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Crossbow And Longbow Medieval Warfare Essay Research

Crossbow And Longbow: Medieval Warfare Essay, Research Paper

The Crossbow and Longbow:

Revolutionary Forms of Medieval Warfare

The crossbow, a medieval missile weapon used in combat and recreation, revolutionized warfare in the 11th Century. The mechanical device was introduced to the English by the Norman Invaders in 1066 and became widely used among the armies of numerous countries. The crossbows were originally constructed of horn and pliable wood but were eventually made of iron which added great power to its firing.

The crossbow became a popular weapon in warfare because its penetrative power was far superior to the antiquated short bow. It could fire up to 350 yards and could easily pierce chain mail or light plate suits to make a terrible wound. The bow was also noiseless and accurate as well as powerful. Additionally, it could also be used from any angle of concealment and from rooms with low ceilings. The weapon was so shockingly destructive that Pope Innocent II declared the weapon barbarous to be used in warfare, except against infidels. He issued a bull against the use of the weapon in 1139 on the grounds that it was “a weapon hateful to G-d and unfit for Christians.”

Another way in which the crossbow revolutionized warfare was that it rendered the cavalry soldiers and their heavy armor virtually defenseless against the agile, crossbow-armed infantrymen. Kings began to recruit more infantry armed with crossbows than cavalry soldiers.

While the crossbow was indeed a lethal and effective weapon against an army of cavalry, it had its draw backs for use in the open battlefield. It was extremely heavy and bulky and was complex to operate. The device required the archer to wind up the mechanism after each firing and only one arrow per minute could be discharged by experienced archers. After all, as described by Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey, the task of firing the weapon involved the following:

1) Taking the weapon from the shoulder of the soldier.

2) Unhooking a windlass from a waist-belt.

3) Fitting the windlass to the stock and string.

4) Winding up the bow.

5) Arranging the bolt and, after taking aim, pressing the trigger.

It is easy to see what a complex and tedious task it was to fire the crossbow. It was for these reasons that the weapon was best suited for sieges and defense alone.

Although the crossbow was an effective lethal weapon, it was soon to be overshadowed by the English longbow, a far more superior missile weapon. The longbow could be as tall as seven and a half feet, and was drawn to the ear as opposed to the short bow which was drawn only to the chest. The improved longbow could be fired only up to 250 yards, 100 yards shy of the crossbow’s firing distance. The relatively close firing range, however, made little difference in the performance of the longbow since it was able to pierce heavy armor at a shorter distance than the crossbow could pierce chain mail and lighter armor.

Another improvement in the longbow is that it could be fired with greater speed than its predecessor, the crossbow. An experienced archer could fire twenty arrows per minute, while the average archer could fire ten per minute. This made the new weapon fit for battle and operable by the less than dexterous archers since less practice was needed to fire the weapon.

The longbow was better suited for battle than the crossbow for reasons other than its power, easy operation and quick firing. The weapon was also a mechanism used to frighten the enemy on the battle field. When fired simultaneously, a shower of thousands of arrows could be fired upon an army. Any soldier would easily fear that at least one arrow would hit him. Horses too were driven into a frenzy over being struck with the arrows. The animals would throw their armored riders to the ground and bring any formation they had into confusion.

In order for the shower of arrows to effectively frighten the opposing army, the longbowmen required great discipline to fire at the exact same moment. The effects of the longbow would not have been as frightening had the arrows been fired one at a time. The required discipline changed the manner in which the soldiers were trained for battle. The longbowmen required years of training from childhood in order to develop the strength to actually draw back 100 to 175 pounds of pressure.

The crossbow was a more advantageous weapon for the simple reason that any man could fire the weapon, even an inexperienced archer. Additionally, the crossbow was, in some respects, more beneficial because the ammunition was less expensive and less bulky than conventional arrows. It was also easier to fire the crossbow from behind a shield than with a longbow.

Both the crossbow and the longbow revolutionized medieval warfare. While each missile weapon had its own advantages over the other, both played a role in changing the manner in which battles were fought, the types of soldiers that were used and the kind of training that was required. Certainly, the advent of these powerful missile weapons, which could easily pierce the formerly impenetrable armor, brought with it a new type of strategic warfare.


1. Bilson, Frank. Crossbows. Douglas David and Charles Ltd.: Vancouver, 1974.

2. Hindley, Geoffrey. Medieval Warfare. Wayland Publishers, London: 1971.

3. Payne-Gallwey, Sir Ralph. The Crossbow: Medieval and Modern, Military and Sporting. The Holland Press: London, 1958.

4. Pollington, Stephen. The English Warrior: From Earliest Times to 1066. Anglo-Saxon Books: Norfolk, England, 1996.

5. Prestwich, Michael. Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages: The English Experience. Yale University Press: New Haven, 1996.