How Heavy were Iron Age Bows? Part 1
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Categories: Ancient, Medieval, Modern

How Heavy were Iron Age Bows? Part 1

See caption for description of painting
Another important detail: A Martyrdom of St. Sebastian in the BNM Munich showing the telltale red belly and yellow back of a bowstave made from the heartwood of a yew tree.

At the moment, many archery enthusiasts are telling anyone who will listen that soldiers’ bows usually had draw weights of 100 lbs and more (Deer hunters today usually use bows with a draw weight on the order of 50 lbs, casual or target archers often use bows about half as heavy, and even hunters of larger game rarely use a bow with a draw weight of 100 lbs or more). In other words, you could draw the bow to its full draw length by hanging it string-down and suspending 100 lbs or more from the middle of the string.  If this idea is correct, many men in the ancient world did something which is much more physically demanding than is commonly thought. This week, I would like to post some of the evidence which I know which might be relevant to the strength of bows used in the eastern Mediterranean around the sixth, fifth, and fourth centuries BCE. I hope that some of my readers can suggest more sources.

Very few bows from the first millennium BCE survive, and no text from that period describes the weight of a bow numerically. People who argue that archers in the Aegean and the western steppes used very heavy bows usually point to four main sources:

  • A replica of a bow from a cemetery at Yanghai in Xinjiang (East Turkestan) which Adam Karpowicz and Stephen Selby published in the Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries. They claim a date around 1000 BCE and call it Scythian, but that is hundreds of years before anyone uses the term, and far away from the most easterly of the nations who forereigners called Scythian, Saka, or Kimmerians. Their replica had a draw weight of 120 lbs at 28”, but they suggested that the original could have had a draw weight anywhere in the 80-140 lb range. They also suggested that western Scythian bows were made of laminated wood rather than not wood, horn, and sinew like the bow which they reproduced. Source: Karpowicz, Adam, and Selby, Stephen. “Scythian Bow from Xinjang.” Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries Vol. 53 (2010) Available as a PDF here.
  • The boast of Anaxagoras of Olbia in the Crimea that he had shot an arrow 282 fathoms around 300 BCE: Wallace McLeod, “The Range of the Ancient Bow,” Phoenix, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Spring, 1965), pp. 1-14
  • The bows and arrows which sank onboard the Mary Rose in 1545. The dimensions of the bows after shrinking were plugged into a formula by a Dutch physicist and used to estimate the original draw weights as in the 100-180 lb range (see Hardy and Strickland, The Great Warbow (2006) … my copy is in Canada and I was unable to check it when I wrote this post in Austria). {For my current understanding of the different estimates by experts, see below [1]}. Some people online claim that there is a lot of dispute about the weight which these bows would have had when new, but I do not know any such dispute amongst people who have carefully examined and measured the artifacts, beyond the mathematician’s warnings that models are only as good as the data and assumptions that go in to them. Other things worth reading for people interested in late medieval English archery are Jim Bradbury’s The Medieval Archer, the book Weapons of Warre (I have not seen it), and Kelly DeVries’ “Catapults are Not Atomic Bombs: Towards a Redefinition of ‘Effectiveness’ in Premodern Military Technology,” War in History 4 (1997) pp. 475-491
  • A study by Adam Karpowicz of Turkish bows in Istanbul. Karpowicz measured the bows, estimated their draw weight by eye, then calculated it using a formula developed by the same Dutch professor (Adam Karpowicz, “Ottoman bows – an assessment of draw weight, performance and tactical use,” Antiquity 81 (2007) pp. 675-685). He found that draw weights varied between 40 and 240 lbs (!) at 28” with a mean of 120 lbs.
  • Statistics collected by the Qing Dynasty, who tested soldiers with different weights of bows and recorded the results. These show that a small minority of archers were capable of using bows with draw weights over 100 lbs, and that the Manchus thought that the ability to draw heavy bows was a valuable military skill. Most of the published figures date to the late seventeenth or early eighteenth centuries. Peter Dekker, a Dutch amateur historian, has gathered many sources from books which I do not have to hand on his website; some other sources which have been recommended to me are Stephen Selby, Chinese Archery (Hong Kong University Press, 2000) (Bookfinder link), the T’ien-Kung K’ai-Wu of Sung Ying-hsing (1637, translated in Chinese Technology in the Seventeenth Century pp. 261-268 [Bookfinder link] [Wayback Machine link]) which allegedly gives the weights of bows used by strong, average, and weak archers in catties. (Thanks to Benjamin H. Abbott and Timo Nieminen for the reading list)
A topographical map of central Asia with modern borders and ancient sites
Yanghai, Xinjiang (center right near the Tarim River) is more than a thousand kilometers of merciless sand-dunes and dragon-spined mountains from the Achaemenid Empire, where we know all northerners were called “Kimmerians,” “Saka,” or “Skythians” 500 years after this Yanghai bow was buried. Map from http://www.freeworldmaps.net/asia/central/physical.html distances from Wikipedia + an online calculator.

(Readers, can you suggest any other sources?)

(A dozen or so sites in Europe have produced bowstaves dating between the Neolithic and the 10th century. I do not think that any date to the first millennium BCE. Not many estimates of their draw weight have been published; there are some unpublished reproductions circulating around the Internet, like this one commissioned by Steve Stratton, and people with lots of time on their hands might want to check them out).

Because there was a lot of resistance to the news about the Mary Rose bows amongst the archery community in Great Britain, who had been shooting much lighter bows and liked to believe that they were practising the same skill as the archers at Crecy, some people are very evangelical about preaching the gospel of heavy bows. All of these studies were written by experts and published in academic venues where other experts made sure that they were not making any obvious errors. Yet the Mary Rose and Istanbul bows are two thousand years later than the period which I study, and the Yanghai cemetery is several thousand kilometers away and Selby and Karpowicz cannot date it more precisely than “1000-400 BCE.” The Manchus are even later. Neither English longbows and arrows nor Turkish bows and arrows nor Manchu bows and arrows have much in common with any kind of bow and arrow used in the first millennium BCE, although it is possible that the longbows attested in the Neolithic and in the second millennium CE were used in the intervening period. Very few bows survive from Europe in the first millennium BCE or the first millennium CE.  And Anaxagoras’ shot was such an extraordinary achievement that it was commemorated with an inscription.

In the next post in this series, I will show some of the evidence which the enthusiasts don’t like to tell people about.

Edit 2022-07-26: the 1972 book From Sumer to Rome (danger, danger Will Robinson!) p. xviii claims that “the (which?) ancient composite bow has been estimated to have been capable of exerting 125 pounds of pull” As usual, the book gives no source. But the idea of heavy bows in antiquity did exist in the 20th century.

Edit 2022-08-17: in an earlier post I talk about Pharaoh Amenhotep’s boast that he shot through copper targets

This post was drafted years ago, but not posted because of lack of time and not being sure it would reach as large an audience as a printed article.  If you want me to keep writing online, please share my posts with interested people or donate.  Thanks to Giannis Kadoglou for bringing up this topic at The Battle of Plataea 2.5k online conference.

[1] The mathematician who modeled the Mary Rose bows warned Robert Hardy’s readers that models are only as good as the data and assumptions that go in to them. Since 2015 I have discovered an apparent disagreement between researchers who cite the same mathematical authorities. From an email I sent in November 2020:

There seem to be two estimates based on physics calculations by Kooi and Pratt, one that the largest group of bows would have pulled around 110-130 lbs new and the other that the largest group would have pulled around 150-160 lbs at 30″. Do you know where the different estimates are coming from? Are there any other approaches that you respect?

The books I know which make their own estimates are:
Robert Hardy, Longbow: A Social and Military History (1992)
Hardy and Strickland, The Great Warbow (2005) {high estimate based on Kooi}
H.D.H. Soar, Secrets of the English War Bow (2006) {low estimate}
And a chapter in Weapons of Warre volume 2 {low estimate based on Kooi}

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(drafted circa 2015, scheduled 9 April 2022)

17 thoughts on “How Heavy were Iron Age Bows? Part 1

  1. dearieme says:

    “no text from that period describes the weight of a bow numerically” The habit of automatically trying to quantify everything may have arisen as late as Victorian times (My guess: open to correction.) That would explain the timing of the invention of the subject Statistics. I suppose you could look at the early French work on probability as first steps in that direction.

    Certainly I’ve never seen any suggestion that people did anything resembling statistics with, for instance, Roman census data. I wouldn’t fancy doing Stats without Arabic numerals, mind.

  2. dearieme says:

    I suppose you’ve watched plenty of videos like this but I haven’t. Quite enjoyed it.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJWVtGtF3HA&t=333s

    The bows I’ve used a couple of times on holiday maybe had a bigger “pull”? Certainly the whoosh as we released our arrows and the thumps on hitting the target were very satisfying.

  3. russell1200 says:

    I find the discussions in the Great War Bow (which discusses the Mary Rose, but doesn’t really base its conclusions on that) to be persuasive, and honestly common sense.

    The general construction requirements of bows was understood pretty early on. The composite bow (which was did make its way into Europe) was primarily important in that it allowed for a strong efficient pull in a horse capable platform.

    If a group was fit (a big if with agriculturalists) and able to practice frequently (obvious if tell the archers skeletons from non-archers), there doesn’t seem much reason why they wouldn’t use bows in the ~150 pound pull region. If you have the state supplying the weapons (as the English did) you might trend a little lower due to allow for a lower common denominator.

    Hunting requires careful aimed fire. You need to hold the arrow in place as you aim. This a very different beast from firing into massed numbers of horses out in the open in an exercise of massed fire. The Great War Bow pretty much shows that there is very little mystery to the use of archery on the battlefield prior to Crecy. The biggest issue was if the army felt it worth while to have massive numbers of at least semi formed up archers. Some of the early states seem suitably well organized to make this worth doing.

    Beyond that, your going to get into need. If the armies are relatively lightly armored, and fighting mostly in the open, why make maximalist bows with big heavy arrows. Even more so if you don’t make a practice of practicing as much as the English. So a bow a little bit heavier to pull than your typical hunting bow, and with at least a number of the arrows being relatively light to shoot further seems most likely.

    1. Sean says:

      One obvious reason why not to use these crazy heavy bows is that its a lot of work and that many archers don’t seem to have bothered! In my next post in this series, I will bring up some of the archaeologists and bowyers who looked at ancient bows in the 20th century and did not see giant draw weights. My working hypothesis is that Old World draw weights increased around the 15th and 16th century due to the proliferation of armour and competition from crossbows and firearms.

      The one thing I agree with Cliff Rogers about is that in England circa 1300 an ulna is more likely a yard (4/4) than an ell (5/4). So Strickland was wrong to see the famous coroner’s jury as a smoking gun for longbows in 1300 (although long yew bows have probably been made in Europe since the Neolithic).

      I don’t currently understand the dispute about whether the Mary Rose bows averaged ~150 or ~110 lbs draw weight at 28″ And I don’t currently feel competent to talk about the 12th/13th century bows from Waterford, Ireland.

  4. dearieme says:

    The draw weight is a measure of the force with which you can separate your arms, the left pushing or holding the bow, the right holding or pulling the bowstring.

    You could get a much higher draw weight if you resigned the bow a bit so that you fired it from a supine position with your legs pushing the bow and your arms pulling the string. This would let you fire a heavier arrow without loss of velocity.

    You would presumably lose accuracy but if you viewed these hypothetical devices as light field artillery that might be a price worth paying. Landing heavy, high speed arrows on packed infantry or cavalry at a good distance might be a useful option for a commander.

    Did anyone ever try this idea?

    1. Sean says:

      I think ‘foot bows’ show up in a variety of places. And crossbows often use both feet pushing to span them. I think Anna Commena describes the Franks spanning their crossbows that way, and later on they talk about two-foot crossbows which were probably spanned with both feet. Saladin’s friend Murda al-Tarsusi also describes the ‘sit down and push with both feet’ method. The other advantage of that method is that it lets you pull the bow further, and since W = Fd doubling the distance you pull the string has the same effect as doubling the force.

  5. Sedo says:

    I can’t access the original chapter, but this reference is said to describe tests of a reconstructed Bronze Age Assyrian composite bow, which the authors found to have a draw weight of 19 kg – so more like a powerful recreational bow or weaker hunting bow than anything from the Mary Rose:

    T. Hulit & T. Richardson, ‘The warriors of Pharaoh: experiments with New Kingdom Egyptian scale armour, archery and chariots’, in B. Molloy (ed.), The Cutting Edge: Studies in Ancient and Medieval Combat (Stroud: Tempus, 2007), pp. 52–63, at pp. 56–61.

    1. Sean says:

      I think I forgot that chapter! There is another reconstruction of an ancient bow with a similar draw weight in that book.

      Now, it could be that the researchers who did not know about the Mary Rose bows and the Ottoman Bows and the Chinese military archery exams just could not see that the ancient bows they examined were so powerful, but Western Scythian bows are pretty small, often seem to shoot short arrows, and don’t have all the features of those powerful composite bows such as siyahs / ears. So I would at least like someone who knows bows and has studied surviving bows to make a case why earlier researchers like McEwan and Blythe were wrong.

      1. Sedo says:

        This thesis, and the references therein, might be useful:

        https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/79170491.pdf

        I haven’t followed up the references, but the author seems to take it as settled knowledge that 18-23 kg is the ‘normal’ draw weight for most cultures across most of history.

        1. Sean says:

          That thesis is new to me! One reason I started writing this was that the “15th/16th century archery people” were getting excited and trying to apply their discoveries to all kinds of other cultures, and they did not seem to know all of the ancient evidence just the Xinjiang / Turkestani bows. I collected a lot of sources on ancient archery around 2003-2006 when they were harder to find.

          Its kind of like how when that trick shooter got famous on YouTube, people were posting angry rebuttals and not realizing what the different things he did were inspired by. Almost everything in his videos was inspired by something from the ancient / medieval world. Traditional archery is diverse, and its way easier to say “that is now how the people I study did it” than “that is not how anyone did it”.

  6. Pavel Vaverka says:

    I’m following not just ryddragyn, but also other archers testing various bows (where producers are claiming, that they have tried to recreate ancient bow – Assyrian, Scythian, Sassanian, Hunnish, Turkish, etc.). In many case their performance, I mean characteristics are higher than 18-23 kg. Book Cutting Edge tested heavy draw bow contra Sassanid shield from Duora Europos, it get trough, but not deep enough to kill somebody, just hurt a little.

    For EIA (and Sean, You know my thougts and problems linked with Neo-Assyrian warfare, Cimmerians, Scythians, etc.), low draw weight bows, don’t kill or hurt enough anybody. Yes, prevalent opinion is, that only small portion of soldiers had proper gear, but I beg the difference. Assyrians fought against decent and technologicaly (smithworking, weapons) better opponents in many cases. Leather armour, shields, helmets, were causal thing. Weak hunter bow is not much fitted to warfare according to me. You need to hurt, kill people, various design of arrowheads even during EIA in Ancient Near East, Europe is a witness of specialization, against armour, soft targets, long distance, short distance, etc.

    When I think about fall of Neo-Assyrian Empire I can’t stop thinking, that stronger bows = higher casaulties, cavalry and reflex bows wouldn’t spread if they weren’t efficient. We need real tests against dummies with helmets, shields, bodygel with pads for measuring. Hunters bow surely wouldn’t scare infantry with medium, big shields, helmets. Loades said clearly what is needed for using full potential of bow on horseback, and even then with right equipment, strong bow it’s not easy to hit the target, kill or make enough damage. Take this equation, pull out strong bow, and what use the cavalry is? When infantry had the same or longer range? Only real testing (individual, groups) can give us more answers or ideas.

    There is still vast area of research questions, production of arrows ( especially body that withstand impact and gives you reach), archery aids, techniques of shooting, formations of cavalry, infantry, etc. I’m looking forward for part II.

    1. Sean says:

      A hunter’s spear or knife will kill you dead just fine! An arrow from one of those deer-weight bows will go through a human at close range and keep flying.

      If the other guy can shoot through your shield on the regular, you build a stronger shield or stop carrying it. In Plutarch’s Carrhae, the Romans are griping that their hands and feet are wounded through their shields by close-ranged archery. If they were dead they would not be complaining! Archery often seems to have been for shaping the battlefield more than massed killing.

      1. Wilhelm says:

        Firstly I cannot wait for part two to come out. I do agree with you to a point, I do not believe that ancient bows had comparable draw weights to English war bows but you start layering armor onto a human being and a 50# bow starts to become ineffective. I am assuming ( I know) draw weights of 70-80# is what they were. Its really not that hard to get up to draw 100# bow.

        1. Sean says:

          It looks like part 2 is scheduled for Saturday 17 September!

  7. Pavel Vaverka says:

    Yes, good arguments. See the Parthian bows were no doubt stronger, than usual hunter bows and yet they were only hurting against shield, armour. I’m curious for part 2. I can find somewhere on Mike Loades profile, how small Asian woman is handling heavy long bow during the contest with ease, shooting really fast! Did You got answer from bowyer company about their source for shape and composition of Assyrian bow?

    1. Sean says:

      I have not heard back from them. I am concentrating on an overdue writing project and may have some free time after it is done on the weekend.

  8. How Heavy Were Iron Age Bows? Part 2 – Book and Sword says:

    […] my first post on Iron Age bows, I showed that there is a lot of evidence that archers in England, the Ottoman Empire, and the […]

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