Can A Longbow Pierce Plate Armor?

by | Oct 6, 2023

In the context of medieval weaponry, folklore, and legend, one question that often arises is: can a longbow pierce plate armor? The longbow, renowned for its power and accuracy, was a formidable weapon during the medieval period.

This iconic weapon became synonymous with English longbowmen who played pivotal roles in battles like Agincourt and Crecy. But could it really penetrate the sturdy defenses of plate armor?

Historical accounts show longbows can penetrate plate armour in some conditions. Modern experiments support this. Effectiveness depends on several factors. These include the bow’s draw weight and the arrowhead’s type and design. The quality and thickness of the armour matter. Shooting distance is also crucial. There are instances from history and experiments where longbows pierced plate armour. However, it is not guaranteed in every situation.

In this article, we explore medieval warfare. Skilled archers faced heavily armored adversaries. They forged legends amidst clouds of dust. We will discover if an arrow from a longbow could pierce impenetrable plate armor.

Can A Longbow Really Pierce Plate Armor?

Before we get into the specifics of whether or not an arrow fired from a longbow can penetrate the armor of a medieval knight, we need to dive into the history of the infamous longbow itself.

The Mighty Longbow

Originating in medieval England, this powerful weapon became renowned for its ability to pierce heavy armor and strike fear into the hearts of enemies on the battlefield.

The longbow was a masterpiece of craftsmanship, usually made from yew wood, which provided both strength and flexibility.

Its design allowed for greater draw weight compared to other bows, enabling archers to launch arrows with tremendous force.

English longbowmen were highly trained and possessed unmatched accuracy and proficiency in their craft. They could consistently shoot at a rate of fire that seemed almost supernatural – raining down volleys of arrows upon their adversaries within seconds.

This combination of power, precision, and rapid-fire made them formidable opponents even against a suit of plate armor. 

Related: The English Longbow: A Mighty Weapon Of History

The Evolution of Plate Armour

Medieval armor, underwent a fascinating evolution throughout history. Early renditions consistent mainly of leather armor, but this basic form of armor technology would easily be vulnerable to penetration from arrows with bodkin points.  

In the early Middle Ages, knights relied on chainmail as their primary defense. However, as technology advanced and battles became more intense, there arose a need for improved protection against arrows and melee weapons like swords.

Can A Longbow Pierce Plate Armor?

This necessity led to the development of armor. During its early stages, the use of plate armor consisted of small metal plates sewn onto a padded garment called a gambeson.

These plates provided crucial protection to vital areas such as the chest and limbs. Over time, wearing plate armor evolved into a more comprehensive system known as “full plate.”

This sophisticated design covered the knight from head to toe in overlapping metal plates that were attached to each other using rivets.

The aim of this evolving armor was twofold: to safeguard against various types of attacks and to distribute the force of incoming blows across multiple points.

By distributing the force from an attack across different plates rather than concentrating it on one area, full plate armor greatly increased its overall durability.

Additionally, specialized pads were worn under armor to further absorb shock and reduce injury. Together with its layered construction and enhanced joint mobility, armor would offer knights unprecedented levels of protection on the battlefield.

Knights clad in full plate fought alongside heavily armored cavalry units while strategically positioned archers offered support from behind formations or even from elevated positions like hilltops or castle battlements.

The evolution of steel plate armour played a crucial role in shaping medieval warfare.

The Physics of Archery

When it comes to the physics of archery, there are several factors at play that determine whether a longbow can penetrate plate armor.

Understanding these mechanics can shed light on the effectiveness of the longbow in medieval warfare.

The Transfer of Energy

First and foremost, let’s talk about energy transfer. When an archer draws back the bowstring and releases it, energy is converted from potential energy to kinetic energy as the arrow is propelled forward.

The power generated by a longbow is considerable, especially if wielded by a skilled archer. This means that when a longbow arrow makes contact with an armored surface, such as plate armor worn by an armoured knight, there is significant force behind it.

Another key aspect to consider is the arrowhead itself. In order to maximize its penetrating power, arrows designed for piercing plate armor were often equipped with specialized arrowheads.

These arrowheads were typically narrow, pointed tips that could concentrate the force of impact onto a small area. Such arrowheads could enhance the chances of successful penetration even against heavily armored opponents.

It’s important to note that while a longbow may possess impressive power and arrows may have specialized tips for piercing plate armor, achieving penetration was not always guaranteed.

No Guaranteed Outcome

Factors such as distance and angle of attack played crucial roles in determining success in piercing plate armor.

A longbow arrow could penetrate armor at close range and from a good angle. It might go through gaps or weak points like joints or eye slits.

A well-made longbow can potentially pierce plate armor in the right circumstances. However, it was not easy to do consistently in medieval battles.

Archer effectiveness relied heavily on skillful shooting. As armor became more common, so did resistance to arrows, so choosing optimal targets and exploiting vulnerabilities were key.

While longbows could deliver strong blows at close range in ideal conditions, consistently having an arrow penetrate plate armor was more complex.

The Armour-Piercing Arrowheads

When it comes to taking down armored foes, the choice of arrowhead is crucial for an archer wielding the legendary longbow.

In the Middle Ages, archers discovered that certain arrowheads were more able to pierce plate armor than others.

Bodkins

One such arrowhead was the bodkin arrow, a slim and needle-like projectile designed specifically for piercing through layers of metal.

The bodkin arrowhead had a sharp point and narrow profile. It concentrated force on a small area upon impact. This design helped it pierce chainmail and penetrate plate armor.

It exploited weak points like gaps between plates or joints. Bodkin arrows could pierce through thick plate armor by focusing force. In battles like Agincourt, English longbowmen used bodkin arrows with devastating effect

The English archers possessed remarkable accuracy and skill that enabled them to consistently hit their armored targets at close range.

Stacking The Odds

With their exceptional strength and expertise, they could propel arrows with incredible force and velocity, increasing their chances of penetrating plate armor.

The combination of a skilled archer wielding a well-aimed shot with a bodkin arrow made for an effective combination against heavily armored opponents.

While not every arrow fired from a longbow could penetrate plate armor effectively, employing specialized arrowheads like the bodkin significantly increased its chances of success.

These slim projectiles were designed explicitly for defeating armored adversaries by exploiting weak points or gaps in their defenses.

Additionally, skilled archers who honed their accuracy and focused on close-range encounters demonstrated remarkable success rates in being able to penetrate the plate armor with longbows during critical battles throughout history.

Historical Context and A Notable Battle

When we delve into the historical context of the English longbow and its potential to penetrate plate armor, it’s impossible not to mention some of the notable battles where this legendary weapon played a crucial role.

Battle of Agincourt (1415)

One of the most iconic clashes in this context is undoubtedly the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 during the Hundred Years War between England and France.

Picture this: a small English army, heavily outnumbered by a formidable force of French knights, all wearing armor.

The question on everyone’s mind was whether the longbow could prevail against such formidable defenses. The answer?

A resounding yes! The skilled English longbowmen demonstrated their unrivalled marksmanship as they unleashed volleys of arrows towards the advancing French cavalry who relentlessly attacked the English line.

Strength in Numbers

Popular belief may exaggerate arrows piercing steel plate easily. However, the English tactics won more battles through overwhelming numbers and tactical superiority.

Some arrows had enough force to penetrate plate armor, especially at weak spots. It was also about wearing down adversaries. English longbowmen combined high fire rates with accurate shooting.

They disrupted formations and inflicted casualties on armored foes, like French knights at Agincourt. Not all arrows found their mark. But when they did, especially with bodkin arrowheads, they could be devastating.

The Battle of Agincourt is one example of English longbows’ prowess against armored adversaries. Knights wore protective steel plate, but their horses were often vulnerable.

Charging cavalry brought down by arrows was a fearful sight. Skillful archers with longbows could neutralize armored opponents by exploiting weaknesses and causing battlefield chaos.

The Armour Test: Experimental Archaeology

When it comes to settling debates about historical warfare, there’s no better way than to put theories to the test through experimental archaeology.

In the case of the longbow’s ability to penetrate plate armor, modern enthusiasts and historians have taken up their bows and arrows in an attempt to recreate history on the battlefield.

Modern Re-enactments

In these experiments, researchers meticulously recreate armor from the Middle Ages, meticulously crafting breastplates and gauntlets that are faithful replicas of those worn by armoured knights.

Similarly, they fashion arrows with arrowheads resembling those used during medieval times. With a range of draw weights – the force required to fully draw back a longbow – they fire these arrows at their armor-clad targets.

The results of these tests often surprise many. While it is commonly believed that longbows were not able to penetrate plate armor due to its incredible strength and protective design, experimental archaeology has revealed a different story.

Arrows shot from longbows with higher draw weights have shown remarkable penetration capabilities against plate armor.

Related: The Anatomy Of An English longbow

A Chink in The Armor

Arrowheads can pierce through body armor gaps or weak points, like joints or visor slits, due to the force behind each shot.

In certain circumstances, a skilled archer with a powerful longbow can pose a threat to heavily armored foes. As we mentioned earlier, a famous case study is the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

It was part of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. Historical accounts suggest English archers penetrated plate armor.

They caused significant casualties, even facing superior numbers and armored knights’ cavalry charges

Experiments highlight several factors in determining if a longbow can pierce plate armor. These include draw weight, arrowhead design, and target selection.

It also demonstrates the importance of skill and tactics on the battlefield.

A longbow may not always penetrate plate armor. However, under certain circumstances, a skilled archer’s arrows would achieve armor penetration.

This can significantly impact a battle’s outcome. The longbow’s ability to pierce plate armor is not straightforward. Yet, it should not be underestimated in medieval warfare history.

Factors Influencing Penetration

The longbow’s greatest advantage was its remarkable range and power. However, when it came to penetrating plate armor, close range was crucial.

Distance

At close distances, the kinetic energy transferred from the longbow arrow to the armor was significantly higher compared to shots taken from afar.

This meant that an archer standing a mere few yards away from a knight in plate armor had a much higher chance of piercing through than one shooting from a distant position.

Furthermore, it’s important to consider the draw weight and strength of the archer wielding the longbow. English archers were renowned for their exceptional skill and training with these powerful bows.

The English war bow, or “longbow,” required immense strength to draw fully—sometimes drawing weights exceeding 100 pounds or more!

Arrow Velocity

This significant draw weight resulted in arrows propelled at astonishing velocities towards their targets.

Combine velocity with an armor-piercing bodkin point arrowhead, and you get a potent combination. It could potentially penetrate well-made plate armor.

Crossbows were also used during this time period. However, they did not have the comparable fire rates or power of longbows due to their mechanical nature.

Crossbows could penetrate armor under ideal circumstances. Yet, they lacked the speed and force of a longbow arrow from an experienced English archer.

Archer’s Skill

Several factors determined if a longbow arrow could penetrate plate armor. These included arrowhead type, distance from the target, and the archer’s strength.

Despite its reputation, the longbow had challenges against armored French knights. This was especially true in tight formations or when knights were on horseback. In these scenarios, tactics and skill were crucial.

Striking weak points or armor gaps accurately was essential for successful penetration.

The Role of Skill and Tactics in Medieval Warfare

In the fierce battles of medieval warfare, skill and tactics played a pivotal role in determining the outcome. When it came to the question of whether a longbow could pierce plate armor, it was not simply a matter of raw power but rather the expertise and strategy employed by English archers.

English archers, renowned for their exceptional skill with the longbow, understood that penetrating full plate armor was no easy feat.

Plate armor consisted of multiple layers of steel plates carefully crafted to protect vital areas such as the chest with a breastplate or cuirass.

However, with careful aim and precision, skilled archers wielding longbows equipped with specialized arrowheads known as bodkin points could indeed penetrate steel plate.

To overcome the formidable defense presented by armored knights, English archers utilized specific tactics that maximized their chances of success.

Range and Angle of Attack

One such tactic was shooting at close range. By doing so, they reduced the angle at which their arrows impacted the armor, increasing the likelihood of penetration.

Additionally, they concentrated their fire on vulnerable areas such as gaps between plates or joints where mobility was required for combat effectiveness. Moreover, English archers understood that repeated strikes in one area could weaken or even compromise an armored knight’s defenses.

By targeting specific spots on an opponent’s armor and relentlessly showering them with arrows from different angles over time, they aimed to create weaknesses that would eventually allow for penetration.

The effectiveness of these tactics can be seen in notable battles such as the Battle of Crécy in 1346 during the Hundred Years’ War.

Strategy

English archers positioned themselves strategically and unleashed barrages of arrows upon charging French knights clad in steel plate armor.

These volleys disrupted formations and caused chaos among the enemy ranks as arrows found their mark on vulnerable spots.

When cavalry charges were effectively coordinated against isolated longbowmen, arrow penetration was less effective. Isolation is a tactical mistake without proper protection or infantry support.

The longbow had the power to potentially pierce plate armor. However, skill and tactics from English archers were crucial for reliable penetration.

Close-range shooting, targeting weak points, and sustained volleys were vital. They countered the defenses of armored knights.

Medieval warfare involved complex skill and strategy. Both sides constantly adapted their tactics to outdo their opponents.

The Transition to Firearms

As the Middle Ages progressed, a remarkable shift in warfare occurred that would eventually overshadow the longbow’s dominance on the battlefield.

This transition came with the introduction of firearms, which drastically altered the dynamics of warfare and rendered plate armor less effective.

Gone were the days when skilled archers could rely on their longbows to effortlessly pierce through an enemy’s defenses.

Old English Muskets

The advent of firearms, particularly muskets and later rifles, signified a new era in warfare. While longbows still played a role in some battles, their effectiveness against plate armor was greatly diminished compared to earlier centuries.

Firearms offered a significant advantage over traditional archery for several reasons. Firstly, firearms could penetrate steel plate armor at much greater distances than even the most skilled archer armed with a bodkin arrow.

The sheer force and velocity of bullets propelled by gunpowder surpassed anything that bows and arrows could achieve. Furthermore, firearms leveled the playing field by enabling soldiers without extensive training to engage armored opponents effectively.

While mastering the art of archery required years of practice and physical strength, wielding a firearm merely required proper loading and aiming techniques.

This allowed armies to quickly train large numbers of soldiers as infantrymen armed with relatively simple muskets or rifles.

This shift from bows to guns also reshaped battle formations. Tightly packed formations designed to ward off arrows were gone.

Armies marched in open formations instead. These provided cover and allowed efficient use of firearms. The longbow was once formidable against plate armor in medieval times.

However, its efficacy diminished as firearms emerged on the battlefield.

FAQs

Can a crossbow pierce plate armor?

Yes, crossbows can pierce plate armor, especially at close ranges and/or against weaker armor.

Can arrows pierce kevlar?

It’s possible, but dependent on factors like the arrow’s speed, design, and the kevlar’s weave and thickness.

What type of arrowhead is needed to pierce plate armor with a longbow?

Bodkin point arrowheads are often cited for their ability to pierce plate armor due to their narrow, pointed design.

How did the effectiveness of longbows against plate armor change over time?

The effectiveness diminished over time as plate armor improved in quality and firearms began to dominate the battlefield.

Conclusion

It is important to acknowledge that plate armor was specifically designed to withstand arrows and other forms of projectile attacks.

The advancements in metallurgy allowed for the production of stronger armor, making it increasingly difficult for arrows to fully penetrate.

While a longbow may not have been able to easily pierce through every piece of plate armor, it certainly posed a significant threat on the battlefield.

Nevertheless, we must remember that warfare is not simply about one weapon’s ability to penetrate another’s defense.

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