The English longbow ruled medieval Europe and helped determine the outcome of numerous battles fought by the English with their neighbors. The most famous of these was the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 during the Hundred Years War. In this battle, King Henry V’s army was greatly outnumbered by the French, but he fielded a force of English and Welsh archers whose longbows quickly decimated the French ranks and sealed the English victory.
The six-foot English longbow was an effective war weapon because it could accurately cast relatively heavy arrows several hundred yards, and was thus used as a form of early artillery to target massed enemy troop formations. The longest recorded shot using one of these bows was 345 yards. Usually made of yew, the bow’s stave was worked down to a single growth ring on the back, leaving sapwood on the back and heartwood on the bow’s belly. Much like a modern laminated bow, the sapwood on the back of the bow resisted tension and the heartwood on the bow's belly resisted compression. These characteristic worked together to reduce the wood's tendency to take a set and produced a bow with superior performance and reduced chance of breakage.
Medieval archers were required by English law to practice with their bows on a daily basis. Skeletons of archers retrieved in 1982 from the English warship “Mary Rose”, which sunk off the coast of Portsmouth in 1545 while fighting the French, were easily identified by their thickened arm bones and stress fractures resulting from a lifetime of shooting these powerful bows. Archers were considered the elite athletes of the Tudor Age because of the strength required to draw and shoot these deadly weapons at a standard rate of twelve arrows per minute.
English archers used arrows which were made of poplar, ash, and other hardwoods which averaged 31” in length. The feathers were usually 6” in length, and made of goose wing feathers, although swan feathers were also used. Horn nocks were often attached to the tips of the bows, as is the case with the bow shown in this photo. The horn protected the relatively soft yew bow tips from breaking. Medieval bowstrings were normally made of hemp, and archers carried backup strings in battle for quick replacement in case of breakage. Bowstrings made of flax and silk were used later, although silk did not appear in England in significant quantities until the 16th century. English longbows did not utilize modern arrow rests - arrows were shot directly off the hand. Draw weights of these bows ran anywhere from 50 lbs to over 100 lbs. The six-foot laminated wood bow pictured here has a draw weight of 50 lbs at 28”.
The demand for yew to build these bows was so great that English ships were required by law to harvest suitable staves whenever they were in a foreign port and transport these back to England on their return trips to help replenish the King’s armory. The resulting deforestation of this valuable wood was a source of contention between England and the rest of Europe.
English Longbow Arrows
English longbow arrows were mostly made of aspen (white poplar), although ash, birch, hawthorn, walnut, and other hardwoods were also used. The standard shafts were 3/8” in diameter, and some had inserts of horn laminate properly positioned relative to the shaft's grain to help strengthen the nocks and prevent them from splitting from the heavy force of the bowstring. Shafts of the heavier hundred pound draw weight war bows were normally made from ash as thick as ½”, and had sufficient cast to knock a man off a horse. The feathers were approximately 6” in length, and made from mostly goose wing feathers, although swan wing feathers were also used. The feathers were glued to the shaft using a type of green glue prevalent at the time, and many were also spirally-wrapped with linen to ensure a tight fit to the shaft. The feathers were often treated with a special preparation designed to prevent feather mites from eating ragged holes in the feathers.
The arrow points varied in design, depending on use. The four-sided wedge-shaped narrow bodkin points were designed to pierce enemy chain mail and armor. The wide bladed leaf and barbed points were designed to wreak havoc on enemy troop formations. Barbed points could cause gruesome wounds, and attempts at their removal would inflict additional trauma on their victims. Archers not only targeted mounted enemy soldiers, but their horses as well. The large “swallow-tail” points were designed for this purpose.
Native American Plains Style Bow and Arrows
Native American Plains tribes such as the Cheyenne, Sioux (Lakota), Arapaho, Kiowa, and Comanche used a short sinew-backed “horse bow” for mounted warfare and buffalo hunting. These compact weapons measured anywhere from 36” to 54”, and were short so that they would be easily maneuvered from horseback.
The bows were generally made from ash in the Northern Plains and osage orange in the Southern Plains, and were backed with layers of sinew soaked in hide glue to prevent the highly stressed short bows from breaking and to provide added power. The sinew backing acted like a primitive form of fiberglass. In addition, the sinew possessed "memory" - after it was stretched while the bow was in use, it would shorten and slowly return to it's original length when the bow was unstrung. This characteristic of sinew-backed bows helped prevent them from "taking a set" and losing power over time. Their arrows were also short, ranging in length from 24” to 29”, and usually tipped with long steel points they bartered from traders or crafted themselves from tools provided by the white man. The feathers (fletching) on their arrows were unusually long and low-cut, with some measuring up to 9”.
The bow and arrows were carried in a quiver and bow case slung across the back, and normally opening on the left side for a right hand shooter. The quiver and bow case were often highly decorated with beaded panels and fringe drops. In use, the mounted warriors would sling the quiver and bow case around and position them across their lap, which provided easier access to the arrows.
These weapons were so formidable that the Plains tribes preferred them for mounted warfare over the single shot muzzle-loading rifles carried by the settlers and troopers, and only switched to firearms in significant numbers with the development of revolvers, breech-loaders, and repeating rifles. These short sinew-backed horse bows were the weapons carried by most of the combined force of Cheyenne and Sioux warriors who fought Lt. Col. Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876.
Making A Native American Sinew Bow String
Making a Native American sinew bow string - this is how you do it. Native Americans used both twisted rawhide and sinew to make bow strings. Both worked, but sinew was stronger and lasted longer. Shown in the photo above is a two-ply sinew bow string in the process of being crafted. Backstrap sinew from a large animal like a deer, elk, or buffalo worked best because the strands were longer and the thickness more even throughout the length.
The completed portion of the string is to the left. To the right you can see the two separate plys of four strands of sinew per ply, each ply clamped with either a yellow or purple paper clip. The four strands of the ply clamped with the yellow clip are twisted clockwise between the thumb and index finger, then rolled counter-clockwise over the top the other ply clamped with the purple clip. Then the four strands of sinew clamped in the purple clip are twisted clockwise and then rolled counter-clockwise over top the first ply clamped with the yellow clip. And so on until the string is finished.
Additional strands of sinew are fed into the string as other strands give out. The ends of the new incoming strands are staggered so that they overlay the ends of the existing strands that are running out. When finished, the string is rubbed with hide glue to seal all the strands. Then it gets rubbed with wax or animal fat to waterproof the whole affair. A two-ply string using four strands of sinew per ply will produce a bow string approximately 3/8" in diameter. Now that's strong!
Mike Dudley Weapons