How to Choose a Longbow
Through ages, the evolution of the longbow has been remarkable. Regardless of its evolution, the longbow has been mainly used for hunting and warfare, and this, in many cultures around the world.
Archeologists have dated some longbows or flatbows from as far as the Paleolithic era. They also discovered that the ancestor of our modern longbow has been used in many areas of the world. For example, in 1991, they found in the Ötztal Alps, a natural mummy with a 1.82 meters (72 in.) longbow made of yew next to the body. The body has been dated around 3,300 BC.
Closer to America, Flatbows have been found in Native American tribes such as the Hupa or the Wampanoag and also in ancient Europe.
The apparition of the well-known Welsh-English Longbow comes for the first time in history around AD 633, more than five centuries before any record of its military use in England. It is recorded that the king of Northumbria was killed in a battle by an arrow from a Welsh Longbow. Later in history, the Welsh Archers from Wales used it against the Anglo-Norman invaders. However, despite those historical facts, the weapon is more commonly known as the English Longbow than the Welsh Longbow.
After their successful invasion campaign of Wales, the English quickly realized the power of the Welsh bowmen. Then, the English integrated the new subscript Welsh bowmen into their army. The English bowmen army, then, became one of the most powerful armies of its time during the 14th and 15th centuries, mainly against France and Scotland. Their supremacy ended with the apparition of the gunpowder.
Historically, according to the area where the longbow was made and which era in history the longbow was used, a slight variation in the design appeared.
Indeed, some species of trees like Yew or Osage orange were not available everywhere around the world, making the process of creating an English Longbow design harder.
The Flatbow (a.k.a American Longbow or Longbow), then, came along with its specific design.
The rectangular shape in the cross-section allowed bowyers to use different types of trees and were able to build bows as strong and powerful as the circular or D-shaped in cross-section of the English Longbow.
Let’s have a better look at the different longbow types:
The English Longbow
The English Longbow is the most simple bow type and has only a few features.
Of course, the main characteristic of a longbow, no matter what type, is the length.
The English longbow has an average of 1.98 meters (74-78 inches) of length.
This type of longbow varies considerably in draw weight but back then, traditional English Longbow archers needed to be trained a lot more before shooting because the average draw weight range was about 160-180 lbs compared to the actual longbows, which are more likely to be lower than 80 lbs and even 60 lbs and under for most American Longbows.
The English Longbow is a self-bow and is mainly built over a stave of the yew timber. In other words, only one piece of wood is necessary to build one longbow.
The Yew tree is used as such; the sapwood for tension and the heartwood for compression. This tree essence was almost extinct in Northern Europe in the 16th century because of the demand for longbows.
The heartwood resists compression while the outer sapwood performs better under expansion or tension. In other words, only specific and resilient timbers can make effective and durable wooden longbows.
The bow stave is cut from the center of the tree so that the sapwood (the most recent living part of the tree) becomes the back and forms about one-third of the total thickness of the bow; the remaining two-thirds is heartwood.
Different combinations are possible but it's not suggested to go over 50-50 in the distribution of sapwood versus heartwood.
Heartwood should constitute the main part of a longbow. It is difficult to find the perfect balance between the belly and the back because the raw material is a living material. Bow stave selection, then, becomes a really important asset to build efficient and durable longbows.
It is possible to build a longbow with different essences of trees. This longbow would be called a laminated longbow.
A laminated longbow would need two or three different species of tree superimposed in a specific order to be as good as the yew tree. You would need to find a stave with good withstanding compressive strength heartwood for the back of the bow and a different wood stave with better-withstanding tension for the belly if you can't find it in one self-bow stave.
How it's made
The construction of a good and more durable longbow consists of seasoning the yew wood or any wood for a few years. Then, work the wood into the desired shape. In this case, the bow stave would be shaped in a circular or D-shaped in cross-section and narrowly rounded limbs.
The Flatbow (Longbow)
The Flatbow also has a non-recurved design and has a wide range of lengths. With an average length of 68-70 inches, the Flatbow is shorter than the English longbow.
They discovered that flat, relatively wide limbs that are rectangular in cross-section of the Flatbow, was a more efficient and stable type of bow design and which can be made out of more common and suitable timbers.
The American Longbow is flatter at the level of the limbs and slightly rounded at the grip level.
The upper and lower limbs have plane ends with string grooves where the string can be attached to.
Traditional Flatbows are mainly wooden self-bows but laminated and composite longbows are also possible. Modern Flatbows use contemporary material like fiberglass to build the core.
How it's made
The construction of a Flatbow is quite similar to the English Longbow. In this case, the longbow stave would be shaped in a flatter and relatively wider limb with a rectangular shape in the cross-section.
This design might take longer to make for bowyers because they need to start over with a wider stave to achieve the rectangular cross-section.
Depending on the stave selection the bowyer might have to deal with growth rings which make the process of building the bow a bit more difficult.
Fortunately, many essences of trees may be used to create good Flatbows, such as elm, maple, hickory and osage orange (favored by Native American) to name only a few.
Being able to start with a cheaper and more available timber is good news for beginner bowyers.
A deeper look into the longbow differences
The Back and the Belly
The English longbow is made from a single piece of wood (a single Bow Stave) for the back (The outside part when shooting) and the belly (The inner part when shooting) of the bow.
The limbs are relatively narrow so that they are circular or D-shaped in cross-section. However, one disadvantage of the English longbow is that the shape of the limbs does not spread out stress within the wood, when drawing back, as evenly as a Flatbow does.
There is an upper and a lower limb that is determined by the bow grip or the neutral axis which is easier to determine with American Longbows because they come Right or Left-handed. The English Longbow was more or less ambidextrous and uniformly shaped.
The limbs are non-recurved and have string grooves at both extremities for Flatbows. Oldest longbows needed "horn nocks" installed to the extremities of the bow so you could attach the string.
Another important part of the longbow is the bowstring. Back then, bowstrings were made of hemp, flax or silk and attached by "horn nocks" which were installed at both extremities of the bow. Strings were more 'stretchy' and the pressure on the limbs was softer.
Today, modern synthetic materials, like Dyneema fibers, compose the strings. Those strings are generally called Fastflight because they increase the pressure, therefore, increasing the velocity of the arrow. But it is still possible to find strings like it once was.
Nowadays, it is possible to customize your longbow string with accessories such as silencers which are installed on the string to reduce the sound that it makes when releasing the arrow.
Some archers will install nocking points on the string to facilitate shots efficiency by keeping a better alignment when properly installed.
The Bow Grip
Made of leather, rope or simply natural, the bow grip constitutes the neutral axis of the bow.
On the English Longbow, the hand replaces the arrow shelf of the Flatbow which is cut up to the middle of the bow, making a center shot possible for the archer, allowing him to shoot where he is actually aiming to increase accuracy.
Back then, the arrows were made from different types of wood. Arrows were coming in various lengths, fletching, and arrowheads.
Today’s selection allows the archer to choose a variety of materials such as aluminum and carbon in addition to the wooden arrows.
The key features of longbows:
- Longer bows are more forgiving of shooter errors, like sloppy release techniques, and give more stability to the archer.
- The bow will not be encumbered with expensive sights, stabilizers and arrow rest.
- Longbows are the fastest bows to reload after shooting.
- Known to be quieter than other entry-level bows
- Often start with higher poundage compared to recurve bows
Longer bows make smoother shots. They give more stability and are much more forgiving.
Have a look at the recommended bow length according to your draw length in the chart below.
Note that it is mostly a question of preferences but if the bow is much taller than what it is recommended, you may not be able to benefit from its full potential.
If using a bow that is much shorter, than you are limiting yourself. When reaching a certain draw length you may come to the stack before reaching your anchor point, meaning that the bow will come to a point that it is much more difficult to draw, therefore having an inconsistent anchor point, affecting your accuracy.
Note: Prefer a longer bow size when draw length is in between.
The brace height is the distance between the deepest portion of the grip and the string (not drawn).
Brace height has a great incidence of the forgiveness and the speed of the bow when shooting. It is mostly a question of preference and the activity you are practicing.
How to adjust the brace height
Brace height can be increased when twisting the bowstring, by doing so; the limbs will tend to be pushed away from the riser, therefore increasing the distance between the string and the grip. The opposite must be done to decrease the distance, by untwisting the bowstring, the limbs will get closer to the riser.
The influence of brace height
Recommended brace height is usually provided by the manufacturer of the longbow and it will be up to you to twist or untwist the bowstring until you have reached the brace height giving you optimal comfort.
As a general rule, a longbow should never be braced under 6 inches, but it is unlikely to happen with the provided string, though you must keep this in mind when buying a new string for your bow.
Brace height of around 7 inches is a good average number to keep in mind. You can try it at this distance, then, twist it or untwist to see the impact and identify your preferred measurement.
A T-square is the ideal tool for that measurement and is what you should use to place your nocking point between 1/4 or 1/2 of an inch above the shelf. The nocking point is what allows you to systematically place your arrow at the same spot every single time to avoid any unwanted arrow movement, hence, increasing your consistency.
With what you know by now, you must already have your preferred type of longbow in mind but remember that if you are just about to introduce yourself to archery, you should definitely think of doing so with a recurve bow first, because of the low draw weights available.
I know from experience that trying a heavier bow than what is recommended can seem pretty easy at the first draw. But you won’t become a top archer by shooting 2 or 3 arrows. You will be shooting many of them….Hundreds of them in a day, maybe, if it is your ambition.
So, drawing a high poundage bow for one shot is easy, but will you be able to sustain a hundred shots with it? I am pretty sure your form and accuracy will be affected negatively, making the correction of your flaws even harder to achieve.
Starting off with a longbow could be hard on your learning curve and even ruined your experience, therefore, your future in archery, which would be a shame.
As you gain experience and increase your draw weight until you reached 30 lbs, you may, then, consider going for a 35 lbs longbow which is pretty much the lowest draw weight you can get. But you can’t change the limbs on a longbow, so if you are on a budget, you should think about increasing your draw weight further before going for it and get one once you have reached the desired draw weight you really want to shoot your longbow with. This is all up to you now, this is only my two cents for what it’s worth!
Any wooden longbow needs to be treated with proper maintenance and left unstrung to avoid permanent damage to the bow. Proper maintenance constitutes of waxing the bow and the string periodically.
Here are a few more items you should consider getting when choosing a longbow...
Bow stringers usually don't come with the longbow, unless it is part of a package. It is highly recommended to getting one, although you may have seen people string their bow with their foot. The proper way to do it is with a bow stringer, this is good practice, so think of getting one.
Your arm is standing near the trajectory of the bowstring which can be surprising when it slaps the arm, leaving small, or not so small, souvenirs you don't want to have such as shown in the picture below. Wearing an armguard is good advice to avoid getting hit straight on the skin.
Glove or tab
One of two shots may not affect your bare fingers but doing hundreds of shots will. Wearing a glove or a tab is a good thing. I like the style of the glove but like the tab on hot days.
What probably gives every beginner headaches! Selecting proper arrows for your first longbow is crucial.
You will have to understand what is the arrow spine of your arrows to make the best selection possible according to your bow setup. To understand the concept of the arrow spine, you may want to read the post What is the Arrow Spine?
Do keep in mind that this article is essentially giving you an understanding of the arrow spine, manufacturer's charts must be used to determine yours properly according to your equipment, arrow length, draw weight and point weight.
Will you be shooting with a cut-to-center longbow or not? This will affect the spine. When aiming with a center-shot longbow, the arrow will be directly pointing the target. If you are using an English Longbow, for example, the arrow will be pointing slightly off the target. Those two cases would require two different arrows with different spines.
Points or broadheads
You can hardly shoot an arrow without ahead. You definitely want to get some field points so it can stick in a target. Field points come in a variety of weight, this will affect the spine of your arrows as mentioned above so make sure to choose the right weight and stick with it.
If you want to go for a hunt, you must be selecting proper broadheads for the type of game you want to be hunting. You may not want to take the same broadhead type for hunting a cottontail rabbit than you would for an elk.
A quiver is not a necessity but definitely a plus. Something to hold your arrows, especially if you are on the move, is something I would consider. Aside from being handy, there are pretty nice models to choose from to look good with your trad equipment.
Unless shooting in a bale of hay is your thing, It is great to have something to shoot on to measure your accuracy. If you are not planning to go to an Archery Club, getting a target that won't prematurely damage your arrows would be a good investment.
Thank you for reading! Do not hesitate to ask any questions or leave a comment below.
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