Image: Internet Archive Book Images (1832) [No Known Copyright Restrictions], on Flickr

As far as I know, this was written by one or more of SUAC’s many ancestors. If anyone wants to add anything (e.g. compound history) let me know and I’ll stick it in.


206BC – 220AD Archaeological evidence of bows in China
500AD Historical evidence of bows in China
8th Century AD Remains of longbow found in Lupfen
9th Century AD Remains of longbow found in Ireland
950 AD Historical evidence of crossbows in France
1066 AD Battle of Hastings (Harold shot in eye?)
1340 AD Start of The One Hundred Years War
1346 AD Crécy
1356 AD Poitiers
1414 AD Agincourt
1453 AD End of The One Hundred Years War
1644 AD Tipper Muir – Last English bow war
17th Century AD Muskets become more popular
c. 1953 AD SUAC founded


The origins of the bow and arrow are not generally known, however this weapon was developed and used in every continent except Australia where the spear and spear thrower may have been a better weapon against the local fauna.


Only three foot long and drawn to the chest, the short bow was not a very effective fighting weapon. Indeed the shortbow as used by the Anglo Saxons was never regarded as a powerful weapon of war and most battles were fought without them, although it is recorded that King Harold used them in the Battle of Hastings. The inefectiveness of the short bow can be demonstrated by the Crusades where the Turkish horseback archers were able to transform the Crusaders into pincushions yet inflicted little damage to them due to the thickness of the Crusaders armour. Against unarmoured people they can be used to some effect, but such battles were rare and the extent of short bows in English history is very small.

We know that the Vikings made use of the bow quite extensively both on land and at sea, especially the Norwegians (recorded as ‘Famous bowmen’) and the Swedes (the word ‘bow’ sometimes being used to denote a warrior in Sweden). Even kings were known to wield bows in battle, taking great pride in their skill, and this is shown well in the telling of the Battle of Svoldr in ‘King Olaf Tryggvasson’s Saga’. It seems reasonable to expect that when the Vikings settled in Britain they would have brought their bows with them and that skill in archery would still be prized amongst them. As to how much the Saxons used archery we cannot be so sure. Certainly they knew of, and used, bows both as weapons of war and for hunting. However, whether they were used by the upper ranks of society or just by ceorls is a more difficult question. It seems most likely that amongst the Saxons the bow was used mainly for hunting by the high born although it was sometimes used in battle by the ceorlish ranks. However amongst the Vikings archery was quite widely used by both high and low.

The evidence for the use of the bow in Normandy before 1066 is even slighter than that for England, though our knowledge of the Battle of Hastings clearly suggests a strong likelihood that military archery in Normandy was by that time well developed. This is made even more likely when you remember that the Normans were descended from the Vikings who we know had a good tradition of archery.


Archaeological evidence dating from the Han Dynasty (206BC – 220AD) as well as historical evidence from the 6th century show that the Chinese were probably the nation who invented the crossbow. From its’ discovery it gradually filtered west throughout Europe, eventually being used by the Romans both in a single wood and composite design (a design that subsequently dissapeared and reappeared in the 12th century) as well as in the form of a large siege crossbow called an aroabalista. However from this time onwards, information on crossbows is scarce and it is not until the 10th century that we read of crossbows again. These references appear in French texts that date from 950 AD but crossbows appear to come into general use only after the late 11th century. In England they appear after the battle of Hastings of 1066 where they were used against the inferior Saxon short bow that had a firing range of about 200 meters compared to the crossbows 300. Compared to the Saxon short bow, the crossbow is not only more powerful but also more accurate which greatly compensates for its’ slower firing rate. Therefore it is no surprise that the crossbow became the favourite long range weapon of the English kings up till the 13th century when it was abandoned in favour of the Welsh longbow. The two main types of crossbow mentioned in English texts are the one and two foot crossbows (based on whether one or both feet were used to pull back the string).

The crossbow was seen as such a terrible weapon that the Lateran council of 1139 ruled that people using crossbows against Christians or Catholics where to be excommunicated. However this was largely ignored and by the end of the 12th century, large groups of mounted crossbowmen were among the most effective and fearful instruments of war. However despite the eagerness of most kings to use crossbowmen and despite the wage of a crossbowman being twice that of normal footsoldiers in France, they were treated as common criminals if ever captured in battle. In fact during the Baronial revolt, when one baronial garrison surrendered to King John, he was willing to ransom all men-at-arms except crossbowmen whom he ordered to be hung for killing so many knights.

As effective as the crossbow was in attack, so to it could be used in defence and it is the case that from the 12th century that we start finding arrow slits being built into castle walls. However the crossbows were just as accurate as they were deadly and so too do we see shutters and bretaches being built on top of the walls to protect the defenders. Indeed it can be said that the crossbow is one of the prime factors in changing the design of the castle from the 12th century onwards.

The mechanism of the crossbow was based on a simple trigger that held in place a small wheel that held the string. However despite the seemingly simplicity of the construction of the bow, in England a good crossbow maker could be found in almost every castle possibly earning as much 5d (pence) a day or 5 times the average wage at this time. These castles and garrisons would also have been stocked with a band of crossbowmen numbering about 6 in peaceful times who would have earned a similar wage to the crossbow maker.

Even after the 13th century the crossbow was used in England to some extent with Edward I and Edward III using them in battle and Elizabeth I and James I were renowned shots. Henry V even had 38 crossbowmen at Agincourt although historians rightly confer the battle victory to the longbow. However it is as a hunting weapon that the crossbow is used during the 13th century and onwards, technology being able to produce a compact design that was popular with horseback riders. The design of the crossbow did not change much until the 16th century when it became used more frequently for sport, England, France and Spain using slender stocked bows whilst Germany and central Europe prefered short stocks and broad butts.

By the 17th century, muskets were being perfected and so both in England and now in the continent, the crossbow diminished as hunting weapon and by the 18th century its use was confined to sport.


The use of the word longbow is perhaps a little misplaced as our use of the word was in fact never used until the end of the middle ages. Indeed there is no real magic height at which a shortbow becomes a long bow although it is generally accepted that a long bow is around 5ft 10″ to 6ft in length. Indeed a lot of what people believe to be fact about the longbow does in reality turn out to be myth.

Although attributed to the Welsh, longbows have been around at least since the Roman era where 36 bows ranging in length from 5ft 7″ to 6ft have been found. Bows from Lupfen that date to the 8th century AD and from Ireland that date from the 9th have been found that are also of longbow length. In England, historical evidence indicates that the longbows that were used in in the 11th century AD may in fact only have been 5ft long, gradually increasing in length to 6ft only by the 15th century.

Despite perhaps not being the originators of the longbow, there is possible evidence of a Welsh longbow eleven years before Hastings in the account of Ralph, Eorl of Hereford, on the expedition he led into Wales. When the Saxon horsemen had ridden into the Welsh mountains they were ambushed by archers who shot so accurately and strongly that, according to the Abington Chronicle, ‘the English people fled, before ever a spear had been thrown, because they were on horseback’. One estimate from the time puts the English casualties at five hundred whilst the Welsh suffered no losses. Here was a lesson that, if the Saxons had learned from it, could have changed the outcome of the Battle of Hastings; cavalry are helpless against well ordered archers.

Perhaps the only real truth there is about the longbow is that it was predominantly used by English and Welsh forces until the later part of the middle ages when other nations began to use the tactics developed by the English during the Hundred Years War.

Henry I (1100-1135) passed a law that absolved any archer if he killed a man whilst practising archery.

Although it is Edward I that is commonly regarded as the man who brought the longbow into English warfare, actual evidence for this is quite scant and it is during Edward III’s reign where we find a considerable amount of information indicating on the prominance of the longbow in the English armoury.

Edward III’s reign was dominated by the Hundred Years War that actually lasted from 1337-1453 and it is perhaps because of the continual wars waged during this time that not only do we have so many historical records on the longbow but may also have been the reason that the longbow became such a legend that it is today. Ironically despite the English reputation for producing the best longbow archers in the world, there were instances when it was hard to find any suitable archers at all. Indeed in 1363 Edward III ordered his Sheriffs to enforce archery practices indicating that proficiant archers were not available. However despite these odd occurences it was often the case that the archery skills of the longbowmen were highly valued, for example the instance in 1365 when archers were forbidden to leave England without a royal licence.

The Hundred Years War
Political insults between Edward III and Philip VI (the first of the Valois Kings) finally erupted in the first major battle taking place at sea off Slys in June 1340 with 147 English ships (of which two-thirds were archers) against 190 French. Despite being at sea, this battle was fought in a similar way to how a land battle was fought, the English having their men-at-arms in the centre boats with the archers (both crossbow and longbow) flanking them either side. The French chained all but 24 of their boats together yet this tactic was to be of no avail. Despite the French having a reputed 20,000 Genoese crossbowmen (out of a total of 35,000 men) the English won a resounding victory, capturing and executing both the French admirals. In fact it was said that so many French went overboard that if the fish could speak, they would have learnt French.

After landing with 12,000 men (of which 7,000 were archers) and taking Caen in Normandy where 105 Normans were painfully killed for exposing their backsides to the English archers, Edward III moved north, continually tracked by the larger French army, until he arrived at Crécy in 1346 and now possibly with 8000 men.

The English took a defensive position in three divisions on ground that sloped down with the archers on the flanks. The French sent out the Genoese archers (perhaps numbering 6000 out of 12,000 men) to start but perhaps due to the rain affecting their bowstrings, as some sources have indicated, the crossbows were ineffective and were cut down by the English archers who kept their strings dry. Philip VI, after commenting on the uselessness of his archers, sent forward his calvary who rode through and over his own crossbowmen. However the archers and men-at-arms held them off not just for this attempt, but for 15 times in total. According to one Geoffrey le Baker, 4000 French knights were killed and no one bothered to count the rest. Edward III lost very few men and victoriously rode to Calais.

After this battle a few small wars were fought, however by now the French had realised the effectiveness of the longbow and before one battle Charles de Blois, the French Kings Nephew, ordered anything that may be used as defence for the English Archers to be torn down. However even this was not enough and with the help of a friendly garison, Charles was defeated.

An indication of the low rank of the archer is given where during another battle where the English were outnumbered, 30 archers deserted the ranks. After the battle in which the English won, all 30 where beheaded, a fate that was rarely bestowed on other soldiers.

Information about this battle is in fact quite scarce and varied, but the most likely version of events follows. In 1356 the English (numbering an estimated 7000 armoured horse, 3000 longbow and 100 light troops), led at this time by Edward, the black Prince ( Edward III’s son), were possibly retreating after a long campaign in France with the French army close behind. The only thing stopping an actual battle was a large hedge that seperated the two armies. However the French (with about 20,000 to an unfounded 60,000 men) found a large gap and tried to break through, bringing them onto the rear of the English. The Black Prince, realising battle was to commence, had by now ordered his men to form the usual battle position of archers on the flanks as well as sending some troops to occupy a nearby hill.
The French, who had developed a small cavalry unit to specifically attack the English archers, were once again stoped by the archers and men-at-arms by the gap in the hedge and in fact were routed. The next attack came from the Germans who had allied with the French and were leading the second cavalry. However this too was stoped and indeed so strong was the attack by the English archers that at one point some ran out of arrows and had to run forward and collect arrows embedded in people lying on the ground. Doing so they encountered the French men-at-arms and melee broke out. At this time the Captal de Buch, a Gascon ally of the English, led a reserve force to attack the French from the rear. Also at the same time, under a volley of his archers’ fire, the Black Prince ordered the advance. The French broke and were persude to Poitiers where the French King was captured and held to ransom in the Tower of London for 3,000,000 gold crowns.

Perhaps a notable event during the start of the battle was the Black Prince’s speech in which he praised the courage and skill of the archers, perhaps marking the turn of respect for the archer for it is only a few decades later in 1377 that the first poems of Robyn Hode by Piers Plowman start to appear.

In 1356, after Poitiers, the French organised their own longbow corps but they became so expert that it was worried they might become too powerful and were so disbanded.

In 1363 all men were ordered to practice archery on Sunday and holidays, hence the appearence of target ranges beside churches. However no man was allowed to shoot at a known distance and no man over the age of 24 was allowed to shoot at any mark under the range of 11 score yds, indicating that even in England it was acknowledged that making an archer too good could be dangerous. This was reaffirmed in 1512 and 1633.

The battle of Agincourt that occured in 1414 was born out of an attempt to revive the English fortunes in France. Some say that Henry V, the king of England at this time, was pushed into battle by the French insults whilst others refer to his youth and persistent subjects. In any case Agincourt was not the battle Henry V had intended. He set about reviving the Royal Navy that had almost disapeared in the 14th century as well as placing great emphasis on raising bows and in a few years had a navy and army of considerable strength.

After landing a few miles west of Harfleur and capturing it after a five week seige, he marched to Calais despite advice not to do so. Finding all his routes blocked by the French army he finally rested in Maisoncelles with the villages of Tramecourt and Agincourt as well as the French army ahead of him. Realising he would have to fight he moved on and was eventually blocked by the French army, led by the Constable d’Albret, at Agincourt.

Henry V, who by now only had about 6000 men (mostly archers) out of an original force of 8000, positioned three ranks of men-at-arms in the centre with himself leading the centre rank and had the archers in their usual position on the flanks. The French with up to 60,000 men were divided into three divisions, two of them unmounted and the third mounted. The wings were of cavalry intended to smash the English archers whilst behind them were the Genoese crossbowmen (of with 4,000 were said to have been sent away due to the cramped nature of the French army).

After a time of stalemate with both armies about a mile apart, Henry V ordered the advance, with archers hidden in a nearby forest giving covering fire, until the archers were in shooting range. Then he ordered his men to set down the defensive stakes and to open fire. The French cavalry began the counter attack but perhaps due to the English attack depleting the ranks or perhaps due to some deserting, they advanced with fewer men than expected. The attack was made but did little and according to one source the French men-at-arms desserted. By this time the second division was advancing with the cavalry running into the retreating first division. Despite this disruption the French van advanced. They managed to make one impact on the English line causing it to retreat, but not break which was fortunate as the English had no reserves. Indeed the English then made a counter attack and the English archers, no longer being effective now that melee had broken out, drew their weapons and, in what has been called the central part of the battle, attacked. With the French men-at-arms so crowded that they could not raise their weapons and with the French calvery blocked by the men-at-arms in front, the bodies began to pile up under the French retreat. Between 6,000 and 10,000 French were killed whilst the English suffered losses that were under 200.

This was not the last battle to be fought with longbows for from 1429 Jean d’Arc led the French to regain the land that the English had captured. However the last battle of the 100 years war was fought at Castillon in 1453 and as a sign of things to come, the English archers in a desperate (and some say tactically wrong) attack on a French artillery position were killed by cannon and lances. Finally muskets and guns were comming into force.

In 1472, due to the amount of wood needed for bows not being available, it was ordered that all ships importing from places where staves were made, had to import 4 staves for every tun of cargo.

In 1508 crossbows were forbidden in England in an attempt to increase the use of the longbow but this was repealed in 1536.

The last battle with English archers occured in 1644 at Tipper Muir.

Main source of information: Bradbury, J. “The Medieval Archer” The Boydell Press 1985.

Composite & Recurve Bows

Composite bows date back as far as the Ancient Greeks. In short, a composite bow is one which is made with different materials, and these eventually became the modern day recurve bows, where the limbs bend away from the archer. Composite bows in this sense refer to ancient bows such as horn/sinew bows used by the Mongols etc.  These are often termed horsebows and you may be able to see Adam or one of the other members of SUAC shooting one (though these are likely to be modern in the fact they dont use horn and sinew but fibreglass).  True horsebows are very susceptible to changes in moisture due to the natural sinew glue used to make them,  this means they have a tendency to fall apart in the rain !!  Not too good in Britain.

Recurve Bows

Today, use of the longbow is rare and use of a shortbow even rarer, however the composite (or recurve) bow still reigns supreme when it comes to archery despite stiff competition from the compound. Although todays’ bow is created using the latest technology, it’s originator can be found way back many millenia ago with the horsebows and shortbows once favoured by the Mongols, Persians and Greeks (just to name a few).

The modern “Olympic Recurve” is the only bowstyle currently allowed in the Olympics, and so must keep to precise rules.

Compound Bows

In the 1960s a mechanic by the name of Holless Wilbur Allen decided that he could improve on the modern recurve by sawing the tips of the limbs of and replacing them with pulleys to help draw extra weight.  By experimenting he found that using an eccentric triangular shape cam gave a let off to the draw weight as the bow was drawn giving birth to the modern compound and received a patent for them in 1969.

In 1971 the flipper rest used on lots of compounds today was invented and PSE archery was founded.  By 1982 eccentric cam wheels were starting to appear giving rise to smoother draws and more adjustability in draw profile versus older cams.

Also as time progressed the limbs went from being almoat vertical like a recurve to parallel as seen in most modern compounds.  This was mainly due to the huge forces being transmitted to the shooter on vertical limb, high poundage compounds due to the speed at which a compound shoots.  This was causing the bow to jump wildly in the hand when shot leading to a decrease in accuracy and pain for the shooter.  By making the limbs parallel instead of the force of the limbs “snapping” forward when shot they snapped perpendicular to the wrist in opposite directions effectively cancelling out the force developed, whilst reducing vibrations leading to a more accurate shot and faster shot.  Modern limbs have gone beyond parallel to further increase speeds and allowing for longer risers to be used giving enhanced stability.

Hopefully this sheds some light on why compounds are the shape they are today and why they have cams.

http://archeryreport.com/2010/03/archery-history-compound-bow/ accessed 05/08/2013
Longbow. A Social and Military History. (1997). Robert Hardy. (ISBN 1-85260-412-3)
Bradbury, J. “The Medieval Archer” The Boydell Press (1985).