How far could an English war bow shoot?

How far could an English war bow shoot?

The range of the medieval weapon is not accurately known, with estimates from 165 to 228 m (180 to 249 yds)

So says Wikipedia. I did read, however, in a semi-fictional, semi-historical work of Bernard Cornwell that bows could fire (and hit targets!) over a further distance. Now, unfortunately I cannot find this quote, but I am looking for other quotes and/or experiments that show better proof than Wiki.

Another thing that bothers me is that most sources say "an archer could shoot this far", but does that mean that he could shoot that far effectively, or just that the arrow would land there? In other words: are the ranges that are mentioned the distance over which an average archer could hit a target, or not?

For completeness, all wikipedia has to say:

The range of the medieval weapon is not accurately known, with estimates from 165 to 228 m (180 to 249 yds). Modern longbows have a useful range up to 180 m (200 yd). A 667 N (150 lbf) Mary Rose replica longbow was able to shoot a 53.6 g (1.9 oz) arrow 328 m (360 yd) and a 95.9 g (3.3 oz) a distance of 249.9 m (272 yd). A flight arrow of a professional archer of Edward III's time would reach 400 yds. It is also well known that no practice range was allowed to be less than 220 yds by order of Henry VIII.

Reference for this: From Hastings to the 'Mary Rose': The Great Warbow, behind a paywall unfortunately

Also The Hundred Years War: Different Vistas. p76 and p74 backs up wikipedia and page 242 has some interesting comment on arrow weight and range (which suggests a up to 200 yard useful range)

The furtherest anyone has ever shot a longbow is 340m, achieved in 1910 with a 157 lb (700N) draw weight. Is apparently a fact but I can't find an online source that isn't a dervivate of wikipedia, it might be in "Invention and Evolution" by M. J. French (1988, Cambridge Univ. Press) (chapter 3.4.2)"

Bernard Cornwell's answer to these queries is on his website, but he doesn't link anything in particular. He certainly has specific sources in mind, are they in any of his book's appendixes?

Modern day warbow archers, who uses replicas of medieval (tudor) bows, and shoots replica arrows (from finds) shoots from 292-315 yards with war arrows.

See records on

I have an 80lb draw weight english war bow and can manage 245m with a "standard" medieval type arrow and 220m with a heavy war arrow. The last flight shoot I attended was won by an archer who shot the heavy war arrows over 300m. When shooting at the marks we have to guess the distance to a series of targets (think golf) and most decent archers get on or two out of three arrows within 10m of the mark, easily accurate enough to hit a group of men on a battlefield. The marks are any distance from about 140m to 220m

Too many factors at work to really say 'a bow has a range of X'. How strong a man is drawing the bow, is the wind for or against the direction of the arrow, how strong is it blowing? How well made is the bow? Is it in good repair?

Also what kind of firing are you doing? Are you simply trying to shoot an arrow far regardless of it hitting anything? Or are you aiming at a set target? I'm not into shooting so I've no idea about these distances. How far away could someone accurately expect to shoot with a standard rifle? Add in the extra difficulty of a bow and it won't be too far.

I don't think 165-228m is too broad a range of estimates given all the different factors that can be at play.

Firing and hitting a target at a greater range does not necessarily mean that they were aiming for a small bulls-eye at that distance. More likely, it meant just firing into a cluster of men and happening to hit one random unlucky chap.

The new distance record for the war bow is 412 meters set by Josef Monus of Hungary shooting a 100# Elb built by Stephen Gardner ( Me)

I am not a archer but would make this point. From a military point of view the use of a few arrows at extreme ranges would seem to be very useful.

Think about it for a minute. Would you, as a defender, want the enemy setting up for an attack at 250 yards or setting up at 350-400 yards? From a military point of view I would have a few of my archers move out in front of my line and launch a broadside at the assembly "area" to move the enemy as far back as possible before he could started his attack. Any problems, confusion or damage you can do to the enemy before the real fight begins is all to the good.

Therefore the issue of extreme range and useful range might have different meanings/answers at times during different stages of an engagement.

Having built wooden bows up to 80lbs myself and taken part in reenactment, i can say: it depends on the wood, the bow's construction, the string and the arrow (besides weather, geography/topography, wind and the archer, of course).

Without helping gear for aiming or visual references, a good traditional archer can maintain a narrow distribution disk up to ~20-30m when shooting level on a range with an equal flight of arrows, considerably less when shooting in nature with its ups and downs, obstructions and distractions. Traditional bow hunting is stalking, on a less degree with fully equipped modern compound bows and fiber arrows.

Long range shots, e.g. clout shooting, are mass shootings. A quick archer can keep 2-3 arrows flying, and 50 archers will produce a nice optical and acoustical coulisse :-). The arrows are shot at ~45°, when they impact they only have their respective terminal velocity. But if the head is a long needle, it'll still poke through a light armour or ring mail or a skull's orbit.

Long shots in traditional archery, level and without wind, are around 200-250m meters, as others have noted. My longest one was ~180m with a 65lbs Osage Orange bow, arrow with natural feathers and forged head, wayfarer shaft. It would have been a little more with a much lighter fibre glass arrow.

As to the range of the longbows, chronicles of the Battle of Agincourt that was already mentioned here say that the arrows were feared of piercing light armour at the joints up to distance of 220 to 200 yards, though these were of course unaimed ballistic shots. I would see that range as the maximum effective range under these conditions, farther would mostly be a waste of arrows, imo.

Also mentioned is the wreck of the Mary Rose, that contained a load of staves and bows. Though some technical data (especially the draw weight) is still discussed, we can assume a draw weight of 100 to 160lbs. Quite a few replicas have been made.

Further reading: Traditional Bowyer's Bible, Volumes 1 to 4.

there are a lot of factors for an answer to this question. English warbows were not all the same draw weight, arrows were not all the same weight either, some bows were faster than others.A heavy (draw), and faster shooting bow with a light arrow will shoot further than a light slow bow with a heavy arrow. Sorry if that has muddied the water. In the days of yore the yeomans and peasants who were the guys that used the warbow, shot at a distance of about 200 yards. they were accurate at that distance to a degree. In war, at that distance they were only expected to be able to get an arrow within a few feet, once the distance got to around 100 yards they would then be picking targets. There are more variables to take into account. i would say that average shooting distance to be 240-300 yards.

The general population of today cannot grasp the abilities of archers or other warriors. One must realize that archers were trained at a very early age and they developed asymetric bodies as they progressed to higher draw weights. Archeologists have found that archers spines were curved and the muscles of the right arm / back were abnormally large.

Regarding "replica bows", the yew tree is an endangered species now, so I doubt that a replica bow made of other wood would perform WRT the elasticity and compression loads of the famous Yew.

There is no good answer to the question asked. Depends on what kind of bow, culture and other factors like professional soldier archer verses conscript. How tall and strong the person is.

Many people look at English Long Bow which according to historic records found in several museums suggest 200 to 300 yards is the effective range for targeted shooting. Accuracy as in hitting a bulls eye type of target (8-10 inch circle) is generally around 150 to 200 yards. Wartime targeting is within 18 to 24 inches which was effective up to 250 yards.

Barrage shooting where you are not trying to hit a specific target can have ranges between 300 to as much as 650 yards. There is references during the Crusades of archers sitting where they draw with 2 arms against legs and feet for maximum distance. This was especially the case during the second battle of Acre which decimated the Christian army as the muslims were firing volleys well out of range. That type of bow had a draw weight of about 150lbs or so. I remember reading in the British national museum that a person could not draw that type of bow without sitting and using two arms.

So, how far can a person shoot an arrow? Depends on person and type of bow. The answer is anywhere from 100 to 650 yards. Accuracy of shooting is roughly under 250 yards. Pin point shooting is less than 150 yards. However, there is statements in the historical record that pin point shooting was available up to 250 yards. As another poster pointed out that Henry III required Archery fields to be at least 220 yards. However, Henry III was best noted in use of Crossbows as part of his archery force as crossbows and hand cannons were the preferred used weapons of his time though long bows were also still deployed. Henry V used crossbows over long bow in lopsided defeat of French at Agincourt as an example.

I took my 75 lb compound bow with wooden limbs to a gun range and the furthest shot I was able to make was 335 yards. That was just firing at the high angle and letting it land somewhere far out of sight, then go find it.

There is no way you could aim at a target at that range though. I could barely see a person at that distance, and the variations between shots are way too much. You really can't even see the arrow after just two seconds of flight, and can only guess where it landed. The arrow was stuck in the ground at 335 yards, but not very firmly. I don't know how fast it was going, but I think it would have broken if I shot the arrow directly at the ground without all that distance to lose speed.

Compound bows shoot further than traditional bows granted the same arrow and draw weight/length.

I know this is not the same thing as a longbow, but I think it relates to the question.

There is evidence of English longbows shooting farther than 250 yards, particularly at Crecy, where the longer bowshots were around 300 yards.

A brief history of archery

Archery is one of the oldest arts still practised. This history will not only take you through a journey on the evolution of archery, but also through the history of mankind. Evidence of ancient archery has been found throughout the world.

The earliest evidence of archery dates to the late Paleolithic period, around 10,000 BC, when the Egyptian and neighbouring Nubian cultures used bows and arrows archery for the purposes of hunting and warfare.

In China, archery dates back to the Shang dynasty (1766-1027 BC). A war chariot of that time carried a three-man team: driver, lancer and archer. During the ensuing Zhou (Chou) dynasty (1027-256 BC), nobles at court attended sport archery tournaments that were accompanied by music and interspersed with elegant salutations.

The bow and arrow is one of the oldest projectile weapons in history, dating back as far as 30,000 years B.C.E. It’s been around forever — particularly for hunting — but the bow’s use in warfare rose to prominence during the Middle Ages. I’m talking about the English longbow, also called the Welsh longbow. Its first recorded use in Britain was around 633 AD, when an arrow shot by a Welsh longbow killed Edwin, the son of the king of Northumberland.

Advantages of the Longbow

The crossbow was the main rival for the longbow in the Middle Ages, and popular because it required minimal training. Yet it could only deliver 1-2 bolts per minute and had an effective range of 20-40 yards, whereas a longbow could deliver 6 arrows per minute at a range of 300-400 yards. They were also relatively easy to make modern bowyers can build a longbow in about 10-20 hours.

Bows in Battle

In the Middle Ages, the longbow saw use in various civil wars for which the period was rather famous. They also played a key role in several battles of the Hundred Years’ War. One of these was the Battle of Crécy, which took place in northern France on August 26, 1346. On one side were the exhausted French forces, whose crossbowmen had just endured a long march in the rain that damaged many of their weapons. On the other side were the English, who’d chosen the field of battle, rested, and kept their bowstrings dry. The French tried a crossbow volley which had no effect.

How did the English respond? Froissart, the renowned French chronicler, tells it this way:

“Les archers anglois découvrent leurs arcs, qu’ils avoient tenus dans leur étui pendant la pluie.”

Translation: the English archers uncovered their bows, which they had kept in their case during the rain (hey, I knew that French degree would come in handy someday). And you don’t need Froissart to know what happened next. There’s even a nice illustration of it from this timely bit of art:

Battle of Crecy (Wikipedia Commons)

Wet crossbows (left) were no match for the Welsh longbow (right), which could shoot 400 yards and deliver 5-6 arrows per minute. The French forces were soon routed and took thousands of casualties.

Longbows versus Chain Mail and Plate Armor

An interesting question that comes up, both in history and in fantasy novels, is whether longbows could put an arrow through armor or chain mail. A bodkin arrow, whose tip has a stronger, narrower point (essentially a squared, spear-like shape), was probably developed for this purpose. Compared to the broadhead, which had a wider cutting radius, bodkins were more likely to punch through armored enemies.

Though it’s a matter of debate among historians, many believe a bodkin would have difficulty penetrating solid armor, especially high-quality plate armor covered with a gambeson (a sort of cloth worn on the outside to protect against projectiles). Against non-mithril chain mail, however, a longbow with bodkin arrows was likely very deadly. Especially at close range (<50 yards).

Wreck of the Mary Rose

The Mary Rose by Anthony Roll (Wiki Commons)

Very few longbows from antiquity survive. Unlike swords, armor, shields, and other weapons, bows wore out and were replaced instead of handed down from one generation to the next. Much of what we know about English longbows comes from the Mary Rose, a warship from the navy of King Henry VIII that sank in 1545.

When rediscovered in the 1970’s, the wreck was like a Tudor-era time capsule. Among the countless historical artifacts were about 175 longbows and 4,000 arrows, the analysis of which rewrote our understanding of English longbows in the Middle Ages. It’s what I use for the comparison below.

Modern Archery

Firearms eventually replaced the bow and arrow in warfare, but archery remains popular today for sport and recreation. I know more about the bowhunting side, where bows, arrows, and related equipment are modern marvels. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are

3 million bowhunters in the United States, and they spend $935 million each year on bows, arrows, and other archery equipment. Most hunters prefer the compound bow, for reasons I’ll explain below. How does their modern equipment compare to that of King Henry VIII’s archers? Let’s find out.

Robin Hood and the power of the bow and arrow

Everyone has heard of the tale of Robin Hood splitting an arrow in two with another arrow, but is it really possible?

Source: William Cho, Genghis Khan: The Exhibition.
licensed under creative commons.

The bow and arrow has been used for around 64,000 years and was among the most important tools in the rise of human domination. Genghis Khan famously used this weapon to expand the Mongolian empire from China to Europe. Many cultures utilised the potential of the bow and arrow including the Native Americans, the Romans and some tribes in South Africa. It has been used for hunting, war, performance, sport and sometimes stupidity such as shooting a flaming arrow to light a fire (please don’t try that at home!)

The building blocks of the bow and arrow

Source: One Lucky Guy, English Archer
licensed under creative commons.

Traditionally bows were made out of wood or horn and sometimes backed with animal sinew (tendons).

The longbow, fashioned from yew, was made famous with Robin Hood and England during the 100 Years War. Longbows are around 6 feet long, can shoot an arrow between 250 to 300 yards and are able to puncture armour 100 yards away. Heartwood (centre of the tree) is used for the inside of the bow because it better resists compression and the sapwood (soft wood before the inner bark) is utilised for the outside of the bow because it performs well under tension. Recurve bows are a refinement on the traditional longbow and have a more powerful shot with a longer draw length. The two arms of a recurve bow are bent inwards creating a ‘w’ shape in the bow leading to a heavier draw weight (power in the bow).

Source: JD Paterson, Composite Bow
licensed under creative commons.

A composite bow contains more than one material. After the middle (skeleton) of the bow is made additional pieces of wood or animal sinew are attached to the belly side (the one facing you) or the back side (facing away from you). These pieces add strength to weak spots in the bow allowing for greater tension and a more powerful shot. The Indians in North America fashioned composite bows by gluing layers of sinew to the core and various high pressure points along the bow arms. Another style was employed by the Egyptians where horns and sinew were used to make a bow which was triangular in shape. Bamboo was also utilised by the Japanese who created Asiatic bows which have a longer top arm. These bows are made using strips of bamboo held together with fish glue and supported with sides of hazewood.

Source: Horace A. Ford, 19th century knowledge archery arrow feathers
licensed under creative commons.

But of course the arrow and string pull some sway with this myth!

Traditional bow strings are made out of animal or vegetable fibres stuck together and fastened to the bow with ether a knot or a loop. The arrow is made of wood, reed or cane that has a straight grain, in other words the lines in the material run parallel to the shaft. Feathers, typically goose or turkey, are fletched onto the shaft and fastened in place with string. There are generally three feathers attached to the end of the shaft. To create the knock, where the arrow rests on the string, the end of the arrow is cut down the middle and bone is pushed in the shaft to hold the knocking point open. The tip of the arrow is the most variable, with tips made out of bone, metal, rock or just wood hardened in fire.

The miracle shot

Source: mediadeo, Robin Hood, Split Arrow
licensed under creative commons

When a bow is drawn back we transfer potential energy from our arm into the limbs of the bow. This energy is transferred to the arrow when we release the string propelling the arrow forward. But on a traditional grip the string will slide off the archer’s fingers causing the arrow to move slightly out of line. As the arrow slides off the bow it will try to readjust this line causing the arrow to oscillate through the air. These oscillations dramatically reduce the chances of making this one in a million shot! That’s where the feathers come in. The fletching causes the arrow to spin stabilising its flight and helping it to counteract the drag effects of wind and air. So just like a gridiron ball, spinning gives the shot more accuracy.

Now we know the logistics of the bow and arrow can this shot be made?

Many have tried no doubt, I have! However many factors lie in the way of the perfect shot. The grain of the arrow, if not perfectly parallel, will cause Robin Hood’s arrow to skew when it hits the end of the target shaft. The bone stuck in the knock or the oscillations of the arrow during flight might also cause the arrow to ricochet from the intended target. One of my favourite shows ‘Mythbusters’ has tested this myth more than once (Check out ‘Mystbusters’ season 4 episode 8). They busted it! However luck can always be on your side and like many others I believe that it is possible for a full length split!

The Longbow

The longbow as we recognise it today, measuring around the height of a man, made its first major appearance towards the end of the Middle Ages. Although generally attributed to the Welsh, longbows have in fact been around at least since Neolithic times: one made of yew and wrapped in leather was found in Somerset in 1961. It is thought that even earlier finds have been uncovered in Scandinavia.

The Welsh however, do appear to have been the first to develop the tactical use of the longbow into the deadliest weapon of its day. During the Anglo-Norman invasion of Wales, it is said that the ‘Welsh bowmen took a heavy toll on the invaders’. With the conquest of Wales complete, Welsh conscripts were incorporated into the English army for Edward’s campaigns further north into Scotland.

Although King Edward I, ‘The Hammer of the Celts’, is normally regarded as the man responsible for adding the might of the longbow to the English armoury of the day, the actual evidence for this is vague, although he did ban all sports but archery on Sundays, to make sure Englishmen practised with the longbow. It is however during Edward III’s reign when more documented evidence confirms the important role that the longbow has played in both English and Welsh history.

Edward III’s reign was of course dominated by the Hundred Years War which actually lasted from 1337-1453. It was perhaps due this continual state of war that so many historical records survive which raise the longbow to legendary status first at Crécy and Poitiers, and then at Agincourt.

Battle of Crécy

After landing with some 12,000 men, including 7,000 archers and taking Caen in Normandy, Edward III moved northwards. Edward’s forces were continually tracked by a much larger French army, until they finally arrived at Crécy in 1346 with a force of 8,000.

The English took a defensive position in three divisions on ground that sloped downwards, with the archers on the flanks. One of these divisions was commanded by Edward’s sixteen year old son Edward the Black Prince. The French first sent out the mercenary Genoese crossbowmen, numbering between 6000 and 12,000 men. With a firing rate of three – five volleys per minute they were however no match for the English and Welsh longbow men who could fire ten – twelve arrows in the same amount of time. It is also reported that rain had adversely affected the bowstrings of the crossbows.

Philip VI, after commenting on the uselessness of his archers, sent forward his cavalry who charged through and over his own crossbowmen. The English and Welsh archers and men-at-arms held them off not just once, but 16 times in total. During one of these attacks Edward’s son The Black Prince came under direct attack, but his father refused to send help, claiming he needed to ‘win his spurs’.

After nightfall Philip VI, himself wounded, ordered the retreat. According to one estimate French casualties included eleven princes, 1,200 knights and 12,000 soldiers killed. Edward III is said have lost a few hundred men.

Battle of Crécy between the English and French in the Hundred Years’ War.
From a 15th-century illuminated manuscript of Jean Froissart’s Chronicles

Battle of Poitiers

Details concerning the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 are in fact quite vague, however it appears that some 10,000 English and Welsh troops, this time led by Edward, Prince of Wales, also known as the Black Prince, were retreating after a long campaign in France with a French army of somewhere between 20,000 – 60,000 men in close pursuit. The two armies were separated by a large hedge when the French found a gap and attempted to break through. Realising battle was about to commence The Black Prince ordered his men to form their usual battle positions with his archers on the flanks.

The French, who had developed a small cavalry unit specifically to attack the English and Welsh archers, were not only brought to an abrupt stop by the number of arrows that showered down upon them, they were by all accounts routed. The next attack came from the Germans who had allied themselves with the French and were leading the second cavalry attack. This was also stopped and it is said that so intense was the attack by the English and Welsh archers that at one point some ran out of arrows and had to run forward and collect arrows embedded in people lying on the ground.

Following a final volley of his archers’ fire, the Black Prince ordered the advance. The French broke and were pursued to Poitiers where the French King was captured. He was transported to London and held to ransom in the Tower of London for 3,000,000 gold crowns.

Battle of Agincourt

A 28-year-old King Henry V set sail from Southampton on 11th August 1415 with a fleet of around 300 ships to claim his birthright of the Duchy of Normandy and so revive English fortunes in France. Landing at Harfleur in northern France, they besieged the town.

The siege lasted five weeks, much longer than expected, and Henry lost around 2,000 of his men to dysentery. Henry took the decision to leave a garrison at Harfleur and take the remainder of his army back home via the French port of Calais almost 100 miles away to the north. Just two minor problems lay in their way – a very, very large and angry French army and the River Somme. Outnumbered, sick and short of supplies Henry’s army struggled but eventually managed to cross the Somme.

It was on the road north, near the village of Agincourt, that the French were finally able to stop Henry’s march. Some 25,000 Frenchmen faced Henry’s 6000. As if things couldn’t get worse it started to pour with rain.

Morning of the Battle of Agincourt, 25th October 1415

On 25th October, St Crispin’s day, the two sides prepared for battle. The French though weren’t to be rushed and at 8.00am, laughing and joking, they ate breakfast. The English, cold and wet from the driving rain, ate whatever they had left in their depleted rations.

Following an initial stalemate, Henry decided he had nothing to lose and forced the French into battle and advanced. The English and Welsh archers moved to within 300 metres of the enemy and began to fire. This sparked the French into action and the first wave of French cavalry charged, the rain-soaked ground severely hindering their progress. The storm of arrows raining down upon them caused the French to become unnerved and they retreated into the way of the now advancing main army. With forces moving in every direction, the French were soon in total disarray. The field quickly turned into a quagmire, churned up by the feet of thousands of heavily-armoured men and horses. The English and Welsh archers, some ten ranks deep, rained tens of thousands of arrows down onto the mud trapped French and what followed was a bloodbath. The battle itself lasted just half an hour and between 6,000 and 10,000 French were killed whilst the English suffered losses in the hundreds.

After three hundred years the dominance of the longbow in weaponry was coming to an end and giving way to the age of muskets and guns. The last battle involving the longbow took place in 1644 at Tippermuir in Perthshire, Scotland during the English Civil War.

Longbow archers THE Reference site for the longbow

There is now a small number of longbow men that is not only able to pull longbows of up to 180 lbs draw weight, but also accurately loose half inch diameter arrows that are of military arrow specification. The individuals concerned use equipment, which for all practical purposes is identical to much that was found on the Mary Rose.

The results achieved with these longbows is very relevant to a further and renewed analysis of the events at Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt. In some cases the men concerned have been shooting since the age of seven, were brought up in a farming environment and have continued heavy physical activity into adulthood. These men have in some cases undergone tests that confirm their physique has all the characteristics of the longbow men of old. Among the younger generation, there is also a sixteen year old who already draws a 120 pound bow. Though numerically small the archery world should adapt its structures to welcome them.

The deadly bow-shot and speed characteristics of the war arrow
Heavy bow (or so-called war-bow) archers are able to confirm the bowshot as a feasible and deadly distance. With the use of flight or bearing arrows the enemy could have been &ldquogalled&rdquo at up to 330 to 350 yards. Others doubt however that galling heads would have been used, as their particular shape and weight of would not have lent itself for distance shooting. The speed configuration over the full trajectory is also an interesting point. The war arrow with its heavy point has a particular flight characteristic that is different from the &ldquoknitting needles&rdquo in use today. The war arrow in its curvature back towards the ground will accelerate and might have achieved speeds that come quite close to their original release speed from the bow. There is some doubt about this and such flight characteristics await analysis and precise measurement.

Rapid shot, or not . . .

A hail of arrows, versus volleys of arrows

As to the hail of arrows, heavy bow archers confirm that releasing twelve arrows in one minute is possible, but that such a rate of shot is not possible for subsequent periods. Practical experience points to a rate of shot of about 5 to 6 arrows per minute as being feasible over a period up to 10 minutes.

This would appear to underscore Dr Anne Curry&rsquos thesis that arrows were not loosed in a rapidly shot storm, but in quickly succeeding volleys from different groups of archers. A simple calculation backs this up.

According to records, some one and a half million arrows were carried. Five thousand longbow men loosing at a rate of twelve per minute would theoretically get through supplies in 25 minutes. Supply constraints in battle conditions would have more than halved that figure, leaving the longbow men out of supplies and with aching arms after some ten minutes not a likely scenario.

The longbow make it long, make it strong . . . up to a point
Longer is better only if such length achieves a higher draw-weight. Higher draw-weight shoots a heavier arrow further, but clearly the law of diminishing returns applies here (see below). Seven-foot bows were found on the Mary Rose and today's heavy bow archers regularly use such size bows. However, those drawing 160 to 180 pounds are a minority. The Research director of the Mary Rose Trust and tests done at Imperial College indicated that the majority of bows found come in below these heavyweights.

Longer limbs mean that the full draw weight of the bow is less progressively arrived at. The bow is therefore not only &ldquosweeter&rdquo to draw, but much less likely to break even when drawn up to 32 inches. Nevertheless, there is a limit to useful length a very long bow loses its cast. The war bow would have bent evenly through the grip of the hand, but it would not have had a handgrip. As yew is classified as a softwood, the tips of the bow would have had horn nocks for the string and for protection of the wood from the string finds from the Mary Rose confirm this.

Physical characteristics, drawing and release stance of the new longbow men. More investigative work is needed
The physical characteristics of this new generation of longbow men calls for extensive medical investigation, computer modelling and testing. Some work has already been done on this, but more is needed if we are to fully understand how it was possible for men to draw such substantial weights. The drawing and release stance of these men is different from those of the recreational longbow man or woman. Muscles and tendons in the back are used more.

Bone and tendon strength
Drawing a heavy war bow is at least as much about bone and tendon strength as it is about muscular strength (see below).

Longbow men who have shot from a very young age and have remained in a physically demanding environment have an asymmetric skeletal and muscular development. However, diet would have played a substantial role in this.

Bone densities too differ across the shoulder blades and back, as well as from the bow arm to the drawing arm.The same was found among those lost at sea in the Mary Rose. Further investigation is needed if we are fully to understand the rationale for the technique used.

Body-stance and movement, hand eye coordination, the changing grip on the bow as it bends all merit diligent analysis with the best technical means currently available.

And finally although one can learn the technique of drawing heavy bows AND build-up muscle power bone and tendon strength are not so quickly built. Unless that bone and tendon strength is inherent, drawing heavy bows is almost certain to come at a price.

Viking Archery

Bows and arrows may not be not the first weapons that come to mind when we hear of Vikings. But literary, pictorial, and archaeological evidence suggest that they played a major role in both hunting and warfare of the Scandinavian peoples during the early middle ages. There even appears to have been a distinct and somewhat peculiar type of ‘Viking bow’ – reasons enough to dig a little deeper into the history of Viking archery.

The origins of the word ‘Viking’ are uncertain. ‘To go on a Viking’ probably meant to take part in a raiding expedition, and this is exactly what the young men from Denmark, Norway and Sweden did. In their longboats they crossed the North Sea and made landfall on the shores of the British Isles, to loot and burn monasteries, towns and villages, kill all who stood in their way, and enslave the rest. From their first raid on Lindisfarne in 793 AD until 1066 AD when their descendants from Normandy won rulership over England, the Vikings instilled fear and terror in the peoples of Europe. However, in this tale of bloodshed, loot, rape, and other atrocities, it is often overlooked that the Vikings were also peaceful merchants, skilful craftsmen, keen explorers, bodyguards to the emperors of Byzantium, and successful state-builders in Russia, Sicily, Ireland, Normandy and elsewhere.

While other contemporary European sources mainly focus on the violent exploits of the heathen devils from the North, the Scandinavian sagas tell the stories of their kings and heroes, and legal documents reveal details of viking society and jurisdiction. The oldest Norse collections of laws, like the Norwegian gulathingslov for example, mention spear, sword or battle-axe, and shield as well as bow and arrows as the weapons of any free man. Among the famous archers whose accomplishments the sagas recount in great detail was a man named Einar Eindrideson, called Tambarskjelve, or ‘Flutterstring’. Around the year 1000AD, or so it is told, he competed in a flight shoot against his king Olav Tryggvarson and shot an arrow over more than 1,500 yards. In the sea battle of Svold, Einar’s bow was hit by an enemy arrow. Snorri Sturlusson, who recorded this story in the early 13 th century, goes on to say that the King then gave Einar his own bow, which the seasoned archer found ‘too weak, too weak for the bow of a mighty king’.

The sagas sometimes also mention hornbogi, ‘hornbows’, mainly in the hands of the Vikings’ enemies. Short, reflexed composite bows made of layers of horn and sinew on a wooden core are generally associated with mounted archers from Eastern steppe cultures such as the Huns, Avars, Magyars, or later the Mongols. However, such bows have also been discovered in distinctly Viking contexts, for example as grave goods, and they may have been acquired as gifts, by trade, or as spoils of war.

A diagram of the bow found at Hedeby

Recent excavations at the Viking-age settlement at Birka in Sweden, for example, revealed evidence that Eastern-style archery was practised by local warriors. Not only do some of the discovered arrowheads show distinct steppe designs, leather remains also suggest that gorytoi, bow cases used by mounted archers since Scythian times, have been in use there, and among the finds was even a thumb ring, worn to protect the thumb when shooting in the somewhat mis-labelled ‘Mongolian’ style.

However, these items were imports of one kind or another, and not manufactured locally. What then did the typical Viking bow look like? Fortunately, a number of medieval illustrations give us a good first impression.

According to legend, Edmund, king of East Anglia, was killed by Danish invaders on 20 November 869 AD because he refused to renounce his Christian beliefs. The church later declared him a martyr and his death was not only recorded in text, but also in images. They show the king tied to a tree, being shot at with arrows by Danes using wooden longbows with their tips bent towards the archer. The strings are fastened to the bow just below this peculiar bend.

Similar bows in the hands of Northern warriors can be seen in a number of book illustrations from the 11 th to the 14 th centuries, and also in other media. For example Ullr, the Norse god of winter and of hunting, appears to carry a bow of this type in a stone carving from Balingsta in Sweden.

Ullr, the Norse god of winter and hunting, depicted on skis with a bow on the Böksta runestone near Balingsta, Sweden

Archaeological excavations in the 1960s in Ballinderry in Ireland and Hedeby in Northern Germany unearthed complete bows and fragments dating from the 9 th to the 11 th centuries, which prove that these depictions were not mere artistic fantasies. The Ballinderry bow is 185cm long, 3.8cm wide in the centre and 2.85cm thick. The complete bow from Hedeby measures 191cm in length, with 4cm maximum width and 3.3cm thickness. Both artefacts, as well as some of the Hedeby fragments, show the characteristic bend and were made, with one notable exception, from yew. Very young trees of no more than 6cm in diameter seem to have been stripped of their bark and used to build these bows. They are D-shaped in profile, with a thin layer of sapwood on the back. From the grip section in the centre the limbs taper slightly down to the bend, from where the tips widen again.

Both bows and two of the fragments have a single string notch cut into their right side just below the bend. Signs of wear suggest that the string had been tied to the lower end with a complicated multiple knot. The length of the string measured 178cm for the Hedeby bow, and 169cm for the bow from Ballinderry. Another peculiar detail is a short iron nail with a domed head driven into the back of the Hedeby bow, and one of the fragments some 10cm below the nock. It was probably meant to keep the string loop from sliding down when the bow was unstrung.

The bending of the tips was most likely achieved by steaming the wood. In its moist, hot state the stave could then have been fixed on some form of rig or bent around a cylindrical object of sorts. But why exactly the Viking bowyers would go through such extra efforts is somewhat enigmatic, though. The bent sections have no purpose they offer no mechanical advantages whatsoever, and in fact only serve to increase the mass of the limbs without adding to their strength. If they were not simply a cultural feature or tradition, their only possible explanation was to act as handholds when stringing the bow.

The bottom end of the Hedeby bow, where the string was tied

Modern reproductions of the Ballinderry and Hedeby bows have proven themselves to be very effective weapons of between 80 and 100lbs of draw weight – but these measurements refer to the modern standard draw length of 28 inches. If the medieval images are realistic representations of Viking archery, then their anchor point was at the chest rather than the chin or the ear, resulting in a shorter draw, particularly considering the shorter height of medieval man.

Sadly, no complete Viking arrow shafts that could give an indication of their draw length have been discovered yet. Shooting distances of 1,500 yards as recorded for Einar Flutterstring are out of the question anyhow, merely the stuff of legend. Even the 13 th century Icelandic laws defining a bowshot as a measure of distance of roughly 525 yards seems a little far fetched. But armed with a broadhead, an arrow shot from a viking bow would without doubt have had sufficient power to penetrate leather, skin, flesh, and potentially even soft armour, at reasonable distances, making them formidable weapons for both hunting and warfare and thus very suitable arms of a free man.

When William, duke of Normandy, crossed the channel in 1066 AD to conquer England, he brought with him a substantial number of archers. The battle he fought with king Harold at Hastings is recorded on the famous Bayeux Tapestry. The bows carried by the Norman archers appear to be a little shorter than the earlier Viking bows, but still appeared to be following the same building pattern. The accuracy of these depictions has long been in doubt, but the 1986–1992 excavations in Waterford, a town in Ireland founded by Vikings, unearthed one complete bow and six fragments showing great similarity with the ones shown.

The 11th century Norman bows depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry still show the characteristic shape of the earlier Viking bows

They were made of yew, with the characteristically bent tip section, but the complete bow only measures 126cm in total length. A single string notch was cut into opposing sides on the upper and lower end respectively. Apart from a great number of arrowheads, a lot of them bent, one complete, unbroken arrow 23.8 inches long was also found at Waterford. The finds are probably connected to the town’s capture by the Anglo-Normans under Richard Fitzgilbert de Clare, better known as ‘Strongbow’, in the year 1170 AD.

It would seem the Viking bow was still – with some adjustments – very much in favour after a couple of centuries, apparently having proven its efficiency satisfactorily.

If you’re interested, here is a short list of some further reading on the subject:

Juergen Junkmanns. ‘The Bows of the Vikings’ in: The Bow Builder’s Book. European Bow Building from the Stone Age to Today. Atglen: Schiffer Publications. 2nd ed. 2012.

Michael Leach. ‘The Norman Short Bow ‘ in: Journal of the Society of Archer Antiquaries 52 (2009), pp. 82–90.

Harm Paulsen. ‘Pfeil und Bogen in Haithabu’ In: Harald Gelbig and Harm Paulsen. Das archäologische Fundmaterial VI. Berichte über die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu. Bericht 33. Neumünster: Wachholtz Verlag 1999, pp. 93–143.

American Indian Archery Technology

American Indians did not always have the bow and arrow. It was not until about A.D. 500 that the bow and arrow was adopted in Iowa some 11,500 years after the first people came to the region. Primary benefits of the bow and arrow over the spear are more rapid missile velocity, higher degree of accuracy, and greater mobility. Arrowheads also required substantially less raw materials than spear heads. A flint knapper could produce a large number of small projectile points from a single piece of chert. Even with the gun's many advantages in the historic era, bows and arrows are much quieter than guns, allowing the hunter more chances to strike at the prey.

Indians used arrows to kill animals as large as bison and elk. Hunters approached their prey on foot or on horse back, accurately targeting vulnerable areas. The choice of materials and the design of arrows and the bow were not random. Some materials were generally more readily available than others. Environmental conditions also affected the choice of materials. Humidity affects wooden bows, and temperature affects horn and antler. The intended use of the system, on foot or horse back, for instance, affects the final design. Bows used while mounted on horseback tend to be shorter than the bows used when on foot. Since the length of the bow determines the stress placed on the bow when drawn, shorter bows tend to be made of composite materials while bows used when on foot can be made of wood. Indians used a variety of materials to make the bow stave, relying on materials that met certain

requirements , most important of which is flexibility without breaking. Several species of plants and some animal materials met these requirements. Ash, hickory, locust, Osage orange, cedar, juniper, oak, walnut, birch, choke cherry, serviceberry , and mulberry woods were used. Elk antler, mountain sheep horn, bison horn, and ribs, and caribou antler also were used where available. Bow construction techniques included a single stave of wood (self bow), wood with sinew reinforcement (backed bow), and a combination of horn or antler with sinew backing (composite bow). Hide glue was used to attach the backing. Bow strings most frequently were made of sinew (animal back or leg tendon), rawhide, or gut. The Dakota Indians also used cord made from the neck of snapping turtles. Occasionally, plant fibers, such as inner bark of basswood, slippery elm or cherry trees, and yucca were used. Nettles, milkweed, and dogbane are also suitable fibers. Well-made plant fiber string is superior to string made of animal fibers because it holds the most weight while resisting stretching and remaining strong in damp conditions. However, plant fiber strings are generally much more labor intensive to make than animal fiber strings, and the preference in the recent past was for sinew, gut, or rawhide.

Arrow shafts were made out of shoots, such as dogwood, wild rose, ash, birch, chokecherry, and black locust. Reeds from common reed grass were also used with some frequency throughout North America with the exception of the Plains where reeds did not grow. Shoots were shaved, sanded, or heat and pressure straightened. Tools made of bone or sandstone were used to straighten the shaft wood. Because they are hollow and light, reed-shaft arrows typically have a wooden foreshaft and sometimes a wooden plug for the nock end of the arrow. If a foreshaft was used, it could be glued to the main shaft, tied with sinew, or fit closely enough to not need glue or sinew. Prehistoric points or heads were made of stone, antler, or bone. Thin metal, bottle glass, and flint ballast stones also were used to make points in the historic period.

Points were attached to the arrow shaft with a variety of methods. Most frequently, the arrow shaft would have a slit cut into the end to accept the point. Sinew would then be wrapped around the shaft to pinch the slit closed. Points could also be hafted directly by wrapping sinew around the point and the arrow shaft. Metal points generally were attached using the same techniques and only infrequently attached by means of a socket.

Indians made many types of arrowheads. In addition to the traditional triangular stone arrowhead, carved wood or leather points have large, broad surfaces. Different types of arrow tips were used for different purposes, such as for large game versus small game. Small triangular stone points are not bird points: large, blunt-tipped wooden points were used for birds. Harpoon-like points also exist and were used in fishing.

Fletching of bird feathers was sewn to or inserted in the shaft. Feathers of wild turkey were preferred but many other birds, including eagle, crow, goose, hawk, and turkey, were often used. Sinew was generally used to attach the fletching by first stripping some of the feathers from the front and back of the vane and then tying the vane to the shaft in front of and behind the remaining feathers. Sometimes plant twine was used to sew through the quill. Hide glue was used with or instead of sinew ties. Animal products like sinew have the advantage of tightening as they dry.

The fletching balances the weight of the arrowhead to prevent the arrow from tumbling end-over-end in flight. When fletched properly, an arrow may spin in flight producing an ideal trajectory. A similar effectiveness is gained by placing grooves in the barrel of a rifle to cause the bullet to spin. In fact, until the invention of rifled guns, bows generally proved to be more accurate and could shoot arrows further than powder-thrown missiles. The bow and arrow is a complex technology. Each element must be balanced in proportion to the others and to the user to make an effective tool. The bow acts as a pair of springs connected by the grip or handle. As the string is pulled the material on the inside or belly of the bow limbs compresses, while the outside or back is stretched and is placed under tension. This action stores the energy used to draw the string back. When the string is released, the limbs quickly return to their state of rest and release the energy stored by drawing the string. Therefore, the power of a bow is measured in terms of draw weight.

The height and strength of the archer determines the ideal draw weight of the bow. A combination of the length of draw and the draw weight of the bow determines the cast (propelling force) of the bow. Adjusting either or both of these features allows the arrowhead to be made larger or smaller as needed. The draw weight of the bow also determines the ideal weight and diameter of the arrow shaft. Even a bow with a high draw weight can only throw an arrow so far. If the arrow is too heavy, it will not fly far or fast enough to be very useful. A shaft that is too thick or too thin will also lead to problems. It must compress enough to bend around the bow stave as it is launched by the string. If it does not bend, the arrow flies to the side of the target. If it bends too much, it will wobble (reducing the striking force) or even shatter.

The length of the draw, also determined by the body of the archer, determines the length of the arrow. The maximum cast of the bow determines the maximum weight of the point. This is how we know that certain "arrowheads" can not really have been used on an arrow, at least not to any good effect. A general rule of thumb is that a stone arrowhead will be less than 1 1/2-x-3/4-inch in dimensions and will generally weigh less than one ounce. Larger "arrowheads" probably would have been spear, dart, or knife tips.

For further reading.

Ackerman, Laura B.
1985 The Bow Machine, Science 85, July/August, pp . 92-93.

Allely, Steve, and Jim Hamm
1999 Encyclopedia of Native American Bows, Arrows & Quivers: Volume I: Northeast, Southeast, And Midwest. Lyons Press, New York.

Allely, Steve et al.
1992 The Traditional Bowyer's Bible, Volumes 1-3. Lyons & Burford , New York.

Hamilton, T. M.
1982 Native American Bows. Special Publications No. 5, Missouri Archaeological Society, Columbia, Missouri.

Hamm, Jim
1991 Bows & Arrows of the Native Americans. Lyons and Burford , New York. [Guide to construction.]

Hardy, Robert
1992 Longbow: A Social and Military History. Lyons and Burford , New York. [Appendix has detailed description of bow and arrow physics.]

McEwen, Edward, Robert L. Miller, and Christopher A. Bergman
1991 Early Bow Design and Construction, Scientific American, June 1991, pp . 77-82.

Pope, Saxton T.
1962 Bows and Arrows. University of California Press, Los Angeles.

Stockel, Henrietta H.
1995 The Lightening Stick: Arrows, Wounds, and Indian Legends. University of Nevada Press, Reno.

Hurley, Vic
1975 Arrows Against Steel: The History of the Bow. Mason Charter, New York. [Discussion of effectiveness of the bow compared to firearms.]

Pamphlet text and illustrations by Tim Weitzel . Cover art by Pranik Saiyasith .

This pamphlet is made possible through a grant from the ISF administered by the Iowa Academy of Science.

Revolutionary War Artillery

Cannon, mortars and howitzers made up the three types of artillery used at Yorktown by the Americans, French and British.

Cannon included both field guns, which were lightweight, mobile pieces and heavy siege guns which had limited mobility. Field guns, firing solid shot, grapeshot and canister in a fairly flat trajectory, could tear large holes in the enemy’s infantry ranks. Siege cannon fired solid shot, destroying fortifications and buildings. Against ships, cannon crews utilized hot shot, a superheated cannon ball that could set a ship on fire and bar shot and chain shot, (two halves of a cannon ball attached by either a bar or chain) that could pull down a ship’s mast and rigging.

Mortars differed from cannon in both appearance and firing principles. A mortar was mounted on a flat bed, resembling a large block of wood. An elevating wedge raised the barrel, enabling the mortar to fire an exploding shell, called a "bomb," in a high trajectory. Fired properly, the bomb would fly over earthworks and explode while still airborne, raining shrapnel over the enemy

The howitzer combined the principles of both the cannon and the mortar. Mounted on a field carriage, the howitzer fired both bombs and cannon balls at a flat or high trajectory.

/>Howitzer The size of the mortar and howitzer was designated by the width of the bore. Eight, ten, 12 and 13-inch mortars and howitzers were used at Yorktown. />Siege Cannon, 24-pounder The British surrendered at Yorktown 244 artillery pieces of mainly lightweight field cannon. These had been ineffective against the enemy’s earthworks. While General Washington’s forces had considerably fewer pieces— approximately 131— it was their superior number of siege guns and their skilled gun crews, such as Colonel Lamb’s Artillery, that made the difference. />Siege Cannon, 18-pounder

Artillery Ranges

The exact firing ranges of the artillery pieces at Yorktown are difficult to determine. Factors such as piece size, amount of powder charge and quality of the powder affected the range. The following are rough averages:

Maximum Range Effective Range

CANNON 2,000 yards 1,000 yards

MORTARS 1,400 yards 750 yards

HOWITZER 1,300 yards 750 yards

The difference between maximum and effective range, and the difficulty in determining ranges, demonstrates the nature of artillery in the American Revolution. Artillery was not an exact science, so the skill and experience of the gun crew often determined the success of the artillery.

Arrows in the Middle Ages

Saint Sebastian: Late medieval arrows with long triangular fletching, barbed arrowheads, and colour markings

Continuing on in a history of arrows, Jan H Sachers takes us from the rise of the knights to the sinking of the Mary Rose

With the advent of the knight in the 11th century, the social elite fought with lance, shield, and sword as a mounted warrior in armour, while the cheaper bow was a weapon of the lower ranks of society.

Literature of the era, however, paid little to no attention to the common infantrymen, and they are rarely depicted in contemporary illustrations, which led to the impression they had been absent from the battlefields.

In open battle, the bow’s quicker shooting rate still made it superior to the much-more expensive crossbows that took their time to be spanned, and hence archers are likely to have remained a part of most regular armies from the 12th to the 16th centuries, even if they relatively left little trace in recorded history.

An archer defending a town or castle. Crusader Bible, Paris, ca. 1250

In the crusading armies archers certainly played a crucial role, even if they were often paid mercenaries from Armenia, Syria, and other local regions.

An important pictorial source from the 13th century, the so-called Maciejowski or Crusader Bible, shows an archer with a very particular bow in defense of a town or castle, which may be considered one of the main tasks for professional archers.

General observations on arrows

Most high medieval illustrations of arrows show bulbous nocks and triangular or parabolic fletching secured with a thread whipping. The arrows under the belt of philosopher and author John Gower (ca. 1400) may have glued on nocks of horn or other dark material.

Arrowheads are commonly of the wide two-bladed and (often) barbed variety, which is easy to recognise, and depict in paint.

John Gower’s arrows seem to be equipped with horn nocks. Ca. 1400

The martyrdom of St. Sebastian became a popular subject for artists in the late Middle Ages. A famous example from the 15th century (Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne) shows archers with strong yew bows.

Their arrows are made with adequately thick shafts, perhaps tapering towards the nocks, long triangular fletching, and swept-out ‘swallowtail’ heads with two curved blades.

This painting is likely to give a good impression of real arrows from that time. The depicted arrowheads would have been of good use in both hunting and warfare against unarmoured opponents.

In a portrait of Anton, ’the Bastard of Burgundy’ (Rogier van der Weyden, ca. 1460) he is holding an arrow in his hand which has a shaft clearly tapering towards the bulbuous nock.

It is fletched with three white feathers of parabolic shape without whipping. The cock-feather is marked by two thin red stripes.

Medieval arrowheads for hunting in the Royal Armouries, Leeds

Hunting arrows

Bows and arrows were a favourite hunting weapon for both nobles and common folk – even though the hunting practices of the latter were usually classed as poaching and are mainly documented in court protocols and other judicial documents.

The noble hunt on the other hand increasingly became the subject of illustrated manuscripts from the 14th century onwards. Here we find arrows not only in image, but also in descriptive texts, which finally offer some details on their manufacture and use.

Gaston Phoebus (1331-1391), the Count of Foix and most famous hunting author of the late Middle Ages recommends two-bladed arrowheads, ‘well sharpened and filed’, which should be ‘five fingers long and exactly four fingers wide’ between the barbs. The arrows depicted in his ‘The Book of the Hunt’ match this description quite well.

Wide, two-bladed arrowheads were able to make big wounds causing heavy blood loss, so the prey was weakened quickly if the hit had not been fatal at once.

Another kind of arrow is often shown in hunting treatises and other book illustrations as well. It has a blunt wooden tip and is used for hunting hare, rabbit, squirrel, and other small furry game, so as not to damage their pelt.

The late medieval illustrated examples appear bigger than the originals discovered in Haithabu, which may be due to artistic license or reflect an actual change in design.

Petrus de Crescentiis, a 14th century author, recommends the use of a special arrow to hunt big birds. The ‘sagitta bifurcata’ was a forked point with two blades sharpened on the inside.

According to Petrus it was able to cut through a wild goose’s or other large fowl’s neck or wing. Examples of such arrowheads have indeed been found, but are mostly referred to as ‘rope cutters’ in modern literature.

English archery

The situation in England differed from the rest of the continent. After the experiences of the Welsh and Scottish wars, contingents of archers remained a regular part of practically every English army until well into the 16th century.

Archery became a mandatory exercise for all able-bodied men, and the yeomen archers who could handle the strong yew warbow were held in much higher esteem – and paid considerably more – than in other European countries.

Documentation of production, storage, and use of arrows is particularly rich for the time of the Hundred Years War (1337-1456) with France. For example, it is recorded that in the year 1360 alone, half a million arrows were delivered to the royal armouries in the Tower of London the year before it had been another 850,000.

Fletchers throughout the country were responsible for this mass production, but they supplied not only the Tower, but also other royal armouries as in Bristol (11,000 arrows in 1346) as well as individual nobles who had to equip their own personal retinue.

Raw materials were also stored centrally. In 1417 six feathers from every goose within the realm had to be delivered to the Tower, with the Counties being mandated to supply a total of 1,190,000 goose feathers in the following year.

In 1417 six feathers from every goose within the realm had to be delivered to the Tower of London

To secure the supply of good wood for arrow shafts, King Henry V banned the use of poplar for any other use in 1416, particularly the manufacture of wooden shoes.

Surviving original arrowheads show a few interesting details. While many arrowheads classified as hunting points show a small hole where the socket was fixed to the shaft with a small nail or rivet, this is absent on arrowheads for warfare.

Most likely these were just pressed onto the shaft or loosely fixed with beeswax, which was not only more economical, but had several advantages. When pulling the shaft from a wound, the point was likely to remain inside. Shafts without heads could not be re-used by the enemy, while arrowheads could easily be removed from broken shafts and re-fitted.

The fletcher’s trade

Bowyers and fletchers in London originally formed a common guild, until the latter petitioned for a strict separation of the crafts in 1371, and The Worshipful Company of Fletchers was founded.

In other European countries fletchers never seemed to have formed their own guilds. In Germany they were mainly found in the bigger towns, their products sold by traveling merchants in times of peace. They only supplied the shafts with fletchings and nocks, while the customer had it equipped with forged arrowheads.

Customers included noblemen, wealthy citizens, and the towns themselves. The latter in particular bought large quantities, but since European fletchers produced not only arrows, but also crossbow bolts, and the records do not distinguish between the two, it is impossible to quantify the use of bows and arrows by these numbers alone.

Two fletchers at work, finished arrows packed in barrels. Alexander Romance, 14th century

Being of strategical importance for war and also the defense of towns, fletchers often profited from tax reduction or even exemption as in 14th century Vienna.

Arrow shafts from the high and late Middle Ages were made from wooden boards. A special jig was used to turn staves of square cross section into rounded shafts with a selection of planes. Sandstone and fish skin smoothened the surface, the nock slit was cut into the wood with a small saw.

It is not clear when the reinforcement of the nocks with a sliver of horn became common. 14th and 15th century illustrations often still show the bulbous nocks instead, which had been in use for centuries, particularly with tapered shafts.

The fletchings were mainly attached using skin glue, sometimes mixed with beeswax, verdigris (copper sulphate), and other components to keep insects away during long times of storage.

The fletchings were additionally secured with a whipping of silk or linen thread, since skin glue is not water resistant. Judging by the illustrations, popular shapes of fletchings included parallelogram, triangular, parabolic, and ‘banana’.

Of all indigenous birds, only goose and swan produced feathers long and strong enough to be used as fletchings, and available in large enough quantities – the turkey only being introduced to Europe from America much later.

Feathers from birds of prey such as eagles as well as from pheasants and peacocks were probably used for individual hunting arrows, but not suitable for mass production.


To this day, the only complete late medieval arrow was found in the rafters of the capital house in Westminster Abbey, where it must have been placed before the renovation in 1437.

The shaft is 29 inches long, probably made of ash, with a diameter of 10.7 mm beneath the socket and 7.6 mm at the rear end. The widest part of 11.4 mm is at about two-fifths of the total length behind the arrowhead, a shaft design known as ‘breasted’ or ‘chested’.

A 4 cm long slit was cut perpendicular to the string groove at the rear end, probably to receive a thin sliver of horn as reinforcement.

Reddish-brown remains of a glue covered some 18 cm (7 in.) of the rear end in which three feathers and an increasingly narrow binding have left their marks.

The heavily corroded head was a type very popular in late medieval England with narrow, curved blades and barbs.

Arrows from the Mary Rose

The sinking of Henry VIII’s flagship Mary Rose in the Solent near Portsmouth in 1545 proved to be a treasure chest for archaeologists. It carried, among other things, 172 yew longbows and several thousand arrows, 2,900 of which have been recovered and analysed.

Most of them were bundled in sheaves of 24 up to 40 of these bundles fit into special wooden boxes, some of which were also salvaged.

Lengths of these arrows vary, but the vast majority (841 of a total of 1,054) measures 31 inches, with the longest being 32.5, the shortest 27.5 inches long. (Essentially, arrows were standardised ammunition, even if bow weights varied with the archer.)

Their front ends are tapered conically, with a marked shoulder to receive the arrowhead socket. The average diameter at the shoulder is ½ inch, tapering to ⅜ inches towards the nock. Narrow slits two inches long sometimes still contained remains of the horn reinforcements.

Actor and longbow expert: the late Robert Hardy at the opening of the Mary Rose Museum
(Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

More than three quarters of all analysed shafts are made of poplar, others of ash, birch, and even oak as well as at least six as yet unidentified types of wood. Most of them taper evenly towards the nock, considerably fewer are parallel, barrelled, or chested.

Glue remains indicate an average fletching length of six inches feathers were aligned radially and secured with a thread whipping. Unfortunately, the iron arrowheads have been destroyed by centuries in salt water.

At least those arrows bundled in leather discs – probably as part of a linen arrow sack – were probably equipped with narrow type 16 or bodkin type points.

In the same year the Mary Rose sank, Roger Ascham published his treatise ‘Toxophilus. Or, the Schole of Shooting’, the oldest known archery manual in Europe. His work is dedicated to target archery, which differs in great many respects from what was common or required in hunting or war.

Ascham recommends shafts of ash only for war arrows, since it is heavier and at the same time faster than the more popular Aspen. Apart from other well-known types of wood like birch and oak he also lists exotic materials such as Brazil wood, turkwood, fustic, or sugar maple.

He also mentions footings, and splicing in hardwoods at the nock to counterbalance heavy arrowheads – practices that were far too lavish for mass-produced war arrows.

‘Toxophilus’ is evidence for a transformation of archery in England during the 16th century, when the bow was more and more replaced by firearms as a weapon of war, and turned into a piece of sporting equipment.

Recreational archery required lower draw weights, different types of arrowheads, and many other changes in gear and shooting styles. With the sinking of the Mary Rose and the drowning of many of the king’s own archers, and the publication of a civilian archery manual the year 1545 may be considered a pivot point in the history of English archery.

However, unlike in most other European countries, archery remained a part of the English tradition and heritage, and even its medieval forms are making a comeback – with much reproduction equipment still available today.