Solving the "Longbow Puzzle": why did France and Scotland keep their inferior crossbows?

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If the gun lobby reads this I’m sure they can use it their benifit.


It’s because they were not English!

The Song of the Bow

What of the bow?
The bow was made in England:
Of true wood, of yew-wood,
The wood of English bows;
So men who are free
Love the old yew-tree
And the land where the yew-tree grows.

What of the cord?
The cord was made in England:
A rough cord, a tough cord,
A cord that bowmen love;
And so we will sing
Of the hempen string
And the land where the cord was wove.

What of the shaft?
The shaft was cut in England:
A long shaft, a strong shaft,
Barbed and trim and true;
So we’ll drink all together
To the grey goose-feather
And the land where the grey goose flew.

What of the mark?
Ah, seek it not in England,
A bold mark, our old mark
Is waiting over-sea.
When the strings harp in chorus,
And the lion flag is o’er us,
It is there that our mark will be.

What of the men?
The men were bred in England:
The bowmen—the yeomen,
The lads of dale and fell.
Here’s to you—and to you!
To the hearts that are true
And the land where the true hearts dwell.


So they’re saying the longbow was a double-edged sword?


That’s interesting.

I’d always read that it had a lot to do with how little training is required to use a crossbow rather than a longbow. You could just arm peasant conscripts with crossbows but longbow archer was more often people with land, like yeomen, who were compensated more than a regular serf would be.


I am sure they present new and better evidence, but hasn’t that always been at least a patriotic glurgy theory?

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I knew yew would say that.


Indeed, I got that same impression from the opening paragraphs of the Wikipedia article. It hardly makes the longbow seem “superior” at all, and certainly doesn’t suggest a “puzzle”.



It is an interesting idea. There are many cases in history of rulers/governments limiting weapon availability for that very reason. e.g. feudal Japan and Nazi Germany.

I didn’t realize that some countries used mainly one or the other. I thought there was a mix. The Crossbow’s strength was it was easier to shoot accurately, and it could be shot with more force and actually pierce plate armor at closer ranges. Of course raining thousands of arrows onto a battle field before the melee fighters got to yours was the strength of the longbow.


While probably this shouldn’t be brought up here, the Nazis did the exact opposite. When they had some parliamentary power, they loosened strict Weimar gun control laws to arm their militias, and those loosened gun laws were a critical part of their ascent to power. They wanted the rabble armed desperately since it was mostly their militias who were blocked, and since the chaos from street battles made their “law and order” stance electorally palatable. Sure, they didn’t loosen gun control laws for the Jews, but they did everything they possibly could to restrict every conceivable right for Jews - they wanted them to be miserable, but weren’t specifically afraid of armed resistance - armed resistance would have made it all the easier for their plans.


The Battle of Halidon Hill isn’t an example of the longbow’s superiority, it’s an example of the absolute advantage holding high ground is in an archery battle. The same is true with the Battle of Bryn Glas and the Battle of Shrewsbury, which - against the theme of the article - was a fight against rebel forces also armed with longbows.


So two economists set out to explain political and military policy. I love it when they create mathematical formulae to “prove” their case. Their arguments have more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese pinned to an archery target.

Technology seesawed back and forth a bit between bows and crossbows, but to call one inferior raises the question “For what?” The rate of fire of the bow gives an advantage in open battle, but the crossbow has many advantages in a siege situation. Since French tactics, as the authors point out, were to avoid pitched battles and hole up in fortresses, the choice of crossbows makes sense. The ease of training crossbowmen has been pointed out above by logruszed

Is a ruler facing the threat of war really going to deprive his army of the best technology? That only works if, as in Japan, all parties agree in order to preserve the status quo. The Catholic Church failed to achieve this when it tried to ban the use of the crossbow on the grounds that it was too deadly and disruptive to the natural order.

Saying England was more stable ignores little details like the Wars of the Roses.

Was this study funded by the NRA?


Yep. And also quarrels are smaller than arrows, especially the monsters a longbow fires. I would imagine that the quarrel is also cheaper to produce, since you need shorter lengths of good wood, and the fletching was simpler as well. This cheapness would be attractive, for mobile or static forces. But the size is also good for the mobile force: one wagon could carry more bundles of quarrels than arrows.

I suspect also that the crossbow, being somewhat smaller, worked better in siege situations; the eyelets in castles were pretty tight. (Scotland also had a tradition of people holing-up in fortified homes/castles, so I’m guessing that this was in part a point in favor of hanging onto the crossbow vs the longbow. I suspect landscape also may have played a factor, because the English would benefit more from the the impact of massed volleys in their flatter terrain.) OK. I’m rambling. Time to quit.


Right it seems odd the two economists would miss the broadly known theory with an essentially economic base. Longbow men took a lifetime to train at comparatively high expense. Which also meant you couldn’t quickly increase the number of them in play. Crossbow men could be trained quickly, and for a lot less money. Which mean you could also quickly adjust the number of crossbows as needed. So similar results for cheaper and with a more adaptable force sounds like a pretty obvious reason to stay the course with the crossbow.



not only did they need training, they needed to keep up the practice every sunday as required by the king but apparently this did not always happen hence the attempt to ban various sports they played instead.

Yes. That and the fact that you could aim a crossbow at a window or other gap in the enemy’s defenses and wait for someone to stick his head up. A longbow can’t be held at full draw for more than a few seconds.


Bowie demonstrates the stance:


Showing how a crossbow can be fired one-handed while scratching your ear?


Well, that is very true. To turn down the jingoism knob on my post a bit, how about broadening to the United Kingdom. I had read that Welsh bowmen were very valued.

I think you really hit the nail on the head about the amount of time you need to spend to become proficient. Didn’t one English king outlaw football because it took away time from practicing with the bow.