The English Longbow
Much has been said and written about the English Longbow, a weapon that was made famous in the Middle Ages.
Originally honed from a simple stave of Yew (Taxus Baccata), it most famously gained its notoriety during the 100 years war, the most famous confrontation being the battle of Agincourt set in stone its reputation. For around 300 years the bow was a significant and well-regarded part of the English armies makeup, archery was almost a daily part of life and by law was to be practised.
The first medieval archery law was passed in 1252, all men aged between 15 to 60 years had to be proficient with a bow.
Fathers were by expected to supply their sons with equipment when they came of age, the designated practice area for archery was called the "butts", this was a simple built up mound of earth at which archers shot.
To test their skill archers would place a garland onto the butt and aim their arrows at its centre. Another old practice still done to day is "wand shooting", this is simply sticking a small branch upright into the ground called the "wand", bowmen would then aim to split the branch with their arrows. Archers were also expected to be able to shoot a good distance of 220yards or more!
Yew has always been the preferred material for the longbow, it is the perfect marriage of sapwood and heartwood, a naturally occurring lamination in the tree. The softer outer sapwood is perfect for the back of the bow and can stand the tension of being stretched whereas the inner denser heartwood makes up the rounded belly of the bow and resists the compressive forces put upon it when being drawn, this resistance stores energy and coupled with the sapwood produces a natural spring which makes it ideal as a bow wood.
Good quality Yew is scarce and expensive so most longbows crafted today are made from a combination of woods. Laminated bows mimic the tension and compression combination that occurs with a Yew bow, materials are selected for their properties with accordance to their task. Bow backings are usually Hickory or bamboo, these fibrous materials are superb under tension and can add cast to a bow. Compression resistant woods like Lemonwood and Ipe are ideal at storing and releasing energy and form the belly, other dense woods are used as a middle lamination to give the bow more power and help resist string follow.
The longbows narrow stacked D-shaped profile is what differs it from other bows, this design has been in use since long before the middle ages, archaeological finds such as the Ashcott Yew bow see this bow design in use dated to 3600-3100 BC. Other Neolithic bows that have been discovered show that along with this design a wider flatter bow profile was in use at the same time.
However, a bow with a stacked D-section isn't the best design to evenly distribute the stresses on the limbs, this narrows the types of wood that can be used to construct this type of bow. But why use a stacked design if it's not the most efficient? One theory is that it's much easier to find a cleaner piece of wood if the demands of the design are narrower, also it would allow the bow maker the opportunity to make more bows out of suitable log because he needs less width.
After years of military use good supplies of quality Yew staves were scarce, much of the best timber came from Spain and Italy however Yew was also imported from Poland. However, with the advancement of gunpowder in the late middle ages the longbow began it's decline as a feared weapon of war.
Archery enjoyed a renaissance during the Victorian era and was enjoyed by the royalty of the 19th century, the design of the bows developed during that time is still in use today.
In recent years traditional archery has become increasingly popular and people are finding enjoyment in the simplicity and challenge of this kind of archery.