longbow2The 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 where 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. In cross section the bow will be round or be D shaped where the flat surface will be away from you and the curved belly towards you. The Longbow gets its strength from the 2 different sorts of wood operating in opposition when the bow is drawn. The denser heartwood being compressed, and the springy sap wood being stretched as the string is pulled back. Because they are made with simple wood, these bows have a finite lifespan and will crack and fail at some point. Something Longbow owners should be aware of. In addition, these bows need “warmed up” before being shot (drawn 5-10 times in ever increasing degrees to let the bow acclimatize to being drawn.

The Longbow was more a long range, artillery barrage type weapon used en mass where weight of fire (The Arrow Storm) was more important than pinpoint accuracy. Medieval archers with high poundages (180-210lbs) on their bows could manage 10-12 shots per minute, in a short high intensity sprint. Just on that figure, a typical English army of 5000 archers in theory could put 50-60,000 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.

archery-2947340_1280In the west, English 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, 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 and is still made today using techniques and tools that have not changed for centuries. Archery with this sort of bow is very different from the western “shoot for a score”. Kyūdō (Japanese archery) has more in common with martial art kata where form is paramount, 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.

The American Flat Bow is sometimes referred to as a longbow, usually by Americans for whom history starts in 1776. The flat bow, while a bow that is long without recurve tips, is not a Longbow although it does make for a reasonable Longbow trainer. It has a shelf making the shot more stable than shooting off the back of the hand. It’s much more durable than traditionally made Longbows as its normally laminated and begins at a very reasonable cost. A bow like the Ragim Wolf 68″ Flatbow comes in at under £120 and will provide hours of instinctual shooting fun without worrying your bow has a finite life.

Modern Longbows are typically in the region of 45-60lbs draw weight. However, 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 found 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 estimated to be around 150-180lbs. Its been suggested these bows were slightly lighter to improve the rate of fire and the degree of accuracy.

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 King with a glass of port before they start competitions … which possibly gives WADA kittens! Alcohol and archery … sounds good to me. I wonder …  Shooting line, waiting line, tent line, bar line!

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. We know we do.

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Kyūdō Image by Hafis Pratama Rendra Graha from Pixabay