Last updated
Longbowman depicted on a sign commemorating the Battle of Crecy Crecy village sign.JPG
Longbowman depicted on a sign commemorating the Battle of Crécy

A longbow (known as warbow in its time, in contrast to a hunting bow) is a type of tall bow that makes a fairly long draw possible. A longbow is not significantly recurved. Its limbs are relatively narrow and are circular or D-shaped in cross section. Flatbows can be just as long, but in cross-section, a flatbow has limbs that are approximately rectangular.


Longbows for hunting and warfare have been made from many different woods in many cultures; in Europe they date from the Paleolithic era and, since the Bronze Age, were made mainly from yew, or from wych elm if yew was unavailable. The historical longbow was a self bow made of a single piece of wood, but modern longbows may also be made from modern materials or by gluing different timbers together.


Illustration of longbowmen from the 14th century Longbowmen.jpg
Illustration of longbowmen from the 14th century


A longbow was found in 1991 in the Ötztal Alps with a natural mummy known as Ötzi. His bow was made from yew and was 1.82 metres (72 in) long; the body has been dated to around 3300 BC. A slightly shorter bow comes from the Scottish parish of Tweedsmuir in a peat bog known as Rotten Bottom. The bow, made from yew, has been given a calibrated radiocarbon date of 4040 BC to 3640 BC. [1] Another bow made from yew, found within some peat in Somerset, England has been dated to 2700–2600 BC. Forty longbows, which date from the 4th century AD, have been discovered in a peat bog at Nydam in Denmark. [2]

In the Middle Ages the English were famous for their very powerful longbows, used en masse to great effect against the French in the Hundred Years' War, with notable success at the battles of Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and Agincourt (1415). [3] During the reign of Edward III of England, laws were passed allowing fletchers and bowyers to be impressed into the army and enjoining them to practice archery. The dominance of the longbow on the battlefield continued until the French began to use cannon to break the formations of English archers at the Battle of Formigny (1450) and the Battle of Castillon (1453). Their use continued in the Wars of the Roses. They survived as a weapon of war in England well beyond the introduction of effective firearms. [4] The Battle of Flodden (1513) was "a landmark in the history of archery, as the last battle on English soil to be fought with the longbow as the principal weapon..." [5] The first book in English about longbow archery was Toxophilus by Roger Ascham, first published in London in 1545 and dedicated to King Henry VIII. In 1588, the militia was called out in anticipation of an invasion by the Spanish Armada and it included many archers in its ranks; the Kent militia for instance, had 1,662 archers out of 12,654 men mustered. [6]

The Battle of Tippermuir (1644), in Scotland, may have been the last battle in the British Isles to involve the longbow in significant numbers. [7] It has also been claimed that longbows may have been used as late as 1654 at the Battle of Tullich in north-east Scotland. [8]

Modern recreational and hunting use

Although firearms supplanted bows in warfare, wooden or fibreglass laminated longbows continue to be used by traditional archers and some tribal societies for recreation and hunting. A longbow has practical advantages compared with a modern recurve or compound bow; it is usually lighter, quicker to prepare for shooting, and shoots more quietly. However, other things being equal, the modern bow will shoot a faster arrow more accurately than the longbow.

Organisations that run archery competitions have set out formal definitions for various classes of bow; many definitions of the longbow would exclude some medieval examples, materials, and techniques of use. [9] [10] Some archery clubs in the United States classify longbows simply as bows with strings that do not come in contact with their limbs. According to the British Longbow Society, the English longbow is made so that its thickness is at least 58 (62.5%) of its width, as in Victorian longbows, and is widest at the grip. [11] A similar, more inclusive, definition was created by the International Longbow Archers Association (ILAA) which defined the bow as fitting within a rectangular template of the proportions 1:0.625. [12]

Design and construction

Top: Lemonwood, purpleheart and hickory laminated bow.
Bottom: Yew selfbow. Self and composite longbows-blank.jpg
Top: Lemonwood, purpleheart and hickory laminated bow.
Bottom: Yew selfbow.

Because the longbow can be made from a single piece of wood, it can be crafted relatively easily and quickly. Amateur bowyers today can make a longbow in about ten to twenty hours, [13] while highly skilled bowyers, such as those who produced medieval English longbows, can make wooden longbows in just a few hours.[ citation needed ]

One of the simpler longbow designs is known as the self bow, by definition made from a single piece of wood. Traditional English longbows are self bows made from yew wood. The bowstave is cut from the radius of the tree so that sapwood (on the outside of the tree) becomes the back and forms about one third of the total thickness; the remaining two-thirds or so is heartwood (50/50 is about the maximum sapwood/heartwood ratio generally used). Yew sapwood is good only in tension, while the heartwood is good in compression. However, compromises must be made when making a yew longbow, as it is difficult to find perfect unblemished yew. The demand for yew bowstaves was such that by the late 16th century mature yew trees were almost extinct in northern Europe. [14] In other desirable woods such as Osage orange and mulberry the sapwood is almost useless and is normally removed entirely.

Longbows, because of their narrow limbs and rounded cross-section (which does not spread out stress within the wood as evenly as a flatbow’s rectangular cross section), need to be less powerful, longer or of more elastic wood than an equivalent flatbow. In Europe the last approach was used, with yew being the wood of choice, because of its high compressive strength, light weight, and elasticity. Yew is the best widespread European timber that will make good self longbows, (other woods such as elm can make longbows but require heat-treating of the belly and a wider belly/narrower back, while still falling into the definition of a longbow) and has been the main wood used in European bows since Neolithic times. More common and cheaper hard woods, including elm, oak, hickory, ash, hazel and maple, are good for flatbows. A narrow longbow with high draw-weight can be made from these woods, but it is likely to take a permanent bend (known as "set" or "following the string") and would probably be outshot by an equivalent made of yew.[ original research? ][ citation needed ]

Wooden laminated longbows can be made by gluing together two or more different pieces of wood. Usually this is done to take advantage of the inherent properties of different woods: some woods can better withstand compression while others are better at withstanding tension. Examples include hickory and lemonwood, or bamboo and yew longbows: hickory or bamboo is used on the back of the bow (the part facing away from the archer when shooting) and so is in tension, while the belly (the part facing the archer when shooting) is made of lemonwood or yew and undergoes compression (see bending for a further explanation of stresses in a bending beam). Traditionally made Japanese yumi are also laminated longbows, made from strips of wood: the core of the bow is bamboo, the back and belly are bamboo or hardwood, and hardwood strips are laminated to the bow's sides to prevent twisting. Any wooden bow must have gentle treatment and be protected from excessive damp or dryness. Wooden bows may shoot as well as fiberglass, but they are more easily dented or broken by abuse. Bows made of modern materials can be left strung for longer than wood bows, which may take a large amount of set if not unstrung immediately after use.


The longbow and its historical significance, arising from its adoption by the Welsh fighting alongside the English during the Hundred Years' War, have created a lasting legacy for the longbow, which has given its name to modern military equipment, including:

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Archery</span> Using a bow to shoot arrows

Archery is the sport, practice, or skill of using a bow to shoot arrows. The word comes from the Latin arcus, meaning bow. Historically, archery has been used for hunting and combat. In modern times, it is mainly a competitive sport and recreational activity. A person who practices archery is typically called an archer, bowman, or toxophilite.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">English longbow</span> Type of ranged weapon

The English longbow was a powerful medieval type of bow, about 6 ft (1.8 m) long. While it is debated whether it originated in England or in Wales from the Welsh bow, by the 14th century the longbow was being used by both the English and the Welsh as a weapon of war and for hunting. English use of longbows was effective against the French during the Hundred Years' War, particularly at the start of the war in the battles of Sluys (1340), Crécy (1346), and Poitiers (1356), and perhaps most famously at the Battle of Agincourt (1415). However they were less successful after this, with longbowmen having their lines broken at the Battle of Verneuil (1424) although the English won a decisive victory, and being completely routed at the Battle of Patay (1429) when they were charged by the French mounted men-at-arms before they had prepared the terrain and finished defensive arrangements. The Battle of Pontvallain (1370) had also previously shown longbowmen were not particularly effective when not given the time to set up defensive positions.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Arrow</span> Shafted projectile that is shot with a bow

An arrow is a fin-stabilized projectile launched by a bow. A typical arrow usually consists of a long, stiff, straight shaft with a weighty arrowhead attached to the front end, multiple fin-like stabilizers called fletchings mounted near the rear, and a slot at the rear end called a nock for engaging the bowstring. A container or bag carrying additional arrows for convenient reloading is called a quiver.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Compound bow</span> Type of bow for archery

In modern archery, a compound bow is a bow that uses a levering system, usually of cables and pulleys, to bend the limbs.

<i>Yumi</i> Asymmetrical bow

Yumi is the Japanese term for a bow. As used in English, yumi refers more specifically to traditional Japanese asymmetrical bows, and includes the longer daikyū and the shorter hankyū used in the practice of kyūdō and kyūjutsu, or Japanese archery.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bow and arrow</span> Pre-gunpowder ranged weapon system

The bow and arrow is a ranged weapon system consisting of an elastic launching device (bow) and long-shafted projectiles (arrows). Humans used bows and arrows for hunting and aggression long before recorded history, and the practice was common to many prehistoric cultures. They were important weapons of war from ancient history until the early modern period, where they were rendered increasingly obsolete by the development of the more powerful and accurate firearms. Today, bows and arrows are mostly used for hunting and sports.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bow shape</span> Important aspect of archery

In archery, the shape of the bow is usually taken to be the view from the side. It is the product of the complex relationship of material stresses, designed by a bowyer. This shape, viewing the limbs, is designed to take into account the construction materials, the performance required, and the intended use of the bow.

The Worshipful Company of Bowyers is one of the livery companies of the City of London.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Composite bow</span> Bow made from horn, wood, and sinew laminated together

A composite bow is a traditional bow made from horn, wood, and sinew laminated together, a form of laminated bow. The horn is on the belly, facing the archer, and sinew on the outer side of a wooden core. When the bow is drawn, the sinew and horn store more energy than wood for the same length of bow. The strength can be made similar to that of all-wood "self" bows, with similar draw-length and therefore a similar amount of energy delivered to the arrow from a much shorter bow. However, making a composite bow requires more varieties of material than a self bow, its construction takes much more time, and the finished bow is more sensitive to moisture.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fletching</span> Aerodynamic stabilization of arrows, etc.

Fletching is the fin-shaped aerodynamic stabilization device attached on arrows, bolts, darts, or javelins, and are typically made from light semi-flexible materials such as feathers or bark. Each piece of such fin is a fletch, also known as a flight or feather. A fletcher is a person who attaches fletchings to the shaft of arrows.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bowyer</span> History of the trade of bowmaking

A bowyer is a master-craftsman who makes bows. Though this was once a widespread profession, the importance of bowyers and of bows was diminished by the introduction of gunpowder weaponry. However, the trade has survived and many bowyers continue to produce high-end bows.

A flatbow is a bow with non-recurved, flat, relatively wide limbs that are approximately rectangular in cross-section. Because the limbs are relatively wide, flatbows will usually narrow and become deeper at the handle, with a rounded, non-bending handle for easier grip. This design differs from that of a longbow, which has rounded limbs that are circular or D shaped in cross-section, and is usually widest at the handle. A flatbow can be just as long as a longbow, but can also be very short. Typical lengths would be 68–70 inches (172.5–178 cm) for a flatbow, 70–72 inches (178–183 cm) for an English longbow, and 72–76 inches (183–193 cm) for a warbow-weight English longbow; but these styles may easily overlap each other. Traditional flatbows are usually wooden self bows, though laminated and composite flatbows have been made in ancient and modern times. Modern flatbows commonly use fiberglass.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of archery</span> Aspect of history

Archery, or the use of bow and arrows, was probably developed in Africa by the later Middle Stone Age. It is documented as part of warfare and hunting from the classical period until the late medieval period when it was made obsolete by the increased use of firearms.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Self bow</span>

A self bow or simple bow is a bow made from a single piece of wood. Extra material such as horn nocks on the ends, or built-up handles, would normally be accepted as part of a self bow. Some modern authorities would also accept a bow spliced together in the handle from two pieces of wood.

A laminated bow is an archery bow in which different materials are laminated together to form the bow stave itself. Traditional composite bows are normally not included, although their construction with horn, wood, and sinew might bring them within the above definition.

This is a list of archery terms, including both the equipment and the practice. A brief description for each word or phrase is also included.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cable-backed bow</span>

A cable-backed bow is a bow reinforced with a cable on the back. The cable is made from either animal, vegetable or synthetic fibers and is tightened to increase the strength of the bow. A cable will relieve tension stress from the back of the bow by raising its neutral plane: the border between the back of the bow that stretches and the belly of the bow that compresses when bent. A good cable-backed bow can thus be made of poor-quality wood, weak in tension. The material, the diameter, the distance from the back of the wooden element, and the level of stress (tightness) of the cable determines how much it relieves tension stress from the wooden element of the bow and increases the power of the shot.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Recurve bow</span> Type of bow shape in archery

In archery, a recurve bow is one of the main shapes a bow can take, with limbs that curve away from the archer when unstrung. A recurve bow stores more energy and delivers energy more efficiently than the equivalent straight-limbed bow, giving a greater amount of energy and speed to the arrow. A recurve will permit a shorter bow than the simple straight limb bow for given arrow energy, and this form was often preferred by archers in environments where long weapons could be cumbersome, such as in brush and forest terrain, or while on horseback.

The Holmegaard bows are a series of self bows found in the bogs of Northern Europe dating from the Mesolithic period. They are named after the Holmegaard area of Denmark in which the first and oldest specimens were found, and are the oldest bows discovered anywhere in the world.

Traditional Eskimo hunters lack the more elastic timbers used to make bows in temperate and tropical parts of the world. Using sinew cords for the back of the bow, and spruce timber or antler for the belly, however, they build very effective weapons. When hunting polar bears, the bows used are powerful enough, if they do not hit bone, to penetrate completely through the body of the bear.


  1. Scottish Archaeological Research Framework: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Neolithic: Alison Sheridan & Kenny Brophy (editors). ScARF National Framework Neolithic 5. Material culture and use of resources 5.3 Organics 5.3.2 Wood and other plant material https://scarf.scot/national/scarf-neolithic-panel-report/5-material-culture-and-use-of-resources/5-3-organics/5-3-2-wood-and-other-plant-material/
  2. Loades, Mike (2013) The Longbow, Osprey Publishing, ISBN   978-1-7820-0085-3 (p. 7)
  3. "The Efficacy of the Medieval Longbow: A Reply to Kelly DeVries," Archived 2016-01-23 at the Wayback Machine War in History 5, no. 2 (1998): 233-42; idem, "The Battle of Agincourt", The Hundred Years War (Part II): Different Vistas, ed. L. J. Andrew Villalon and Donald J. Kagay (Leiden: Brill, 2008): 37–132.
  4. Nolan, Cathal J. (2006), The Age of Wars of Religion, 1000-1650: An Encyclopedia of Global Warfare and Civilization, Volume 2 Archived 2016-08-20 at the Wayback Machine , Greenwood Press, ISBN   0-313-33734-9 (pp. 546-547)
  5. Heath, Ernest Gerald (August 6, 1972). The Grey Goose Wing. New York Graphic Society. ISBN   9780821204498 via Google Books.
  6. Hutchinson, Robert (2013) The Spanish Armada, Phoenix (Orion Books Ltd) ISBN   978-1-7802-2088-8 (pp. 65–66)
  7. "The History of the English Longbow". historic-uk.com. Archived from the original on 12 June 2017. Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  8. "Braemar History". Braemar Tourism Group.
  9. "The (UK) National Field Archery Association's definition of a longbow". Archived from the original on February 9, 2007.
  10. "The International Field Archery's definition". Archived from the original on September 27, 2007.
  11. "British Longbow Society Definition". Sylvan Archery. 2009. Retrieved November 5, 2022.
  12. Cornhill, R.E. "Longbow definition". International Longbow Archers Association. Retrieved November 5, 2022.
  13. "Traditional Archery". Clay Hayes.
  14. Yew: A History. Hageneder F. Sutton Publishing, 2007. ISBN   978-0-7509-4597-4.

Further reading