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This can also happen to ballista arrows, catapult rocks, and various other projectiles. Even if there is no sane reason for them to be on fire. Fire is just cool. Though arrows can still get even cooler, especially if shot en masse in a Rain of Arrows.
In real life, flaming arrows were seen on medieval battlefields, though to get them to burn reliably one had to wrap them in flammable material and light them first, making them heavier and reducing their range. Also, wrapping a cloth around the pointy bit of your arrow might affect its ability to, you know, kill people; wrapping the cloth behind the arrowhead, as was mostly done in real life, would allow it to penetrate a target.
Lighted arrows in real life were used to
- Frighten enemies, see many hundreds of flames coming at you was/is terrifying. Tracers accomplish the same today.
- Adjusting the shot, flaming arrows can easily tell the shooters where most of the arrows are going and they can adjust their shots accordingly
- Set flammable material on fire.
There is therefore nothing mockable about them being used en masse to attack wooden buildings or to try to panic a civilian population, but the trope gets taken to extremes when they are always used in night battles even in situations where the lighting-things-on-fire factor would be a non-factor, such as when attacking a stone castle (except when the attacking army is in a position to shoot over the walls and there are wooden buildings on the inside--which there usually are--in which case it's justified).
Flaming arrows also give the advantage of letting you see where your arrow lands during the night, so you can correct your shot. They are also very useful as signals in a society with that level of technology.
Molotov Cocktails are arguably the modern counterpart.
Anime and Manga
- Sailor Moon - Sailor Mars shoots arrows that are made of fire...from a bow that is also made of fire. This and a couple moments of Improbable Aiming Skills would qualify her as a Badass...were she not The Lancer in a series where the main character is the only one allowed to defeat any major enemies.
- One Piece - Chess fires flaming arrows at Sanji and Chopper after Kuromarimo throws balls of highly flammable hair at them.
- Slayers: FLAAAAARE...ARROW!!!
- Batman - Detective Comics #828 has the recently reformed Riddler taking a bow and arrow from a museum exhibit, wrapping his trademark question-mark tie around it, lighting it with a cigarette lighter, and shooting it into a murderer that wears coconut-fiber armor (don't ask). Riddler then proceeds to ring the museum's alarm, and proceeds to taunt the burning man by holding a fire extinguisher in front of him, but refusing to douse the flames. Batman extinguishes the man anyway, though.
- In DC Nation's take on Blackest Night, Connor Hawke rigs up a truck-mounted hwacha (Korean siege weapon that can shoot dozens of flaming arrows at a time) out of hardware store parts and uses a few volleys of them on invading Black Lanterns while Green Shield Drives Like Crazy down Highway 101.
- Timeline - Used straight, then subverted: "Fire the Night Arrows."
- Subverted in Troy, where the Trojans use flaming arrows to set wooden boats on fire, then return to using conventional arrows to kill people. Also subverted in the actual Iliad, for the same reason -- they also used firebrands.
- One of the most famous shots of the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was Kevin Costner's Robin letting fly with one of these in slow-mo.
- Robin Hood Men in Tights parodies the trope's overuse in Robin Hood films. It featured an opening credits sequence back by random shots of people shooting Arrows on Fire... and then they show the thatch-roofed village that they destroyed with these arrows "every time they make a new Robin Hood movie."
Villagers: "Leave us alone, Mel Brooks!"
- Done in Braveheart. The night before the battle of Falkirk, Wallace's soldiers had coated the ground under the English army with pitch. He then used archers with lit arrows to light it and set many of the English troops on fire. How he knew exactly where they would be standing is another question. Other questions are why the English did not notice that the ground they were standing on was soaked with pitch and where did they get that large of a quantity of pitch? 
- Used in the opening battle of Gladiator. The Romans initially held the barbarians back with conventional arrows then, once the battle started, they shot flaming arrows and flaming catapult projectiles which seemed to have a longer range. We see a lot of barbarians break and run: smoke and fire clogging up your side of the field, watching allies being burned alive -- not good.
In the DVD extras, Ridley Scott said his use of flaming arrows was designed to invoke the images of tracer bullets from the footage of the Gulf War.
- King Arthur's troops made use of these in First Knight. Interestingly, the arrows appeared to use something like magnesium as the flammable agent, which, at least, looked cool.
- The Allied soldiers in Red Cliff use flaming arrows to complement their more creative ways of using fire in the ultimate battle. Both sides mostly use a regular Rain of Arrows, though.
- Army of Darkness - Ash equipped his soldiers with gunpowder arrows.
- The Last Samurai, during the final battle.
- In Three Kingdoms, Cao's army launches flaming crossbow bolts into the battle when it looks like her commander is losing. These weren't intended to fly far or to kill single targets, but to ignite explosive powder in the light cavalry's saddlebags and take out remaining enemy commanders.
- The Vikings in The Secret of Kells are fond of these.
- In Robert Asprin's Myth Conceptions, the hero manages this by performing his most basic magic trick (lighting a candle by concentrating on a single point) and having his ally fire his arrows through that point. A little later when he gets ticked off, the archer asks him to calm down since his anger is almost burning up the arrows before they can hit their targets.
- Mariel of Redwall features burning projectiles; the searats make "fire-swingers" to kill the defenders on the Abbey walls. A fire-swinger is a clump of cloth and dry grass wrapped around a rock on the end of a rope, which is set on fire and swung around as fast as the thrower can (very carefully, because swinging a burning object around is dangerous at best, particularly when you have fur), then released. Apparently the range of fire-swingers is greater than that of slings or shortbows, though the Long Patrol hares get good results when they retaliate with longbows.
- In C. J. Cherryh's The Paladin, Shoka uses fire arrows to sow fear, confusion and panic in an enemy encampment.
- These are alluded to (but not shown) in the second book of Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small series, exciting the trainees enough to make them improve with regular arrows. The trainer also points out that fire arrows fly differently from regular ones, which is why they have to get better before he will let them try them.
Live Action TV
- The Dukes of Hazzard had bomb arrows, that is, arrows with dynamite tied to them. But then they also had cars with Feather Fall permanently cast on them, able to land safely after flying hundreds of feet in the air.
- In the Season 3 finale of Buffy, the students have a flaming arrow unit in their offensive against the Mayor. Buffy-verse vampires tend to be about as flammable as the average person after a dip in the swimming in the ol' gasoline swimming pool.
Joss Whedon: ... And the students shooting flaming arrows, because, well ... you gotta' have flaming arrows ...
- In the Lost episode "The Lie," the left-behinders get attacked by flaming arrows just as they're bemoaning their lack of fire.
- Used several times in the BBC's version of Robin Hood, typically to detonate explosives (most notably, Robin's final arrow is used to spark off the explosion that destroys Nottingham Castle).
- A Far Side strip had a defender of a Medieval castle say about the opposing soldiers "They're lighting their arrows! Can they do that?"
- In Dungeons and Dragons, magically enchanted Flaming Arrows are inexpensive enough to be available for purchase in bulk in the average large town or small city, assuming you don't just buy a Flaming Bow, which bestows the Flaming quality on any arrows it fires. Then there's the Arcane Archer prestige class that can imbue arrows with spells as their entire shtick, and the Wizard and Sorcerer base classes that don't even need the arrow when they want to burn things.
- GURPS correctly mentions that the burning rag is behind the arrow head and penalizes accuracy. The burning damage is fairly unimpressive without magical assistance. Low-Tech has a variety of them including one that uses a small explosive charge.
- Shadowrun has a plethora of these for mages and shamans under the appropriate study. This being the future, there's even more fun stuff to light on fire. Ice-based spellcasters can make this work with elements and minerals that ignite around water.
- Seeing as Exalted has Charms that replicate nearly every variation on weapons or physical actions that can be thought of, of course there'd been a Charm that allows you to light your arrows on fire without a match.
- In the Zelda series you can occasionally obtain fire arrows for your bow...as well as ice arrows that freeze enemies, light arrows that beat enemies in one hit, and, ahem, bomb arrows. Most arrows are implied to be magical, but you can still set regular arrows on fire by shooting them trough burning torches.
- The Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess gives fire arrows to Bulblins (and their twilight counterparts), which typically do minimal damage and can be swatted out of the air with your sword. If you're wearing the Zora armor, however, they do a massive six times normal damage. Out of combat, Fire Arrows were used on two separate occasions to trap you on a bridge coated with oil.
- Romancing SaGa 3 had Plasma shot, Arrows with electricity imbued into them, the Remake of the original game had a similar technique, and a technique in which you can summon a lightning bolt from an arrow shot.
- In the MMORPG City of Heroes, one of the powers in the Archery powerset is a Blazing Arrow. This is not the strangest.
- You can get these in the "Fable" series, if you use a Flame Augmentation on any bow.
- In Deus Ex, one can obtain flare darts for the minicrossbow. Sometimes these only have the effect of creating a light where they hit, and don't burn; other times they burn burnable things and set people on fire.
- Age of Mythology features a Fire Arrow upgrade that makes arrows much more effective against buildings. Which makes sense since they are mostly made out of wood. Castles on the other hand...
- Age of Empires
- Age of Empires I - Archers have an upgrade which adds fire to projectile attacks, increasing their damage.
- In Age of Empires II, this upgrade is required to produce gunpowder units.
- Age of Empires III - Portrayed in most realistic manner in comparision to the others - archers only fire flaming arrows at buildings, using regular arrows against other troops, and the range at which they can attack buildings is smaller than against troops.
- The Battle for Middle-Earth plays this in a similar manner to the above. Fire Arrows, an upgrade for most archer units, adds a decent damage boost vs most normal units, and makes them much more effective vs buildings. It also allows them to cause damage to the wooden walls and gate of Rohan castle defenses. In BFME2 Men of the West keep fire arrows, but Elves get silverthorn blue-glowy arrows. Dwarves get axe throwers (upgraded by forged axes) and human archers of dale -- upgraded with fire arrows. All the bad guys get Orcfire arrows, because fire set by Orcs is just better.
- In Rome: Total War and Medieval II: Total War archers can be told to light their arrows on fire. However, due to the Total War series being more of a realistic tactical simulator and less of your usual real-time strategy fare, flaming arrows in this game are less accurate and, on the whole, less damaging and take a lot longer to reload. The entire point of firing them is the psychological punch, as they deplete enemy morale like mad, often sending fearless spearmen running within a few volleys. Flaming catapult ammunition, on the other hand, is much more destructive (and utterly ruinous to morale), but again less accurate and slower to reload. Setting any projectile on fire also eats through the ammunition supply more quickly, so a unit of archers firing flaming arrows will probably only get off half the shots of their non-flaming counterparts over the course of a battle.
** The siege engines can fire rather ahistorical flaming/exploding projectiles. Flaming Arrows can also be used to set enemy siege equipment (such as siege towers or battering rams) on fire, which is a very important thing when you are defending a castle/town. And because of the importance of breaking enemy units' morale in the Total War series, units of archers with bows can actually become more useful than crossbowmen, who tend to deal more damage. Bow-wielding archers can set their arrows on fire, whereas crossbowmen can't, so the archers can do hefty damage to the enemy's morale even if they aren't killing very many of the enemy, which in turn can break the enemy unit much faster.
- Gun - In addition to the "whiskey bomb" molotov cocktails, flaming arrows are also a weapon option. It is not clear exactly how you are setting them on fire.
- In Heavenly Sword during the levels where you control Kai(well, starting with the second one where you control Kai) you can shoot an otherwise normal arrow through an open flame, resulting in a flaming arrow, useful for detonating explosives which are downrange from the flame source.
- Warcraft 3 has Searing Arrows, a spell which sets arrows on fire for added damage in exchange for a bit of mana. It also has Frost Arrows, which slow the enemy down too. Orc catapults could be upgraded to have their ammo covered in burning oil, lighting the ground on fire to deal extra damage to anything in its area of effect.
- Thief allowed you to purchase fire arrows. The arrows didn't actually burn (but rather had magical glowing crystals on them instead), and they exploded violently when they hit something. In a stealth game like Thief, though, a weapon that makes a loud explosion isn't very practical (unless you're planning on using it as a distraction.) They are, however, the only weapons (save holy water and, in Deadly Shadows, flash bombs and land mines) that can kill zombies. They can also relight torches. The games also include three other elemental arrows as well.
- In Guild Wars, being a skill-heavy game, rangers have different bow attacks that do can light a foe on fire, do a massive amount of fire damage in one hit, give all bow attacks a fire-damage bonus for a period of time, and do explosive damage that affects all nearby foes when a target is hit.
- The Warhammer Fantasy video game Mark of Chaos allowed elven archers to use fire arrows (slower firing rate as a drawback). These wreaked havoc among the enemy's morale, which is probably the most tactical goal to achieve - probably more than killing every single enemy soldier.
- In Okami, gaining entrance to Sei-an City requires that you light a torch to lower a bridge. Said torch is on the other side of the gorge which you need to cross. The solution is to get the archer who normally uses a flaming arrow to light said torch to fire an unlit arrow, just to prove he can, then light it on fire midflight using a brush skill.
- In the Half-Life 2 mod Fistful of Frags, you can get flaming arrows for the bow weapon. They either light people on fire, or light an area on fire. For a few frags more, you can get dynamite arrows. The regular arrows do a lot of damage, and are pretty good; the fire arrows, being a little hard to use, are kinda bad; the dynamite arrows--well, the result of using those is just ugly.
- In Mabinogi, standing next to a campfire and drawing your arrow will cause the arrowhead to catch fire. This gives the arrow a damage bonus and fire element status. Also, landing 3 critical hits with this grants you the Fire Arrow title, which is needed in order to get the Arrow Revolver skill.
- In Stronghold, braziers can be placed on castle walls. Archers firing from nearby will shoot flaming arrows which are more deadly to enemies and can also light pitch for further pyromania.
- Final Fantasy XII plays this straight with the Fiery Arrows ammunition.
- Team Fortress 2 allows a sniper with a bow to light his arrows on fire with the assistance of a friendly pyro, or via flames located around maps. This is pretty expected of the game, so no one minds.
- In Patapon, Yumipons (the archer units) can gain an upgrade for this, but you need wind and dry weather conditions for them to be the most effective.
- The Meteor Shot skillstone in Jeanne D Arc provides this ability.
- In The Lost Vikings, some levels have a fire arrow item for Baleog. If he uses it, all arrows he shoots from then on will be on fire, and can take out otherwise invincible enemies.
- In Battle for Wesnoth, all orcish archer units have an alternate ranged attack utilizing these, making them very effective against undead.
- In Dragon Age: Origins, the first move the battle of Ostagar opens up with the Fereldens launching a volley of flaming arrows at the charging darkspawn horde. It does little to slow them down. In the game proper one can equip quivers of fire arrows, ice arrows, filth arrows, etc. There's also a sidequest where you have to fire a flaming signal arrow, but that signal also serves to draw people to the shooter as well as warn others. Darkspawn are weak against magical fire.
- The Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A's Portable: The Battle of Aces version of Signum's Sturmfalke, which coats the arrow in flames before Signum fires it.
- Recettear has The Archer Tielle, whose very first skill is, you guessed it, Fire Arrow. Given her ability to charge up her normal attack to fire eight arrows at once, Fire Arrow isn't all that helpful. She also has some sort of laser arrow...no, really, she fires a magical arrow upwards that causes the screen to get covered in Beam Spam. As awesome as it looks, it's useless against most moving targets.
- Human archers in Kings Bounty can do this once per battle. Flaming Arrows deal slightly more damage than their normal attack and more importantly set the target on fire.
- Bow using classes in Ragnarok Online could equip Fire Arrows as ammunition, dealing fire damage.
- The Hunter class, from Ghouls vs. Humans, can use these; they do radius damage around themselves as they fly through the air, and explode on impact.
- In Minecraft, firing an arrow through lava will set it ablaze in, and any mobs struck will burst into flames. A similar effect can be achieved by giving a bow the Flame enchantment.
- In Sonic Adventure, flaming arrows are one of the hazards in Lost World.
- The Algerians in Cossacks: European Wars have a special Archer unit that fires flaming arrows that are used to set buildings and ships on fire. They're also available as mercenaries to other factions.
- The Elder Scrolls Skyrim allows you to enchant bows with fire, which while you don't see the arrow being on fire does set the enemy on fire for a little while.
- Some mods also add arrows that do this naturally.
- Flameslinger from Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure is an elf archer who specializes in flaming arrows. And fire-based powers in general, but the arrows are his specialty.
- Haley of The Order of the Stick usually keeps a few Flaming Arrows on hand, and has made use of them more than once.
- Mulan: The Huns shot flaming arrows at the highly volatile Chinese cannons in order to prevent those weapons from being used against them, and create explosions amongst the Chinese formation.
- The nephews used charcoal-tipped fire arrows against Donald Duck during the snowball fight in "Snow Fight".
- The Simpsons: The Itchy and Scratchy cartoon "Burning Love" has Itchy shoot a flaming arrow into Scratchy, turning him into chat flambé.
- Truth in Television and what makes this Older Than Feudalism, Sun Tzu in his Art of War has a chapter dedicated to attacking with fire. Among other things, he recommends attacking with "dropped fire into the enemy camp" which may reference flaming arrows and/or burning catapult projectiles.
- The Romans had purposely made ballista bolts heads that held flammable material, as did medieval archers.
- In an utter kickass Real Life example, the Olympic Flame at the 1992 Barcelona games was lit with an arrow on fire.
- The arrow actually missed the bowl, but it lit up anyway.
- In fact, it had to happen that way: the arrow missing the bowl but setting the gas alight. Otherwise, it would have been difficult retiring the arrow from the bowl.
- The arrow actually missed the bowl, but it lit up anyway.
- Modern day Incendiary Rounds are essentially the Bullet version of a Flaming Arrow. Tracers are less so: the primary purpose of a tracer is to tell the shooter where he hits (or used at designated parts of a clip to keep count of bullets remaining), and are a less then ideal choice for setting things aflame.Hollywood uses both tracers and flaming arrows at times when it would be ineffective, typically because both put on a better light show then their regular, oftentimes more practical, counterparts.
- That said - a number of range fires have been started by tracer setting light to dry grass.