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This article is about the medieval weapon, its predecessors, descendants and relatives. For the military helicopter, see Boeing AH-64 Apache § AH-64D. For the video game, see Apache Longbow (video game).

A longbow is a type of bow that is long, at least roughly equal to the height of the user; allowing the archer a fairly long draw, at least to the jaw with the modern variants, traditionally "to the ear" with the livery (medieval military issue) bow. An English longbow is not recurved other than where such a recurve is inherent in the stave when it is properly regarded as "character". Its limbs are relatively narrow and deep in cross-section, so that they are either an eccentric deep ovoid or "D"-shaped in cross-section (the back being the flatter side, the belly the more arched side) or even in some cases even almost rectangular with heavily rounded corners, but these days the so-called "D"-shape is the common archetype outside perhaps of the dedicated single-stave yew bow using community.

The over-use of the "D"-shape definition arose largely from the ubiquity in later Victorian and subsequent lawn archery of bows worked from a flat-backed laminated stave. In a number of tribal communities around the world (for example,the Veda in Sri Lanka,the Liangulu in East Africa & a number of tribes in the Amazonian Basin) the archetype is a very long bow perfectly circular in cross-section. Flatbows can be just as long, though it should be said that properly made they can be more easily be made efficient in a shorter form; the essential difference is that, in cross-section, a flatbow has limbs that are typically much wider than they are deep and are most often rectangular or shallow lenticular in cross-section. This form was not unknown to the bowyers of medieval England, one of whom is known to have made what was described as a "broad" bow, commissioned as a hunting weapon by a gentleman going on "crusade" to the Baltic, where the hunting was known to be good, as a guest of the Teutonic knights.

Organisations which run archery competitions have set out formal definitions for the various classes; many definitions of the longbow would exclude some medieval examples, materials, and techniques of use.[1][2] According to the British Long-Bow Society, the English longbow is made so that its thickness is at least 5/8ths (62.5%) of its width, as in Victorian longbows, and is widest at the handle. This differs from the heavy medieval livery bow, which had a thickness between 33% and 75% of the width (and a draw-weight two to two and a half times greater than a typical sporting bow, with draw-weights in the range of 90 to 130 lbs or more as opposed to the sporting bow median of 45 to 55 lbs). Also, where many lawn archery longbows are stiff through the handle, the heavy livery bow needs to more fully distribute the work through the whole of its length and will ideally give a little in the handle (as did the original sporting yew bows) as it comes through the draw (but ideally more felt by the archer than too obviously seen by a casual bystander). This is known as the bow "coming full compass" or being "fully tillered", something traditionally achieved by a process of "shooting in " and adjusting or "piking" the bow.

That the longbow has been used in war and hunting for millennia should be no surprise since it has always been a weapon and use in play was always a means of practice for the essential uses.


Longbows have been and still are made from many different woods in many cultures; everywhere it occurs the traditional wooden self-bow, long or otherwise, is ancient beyond certain knowledge and since the Late Neolithic in Europe longbows were made by choice from yew after it became available following the retreat of the last Ice Age (the earliest known fragment, the Stelmoor, was of scots pine ) or from wych elm as a second choice wood or from common ash where neither yew nor wych elm were available. It may be noted that the "viking" longbows continued often to be made of elm in the Iron Age most likely due to the greater availability of suitable bow staves in wych elm in their home regions. The latter (non-yew) bows were in medieval England called mean-wood bows ("mean" in medieval English meaning common or of lesser worth). The famous medieval English livery bow was by preference a self bow typically made from a single stave of wood though "pieced" bows made by splicing two billets together in the handle were not unknown but then, perhaps justifiably, regarded as unreliable for military use, The modern longbow in all its forms may also be made from modern materials, or by glued lamination of differing types of wood (selected for functional or decorative reasons), or by combining wood with a modern synthetic, or just using it as a backing, historically something done in the first instance with sinew or rawhide. The most modern form of longbow, known in the UK as an AFB (American Flat Bow), is probably the American "traditional" (meaning NOT a compound bow) longbow which is essentially a medium to long flat bow often utilising a cut-away pass and arrow shelf, both relatively recent innovations not seen in any known form of ancient or primitive bow where the arrow rests against the bow upon the bow-hand and the narrowest point in the bow's width is the unmodified handle. These innovations first arose from the struggle to raise the bar in target shooting records in the late 19th to early 20th C and are now standard features in modern equipment, but not in any other proper form of longbow.

A longbow made of elm.

An early example of a complete longbow was found in 1991 in the Ötztal Alps with a natural mummy known as Ötzi. His bow was made from yew and 1.82 metres (72 in) long; the body has been dated to around 3,300 BC. Forty longbows have been discovered in a peat bog at Nydam in Denmark which date from the 4th century AD.[3] In the Middle Ages the Welsh and English were famous for their very powerful longbows, used en masse to great effect against the French in the Hundred Years' War, with notable success at the battles of Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and Agincourt (1415).[4] During the reign of Edward III of England, laws were passed allowing fletchers and bow makers to be impressed into the army, also forbidding men and boys to play football or golf and enjoining them to practice archery instead. The dominance of the longbow on the battlefield continued until the French began to use cannon to break the formations of English archers at the Battle of Formigny (1450) and the Battle of Castillon (1453). Their use continued in the Wars of the Roses however and survived as a weapon of war in England well beyond the introduction of effective firearms.[5] The average length of arrow shafts recovered from the 1545 sinking of the Mary Rose is 75 cm/30 in. In 1588, the militia was called out in anticipation of an invasion by the Spanish Armada and it included many archers in its ranks; the Kent militia for instance, had 1,662 archers out of 12,654 men mustered.[6]

The first book in English about longbow archery was Toxophilus by Roger Ascham, first published in London in 1545 and dedicated to King Henry VIII.

Although firearms supplanted bows in warfare, wooden or fibreglass laminated longbows continue to be used by traditional archers and some tribal societies for recreation and hunting. A longbow has practical advantages compared to a modern recurve or compound bow; it is usually lighter, quicker to prepare for shooting, and shoots more quietly. However, other things being equal, the modern bow will shoot a faster arrow more accurately than the longbow.

The Battle of Flodden (1513) was "a landmark in the history of archery, as the last battle on English soil to be fought with the longbow as the principal weapon..."[7] The Battle of Tippermuir (1644), in Scotland, may have been the last battle involving the longbow in significant numbers.[8]

The last recorded use of the longbow in war was by British Lt. Col. Jack Churchill, who used it to kill a German soldier in World War II.[9]

Design and construction[edit]

Top: Lemonwood, purpleheart and hickory laminated bow.
Bottom: Yew selfbow.

Because the longbow can be made from a single piece of wood, it can be crafted relatively easily and quickly. Amateur bowyers today can make a longbow in about ten to twenty hours, while highly skilled bowyers, such as those who produced medieval English longbows, can make wooden longbows in just a few hours.[citation needed] One of the simpler longbow designs is known as the self bow, by definition made from a single piece of wood. Traditional English longbows are self bows made from yew wood. The bowstave is cut from the radius of the tree so that sapwood (on the outside of the tree) becomes the back and forms about one third of the total thickness; the remaining two thirds or so is heartwood (50/50 is about the maximum sapwood/heartwood ratio generally used). Yew sapwood is good only in tension, while the heartwood is good in compression. However, compromises must be made when making a yew longbow, as it is difficult to find perfect unblemished yew. The demand for yew bowstaves was such that by the late 16th century mature yew trees were almost extinct in northern Europe.[10] In other desirable woods such as Osage orange and mulberry the sapwood is almost useless and is normally removed entirely.

Longbows, because of their narrow limbs and rounded cross-section (which does not spread out stress within the wood as evenly as a flatbow’s rectangular cross section), need to be less powerful, longer or of more elastic wood than an equivalent flatbow. In Europe the last approach was used, with yew being the wood of choice, because of its high compressive strength, light weight and elasticity. Yew is the best widespread European timber that will make good self longbows, (other woods such as Elm can make longbows but require heat treating of the belly and a wider belly/narrower back, whilst still falling into the definition of a longbow) and has been the main wood used in European bows since Neolithic times. More common and cheaper hard woods, including elm, oak, hickory, ash, hazel and maple, are good for flatbows. A narrow longbow with high draw-weight can be made from these woods, but it is likely to take a permanent bend (known as "set" or "following the string") and would probably be outshot by an equivalent made of yew.[original research?][citation needed]

Wooden laminated longbows can be made by gluing together two or more different pieces of wood. Usually this is done to take advantage of the inherent properties of different woods: some woods can better withstand compression while others are better at withstanding tension. Examples include hickory and lemonwood, or bamboo and yew longbows: hickory or bamboo is used on the back of the bow (the part facing away from the archer when shooting) and so is in tension, while the belly (the part facing the archer when shooting) is made of lemonwood or yew and undergoes compression (see bending for a further explanation of stresses in a bending beam). Traditionally made Japanese yumi are also laminated longbows, made from strips of wood: the core of the bow is bamboo, the back and belly are bamboo or hardwood, and hardwood strips are laminated to the bow's sides to prevent twisting. Ready-made laminated longbows are available for purchase.

Any wooden bow should be treated with care and be protected from excessive damp or dryness. Wooden bows might falsely be considered as delicate by the uninformed, but if completely broken in wild country, a competent man with a sharp hatchet or knife could make a useable "survival" bow quite quickly, even a serviceable string and an arrow or two, whereas many a modern archer might die in search of a pro shop. Bows made of modern materials can be left strung for longer than wood bows and would take a large amount of set if not unstrung immediately after use if they are poorly designed and made or of inferior or green wood, but a decent wooden bow can be carried braced for a whole day of hunting and will come to no harm from what should only be regarded as normal use.


The longbow and its historical significance, arising from its effective use by the English and Welsh during the Hundred Years' War, have created a lasting legacy for the longbow, which has given its name to modern military equipment, including:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The (UK) National Field Archery Association's definition of a longbow
  2. ^ The International Field Archery's definition
  3. ^ Loades, Mike (2013) The Longbow, Osprey Publishing, ISBN 978-1-7820-0085-3 (p. 7)
  4. ^ "The Efficacy of the Medieval Longbow: A Reply to Kelly DeVries," War in History 5, no. 2 (1998): 233-42; idem, "The Battle of Agincourt", The Hundred Years War (Part II): Different Vistas, ed. L. J. Andrew Villalon and Donald J. Kagay (Leiden: Brill, 2008): 37–132.
  5. ^ Nolan, Cathal J (2006), The Age of Wars of Religion, 1000-1650: An Encyclopedia of Global Warfare and Civilization, Volume 2, Greenwood Press, ISBN 0-313-33734-9 (pp. 546-547)
  6. ^ Hutchinson, Robert (2013) The Spanish Armada, Phoenix (Orion Books Ltd) ISBN 978-1-7802-2088-8 (pp. 65-66)
  7. ^ Heath & ??, p. 134
  8. ^ http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/The-Longbow/
  9. ^ Carr, Simon (28 March 2014). "World War 2 hero 'Mad Jack' Churchill named one of world's greatest adventurers". The Daily Mail. 
  10. ^ Yew: A History. Hageneder F. Sutton Publishing, 2007. ISBN 978-0-7509-4597-4.

Further reading[edit]