The earliest complete bows that investigators have found date from around 6000B.C. They were preserved in waterlogged regions of Scandinavia; the bows were simple, made of one complete piece of wood, primarily yew or elm. Because they consist of a single raw material, they are termed self-bows.

The ancient Egyptians used the bow as did the Assyrians and the Mongols – they made bows from wood plus the sinews and bones of animals. These multi-raw material bows are termed composite bows.

Archery originated as a means of hunting animals. It was a particularly useful means of hunting because it meant you could kill the prey without the need to get too close to it and perhaps put yourself in danger. The bow and arrows were quickly used as weapons of war and reached its peak in the Fifteenth Century. The European archers, particularly English and Welsh were perhaps the experts in the field because of their use of the longbow.

The longbow’s most famous moment was probably at the battle of Agincourt. By October 1415, King Henry’s French campaign had run into trouble and he was attempting to lead his small army northeast along the coast to the safety at Calais. Their escape route, using a ford across the Somme, was too heavily defended, and he was forced to march almost 100 kilometres up stream before they could cross the river.

In the mean time, a force of around 50,000 men, under Marshal Boucicault was advancing on the English. Henry’s army, having marched over 400km in 17 days on inadequate provisions, was in poor condition: most of his men had dysentery, and Henry, having no wish to fight, offered to buy peace. The offer was refused, and so the two armies met at Agincourt.

The battle which took place early in the afternoon of 25th October was a remarkable one. Henry’s army of no more than 6,000 men defeated a better rested army five to ten times larger, killing about 15,000 French soldiers while losing only about 300 men. The French made virtually no use of archers, whereas the English army was almost entirely composed of longbowmen. Military historians still debate the precise reasons for this astonishing outcome, but it seems clear that the French tactic of opposing the English longbows with heavily armoured cavalry and infantry was a fatal one. Part of the answer for the defeat lies in the fact that the English archer could shoot up to 10 arrows per minute. Thus the French had to advance through a hail of 50,000 arrows per minute, each arrow capable of penetrating their armour.

Did you know?

If you exaggerate you are said to be ‘drawing the longbow’, not the ’long bow’. A long bow is just a bow that is long however, the longbow (one word) was a highly specialised weapon, invented by the Welsh and adopted by the English to achieve their supremacy in European arms in the 14th and 15th centuries – the age of the ‘arrow storm’. The longbow was between 168 to 183 centimetres long.

In 1982 the wreck of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s flagship, was recovered. It had been sunk in the Solent River in 1545. Bows and arrows were found in the wreck and it was confirmed that the bows would have had draw weights ranging from 45kg (100 lbs) to an astonishing 80kg (170 lbs). The heavy arrows shot from these bows would have had initial velocities ranging between 45 and 55 metres per second (160 to 200 km per hour). Range, between 150 and 200 metres.

At the battle of Agincourt, the 5,000 English archers were each capable of shooting about 10 arrows a minute. The French cavalry would have faced a storm of around 800 arrows per second. These arrows would have been travelling at 55 metres per second and would penetrate armour up to 1.5 millimetres thick.

It is also thought that the V-sign originated with archers of the Hundred Year’s War against France from 1337 to 1453. The English archers used these two fingers to draw their bowstrings; the French threatened to cut off those fingers of anyone they caught. The robust response was to wave the fingers at the enemy, as if saying: “Here they are – come and get them!”

By 1300, the crossbow had largely displaced the longbow on mainland European battlefields. The crossbow, though much smaller than the longbow, is a more powerful weapon. Its bowstring is drawn back mechanically, on a ratchet and so requires less skill and strength to operate. But the drawback is the time it takes to draw and shoot – about a minute, compared with as little as six seconds for a longbow. In medieval England and Wales the virtues of the longbow were better appreciated, and by the time of Henry V (who ruled from 1413 to 1422) it had reached an advance state of development.

*SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, Edward McEwen, June 1991, Gareth Rees, June 1993.

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