I’ve always loved archers and archeress. Robin Hood, Queen Susan, Hawkeye, Katniss, Legolas, Silvara… Whether in movies, books, or real-life, archery is cool to watch. There’s something about the quick draw, flashing arrow, and bullseye impact dozens of feet away. And, in a fantasy or medieval battle, bows are an important feature on the field.
Longbows generally stood taller than the men who drew them because the height of man is proportional to his arm and, hence, his draw length. Yew wood is the traditional wood of choice for the longbow, but other woods worked well too such as Wych elm and the Italian yew. There were also recurve longbows, where the end of the bows limbs are bent slightly out to increase power for the length of the bow. These, however, took more work and were more expensive.
Bows shot on the battlefield likely had draw weights between 90 and 120 pounds, though views on this differ. Some archers may have even brought two bows with them. A stronger one to begin shooting and a lighter one for later on when their arms were tired, or as a backup if one bow broke. There were even some bows outfitted with pointed limbs so they could be quickly transferred into a stabbing weapon if arrows were gone and the enemy fast approaching.
Longbow men could shoot fast, and at quite a long range. Old archery fields sport marks with distances ranging from 130 yards to 345 yards. During the 1500s, under Henry VIII, archers were expected to be able to shoot with accuracy at a range at 220 yards. Well trained men could shoot 250-350 yards while there are claims of a man loosing an arrow 482 yards with a longbow.
An expert bowman could loose 10-12 arrows a minute during battle. (A quick side note here; arrows are loosed from a bow, not fired. That term came later, in relation to guns.)
Providing for archers in war was anything but cheap. At various times, law required archers to provide themselves with a sheaf of 24 arrows, but during battle these would swiftly be gone and the resupplying of arrows must have been a constant job.
Ash and Aspen appear to be some of the most popular wood for arrow making, while repairing arrows was a viable possibility after battle, considering the cost of a sheaf being nearly five days wages.
Arrowheads were of various qualities, with the best arrows carrying tips of hardened steel using a quenching process. Since the iron for these tips had to be of a certain quality, and the process took longer, these arrows were more expensive. The vast majority of the arrows were boiled or tempered.
Different arrowheads were required to shoot against various kinds of armor, and it is a very real possibility that archers carried two or three kinds of arrows, laid them out before the battle, and chose their arrows depending on their targets.
The cutting head, broadhead, or long-needle bodkin were ideal arrows when shooting against textile armor (more on armor below) but some arrowheads would curl against plate armor. A short bodkin, on the other hand, might punch though plate armor but would not pierce mail, while a long bodkin would. But it is important to note that an arrow, even if unable to pierce the armor, could deal strong blows with bruising or worse simply due to the force behind the projectile.
1) Swallowtail broadhead. 2) Small straight broadhead. 3) Forked hunting head. 4) London Museum type 16 war head; it is a war head of the later medieval period used to pierce plate armor. 5) War bodkin long type 10. – This war head is the most common of the medieval period. It was used against knights in plate armor and will penetrate armor up to two millimeters in thickness. 6) Needle bodkin type 7. – This war head was developed to pierce mail with devastating results
Barbed arrows existed, though they were more expensive and it is unknown to what extend they were used on the battlefield. But, barbed or not, many arrowheads were simply shoved firmly onto the arrow instead of being fastened. That way, when one was wounded with an arrow, the head would likely be left in the wound.
The shield was the most significant single item in the defense against arrows. Made of wood, reinforced with multiple laminations of heavy canvas and sometimes even with parchment, most shields were not meant to last for long periods of time like swords and bows. A well thrown spear could disable it, while swords and axes could chop it down during battle. But, if made properly, a shield could adequately protect the vital areas of the man bearing it from longbow arrows.
But a shield can’t protect the whole body and so armor was worn.
Mail was perhaps the most commonly worn metal armor of the medieval period. It combined good protection with flexibility and also held the potential of repair. Of a greater or lesser strength depending on its make, mail was especially effective against cutting blows from a sword or ax, but was less useful against a bodkin-style arrow. To penetrate, any arrow needed to strike the mail at close to 90 degrees to the target surface.
Textile armor was commonly worn beneath mail, leather, or plate armor. It consisted of a stuffed and quilted knee-length coat which offered formidable resistance to the shock of an arrow impact as well as obstructing penetration.
Plate armor, consisting of metal plates riveted to the inside of a leather or linen base, was the next step up and a good defense against arrows. But all such armor gave way under an arrow strike and could cause bruising and internal damage. Full piece plate armor was an even better defense, and well able to deflect arrows unless the arrow struck close to the perpendicular.
Helmets were also useful. But when the wearers took them off or lifted the visor due to heat or to rally their men, archers tended to aim for their wearer’s faces.
The longbow was a powerful weapon, used for hundreds of years. As with any other weapon, the training of the archer, the quality of the bow and arrows, and the quality of defensive armor were all factors to the damage done on the field.
And that will be the topic of my next article; archers in battle.
(Information from The Longbow by Mike Loades)