Warbow Vrs Body Armour

Pig-The vast majority of archers, at least in Europe don't hunt, in fact in the UK  hunting is banned with a bow and arrow, we don't want to get in to that particular discussion because the point we want to make is that even though we don't all hunt we do know that a bow and arrow is a lethal weapon.
From the moment bows became a weapon of war it became essential to protect yourself from it's power, this particular arms race peaked in the 14th and 15th centuries in Europe when English armies were made up of 75% archers wielding bows of such enormous power that even today skeletal remains from battlefields can be identified as archers by the twisted spines and increased bone densities of these highly specialised warriors. The bows got bigger and the armour got better.

Todays soldiers still wear armour to protect from ballistic threats and we thought it would be a fun to see how effective modern armour might be against a projectile weapon that reached its zenith almost 700 years ago.

Over a few beers a plan took shape. We would require some mannequin to wear the armour, enter Hugo the half a pig ! Hugo would serve a dual purpose, firstly he could wear the armour, the resultant damage from any arrow which defeated the armour would be clearly visible and secondly shooting a Warbow or indeed any bow tends to sharpen ones appetite so once he had been shot he could be BBQ'ed.

We also thought to test some chain mail*, a Stab Vest**, a Ballistic vest*** and a riot Helmet**. Hugo was in for an exciting day.

The first Armour we looked at was a vest very kindly supplied by Richard Darby of LBA intenational, with specs as shown in the photo to the right.

The bows at our disposal were Ron Palmer 94#, Roy King 115# and a 120# by Richard Head, we also had a selection of bows ranging from a 45# ACS, a 58#Rivers Edge and even an Anneewakee Addiction at 48#.

Pig-As for arrows, we had a huge selection of replica Medieval shafts, from Fluted bodkins and type 10's ( which we intended to test against the chain mail) to huge tanged type 15's and even sharp broadheads and square bodkins - if the thought of a roasted pig hadn't got our juices going then the sight of all this hardware certainly did the trick.

We shot at 3 ranges, 10 yards, 20 yards and 60 yards.

We were not surprised to find that none of the bows could penetrate the armour with any of the bodkins, what a bigger bow might have been able to achieve we don't know as we didn't have one, however despite the vest being designed to defeat bladed weapons we were thrilled to find that the finest and sharpest broadheads could at least stick in and penetrate through the other side at times over an inch and a half and almost 2", which doesn't sound that impressive, but, we had in attendance an officer chaperoning the kit supplied by the Police which all had to be returned afterwards. He told us that even an inch and a half or 2" of penetration in the right place can be lethal.

None of us had any hopes that a Pig-full on riot helmet could be defeated, with it's ballistics visor and what felt like a multi-layered smooth rounded exterior we were sure to break plenty of arrows, I couldn't bring myself to use arrows from my replica collection, with their whipped fletching and hand cut feathers. So we used some arrows we had prepared earlier in the week, no fancy fletching just a bare shaft, glued on feathers and a replica bodkin point. The visor was soon cracked and broken but did not shatter. after several smashed arrows one must have hit squarely from the side and stuck in, when we checked the inside it had not gone all the way through. On the next end of arrows most skimmed off, almost as an afterthought I grabbed one last arrow with a field point. Steady, loose and I was rewarded with a solid thump as the arrow struck home, above the visor and in to the fore head, it had gone deep with 5 inches of penetration, our Police officer stood for some while chewing his lip with the helmet in his hand. With that as incentive I decided to try a couple of medieval sheaf arrows. My first broke off at the tip leaving an inch protruding on the inside, my 2nd and 3rd are shown below, no doubt a full 150# draw weight warbow could probably send the arrow clean through both sides. 

 Our second vest supplied by the Police force fared no better than the first and once again we were able to get almost 1" of penetration with a broadhead but no joy from the bodkin heads. Not at all surprising as the heavy heads had been designed to defeat plate or mail armour and not modern ceramic or Kevlar composites.

I fancied my chances against the mail of which we had 3 styles supplied by Mike Willby from Armchair Armoury. Firstly an imported riveted mail, the second is 8mm, round section HS3 steel butted mail and the last is made from 8mm steel spring washers. Of course chain mail was primarily used to stop cutting and slashing weapon, however used over a jack or padded gambeson would provide a considerable amount of protection.

Even from the first shot it was plain that mail was the last thing you would want to wear when being shot at with a bow, in all cases the arrows penetrated. When using bodkins and the long needlepoint bodkins, they went through it as if the mail were made from nothing more than cotton. The real cringe making fact was the difficulty in withdrawing an arrow that had penetrated, the mail links "grabbed" the shaft and the links in many cases had dug right in to the 1/2" sheaf arrow shaft, so there you would have been with an arrow stuck in you which could not be removed and a mail vest which also could also  not be removed on account of the arrow pinning it to you, we didn't notice any links being driven into any of the wounds but imagine this could also be an issue. After each shot we spent an age getting the arrows out of the mail. Another thing which became apparent was how hot the mail got when out in the sun, within a few minutes it was almost too hot to handle. What it would be like to be encased in the stuff is almost too painful to imagine, A templar or hospitaller knight out in the middle east in 1190 would have cooked in very short time.


 For the majority of those on the battle field, armour of any sort  was something which didn't even enter the equation, perhaps a leather jerkin or a padded jack but intrinsically 90% of combatants were turning up for a ruck in their "normal" everyday rags. How would these folk fare against a warbow ?

A pig has a bone structure which although similar to that of a person is in fact much stronger and tougher, the spine in particular is staggeringly thick, with each vertebrae being as big as a fist and so close to it's neighbour that you would think they were in fact all one long spinal bone. 

 120# of warbow coupled with a large type 15 smashing through  ribs and spine sending shards splintering off makes a sound that is quite distinctive, it was accompanied by the gasps and expletives of all those present, we followed it with some broadheads and bodkins all of which punched in to and in most cases right through Hugo, even through the shoulder joint, and shoulder blade. It's easy to forget that the armour makers were constantly seeking new and improved ways to create plate protection precisely because English Longbows could hardly be stopped even by the best armour. To have to face those same archers with nothing more than your soiled pyjamas was nothing less than a death wish. I shot a dozen more broadheads trying to butcher myself out a couple of loin chops, but succeeded in only jamming 2 arrows in to the spine which required the attention of our real butcher ( Martin Hales) with his trusty knife.

Once Andy and I had completed our tests it was open season on poor Hugo and the 20 or so guests were invited to test out their own bows and some of the Longbows (if they could draw them).

One of the biggest surprises of the day were a couple of arrows I made years ago when I was learning to Knapp flint & stone. I made a couple of stone points which I intended to use as Atlatl points, anyway I secured them to some half inch shafts and this was the first time they had ever been shot. I only used them against a naked Hugo for fear of breaking them, in fact I was sure they would break if they hit bone but to my astonishment they went through everything with no damage at all, shoulder, spine or even ribs they just smashed their way through, totally functional and devastatingly effective.

Martin took down Hugo and with chopper in hand provided us all a fabulous feast of BBQ'ed pork - There is nothing like shooting your own lunch !!

If the pictures are not enough to draw a conclusion then I will spell it out. The warbow is still a match for some types of armour, the bows we used were of weights up to 120#. Even smaller bows of 90# were still able to send very heavy arrows at speeds high enough to cause major damage at shorter ranges. The debate as to the draw weights of medieval bows still continues and in next months edition we have a report of our trip to the back rooms of the Mary Rose collection, where, with our white gloved hands we got up close and personal with the real thing.

Our grateful thanks go to to following for helping with this particular project:-

* Mike Willby from Armchair armoury for the chain mail. www.armchair-armoury.co.uk

Established 20 years ago, we have supplied DIY kits and made to measure items to re-enactors, museums, theatres and for TV and films.  Of especial interest to Archers are our range of Bracers, both in plate and chainmail also Collars and Mantles made with our own mandrel wound HS3 Steel, or Stainless Steel rings.  Oil Blackened, Pure Brass and Phosphor-Bronze rings, also made by us, can add the decoration to your unique item of armour.

**  Richard Darby of LBA international for the Stab vest. www.lbainternational.com

LBA International Limited - World leaders in lightweight body armour, bullet proof vests, military helmets and ballistic protection manufacturing

*** The Kent Police for the Ballistics vest and riot helmet

Mark of Preston Family butchers for the superb pig.


Archers Review is dedicated to carrying on the great tradition of sharing archery knowledge, in many ways we are still re-discovering the skills of our forefathers, unlike just about any other competitive sport, in archery the learning never stops, as we grow as archers the enjoyment increases, so we invite you to share with us all the skills, tips and hints that will help us all to be the best archer we can be.

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