Standards of Bow and Arrow Length

by Erik Roth

An archar off Northumberlande
Say slean was lord Perse,
He bar a bende bowe in his hand,
Was made of trusti tre;

 An arow that a cloth-yarde was lang,
Toth harde stele hayld he;
A dynt that was both sad and soar,
He sat on sir Hewe the Mongonbyrry.

With Spanish yew so strong,
Arrows a cloth yard long,
That like to serptnts stung
Piercing the weather.

[Chevy Chase] 



There has been much controversy about the lengths of mediaeval bows and arrows.  The arrows were of various lengths according to whether they were intended to be drawn to the breast, to the ear, or to the point of the shoulder and they also varied according to the size of the shooter.


The length of the bow corresponded to the length of the draw.  In most cases, arrows were drawn to the head and draw length equaled arrow length, which was measured from base of nock to points of the arrowhead barbs or shouldering of the head.


A bow casts an arrow by its speed of recovery from full draw.  All other things being equal, the shorter the bow, the faster it will be, for as Howard Hills axiom states; “The more a bow limb is bent, the faster it returns.”  The optimum length of a bow is then determined by how far the material of which it is made will bend without breaking.  Mediaeval bows were made long enough to provide a safety factor, but those used for flight shooting to maximum distance were very close to breaking at full draw.  Now for the standards.


For longbows, the earliest reference to Mediaeval proportions is the French ‘Book of Roi Modus’ written at the beginning of the fourteenth century before the Hundred Years War.  The word ‘longbow’ is not used, even Lartdarcherie uses the term ‘arc a main’.  The book, about hunting, probably originates in Normandy.  The ‘English’ bow of yew is to be 22 poignees, measured between nocks, and the arrow is to be 10 poignees from base of nock to points of barbs.  ‘Poignee” means a grasp, or the width of a fist.  The stave and shaft may be measured off by grasping with alternate hands, taking care to press one well down on the other.  This method of measuring was used by English country people well into the 19th century.  It should be noted that a person who gains weight will find his poignee measurement increased, but in any case the crucial relationship will remain proportional.


I am 5’8” tall and this recipe gave me a bow of 5’11” and arrows of 31-1/2”.  “Roi Modus” says to draw to the ear and draw up the arrow to its head.  The arrow worked out exactly right for this kind of draw.  Roi Modus adds that the bowstring should be of silk, braced at a height of a palm and two fingers from the bow.


In 1515 “Lartdarcherie”, in Picard dialect, was printed in Paris.  The Hundred Years War was long over and Paris was again a French city.  “Lartdarcherie”, mentioning “Roi Modus,” tells us that according to custom the arrow should be ten poignees and the bow should be two poignees more than double the arrow length, exactly as specified nearly two centuries before.  Flight bows should be a poignee shorter but only two or three arrows a day should be shot from them.  It is pointed out that many archers draw longer arrows but many of these shoot a weaker arrow by doing so.  There are also many who use a shorter shaft, still making long shots and shooting as strongly as others, but the booklet’s author suggests that they would be finer archers by using the 10 poignee draw length and adds; ‘I venture to say that it is impossible to shoot a long arrow in an an ungraceful way, if the bow is pushed forward, that is, pressed toward the target when the arrow is loosed.


Roger Ascham’s “Toxophilus”, printed during the reign of Henry VIII, was England’s first book on archery.  Writing of longbows when practice with them was still compulsory, Ascham refrains from giving measurements of bows or arrows on the grounds that individual variations make that impossible.  However as the English also drew to the ear and drew the arrow to the heads, the length of arrow shot in this way could hardly have been much different from the 10 poignee French arrows.


But what of the famous clothyard arrows with shafts three feet in length?  Were they really used, or did the term refer to smaller arrows of perhaps 30” as Roberts suggested in 1800?  The term “clothyard” dates from 1465, and clearly refers to an exceptionally impressive arrow.


In Medieval and Renaissance writings, the terms ‘clothtyard’, ‘clothier’s yard’ and ‘tailors yard’ are sometimes used interchangeably with the word ‘eli.’  But there was some confusion caused by local variations of measurements that had the same name.  The “Statute of the Staple” was fixed at 36 inches and the English eli was designated as five-fourths of the standard, or 45 inches.  However the Scotch eli was 37 inches, as was the yard of three Rhineland feet used by Flemish clothmakers brought to England under the Plantagenets, this yard being abolished in 1533.


The old Saxon standard is stated in the ninth century Cotton manuscripts; “Tres pedes faciunt ulnam.” Three feet make an eli r yard, and perhaps this held best in popular usage. Royal statutes were often ignored in Medieval times.


A contemporary wrote of the English archers at Agincourt that ‘the most part of them drew a yarde.’                           


In 1825 a Mr. A.J. Kempe saw in Cornwall some arrows which he believed to be old English, that were 3 feet two inches long.  This measurement probably included the head.  Cornish archers of the rebel party who defended the high road at Deptford bridge in 1446 were reported to have shot arrows ‘in length afullyarde.’  Francis Bacon { 1561-16261 also reported the Cornish rebels as using arrows of a ‘tailors yard’ Carew, in his “Survey of Cornwall” of 1602, tells us that the Cornishmen used shafts of ‘a cloth yard in length’ for long shooting.  The English Board of Trade presently considers the 37” Flemish yard to have been the clothyard.  These sources leave little room to doubt that Cornishmen used arrows of a good 36” in length.


John Smythe wrote in his “Discourses on Weapons”; ‘Our English bows, arrows and archers do exceed all other bows used by foreign nations, not only in thickness and strength, but also in the length and size of the arrows.  ‘He doesn’t say just how large and thick they were, but Paulus Jovius does.  A sixteenth century traveller, he reported that the English shoot arrows somewhat thicker than a man’s little finger and two cubits long, headed with barbed steel points from bows of extraordinary size and strength.  These were war arrows.  A cubit is the measure of a man’s forearm from elbow to the extended middle fingertip, and two cubits make 36”.  This is a thick and heavy arrow by modern standards, even taking into consideration that it was doubtless breasted and of aspen.


Many modern archers might consider such an arrow impossible to shoot effectively.  However Dr. Pope tested a Chinese of Mongolian war arrow that his brother had purchased in China from a Chinese who had demonstrated shooting it.  The arrow was 38” long by 1/2” in diameter with a forged iron head.  Though it was tapered in the foreshaft it weigls four ounces.  By comparison a hunting arrow of today weighs an ounce and a half or less.  This Chinese arrow was scarcely to be differentiated from the late Mediaeval clothyard, an English specialty.


The reflexed composite bow that accompanied this arrow drew 98 pounds at 28 inches, a long way from full draw.  Neither Pope nor his companions could draw it more than a foot and proper testing was impossible.  Finally Dr. Pope, a seasoned bowhunter, shot the arrow from his 85 pound hunting bow, the strongest he could command.  It flew only 115 yards.


Pope then made up an arrow based on a 16th Century Italian painting showing bow and arrow realistically portrayed.  The arrow, considering the bow length as six feet, worked out to a 1/2” shaft 35 inches in length wtih feathers nine inches long and 1 1/2” high.  The broadhead was 3 1/2 inches long and weighed more than an ounce, the entire arrow weighing three ounces.  It was doubtless with growing feelings of inadequacy that Pope, who had killed grizzlies and lions with his arrows, managed to shoot this arrow 117 yards from a longbow of 72 pounds at 36 inches.


A great longbow for shooting a yard long arrow must be about six and a half feet in length, and statutes gave preference to imported bowstaves of six and a half feet long.  Foreign tradesmen could import them free of duty.  Some statures specified seven foot staves.


Clothtyard arrows are too long to be fully drawn in a draw to the ear and were drawn to the shoulder of the drawing arm.  They were probably shot only at roving or flight distances with the bow hand elevated.  For my part, I find that in drawing to the point of the shoulder, 36 inches is about the maximum length that I could draw.  Drawing beyond the shoulder, as the Japanese did, is very difficult with a powerful bow.


We may consider the yard long arrows to have been the maximum length in use with handbows in mediaeval Europe.  Longer then this, they would be used as jave1ins.


In the second half of the fifteenth century, Edward IV issued a curious statute, his fifth act.  Referring to Ireland, it specified that every Englishman, or Irishman living with Englishmen, provide himself with an English bow of his own height plus a fistmele and with twelve shafts of the length of three quarters of the standard.  [The word  fistmele at this time referred to the width of a fist, the poignee, and  now includes the extended thumb to determine a bow’s brace height].  This length of bow works out the same for me as the Roi Modus method, and also corresponds to an old rule that the bowstring should be the length of the shooter.  Bows used by Scottish mounted archers in the service of Louis XI and his opponent Charles of Burgundy in the wars of 1475-1477 were equal to a man’s height.


The arrows are another matter.  ‘The Standard’ is the 36” yard fixed in the ‘Statute of the Staple’.  Three fourths of the Standard was 27”.   No explanation is given for a variable bow measurement coupled with a fixed, and proportionally short, arrow measurement for anyone over 4’ 5” tall if the proportions above noted are here applicable.  The arrow measurement would appear to be a standardization for military purposes in a land in which short bows [Irish bows] and arrows had come into use.  Perhaps Edward wanted the Irish who had not learned longbow shooting in childhood, to at least become accustomed to long bows.  Longbows and arrows were sent to Ireland to be sold to the king’s subjects but a statute of  1515 suggested that in default of long-bows in Ireland, the king’s subjects should apply themselves to the Irish bows.


But curiously in Roberts time, when men still drew to the ear and only 5’6” was considered average height, 27” arrows were used with six foot bows as standard practice although many archers sensibly cut the bows down to 5’8” or less.  Of course by this time bows were made with a stiff handgrip area rather than the even bend of mediaeval times, and had to be somewhat long.


These 27” arrows may be considered the shortest that would be used with longbows and are better suited to use with the short handbows that were used throughout Europe during the entire Middle Ages.


LE LIVRE DE CHASSE gives specifications for the short handbow, that he calls a  Turkish bow, referring to its length rather than its construction, also known as a  smallbow,  and its arrows.  It was written in the fifteenth century by Gaston, Count of Foix, a county on the northern side of the Pyrenees.  During the Hundred Years War he refused to aid either English or French forces and was passionately fond of hunting, in which pursuit a short bow has certain advantages.  It is less cumbersome in brushy country and can be readily shot from a kneeling position.  It is also quick of cast although its light arrow has less impact than that of the longbow and would not be advisable for war but can be shot completely through a deer.


Gaston suggests a shaft of 8 poignees from nock to barbs.   This gives me 26 1/2” shaft, the same length as a method of recent tradition of placing an end of the shaft against the base of the neck, the other end between the extended fingertips of both outstretched arms.  The bow is to be 20  poulcees between nocks.  Under the assumption that this measurement is the length of the thumb from tip to second joint, I get a bow that measures 4’ 8” between nocks.  The completed bow matches those in the illustrations for the fifteenth century edition of the book.  They are shown being drawn variously to the breast or face.  Gaston adds that the bow, designed for short range shooting, should be “weak”,  that the silk bowstring should be braced to the height of a paume de large, a palm’s breadth, and that the well filed and sharpened broadhead should be four fmgers broad and five fingers in length, of course a swallowtail broadhead.  The bow is shorter than it would have been using the Roi Modus method, but as it is necessarily thinner than a longbow, it will tolerate a greater bend.  The six small bows that Sir Peter Courtney sent to France for the king’s gamekeeper in the time of Richard II would have been of this type and in 1527 Charles V was informed that the Earl of Desmond’s men were armed with small bows and swords.


In all the foregoing examples we find equipment made to fit the size of the bowman, with the exceptions of the clothyard and the Three-fourths of the Standard arrows.  The ‘traditional’ English longbow of recent times most nearly matches the atypical Fifth Act of Edward IV, perhaps because during the numerous archery revivals people looked to the only precisely specified old English measurements.


This “traditional” six-foot longbow and twenty-eight inch arrow left the archer with a bow that was, by other mediaeval standards, ten inches too long for the arrow, with a loss of potential casting power. Because of the post-medieval fashion of the stiff handgrip and tips of the “traditional” longbow, some of this additional length was necessary to avoid breakage, but some practical archers such as Dr. Pope cut their bows to 5 ‘8” in length, thereby increasing their efficiency.


The Mary Rose find illustrates the specifications given above.  The bows averaged 6 and a half feet in length.  Sir John Smythe had noted that military bows were made long enough that they did but seldom break.  Most of the arrows were  32”, a minority, about a third, were 28”.  The average was 30 1/2”. Both the long and the short arrows were bound together in the same sheaves to be shot from longbows of a minimum of six feet in length.  A biography of Charlemagne, written by a scholar who knew him personally, describes the emperor’s fondness for his hunting weapons, a good silver-hilted Frankish sword, a spear, and a bow with long and short arrows.  It seems clear that both long and short arrows were shot from longbows.