The Writer’s Guide to Bows: Part 4

Use in Battle & Construction

Today I will be covering the use of bows in battle as well as maintenance and construction. There is a lot more to using archers in battle then lining them up and having them shoot. Also, the tactics used in an open field battle are different from the siege of a castle or city.

As always, magic is the exception to the rules. Because magic.

Use in Battle

Archers were an important part of most medieval armies. They could cause damage to the enemy before they even reached your lines. Once the enemy forces closed to melee distance, the infantry would either move in front of the archers or the archers would fall back. During the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William of Normandy opened the battle by placing is archers on the front line and had them shoot into the English shield wall. His initial plan was to then bring up the infantry to engage at close combat. [1] This tactic was repeated in 1415 during the Battle of Agincourt by King Henry V of England. The center front line and the flanks were made up of archers with the men-at-arms and knights held back in reserve in the center. [2]

Battle Formations

There were three main archery formations used in open field battles throughout medieval Europe.

First was the line. This formation provided a large volume of fire, especially if there were multiple ranks and the archers were shooting ranged volleys.

Next was the enfilade, a V-shaped formation with the wings closest to the enemy and the center point the furthest away. Two enfilades could be used together, creating a W shape. In several medieval battles, such as the Battle of Crécy in 1346, multiple enfilades were used.

Last was the defilade, essentially the reverse of the enfilade with the point of the V closest to the enemy.

Both the enfilade and defilade were incredibly effective on sloping or uneven ground.

When using archers to defend a castle or city, they would either shoot through arrow loops or slits or between the merlons, a space called the crenel, of a battlement. Both features provided them with an excellent field of fire while making it hard for the enemy to hit them.


Most of the depictions of quivers from medieval Europe show a belt quiver, such as on the Bayeaux tapestry. Across various sources it is shown in multiple positions, hanging straight at the side, across the small of the back and on both the right and the left as well as canted forward and backward. [3] As well there are depictions of arrows stuck through the belt. Medieval archers also used an arrow bag which was a simple drawstring cloth sack with a leather spacer in the top to keep the arrows separated that could be closed to protect them from dirt and rain.

During medieval battles it was common for archers to stick their arrows in the ground in front of them, their supply replenished by young boys acting as the medieval equivalent of power monkeys. This had the added benefit of dirtying the arrowhead, increasing the likelihood of infection.

Despite popular depictions of Robin Hood with a back quiver, this type of quiver was quite rare in medieval Europe. [4]

War arrows were usually bundled into sheaves of 24 arrows. It was common for archers to go through thousands of sheaves in a battle. To give you an idea of the numbers involved, between 1341 and 1359 the English crown ordered 51,350 sheaves. That’s 1,232,400 arrows! [5]

A detail from the Bayeaux Tapestry showing archers with belt quivers. Photo source.
Arrows through the belt. Photo source.


Like all pieces of equipment maintenance is essential for a bow to operate at peak efficiency. It is important to warm up the bow before stringing it. This involves rubbing up and down the limbs to create heat by friction. Once the bow is strung, some half draws and then several full draws are done to further warm the wood fibers, easing down after each one. If a bow is not warmed up before it is strung, it can snap. I have seen it happen.

Another important task is to keep the string waxed. This will hold the fibers together and help prevent fraying. Wax usually came in a block or a tube in modern times, which would be rubbed up and down the string then smoothed in with the fingers. It’s important to use the heat of your fingers or friction to get the wax to melt into the string. The string would also have to be replaced regularly as it stretched out or frayed.

How They Were Made

The most popular wood for longbows was yew although elm, oak, hickory, ash, hazel, and maple were also used. Most were self bows made of a single piece of wood and in the case of recurves, the ends were shaped by heat or force. [6] The other method of construction was lamination, done by gluing different pieces of wood together. Laminated or composite recurves were the standard weapon of Roman imperial archers and have been found on multiple sites throughout the empire.

A bowyer was a craftsman who made bows. To make a self bow, he would select a stave and set it in the clamp of a bowyer’s bench, which would hold it steady while he carved it into shape with a draw knife. In medieval England, a bowyer could reportedly crank out a longbow in as little as two hours. [7] Modern traditional bowyers average between 2-40 hours depending on whether power tools are used. Although if you include the time to dry the staves, that time increases to years. [7] If you want a step-by-step of the making of a longbow with mostly traditional methods, I suggest this video.

A bowyer’s bench. Photo source.
The visual difference between a composite bow (top) and a self bow (bottom). Photo source.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2020 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Bennett Campaigns of the Norman Conquest p. 41
[2] Sumption, Jonathan (2015). The Hundred Years War IV: Cursed Kings. London: Faber & Faber. ISBN 978-0-571-27454-3.
[4] Gerry Embleton; Clive Bartlett (1995). English Longbowman 1330-1515Ad (Warrior, No 11). Osprey Publishing (UK). p. 28. ISBN 1-85532-491-1.
[5] Wadge, Richard (2007). Arrowstorm. Stroud: Spellmount. pp. 160–1. ISBN 978-1-86227-388-7.

45 Comments on “The Writer’s Guide to Bows: Part 4”

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