How Formidable Was the English Long Bow in Medieval Warfare

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The English longbow is an iconic symbol of medieval warfare, renowned for its impressive range, power, and velocity performance. Its exceptional range, penetration capabilities, and skilled bowmen made it a decisive force on the medieval battlefield.

Performance: Range, Power, and Velocity

The English longbow boasted remarkable performance metrics, making it a formidable weapon on the battlefield. As the following parameters indicate:

  • Range – The longbow had an impressive effective range of up to 250-300 yards (228-274 meters). Skilled archers could achieve even longer shots, reaching distances of 400 yards (365 meters) or more.
  • Power – The longbow’s draw weight ranged from 100 to 180 pounds (45-82 kg). This immense power allowed arrows to penetrate armor even at long distances.
  • Velocity – Arrows shot from a longbow could reach velocities of up to 150-170 feet per second (46-52 meters per second). This speed also contributed to the bow’s armor-piercing capabilities, as shown below.

English Long Bow Range

Before the discovery of the Mary Rose, there were no surviving medieval longbows. Historians had previously estimated that the average draw weight of these bows ranged from 90 to 110 lbs (400-490 Newtons). The examination of bows recovered from the Mary Rose found that the average pull ranged from 100 to 185 lbs (440-820 Newtons), representing a significant increase in power. The valuable insight gained from the skeletal remains reveals that English and Welsh archers did not pull the bowstring back towards themselves but instead pushed the stave away, giving rise to the popular phrase “Bending the Bow.”

Ancient records of archery competitions indicate that the maximum range achievable with a single arrow was approximately 400 meters when using a 36-inch arrow. However, the sustained fire range was estimated to be no more than 180-200 meters due to archers becoming physically fatigued. Additionally, the range was affected by various factors, such as the arrow shaft’s weight and length, the arrowhead’s type and weight, and the prevailing weather conditions. Notably, dampness had a detrimental impact as it caused the bowstrings to lengthen and deliver less power.

The medieval longbow, made of yew wood, required a force of 140 pounds to pull. During the Battle of Crécy, English archers shot up to 35,000 arrows per minute at the French forces. The longbow was not meant for precision but to engage a large group of enemy soldiers and horses with volleys of arrows. After years of training, English archers effectively used the longbow to defeat French knights.

Armor-Penetrating Abilities

The English longbow was highly effective at piercing various types of armor commonly used during the medieval period, rendering the knights ineffective.

  • Plate Armor – The longbow could penetrate up to 15 millimeters of plate armor.
  • Chainmail – Arrows shot from the longbow could pierce through several layers of chainmail, effectively neutralizing armored opponents.
  • Leather Armor – The bow’s arrows easily penetrated leather armor, significantly damaging soldiers.

Construction and Manufacturing

Yew wood was the preferred choice for crafting the longbow due to its flexibility, strength, and abundance in England. Other materials like ash, elm, and wych elm were also used, but yew was the most revered.

Bowyers skillfully selected yew staves with the right grain patterns to ensure optimal performance. The chosen stave was carefully seasoned and dried to stabilize the wood for several years. The bowyer then shaped the stave using various tools and techniques, creating a unique design tailored to the user’s preferences. Finally, the bow was tillered, a process of slowly bending and testing the bow’s draw until achieving the desired strength and balance.

Rate of Fire

The rate of fire of the English longbow was one of its most impressive features. Skilled archers could shoot between 10 to 12 arrows per minute. In battle, volleys of arrows launched by hundreds of bowmen created a deadly rain of projectiles on the enemy.

Requirements to Become a Bowman

Becoming a proficient longbow archer required immense commitment, discipline, and exhaustive training. This was not a pursuit for the faint-hearted; it demanded extraordinary physical fitness, specifically upper body strength and endurance, which were critical to effectively drawing and shooting arrows.

Mastery over the longbow was no small feat, either. Archers endured years of training to perfect their shooting form, improve their accuracy, and learn rapid reloading techniques. Furthermore, the discipline of bowmen was paramount. Many were members of the English military or local militias and thus had to demonstrate strict discipline and adherence to orders while fighting on the battlefield.

The Decisive Role of the English Longbow in Medieval Battles

The English longbow played a decisive role in several key battles, its lethal efficiency demonstrating that, sometimes, victory on the battlefield was less about numbers and more about the effective utilization of technology.

The Battle of Crécy, 1346

One of the first major battles showcasing the devastating power of the English longbow was the Battle of Crécy in 1346, during the early phase of the Hundred Years’ War. The English forces, led by King Edward III, were heavily outnumbered by the French. Despite the disparity in numbers, the English were victorious, largely thanks to the longbow.

The English forces used the longbow to rain a continuous shower of arrows upon the French army. The arrows, capable of penetrating even the armor of the French knights, caused enormous casualties. The barrage was so intense that it effectively disrupted the French advance, sowing chaos in their ranks, and ultimately leading to a decisive English victory.

The Battle of Agincourt, 1415

The Battle of Agincourt, another significant clash during the Hundred Years’ War, further cemented the longbow’s place in military history. Despite being significantly outnumbered, the English forces, under the command of King Henry V, utilized their longbows to devastating effect.

Armed with their longbows, the English archers were positioned behind a series of wooden stakes driven into the ground. This setup protected them from direct charges by the French cavalry and provided a stable platform from which they could launch their lethal barrage. The longbows’ extended range allowed the English to begin firing before the French could reach them, resulting in heavy losses for the French forces.

These losses and the muddy terrain that bogged down the French advance left their forces disorganized and vulnerable. The English longbowmen continued their deadly hail of arrows, causing panic and havoc among the French, eventually leading to a decisive victory for the English.

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