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Bows

This text gives an overview of traditional bow types, with data on their performance. Modern bows using modern materials and compound construction are briefly mentioned, but not taken into account any further. Sporting, hunting and war bows are all listed, but the modern recreative archer will find most of them rather heavy.

Handbows

Mongolian composite bow at full draw The handbow is the oldest type of bow, known since prehistoric times. The simplest handbow is the self bow, made of a single piece of wood bent and tensed by a string. The bow is held vertically and gripped in the center by one hand and the arrow and string by the other.
The first bows were "shortbows". There were held in front of the archer and stretched up to the chest. As time progressed, medium and long bows were made, which could shoot harder and further. But the length of an archer's arms puts a limit on the length of bows. To increase shooting power beyond the maximum of a self bow, fletchers developed backed and fully composite bows, of which the latter are actually shorter than longbows. Here is a short overview:

Some of the types can be combined. The recurved composite bow was and still is very popular in Asia. In the hands of nomads, wielded from horseback, it was a formidable weapon. In wetter climates, like in Western Europe, people stuck with self bows and backed bows. The most famous one is the English longbow, which was very popular in England from 1275 to 1540 CE and phased out in the decades around 1600 CE. It gained much status at the battles of Crécy and Agincourt.
Among handbows, there is great variation in bow length, draw length, tension strength, arrow length and weight, range and penetration power. Ideally, the size and tension strength of the bow should match the stature and arm strength of the person that wields it, but people can handle bows that do not match them with some loss of performance. All these factors make it very hard to give accurate figures on the performance of these weapons.
In general, heavier bows require heavier arrows. Arrows range in weight from about 10 grams to over a 100 grams. Light flight arrows are fast and have great range. Heavier war arrows have lower velocity, but take a larger percentage of the energy that the archer puts into a shot and also carry more momentum, thus have a greater armor penetration capability. Hunting arrows are fitted with broadhead points, designed to cut through flesh. War arrows often need to penetrate armor and are fitted with shorter and stouter bodkin heads, or sometimes even blunted.

Crossbows

crossbow The crossbow alias arbalest is a handbow fastened horizontally onto a stock. This type of construction allows for high tension strength, but because their draw lengths are shorter than those of handbows, they are not very much more powerful. Crossbows use shorter and thicker arrows, called bolts. Bolts with flanged tips are called quarrels, but this name is sometimes used for all kinds of bolts. Some crossbows do not shoot bolts but stones or bullets and are called "stonebows", "arbusts" or "bullet crossbows". The latter are used exclusively for hunting small game.
The Chinese and Greeks invented crossbows more or less simultaneously, around the 7th - 4th century BCE. The Greeks developed them into field artillery weapons like the gastraphetes and later siege catapults like oxybeles and lithobolos. The Chinese also made hand-wieldable crowssbows and even developed a repeating crossbow. Crossbows were the most popular missile weapon in Europe from 1200 to 1460 CE and phased out in the decades around 1500 CE, when gunpowder firearms took over. They remained popular as hunting weapons for centuries more, because they are silent.
Crossbows evolved from light to very powerful weapons. During this evolution, ever more ingenious devices were developed to help the crossbowman pull the string up to full tension strength. Several types can be discerned:

Handbow versus crossbow

In military circles there is a long-lasting discussion about which weapon is better: the handbow or the crossbow. As can be expected, the answer to this question is that it depends, on several factors:

Weapon tables

The table below lists average effective combat statistics for a number of example bow types. The list is by no means exclusive; it picks examples from a whole spectrum of bow types and sizes. Units are taken from the International System of Units, so weights are in kilograms, lengths in meters, forces in Newtons and impacts in kilograms meters per second. The only exception is the rate of fire, which is not listed in Hertz but 1/60 Hz alias shots / minute.
Sometimes a weapon is listed over multiple rows, each for a different arrow weight, as this can dramatically alter performance. The weights given are typical examples; lighter or heavier arrows can often be used.

  weapon ammunition draw point blank effective extreme fire rate  
Handbows mass len mass len diam forc vel rng vel mom rng vel mom rng vel mom acc inacc rem
youth shortbow 0.30 1.00 0.015 0.60 0.008 100 34 25 32 0.5 30 31 0.5 95 28 0.4 8 16 (1)
hunting shortbow 0.40 1.10 0.020 0.70 0.008 200 51 40 47 0.9 55 45 0.9 185 37 0.7 7 14 (2)
hunting longbow 0.60 1.65 0.030 0.70 0.009 300 56 45 52 1.6 65 50 1.5 220 41 1.2 6 12 (3)
English war longbow 0.80 1.80 0.050 0.75 0.011 500 62 50 57 2.9 80 54 2.7 265 44 2.2 6 12 (4)
      0.090 0.80 0.013   50 40 48 4.3 55 47 4.2 205 41 3.7 6 12  
Asian medium composite bow 0.40 1.25 0.035 0.75 0.009 350 79 70 71 2.5 115 66 2.3 370 50 1.7 6 12 (5)
      0.070 0.80 0.012   61 50 57 4.0 75 55 3.8 270 45 3.2 6 12  
Asian heavy composite bow 0.70 1.10 0.050 0.75 0.010 550 69 60 64 3.2 95 61 3.0 325 49 2.4 6 12 (6)
      0.100 0.80 0.013   51 40 49 4.9 60 48 4.8 215 42 4.2 6 12  
Japanese daikyu 1.10 2.25 0.110 0.95 0.012 600 52 40 50 5.5 60 49 5.4 230 44 4.9 6 12 (7)

Notes:

  1. A light bow for women and youths, with less strength and length than adult men.
  2. Can be shot by adult men in good health and is suitable for killing small game and wounding unarmored enemies. The hunting bow is comparable with the 'sporting' longbow, which is longer but has similar tension, draw length and performance.
  3. Requires some strength and training and can be used to bring down large game or attack lightly armored enemies.
  4. Requires lots of strength and rigorous training and can penetrate medium thick armor. The draw 'weight' is average; heavier bows up to 65 kg are uncommon but used; extremes range up to 80 kg.
  5. This bow can be used efficiently with a wide range of arrow weights.
  6. 'Flight' bow. The draw 'weight' is above average but heavier bows up to 65 kg are used.
  7. The Japanese daikyu, which attained its final shape in the 16th century CE, has its grip at 1/3 of the length, rather than at 1/2 length as with most handbows. It is seconded by the shorter hankyu, "half-bow", and even smaller "kago hankyo", neither listed above. The Japanese bows are of composite build, using bamboo and wood.
  weapon ammunition draw point blank effective extreme fire rate  
Crowssbows mass len mass len diam forc vel rng vel mom rng vel mom rng vel mom acc inacc rem
Chinese repeating crossbow 1.3 0.60 0.015 0.20 0.008 225 39 30 37 0.6 40 36 0.5 120 32 0.5 24 40 (1)
wooden crossbow 2.8 0.85 0.0275 0.30 0.010 500 49 35 46 1.3 55 44 1.2 180 37 1.0 5 8 (2)
eigth crossbow 2.5 0.80 0.040 0.30 0.012 1000 53 40 49 2.0 60 47 1.9 200 39 1.6 3 4 (3)
quarter crossbow 3.0 0.85 0.0625 0.35 0.014 2000 60 50 55 3.5 75 53 3.3 250 43 2.7 2 3 (4)
cavalry crossbow 5.0 0.70 0.075 0.30 0.016 3350 72 60 64 4.8 95 60 4.5 310 46 3.4 2 2 (5)
infantry crossbow 7.0 0.75 0.085 0.30 0.017 4950 88 80 76 6.4 130 68 5.8 350 46 3.9 1 1 (6)
siege crossbow 8.0 0.95 0.090 0.35 .0.018 5450 95 90 79 7.1 145 70 6.3 410 50 4.5 1 1 (7)

Notes:

  1. The rate of fire for the Chinese repeating crossbow excludes reloading. Its magazine houses 10 - 12 arrows, so at full speed is emptied in just 15 - 18 seconds.
  2. About the heaviest crossbow that can be strung comfortably without help. Suitable for hunting.
  3. Of composite construction. Needs a cord and pulley to be be strung.
  4. Of composite construction. Needs a goat's foot to be be strung.
  5. Made of steel. Needs a cranequin or windlass to be strung. A cranequin can be used from horseback, but is slower. Using a windlass, the crossbowman can achieve an inaccurate fire rate of 3 bolts per minute.
  6. Made of steel. Needs a windlass to be strung.
  7. Made of steel. Needs a windlass to be strung.

Accuracy

The chance of hitting a target with a bowshot depends on many factors, but the most measurable one is distance. At point blank, a novice archer has a good chance of hitting a man-sized target. More skilled archers are able to hit much smaller targets with a decent frequency. Beyond point blank, accuracy descreases rapidly for novice archers and slower for skilled ones. The "effective range" listed in the tables is about the maximum range where an average skilled archer still has a reasonable chance of hitting a man-sized target.

Damage

When calculating damage to an opponent, many factors come into play. Broadhead arrows are good at piercing and cutting flesh, but perform poorly against armored opponents. To punch through armor, an arrow with a narrow head like a bodkin is needed, but that causes less damage to the flesh behind it. Broadhead arrows wreak damage by penetrating deep into flesh and causing bleeding. They may also have the slower but equally deadly effect of infecting the wound with dirt or even poison. Bodkin and blunt arrows do concussion damage even when they do not penetrate. Bullets from a firearm mainly do concussion damage, both on impact and when penetrating flesh. Against opponents with little or no armor some of them are actually overpowered, entering at the front and exiting at the back without transferring all their kinetic energy to the wound. With arrows and bolts, this is seldom the case.
As this document is aimed at wartime archery against armored opponents, momentum is deemed more important than kinetic energy. A good measure for damage seems to be arrow/bolt momentum minus armor protection, which means that low momentum shots have zero effect against heavy armor. A bolt from a heavy crossbow at close range will punch straight through about any armor, while a shot from a shortbow has difficulty penetrating even thin leather.

Common misconceptions

Compared to modern archery, there is little factual data available on the performance of historical bows. This text is a mix of hard experimental data, descriptions from the past, applied simple physics and estimated guesses. I think that the numbers are quite accurate, though they may surprise some readers, as a lot of misconceptions circulate over the internet. Here are a few:

Arrow Flight Simulator

Much of the data in the weapon tables has been calculated by an Arrow Flight Simulator program. This utility calculates the flight path of an arrow, depending on several configurable parameters, including air resistance. The program is written in C# and requires the .NET Framework 4.5 (including WPF) to run, so is limited to Windows Desktop only. You can find it here: ArrowFlightSimulator.zip. The program does not require any registry settings, background services, special permissions or the like. It does not have an installer because it does not need one. Download, unzip to a directory of your preference, browse to the subfolder "bin\Release" and start ArrowFlightSimulator.exe. For programmers source code, including a Visual Studio 2012 solution file, is included. All is released, like this text itself, under a Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial Share Alike license.

References