The Nitpicker’s Guide to Ancient Warfare: Bows

By David Flin

This series of articles is the first draft of what will hopefully be a book published by Sgt. Frosty Publications

A print of the 1822 meeting of the "Royal British Bowmen" archery club.

Specifically, this article is about longbowmen and crossbowmen. The longbow holds an almost mythic place in English (and Welsh, as I am reminded by someone close to me) history. Agincourt is typically presented as the triumph of the “yeoman bowmen” of England (and Wales) over the elite knights of French society.

The crossbow also has mythic attachments. This was despite it being banned by Pope Innocent II in 1139 as being: “Deathly and hateful to God and unfit to be used by Christians.” Of course, the ban also applied to bows and slings, and the restriction only applied for use against Christians, but what everybody remembers is that the crossbow was banned.

Of course, people paid about as much attention to this ban on a potent weapon as you might expect. Both the longbow and the crossbow played important roles on the battlefield for the next 300 years.

There’s a lot of mythologising about both the crossbow and the longbow. We will later unpick what they could and could not do. For now, we are concentrating on how you turn a person into a longbowman or crossbowman.

The longbow

Much is made of the training a longbowman had to undertake. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle references it in his fiction, The White Company.

He saw two little lads, the one about nine years of age and the other somewhat older, were standing on the plot in front of the cottage, each holding out a round stick in their left hands, with their arms stiff and straight from the shoulder ...

“They are training their left arms, that they may have a steady grasp of the bow. ... Take an old soldier’s rede and lay your bodies to the bow, drawing from the hip and thigh as much as from the arm.”

To a large extent, what Doyle describes is accurate. Bending a longbow is hard work. A typical draw weight would be 100lbs, and a few specialist longbows have been found that had a draw weight of 300lbs. Skeletons of longbowmen reveal massive developments of shoulders and distortions of bone structure.

Above, I mentioned “bending a bow”, rather than “drawing an arrow”. That’s deliberate. There was a difference between how English (and Welsh) archers readied the bow to how it was done elsewhere. Traditionally, European archers held the bow and pulled back on the string – drawing the arrow. By contrast, the English and Welsh archers held the string and pushed the bow-stave away from them – bending the bow. The latter technique brings more muscles into play, enabling a more powerful bow to be used.

Aside from this, the archer has to learn a variety of techniques, including the “dropping shot”, where an arrow was fired over an intervening obstacle to fall upon the target from a height. This technique was most often used in besieging a castle, as defenders on a wall would be completely protected from direct fire by the walls. Further details on sieges will be covered in the relevant chapter.

A formation that was frequently used by longbowmen was called a Harrow formation. This was designed to maximise the number of archers in a given frontage, while still giving each of them enough space so they could use their bows effectively. Unfortunately, it was such a familiar formation that no-one saw fit to record that details of what it actually was, and so that detail has been lost. This doesn’t stop historians arguing over their pet theories, and historical re-enactors also have their views, but – truth be told, no-one actually knows.

Nonetheless, it was a commonly used formation, and we do know that bodies of archers practised forming up into it and manoeuvring in that formation.

Maintaining equipment and selecting the right arrowhead for the task was more complex than meets the eye. Arrows can warp if the weather changes, and the archer needed to maintain a haft that was perfectly straight.

And finally, as anyone who has bent a bow can tell you, doing it time after time after time is an exhausting process. An effective bow needs to be a powerful one, and a powerful bow takes strength to use. This is where skeletal deformation is caused. Constant training.


16th-century crossbow with steel prod (Germany)

“It’s just point and click, isn’t it?”

Surprisingly enough, there’s more to it than that. There is a reason why the vast majority of Middle-Ages crossbowmen were mercenaries. It wasn’t because their equipment was expensive, and arming feudal levies with crossbows would have been prohibitively expensive, although that was a factor. It wasn’t because maintaining crossbows is something of a specialist skill, although that was a factor. It wasn’t because putting a knight-toppling weapon into the hands of those ruled – often ruthlessly – by the knights was considered a danger to the social order, although that was very much a factor.

It was also that there was a lot more to using a crossbow than just “point and click”.

Most crossbowmen used on the Middle Age battlefield were mercenary groups, often from the various Italian city states. This meant that the groups would not remain around to cause social unrest after their term of employment.

Crossbowmen frequently worked with an assistant who carried a shield, a mantlet, to protect them both from incoming fire. Because of the greater effective range of the crossbow over bows (a result of being able to store far more energy by mechanical extension than is possible with a bow limited by muscle power), this was a good way of minimising casualties.

Of course, working in coordination with another person requires a lot of practise, especially when large groups of such pairs are involved.

But the main element of training was the loading process. Like the muzzle-loading muskets of the late-17th to mid-19th Centuries, the loading process was a comparatively long and complex one, involving several stages, good hand coordination, and a need for speed. Amidst the noise and turmoil of the battle, it is easy to get confused and make mistakes.

So, like those using muzzle-loading muskets, endless drill is required to get the crossbowman able to carry out the loading process quickly, accurately and, above all, automatically. One falls to the level of training when in highly stressful situations.

It seems odd to include it here, but it does fit. Honest. Chariots. Specifically, the combination of driver and spearman/bowman. Such were common in Celtic Britain, Ancient Egypt, and is mentioned at Troy in the Iliad. Essentially, the chariot uses mobility and speed to get to one part of the battlefield, the warrior hops off and fights for a bit and then, when the enemy start getting more troops to the area, they hop back onto the chariot and the driver whisks them away to safety.

That required a lot of coordination between driver and warrior; the Celts had strong relationships between driver and warrior. The warrior was usually high-ranking and had his own personal driver.

And, of course, coordinating the movement of many chariots – because dumping off a single warrior near one part of the enemy force isn’t a tactically sound move – isn’t easy. Guess what that involves.


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David Flin is a writer and owner of Sgt. Frosty Publications. His books can be found there.