Ranged Weapons of the Middle Ages. (Killy things of the Airborne variety)
By: Wes Dyer
We are all familiar with common weapons used in the medieval ages. Movies and tv shows have often featured the iconic swords, battle axes, and maces for melee weapons. Other implements however would also prove to be catastrophically effective during medieval battles. In one such battle featured in Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”, we would even see the use of a very new sort of weapon.
Ranged weapons, such as the longbow, indeed we have evidence of humans using this weapon system for thousands of years. But the weapon would prove instrumental in medieval campaigns. Ranged weapons allow the wielder to inflict damage from out of arms reach. Featured in Chaucer’s Canterbury tales is a great battle- The Battle of Crecy. And ranged weapons would prove instrumental in this fight including longbows, the controversial crossbow and……GUNS?
The Battle of Crecy was the opening throwdown of the 100 years war, a series of ongoing and armed conflicts mainly between the kingdoms of France and England from around 1337 to 1453. (“The Hundred Years Wars: Not One But Many”)
Check out the link and dive into the “Battle of Crecy”
There would be three major ranged weapons involved in this battle which would pitch and turn seemingly for both sides. However…the opening salvos in the Hundred Years War would be between the Longbow and the Crossbow.
The Infamous and Enduring Longbow
The longbow without a doubt represents the quintessential ranged weapon not only in the middle ages, but spanning thousands of years before that as well. During the Middle Ages however, the longbow was seen not only as a useful implement of hunting and war, but was considered so important that men and young men of certain ages were required to own these weapons, as well as practice with them often and in some cases, even compete. (Harsanyi, 2018, pp. 72, 73)
They practiced with these instruments so often even, that a medieval archer (unearthed) can be discerned by the remaining bones alone, as the discipline would build up not only key muscles, but change the very bone density and spinal alignment of the man.
“According to studies, medieval archers had a thick left arm, a distorted spine, and thickened joints around their left wrist, left shoulder and right hand. These physical changes are the result of years of archery training.” (“Medieval Archery-The Longbow”)
The British (or Welsh) Longbow was an incredibly effective weapon on the battlefield, and the most preferred ranged weapon of the Hundred Years War. According to King Edward III (1327-1377), “The longbow was the machine gun of the Middle Ages: accurate, deadly, possessed of a long range and rapid rate of fire, the flight of its missiles was likened to a storm”. It is believed that an arrow shot by a professional archer of Edward III’s time would reach 400 yards (370 m). (“Medieval Archery-The Longbow”)
How to shoot a medieval longbow
The crossbow would unquestionably go down through medieval history as the “bad boy” weapon of the age. Due to its inherent accuracy and extreme power, the compact weapon system offered the user an exceptionally deadly weapon. The crossbow, an incredibly strong ranged weapon crafted from the marriage of wood and iron, this weapon fired a heavy “bolt” style arrow which produced enough force to penetrate armor. Easy to understand why some accounts show evidence of this being the first weapon to be restricted by governmental agencies.
Strategically, the crossbow, unlike its longbow cousin, was used for more close quarters style battle. Crossbowmen’s strategic role on the battlefield was to inflict mass damage to critical fighters, namely, the mounted and armored knights. With their weapons having the capacity to penetrate shields and armor, crossbowmen presented a very real danger to Knights and Nobles on the battlefield.
While the crossbow afforded the user incredible power and accuracy…there were some drawbacks to the famed weapon. As opposed to its Longbow cousin, the crossbow was a slower loading weapon, with some reports showing a roughly 1 to 3 difference between the two in volume of fire. (“The Longbow-Crossbow Shootout At Crécy (1346): Has The “Rate Of Fire Commonplace” Been Overrated?”)
Another serious drawback to the weapon system was its range. Here again the weapon is outperformed by its simple tree branch cousin. These two disadvantages of the crossbow would exact a terrible toll during the Battle of Crecy.
It is reported that the opening salvos of the entire Hundred Years War occurred between English archers and French crossbowmen. The English were able to send an incredible number of arrows into the French and at greater (safer) distances. Sir John Froissart-considered one of the leading scholars on the 14th century- described the rate of fire by the English archers in a bone chilling fashion
Gunpowder was first mixed by the Chinese estimated around 150 A.D. and over the centuries would see refinement to the current age of ultra-destructive weaponry. Some would be surprised to learn however, it wasn’t all arrows to the face and swords cleaving heads in Medieval times… the “gun” would make a not-so-grand appearance toward the end of the middle ages. One of its first documented official uses in battle would be in the Battle of Crecy.
In 1384, Chaucer would recount the famous battle in his stories “The Canterbury Tales“ and here we would see one of the first documented uses of firearms in European history. These very rudimentary weapons featured in their earliest stages would be simple weapons, made from wood mounted with a simple and short barrel. The Gunman would light the charge by hand, sometimes literally with a match, and a small lead ball would come flying out toward the opposition.
First, the word “Gun” is originally thought to derive from the Norse root “Gunnildr” a name for Norse women. From there its nomenclature adapted to the shorter “Gunna”, then eventually “Gonne”. In Chaucer’s junction with early rudimentary firearms, he referenced to them in his story…“As swifte as pellet out of gonne, when fire is in the poudre ronne.(The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer.)
As held up to the powerful light of the longbow and crossbow, however, Europe’s first firearms would prove to be fairly ineffective and unpreferred weapons. Early guns took far more time to load than their bow counterparts, were extremely unreliable (especially in rain, which was pouring down at the start of the Battle of Crecy), and for the most part, were counted as very inaccurate and weak weapons.
(2008). The Longbow-Crossbow Shootout At Crécy (1346): Has The “Rate Of Fire Commonplace” Been Overrated? Brill.com. https://brill.com/view/book/edcoll/9789047442837/Bej.9789004168213.i-480_008.xml
(2008). The Hundred Years Wars: Not One But Many. Brill.com. https://brill.com/view/book/edcoll/9789047442837/Bej.9789004168213.i-480_002.xml
(“The Hundred Years Wars: Not One But Many”)
(“The Longbow-Crossbow Shootout At Crécy (1346): Has The “Rate Of Fire Commonplace” Been Overrated?”)
The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer.
Harsanyi, D. (2018). First Freedom. Threshhold Editions.
(n.d.). Medieval Archery-The Longbow. The John Moore Museum. https://www.johnmooremuseum.org/medieval-archery-the-longbow/
Burns R. I. (1972). The medieval crossbow as surgical instrument: an illustrated case history. Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 48(8), 983–989.