A longbow must be long enough to allow its user to draw the string to a point on the face or body, and the length therefore varies with the user. In continental Europe it was generally seen as any bow longer than 1.2 m (4 ft). The Society of Antiquaries says it is of 5 or 6 feet (1.5-1.83 m) in length. Richard Bartelot, of the Royal Artillery Institution, said that the bow was of yew, 6 feet (1.83 m) long, with a 3 foot (914 mm) arrow. Gaston Phoebus, in 1388, wrote that a longbow should be "of yew or boxwood, seventy inches [1.78 m] between the points of attachment for the cord". Historian Jim Bradbury said they were an average of about 5 feet and 8 inches.
The range of the medieval weapon is unknown, with estimates from 165 to 228 m (180 to 249 yds). Modern longbows have a useful range up to 180 m (200 yd). A 667N(150 lbf) Mary Rose replica longbow was able to shoot a 53.6 g (1.9 oz) arrow 328.0 m (360 yd) and a 95.9 g (3.3 oz) a distance of 249.9 m (272 yd).
The longbow had a long range and high accuracy, but not both at the same time. Modern champion archers maintain that a hit cannot be guaranteed on an individual target at more than 75 m (80 yards) with any bow whatsoever. Most of the longer range shooting mentioned in stories was not marksmanship, but rather thousands of archers launching volleys of arrows at an entire army. Longbowmen armies would aim at an area and shoot a rain of arrows hitting indiscriminately at anyone in the area, a decidedly un-chivalrous but highly effective means of combat. Standards for accuracy have changed dramatically in the modern age. An archer could hit a person at 165 m (180 yards) "part of the time" and could always hit an army.
A Welsh or English military archer during the 14th and 15th Century was expected to shoot at least ten "aimed shots" per minute. An experienced military longbowman was expected to shoot twenty aimed shots per minute. A typical military longbow archer would be provided with between 60 and 72 arrows at the time of battle, which would last the archer from three to six minutes, at full rate of shooting. Thus, most archers would not loose arrows at this rate, as it would exhaust even the most experienced man. Not only are the arms and shoulder muscles tired from the exertion, but the fingers holding the bowstring become strained; therefore, actual rates of fire in combat would vary considerably. Ranged volleys at the beginning of the battle would differ markedly from the closer, aimed shots as the battle progressed and the enemy neared. Arrows were not unlimited, so archers and their commanders took every effort to ration their use to the situation at hand. Nonetheless, resupply during battle was available. Young boys were often employed to run additional arrows to longbow archers while in their positions on the battlefield. "The longbow was the machine gun of the Middle Ages: accurate, deadly, possessed of a long range and rapid rate of fire, the flight of its missiles was likened to a storm.". This rate was much higher than that of its Western European projectile rival on the battlefield, the crossbow. It was also much higher than early firearms (although the lower training requirements and greater penetration of firearms eventually led to the longbow falling into disuse in English armies in the 16th century).
The traditional construction of a longbow consists of drying the yew wood for 1 to 2 years, then slowly working the wood into shape, with the entire process taking up to four years. (This can be done far more quickly by working the wood down when wet, as a thinner piece of wood will dry much faster.) The bow stave is shaped into a D-section. The outer "back" of sapwood, approximately flat, follows the natural growth rings; modern bowyers often thin the sapwood, while in the Mary Rose bows the back of the bow was the natural surface of the wood, only the bark being removed. The inner side ("belly") of the bow stave consists of rounded heartwood. The heartwood resists compression and the outer sapwood performs better in tension. This combination in a single piece of wood (a self bow) forms a natural "laminate", somewhat similar in effect to the construction of a composite bow. Longbows will last a long time if protected with a water-resistant coating, traditionally of "wax, resin and fine tallow".
Bow strings were and are made of hemp, flax or silk and attached to the wood via horn "nocks", which fit onto the end of the bow. Modern synthetic materials (often Dacron), are now commonly used for strings.
Recognizable longbows dating as far back as the Mesolithic period have been found in many parts of Northern Europe. The medieval English use of a powerful longbow as a decisive weapon of war was more of a social than a technical development. It required in particular the training, recruitment, and maintenance of a large number of men, their supply with yew wood by means of foreign trade, and their incorporation with other troop types into an effective tactical system. The first recorded use of the term 'longbow', as distinct from simply 'bow', occurs in a Paston Letter of the fifteenth century.
Archery does not appear to have been especially significant in pre Norman Conquest Anglo-Saxon warfare and the first great English archery victory was the Battle of the Standard in 1138. During the Anglo-Norman invasions of Wales, Welsh bowmen took a heavy toll on the invaders, using short, rough elm bows technically distinct from classic English yew longbows. As soon as the Welsh campaign was successfully over, Welsh conscripts began to be incorporated into English armies. The lessons the English learned in Wales were later used with deadly effect by Welsh mercenaries on the battlefields of France and Scotland. Their skill was exercised under King Edward I of England (r. 1272–1307), who banned all sports but archery at the butts on Sundays, to make sure Englishmen practised with the longbow. As a result, the English during this period as a whole became very effective with the longbow.
The longbow decided many medieval battles fought by the English, the most significant of which were the Battle of Crécy (1346) and the Battle of Agincourt (1415), during the Hundred Years' War and followed earlier successes, notably at the Battle of Halidon Hill (1333) during the Scottish wars. The longbow corps saw particularly heavy casualties at the Battle of Patay and this loss contributed to England's eventual defeat in that war. Longbows remained in use until around the 16th century, when advances in firearms made gunpowder weapons a significant factor in warfare and such units as arquebusiers and grenadiers began appearing. Before the English Civil War, a pamphlet by William Neade entitled The Double-Armed Man advocated that soldiers be trained in both the longbow and pike; this advice was not followed in anything but a few town militias. The last recorded use of bows, in an English battle, seems to have been a skirmish at Bridgnorth, in October 1642, during the English Civil War. Longbowmen remained a feature of the Royalist Army, but were not used by the Roundheads. By the 19th Century skilled longbow men had all but vanished. The Duke of Wellington even asked for a corps of longbows to provide a force producing more rapid fire than guns could. It would have been particularly devastating against the then unarmoured targets in his Napoleonic campaigns, but he was told that no such skilled men existed in England any more.
The longbow was also used against the English by their Welsh neighbours. The Welsh used the longbow mostly in a different manner than the English. In many early period English campaigns, the Welsh used the longbow in ambushes, often at point blank range that allowed their missiles to penetrate the English Knights' armour and generally do a lot of damage. One famous Welsh longbow victory was on 22 June 1402 when Owain Glyndwr fought a battle against the English at Bryn Glas. He strategically placed his longbowmen on top of a high hill, meaning that his longbowmen had a better range than the English longbowmen, who were overwhelmed down on the low ground. The result was a crushing victory for the Welsh.
Although longbows were much faster and more accurate than any black powder weapons, longbowmen were always difficult to produce, because of the years of practice necessary before a war longbow could be used effectively (examples of longbows from the Mary Rose typically had draws greater than ). In an era in which warfare was usually seasonal and non-noble soldiers spent part of the year working at farms, the year-round training required for the effective use of the longbow was a challenge. A standing army was an expensive proposition to a medieval ruler. Mainland European armies seldom trained a significant longbow corps. Due to their specialized training, English longbowmen were sought as mercenaries in other European countries, most notably in the Italian city-states and in Spain. The White Company, containing men-at-arms and longbowmen and commanded by Sir John Hawkwood, is the best known English Free Company of the 14th century.
The trade of yew wood to England for longbows was such that it depleted the stocks of yew over a huge area. The first documented import of yew bowstaves to England was in 1294. In 1350 there was a serious shortage, and Henry IV of England ordered his royal bowyer to enter private land and cut yew and other woods. In 1470 compulsory practice was renewed, and hazel, ash, and laburnum were specifically allowed for practice bows. Supplies still proved insufficient, until by the Statute of Westminster in 1472, every ship coming to an English port had to bring four bowstaves for every tun. Richard III of England increased this to ten for every tun. This stimulated a vast network of extraction and supply, which formed part of royal monopolies in southern Germany and Austria. In 1483, the price of bowstaves rose from two to eight pounds per hundred, and in 1510 the Venetians obtained sixteen pounds per hundred. In 1507 the Holy Roman Emperor asked the Duke of Bavaria to stop cutting yew, but the trade was profitable, and in 1532 the royal monopoly was granted for the usual quantity "if there are that many". In 1562, the Bavarian government sent a long plea to the Holy Roman Emperor asking him to stop the cutting of yew, and outlining the damage done to the forests by its selective extraction, which broke the canopy and allowed wind to destroy neighbouring trees. In 1568, despite a request from Saxony, no royal monopoly was granted because there was no yew to cut, and the next year Bavaria and Austria similarly failed to produce enough yew to justify a royal monopoly. Forestry records in this area in the 1600s do not mention yew, and it seems that no mature trees were to be had. The English tried to obtain supplies from the Baltic, but at this period bows were being replaced by guns in any case. .
It was the difficulty in using the longbow which led various monarchs of England to issue instructions encouraging their ownership and practice, including the Assize of Arms of 1252 and King Edward III's declaration of 1363: "Whereas the people of our realm, rich and poor alike, were accustomed formerly in their games to practise archery - whence by God's help, it is well known that high honour and profit came to our realm, and no small advantage to ourselves in our warlike enterprises... that every man in the same country, if he be able-bodied, shall, upon holidays, make use, in his games, of bows and arrows... and so learn and practise archery." If the people practised archery, it would be that much easier for the King to recruit the proficient longbowmen he needed for his wars. Along with the greater ability of gunfire to penetrate plate armour, it was the amount of time needed to train longbowmen which eventually led to their being replaced by musketmen.
The effects of a powerful bow on contemporary armour are illustrated by this 12th century account by Gerald of Wales: In a modern test, a direct hit from a steel bodkin point penetrated Damascus chain armour. (Bodkin points have been described as "armour-piercing", but the latest research is that they were not made of hardened steel and were not designed for this purpose.)
Even very heavy draw longbows have trouble penetrating well made, tough steel plate armour, which was used increasingly after 1350. Armour of the Medieval eras was not proof against arrows until the specialized armour of the Italian city state mercenary companies. Archery was ineffective against plate armour in the Battle of Neville's Cross (1346), the siege of Bergerac (1345), and the Battle of Poitiers (1356); such armour became available to European knights of fairly modest means by the late 1300s, though never to all soldiers in any army. Strickland and Hardy suggest that ''"even at a range of 240 yards heavy war arrows shot from bows of poundages in the mid- to upper range possessed by the Mary Rose bows would have been capable of killing or severely wounding men equipped with armour of wrought iron. Higher-quality armour of steel would have given considerably greater protection, which accords well with the experience of Oxford's men against the elite French vanguard at Poitiers in 1356, and des Ursin's statement that the French knights of the first ranks at Agincourt, which included some of the most important (and thus best-equipped) nobles, remained comparatively unhurt by the English arrows.
However, not all plate armour was well made or well looked after, and there were also weak points in the joints where arrows could still penetrate. Full plate armour of the highest quality was also extremely expensive, only used by the most elite (and rich) soldiers, such as knights; the vast majority of soldiers were not armoured in plate from head-to-toe. Even for knights, in practice their horses tended to be less well protected than they were themselves. As late as 1415, the hail of arrows created by massed ranks of thousands of longbowmen helped to win the battle against plate armoured French knights at Agincourt. English longbowmen often carried short swords or mauls (massive hammers), and longbowmen taking advantage of wet, muddy terrain could outfight dismounted armored knights whose horses had been killed by arrows.
On the battlefield, English archers stabbed their arrows upright into the ground at their feet, reducing the time it took to notch, draw and loose (as drawing from a quiver is slower). An additional effect of this practice was that the point of an arrow would be more likely to cause infection.
Arrows recovered from the Mary Rose show that some arrowheads were attached using a copper-based glue. Copper is slightly toxic but there is no evidence that it was used because of this, or indeed that it could enter the bloodstream through a wound at all.
The only way to remove such an arrow cleanly would be to tie a piece of cloth, soaked in boiling water or another sterilising substance, to the end of it and push it through the victim's wound and out of the other side — this was extremely painful. There were specialised tools used in the medieval period to extract arrows from places where bone prevented the arrow being pushed through.
Prince Hal (later Henry V) was wounded in the face by an arrow at the Battle of Shrewsbury (1403). The royal physician John Bradmore had a tool made, which consisted of a pair of smooth tongs. Once carefully inserted into the rear of the arrowhead wound, the tongs screwed apart till they gripped its walls and allowed the head to be extracted from the wound. Prior to the extraction, the hole made by the arrow shaft had been widened by inserting larger and larger dowels of wood down the entry wound. The dowels were soaked in honey, which has antiseptic properties. The wound was dressed with a poultice of barley and honey mixed in turpentine. After 20 days the wound was free of infection.
A common battle formation:
Archery is not very accurate at extreme distances, so generals massed longbowmen in order to create a 'cloud of arrows.' A skillful general would alternate flights of arrows with cavalry charges, sometimes alternating flank attacks to induce shock and fear in the enemy. The arrows were used in volleys and not aimed at specific targets until the enemy was quite close. The English used longbowmen in unprecedented numbers in the Hundred Years War, as the dominant part of their armies, with approximately 7,000 archers in an army of 9,000 at the Battle of Agincourt.
The longbows on the Mary Rose were in excellent finished condition. There were enough bows to test some to destruction which resulted in draw forces of 450 N (100 lbf) on average. However, analysis of the wood indicated that they had degraded significantly in the seawater and mud, which had weakened their draw forces. Replicas were made and when tested had draw forces of 680 to 900 N (150 to 200 lbf).
In 1980, before the recent finds from the Mary Rose, Robert E. Kaiser published a paper stating that there were five known surviving longbows:
The Assize of Arms of 1252 stated that all "citizens, burgesses, free tenants, villeins and others from 15 to 60 years of age" should be armed. The poorest of them were expected to at least have a bow. This made it easier for the King to raise an army, but also meant that the bow was a commonly used weapon by rebels during the Peasants' Revolt. From the time that the yeoman class of England became proficient with the longbow, the nobility in England had to be careful not to push them into open rebellion. This was a check on the power of the nobility of England which did not exist on the European continent.