Bows of many kinds appear in fantasy writing, among them the crossbow and long bow. Which one your character or army should use depends upon the culture, armor, and many other factors.
The crossbow was the first hand-held weapon that an untrained soldier could use to injure or kill a knight in late Medieval times. The most powerful crossbows could penetrate plate armor, killing at 200 yards or more. Longbowmen could also pierce plate armor up to 250 yards. The largest difficulty was that longbowmen were normally highly trained soldiers, who’d practiced from their youth to master archery. They were expensive and not easily replaced.
Anyone, on the other hand, could use a crossbow. They were easier to aim and could be loaded before hand, allowing a man to shoot quickly if surprised. But reloading took much longer. A soldier with a crossbow could shoot 2-3 times in a minute while an experienced longbowman would loose 10-12 arrows in the same time.
A crossbow could cast a bolt about 370-380 yards. Throughout Medieval times, crossbows became more powerful and one bolt from an actual Medieval crossbow shot 490 yards.
Well-trained longbowmen could commonly shoot 250-350 yards. Some modern archers using reproduced longbows have shot 350-450 yards while there is a claim of one man loosing an arrow 482 yards with a longbow.
And a few more random, yet useful, facts:
- An arrow (or a bolt, if it’s from a crossbow) is not ‘fired’. This is a mistake many people make and which I am probably guilty of myself. The term ‘fired’ is related to gunpowder. Arrows are ‘loosed’.
- Crossbows are kept strung and loaded. Longbows are kept unstrung and (contrary to some movies and books) shouldn’t be hung over the shoulder.
- Medieval longbows were made to measure, and ranged from 6-7 feet in length.
- The wood of the longbow was protected with a rub of wax, resin, and fine tallow.
- Arrows called short bodkins were used for piercing plate armor while others called swallowtails were used to bring down horses.
And so, crossbow or longbow? Or, my personal favorite, the recurve bow? I’ve sadly neglected the latter weapon in this article and plan on writing about it in the future. But each bow has various strengths and weaknesses, so in the end the choice of which one to use is yours (or maybe your character’s, if you let them get away with it).