31

Did the verb “fire a weapon” exist before the actual introduction of firearms on battlefields?

More specifically, does it make sense for a creative work to have archers (or whatever ranged weaponry) be told to “fire!”, when the world they live in has not yet seen firearms? It seems some kind of an anachronism to me, since before firearms, “fire” would never propel any projectile...

I've seen several movies do it; I can't remember them all, but for instance I verified it in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (left), Kingdom of Heaven (top right), and more recently Frozen (bottom right):

Snapshots of several movies using “fire!”

The first two do it several times (with Kingdom of Heaven also using it on ballistae, and The Return of the King even having Aragorn ask Legolas to “fire a warning shot past the bosun's ear”), whereas firearms never appear on the battlefields they feature (Kingdom of Heaven is set in the 12th century; as for The Lord of the Rings, apart from one occurrence of a witchcraft-ish bomb, it's archery and medieval siege engines all the way). Frozen may be debatable, happening probably somewhere in the 18th or 19th century, but since we only see swords, spears and the like, it made me flinch to hear crossbowmen use “fire!”.

I've also noticed other movies avoiding this, using “loose!” instead, such as Troy (left) and Gladiator (right):

Snapshots of two movies using “loose!”

This makes me think it would be the right thing to say instead... although I'm still wondering why not use “shoot”, which seems simpler to me.

  • 2
    What would you say when the arrows are actually on fire? :-) – Craig Mar 20 '14 at 9:20
  • 3
    Funny the exact same question was asked in 2007 here: ask.metafilter.com/78824/… – mplungjan Mar 20 '14 at 9:31
  • 5
    You'd think for flaming arrows, they would have been 'fired' when they were set alight, not when they were released. – Neil W Mar 20 '14 at 9:33
  • @mplungjan - as well as the answer! Thx. – anongoodnurse Mar 20 '14 at 9:47
  • @mplungjan Wow, that's something I looked for in vain several times in the past, before finally asking it here today... And it has the answer etymologically speaking, thanks! – Socce Mar 20 '14 at 23:04
16

"Loose/release/shoot an arrow" or "shoot a bow" are all possible variations that avoid the use of "fire".

an ngram search provides some clues to the usage. "shoot" seems to be the commonest usage however all the others are possible.

As for the movies using "fire!", I don't know about Frozen but at least in the other two the people involved would have been using a different language, not English, so any speech in the movies can be considered as a modern translation and, as long as you consider the use of "fire an arrow" acceptable in modern times, it should be acceptable in the "translated" speech of the movies.

  • Yes, but would an archer actually use the term "fire" when aiming at a target. And what about darts, does a player fire at the dartboard? – Mari-Lou A Mar 21 '14 at 8:18
  • 2
    @Mari-LouA Archery GB, "The governing body for the sport of archery in Great Britain and Northern Ireland" uses the term "shooting" in their rules, and as already mentioned, "shoot" seems to be the commonest variant in books, however, there are plenty of results for "fire" as well. I guess, the general question should be: when does a common usage become common enough to be considered correct? – msam Mar 21 '14 at 8:32
  • 2
    See, I wouldn't consider firing an arrow to be appropriate, or acceptable. Although the meaning is clear, and truth be told, I've never paid any attention to what was being said during battle scenes involving slingshots, catapults, arrows etc. in films. But I will from now on :) – Mari-Lou A Mar 21 '14 at 8:55
  • 2
    @Mari-LouA With the premise that "fire" is unacceptable modern usage, it is also (obviously) wrong in the movies, but not because firearms did not yet exist. A movie oriented in modern times would be equally wrong to use "fire". Whether that premise is valid is debatable (cambridge indicates no) – msam Mar 21 '14 at 9:32
  • The other answer by @mplungjan and his comment on the question were very useful too, but I think this answer tackles the real issue here. Yes, the verb “fire” came after the apparition of guns; however attempting to stick to words “that would make sense at the time” is futile in a modern-language work, as most modern words evolved afterwards anyway, and thus are subject to the problem. “Firing” arrows may be of the ones where it's the most obvious, but in the end it really boils down to whether it is acceptable in modern language (which I happen to disapprove, but not everyone does). Thanks! – Socce Mar 23 '14 at 15:37
22

You are likely right.

The words to use would be Nock and Stretch according to this one

http://walternelson.com/historia/2006/06/another_historical_pet_peevear.html

Hollywood loves to have groups of archers draw their bows to full span, and then have them hold their bows drawn while waiting many suspenseful moments for their leader to drop his sword to signal the deadly storm to follow. (Think "Lord of the Rings") Here's the problem with that:

In choosing a longbow, you should pick one that is hard to pull. Not back-breaking hard, but it needs to give you some real resistance. This only makes sense. A bow is only as strong as the archer, but if the archer selects a wimpy bow, then his strength is wasted.

Now, when you are pulling one of these hefty bows, pulling it pointing it and shooting it aren't too tough. What is tough is holding it at full span. Unless you are shooting a toy bow, your arms will almost immediately start to quiver and the pain will begin. Furthermore, your bow doesn't like staying at full draw any longer than it has to either, and you could do it some real damage.

The only documentable medieval words of command for archers seem to have been "Knock"[sic] and "Streach"[sic]. These make sense, and presuppose that telling an archer to draw his bow is essentially the same as telling him to shoot it.[Bold is mine]

  • Thanks for this, really interesting read. Note that even if it doesn't make sense for archers, a “release” order still holds for crossbows/ballistae/catapults. Also, the part about arms quivering & pain beginning reminded me of Gladiator's scene of the, ahem, firing squad, where that's exactly what happens; and sure enough, the final order to the squad is “fire!”. So, Gladiator in the offenders after all... – Socce Mar 20 '14 at 23:19
  • 1
    Also, in “knock” and “streach”, does “knock” mean the same as “hit”? and does “streach” mean “stretch” (same as “draw”) or something else? – Socce Mar 20 '14 at 23:28
  • 1
    Sorry, I did not look it up. The writer likely meant Nock - see my link and correction – mplungjan Mar 21 '14 at 5:18
  • But why would you want to use medieval commands in a modern movie? Especially since none of those movies is oriented in the 16th century, and all other words in the movies are modern english. – msam Mar 21 '14 at 9:53
  • 1
    @Socce [k]nock is both noun and verb, it is the notch at the blunt end of the arrow, and the act of placing the bowstring into aforementioned notch. It has nothing to do with hitting. – Bobble Mar 26 '14 at 14:33
1

Early firearms were fired by applying a burning object to a hole that opened into the interior of the gun. Firing was the term used because one would literally apply fire. Since then this has been replaced with various methods including a Flint (flintlock) cap, and modern firearms use a primer in the cartridge. Firing an arrow makes no sense at all.

  • 2
    Interesting, but you didn't answer the question: "Did the verb “fire a weapon” exist before the actual introduction of firearms on battlefields?" – Laurel Jun 17 '17 at 18:55

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.