Many people, particularly those who have been affected by popular media like video games, movies, and television, have a fundamental misconception of archers. Because the archers are often portrayed as weak and vulnerable. Thus, people believe that archers in history were generally unguarded in close combat since they had to wear light clothing and no armor. Since they expended all their strength by pulling the bowstring, which was already too hard, the light clothing compensated for this difficulty. And they would not fight against heavily armored infantry anyway. This view seems reasonable, but it is actually incorrect.
First, archers in the Middle Ages wouldn’t have had many chances to shoot arrows on the battlefield if they weren’t in good spots. In a head-on battle, archers would typically only shoot three arrows before the enemy approached, as the range of a bow was only around 660 to 990 feet (200 to 300 meters). All infantries could quickly get over such a short distance. Therefore, archers often shot only a few arrows before the enemy arrived.
Why Did Archers Wear Light Armor?
How is it possible for archers, who have only fired a few arrows, to feel fatigued during a battle? The idea that archers wore light clothing and no armor to facilitate shooting arrows does have some truth to it, but it also depends on the circumstances and location.
In Europe, for example, most archers did not wear plate armor on their upper bodies after the introduction of plate armor, nor did they wear iron gauntlets, as plate armor was inconvenient for archers and interfered with their ability to exert force. However, other types of armor, such as chainmail, did not have this problem.
The European knights, being more inclined towards direct confrontation, donned full-body metallic armor on their horses. In contrast, the European archers prioritized their agility and were less prone to battle. Thus, they opted for lighter protection, typically fashioned from leather, and padded or quilted materials.
In contrast to the problem faced by European archers when wearing plate armor, medieval Chinese archers did not have this issue. Because the Chinese armor used was already designed to facilitate archery. One reason why Chinese armor did not include iron gauntlets was to enable archers to shoot arrows easily.
Some Archers Actually Wore Heavy Armor
One can easily observe from surviving Chinese paintings, murals, and sculptures that so-called archers were fully equipped with heavy armor and helmets. For instance, even heavy cavalry in full body armor in the painting “Emperor Taizong’s Campaign Against the Eastern Turks” carried bows and arrows. The Tang Dynasty military treatise “New Book of Tang” described the Tang army’s equipment and weapons, which included bows, various melee weapons, armor, and helmets, but only soldiers with garrison duties were not provided with armor:
“The Tang soldiers equipped themselves with a bow, thirty arrows, a Hu-Lu (a container for holding arrows), a horizontal knife, a whetstone, a quiver, a felt hat, a felt garment, and rattan shoes. They brought their own nine dou of wheat and two dou of rice. All their armor and weapons were stored in the warehouse. When they went out, they received them before departure. Only those who guarded the outpost were provided with bows, arrows, and horizontal knives.”New Book of Tang, Volume 50, Military Provisions
The Chinese poet Du Fu also described the Tang army’s bow and arrow equipment in his poem “Ballad of the Army Carts“: Wagons rattling and banging, horses neighing and snorting, conscripts marching, each with bow and arrows at his hip.” This indicates that the Tang army did indeed provide each soldier with a bow.
The record of military campaigns and “Taiwan Foreign Records” both provide clear descriptions of General Koxinga’s army structure and weapon equipment. They mention that the elite Iron Man Army of Koxinga’s forces had not only sturdy iron helmets, armor, and other protective gear but that each soldier also carried a bow and a variety of weapons for both long-range and close combat. In addition, they were equipped with fearsome horse-chopping broadswords that were carried by hand:
“In February, the bravest and strongest soldiers were selected as Koxinga’s personal troops, and they trained at the Yandwu Pavilion in Xiamen Port. They could each pull a bow up to 500 jin (550 lbs; 250 kg) and still move around freely on the training grounds. With the help of a skilled technician named Feng Chengshi, they wore thick iron helmets, armor, gauntlets, skirts, and shoes that arrows could not penetrate. They also wore iron masks that covered only the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, decorated with colorful patterns resembling ghostly figures, and wielded horse-chopping broadswords.”Taiwan Foreign Records, Volume Four.
Therefore, archers in history—especially medieval archers—were not completely defenseless in close combat. They had combat capabilities and could switch to using melee weapons such as swords and spears. However, their fighting ability depended on the quality of their armor and their organization, such as the tightness of their formation and whether they could form a battle formation when the enemy attacked.