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Swords, Cutting and Military History

Let Fly! A debate on the effectiveness of the English longbow

Let Fly!  A debate on the effectiveness of the English longbow

photo by Rune Clausen

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Over the last ten years, there has been a great debate in historian circles as to whether the English longbow was as effective a weapon of war as stories and history make it out to be.

Many researchers point to historical references in ancient books and manuscripts as to the killing effectiveness of the longbow, such as recountings of the Battle of Crecy and the Battle of Agincourt.



Historians point to eye-witness accounts of the devastating impact the the longbow’s clothyard shafts (so named for their length being equal to a yard, the width of a bolt of cloth… but even on this point there is debate as to exactly what that measurement is)

The debate on the actual effectiveness of the longbow was first stoked in 2002 when one researcher established a scientific benchmark for discussing longbow arrow penetration of armour (“The Target” by Peter Jones, contained in “Longbow: A Social And Military History” by Robert Hardy:  Sutton Publishing 2006) .  This created such discussion amongst military historians that the UK Royal Armouries  conducted their own research and published “A report of the findings of the Defence Academy warbow trials” (the previous link has temporarily gone down;  you can purchase the article here) an extensive paper which critiques Jones’ research, strongly suggesting that the longbow arrow was more effective than he determined.

In this paper, the Royal Armouries conducted their own test of arrow penetration of armour, painstakingly researching and re-creating the weapons and test armour as they would have existed at the time period, and recording the result of a longbow arrow strike, as can be seen from the follow table  from their paper:

Arrow penetration chart

Their study also  included a detailed metallurgical examination of both the armour and the metal of the arrowheads.  In their conclusion, they examine the likelihood of various types of arrow points being able to penetrate different kinds of armour with lethal effect.

This paper did not end the debate though.  One well-known military historian has long taken issue with the “longbow myth”, and has written several books and papers seeking to disprove the effectiveness of many types of medieval weapons, the longbow included.   This scholar is Kelly DeVries, author of the books “Medieval Military Technology”, “Infantry Warfare in the Early Fourteenth Century” and the paper Catapults Are Not Atom Bombs: Towards a Redefinition of “Effectiveness” in Premodern Military Technology.  He believes that arrows fired in a ballistic arc would be unlikely to penetrate armour much of the time, and that the major effect of archery was to harass and distract knights:

Not only has this inhibited progress in understanding premodern military history in general, and premodern military technology in particular, but it has also too often and too easily removed the individual soldiers and their leaders from the military historical equation, replacing them with a technological, deterministic explanation. DeVries, ‘Catapults’, p. 455. Cf. DeVries, Infantry Warfare, p. 6.

One of his major academic opponents, espousing the view that the longbow was entirely as effective as history states, is Clifford J. Rogers.  In 1998 he published a reply and rebuttal to many of DeVries comments and assumptions:  Debate – The Efficacy of the English Longbow: A Reply to Kelly DeVries, in the main by quoting from historical text.

The discussion between the two academics has carried on for many years, with no resolution; both still maintain their original positions.  In 2010 they engaged in a public debate at California University of Pennsylvania, during the ‘Dancing with Death: Warfare, Wounds and Disease in the Middle Ages” symposium,  October 20, 2010.

This debate was recorded and and is presented below;  unfortunately, the recording was posted  a set of ten roughly-10-minute YouTube videos.   While somewhat dry, it presents a wealth of information for those interested in the effects of heavy warbows on armour and on realistic effects of medieval weaponry.




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