Weapon Files – The Longbow
An insider’s look at the weapon that ended the mounted knight’s reign
This Welsh-English weapon’s lethality and rate of fire made it the “machine gun” of the medieval battlefield, yet only England trained thousands of men to use it. King Edward I, who reigned 1272-1307, created his own large corps of longbowmen after suffering the devastating effects of the weapon when in the hands of Welsh archers.
Technology and Training
Measuring up to six and a half feet in length, the longbow normally was made of yew wood, the drying and shaping of which could require up to four years. Its 30-inch ash-wood arrows, fletched with goose feathers and tipped with four-sided metal “bodkin” points, could penetrate a knight’s armor at 60 yards or more.
The longbow’s draw (pull weight) was 60-120 pounds. Archers had to be highly trained and well conditioned to sustain the strain of firing up to 15 times per minute in battle. Although claims that longbowmen could put an arrow through a helmet visor at 200 yards may be exaggerated, the weapon’s true battlefield advantage was its ability to create a deadly hailstorm of arrows – 5,000 longbowmen could rain down 30,000-75,000 missiles per minute on their opponents.
Archers carried 60-72 arrows into battle, less than 10 minutes’ worth of ammunition. Young boys, therefore, scurried back and forth among the archers to keep them resupplied during combat.
The crossbow, more popular than the longbow among most European armies, had greater range, up to 350 yards versus the longbow’s 280 yards. However, the crossbow could only fire once or twice per minute.
England’s Weapon of Choice
English longbowmen under King Edward III dueled with skilled Genoese mercenary crossbowmen at Crecy (1346) and quickly routed them, then decimated charging French knights. The English lost about 100 men while inflicting an estimated 10,000-20,000 casualties.
Near Agincourt , France (1415), English King Henry V’s archers replicated Edward III’s lopsided victory, slaughtering a numerically superior French force. Opposing artillery fired only a single volley before being driven off by a storm of arrows.
Henry V’s confidence in the longbow was demonstrated by the fact he invaded France with only 2000 men-at-arms and knights plus some 60 artillery gunners, yet he brought 8,000 longbowmen. He mounted them on horseback for rapid deployment, though they fought dismounted. Henry forbade subordinates from attacking without longbow support.
To protect themselves from mounted charges, each archer carried a sword and a long wooden stake, which he drove into the ground at an angle in front of him and then sharpened the point. Bowmen armored themselves with layers of stuffed, quilted deer hide or cast-off pieces of armor from fallen foes.
The longbow remained medieval warfare’s most effective missile weapon until superceded by gunpowder weapons around the 16th century.
Gerald D. Swick is a writer and historian whose works have appeared in “The Encyclopedia of World War II: A Political, Social and Military History,” “ Lincoln Lore,” and other publications.
• High rate of fire
• Good penetration of knight’s armor
• Required extensive training
The Crooked Stick: A History of the Longbow by Hugh D. H. Soar. Westholme, 2004.
Website with the history of the longbow: www.bbc.co.uk