Death by arrow
June 9, 2012 3:03 PM   Subscribe

How quickly does one die when struck by arrow?

Hollywood seems to be enamored with bow and arrow these days. We've seen instant deaths, slow deaths, non-deaths (would link but, actually, you've all seen these), so I started to wonder what an actual death by arrow would look like.

Does it depend on where you're struck? (Heart = instant death?) What about arrows that go cleanly through you, like how deer are supposedly killed in hunting? Could one survive multiple arrows before eventually succumbing, like Saint Sebastian/Boromir?

I guess, bottom line, I'm wondering how realistic it is to rapidly fire a bunch of arrows to fell a dozen people, and can one arrow kill instantly.
posted by war wrath of wraith to Grab Bag (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Depends on where it hits. In your eye like King Harald? Fast. In the heart? Fast. In the shoulder? Slow.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:13 PM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

How quickly does one die when struck by arrow?

The answer ranges from "you don't" to "instantly".

Of course it depends on factors like where you get hit. It would also depend on what bow you were shot with, the type of arrow which hits you, the range of the shot, what you're wearing, and your health.

In that respect they are very similar to guns. Sometimes you get shot in the fleshy part of your leg by a little .22 pistol and are walking around afterwards. Sometimes you get shot in the heart by a .50 caliber sniper rifle and your chest essentially explodes.
posted by Justinian at 3:14 PM on June 9, 2012 [6 favorites]

Oh, as to how realistic it is to rapidly fire a bunch of arrows and fell a dozen people, I'd say it's slightly less realistic as rapidly firing a dozen bullets and felling a dozen people. That is to say; not likely but possible. Hugely range dependent.
posted by Justinian at 3:16 PM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

"I'm wondering how realistic it is to rapidly fire a bunch of arrows to fell a dozen people"

Just standing there letting you shoot at them is not very likely. Rushing at you lusting to end your life as quickly as possible is much more likely.

Deer arrows are not engineered to "go cleanly through", but to penetrate a few inches and lodge. Then, the razor-sharp edges are meant to slice through surrounding tissue as the protruding portion is knocked about by trees and such as the deer runs. Ideally, this causes hemorrhaging and the deer bleeds out.
posted by Ardiril at 3:27 PM on June 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

"fell" doesn't necessarily mean kill. An arrow could make it difficult or impossible to walk, and if it punctures a lung it could be very painful and difficult to get enough oxygen for any exertion.
posted by aubilenon at 3:30 PM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

The accuracy of Hollywood concerning death is... low. Basically, people die as quickly or slowly as is necessary to serve the story, reality be damned. A little googling suggests that lack of blood flow to the brain causes brain damage within five minutes and brain death after not very much longer. Loss of consciousness would be pretty quick so the person might well appear dead in seconds.

Basically, you're looking at the following scenarios:

1. Instant or near-instant death - hit to the brain, throat or heart
2. Quick death - severing a main artery
3. Slow death - punctured lung, gut wounds, or (frequently) from any wound that gets infected

One of the noted benefits of silk clothing was that when a person wearing it was wounded by a bullet or arrow, they were less likely to develop sepsis from cloth fragments in the wound.

As noted by Justinian, the range is massively variable. A cheap crossbow might only send a bolt a few dozens of yards, and with pretty poor accuracy. I have a friend who is a member of the English Warbow Society and they recently made a record shot with a livery arrow at 274 yards. The bows they use are between 120lb and 160lb pulls; the heaviest known longbows were recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose were slightly stronger, possibly reaching as much as 180lb. A skilled archer might be expected to loose one arrow every 5-6 seconds.
posted by fearnothing at 3:30 PM on June 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

It's about handguns, not arrows, but you may find this FBI paper on handgun wounding and effectiveness [PDF] interesting. Long story short, the only thing that causes one to die immediately from being shot is catastrophic damage to the CNS. Large holes in the torso cause bleeding out but that is not as quick a death as massive CNS damage.
Physiologically, a determined adversary can be stopped reliably and immediately only by a shot that disrupts the brain or upper spinal cord. Failing a hit to the central nervous system, massive bleeding from holes in the heart or major blood vessels of the torso causing circulatory collapse is the only other way to force incapacitation upon an adversary, and this takes time.
The parts following that on page 11 about other physiological and psychological factors in wounding and incapacitation are pretty interesting as well.
posted by Edogy at 3:32 PM on June 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

It also depends on the head of the arrow. A hunting arrow is wide and meant to cause maximum bleeding to an unprotected target. The kind of arrow used against armored targets wasn't much wider than the shaft of the arrow itself, so it could punch through. That would cause less bleeding than a hunting arrow.
posted by musofire at 3:36 PM on June 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

Notably, a 7-year-old girl in Wisconsin recently survived being struck by an arrow warning: extremely cute, sympathy-inducing photo:

Aryanna’s doctor, John Densmore, assistant professor of surgery and pediatric surgeon, said the 7-year-old is lucky to be alive.

“Had we changed the trajectory of that arrow by as little as two centimeters to the right this could have been a very bad outcome,” Densmore said.

The teens who shot the arrow -- squirrel-hunting, they said -- are in custody, by the way.

I'm wondering how realistic it is to rapidly fire a bunch of arrows to fell a dozen people

Well, given average combat distances and proficiencies, my crazy-ass guess is that it would take about three shots, on average, to "fell" an individual, so you're talking a lot of arrows. Realistically, this can't work; you would be subject to counterattack and your targets would take cover.

In reality, while there are certainly sniper-type attacks, historical use of the bowman in military terms was something akin to modern artillery at a comparatively short range. That is, a group of bowmen firing a volley of arrows at an enemy, both to halt an advance and as a type of area denial. It isn't so much the enemies who get hit directly ("felled"); it's the enemies who are incapacitated by fear or slowed by injury. Meanwhile, your pikemen, swordsmen, cavalry, and such can effect their own advance.

It's roughly similar in tactical terms, then, to the concept of the difference between shooting at an enemy with your combat rifle in semi-auto mode, and shooting cover fire in the general direction of the enemy so your comrades can reposition or reload.

When you think of situations where bowmen were up against gunmen on a one-to-one basis, such as some (American) Indian Wars battles, especially as depicted on screen accurately or not, you're basically talking about overwhelming a smaller group with a larger force. As such, accuracy doesn't come into it as much.
posted by dhartung at 4:56 PM on June 9, 2012

One of the noted benefits of silk clothing was that when a person wearing it was wounded by a bullet or arrow, they were less likely to develop sepsis from cloth fragments in the wound.

Another advantage was that the silk clothing was strong and could be used to pull the arrow back out again.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:34 PM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

In combat, back when bows were important weapons of war, there were two main kinds of arrowheads used. One is the shape you are thinking of, triangular, made of metal, and razor sharp on the edges.

The other is called a "Bodkin point". It's a long, thin metal spike. Why?

It's armor piercing. The traditional arrowhead couldn't penetrate plate armor, or at least not well enough to matter. The Bodkin point could, so once the Bodkin point was introduced, armored knights could no longer ignore archers with impunity.

On the other hand, the Bodkin point was less lethal, since it just made a narrow hole. It was less likely to cause massive bleeding. You had to be more lucky to get an instant kill with one.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:39 PM on June 9, 2012

Remember visiting Abergavenny Castle as a kid, and the tale told there was that arrows shot by Welsh rebels penetrated a four-inch thick oak door. Which is not death-related exactly, but illustrative of the power of a war bow.
posted by Abiezer at 7:14 PM on June 9, 2012

Henry V took one to the face and lived, so not fatal enough :D

An oft-cited bit is how, according to accounts of the crusades, knights were walking around with so many arrows suck in their armor that they looked like pin cushions.
posted by fleacircus at 7:25 PM on June 9, 2012

A data point, from Homer: Odysseus gets Antinoos with one in the throat, Eurymachos in the liver, and an unnamed number of suitors (presumably over a dozen) in unnamed body parts.

Odysseus does put aside the bow "because the arrows (ran out or failed him)," the ambiguity bothersome for interpreters. It would be nice to know, even for your question, whether he has a 100% kill rate before picking up the spears.
posted by mahorn at 9:52 PM on June 9, 2012

Apparently bodkin points weren't usually made with strong enough material for the 'armour-piercing' thesis to hold up: details.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 3:57 AM on June 10, 2012

The amount of misinformation here is disheartening. An arrow used to kill a deer is indeed meant to go through the body. Hunting tips have razor edges.

The idea is to sever an artery or vein, penetrate the heart or puncture the lung. The deer then bleeds to death. Heart wounds are the fastest, but even that isn't always instant. I've seen deer take five or six steps before dropping. Anything else takes about 10-15 minutes depending on the wound.

Obviously brain injury would be quicker but it's unusual and likely the result of a bad shot. Deer have small brains though so I suppose with a larger target maybe it's worth it to try for a head shot on a human. Kind of gruesome to think about.

An arrow that pierces the belly can, but often doesn't, kill very slowly. It's not something any hunter wants to do. You're better off to miss. If your belly shot hits the liver however the deer will usually bleed out pretty quickly.

A far as rapid fire goes, it's very difficult to load, draw, aim and shoot in a couple of seconds although I suppose with enough practice anything is possible. Seems like Hollywood fantasy though.
posted by Bonzai at 8:39 AM on June 10, 2012

It isn't so much the enemies who get hit directly ("felled"); it's the enemies who are incapacitated by fear or slowed by injury.

Let us not forget the two battles of Agincourt and Crécy. In Agincourt, about 6,000 Englishmen, mostly archers, won a crushing victory against 12,000 to 36,000 Frenchmen. They were not practicing area denial. They were killing or disabling armored opponents.

The trained military archer was extremely deadly. So much so that as late as the Napoleonic wars, British colonels were still proposing bringing them back.

Bear in mind that an arrow does not have to kill an opponent to put him out of business. Generally a modern full metal jacket round does not kill an opponent either, unless it strikes the heart or brain. What happens is that someone intent on fighting, upon receiving a traumatic wound from an arrow or 7.62 mm round, usually quickly becomes someone intent on getting medical treatment. Only the most motivated fighters are going to keep charging after getting hit.
posted by musofire at 8:59 PM on June 15, 2012

Oh yes, the Battle of Crécy. 9,000 to 15,000 Brits vs. 35,000 to 100,000 French men at arms. Welsh archers won the day.
posted by musofire at 9:04 PM on June 15, 2012

They were killing or disabling armored opponents.

Wasn't Agincourt's victory mostly due to shooting horses out from under nights when they do stupid charges on muddy ground?

In military engagements against mounted knights, I think the big problem was the bow's effectiveness against the horse, not the knight.
posted by fleacircus at 3:46 PM on June 17, 2012

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