Ancient Warfare Answers (260): Did the ancients use volley fire?

In this episode, Murray muses on a question sent in by Nathan asking if, in the ancient world, there was some sort of volley fire such as we see in the 19th century with ranks of infantry?
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A counter-march is not volley fire. The former aims for continuous fire as you say, while a volley, as occurred from the 30 Years War on, and commonly attributed to Gustav Adolphus, is three ranks firing on command at the same time. The aim of the latter is to break the formation of an advancing enemy. This is what was used until the late 19th century for exactly that purpose. See the Thin Red Line in the Crimea. I suggest that Romans with the pilum used volley fire for exactly the above purpose. The range was at most 20 meters and if you have a charging hairy Gaul coming at you at a run, I suggest a volley order from the optio is a good idea. They will only be in range for at most 10 seconds. On the other hand, against a Macedonian phalanx with 5 metre pikes you might not do so well unless you are able to disrupted the phalanx.You might get a second pilum off at point blank range but you then need to draw your gladius. In general, the Romans did not win against a fully formed up phalanx. Pokey pokey wins against stabby stabby in the situation. Any 30 Year War or ECW re-enactor who is a musketeer will tell you the the flash, the noise and the smoke, even without the musket balls, results in hesitation by the advancing infantry. Counter-marching (the caracole) to reload your pistols by Reiter cavalry was used to break up pike units with inadequate musket support. What most archer units used in ancient warfare, and also with English longbows, was area fire. Fill the target unit with enough arrows and you will disrupt them. Yes, counter-march to reload Cretan style in any period, but any order to fire an archery volley (see the movie Henry V), only will occur when they hit a specific preplaced range marker and controlled by an NCO.

Ralph Kirby

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