What's a Longbow?

The kind of longbow we use is the traditional British style, similar to the longbows used in the Victorian period which were themselves derived from medieval longbows. These were made most famous by the English and Welsh archers during the period of the Hundred Years War (think rain of arrows at the Battle of Agincourt – that sort of thing), but Scottish archers of the time used them too though they were vastly outnumbered by the “Auld Enemy”.

You may be familiar with the famous and beautiful old Scottish song “The Flo’ers o’ the Forest”. This is a lament for the Ettrick Foresters, famous archers who were wiped out in the Battle of Flodden in 1513 along with King James IV and about half the Scottish nobility. Not one of the happier episodes in Scottish history.

However, perhaps the most famous Scottish longbowman of all was William Wallace whose recently rediscovered personal seal depicts a longbowman at full draw. A contemporary English source decries Wallace as a common outlaw because of his use of bow and arrows in what we would call guerrilla warfare. Indeed, it has been suggested that Wallace may have been the real-life prototype for that quintessentially English longbowman of legend, Robin Hood.

Defining the longbow

So how would you define the longbows we use? Well, first and foremost they’re made of wood with horn “nocks” reinforcing the tips where the string’s attached. Although other kinds of traditional bows might include other natural materials in their make-up such as a backing of sinew, longbows don't. Neither do they contain materials such as metal, plastic or glassfibre like modern Olympic and compound bows.

We do, however, often use modern man-made fibres for our bowstrings as these are safer and more reliable than the traditional linen string which can break without much warning. Safety is taken very seriously by Green Hollow Bowmen and the archery world in general.

The wood can be all of the one type – a “self” bow – or made up of a laminate. Yew is the classic longbow material because a single stave which includes both the heartwood and the sapwood makes for a very efficient bow. The heartwood side goes in the belly of the bow (the inside of the curve) to resist compression, and the more elastic sapwood goes to the back (the outside of the curve) to help the bow spring back quickly from being bent. A bow, after all, is just a big spring where you store energy by pulling the string back and release it by letting the string go.

A typical British Longbow
A typical British longbow.
From top to bottom: unstrung, braced, and fully drawn.

Unfortunately, it has become very difficult to find good yew so bowyers nowadays try to replicate its properties by combining two or more woods in one bow. Many bows are made with one wood in the belly - common woods are lemonwood and osage – plus another thin layer of a more springy wood on the back, usually hickory. This kind of bow is known as a “backed” bow. Bows can also be made up of a laminate of three or more woods, with the inner layers made of exotic woods such as purpleheart or greenheart – very handsome.

Bamboo is also used as a longbow material, though strictly speaking it’s not really a wood. You’ll hear longbowmen speaking fondly of their “grass” bows – bamboo makes a very efficient longbow!

How long is a longbow? Well, according to our Rules, that depends on the length of your arrow which in turn depends on the length of your arm. People with short arms who only need arrows of say 24”-26” will use a bow of no less than five feet in length. Those using longer arrows than that must use bows of five foot six inches or more. Many longbows you’ll see are over six feet long.

The cross-section of the bow is important too – the depth can’t be less than five-eighths of the width of the bow at the same section. This makes for a thick, usually rounded profile as opposed to the, well, more flat profile of a flatbow, also known as an American longbow. Flatbows are also often “waisted”, that is narrower at the handle. Traditional longbows are never waisted.

Cross-sections of typical longbow profiles
Various traditional bow cross-sections, with the back of the bow uppermost.
The one most commonly used nowadays is in the middle of the top line.

So what’s left to describe? The nocks are usually made of water buffalo horn though cow horn does the job too, and the handle, if there is one, is usually of leather, braid or velvet ribbon. There are no sights allowed on a longbow other than a rubber band or a mark drawn on the limb of the bow, and stabilisers such as you see on modern bows are right out! There is no arrow-rest either – the arrow sits on your bow hand as you draw. Many bows have a little plate of horn or mother-of-pearl on the side just above the handle to protect the bow-wood from being abraded by the arrow as it passes. And that’s about it for bows.

Arrows

Longbow arrows are made of wood, traditionally ash which is still used for the Standard Arrow (a replica war arrow used for distance shooting competitions by warbow enthusiasts but not by us). Ash is a pretty heavy sort of wood though, so for target and clout arrows we use something lighter, commonly Scots Pine, Douglas Fir, spruce or Port Orford Cedar (which isn’t a true cedar but as we can’t remember what it actually is, we’ll just leave it there).

Standard Arrows
Standard Arrows with replica bodkin points. The grey scale is approximately thirty-nine and a quarter inches long (this distance is sometimes, we are told, described as "one metre" but not in our field...)

Sometimes the wood is shaped to give the arrow special properties in flight: for example, a “barrelled” arrow is made thinner at the two ends than in the middle to generate lift so the arrow will travel further. You’ll also see arrows made with a “footing”, that is a section of hardwood spliced on at the pointy end to provide added strength and stability.

The bit that fits onto the string is known as the nock. Traditionally this is a simple notch cut in the end of the arrow – a “self” nock – or a notch made with added reinforcement – a “reinforced” nock. The reinforcement can be made of horn, hard wood or even mother-of-pearl if you want your arrows to look extra pretty. Standard Arrows always have a self or reinforced nock. For everyday use, however, most longbowmen use plastic nocks glued onto the end – not so traditional, not so pretty, but cheaper, a lot less effort, and most importantly of all, safer.

The view to the target as seen by Gary Nelson mid-shot
A longbowman's-eye view of a modern wooden arrow

The steering is provided by the fletchings, usually turkey feathers, although goose is more traditional. If you want to be exotic, peacock or eagle feathers are pretty good too. Most arrows have three fletchings, but you can use four. It’s the wing feathers that are used and each arrow must use feathers all from either a right or a left wing. Mix your wings and you’ve got an arrow that doesn’t know where it’s going.

The business end is known as the pile. For target and clout we use small brass or steel piles usually shaped like a bullet. These don’t chew up the target as much as big heavy traditionally forged piles would – the bodkins or broadheads that are now only used for Standard Arrows.

Finally, we do not – repeat do not – use rubber suckers on our arrows under any circumstances.