Longbow vs. Armor

Sunday, August 21st, 2011

Matheus Bane decided to test a replica medieval longbow against period armor, because he had read so many conflicting — and poorly supported — opinions.

First, he decided to use the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) procedure for testing modern body armor:

The NIJ ballistics test specifies the use of a box of Roma Plastilian #1 clay. (Figure 1) The clay is calibrated by drop testing to a specified resistance. The testing standard threshold is 1.7” of clay deformation for the armor to pass (NIJ 0101.04). The penetration threshold is much smaller though. The NIJ stab test indicate a 0.28” max to pass (JIJ 0115.00). The standard assumed in this test is that the wearer sustaining a wound less than 1.7” of deformation who is brought to the hospital will survive and, as they state in the forward, “The penetration limit was determined through research indicating that internal injuries to organs would be extremely unlikely at 7mm (0.28 in)”. In the 1400s this standard would have been much less. Without modern medical treatment many wounds we consider treatable would become fatal.

Then he calculated that an arrow shot from a 75-lb-draw bow would have the same velocity at point-blank range as an authentic 110-lb-draw bow would have at 250 yards, so he shot his bow at just 10 yards.

He shot four kinds of arrow:

  • needle bodkin (type 7)
  • short bodkin (type 8)
  • wide broadhead (type 13)
  • curved broadhead (type 16)

He shot at a number of different kinds of armor:

  • jack coat – 15 layers of linen stitched to one layer of deer skin on top, the “most serviceable defense in the fifteenth century” according to one expert, might have up to 30 layers of linen
  • butted maille – a cheap form of “chain mail” that may not have even been used in medieval times, with the rings simply closed in a circle with the ends butted together, over 2 layers of quilted linen stuffed with 1” cotton batting
  • riveted maille (average quality) – made up of 18 gauge iron wire with a 5/16” inside diameter, over 2 layers of quilted linen stuffed with 1” cotton batting
  • riveted maille (high quality) – made
    up of 18 gauge steel wire with a 5/16” inside diameter, over 2 layers of quilted linen stuffed with 1” cotton batting
  • coat of plates – 3” square plates, covered with 1/16” thick leather and padded with 8 layers of linen
  • plate armor – 4.57 mm thick, over 3 layers of quilted linen.

His goal was not to demonstrate that a longbow could defeat all armors of the time, but that’s what he found:

Jack Coat
This was the first test that was performed and was, by far, the most surprising. Although defeated by three out of the four arrow types, the effectiveness of slowing down arrows was great. The deerskin rolled into the penetration in the needle bodkin tests and acted like a break. The linen padding was enough to distribute the force of the short bodkin and keep the deformation under the fatal threshold. The armour that I tested was the thinnest documented jack I could find. The thickest was almost twice as thick, and in my opinion, would have been enough to stop the needle bodkin as well as the short bodkin that the thinner armour stopped. The bladed arrows on the other hand were much more in line with the outcome that I expected. The cutting force against the deerskin and linen was very efficient and ended in a 3.8” penetration. The jack coat at its thickest would have been an effective armour on the battlefield, although I expect very hot and resistant to movement.

Butted Maille
Many people believe that butted maille existed in period as an armour type. I feel that this test shows the main reason why it was not used. The butted maille was no match for any of the arrows that were shot at it. Even the short bodkin and large broadhead had 1.7” of penetration. The biggest reason that I feel that this armour type was not used was the fact that either the penetration was excessively deep or only slightly deep but broken rings were pushed into the flesh. Not only would this armour not stop arrows, but it would introduce more dangers. In the case of the barbed arrows, the armour only impeded the arrow from being withdrawn. In my test shots all the barbed arrows needed to be pulled through, not pulled out. The best summary that I can give on butted maille is that it would be better to be wearing nothing rather than butted maille.

Riveted Maille (average quality)
This test patch, albeit riveted, was not much better than the butted test. The rings were inconsistent in craft and the integrity of the metal around the rivet was questionable on average. Although the penetration depths were slightly shallower, every arrow was fatal. I only had two test patches so I decided to only test the arrows that were of lesser potential penetration and save the type 16 arrow for the high quality test. The needle bodkin, or as it is referred to at times, the maille bodkin, popped open one link and pushed in to a depth of 2.8”. With such a small area of amour contact, this arrow would be difficult to stop with any period maille. The short bodkin did not punch all the way through but instead pushed rings through the padding and into the flesh, breaking the skin to a depth of 1.3” and also leaving a dent very close to the fatal threshold. The broadhead cut many rings but not enough to get the barbs past the rings. Although not full penetration, the depth was 1.8” and it too sent broken rings into the flesh. Riveted maille of this quality was not much more effective than butted.

Riveted Maille (high quality)
The last maille tested was made of rings of high quality metal and craftsmanship. The metal around the rivets was consistent and solid. The needle bodkin performed exactly like the previous maille, breaking one link and penetrating 2.8”. The short bodkin however did not penetrate the metal and bounced off. This seems to be a good sign, but the deformation was 1.8”, which is over the fatal threshold. The broadhead arrow once again did not get the barbs past the maille but in this case did not introduce rings into the flesh. The penetration was 1.3”. Finally the type 16 arrow, which is indicated as the most common, cut through the rings and the padding to a depth of 3”. This head was very efficient and deadly against this armour and, in my opinion, should take over the title of maille arrowhead from the needle bodkin. Although the needle bodkin penetrated further, the type 16 arrow would not be able to be removed while the armour was in place and would cause a much larger cut in the body. This high quality maille shows that the craftsmanship of the rivet has a great impact on the penetration of arrows. If the wearer was using thicker padding under the maille, the short bodkin and the broadhead could possibly be rejected safely. No matter how thick the padding, except the very impractical thickness, the type 16 and the needle bodkin arrows would not be stopped by maille armour.

Coat of Plates
The small overlapping plates under the leather were a good defense against arrows. Only the needle bod­kin pen­etrated at all, and, although technically past the threshold, the wound would be very small and unless hitting a major organ likely survivable. The other tests did not penetrate but did leave large plate-sized deformations. These dents were well within the threshold but would have had an impact on the wearer. The leather outer layer would also help in oblique angle shots in giving the arrow head a purchase point. This would increase the number of arrows that made full contact. Although protective, the coat of plates would have been an uncomfortable armour to be struck in by a longbow.

The outcome of this last test came as no surprise. The plate stopped most arrows. The needle bodkin again punched past the threshold but would not create a great risk to the wearer. The padding that was tested seems to be the bare minimum of arming coats. If this layer was increased, I believe that none of the arrows would have touched the skin. There also was very little to no deformation. With a slight change in padding, this armour would be comfortable and very protective against the longbow with any arrowhead.

Most soldiers on the battlefield would have been at risk from the longbow. The average archer would have had the tools to wound or kill most armour types. Even with the advent of coat of plates, the archer would have had an impact on an advancing army. Only the most expensive and well made plate armour wearers would have had an advantage. Although even with plate, I only tested the impacts to major protected areas. The joints and gaps would all still be vulnerable being mostly of maille until the 16th century. Without significant metal to withstand the energies of an arrow or excessive padding to spread out the force, arrows of the 1400’s would have been deadly.


  1. Cruft says:

    May want to comment on Agincourt.

  2. Isegoria says:

    My understanding is that the French knights at Agincourt had a weakness much larger than any chink in their head-to-toe plate armor: their horses, which were not armored from head to hoof. English arrow volleys likely wounded and panicked many of the French horses, breaking the French charge, scattering following infantry, and further tearing up the muddy terrain.

    When the heavily armored French men-at-arms did advance on foot, they had to keep their visors down and their heads bowed, to avoid taking arrows to the face, which meant that they had to slog through knee-deep mud with their faces covered — so they arrived exhausted, even if they didn’t take many casualties.

  3. Cruft says:

    It appears that the article describing the inability of the arrow to penetrate plate does away with the myth of the English yeoman being the key piece of Agincourt. Here’s my take: French forces may have been 5X the English. The defile and the knee-deep mud of the newly plowed field both slowed and exhausted the French infantry. That the idiotic French general staff took no notice of the ground boggles the mind. Morons. Well the French aristocracy paid a heavy price for that lesson and learned nothing. Thanks for kicking the longbow myth to the curb.

  4. Cruft says:

    It appears that most of the French deaths were caused by the unarmored English on the helpless French in hand to hand. Very, very few lost their lives, approximately 10 to 1.

  5. Isegoria says:

    What the experiment demonstrated was that needle bodkin arrows, with their armor-piercing heads, could in fact pierce any armor of the day, at extreme range — but they’d penetrate the thickest armor with a direct hit at that extreme range just enough to qualify as causing a life-threatening injury. So, the archers of the day were not shooting clean through knights at 250 yards.

    They were, on the other hand, wounding the horses, wounding anyone who wasn’t armored head to toe, forcing well-armored infantry to advance with visors down, etc. — and then likely doing more direct damage at shorter range, before fighting their exhausted enemies in hand-to-hand combat.

  6. Cruft says:

    Go back and read your article; “the needle bodkin did NOT touch the skin”.

  7. Borepatch says:

    It’s a Box o’ Truth for medieval ammunition!

  8. Isegoria says:

    This is what the original article says: “If this layer [of padding] was increased, I believe that none of the arrows would have touched the skin.”

  9. Isegoria says:

    Our investigator really should have looked at arrows vs. sheetrock. How else are we supposed to know what kind of bow and arrows to use for home defense?

  10. Ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.

  11. Buckethead says:

    Show me where I can buy a blaster, and I’ll gladly switch.

    Maybe there’s an Isher Shop franchise in Virginia.

  12. Isegoria says:

    For those who prefer to read more about something not as random or as clumsy as a blaster, but an elegant weapon for a more civilized age:

    Hun Archery
    The Physics of Medieval Archery
    The Adventures of Robin Hood
    Legolas and Stunt Archery in the Fellowship of the Ring

  13. Matt Marino says:

    I just want to know where [he] got the bow. I’ve been looking for one for years. Best I could find was #65.

  14. Bob Brazeau says:

    The test was a 75 pound bow replicating a war bow at 250 yards? Rereading the books of the battle, someone needs to do a test with a true war bow at say, 50 feet? The battle was fought close, not 2.5 football fields away.

    And this:

    Then he calculated that an arrow shot from a 75-lb-draw bow would have the same velocity at point-blank range as an authentic 110-lb-draw bow would have at 250 yards, so he shot his bow at just 10 yards.

    I need to see the math.

  15. Bruce says:

    A month after Crecy, the French caught a battalion of English archers moving supplies. The English got behind some hedgerows. The French doubled their shields and walked slowly up to the hedge, chopped the hedge, chopped the English. Froissart’s first book.

  16. Chris C. says:

    Just like with real estate, in battles success may depend on location, location, location. IIRC, Sun Tsu may have noted this as well.

  17. Toddy Cat says:

    Henry V was smart enough to choose his battlefield very carefully. There were plenty of situations where armored cavalry could have defeated longbowmen. Henry was careful not to fight the French under those conditions. As we demonstrated in Vietnam, good weapons and good troops are unavailing without good leadership at the top. As we found out, it’s possible to win every battle and still lose the war. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much what happened to the English in the Hundred Years War, after Henry died…

  18. Kaue says:

    Assuming the calculations are correct, what about a 140-lb-draw bow at the same distance (250 yards)? Would it pierce in a lethal way? Or, even worse, at only 120 yards, would it be lethal?

  19. Brent says:

    When the British ship the Mary Rose from the Era of Henry VIII was excavated they found that, unbelievably enough, British archers of the period were pulling longbows of up to 200lbs. That would weigh the calculation here much more in the archer’s favor.

  20. TWS says:

    I used to shoot a 90# yew long bow. I am large and strong and have been shooting bows since I was three.

    It was hell on my shoulder. I traded down to a 65# recurve. I could possibly have pulled a 200# bow but it takes a special guy to do that all day.

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