The World’s First Assault Weapon — The English Longbow

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What exactly is an “Assault Weapon” anyway? Guys like us would assert that it is a lightweight, selective-fire, military-issue shoulder arm firing an intermediate cartridge. Folks such as Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi apparently think an “Assault Weapon” is anything more dangerous than dental floss. Regardless of semantics, the English longbow was a world-changing weapon in its day.

The English Longbow was the assault weapon of its day, whatever that really means. Then, as now, such stuff as this struck fear in the hearts of the less durable members of society.

Origin Story

The effectiveness of the English longbow in combat represented a synergistic melding of the English longbow along with the equally critical English longbowman. Prior to the advent of the longbow, the armored mounted knight dominated the battlefield. The longbow, however, served as a great equalizer, leveling the field and making common men more lethal than their noble counterparts.

The zenith of the longbow as a military weapon occurred during the Hundred Years War. Fought between 1337 and 1453, this conflagration sparked when the English King Edward III laid claim to the French throne. It ended when King Charles VII pushed the English back across the channel. The intervening years saw the English longbow change the way men killed each other.



The bow was typically formed from a select stave of English yew wood. The flat side of the bow was formed out of sapwood while the rounded portion was oriented from heartwood. Sometimes a linen backing would be applied to the flat side of the bow to increase its elasticity. The bowstring was wound from hemp.

Linen backing on an English longbow

Frequently, the English longbow included a linen backing that increased its durability, elasticity, and power.

“Clothyard” arrows for the longbow were typically formed from ash or birch. Fletched with three flights made from goose or swan feathers, they were tipped with nasty barbed-iron arrowheads. In 1341, Edward III stockpiled 7,700 bows and 130,000 sheaves of arrows in the Tower of London for use during his expeditionary forays onto the continent. By the 1350s not a spare arrow was to be found in England as they were all being marshaled for the war with France.

A typical English longbowman carried about 60 arrows—usually packed in a quiver. When called into action, the archer might carry his arrows in his belt or simply push them nose first into the dirt for easy access. This gave an added benefit of causing more impressive wound infections. While this was centuries before the acceptance of the germ theory of disease, it was still appreciated that a little corruption on the arrowheads rendered them more effective.

Most English longbows were just over six feet long and weighed about a pound and a half. Each archer carried a dagger as well for close-in defense. Some bowmen packed a short sword and buckler in case life went truly sideways.

English longbow wrapped grip

The English longbow was formed from a select stave of yew wood. The flat aspect was harvested from the outer portion of the tree, while the rounded bit came from the heartwood.

The Human Component

A proper archer was the cumulative product of a lifetime of repetition. Unlike the Genoan mercenary crossbowmen employed by the French, English longbowman required years of training, conditioning, and practice to attain proper combat proficiency. The use of the bow became so critical that all sports save archery were made illegal during the height of the war. Skeletal remains of bowmen of this era show deformities to the arms and vertebra resulting from repetitive lifelong use of the English longbow.

An English archer was expected to be able to provide six aimed shots per minute at point targets or twelve shots per minute during massed fire at area targets. Maximum effective range was between 200 and 300 meters. Archers were frequently arrayed along likely avenues of enemy advance so as to be able to engage a formation on its flanks. During the battle of Agincourt in 1415 English archers fired 60,000 arrows in a single minute.

“Then the English archers stepped forward one pace and let fly their arrows so wholly and so thick, that it seemed snow—the sharp arrows ran into the men of arms and into their horses, and many fell.”~Jean Froissart—French historian describing the Battle of Crecy in 1346

English archers were so despised by their opponents that any who were captured alive would have the first two fingers on their right hands amputated to prevent their ever again pulling a bowstring. Legend has it that in the aftermath of the battle of Agincourt the victorious English archers passed in review of the defeated French nobles and held those two fingers up in the shape of a V as a sign of defiance. This symbol is employed as an obscene gesture in Europe to this day.

The less durable members of society will always fear implements of destruction. However, mankind has been engaged in an evolutionary arms race ever since that first primitive man hefted a stone with the intent of de-braining his neighbor. While today’s vociferous debate orbits around AR15s and AK47s, in years past it spawned from markedly simpler stuff.

What exactly is an “Assault Weapon” anyway? Share your best answer in comment section.

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The mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!’s blog, “The Shooter’s Log,” is to provide information-not opinions-to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

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