Archers vs Cavalry

I operated under an illusion for a long time. The illusion was that cavalry would overrun archers and scatter them to the four winds in the field. In my mind, 100 archers on one end of a large field could easily be defeated by 50 mounted knights. Since the cavalry have weight, intertia and barding/armor on their side, it seemed like an obvious outcome.

Once again, my reading habits got in the way of my long held beliefs. My local library is lean on tactical manuals, but it did have this little item.

Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World AD 500 – AD 1500

I am not through with it yet, so this is not a review. I will post a full review at a later date. I just wanted to get this archery issue out in the open. I thought it was fascinating, and to my mind, counter-intuitive.

Historically, archery units actually stopped full cavalry charges! In fact, they stopped repeated charges. The answer is so simple that I am ashamed that it did not occur to me in countless role-playing games. You can stop a cavalry charge with big sticks and holes.

The big stick idea is an old device. A long pole with a sharpened point buttressed with your foot to impale charging horses. Hollywood actually got this part correct, see “The 13th Warrior” and “Braveheart” for nice examples. This was not a surprise to me.

What did shock me were the holes. Lots of little potholes (also called pottis) dug into the field. Perhaps 1 foot wide and knee deep. They were not for the men to hide in, they were to swallow a single horse leg. For extra damage, sometimes sharpened stakes lay at the bottom of the hole.

This simple defense has multiple benefits. First, they are completely lethal to any horse that puts a leg into one. At a gallop, the leg will break, killing the horse (eventually) and throwing the rider to the ground. A dismounted, prone knight is easy prey for the lightly armored archers. Once the first ranks go down, subsequent cavalry ranks, have to slow down to avoid holes, blunting the charge. Slower charges mean a longer time for the archers to strike a lucky shot. War horses also tended to be rare, so each one killed or crippled is costly to the attacker.

Mixing the “pottis” in with ranks of archers holding long, sharp poles and cavalry suffer tremendous losses. Always remember that many of the archers are still firing at an incredible rate into the blunted charge. Losses were tremendous.

Of course, the cavalry can ride around the obstacles and it requires enough time to dig the pottis, so it is far from a perfect defense. That said, the ability of archers to crush a cavalry charge is fascinating to me. So much for long held beliefs.

Trask, the Last Tyromancer



Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.