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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A Few Points on English Longbows

At the time when I created my video 'Crafting an English Longbow' I will admit that I was less informed about the style of bow than I probably should have been. However, as the video began to receive a considerable amount of traffic, there is no limit to the number of people who were eager to jump out and claim that, amongst other things and said in a variety of ways, this is not an English longbow.

Here is a quick summary of the mistaken points people commonly claim make a longbow 'English' and evidence that refutes them:

-English Longbows are made solely of yew. This is not correct. Not even close. English longbows were made from a variety of heartwoods including elm, ash, oak, hazel, laburnum and yes, yew. In fact, according to the master historian Edward Oakeshott, the Welsh (who actually originated the design later adapted by England) never used yew. Instead, they used elm. Regardless of what materials were traditionally used, a modern interpretation of the design is not inherently limited to the historic materials. Like the bowyers of old, I used what materials were available to me. I had oak, so I used oak. Some people use osage orange because it is an outstanding wood for bow staves. Does that mean osage can never become an 'English' longbow? No. The other qualities of the bow are far more important as to its classification than the wood.

-English Longbows had draw weights exclusively above usually 100lb or more. Similar to the materials, there were common draw weights of bows made for use in war, but rarely is the weight used in any definition of English longbows. Mine was not made to be used against armoured men at extraordinary distances, so the test was considerably lower. While the war bows were usually in the 100~120lb test range, that does not mean every English longbow ever made was in that range. Most people who present this argument fail to understand that firing a bow of that weight takes considerable strength and training. If English longbows are only over 100lb test (which is extraordinarily arbitrary if you think about it for any amount of time), what are training bows that have the same dimensions, shape, and wood characteristics? Certainly bows used by children could not then be English. Function determines form.

-Your bow is not English because it is not a D shape (this is actually correct, but...). This is the most preposterous one, because the bow I made was in fact a D cross section. This is historically what they would have been, or in extreme cases, even circular. This is perhaps one of the most defining characteristics of an English longbow. It stems from the massive quantity of bows demanded by the English army and conservation of material. Cutting a tree into several D shaped staves, where the ')' part of the D is towards the inside and the 'I' part towards the outside allows the bowyer to produce a far greater number of bows from the same material (assuming a similar power required for the bow) as would a 'flat' bow where the cross section is rectangular []. At their peak, England produced so many thousands of bows that their resources were depleted and any merchant bringing goods into the kingdom was required by law to produce staves with their shipments. Concerns of material also forced the English to begin using other woods, as all their yew was dangerously depleted (going back to the first point).

-English Longbows were never backed. I am not entirely certain what this even means. When they were made with yew, the wood itself acts as a natural lamination between the harder heartwood and softer sapwood. The heartwood gives the bow its power, while the sapwood keeps it from splintering during use. Traditional bows were self bows, meaning they had no recurve/decurve in them, and made from a single piece of wood. Placing a backing of linen or silk or anything that does not add to the weight of the draw is there for one of two reasons. First, for aesthetics, usually with some thin veneer. Second, and more importantly, to counteract the quality of the stave. I used oak on the bow in the video because the stave was from a hardware store, not a bowyer. The linen I backed it with is there to, should the wood break, prevent it from splintering into  hundreds of pieces and embedding itself in my arms/hands/face. In my opinion, this is completely justifiable, if not Traditional. (but that was not the purpose of the project). Curiously, traditional English longbows could have been laminated, as the technique actually began in the 18th century when archery began to shift out of practise in war in favour of recreational sport. When laminated English longbows (again, material is far less important in the classification than other qualities of construction ie. length and shape), a wide variety of woods became popular. Some of these included Rosewood, Lemonwood, Snakewood (Brosimum guianense), Bloodwood (Brosimum rubescens), Purple Heart, Greenheart, Ipe, and Osage orange for the core and belly woods, while Hickory, Yew, Maple and Bamboo were used for backings.

-A few final points. English Longbows were usually between 6 and 7 feet long, although they were built specifically for one individual to shoot. The bowyer would measure draw length and height of the archer and fit the stave to them for a specific draw weight (or close to a weight since the other dimensions are more important in effective shooting). Common target ranges were upwards of 250 yards, which is quite far by modern archery standards (and even for the precision of modern firearms). Finished bows were generally coated with a concoction of fine tallow, resin, and wax. This protects them both from the the environment and stops the wood from losing/gaining moisture. Moisture content in bows is extremely important, as overly damp wood will take an enormous amount of set (permanent bend from being strung/shot, which impairs performance) or too dry, which will cause the wood to splinter.

Hopefully this quells the misguided comments people seem willing to make without taking the effort to do a quick check of their information.

Oh, and the term 'English Longbow' is a modern classification. They were never referred that way at the time of their hayday.


  1. Love your work , true art!, one pointer thou to your next bow, when you are working with the leather, use an awl insted of a punch, the reason is that he hole you make with an awl will (heal itself) you just push the lether to the sides insted of removing it and you get a tigther fitting that will last longer.

    A fan

    1. Thanks for the advice, appreciate it!

  2. Excellent video; just one point I would like to make. Bows were never fired but loosed or shot. Fire was not used until the cannon and matchlock/flintlock came into use.

  3. Haha dramatic wording in the theming of this website but I love the content. Great work!

  4. I'm not sure that I agree with all of the above assertions - but this is a learning experience for us all. Try Googling some of the articles and videos on the long bows recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII's flag ship. They were all the same length, round section with a surprisingly thick girth - I was able to handle and draw one at the museum (perhaps a replica although quite a few identical original bows were on display - divers recovered boxes full of them - made of Spanish yew I believe it said).


    1. That would be great to be able to handle an original! What a valuable experience!

      I am familiar with that find, and it is without doubt one of the best sources of information on period bows. I am by no means a historian, but here is my take-

      The Mary Rose was a warship, and therefore would only be carrying war-bows. The range of draw weight would have been very narrow for a few reasons. First, they would need to be strong enough to face the common soldiers' armour of the Scottish, French, and Armoricans who they would ultimately be loosing upon. They would not be overly strong because of diminishing returns in weight v. power and because of material limitation. Confined to that weight range, the bows would therefore all be remarkably similar in thickness. Also, arrows had to be mass produced to be able to sustain a fleet of archers. It is both in the name of conservation of material and consistency of result that they would all be built to a certain standard. Arrows must be made for a certain draw weight, vice either shattering upon release or poor flight due to excess weight. Having a narrowed range of bow test would allow for arrows to be supplied more reliably.

      While the bows from this find are an archetypical English longbow, that does not mean all English longbows are of that type. It is similar to saying that a transport of WWII Russian rifles, while probably all mosin nagants, is an accurate representation of all Russian rifles that existed there. (this might not be the best analogy)

      Now, and this is the best evidence I can think of that would reasonably explain why there are different draw weights and that all English longbows are not always and only around 120 lbs. At the time, archers were trained from an early age, if not necessarily with the purpose of going to war. As it was, they would need something to train with, and handing a six foot, 120# bow to a child is ridiculous. Bow length is made based on the height of the person using it, so someone who is in their youth would not even be able to use a bow that long (unless standing on something or other). If the material limitations demands ultimately led to the shape of the English longbow, then it would not make sense to use a different method of construction from what the bowyers were familiar with, even if there was for some reason an excess of stable lumber from which to make them. Therefore, is it valid to say that, even though they were made of similar materials and in the same way, that simply because they differ in purpose that they are no longer the same thing? A rifle that you hunt with can be the same that you shoot at a paper target, and yet the classification does not change. Throughout a person's life, they would use more than a few bows, all of varying weight, until settling into the war test bows everyone is familiar with.

      As for material, I have said it before, but I will say it again in hopefully a more understandable way. Were bows of the time made from yew? Yes, of course. Many of them were, and I would even venture to say that most were. But does that mean ALL were? No. And they were not. This find might have been made of Spanish yew, but others were made of a variety of woods depending on the demand and availability. If a (modern, sorry) Oakeshott type XIIa longsword is made from 1084 carbon steel and another of the same form and function is made of W-1, is it no longer a XIIa? I personally don't think so...

  5. I think what people are missing here who are objecting to your video is that while all war bows were longbows, not all longbows were warbows. The warbow was a specialized tool, and while a generalized longbow could be made to do in a pinch, it'd be like taking a hunting rifle with a scope on it and calling it a sniper rifle--yes, it can do the job, but it's not really a military sniper rifle. A .50 caliber Barret is to a .30.06 hunting rifle as a 150lb warbow was to a normal English longbow.

  6. As with any period reconstruction, there will at times be contradictory if not conflicting evidence and/or logic. Constructing these things from so far back is not unlike trying to interpret a movie from a series of not too chronological frames of the movie. That being said, I think the author (videographer?) has done a remarkable job of blending logic, historical fact, and physical evidence into what should be considered a very close replica of the weapon. I went to the Mary Rose web site and found information on what appeared to be an archer's wrist guard. The metal had disintegrated but the leather was still in fairly good shape. but, the leather had no holes; neither the strap or the guard itself. So, how was this fastened to the arm? If you use the technology of the times it had to be tied, buckled or use double rings. The leather showed no sign of any of these means. Basically, by reverse engineering I used a buckle for the fastener as it was most common, and considered there were no strapping holes as the item may not have been issued but was part of ship's stores. In other words, there is no real hard and fast way to make these determinations and I believe the author has done some good work here.

  7. Good job, Excellent video. Thanks