The Range of Arrows

(Warning: May contain Physics)

Archery was officially withdrawn from the ranks of the London Trained Bands in 1593, but continued in the country with the trained bands having a significant number of archers into the 1620s.[1] At this time a number of defences of archery vs. musquetry were written comparing range and effectiveness of both weapons. Most of the writers propose an additional formation of archers to the then existing pike and musket blocks, to provide long range missile capability and to defend the slower firing muskets at longer range than the pikes were capable of doing. Some even proposed arming the pike block with long bows. They had some success as in 1633 Charles I issued an new order for the use of bows in the Trained Bands, with training to be provided by a master bowman. Pleas for the reintroduction of archer units continued until the 19th century, when improvements to firearms finally shut up the military minds and the historians and sporting archers took over. Archery continued as a sport and to some extent as a martial pursuit, practice ranges were maintained from Elizabeth’s time until well in to the following century and records kept of competitions and events such as the Lord Mayor’s parades. This provides a nice continuity of data that allows exaggerations and outright lies to be found more easily and checked against data that can be extrapolated from surviving weapons. The accuracy of the extrapolation is quite good, because the arrowhead has to be matched to the shaft, the shaft matched to the bow, which in turn has to be matched to the archer. Thus all others can be inferred from measurement of one part.


Like matching ball diameter to musket barrel bore, arrows have a spine (effectively a measure of torsional strength), which has to be matched to the draw weight of the bow for maximum efficiency. This concept was understood, even if intuitively by medieval and renaissance fletchers and allows us to identify the draw weight of bows based on the surviving arrows.

To conserve momentum out to the ranges necessary for war, heavy and slow moving arrows were used; heavy, slow arrows lose much less energy over a given distance than a light, fast arrow with the same initial kinetic energy.

Archery as a military skill was at its peak until the reign of Henry VIII and started to decline under Elizabeth.[2] We all know (and mostly discount) the stories of mighty men drawing war-bows of massive proportion and slaying thousands of French and Scots whilst barely raising a sweat or sustaining a paper-cut in the process. But let’s look at the surviving weapons and do some extrapolation[3] ourselves. Reproduction Mary Rose war arrows were made from Black Poplar to the same dimensions as the surviving arrows, were tested and came out with a spine for a 149 to 162lb bow, which is not too far from the upper end of speculation for the war bow poundage.[4] Using bows of this weight all day sounds incredible, but at least one Australian re-enactor in the late 1970s was reputed to use a bow of this weight, and recently I had the opportunity to draw a reproduction of one of the Mary Rose bows with a draw weight in excess of 100lb and was able to do so a number of times. More than 120lb would have been a bit much for me, but I could probably build up to that draw weight within a few weeks. A chap by the name of Howard Hill holds the modern record for heaviest draw-weight shot, at 192 pounds, done in the early part of the 20th century.

Having established earlier and later draw weights are possible for us, lets now turn to 17th century accounts. Neade and Markham both complain about the decline in the ability of archers in their time. Shakespeare talks about the range an exceptional archer:

Silence. Jesu, Jesu, dead ! a’ drew a good bow; and dead! a’ shot a fine shoot; John A Gaunt loved him well, and betted much money on his head. Dead! a’ would have clapped i’ the clout at twelve score, and carried you a forehand shaft a fourteen and fourteen and a half, that it would have done a man’s heart good to see.[5]

To shoot a “forehand shaft, fourteen or fourteen and a half score” (280 or 290 yards), was obviously considered excellent distance by the target audience. A forehand shaft is a bloody big arrow, with a barrelled or tapered shaft and a massive head. See types 14, 15 and 16 in the illustration below. These ranges also correspond with that from sporting archery score sheets from the mid 17th century and to the long ranges achieved by modern archers both using bows of 65-70 pounds draw weight and lighter target arrows. Neade however talks about war bows casting arrows over 20 score yards even though he complains about the diminished skill of his contemporaries. This would require a draw weight of 100-120 pounds and matches my Mary Rose experience – a sporting archer used to a 65-pound bow is capable of using a 120-pound bow when necessary.

Results from a number of accounts and tests from 1542 to 2004 are tabulated below.

Ref Distance Note
Statute 33 Hen VIII.c.6, 1542 No man over 24 years of age to shoot at any mark of less than 11 score (220) yards with a “prick” (flight) shaft Law making practice of archery mandatory.
Sir Roger Williams Brief Discourse on Warre (1590) “few or none do anie great hurte 12 or 14 score (240 or 280 yds) off” Arguing in favour of archery and arquebuses together
John Smythe Certain Discourses Military (1590)[6] War arrow must travel 12 score (240) yards, many archers can shoot a flight arrow 24 or 20 score (480-400) yards See footnote on this page
Ayme for the Finsbury Archer (1594, reprinted 1604, 1628) Many targets range 18 score and 18 (378) yards, longest nineteen score and fourteen (398) yards All targets on the northern outskirts of London
Carew (1620) Longest range for “prick” arrows 24 score (480) yards Survey of archery butts in Cornwall
Neade, The Double Armed Man (1623) 18-20 score (360-400) yards12 score (240) yards flight arrowfire arrow – much heavier than flight arrow with heaps of drag
Aime for the Archers of St George’s Fields (1664) Range 4 score to 18 score
(80-360) yards
Other target ranges around London
Mason, R. O. Pro Aris et Focis (1798) Greater than musket range Recommends to start with a 60 pound bow and build up to as heavy a bow as possible
Payne-Galloway 250 yards (calculated) 130 pound bow. I think Payne-Galloway was calculating for a flat trajectory
H Ford (1890s) 308 yards (measured) 68 pound bow
C. J. Longman Badminton Library of Archery (1894) 280 yards (measured) 70 pound bow
Bartlett (1970s) 180 yards (measured) 70 pound bow
Noonan (1970s) Regularly achieved 360 yards Complained about losing one arrow by shooting it over the back fence of a 400-yard long field.
H Hill (1970s) 391 yards (measured) 172 pound bow
R Hardy Longbow (1976) 280 yards (measured) 65 pound bow
J Ross Webb
(Dec 4 2003)
375 yards + (estimated) Pronghorn 62″ longbow draw weight 70#@27″
Worcestershire Archaeology Services (17 March 2004) The maximum range of a longbow was about 400 yards. The butts comprised a level flat area of land, up to 200m long.


Arrow range is a function of bow draw weight and aerodynamic efficiency of the arrow; penetration is more dependant on arrow weight and some complicated head ballistics.

Penetration is not simply a function of kinetic energy, but also the effectiveness of energy transfer to the target on impact. For a given strength of bow, the momentum of the arrow at the point of impact rises sharply with arrow weight. This is because a bow imparts a fixed level of energy into an arrow more or less independent of the arrow weight

  • heavier arrows will only reduce in flight speed by the square root of their relative weight for a given bow strength
  • momentum increases linearly with weight for a given arrow speed
  • the efficiency of a bow increases as the arrow becomes heavier,  magnifying the effects described above

Therefore there was little point in keeping arrow weight down.  By modern standards, the points used were extremely substantial and the shafts tended to be strong rather than light woods.

The angle of the string on the bow has an impact (pardon the pun) on the momentum of the arrow as well. A straight-limbed bow, 76 inches long, with a 75-pound draw will shoot farther than with an otherwise identical 68-inch long bow. This is because at the same draw length, the string angle is lower on a longer bow allowing better energy transfer and fewer losses to friction in straightening the bow.[7]

Most studies have been done on the penetrating power of bodkin heads against armoured targets, rather than broad headed arrows against unarmoured ones such as would be the case in a 17th century battle. Evidence can be drawn from earlier descriptions of damage. An early 14th century English inquiry into the murder of a Simon de Skeltington records the instrument of death as an arrow shot from a five foot seven inch bow. “The wound measured three inches long by two inches wide and six inches deep”.[8] No range is given for Simon’s injury but I suspect a flat trajectory was used at a close range.

Edward VI’s (1547-53) diary notes 100 of his guard archers shot two arrows each at a one-inch thick seasoned oak board. Most completely penetrated the board and a number struck another board behind.[9]

The ballistics of arrow flight is completely different to that of a musket ball. Arrows spin in flight, stabilising by adding drag but also causing the arrow to drill into the target. The flight path is also different from a bullet: a bullet has a flat trajectory and decelerates from the time it leaves the muzzle. Conversely, a war arrow would be launched into the air in an arcing trajectory, decelerating until the top of its flight and then accelerates down from its zenith, so when is strikes its target the arrow is still accelerating. In this way when the target is at the base of a hill, and the archer in the preferred position near the crest, arrows can be moving faster and have greater momentum when they hit the target than when they left the bow.

Rate of fire

A trained archer could shoot 12 arrows a minute, but some sources say that the most skilled archers could fire twice this number.[10] Good technique is essential to keep this rate of fire up. When in practice, I could manage twelve aimed shots in a minute with relative ease. This equates to three arrows in the air at any time, one leaving the bow, one in mid flight and one about to strike the target. For example, at the archery vs musket competition at the first Maldon conferention, I was able to get all 72 arrows I took into (and around!) the target in the five minutes provided.[11] At the battle of Agincourt, sources estimate that there were about 5,000 English archers. Allowing a diminished rate of fire of eight arrows a minute due to tiredness and illness on campaign, 40,000 arrows could still be loosed each minute.

The introduction of quivers from sporting shooting to the military in the sixteenth century slowed the rate of fire slightly as each arrow has to be turned to fit the string the right way. Even using Neade’s division of 600 men and a leisurely rate of six shots a minute,[12] still makes 3,600 arrows per minute raining down on the marching enemy for over four minutes at slow time before they come into musket range.


Bartlett, C., & Embleton, G., The English Archer c. 1300-1500 (2), Military Illustrated

Boynton, L., The Elizabethan Militia, 1558-1638, London, 1967

Credland, A. G., Bow and Pike, Journal of Archer-Antiquaries Vol 29-1986

Hardy, R., Longbow — A Social and Military History, Patrick Stephens Limited, Cambridge 1976

Heath, E.G., The Grey Goose Wing, Osprey Publishing Ltd., Berkshire 1971

Held, R., The Age of Firearms — a Pictorial History, Cassell, London 1957

Longman C. J. The Badminton Library of Archery Chapter XXIV — The Range and Penetration of the English Long-Bow, London, 1894

Middleton, A. & S., Medieval Military Longbow Archery, 11/02/04

Neade, W., Archer, The Double-armed Man, By the New Invention, London, 1625

Nicolle, Dr D., Crecy 1346 : Triumph of the Longbow, Osprey Publishing Ltd., Berkshire 2000

Rule, M., The Mary Rose: the excavation and raising of Henry VIII’s flagship. HMSO Books, London, 1982

The Tudor Group,, 29 March 04.

Worcestershire Historic Environment and Archaeology Service, Medieval archery: the place name evidence, 29/03/04

[1] Boynton, p 295.

[2] Ascham, Markham, Neade, Smythe et al.

[3] Derived from a Latin word meaning “wild but clever sounding guesses”

[4] Michael O’Brien, message 1055, Mon May 5, 2003

[5] Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Part II act iii. scene ii

[6] I love the full title of this book: Certain discourses, vvritten by Sir Iohn Smythe, Knight: concerning the formes and effects of diuers sorts of weapons, and other verie important matters militarie, greatlie mistaken by diuers of our men of warre in these daies; and chiefly, of the mosquet, the caliuer and the long-bow; as also, of the great sufficiencie, excellencie, and wonderful effects of archers: with many notable examples and other particularities, by him presented to the nobilitie of this realme, & published for the benefite of this his natiue countrie of England..

[7] Kazimierz Verkmastare msg 1491 Feb 1 2004

[8] Heath

[9] British Museum Bib. Cotton Nero C10 P55, p39

[10] Nicolle

[11] The archers stopped at the end of the time, but the gunners were allowed to clear the shot they were in the process of loading into the target.

[12] The Tudor Group, “A competent [sic] archer was supposed to be able to put more than 6 arrows a minute into a 3 foot across target at 100 yards”;
Neade p C2 “for euery Archer may shoot sixe Arrowes within the time of the charging, and discharging of one Musket”


One thought on “The Range of Arrows

  1. Adrian Eliott Hodgkin mentions in _The Archer’s Craft_ (1951) in the context of aiming that the “forehand shaft” is the opposite of the “underhand shaft” — i.e. if “underhand” means that the target mark is under the bow hand and cannot be seen (“point blank” being the head of the shaft is on the mark), then “forehand” is the opposite: the mark to is visible above the bow hand. This would mean then that “a forehand shaft a fourteen and fourteen and a half” would be a long shot fired straight ahead, not just one lobbed into an arc in the air.

    This is complicated somewhat by Ascham’s description of underhand and forehand shooting requiring different kinds of shafts, though it is explained fairly well in Rushton’s _Shakespeare an Archer_, pp. 29-50. (This latter readily viewable via Google Books.)

    At any rate, “Old Double” shot not only far, but did so with a heavy shaft aimed ***straight in front of him***. This suggests a very good distance without having to aim high to maximize distance.

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