crosssectionThe English Longbow (scholars are still arguing if this bow is actually Welsh) is a traditional type of bow that has been in use for many centuries and there are strict rules as regard dimensions, materials etc. Common woods used in the English longbow are yew, ash and elm. Yew was preferred but such was demand for it, that Yew in Britain was depleted and had to be imported from Italy and Germany. To save supplies for war bows … hazel, ash, and laburnum were used for practice bows.
Effectively a sophisticated sort of self bow were the stave is cut from the tree so that the sapwood (on the outside of the tree) becomes the back one third and the belly of the bow is two thirds heartwood although this can vary to 50/50 sapwood/heartwood. The longbow gets its strength from the 2 different sorts of wood operating in opposition when the bow is drawn. The heartwood being compressed and the sap wood being stretched when the bow is drawn.

trad longThese bows were more a long range, artillery barrage type weapons used en mass where weight of fire (Arrow Storm) was more important than pin point accuracy. Medieval archers with high poundages (180-210lbs) on their bows could manage 12 shots per minute, Just on that figure, a typical English army of 5000 archers in theory could put 60,000 arrows in the air in 60 seconds. As an archer typically only carried 24 arrows (collectively a sheaf) he needed to be resupplied from the baggage train which carried literally hundreds of thousands of arrows.

yumiEnglish and Welsh longbow archers are probably the best known due to their victories over the French at Agincourt, Crecy and Poitiers … but there are other longbows not quite so well known. For example the Hindu Indian longbow which was made of bamboo and gave Alexander the Great a fright at the Hydaspes River in 326 BC. Also the original Samurai weapon (before the Katana took on mythical status) was the Japanese Yumi bow which is asymmetrical and intended to be shot from horseback. This bow is  made of a lamination of bamboo, wood and leather using techniques that have not changed for centuries. Archery with this sort of bow is very different from the western “shoot for a score, form not so important”. Kyūdō (Japanese archery) has more in common with a martial art and its practice is extremely formalized. Here is a 4 minute video of a Japanese gentleman preparing for a grading to advance to 8th dan.

Today the (English) longbow can be shot in almost every competitive event short of the Olympics and has a separate classification from all the other bow types at least in the UK. Entire societies of archers exist dedicated to preserving the shooting of this sort of bow i.e. British Longbow Society, English War Bow Society and even the International Longbow Archers Association.
Editors note: I’m not sure if you MUST love real ale if you are a longbow archer but a disturbingly large number do. Also I know that at least one of the above associations have a loyal toast to the Queen with a glass of port before they start competitions. Alcohol and archery … sounds good to me. I wonder …  Shooting line, waiting line, tent line, bar line!

Modern Longbows are typically in the region of 60lbs draw weight. The actual medieval warbow was of extremely high poundage (180lbs+ ) and required years of practice to prepare the body to actually be able to fully draw the bow more than a few times. Prolonged use will actually change the shape of the users bone structure. Proof of this was discovered via the examination of skeletons discovered in graves from the Battle of Towton (1461). Perfectly preserved examples of the warbow were recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose which were around 150-180lbs. Its been suggested these bows were slightly lighter to improve the rate of fire.

Two fine (if expensive) exponents of the longbow boywer’s craft are Richard Head and Pip Bickerstaffe. And if you want to check out how to make a longbow … have a look here.

Myth or Reality? Its said that the phrase “Keep it under your hat” originated with longbow archers keeping strings under their hats to keep them dry in wet weather. No evidence exists to support this  ….. but it is another of those archery things that you’d like to have some basis in fact. I know I do.