5 seconds to do something about it.

But here's the kicker... In the heat and chaos of battle these little itty-bitty-zippy arrows will be impossible to see. And you have only 5.5 seconds max to use them.

And that's on a good day.

And if you let the arrows move faster, you simply rob your archers of the time needed to control the arrows.

Habits are hard to break

Generalizing something awful, medieval archers massed their fire.

Volley fire, as a military tactic, is (in its simplest form) the concept of having soldiers shoot in the same direction en masse. In practice, it often consists of having a line of soldiers all discharge their weapons simultaneously at the enemy forces on command, known as "firing a volley", followed by more lines of soldiers repeating the same maneuver in turns. This is usually to compensate for the inaccuracy, slow rate of fire (as many early ranged weapons took a long time and much effort to reload), limited effective range and stopping power of individual weapons, which often requires a massed saturation attack to be effective.

...

The term "volley" came from Middle French volée, substantivation of the verb voler, which in turns came from Latin volare, both meaning "to fly", referring to the pre-firearm practice of archers mass-shooting into the air to shower their enemy with arrows. (Source)

Now they have a new technology! But it actually takes time to change how everybody thinks (from the archers to their commanders to their kings...). As soon as the new technology becomes difficult to use (distance, fog of war...) everybody will return to what they know best: volley fire. Granted, with the magic arrows this would be devastating, but it's still an advantage to the defenders. If they can make the situation confusing for the archers, the archers will return to known tactics. It's just human nature (unless you're talking about 30-50 years of experience, but that's unrealistic due to continuing innovation in both magic and technology).

So, what can they do?

  1. Press the attack. Get as close to the archers as possible to nullify the value of the magic arrows. Archers were usually a distance away so they were safe while they volleyed their arrows. The problem with your magic arrows is that for every meter lost to the approaching horde the archers lose 0.02 seconds of reaction time. It doesn't sound like much, but it adds up fast in a battle.

  2. Try to fight during twilight when the archer's mid-distance vision will be blurry. If you can't finagle twilight, try to force their archers to face the sun.

  3. Shift to speedy and agile cavalry rather than slow and predictable infantry. Become harder to hit. Then train your cavalry to make frequent pattern changes. In fact, it might be useful to study the pattern races used during an O-Mok-See.

  4. Change your armor to include channels or shaped paths (think "skateboard park") so that the arrow must hit dead-on to penetrate and, if it doesn't, it gets deflected to useful places, like along toward the hips and the ground.

  5. Camouflage! Wear cloth outside the armor that's a bit billowy and the color of the surrounding landscape.

  6. Master fighting in the rain. Funny thing about rainstorms, it's darker, the rain is obfuscating, and people randomly slip. Since it affects both sets of infantry and/or cavalry identically, it's a major blow to the archers.

Finally, use fire to fight fire

  1. Using the promise of wealth beyond the dreams of avarice for success and pain beyond the mien of Lucifer for failure, motivate your own mages to work out how to cast Dispel Magic.

It's too easy to design the magic arrows to be godlike. Godlike is boring. The only way to defeat godlike is to create a flaw. An "Achilles Heel," if you would. The effective range of medieval arrows was about 140-300 meters, depending on the weight of the arrow. I'd favor 200 over 300 meters. Or...

Give up on the idea that your archers can accurately see and track the eye slits of medieval armor at 200 meters. Remember, heat and chaos of battle. Fog of war. It's unrealistic to believe that even a practiced archer could do that on anything other than a stationary dummy during practice. Thus, it's the more easiest way to introduce an imperfection that balances the magic system.

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1: Electron… magic warfare.

Like with smart munitions, you add magical nodes that can disrupt smart arrows, if not hijack them. Your arrows will veer off-course, you just lose control or the arrow will suddenly be controlled by an opponent who starts singing the battle hymn of “Return to Sender”.

And that does not even consider the potential to activate a smart arrow in a quiver and steer it before the owner is even aware they're screwed.

2.1: decoys

So your opponent can hit you, but those arrows won’t come cheap. Have a bunch of fake targets, like half a dozen dummy officers, prance around the field. Have fun when a bunch of expensive and likely limited supply smart arrows hit a dummy.

2.2: dazzle patterns

In a similar vein, but on your body. Dazzle patterns are designed to make it hard to judge distance or the exact position of something. When every soldier had a pattern on their helmet that makes it look like there’s several vision slits it becomes much harder to concentrate and hit the real one. Having a mass of lines in a group of soldiers would even make it harder to target an individual soldier, making it virtually impossible to target specific vulnerabilities.

3: counter-smart fire.

I mean what self-respecting officer wants to stand outside in bright colors so their soldiers can recognize that their orders are genuine when some lowly archer might kill them? Send small groups of smart arrow archers out first who target smart arrow users.

Another thing to consider: it's almost impossible to judge where an arrow came from in the heat of battle. Most officers and nobles would not want to put the power to kill them without anyone knowing in just anyone’s hands. So the pool of people to actually get these arrows might be purposefully limited.

4: hide.

Using fire and smoke you can make it hard to see. Or use the scenery. You can also proliferate more moving barriers for example to hide the exact position of people and their vulnerable area’s.

5: hull down.

So everything else has failed and a smart arrow is coming for you. Hull down lets you protect the vulnerabilities in your armor. For example you go on your knees and place your shield on the ground and the top at your temple. Can’t really hit the vision slots when there’s not even space for the arrow to approach and enter it! Having some things like a completely closed off visor could similarly make you go hull-down.

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    $\begingroup$ I love how smart and low cost the dazzle patterns are. $\endgroup$
    – Liquid
    Nov 16, 2023 at 17:19
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    $\begingroup$ Dazzle patterns are a great idea, would certainly work to confuse the enemy, and would also make for a distinctive imagery and feel to the armies involved, very different from the standard realistic-fantasy looks. $\endgroup$
    – Phil D
    Nov 17, 2023 at 7:24
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Smart archers need to see the arrow in order to control it

Smoke screens and anything which prevents the mages from seeing the target will work pretty well as defense against them, making their arrows not worse than conventional arrows.

Additionally the attached army can try blinding the mages by using reflective surfaces to shine their face with the sunlight, or placing themselves with the sun behind them, again preventing them from seeing the arrows.

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Deception. (I.e., dummies)

Military deception has a longer history than the Wikipedia article might suggest. The obvious famous one being the so called Trojan Horse.

At 200 yards, no-one is going to be able to tell a well-made 2 dimensional fake from a real knight.

Magically controlled arrows are expensive. If a well equipped (with dummies) army can exhaust the supply of arrows, then the odds are even they might prevail in the conventional conflict that comes next.

Note: Military engagements usually consist of a number of intersecting strategies all working in synergy. Consider all the answers and using their suggestions together or in sequence.

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  • $\begingroup$ This: but make it part of armor. Fake or periscope eye slots. Painted on fabric easy to penetrate. Whirling spring driven anti arrow flails hidden. Paint the back of the armor to look like the front. Theater blood to fake death till the archer battalion is drawn closer. Finally undead pincushions disguised as valid targets, smearing paint over broken off arrowshafts. $\endgroup$
    – Pica
    Nov 19, 2023 at 9:10
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Would armor evolve in this context?

Possibly. Arrows would not be the only threat in a battlefield. When the arrows are over it's lancing time, and when the spears break you get down to swords and fisticuffs.

However, armor might evolve to become lighter so as to allow you to clear the distance between you and an archer's neck more quickly.

Or, since magic is involved, armor could be made that repels arrows.

What defensive measures would an army take against such archers?

Golems. A five meters tall (that is about 4.1 laundry machines stacked up, in American units) mindless beast made of rock will barely be tickled by smart arrows.

Also medieval-punk tanks, like those invented by a real world artificer called called Leonardo. In reality we all know this was probably designed by Donatello, who was the nerdier turtle. Anyway the tank would have a canon that fires upwards, and no windows from which a magical arrow could enter. The canon ball would then fly to the target using the same magitechnology that propels arrows, with a wizard guiding it through a crystal ball inside the tank.

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Artillery

That is, arrows are used as artillery rounds instead of pinpointing enemies. Make a bomb, attach it to the smart arrow and launch it upwards like a mortar shell, possibly altering its course that a normal cannoneer couldn't, so that it would come down the ballistic trajectory on the enemy smart archers' heads. This can be launched from as far as the other side of the hill, depending on the propeller's physical power. Assuming 5 seconds of an 1G acceleration, it's already 50 m/s barrel speed, which is enough for about 180 meters (ballistics!), launch from a trebuchet THEN accelerate for greatly increased range and accuracy. It should blow up upon hitting the ground, wreck anyone close with good old shrapnel and also provide a good indication to the smart missile users on where to adjust aiming (over/underflight, left/right, that sort), so the next set of rounds would land closer or hit the enemy positions destroying their capability of using magic arrows vs your own infantry or knights.

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A simple solution that would make it hard for your smart arrow users to see their targets properly would be polish. Lots and lots of polish! If the opposing army buffs up their armour to a high mirror shine, the reflecting light is going to make it very difficult to actually pinpoint where those arrows are going to land.

For something along the lines of the magical technology in the arrows, have armour that has magitech built in that strengthens joints to stop arrow penetration. This would have the added benefit of making it more resistant to other weapons as well.

I'm not sure how advanced the magitech is in the world, but eyeless helmets could be a thing with magitech viewing panels on the inside of the helmet, similar to a reinforced glass visor

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Partial answer: Tennis rackets

With eye slits being expertly covered by other answers (dazzle patterns), this answer deals with arrows navigating around other defensive measures like shields, or targeting weakspots. To turn and aim towards a targeted weakspot I strongly suspect that the arrow has to temporarily slow down in mid air. That would be the ideal moment to intercept the arrow and to swat it down. However to achive the neccessary precision and speed with a sword or other "normal" weapon would be difficult. Over some iterations some craftsmen would produce the ideal tool for this task, it has to be light (so you can swing fast), have a big surface area (to reduce the neccessary accuarcy) and have little air resistance (again to be swung fast and acccurate). The anwser is a net of strings attached to a wooden frame and a short to medium length grip: a tennis racket.

While under fire of smart arrows, a knight would use the racket to swat down arrows that aim for his joints. A good swat would probably not destroy the arrow, but get it off track long enough so the short control time runs out. As soon as he engages in close combat he would sheath his racket and take his weapon to take on his opponent.

Devastating smart arrow tactics

Like many pointed out, smart arrows en mass would probably be outperformed by simply more normal arrow volleys (due to higher fire rate of normal arrows). However I think smart arrows could make for some devastating volley attacks with minimal control time of the arrows. As soon as the enemy is a bit closer than the maximu range of your arrows, you tell your archers to overshoot and let the arrows turn into their backs right before they hit the ground. Or same but shooting to either side of the enemies.

Arrow volleys from the side or behind are especially dangerous and demoralizing. The only counter would be armors that are the same thickness all around in contrast to real medieval armors that concentrated on the front. This would greatly increase the weight and cost of the armor, reducing the number of knights the enemy can deploy and also wearing them out much faster.

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  • $\begingroup$ Forcing heavier armors on the back as well is a neat detail. I assume the same could be said against cavalry charges - I think a similar argument can be made to specifically target horses. $\endgroup$
    – Liquid
    Nov 21, 2023 at 15:15
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    $\begingroup$ For horses this is at the same time more and less impactful: -more impactful: horses have much more flank area (that would need to be armored thicker) in proportion to front area (which was historically armored thick) -less impactful: unless you land a "critical hit" to a vital organ, a well trained horse in battle heat doesn't care much about a flimsy arrow stuck in its flank ->so you might not want to thicken up the horse armor at all due to little gain for much additional weight. $\endgroup$
    – datacube
    Nov 21, 2023 at 15:40
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Simplest is a plain armor with a "burka-like" overcoat preventing "smart archers" from seeing where weak points are.

A bit of padding would even prevent guessing where eye-slits are.

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    $\begingroup$ You can use two pieces of mirror to create a small periscope to be fit over the eye slits, so there is no straight path for the arrow. $\endgroup$
    – Abigail
    Nov 17, 2023 at 13:34
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Active Defense

Some modern tanks use explosive charges on the exterior of their armor to interfere with penetrating rounds. The incoming projectile needs to explode at just the right time to inject a stream of superheated liquid metal into the tank. So they try to blow it up early and disrupt the attack.

So a counter-arrow arrow or mini-fireball spell is attached to the knights' shields. This spell detects the incoming rounds, and fires off the countermeasure, disrupting the smart-arrow at the most crucial moment when the archer is controlling it.

A knight might carry several of these pre-made counter-spells in a bag, and "re-load" the active defense after it triggers - you probably don't want multiple mini-fireballs attached to the shield at one time.

This does mean there is a period of lowered defense while the knight re-sets her countermeasures. They remain susceptible to a saturation attack.

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Here is a frame challenge, your arrows will rarely be used in the battle field. Thus armor will not change much, maybe apart from getting thicker to protect from faster projectiles.

It will be immensely useful for assassins but not army archers. Controlling the arrow will be waste of time as precision is rarely necessary in battlefield. You don't target an individual, you target the group. Normally, by the time the first arrow lands, the archer would be releasing the next arrow (12 arrows/minute is a common firing speed). You will practically halve your attack speed. Your aim in battle is to not to hit a soldier, but to leave no place for a soldier to survive.

While extreme precision could help preserve ammo, I am not certain how well it will improve the end result. For one, you will sometimes lose track of your arrow among so many. Also, you will not be able to react with speed of the arrow to target very narrow openings even with extensive training unless you see from the point of view of the arrow which is not compatible with your archer has to see the arrow rule. At the distances you could see, a good archer will be able to hit an eye slit with pin point accuracy anyway. Maybe novice archers will benefit from precision in closer distances.

I think the most useful part of your arrow in battlefield would be the added damage.

But your arrows would be god sent for adventurers and assassins. But I am guessing you already know that.

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While I quite like Demigan's proposal to use dazzle patterns, I'd like to add on to it:

Ghillie Suits

Unless they're using some sort of telescopic sights, archers can't actually see someone's eye slits at longer ranges. The Mark I EyeballTM has limits. Insofar as they do (sometimes) snipe eye slits and joints at range, it is because they know where they are. Practice does, after all, make perfect.

Thankfully for the officer corps, there are a few different ways you can counter this. First off, as Demigan mentioned, you can use dazzle-pattern camouflage. He already explained how it works, so I feel no need to expound upon it further.

Second, you could use ghillie suits. These break up the wearer's outline, making it much harder to identify small features.

Combined, I imagine that these methods would make it almost impossible to accurately identify and track such a small target as an eye slit or armpit. Plus, who doesn't want to run around the battlefield looking like they'd just come from a Carnival or Mardi Gras parade?

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Anti-arrow arrows

The way to stop these smart arrows is smart defenses. Perhaps not an arrow, perhaps a shifting piece of armor, but it moves to intercept the attacking arrow and knock it out of the sky. Possibly something that the arrow will embed itself in, thus using up its five seconds trying to get out if it gets that smart.

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