Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Medieval Weapons: The Bow and Arrow

Now we are going to discuss an interesting topic; medieval weapons. There is a reason that the word medieval is synonymous with being dark and twisted, for it was a harsh time to live in, especially for soldiers.

When I first thought of writing this blog, I was going to include all forms of weapons used by an individual on the battle field. After a few short minutes of writing, I realized this would be a massive blog, so I have decided to limit this blog to projectile type weapons used against soldiers. Do not worry; the next blog will be about hand held weapons and later one about larger projectiles used against structures.

In warfare, there is, and always has been an arms race. When one side invents an advanced form of killing the enemy, the other side must create a defense to that arsenal. This is true today, as it was during the ancient world and during the middle ages.

In my previous blog, we talked about armor, and it was the improvement of armor that caused the evolution of weapons. The thicker and more protective the armor got, the deadlier the weaponry got to pierce it.

In a battle, you must be able to injure or kill your opponent from afar before he gets to you, and up close after he does. Having the ability to do both allows you more flexibility to form a strategy against your enemy’s army.

(Side Note: In reality, it is better NOT to kill your enemy but to severely injure or maim him. If your opponent is injured, he is still out of the fight as much as a dead enemy. However, your opponent must use personnel to remove the injured soldier and also to treat him. These personnel may have been used in more offensive capabilities by your enemy.)

Attacking your enemy far away may give you an advantage of reducing your opponent’s numbers before they reach you, in doing so a smaller army can have a chance in defeating a larger one. The weapons that could reach out and kill the enemy from a distance were diverse and varied from country to country, but the major way to do this was with archers.

Archery- Shooting a projectile from a bow can be dated to 10,000 B.C. or earlier. The basic forms of most bows are the same; a sting bends a limb and when it is released its kinetic energy projects an arrow. Although, all bows are similar in its basic design, the structure and shape of the bow varies from different parts of the world.

The longbow is very tall with narrow limbs. If you cut it through and looked at its cross-section, it would appear as a “D”. This bow was mastered by the English; the highlight of these archers was at the battle of Angicourt (1415).

The French who was attacking the English line, had to travel through muddy terrain. The mud meant the French had to move at a slow pace; this allowed the English archers to fire upon them at will. The English archers ran out of arrows, and even ended up attacking the French with hatchets and other small hand held weapons. The total account of dead on both sides is debatable; the English account of the battle had up to 11,000 French soldiers killed, compared to only 100 English, who died in battle.

Similar to the longbow is the flatbow. The flatbow has an appearance to a longbow, except if you looked at its crosscut, it would appear as a rectangle.

A recurve bow has its limb curved where the sting attaches to the limb. With this curve, this bow stores more energy, which is released when the arrow is let free. Since there is more stored energy, this bow can be smaller than a longbow or flatbow which allows them to be used more easily on horseback. The Mongol armies were experts with this bow.

The construction of a bow also varied from region to region, and depended on the bow type. Self-bow is made from a single piece of wood. Most self-bows have an advantage in that they can project an arrow longer than other types of bows. The disadvantage to this bow is that it usually has to be very long and bulky to generate the appropriate power to project an arrow to a great distance.

A laminated bow is made from different materials, which are glued together and coated. With the lamination process, you could strengthen wood that is not normally good for making bows. This bow was not available outside the orient during the middle ages, although it may have been used in some Arab armies.

Composite bow is made from materials such as wood, horn and sinew. It is similar to the laminated bow in that a compound attaches materials together to form a bow stronger than its individual parts. The main disadvantage to a composite or lamented bow is that in ancient times it was constructed using animal glue, which means it may become weak or break apart in wet or humid conditions.

Crossbows became very popular in the middle ages. A crossbow shoots a projectile (called a bolt or quarrel) horizontally, usually with a type of mechanical release.

A longbow could take years of practice before it could be mastered. A crossbow is easier to shoot, and a person could master it in a rather quick time. This was very advantageous when trying to build up a large army in a rapid time.

Crossbowman had another advantage to his archer colleague. A crossbowman could stand behind a shield stuck in the ground, called a pavise. This allowed him some protections to load and fire his weapon, while an archer was exposed during this time.

Although I had mentioned a composite bow was unheard of outside of the orient, some crossbows were made using this technique.

Crossbows could be small allowing the user to pull the string back, while larger crossbows required the use of a mechanical device. A cranequin was a rack and pinion device, while a winlasses had numerous cords or ropes on pulleys to pull back the string, there were also types of push and pull levers to arm the crossbow.

The arrow actually predates the bow itself. This is because the arrow was first developed to be used with the atlatl. The atlatl is a tool made of wood, or antler. It is a shaft with a cup that holds the bottom of the arrow and allows the person to throw that arrow much further than by hand. Although originally used with spears, fletching was later added giving it more accuracy (technically an arrow thrown is referred to as a dart).

Arrowheads were also varied as the bows that propelled them. The type of arrowhead was determined by what it was being shot at.

During the middle ages, numerous styles of arrowheads were developed. Each style was created to achieve a specific purpose.

A bodkin arrow point was an arrowhead that resembled a squared metal spike. The bodkin is thinner than a regular arrowhead, so it has less air resistance in flight, this means it could travel farther distances. It was believed that the bodkin arrow may be able to penetrate plate armor. However, this has been recently discredited with testing.

If you read about my last blog about knight’s armor, you may already have concluded where this confusion about the bodkin penetrating plate armor came from. People have always assumed a knight was dressed from head to toe in plate armor; we know this not to be true. So if you were not familiar with how the knights dressed in combat and read about a battle where knights were killed by archers; you must assume that some form of arrowhead penetrated the knight’s plate armor. It was out of this lack of knowledge about knight’s armor, which led to the legend of the bodkin was created. The bodkin point was thin enough so it could penetrate chain mail armor, which accounts for these kills credited in battle by archers.

Broadhead arrows were very popular during the middle ages. A broadhead looks like how it sounds, a piece of metal wide at the side and tapered down to a point. Broadheads themselves came in various shapes and sizes, each designed for a specific task.

The blade of the broadhead is wide so it could cause severe wounds and bleeding, more so than the bodkin on an unarmored soldier. To increase the severity of the wound, some broadheads were even serrated.

Another advantage of this arrow is it is hard to remove. A bodkin, since it is thin can be pulled directly from a wound. The broadhead is wide, which means pulling the arrow directly outward would cause as much damage, if not more, than when it entered the body. To properly extract a Broadhead, you have to cut the skin and muscle tissues around the arrowhead before removing. Broadheads were sometimes designed with barbs, which increased the difficulty in removing them.

A combination of both the bodkin and broadhead was the arrow point leaf. This arrow point looked like a long leaf (similar to that of a spear); this design allowed excellent penetration while also providing good cutting potential.

A drill point was an unusual style of arrowhead. The point was twisted and resembled a drill bit. This design increased the twisting of the arrow in flight; the twisting also caused some major damage when it struck flesh.

Rope-cutter (or forker) was also a unique design; it is shaped like a crescent moon. This blade was used for hunting because it caused more blood loss that meant it was easier to track down a wounded animal.

Similar to the rope-cutter is double-point arrowhead; it differs in that it had a more v-shaped blade than the crescent moon shape. Both the rope-cutter and double-point may have been used to hunting birds on the wing.

As I spoke earlier, plate armor was a very useful defense against the arrow. However, it was quite common to test plate armor (particularly the breastplate) with a bodkin arrow at close range to see if the armor was good. This type of test was called proofing of armor.

There were many more variations of arrows, and each had a specific design for an explicit use.

The bow and arrow soon left the battle field in Europe with the introduction of gunpowder. After guns were used in combat, thicker armor was invented. This armor was tested against guns, in a similar way that the arrows were. This process was called bullet proofing and is where we got the term bulletproof.

Next time: Blunt Weapons


  1. This is a subject I have never really delved into other than in the movies and and some books about a trio of musketeers. As you write each week, and I read, it strikes me that not much in warfare has changed. Too bad. Your point about not killing the enemy but maming him illustrates that quite well.

  2. "In warfare, there is, and always has been an arms race. When one side invents an advanced form of killing the enemy, the other side must create a defense to that arsenal. This is true today, as it was during the ancient world and during the middle ages." Indeed this is a pity, although I do believe much is changing in the peace race arena, and none too soon at that!

  3. Medieval times to today, people will still find a way to hurt and maim others. You would have thought that 'civilization' would have brought about a more humane way to settle differences. I think the big point here is the arms race and how much money there is to be made from making and selling arms.
    I really enjoy your posts.

  4. Fascinating, but a little disturbing to think how long the arms race has really been going on. I too was struck (no pun intended) by your point about injuring, rather than killing, your enemy.

  5. There's always been lot of scientific research around weapons. Men were continuosly searching for the most powerful mean to kill each other. I recently visited Savoy Royal Armoury museum and I had the chance to verify the attention to detail the humans have always deserved on this field.

  6. Thanks everyone for leaving comments.
    I think in a later blog, I am going to discuss the argument about the advantages of warfare. Not my argument, but there is some who think war is good for mankind.

  7. I didn't think the origins of the term bullet-proof were that indirect.

    1. Johnathan what do you mean by "indirect"?
      Proofing was the testing of the armor. Once gunpowder appeared they began testing armor against it. Remember the first European firearms were very inaccurate and also lacked power. At first this testing was called “pistol proofing” obviously because it was tested against small caliber pistols. At the beginning of the renaissance gunpowder had made its way totally into combat, so now they began testing armor to see if it could protect someone. Bullet proofing was done until the armor was no longer suitable protection against gunpowder

  8. All interesting info. When I used to teach a unit on Arthurian Lore to sophomore students, everyone also found the details of medieval life and weaponry fascinating.

  9. As I read your blog, thoughts of some of my favourite tv shows from days past came to mind, Robin Hood and Crossbow. I used to love these shows and I just reminisced as I read. Quite educative and very good blog.

  10. The interesting part of the classic movie of “The Adventure of Robin Hood” (1938) was that actors were wearing wood and metal blocks on their chest or backs. Arrows were shot into these blocks. Stuntmen and actors were paid $150 for each arrow shot into them. The archer who shot at them was the legendary Howard Hill. Read more about the life of this archer, I think you will be impressed.