The Book of the Crossbow by Ralph Payne-Gallwey; Crossbow, longbow ranges compared

Ralph Payne-Gallwey claimed that his Book of the Crossbow, published 1903, was the first to examine the use of the medieval crossbow in detail. He is probably correct. He was able to examine a large number of extant medieval crossbows and provided diagrams along with descriptions of their context, construction, and point-blank and maximum ranges. At the time he was writing, the Mary Rose wreck had not been discovered, and so there were only two known extant longbows. Some of Payne-Gallwey’s history is disputed by more recent historians, and some I personally disagree with, but in my opinion his testing of ranges is objective and useful. Payne-Gallwey understandably chose to focus great attention on the longbow vs crossbow battle at Crecy, and any comment he made is sure to be controversial. I lay out my personal disagreements on Payne-Gallwey’s characterization of the bow vs musket issue at the bottom of this article.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Crossbows in War

Having personally handled the weapons, Payne-Gallwey concluded that “its weight and size, and tedious manipulation, were the drawbacks of the the crossbow in open battle, and that its heavy bolt, great power and accuracy, and its convenience for the defence or attack of fortifications, were its advantages”. Other advantages of the crossbow were that it would be carried loaded and discharged while stooping or lying on the ground, unlike a longbow. He believed that the heavy steel-limbed 15th century military crossbows were too bulky to be aimed at at single combatants rapidly moving.

Fowling with Crossbows and Firearms

Payne-Gallwey claims that a hunter with a crossbow could not bring down a bird on the wing. I agree with that, but he then goes on to claim that “nor, indeed, could the man who used the arquebus of the same period [1500-1630], its system of ignition being so slow and primitive”. Below is a picture of birds being shot in flight from 1601. Even earlier in 1548, England banned the “shoting of hayle-shot wherby an infinite sort of fowle is killed and much gaym therby distroyed”.

Ranges of Crossbows

A siege crossbow weighing 18 pounds, had a maximum range of 440-460 yards. The draw weight was 1,200 pounds over a 7 inch powerstroke. The bow was steel and 3 feet 2 inches long.

A large military crossbow from around the time of Agincourt (1415) weighed 15-16 pounds. It had a maximum range of 370-380 yards and a point-blank range of 65 to 70 yards. The bow was steel and 2 feet 7 or 8 inches long.

A sporting crossbow for killing deer weighed 12-14 pounds. It had a maximum range of 330-340 yards and a point-blank range of 50-60 yards. Its bow was steel and 2 feet 5-6 inches long.

A small sporting crossbow for killing small animals or large birds weighed 8 to 9 pounds. It had a maximum range of 270-280 yards. Its bow was steel and and 2 feet 4-5 inches long.

The best longbow archers of Payne-Gallwey’s time had a maximum range of 280-300 yards. This is similar to maximum ranges stated by English 16th century sources. A few longer shots have been recorded, but Payne-Gallwey doubted that any English archer had ever shot 390 yards.

An archer could achieve a greater distance by using light arrows, but these were unsuitable for war. Payne-Gallwey tested lighter bolts but found that they did not travel as far as the ordinary heavy bolts. Bolts for military use were more crudely made than ones meant for hunting.

It is important to note that these maximum ranges are made by shooting at a 45 degree angle and are by no means accurate aimed shots. The effective range would be much closer to the point-blank range. Payne-Gallwey makes an interesting note that tower of the church at Berkeley was not attached to the church itself, but built farther away from Berkeley Castle. The church is 50 yards away, but the tower is 134 yards from the center of the keep and 170 yards from the courtyard. If bows and crossbows were still dangerous at these distances, the tower would have been built even further away to prevent besiegers from using it as a shooting platform.

Payne-Gallwey on Bow vs Musket and my response.

Payne-Gallwey criticizes romantics who overestimate the performance of the medieval longbow, but then goes on in the next paragraph to do the same thing himself:

The feats achieved with the longbow were proverbially enlarged upon in England as soon as the weapon became obsolete, and when the gossip of ancient archers was no doubt listened to with interest by a rising generation who could not contradict the stories they were told, and who had but slight acquaintance with the weapon. The phrase “drawing the longbow” soon passed into a proverb, which suggested an exaggeration of the truth of any unusual performance…

Whatever its extreme range may have been, there is small reason to doubt that at a distance of 150 yards the old English longbow quite equalled, if it was not indeed superior to, the flint-lock musket or “Brown Bess” which was carried by our soldiers till about 1840.

If a hundred good marksmen armed with the “Brown Bess” as used at Waterloo, and a hundred of the best archers of the days of Crecy and Agincourt, could be opposed to one another in line at 120 yards, the archers would, in my opinion, gain an easy victory. The archers could discharge at least six shafts to every bullet fired by their opponents, and they would also, I believe, shoot with greater accuracy and effect.

Again, although I trust Payne-Gallwey to the extent that he has handled and measured the weapons himself, his history is weak. He was a citizen of a tiny island that still had a massive, world-spanning empire at the time of his writing. It was an empire that had been won largely by the muskets he thinks so little of, often beating large numbers of opponents armed with bows and arrows. Contrary to his assertion, there is large reason to doubt that a longbow equaled the firearms of 1540, nevermind 1840.

In 1545, just a few days after the sinking of the Mary Rose with its large cache of longbows, French soldier Blaize de Montluc and his band of harquebusiers routed a larger group of English archers. Montluc credits his victory partially to the fact that longbows were “arms of little reach” compared to his harquebuses, which could be fired at long distances. Montluc himself hated firearms, but he did not doubt their effectiveness- he had been permanently maimed and disfigured by gunshot wounds. Since Payne-Gallwey cites Montluc in his book, it is troubling that he failed to mention this important incident.

During Kett’s Rebellion and the Prayer Book Rebellion, both in 1549, the crown, employing harquebuse-armed London militiamen and foreign mercenaries, was able to route much larger numbers of rebel longbowmen.

Barnabe Riche, an English captain writing in 1574, directly answered Payne-Gallwey’s hypothetical battle. A soldier, playing the fool, asks the god Mercury if 1000 archers would beat 1000 shot in a plain field at a distance of 160-180 yards. Mercury responds that the firearms would win because they are more accurate due to their flatter trajectory. Mercury also explains that the rate of shot of a bow is not so much an advantage as it might seem because soldiers do not shoot nearly so fast in a real battle as they are hypothetically capable (Payne-Gallwey makes the same point himself, but forgets it in this instance). Mercury further argues that firearms have a longer range. Riche gives the maximum range of a caliver as 360-400 yards and a musket 480-600 yards, while an archer in the field only a week would hardly be able to shoot 180-200 yards. In a follow-up book published 1598, Riche asserts that 300-400 musketeers would defeat 2000 archers without any harm to themselves due to their superior range.

Sir Roger Williams, writing in 1591, called longbows the worst ranged weapon still in use, and claimed he would rather have 500 musketeers than 1500 bowmen. “In our ancient wars, our enemies used Crossebows, and such shoots; few, or any at all had the ufe of long bowes as we had; wherefore none could compare with us for shot: but GOD forbid we should trie our bowes with their Muskets and Calivers, without the like shot to answere them. I do not doubt but al, honorable and others, which have served in the Low Countries will say as I doo.” Williams agreed with Payne-Gallwey’s maximum range for longbows, saying that few did any hurt further than 240-280 yards, but gave a maximum range for muskets of 600 yards.

Robert Barrett, another English captain, wrote that 800 harquebusiers or 600 musketeers would defeat 1000 longbowmen in the open field hypothetical.

The French Baron Marbot wrote of a battle against Russian horse archers in 1813 at Leipzig. The French weren’t using the Brown Bess, but the slightly smaller-bored French equivalents, and the Russian horse archers certainly weren’t English longbowmen, but nonetheless it is an interesting battle because it is close to Payne-Gallwey’s 1840 date. Marbot was unimpressed by the effectiveness of the archers, calling them “cupids”.

Finally, here is a comparison of bows to muskets in the Opium War, 1839-1842. “On this occasion one of the Chinese officers, with cool determination and a steady aim, deliberately discharged four arrows from his bow at Captain Hall, fortunately without effect. Had they been musket-balls, however, he could scarcely have escaped. A marine instantly raised his musket at the less fortunate Chinese officer : the aim was unerring, and he fell.” The Chinese quickly learned that their bows were outclassed by the muskets, and in the next battle, “the bow and arrow, once the favourite weapon of the Tartar [Manchu] soldier, had been laid aside on this occasion.”

Payne-Gallwey later admits that the longbow was “being hopelessly beaten by the hand-gun in battles and sieges, and had no chance of regaining its position”, but argues that the longbow was still “quite as effective as any hand-gun. Its decadence was due to a neglect to practise with it during the more or less peaceful reign of Elizabeth”. He cites only two pieces of evidence for this. First is a sermon by Bishop Latimer in 1549, who complains that archery practice was being shirked. Latimer is often cited by historians, but obviously a bishop’s sermon should not be given more weight than the testimonies of veterans. 1549 is also before the reign of Elizabeth. The second piece of evidence is a paraphrase of the French essayist Michel de Montaigne, writing in 1585 that “the effect of the discharge of a hand-gun, apart from the shock caused by its report, was so insignificant that he hoped the use of these weapons in warfare would soon be discontinued.” So far as I can tell, Montaigne was never in a battle, and firearms were not so useless that they disappeared- longbows were.

I write more on the training issue here.

2 thoughts on “The Book of the Crossbow by Ralph Payne-Gallwey; Crossbow, longbow ranges compared

  1. Crossbows were used extensively alongside harquebuses and Arquebus during Cortez’s conquest of the Aztec’s. I’d like to hear how they compared, how they were used, and what their effect was on the morale of Aztec Troop’s.


  2. I read Bernal Diaz’s True History of the Conquest of New Spain” a few years ago. I don’t think he ever makes a comparison of bows vs harquebuses vs crossbows, but there is enough material to make a post describing how they were used.


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