Today’s blog post is part two of the Archery for Writers series! In my last post I outlined the basics of shooting a bow in general—this time we’re going to learn about the longbow! Fantasy writers listen up, this was one of the most feared weapons in the middle ages, and was used by all the classes. It’s also important to note that the recurve bow was also around during that time, but the longbow was much more easy to manufacture, making it the weapon of choice in Europe.
(If you have any questions about archery terms while reading through this, feel free to refer to part one of the Archery for Writers series. At the bottom of the page is a mini glossary of words that should help clear up anything I say in Archer-ese).
Origins: One of the earliest mentions of the longbow was in AD 633¹ in the hands of the Welsh, when Offrid, son of king Edwin of Northumbria was shot by one. However, it was very popular throughout the middle ages, and forms of the longbow have been used all over the world for a very long time.
Description: The traditional longbow is very simple, about 6 feet long, made of a single piece of yew wood and strung with linen or hemp, although it was sometimes made of other kinds of wood if yew wasn’t available, such as wych elm or ash². Modern longbows are often composite, meaning they are made of several strips of different woods laminated together. A skilled bowyer (a person that makes bows) can make a traditional longbow from seasoned wood in a matter of a couple hours. Inexperienced bowyers can still turn one out in a few days.
Why These Simple Bows are Just So Terrifying: First of all, I’ll offer an extract³ from the writings of a historian called Gerald of Wales in the 12th century: “…[I]n the war against the Welsh, one of the men of arms was struck by an arrow shot at him by a Welshman. It went right through his thigh, high up, where it was protected inside and outside the leg by his iron chausses, and then through the skirt of his leather tunic; next it penetrated that part of the saddle which is called the alva or seat; and finally it lodged in his horse, driving so deep that it killed the animal.”
It not only went through the man’s leg (which was armored), but it went through the saddle and deep enough into the horse he was riding to kill it. Granted, this passage doesn’t tell us how close he was to the archer that shot him, but he might have been pretty far away.
Reconstructions of longbow artifacts from the medieval period suggest that some had a draw weight of up to 160 or 180 pounds⁴. To put that in perspective, I shoot a compound bow that is currently set at about 45 pounds, which is enough to legally shoot a deer where I live (my dad shoots a 50-pound bow). The point is, these archers were pulling crazy draw weights! It’s no wonder that skeletons of medieval archers showed deformed limbs and bone spurs⁵. With draw weights that high, it is estimated that they had a range of 180 to 249 yards⁶, and were very effective at penetration (as you might have noticed in the historical passage above). I've heard it said that longbows could penetrate a knight in armor at 200 yards, though I’ve forgotten the source.
Shooting: I outlined basic shooting techniques in the previous blog post, but it’s important to note that longbows do not have a resting point, which means that the further the string is drawn back, the harder and harder it is to hold. With a nearly 200-pound draw weight, these archers were shooting on instinct. There was no time to aim—they merely drew, looking at the point they wanted to hit, and released. To shoot by instinct like this requires lots of practice to be accurate, but I imagine a person wouldn’t have to be very accurate to be effective in a battle. If an army is charging towards you, and you shoot in their general direction, you’re bound to hit something. (Kind of a macabre observation, but hey, this is for writing, right)? *writer’s wink*
The Arrows: There were many different kinds of arrowheads⁷ used in the medieval period with longbows, but they can be divided into two categories: barbed and non-barbed. Generally speaking, barbed arrows were used for hunting, and non-barbed arrows were used for piercing different kinds of armor in battle. The arrow shaft was made of various types of wood, and usually fletched with goose feathers⁸.
1.) A skilled longbowman can shoot up to 12 arrows per minute⁸. (Think of them like the machine gun of the middle ages).
2.) When not in use, longbows (and recurves) are kept unstrung. If they're strung all the time, they get permanently bent out of shape and lose the "spring" that makes them work.
3.) Bowstrings made of hemp become stretchy when wet, so medieval archers often stowed them inside their hats to keep them dry.
4.) Getting snapped will probably just leave your character with a painful bruise, but if the draw weight is high enough, bowstrings are capable of taking the skin off the arm.
5.) King Edward III’s declaration of 1363⁹ made it clear he wanted the common people to practice archery whenever possible: “Whereas the people of our realm, rich and poor alike, were accustomed formerly in their games to practise archery – whence by God’s help, it is well known that high honour and profit came to our realm, and no small advantage to ourselves in our warlike enterprises…that every man in the same country, if he be able-bodied, shall, upon holidays, make use, in his games, of bows and arrows…and so learn and practise archery.”
6.) Firing multiple arrows at once is basically just a really cool myth¹⁰. Two can be done, but three, not so much. Plus, in a scenario like a battle it would take way too much time to get multiple arrows nocked correctly, as well as adding the consequence of less accuracy and the fact that dividing the power of the string between each arrow automatically makes their range shorter and weaker. It's a lot more practical to just shoot one at a time, as fast as you can (see fact #1).
7.) Even though I just got through telling you that archers in the middle ages drew extremely heavy draw weights, that doesn't mean all of them did, so don't be afraid to give your characters bows with much lighter poundage.
I hope this blog post has helped you learn a little more about the longbow! I’ve done my best to cite the places I got most of my information, so that you can visit them as well and learn even more. Archery is a huge sport—too big to fit in one blog post—but I tried to condense it down into a format that provides the necessary information without having to wade through all the other details first. Next up: the recurve bow!
¹, ⁴, ⁵, ⁶ EDinformatics – Longbow
² Bow International – Native Bow Woods
³, ⁹ Realm of History – 10 Things You Should Know about the English Longbowman
⁷ Longbow Archers – Arrowheads
⁸ History for Kids – Medieval Arrows
¹⁰ Worldbuilding – Realism of a Multi-Arrow Bow
Welcome to Katelyn Buxton Books! I'm a Christian author and blogger, with a passion for writing stories that are not just enjoyable, but also lead people closer to Jesus. Feel free to look around, and enjoy your stay!