Darts in warfare

By Rob Morgan

The list of strange medieval weapons which originated inThe Basiliscoe Mercury e-mail newsletter included the odd, heavy darts which the Byzantines carried, an unusual but potentially very effective weapon thrown en masse, so I looked for more information.

The London based “archaeological” magazine Minerva often comes up with information on arms and armour, though much is classically oriented and placed firmly in the ancient world. In the May-June 2012 issue, however, the line into the medieval world is clearly crossed. In an article entitled “Death on Leaden Wings,” Dr. David Sim considers, makes and tests out the lead weighted dart used by the Romans and the Byzantines, the latter well into the medieval period. It’s rough and short guide; these were, after all, less than craftsman-made projectiles, and they varied in length and weight, probably as much due to the personal strength and capability of the thrower as anything else.

Sim relies in part on Vegetius, Book 1:17, but he makes some interesting points. Vegetius, of course, asserts that each man carried 5 darts behind his shield — and the author mentions modern field-trials in which after only half an hour’s practice, a man could throw “all five darts in six seconds” — a veritable barrage!

That’s something to consider in melees and in rule making!

He talks of the darts, using the term plumbata as capable of a veritable arrow-storm. To achieve anything like this they must have been thrown by direct order of command, rather than in any opportunist way at individual targets. He also confirms that this was a weapon to be used against lightly armoured or mass attacks of opponents after any long-range duel of archery or slings.

The moulding of the weight for the short-ish shaft is explained, as is the manufacture of the simple tanged or socketed head, a fairly basic blacksmith’s task. These were close-range projectiles, and gripped by the weight, which was a third of the way along the shaft behind the arrow head, and thrown overarm, says Sim. Up to 25 metres range was possible. Stability in flight was due to the shaft being feathered, which must have been the time-consuming part of the manufacturing process.  Unless, of course, damaged or broken arrow shafts were re-cycled for darts?

Some sources he quotes have suggested underarm throwing but he dismisses this as less than effective, and the claims of 50 metres range go the same way! The article concludes with a description of what I take to be some very substantial research into the wounds these missiles caused, and of course they were clearly more effective if thrown down, as in the defence of fortresses or castles. Dr. Sim makes some other points: he suggests that around 80% of those thrown broke on impact, which lends the cheap re-cycled arrow shaft concept a little more credibility. “Used in mass volleys against unarmoured opponents its effects would be devastating.” If the 5 throws in 6 seconds rate of fire’s true, it must have been.

Of course, it would have been very useful to know more about the apparently lengthy research that was carried out, not into the manufacture of the darts, but the rate of fire and the range and effects. I assume that re-enactors were involved. The last question in this article is obviously the crucial one for medievalists. Why did the plumbata fall out of use in battle if not in the siege, and when exactly were they last used in war? The fyrd and levy troops of early medieval Europe would have been particularly vulnerable to them, but were household troops or even mercenaries disciplined enough to throw at command?

An interesting article, even if it doesn’t tell the whole story, and raises questions unanswered. A rather useful table top weapon too, and one you don’t actually need to scratch-build!

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2 Responses to Darts in warfare

  1. Derek says:

    When I were but a lad – 1958 ish- we would make what we, in South London, called ‘Scotch Arrows’
    Lengths of garden cane two to three foot long with a nut screwed on the one end to weight it and a rough flight of cardboard bound on the other.
    The method of throwing was to use a cord with a knot at the end. The cord was wrapped around the cane once below the flight and the knot trapped under the cord which was brought along the shaft into the hand and then in throwing the cord became an extension of the arm. (I know there is a name for this used by Aboriginals and others for throwing spears, but I can’t remember it)
    Anyway, I have often wondered if something as simple wouldn’t have been used to throw darts and javelins in the past. My recollection is that enormous distances were achieved and if a pencil sharpener blade was fitted at the nut end the arrow would stick into a wooden door or slow child.

  2. JAird says:

    By coincidence we were playing with one of these at the weekend – well, almost. It was a foam toy like this : http://www.amscan.co.uk/our_products_selection/party_accessories/favours_bulk/large_foam_rocket_24_pc/

    This is VERY similar to the late Roman darts – and if held at the main weight it goes about half or less the distance achievable if held on the short shaft and thrown underarm. Additionally such a method produces a high ballistic trajectory – the weight topples the dart over and it comes down rapidly. Anyone underneath the real thing would have been well advised to raise a shield – which at short range would have made them vulnerable to full size spears and javelins. So, based on these observation I have to disagree with Dr Sim.

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