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Everything that Makes the English Longbow Awesome

The English Longbow is probably the most iconic piece of archery equipment the world over.  If you ask someone what they know about archery, they will probably be imagining an English Longbow as they give their reply.  English Longbows have a long history and many people still use them today.  As we’ll see in this article, there are very good reasons that the English longbow is still one of the most popular bows in the world.

What is the best wood for making a longbow?

One of the reasons the English longbow is so awesome is because it is so simple:  it is just a stick and a string.  But, the wood that the bow is made from is of absolute importance.

Modern longbows are made from all kinds of materials ranging from all kinds of wood laminates to fiberglass and composite materials.  While modern technology is great an all, nothing can quite compare to a handcrafted quality English longbow made from Yew.  This is widely considered the best wood to craft a longbow for the perfect balance of strength and flexibility.

Traditionally, the bowyer (someone who makes bows) would go out into the woods to find a particularly straight tree.  The tree would be cut down and the log split down the center to expose the very middle.  This called the heartwood and it is the oldest part of the tree.

The log is continually split into long wedged portions containing the heartwood.  These portions are roughly the size of a 2×4 and are stored in an outdoor shed to dry out for 3 years!

When the wood is dried out enough to the perfect moisture content, the bowyer selects the best wood to make the raw bow staves or rough-cut longbow.  You can still find bowyers who craft longbows the way they did back Ye Olde Tymes!

If you want to watch a fantastic video that shows this whole beautify process, check this guy out:

What is the draw weight of an English longbow

The biggest advantage of the English longbow is its ability to launch heavy projectiles long distances to pierce armor.  This power comes from drawing the string back and bending the think bow wood.  The minimum draw weight of a traditional English longbow would have been 80 lbs.  The standard English warbow had a draw weight of about 120 lbs!  For this reason, English archers had to be extremely fit with lots of upper body strength.  You can imagine having to loose 40 arrows during a battle: that’s like doing 40 dumbbell rows with a 120 lb dumbbell…with your fingers!

What is the range of a longbow?

English longbows can shoot very far indeed.  The practical range for a modern longbow is around 200 yards (or 180 m).  Historically, the higher powered warbows could shoot 360 yards (330 m) and, with the proper arrows for the purpose and with a professional doing it, some longbowmen could accurately shoot 400 yards (366 m)!

Now, that doesn’t mean everyone was shooting 400 yards all the time.  There are different POUs (philosophy of use) and each POU calls for different requirements.

If you’re a bow hunter back in the day, you’re probably not doing to take a shot at anything farther than 50 yards (45 m) unless you’re super confident in your skills.  The POU for bowhunting for your food is to dispatch your game as quickly as possible so you don’t have to expend valuable energy tracking the animal for miles before you make a successful harvest.  With that in mind, you want to get as close as possible in order to make as accurate a shot as possible for the arrow to penetrate as deep as possible.  For hunting, the longbow’s range is between 25 yards to 50 yards.

On the other hand, if you’re an English longbowman during wartime, you want to keep the enemy as far away as possible.  The POU for a war archer is to shoot as many arrows as fast as can be in the general direction of the advancing enemy.  Accuracy is not that important because you’ve hundreds or thousands of other archers launching arrows at the enemy as well.  So, this is where the really long distances come is:  the range for a longbow in battle is 200 yards to 400 yards.

How many arrows can a Longbow fire in a minute?

Like with many things in life, the number of arrows that can be loosed in a minute is dependant on the skill of the archer.

It’s no different for longbows.

Going back to our POUs, a hunter would not want to shoot lots of arrows really fast; he wants to hit the target dead-on the first time.

However, for the longbowman in the medieval English army it’s a different story.  English longbowmen were required to be able to shoot from 12 to 20 arrows per minute during a battle.  The idea was to send could after terrifying giant cloud of arrows at the advancing enemy so that by the time they reached your lines there would be few of them left to fight.  The ones that did reach your sides fighters would be very demoralized.  That was the general purpose of war archers at that time; Legolas from Lord of the Rings would not feature to prominent in those days.

How did the longbow help the English?

Now we come to the heart of the matter.

The reason why the longbow was such a huge advantage for the English was that an arrow shot from a longbow had enough force to pierce armor.  The main military rival to the English during the 1400s was the French army and they were famous for their armored knights on horseback.  Few armies could withstand a charge from the armored cavalry of the French.

Except for the English.

As we’ve said above, English archers could send 20 arrows per minute up to 400 yards away and those arrows were heavy enough and carried enough force to pierce armor.  Even if they did not hit the knight on the horse, they very often hit the horse and sent the knights tumbling to the ground.  In fact, the French hated the English archers so much that if any archers were captured they would cut off their two bowstring fingers so that they could not use a bow anymore.  The English longbow made ALL the difference during that time in histroy and gave the English army a big advantage during battle.

Why is the Battle of Agincourt so famous?

No other historical battle illustrates the superiority of the English longbow over the French armored cavalry than the Battle of Agincourt (or Azincourt depending on who you ask).  This battle took place on October 25, 1415 and is one of the most famous battles of the Hundred Years War.

And with good reason!

King Henry V came to the throne in 1413 and in August 1415 he saw his chance to take back land in France.  He sailed for Normandy with an army of 12,000 men (with roughly 5000 longbowmen).  He successfully captured the town of Harfleur but lost almost half his army in the process.  Historians estimate that he about 6000 men (5000 archers) left when he decided he would try and take Calais.  His men were almost dead already from the siege of Harfleur and they had no way to get more supplies.

But they didn’t make it to Calais.

The French army cut them off with an army of about 36,000 men (1200 of which were mounted, armored knights, and some 10,000 dismounted knights, the rest infantry, crossbowmen, and archers).

Long story short, with the muddy terrain on their side, the outnumbered English army completely decimated the first French charge before the second could even get there.  And it was all due to the English Longbow.  The armor of the French knights was no help against the English arrows and the longbow helped win the day.

How many arrows were fired at Agincourt?

While we simply do not know exactly how many arrows were fired during the Battle of Agincourt, we can come up with a pretty good estimate.  Historians estimate that the English archers would have carried about 75 arrows each into battle.  We know that, on the high end, there were about 5000 archers in the battle.  We also know that they all shot all their arrows because even the archers joined the melee (the English gave the French everything they had).

So, given all this, if assume EVERY archer fired EVERY arrow he had we can estimate that around 375,000 arrows were fired during the Battle of Agincourt, and that’s not including the French side.

Why was the Battle of Agincourt so important?

The battle of Agincourt was a heavy defeat for the French and served to drastically raise the morale of the English.  French knights generally had to be wealthy in order to afford the armor and other equipment for battle.  For this reason, many knights were from the nobility.  Agincourt showed that the common man as an archer, outnumbered and poorly fed, could overcome the wealthy, well-armored knights of the French.

But above all, the Battle of Agincourt is important, even today, because it shows how truly awesome the English longbow really is.

What is a Mary Rose Longbow?

We’ve seen how amazing the English Longbow was for its use in battle but it is also quite remarkable for how well it was made.  The testimony to the quality craftsmanship is showcased so very well in the Mary Rose longbows.

What’s a Mary Rose longbow you say?  Well, the Mary Rose was the flagship of King Henry VIII during 1545 at the time the French and English were yet again at war.  Henry brought his ships into the Solent in order to stop a French attack.  The Mary Rose tried to make a turn, in calm water, but turned too sharply and capsized.  Only 35 of the roughly 700 crew survived.  It was quite embarrassing for Henry.

Now, the Mary Rose had onboard a store of weapons, armor, and other artifacts.  The ship was discovered and piece by piece the cargo was brought to the surface.  Amongst the artifacts that were discovered were some extremely well-preserved longbows!  All said and done, 140 longbows and around 2500 arrows were recovered after more than 400 years underwater.

And some of these longbows could still be shot!  The draw weights varied from 100 lbs to 180 lbs but MOST of them were in the 150 lbs to 160 lbs range.

While not exactly the same as earlier longbows, we can get a pretty accurate idea of what longbows were like during medieval times.

Today, there are bowyers that strive to replicate the craftsmanship of the Mary Rose longbows and there are even annual competitions just for Mary Rose Longbow replicas.  The Mary Rose longbows are yet another example of why the English longbow is so awesome.

Is a recurve bow better than a longbow?

Yes, but only because I shoot a recurve.

Kidding aside, this is a tough question.  The real answer is: Define “Better”.  It depends on what you want the bows to do and, ultimately, it depends on your preference.  To try and be objective, recurve bows tend to have quicker limbs; that is, when you draw back the string and release an arrow the limbs snap back into position quicker.  So if you’re going for quick limbs and less vibration, you’re probably going to prefer a recurve bow.

However, if you’re a die-hard Traditional Archer who loves the historical magnitude of Agincourt and the Mary Rose, then you’ll probably prefer the longbow.

How about accuracy?  That all depends on the individual archer.  A skilled longbowman could outshoot a recurve bow and visa-versa.

At the end of the day, no bow is “Better” than any other bow. You have to decide what attributes are important to you and decide which bow does it for you.

But the English Longbow is awesome.