How Far Can an Army Throw?

Along the dry path between the walls of water that pass through the Red Sea, the last group of Hebrews to cross find themselves being chased by the Egyptian army.

The Egyptians pursued and came after them all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen, into the midst of the sea.

Exodus 14:23

We know from earlier verses that Pharaoh himself is there with his chariot, along with “six hundred select chariots and all the chariots of Egypt, with officers over them all.” (Exodus 14:6-7). While it doesn’t mention soldiers on foot, I’ve added them in. They will need more than a thousand or so chariots to subdue 50,000 slaves (or 2 million, if you take the Biblical census as accurate).

As the soldiers pour into the sea, they start to catch up with the Hebrews. What is the closest they can come to them without the Hebrews being in danger of being killed by their weapons?

Wooden figures from the tomb of Mesehti, 11th Dynasty, Cairo Egyptian Museum

At first I assumed they would have spears. And they likely do.

The spear was used in Egypt since the earliest times for hunting larger animals, such as lions. In its form of javelin (throwing spears) it was replaced early on by the bow and arrow. Because of its greater weight, the spear was better at penetration than the arrow, but in a region where armour consisted mostly of shields, this was only a slight advantage. On the other hand, arrows were much easier to mass-produce.

In battle, it never gained the importance among Egyptians which it was to have in classical Greece, where phalanxes of spear-carrying citizens fought each other. During the New Kingdom, it was often an auxiliary weapon of the charioteers, who were thus not left unarmed after spending all their arrows. It was also most useful in their hands when they chased down fleeing enemies stabbing them in their backs.

Military of ancient Egypt: Spear

Even a Neanderthal spear (study done with replicas and professional javelin throwers) can go up to 65 feet (20 meters). An Ancient Roman spear called a pila could go up to 30 meters (“although the effective range is only about 15 to 20 metres”). We can guess that an Ancient Egyptian javelin (throwing spear) would be somewhere in-between.

Modern loose interpretation at the The Pharaonic Village in Cairo of a Battle scene from the Great Kadesh reliefs of Ramses II on the Walls of the Ramesseum. Taken from Battle scene from the Great Kadesh reliefs of Ramses II on the Walls of the Ramesseum.

The primary weapon for distance though was a bow and arrow. And a chariot built for two. In drawings from Ancient Egypt, most pictures show two horses and two men per chariot, though the Pharaoh always seems to ride alone.

[Around 1600 BC] the horse and chariot were introduced into Egypt…The Egyptian chariots [were] lighter and faster than those of other major powers in the Middle East. Egyptian war chariots were manned by a driver holding a whip and the reins and a fighter, generally wielding a composite bow or, after spending all his arrows, a short spear of which he had a few. The charioteers wore occasionally scale armor, but many preferred broad leather bands crossed over the chest or carried a shield. Their torso was thus more or less protected, while the lower body was shielded by the chariot itself….

The principal weapon of the Egyptian army was the bow and arrow; it was transformed into a formidable weapon with the introduction by the Hyksos of the composite bow. These bows, combined with the war chariot, enabled the Egyptian army to attack quickly and from a distance…In the 18th Dynasty soldiers began wearing helmets and leather or cloth tunics with metal scale coverings.

Military of ancient Egypt: New Kingdom armies
Ancient egyptian chariot from a theban tomb of a private, probably used for hunting and sport. 18th dynasty, New Kingdom. Florence, Museo archeologico nazionale. [This chariot is a slightly older than my novel’s era and was made for a single rider, so perhaps not used for warfare.]

So what is a composite bow? It is “a traditional bow made from horn, wood, and sinew laminated together.” The Egyptians adapted them after contact with nomadic groups. “Several composite bows were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, who died in 1324 BCE.”

Reproduction of a Ming dynasty Kaiyuan bow by Chinese bowyer Gao Xiang. This is a horn, bamboo, sinew composite. The bow is strung.

The main advantage of composite bows over self bows (made from a single piece of wood) is their combination of smaller size with high power. They are therefore more convenient than self bows when the archer is mobile, as from horseback, or from a chariot…For most practical non-mounted archery purposes, composite construction offers no advantage…However, they are superior for horsemen and in the specialized art of flight archery.”

Composite bow: Advantages and disadvantages of composite construction

A University of South Africa doctoral dissertation takes all the claims about composite bows and re-evaluates them in the context of actual testing of replicas, archeological discovery, and historical analysis. It’s a fascinating read.

The largest collection [in Egypt] of complete bow artifacts (both composite and of self construction) [is from] the tomb of Tutankhamen (1332 – 1323 BCE). The recovery of 27 composite bows is extraordinary in its significance. Only 10 other partial remains of composite bows have been discovered in Egypt, all dating to between 1600 and 1200 BCE. All of the composite bows recovered from Tutankhamen’s tomb consist of a wood core with a sinew back (the side facing away from the archer) and a horn belly (the side facing toward the archer), save four, which consist solely of a wood core and sinew backing. (pp. 61-62)

Egypt…preferred acacia for bow-making. (p. 66)

[The] pairing of the composite bow with the chariot resulted in a rapid shift in warfare throughout Egypt and much of the ancient Near East corresponding to the early second millennium BCE, as chariotry suddenly became an important military unit. The…navy, which was considered to be more elite and prestigious compared to other military units during the Middle Kingdom, was superseded by the newly formed chariot corps. The creation of this corps consisting of hundreds of chariots represented a major investment not only with regard to the importation and breeding of horses and facilities for both their training and care, but also craftsmen for the construction and repair of the chariots themselves. [They could also] hack out an appropriate track from one or more mountainsides [so] their chariots could pass. (p. 110)

The minimum length which to which a bow of self construction can be made such that it can have a draw length of 75cm and a draw weight of 18 kg…is approximately 160cm. If a deflex is incorporated in the design, as seen in the double-convex self bows seen in ancient Egypt this could perhaps be shortened to 150cm. (p. 112)

[In a chariot] with a railing height of 90cm (slightly higher than the highest rail height of any extant artifact), it was possible to easily use a bow of 170cm in length…A railing height of 80cm, a height still higher than all but one of the extant chariot artifacts, allowed the use of a bow of 180cm in length…fully long as several of the British longbow artifacts recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose, all of which are at least twice the draw weight of that of the average bow in the ancient world. Lowering the railing to a height of 70cm allowed uninhibited use of a bow 190cm in length, the longest bow length tested. The results show that there is approximately 25cm of overlap between the minimum bow length possible such that it is of self construction, of a draw weight of at least 18kg, and to a draw length back to the archer’s ear (75cm or more)…Certainly a shorter bow length would be more convenient, but far from necessary. (p. 124)

Historical evidence for bows within the 150-175cm length range are not uncommon, including eight of the self bows recovered from the tomb of Tutankhamen…The adoption of chariot warfare would likely have encouraged the use of the composite bow due to its potential for improved arrow velocity (and as a result, increased range) but it in no way caused (or was otherwise dependent upon) the development of composite construction. (p. 127)

Origins and Comparative Performance of the Composite Bow by Karl Chandler Randall IV, 2016

Okay, all well and good. But how far will an arrow shot from one of these bows go? Randall cites traditional scholarship claims that range from 160-220 (perhaps up to 400) meters, with some accuracy to a target in the 50-190 meter range. (p. 46)

But when it comes to giving the reader actually tested distances, he falls short. Instead, he chooses to measure velocity, saying this is a better measure than distance, where a slight change in angle matters. Also, he did not have the facilities to test distance safely.

“At draw weights of the most common draw weights seen in the ancient world (18-23 kg [40-51 lbs]), the range differential between bows of self and composite construction would be approximately 45%.” (pp. 174-5) Velocity for an arrow released from a bow with a 50 lb draw weight ranges from 45-55 meters per second, depending on the weight of the arrow.

How does that translate to distance? Heck if I know. I’m going to go with 160-220 meters (525-722 feet) as a fairly safe distance where Pharaoh’s army’s weapons can not hurt them (though a bit further away would give them certainty).

At 500′ (152 meters), you can barely see people and you can not make out what they say, though you could hear shouting. At a mere 100′ (30 meters), you must raise your voice to communicate. At 250′ (76 meters), you can’t communicate without a device.

How close will the army get? You’ll just have to wait and see.


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