What Is A Longbow? – A Bow With A Long History

What Is A Longbow? – A Bow With A Long History

A woman shooting a traditional longbow.

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I dedicated most of my time in archery to longbows, so today I want to answer the question:

“What Is A Longbow?”

Find out why it is so much more than just a piece of wood with a string attached to it:

Medieval Archer

A medieval archer drawing a bow. Used under creative commons from: Penny Mayes

The History Of The Longbow

Don’t worry, I will keep this short:

The longbow goes back many thousands of years and is the oldest bow type that was ever used by people.
Traces of longbows were found in Europe that suggest that they were already used in the Paleolithic Age (2.6 mio – 10,000 BC).
Those bows were very simple of course and the arrows were either just sharpened sticks or (a bit later) had tips made of stone.

During the Bronze Age, longbows got better and the material mostly used for them was yew and elm.
Bows at that time were “self bows” which means that they were made of one single piece of wood.

The English Longbow is a well-known and feared weapon used in medieval times. English archers wielded them very efficiently and deadly.

Nowadays we still use self bows, but we also use other techniques to craft our bows. More about that later.
Of course, they are not used in modern wars anymore and the last death of a soldier, who died from a longbow shot, happened in World War II.

The Parts Of A Traditional LongbowTraditional Longbow

Longbows are not as complicated looking as modern recurve bows or compound bows. They are more simple and don’t feature much additional equipment.

A self bow is nothing more than one piece of wood that gets brought into shape by the bowyer (a person who makes a bow).
An experienced bowyer can make a self bow in a few hours, but the wood needs to dry either before or after the bowyer cuts it into shape. The drying process is what usually takes the longest when crafting a self bow.

A self bow has a round shape and its limbs are very narrow. So, to withstand a high draw weight, they have to be much longer than a recurve bow.
A longbow is usually as long as the archer is tall.
That’s actually something I absolutely love about my longbow.
I am 6’1″ tall and my bow is just as long. I think the bow looks fantastic!

Traditionally, longbows don’t have an arrow rest, so you will have to use your hand to keep the arrow in place.
That’s the reason why longbow archers often tip the bow a bit to the side so that the arrow doesn’t fall off.
To add a little comfort, modern bowyers often attach an arrow shelf to the grip of the bow, which makes it much easier to use the longbow efficiently.

The grip and arrow shelf of a longbow are often wrapped in leather. This gives the bow a nice look and feels a lot better when holding it.
It also avoids blisters when using a bow for a long time or if it has a strong hand shock.

Other than that the bow only has a bowstring and sometimes reinforced tips to extend the life of the bow.

What Is A Flatbow?

While not exactly the same as a longbow, I want to talk about the flatbow at that point, too.
A flatbow is traditionally also made of a single piece of wood and can be just as long as a longbow (they are often shorter, though).


Shooting a flatbow. Used under creative commons from: GBMorris

The difference is, that its limbs are flat and not rounded. They are also much wider than the limbs of a longbow which gives them more stability.
And that’s the reason why a flatbow can be shorter than a longbow but still of the same or similar draw weight.

Flatbows were used by Native Americans, but also in Europe by the Inuit and in some Nordic countries like Finland.

I do own a flatbow. Mine is not a self bow, though, but a laminated bow. It also has an arrow shelf which I like about it.

Let’s Take A Look At A Modern Longbow

Modern longbows like the Bear Archery Montana Longbow are laminated bows (actually they are often flatbows) and use fiberglass to make them stronger and more durable.
The fiberglass makes them look very classy and shiny.

Using those modern materials is a great addition and doesn’t really go against the traditional aspect of archery.
I don’t mind using a longbow that is made of wood and fiberglass, because the feeling when you shoot it is still the same.

Bear AFT2040145 Montana Long Bow RH45#,Brown

Even when you are using a modern longbow, you will not see any stabilizers, sights, or other tools that help the archer in any way.
A longbow is meant to be shot instinctively!
What can be done is attach some string silencers to the bowstring to reduce the sound of the bow when shooting the arrows, but modern longbows can be very quiet right from the start.

When I first shot a Montana Longbow, I was very surprised at how quiet it actually is.
An arrow shelf is often used to add a little comfort.

Comparison Between A Longbow And Modern Bows

Sure, a recurve bow or compound bow can have more power while being much shorter than a longbow.
But when you look at the English Longbows, which had a draw weight of up to 185 LBS, you know the potential of a longbow.
Of course, almost nobody nowadays has such a powerful longbow and hardly anybody could even draw it.

Still, I really love longbows.

It is not really the question of what is “better”.
You have to ask yourself what you want to achieve:

Do you want to win competitions or become an Olympic archer?

Then you should choose a recurve bow or compound bow as you will have many options to fine-tune your equipment then.

compound bow vs longbow

Fancy a compound bow? Used under creative commons from: Miehs

Do you want to just have fun or go hunting?

Then you can choose whatever bow you want. It is up to your personal preferences.
You can hit the bullseye on 70-100 yards with a longbow just as well as with a compound bow if you have the skill to do so.
And when you go hunting the distance to your game will be usually much shorter than that.

Some people just like the feeling traditional archery can bring to them.
It is exhilarating to be able to hit a target consistently without any technical equipment.
It is just you and that piece of wood in your hands.

I talk about this and more in my book The Bullseye Masterpiece.
Check it out if you want to know more.

See a traditional longbow in action below:

Do You Have Love For The Longbow?

How do you feel about the longbow?
Profile-ImageDid I answer the question “What Is A Longbow?” or do you have any more questions?
Are you a traditional or modern archer?
Do you hunt or practice target archery?

Let me know in the comments below and I will be happy to discuss all the aspects of bows and archery with you.

Happy shooting.

Leave a Comment:

(2) comments

I’m surprised that you don’t mention that the longbow is an English invention… and that you also don’t mention The Battle of Agincourt and the origin of the ‘two fingered insult’ in your ‘history’ which has EVERYTHING to do with the longbow!


    Hi Steve.
    Thank you for your great comment.
    I might add some information to my history based on your suggestions.
    I just didn’t want to make the history part too long, but I like your ideas. They are definitely very interesting and I am sure that others will like them, too.

    The medieval English Longbow was invented in Wales, but mostly used by English archers. True.
    But that doesn’t mean that the longbow itself was invented there and then.
    Its history goes way back, like I mentioned in my article.
    Longbows were used in Germany, but also in Africa and many other places before the English Longbow was invented.

    Thanks again for giving me some great input on my article about longbows.

    Have a great day.

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