Research And Reconstruction

Guidelines For The General Use Of Plumbatae

The plumbata, hasta plumbata or martiobarbalus seems to have appeared around the end of the third century. Comitatus use the plumbata mamillata, or the 'breasted' version with a lead weight fitted bellow the iron point. The metal components have been found in this country at Wroxeter, Richborough, Carvoran, Bough Castle and Doncaster. They seem to be have been carried either inside the shield, or in a leather bucket carried by the foot-soldier (pede).

There has been much debate about the range of these weapons and just how exactly they were used. While it is hard to be definite about such a subject Iíve thrown hundreds of these darts, of various weights and sizes and there are some simple rules that apply.

For distance darts must be thrown under arm. In terms of weight Comitatus darts seem to be between 60-120g (2-4oz). Our standard short dart weighing around 120g achieves distance of around 80m. Those of 60g struggle to reach such a distance. Those of 170g or even 200g (6 or 7oz) can reach out to a respectable 70m, but do have great penetrative power. If you increase the length of the dart, in my experience the distance thrown actually reduces, since while the distance travelled by the head during the throwing motion is increased the speed of the throw is much reduced. Longer versions get progressively heavier with length. An over arm throw, even when assisted by a thong lopped around the end of the dart, will give the dart a greater distance of up to 60m with a very light head. But a short dart well thrown easily can exceed such a throw. I prefer light feathered fletchings to wooden versions in order to maximise the distance thrown. Wearing armour or carrying shields do not seem to reduce the range of the dart, and a dart can be thrown every two or three seconds. For displays it is important to maintain a high rate of ďfireĒ, and it is possible to throw two light darts instead of one heavy one. To look impressive we need to ensure that darts are delivered rapidly and accurately on to the target area.

A staff sling can increase the range of the dart by 10-20m if you get a clean release. It sometimes works! But the staff sling is a great delivery system, so go out and try it with a blunt dart.

So when in front of the crowd and faced with the standard arms dump of darts go for the heavy versions! Throw them fast and hard underarm, accelerating right through the motion. Our archery targets are set up at around 80m. Our darts should be able to reach them easily. However if the target distance is less than 80m, life becomes more interesting. You can try reducing the power of your throw, or release the dart with a flatter projectory. With practice accuracy is still possible with an underarm throw, but I believe the penetrative power is reduced. Remember we are not just trying to hit the target but destroy it, with whatever weapon is being used. So try throwing the dart with a straight horizontal arm motion, trying to maximise the speed of the dart. From medium distance this seems powerful and accurate. For close range you need power and accuracy. Members raise the darts above their shoulders and thrown them downwards at the target with great power and reasonable accuracy. At close range a blunt dart used for displays will shatter on impact, and a sharp one penetrate a shield all the way up to the lead weight.

We trained our adopted cavalrymen to use the darts at Arbeia with great success in the summer of 2005. They adopted a cantabrian circle to deliver the weapon. The speed of the horse added to the power of the throw made the dart a truly lethal weapon from around 20-30m. Trials with the English Heritage riders at Wroxeter were a disappointment since they could not perform the circle but just ride past the target at speed. The darts were far less powerful and accurate.

Vegetius states that while on the defensive the darts would be thrown by the third row of reserves. Presumably the front ranks would brace themselves, while the rear ranks would deliver a long range under arm barrage. The rear ranks would change to a short range over arm direct fire role, as the enemy got closer. While assaulting the enemy the front ranks could deliver an over arm close range accurate and powerful dart straight into their enemy.

Some of us have been the targets for blunt darts in the past. Darts delivered by cavalry feel like they could take your helmet off with your head in it. Darts thrown at close range on foot also give you very little time to react. But at distance they must be used on masse, since it is easy to avoid small numbers of darts. They are just one of the great things we get to play with at events. Grab a file leader and get them to give you a few minutes instruction. Itís great fun. But remember a high percentage of darts will break on impact, so donít forget to make some more!