What Was the Difference Between the Crossbow and Longbow in Medieval Warfare?

Tristan Hughes

4 mins

29 Aug 2018

The crossbow and longbow are two of the most iconic ranged weapons that come to mind when we think of medieval warfare.

Although both originated in ancient times, it was during the Middle Ages that these weapons came into their element, becoming so deadly and powerful that they could penetrate even the iron or steel armour of a medieval knight.

Both were deadly in the medieval theatre of war. Still, they had very noticeable differences.

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Training

The time required for someone to train a recruit in these two weapons differed greatly.

Learning to use a longbow took a significant amount of time, and a lifetime still to master. This was in no small part due to the heavy weight of the weapon.

A typical English self longbow during the medieval period measured six feet in length and was made from yew wood – the best wood available on the British Isles. To be used effectively against heavily armoured knights, an archer had to draw this longbow’s bowstring as far back as his ear.

An example of a medieval English self longbow.

Naturally, this required a very strong archer and it thus took a lot of training and discipline before any recruit could fire a longbow effectively. During the 13th century, for instance, a law was introduced in England that made it compulsory for men to attend longbow training every Sunday to ensure that the army had a ready supply of operative archers available.

Longbowmen were therefore trained archers – many of who would have spent years perfecting their skill with this deadly weapon.

Learning how to use a crossbow efficiently, however, was a much less time-consuming task. The mechanical nature of this bolt-firing weapon reduced the effort and skill needed to use it and, unlike their longbow counterparts, wielders of the crossbow did not need to be strong in order to draw back its bowstring.

This model demonstrates how a medieval crossbowman would draw his weapon behind a pavise shield. Credit: Julo / Commons

Instead, crossbowmen usually used a mechanical device such as a windlass to pull back the bowstring. Before such devices were introduced, however, crossbowmen did have to use their legs and body in order to draw the bowstring back.

As a result, while becoming a longbow marksman required years of training, an untrained peasant could be given a crossbow and taught how to use it effectively very quickly.

Despite this, the crossbow was an expensive tool and so its main users were usually mercenaries who were well-trained with the weapon.

Mercenary Genoese crossbowmen are pictured here during the First Crusade.

So deadly was the crossbow and so easy was it for a raw recruit to use effectively, that the Roman Catholic Church once attempted to ban the weapon from warfare. The Church considered it one of the most destabilising weapons of the time – akin to how we view gas or nuclear weapons today.

Pitched battles

The crossbow may have been easier to use than the longbow, but this did not make it more effective on the open battlefield. In fact, during field-battles the longbow had a clear advantage over its counterpart.

Not only could a longbow fire further than a crossbow – at least until the latter half of the 14th century – but a longbowman’s average rate of fire was significantly greater than that of a crossbowman.

It is said that the best archers were able to fire an arrow every five seconds with accuracy. However, such a high fire-rate could not be maintained over long periods and it is estimated that a trained longbowman could fire around six arrows per minute during more prolonged periods of time.

A Genoese crossbowman at Crecy uses a windlass contraption to pull pack his bowstring.

A crossbowman on the other hand, could only fire at about half the speed of a longbowman and on average could fire no more than three or four bolts a minute. His slower reload time was due to his need to use mechanical devices to draw back the bowstring before he could load the bolt and fire the weapon. This cost the wielder precious seconds.

At the Battle of Crecy, for instance, the countless volleys of the English longbowmen shattered the opposing Genoese crossbowmen, who had foolishly left their pavise shields back at the French camp.

Castle warfare

Although the longbow’s faster rate of fire gave it a significant advantage on the open battlefield, the crossbow was preferred as a defensive weapon – most notably when it came to defending castle garrisons.

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A castle’s defences removed the problem of the crossbow’s slower reload speed as they gave the wielder ample cover while he fitted a new bolt into the weapon – a luxury that crossbowmen rarely had on the battlefield.

Many castle garrisons therefore prioritised crossbowmen in their ranks, as well as making sure they had stockpiles of ammunition. At the heavily-defended English outpost at Calais, as many as 53,000 bolts were kept in supply.