The World’s First ‘Assault Weapon’ — The English Longbow

By Will Dabbs published on in Archery

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.

English Longbow with two rifles

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.

Morphology

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!

Comments (21)

  • Marc Mulkey

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    Anything can be used as a weapon. If I use my bare hands to attack someone, I have assaulted them, therefore my hands are assault weapons.

    Personally, I enjoyed reading the article and the information about long bows.

    Reply

  • Ryan

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    I just unsubscribed from your web site, I’m a guy who usually votes Democratic, gun owner, hunter, target shooter, sportsman with concealed carry card. What, you thought all Democrats wore Birkenstocks and hugged trees? Here’s why I quit your site:

    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!

    And yet you print this:

    Folks such as Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi apparently think an “Assault Weapon” is anything more dangerous than dental floss.

    Sure sounds like a political opinion to me. And just so you know, there are a lot of left-leaning folks (if that’s how you want to see them) who are armed and carrying.

    Reply

    • Tim

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      Look, you keep voting for people working against our rights so don’t be surprised you get flak. You earned it by screwing the rest of us.

      Reply

    • Sean

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      Bye then. He’s right anyways. In case you haven’t noticed they throw out jabs to ignorant gun-haters all the time. Is it still an opinion if its true? And I live in CA. Trust me, its true.

      Reply

    • Dave

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      RYAN — This is not a political opinion If you were a real liberal and read both of their opinions and most of the press releases from the two of them – you would know that they have both said this m_a_n_a_y times — do your research and keep your mouth shut until you have the facts

      Reply

    • Marc Mulkey

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      “Folks such as Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi apparently think an “Assault Weapon” is anything more dangerous than dental floss.”

      While that may not be absolutely factual…it provides a very good representation of the lunacy that folks like Schumer and Pelosi espouse. If you are not like that, which apparently you are not…then you’re not one of these “folks”. Therefore, that comment shouldn’t offend you.

      That’s just my opinion.

      Reply

  • Force Recon Marine

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    The best personal defense aid is equitable or superior to whatever may be used against me, you, or us!!!!!. One might want to ask or consider the reasons why so many settlers fled Europe or their other homelands? The 2nd amendment was ratified to ensure the public would be equipped to fight against an army (British generally at that time) and to ensure the greedy whims of the monarchy would have no power in the new world.

    The purpose of the 2nd amendment was to ensure the wealthy didn’t tyrannize and take advantage of the poor to the point of war or revolution in which you-know-who loses and remains or becomes enslaved. It’s only a matter of time before history repeats itself in this young nation as it did so many times “across the pond”, and the framers knew this.

    Since the Bill of Rights was written Crony Capitalist monopolies (The Deep State Globalists) have been growing. They didn’t acquire their wealth through philanthropy; they are definitely out to get us and that’s not paranoia, it’s just a simple fact of life. Now, lobby groups generally promote interests of the 1% whom basically own the government in a progressively increasing and obvious way.

    When government officials rely on corporations for their career’s stability, and that when these corporations decide they’re capable and ready to enslave the masses [including those government officials], will you/me/we have the personal defense aids necessary to defend our freedom in this modern technological age, or will you/me/we be stuck with rusty armor?”

    We go back to the simple question of “What part of “shall not be infringed” do these Leftopathic Corruptocratic Globalists not understand”? Any law restricting ownership of any firearm written since 1791 is UNCONSTITUTIONAL and therefore technically unenforceable !

    ”Gun control is like trying to reduce drunk driving by making it tougher for sober people to own cars.”

    “Taking my gun away because I might shoot someone is like cutting my tongue out because I might yell `Fire!’ in a crowded theater.”

    You know you’ve hit peak first world privilege when you protest to have your God given and constitutionally protected rights taken away from you!

    If Bruce Jenner can keep his penis and still be considered as a woman then, I can keep my firearms and be considered as being disarmed.

    Cain Killed Abel with a rock. Liberals at the time blamed the NRA (National Rock Association)

    quisquis autem occiderit, non a facie gladii: ferrum in manu interficientis est .” […a sword never kills anybody; it’s a tool in the killer’s hand.]

    Reply

    • Helen Spalding

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      Works for me Devil Dog! Oo-Rah! S/F, ChapS

      Reply

    • Chuck Allen

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      Devil Dog GREAT POST! I am a retired Marine Infantry GySgt myself , well said brother and S/FI!

      Reply

  • Portabote

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    Advocating weapon (gun) control by the “ruling class” is nothing new. Somewhere in my archives I have a copy of “Primitive Archer Magazine” that has an article in it that talks about the English trying to impose a ban on the “commoners” possessing archery equipment (longbow) in the 800’s, because it made the “knight in shining armor” obsolete. So, don’t be surprised if some of those idiots in D.C. trying to impose an archery ban on us…

    Reply

  • Slim

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    Crossbow?!!! ASSAULT weapon… COMMON!!!!! People just need to MAKE UP STORIES like this BORING/SNORING version! An assualt weapon is ANY gun that can fire a hundred rounds or more in one minute(read some government info some time!). That’s what they are saying THESE DAYS. Might want to KNOW these FACTS BEFORE spewing this BS!

    Reply

    • Don

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      It is amazing how you can be so sanctimonious and so wrong at the same time, an assault rifle is a light weight select fire small to medium caliber weapon as differentiated from a Battle Rifle . an assault weapon is anything I pick up and use to assault you with. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A SEMI-AUTO ASSAULT RIFLE

      Reply

  • Tony Beal

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    I read this article only because of it’s title. What I expected to read was some previously unknown definition of “assault”. I’m not sure why anyone who supports gun ownership and 2nd amendment rights would purposely choose to perpetuate the misuse of the word when describing a firearm. Assault is an action by all the definitions I have researched. A firearm is an inanimate object that is no more or no less harmful than a soup spoon. That is until a capable being with ill intentions physically picks up the firearm (or soup spoon) and uses it with with deadly force. A person can assault another person with a firearm but there is no such thing as an “assault weapon”.

    Reply

    • USMC CPL

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      Well said Tony!! I’ve been saying it for years in the entire history of firearms has any firearm killed any person by itself, it needs a capable person for that.

      Reply

  • Larry Schuller

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    I understood there was a difference in the meaning of the two-finger “V” sign, depending on which way the hand is facing, back of the hand showing to the viewer or the palm showing.

    Reply

  • Chuck

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    The two right hand finger, the pointer and middle, was used by Winston Churchill during his time as a sign of “Victory” over the enemy. Also used as a sign of triumph or successes in anything accomplished. The use of the middle finger alone was the sign of the male organ, “as to shove it up your rectum” That symbol is employed as an obscene gesture in all the world, but not the sign of Victory with the two fingers pointing up.

    Reply

    • george

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      he used the V fingers for victory but palm toward the viewer. the 2 fingered V with the BACK of the hand toward the viewer is still in use in europe as the middle finger is used here.

      Reply

    • Graham McDonald

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      The “V” of two fingers with the palm of the hand towards the viewer – “Victory”. With the back of the hand towards the viewer – with an upward movement of the wrist – not at all polite. Usage: Australia – 1950’s and ’60’s. I was a teenager back then. Also: the ‘thumbs up” – fist closed, thumb upright symbol for “O.K.” was also ‘impolite’, as in the good old English expression of “Up yours”. Hand and finger gestures can mean different things in different countries at different times.

      Reply

    • Norm

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      In the Philippines, they use a closed right fist with the thumb inserted between the 2nd and middle fingers as their version of “up yours!” The middle finger salute used here does not elicit the same blood boiling reaction as the thumb in fist salute over there.

      Reply

  • Secundius

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    I don’t know about that! In the 13th Century it took between 2 to 5-years to be properly proficient in the Operation of the Long Bow and not everyone knew how to use it. But then again, virtually every Peasant knew how to use a knife (i.e. Sword)…

    Reply

    • george

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      longbowmen were trained from early childhood. practice was mandatory by Kings Law. Edward I (Long Shanks)was one of the first to use the Welsh longbowmen in his wars. Article is accurate. In fact a lot of the english Yew trees were depleted and yew staves had to be imported from Spain and Switzerland by the 1400s.

      Reply

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