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Stefan's Florilegium


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LB-Efficacy-art - 4/18/15


"The Efficacy of the Longbow during the Middle Ages" by HL Christophe of Grey.


NOTE: See also the files: arrows-msg, merch-archery-msg, Arrow-Matchng-art, Arrow-Inspect-art, 16C-Arrow-Bag-art, arch-supplies-msg, archery-msg, SCA-T-Archery-art.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


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Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

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This article was first published in the "The Phoenix", the newsletter of the Barony of Sacred Stone, Atlantia.


The Efficacy of the Longbow during the Middle Ages

by HL Christophe of Grey


In the SCA there is a lot of discussion and misunderstanding about the efficacy of the longbow as a battle weapon during the Middle Ages.  What exactly is a longbow?  How destructive/effective was it as a weapon of war?  Was it effective against armored troops?  How common of a weapon was it?  Was the longbow only used by the "lesser classes"?  This paper will discuss all of these questions.


Let us begin with the weapon, the longbow.  The British Longbow Society defines a longbow as:


"…being of a length greater than 5 feet and having a stacked belly (i.e. deep D section rather than the rectangular section characteristic of traditional "American" bows), with horn nocks and limbs made of wood only.  The thickness of the limbs, measured from belly to back, should at no point be less than three-quarters of the overall width of the limb at the same point.  At the arrow pass (where the shaft flies past the bow on release), the bow shall be no narrower than at any point along its length.  There should be no arrow rest built into or attached to the bow."


It is known that a variety of bows were in common use during the Middle Ages, including composite bows of an Eastern design and relatively short bows that appear to have been used by the Norman archers in the Bayeux Tapestry.  Evidence from both archeological finds and pictorial representations of archers from throughout the period suggests that the majority of the bows were longbows of a common design and similar to that prescribed by the British Longbow Society, as above.  These bows were constructed of the best materials available at the time and the technology known to the bowyers.  The most common wood used was yew, selected for its combination of heart and sap wood of contrasting properties to produce a natural composite of excellent strength and efficiency.  However, longbows were also constructed of ash, elm, or hazel, which were considered to be more "base" woods but were probably used for their greater availability.


As the longbow gained importance as a war weapon and became standard ordinance for the armies of the 14th century, yew bowstaves were imported from Spain, Venice (Italy), Salzburg (Austria), Basle (Switzerland), and Dansk (Poland).  The bowstaves from Venice were the most prized as it was felt that heat of the sun dried up the humidity and sap of the wood.  The bowstaves from the other locations were less prized as it was felt that the wetter growing conditions yielded bowstaves of lesser quality.


Contrary to popular opinion, longbows were not necessarily constructed from a straight piece of wood.  Often they were curved forward when new to produce a mild reflex.  This was, in part, due to the natural tendency of the heart wood to expand during seasoning.  This curvature would have initially served to increase the efficiency of the bow but over time the wood of the bow would have compressed due to being drawn resulting in the bow curving in the opposite direction resulting in what we refer today as "string follow".  There is some speculation that archers did not hold the draw, as in movies, so as to not aggravate the "string follow" condition.


Using the dimensions of bows recovered from the Mary Rose, reproduction longbows suggest a draw weight of 100 to 140 pounds with an occasional bow exceeding 180 pounds.  However, modern tests have shown that the optimum draw weight of a longbow is about 120 pounds and draw weights significantly greater than this provide no significant advantage.


The strings for these bows were typically made from hemp fibers but silk and linen were also used.  The strings were coated with glue to assist in waterproofing them.  Care was required that the strings did not become too dry as to cause the glue to crack.  As with the modern Flemish bow string, strings in period were constructed by twisting the fibers to form the string.  Typically the string had a loop on one end and no loop on the other.  The string was then affixed to the bow using a timber hitch or bowyers knot.  This afforded the string makers to make many strings suitable for many bows of different lengths.  From descriptions it appears that strings in period were wrapped with a serving material in the string's central position much like modern strings.  Strings recovered from the Mary Rose indicate that they had a diameter not to exceed 1/8 inch, resembling modern strings.


The ammunition for the longbows, arrows, had a single purpose in battle – deliver a large, heavy warhead towards an armored enemy and pierce their armor to do the maximum damage possible.  To carry a heavy tip most arrows were made of shafts up to 3/8 inch in diameter and normally made out of light, straight wood such as aspen or popular but were sometimes made of ash, alder, birch, elder, willow, and hornbeam.  The latter woods were heavier and thought to better carry a heavy war tip, however, as developed later in this paper, heavier arrows shortened the effective range of the archer.


Medieval arrows were constructed in lengths ranging from 27 to 32 inches.  However, to ensure consistent shooting most arrows were made to a consistent length.  Nocks were normally cut as parallel sided slots at right angles to the grain of the arrow shaft.  In some cases horn inserts were used parallel with the shaft grain and cross-wise to the nock cut.  These provided greater strength and aided in reducing splitting of the shaft upon release by the bow string.


Feathers were cut from the pinion feathers of geese and ranged in shape from simple wedges to more rounded shapes similar to the parabolic fletches of today.  It is not known if cock feathers were in use or mattered to the archers.  Fletches were glued and tied to the shafts with both ends of the fletch and thread coated with glue for weatherproofing.  Fletches were considerably longer than those used today and ranged from 7 to 9 inches.  It is speculated that the longer fletches were required to stabilize a shaft with a heavier tip.


The above figure shows five arrows heads in common use during the middle ages.  The first two points are broad heads commonly used for hunting.  The next two are of the bodkin type used against metal armor.  The final arrow head was used against light armor or for harassing an enemy at longer distances.  The barbs made the withdrawal of the arrow difficult.  Arrow shafts were often constructed without arrow heads which were attached on site often by simply jamming them on or with wax.  In this manner the arrow shaft could be easily dislodged but the heavier arrow head remained in the wound.


Medieval military archers seldom used quivers.  Instead they often simply stuck their arrows under their belt or in the ground in front of them. This habit of sticking the arrows in the ground allowed dirt to get on the arrowheads which further contaminated the wounds of those hit and lead to the idea that English archers poisoned their arrows.  If a quiver was needed typically a simple bag for carrying the arrows was used.


Medieval military archers had no requirement for accuracy at great distances.  Instead their main force was applied via arrow storms.  When we consider that the average medieval archer could loose 8 arrows a minute and was shooting an average distance of 250 yards with an average flight time of about 8 seconds by the time the first arrow storm arrived another would be on its way.  Considering the average number of archers per battle, see below, a 10 minute arrow storm could inflict considerable damage to an enemy. 


Were archers a significant part of Medieval armies?  One reference sites the following numbers:


Crecy – 12,000 men, 7,000 of which were archers

Poitiers – 7000 armored horses, 3000 longbow men, 100 light troops

Agincourt – 6000 men "mostly archers"


Putting together the numbers of thousands of archers loosing arrows every 7.5 seconds (8 arrows per minute), with a flight time of 8 seconds at 250 yards and considering each archer had hundreds of arrows to shoot, an arrow storm would be a formidable battle tactic of the time!


But the question remains, how effective were the arrows when they arrived at the target?  To answer this question I draw heavily on research done by Matheus Bane and his thesis English Longbow Testing against various armor circa 1400, which I will summarize here.


The testing was based on an English Longbow similar to the Spencer Bow:  79 inches long, draw weight of 100 pounds, constructed of yew with horn nocks.  The actual bow used in the testing was and Oregon yew self longbow, 75 pound draw weight, AMO string length of 72 inches, horn nocks, and a leather grip with no arrow rest.  The author shows the calculations that support that his 75 pound longbow has the same striking distance at 10 yards that a 100 pound longbow would have at 250 yards.  (Arrives with the same amount of energy from the strike.)


The test arrows were 30 inch by 0.4 inch diameter ash shafts with self nocks bound with linen thread.  Fletching was grey goose glued and tied with linen thread.  Four types of period arrow heads were used as pictured below.  The final weights of each arrow type were:

Needle Bodkin – 905 grains

Short Bodkin – 1150 grains

Wide Broadhead – 950 grains

Curved Broadhead – 935 grains


These weights compare favorably with arrows recovered from the Mary Rose.



An arrow hit may be lethal in two ways; a direct hit penetrating to cause a traumatic wound, or a hit that does not penetrate the flesh but causes a significant deformation in the body resulting in internal organ damage.  To test this Bane used the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) testing procedures for modern body armor which tests not only projectile penetration but body deformation.  Roma Plastilian #1 clay is used to represent a human body and for testing degree of deformation from the hit.  NIJ testing threshold is 1.7 inch of deformation for modern armor to pass.  The penetration threshold is 0.28 inches which research has determined would cause injury to internal organs.  The standard for Bane's tests are that an individual sustaining a wound of 1.7 deformation who is brought to a hospital will survive.  Penetration of 0.28 inch was determined through research to indicate that internal injuries to organs would be extremely unlikely.  These standards are for modern body armor and modern medicine.  Without these modern advantages it is realistic to assume that a Medieval military person sustaining injuries of this degree would most likely die or be seriously debilitated, i.e. the arrow strike would be considered effective.


Bane tested six forms of armor in common use during the Middle Ages.  Bane noted that many armor/arrow tests test only the armor but not as it was commonly worn by the Medieval military man.  Therefore Bane made the point of "dressing" his test subject in a more period appropriate fashion, i.e. he included the under garments that would have been typically worn.  Each of the six armor types is described below.


Jack Coat – This armor was primarily made of layers of linen topped with deer hide.  This armor has been described as the "most serviceable defense in the fifteenth century"  (Ffoulkes).  Bane used 15 layers of linen stitched to 1 layer of deer skin on top.


Butted Maille – Bane notes that no butted maille has been found from period but wanted to include this armor type on how it would have performed if used.  His armor was constructed of 18 gauge mild steel wire with inside diameter of 5/16 inch round wire butted together.  Bane notes that most chain maille of period was iron not steel.  This was worn over 2 layers of linen stuffed with 1 inch of cotton batting.


Riveted Maille of average quality – The maille was constructed of 18 gauge iron wire, 5/16 inch inside diameter, 0.79 cm outside diameter.  Each ring was slightly flattened and riveted with wedge rivets.  This armor was worn over 2 layers of quilted linen with 1 inch of cotton batting.


Riveted Maille of high quality – Constructed of 18 gauge steel wire with 5/16 inch inside diameter, flattened in a clockwise direction, fixed with a steel wedge rivet made out of iron.  This armor was worn over 2 layers of quilted linen stuffed with 1 inch of cotton batting.


Coast of Plates – Constructed of 3 inch square metal plates covered with 1/16 inch thick leather and padded with 8 layers of linen.  He does not state the thickness of the metal plates.


Plate Armor – Tests done on armor in the Tower of London show minimum thickness of 1.2 mm and maximum of 4.57 mm.  Medieval armor was often constructed with thicker plates to cover vital areas and thinner plates for non-vital areas.  This was done in supposition to save weight.  Bane tested the minimum thickness and used 3 layers of quilted linen as under padding which was the equivalent of the arming coat made for Henry VIII.  Other sources site the varying thickness of plate armor and also site that the metal used was of a softer nature than the steel of today.


The results provided some surprises and some expectations.  I've summarized them below for each armor type.


Jack Coat – This armor, while constructed as the thinnest on historical record, provided adequate against the needle and short bodkin points.  The deer hide actually rolled in with the arrow strike acting as a brake and preventing deeper penetration.  The bladed points were as expected, the cutting force against the deer skin and linen proved very efficient and allowed 3.8 inch penetration.  The final conclusion is that the Jack Coat at it's thickest would have provided adequate armor on the battlefield, though very resistive to movement and hot to wear.


Butted Maille – This armor provided no match for all four arrow types tested.  The short bodkin, typically the least penetrating arrow point, had 1.7 inch of penetration.  Bane believes that while some believe this armor to have actually been in use in the Middle Ages regardless of lack of proof of existence, his tests prove why it was not used.  He observed that the broken rings would have been easily pushed into the resulting wounds introducing more infectious dangers.  Barbed arrows would have been difficult to extract if at all.


Riveted Maille average quality – This armor type proved not much better than the butted maille.  The rings were inconsistent in construction and the integrity of the metal questionable.  The arrow penetration depths were slightly less that the butted maille but every arrow tested proved fatal.  The needle bodkin penetrated 2.8 inch.  The short bodkin while not breaking rings like the needle bodkin, did push maille rings through the padding into the "flesh" to a depth of 1.3 inch.  The broad heads, while not penetrating far enough for the barbs to become entangled in the maille, did penetrative to a distance of 1.8 inch and sent broken rings into the "flesh".  This armor type was not effective.


Riveted Maille high quality – This armor was constructed of rings of consistent and solid nature.  The needle bodkin broke rings and penetrated to a depth of 2.8 inches.  The short bodkin simply bounced off but deformed the "flesh" 1.8 inches which is over the fatal threshold.  The broadhead did not penetrate past its barbs and did not introduce rings into the "flesh".  The penetration was 1.3 inch.  The type 16 broadhead, swept back barbs, cut through the rings and padding to a depth of 3 inches.  While this arrow head did not penetrate as deeply as the needle bodkin due to the barbs it would prove significantly more difficult to remove and cause a much larger wound area.


Coat of Plates – Only the needle bodkin penetrated and resulted in a very small wound.  The other arrow heads while not penetrating did leave large plate sized deformations that were well within survivable limits.


Plate – This armor form stopped most arrows.  The needle bodkin did punch past the threshold but would not cause the wearer great risk.  The padding tested was the minimum of historical examples.  If thicker padding were used it is felt no arrow would have reached the skin.  However, other sources remind us that plate armor was worn over vital areas, varied in thickness and provided joints that were either unprotected or protected only with padding or maille.  Thus, while a warrior in plate armor would survive lethal strikes, it is safe to assume that they could become incapacitated through more minor wounds.  And let us not forget that in today's money values a full suit of armor would cost around $80,000, well beyond the price range of the vast majority of military men of the time.


In conclusion then to answer the question "Was the longbow an effective military weapon?", the answer has to be a resounding YES.  Bane notes the following conclusions from his tests:


"Most soldiers on the battlefield would have been at risk from the longbow.  The average archer would have had the tools to wound or kill most armor types.  Even with the advent of the coat of plates, the archer would have had an impact on an advancing army.  Only the most expensive and well made plate armor wearers would have had an advantage.  Although even with plate, I only tested the impact to major protected areas.  The joints and gaps would still be vulnerable being mostly of maille until the 16th century.  Without significant metal to withstand the energies of an arrow or excessive padding to spread out the force, arrows of the 1400's would have been deadly."




English Longbow Testing; Matheus Bane,


The Physics of Medieval Archery; Storford Archery Club,


Towards a More Medieval Archer;


The Battle of Agincourt;


The Crooked Stick:  A History of the Longbow, Hugh D. H. Soar, Westholme, 2004, ISBN 1-59416-002-3


Copyright 2014 by John Atkins. <cogworks at>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.  Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, please place a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

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