Historical Bows in D&D

"Ready, Aim - Jenkins, why aren't you aiming?"

Weapons in the D&D game provide a small piece of inspiration in the fantasy setting with a decisive European flavor.  In that approximate time setting for most fantasy campaigns (1000 – 1300 AD), new technology that was quickly adapted into Europe has been presented within the D&D context somewhat reluctantly and inconsistently.  Such as the crossbow.

It is clear that the English longbow is the nostalgic weapon, ascending to mythic status within D&D.  As a result it has been the pinnacle ranged weapon in 4E D&D, trumping the crossbow in almost consideration.  But history actually teaches us that it was quite different …

A Quick Look

The remains of the earliest English longbow (or Welsh longbow) dates back to 2665 BC, so its certainly been around for some time.  The name though is a bit of misnomer, because 6′ long bow staves have been found all over Europe.  It was the skill of the English and Welsh that earned the weapon its name.  Under the reign of Edward I (1227-1307), also known as the mean Braveheart king, the Welsh and English yeomanry were banned from all types of sport other than archery practice.  He did this specifically for the reason of preparing his peasantry for warfare and the longbow took substantial practice to master.

It was the success of the English in the Hundred Years War that earned the weapon the distinct moniker.  At three battles in particular, Crecy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and most famously Agincourt (1415).  And it is due to Agincourt and a healthy dose of Shakespeare (Henry V) that the English longbow has become the vaunted silver bullet of medieval warfare.  You’d think that the English won the Hundred Years War … but they didn’t.  By 1453 all of their territorial gains in France were lost, including Normandy.

With a closer look, it was not so much the technical and tactical advantage of the longbow that secured the victory, but a horrible array of tactics by the French, leaving their cavalry isolated on bad terrain for easy pickings against the ranged corp of archers.  And when the French leadership improved, so did their battlefield performances.  The Plantagenet House enjoyed just as many catastrophic losses.  At the Battle of Patay (1429), the French under the symbolic leadership of Joan of Arc reversed the fortunes of the entire war with the English archers sustaining heavy casualties.

Though the longbow survived until much later, the English longbowman did not.  In the wars against Napoleon, Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley requested longbowmen as he theorized that their rate of fire would overwhelm the vulnerable riflemen (now not wearing armor anymore because of bullets).  His request could not be fulfilled, simply because there were no more longbowmen in England.  The skill that had been so purposefully cultivated just as quickly disappeared.

The crossbow’s use in Europe dates from Roman times.  By the 12th century, they had completely supplanted the use of longbows in the rest of Europe.  This was primarily because 1) mastering a crossbow could take as little as a week rather than months and years and 2) crossbows generate more ‘muzzle’ energy as a result of their significantly increased draws.  The maximum draw of a bow is reasonably 75 pounds, which would require a man of some strength to reasonably and accurately pull.  On the other hand, an arbalest with a hand crank (windlass) could reach up to 9,000 force-pounds.

There is obviously a reason that most medieval armies (with the English as the noted exception) adopted the crossbow.  What does D&D say?

The Bow Progression in D&D

First let’s look at how the bow and the crossbow are treated throughout the editions.  You’ll see some distinct changes in philosophy as to how the weapons compare to each other as we reach 4E.  All weapon stat blocks will be presented in the 4E format for comparison purposes and I’m only using the versions presented in the Player’s Handbook equivalent (core rules) for each edition.


The original game presented the crossbow with greater power, better comparative range, but with a slower rate of fire and more expensive to buy.

Basic D&D
Weapon Prof DMG RNG WT Cost Group Properties
Short Bow 1d6 15/30 2 lb. 25 gp Bow Load Free
Long Bow 1d6 21/42 3 lb. 40 gp Bow Load Free
Light Crossbow 1d6 18/36 5 lb. 30 gp Bow Load Free
Heavy Crossbow 2d4 24/48 8 lb. 50 gp Bow Load Standard

An interesting note is that if the wielder of a Heavy Crossbow has an 18+ Strength, they may load and fire the Heavy Crossbow every round.  As we’ve seen above, crossbows have mechanical devices alleviating the need for great strength on part of the wielder.  I guess the idea is that an extremely powerful individual would not need a cranequin, but 9,000 pounds … ?

In addition, to the stats above, Basic D&D also had extensive rules for weapon mastery (Basic – Skilled – Expert – Master – Grand Master) that were different for each weapon.  Here is the information for the same weapons at the highest specialization (Grand Mastery – 5th tier).

Basic D&D
Weapon Prof DMG RNG WT Group Properties
Short Bow (GM) +8 1d10+8 15/30 2 lb. Bow Load Free, Delay, Defense
Long Bow (GM) +8 4d4+2 25/50 3 lb. Bow Load Free, Delay, Defense
Light Crossbow (GM) +8 1d6+7 18/36 5 lb. Bow Load Free, Stun, Defense
Heavy Crossbow (GM) +8 4d4+4 24/48 8 lb. Bow Load Standard, Stun, Defense

The maximum range of the crossbows’ don’t change as you can see, but their short and medium ranges increase (not represented in the table above).  In addition, the bows can Delay their opponents at short and medium range, while the crossbows can stun them.  Also, as the user gets more proficient, they are able to use their ranged weapon to provide some defense against melee attacks.  Finally, crossbows are designated best against Handheld Weapon Attackers while Bows optimize toward Missile and Natural Weapon Attackers.

Clearly, traditional bows are favored in the progression of weapon mastery, especially if you consider the average damage progression per attack.  Heavy crossbow averages 5.0 per attack (maxing out at 14.0 with GM) while the longbow starts at 3.5 per attack, but makes up ground quickly with 12.o per attack at GM.  The longbow also eventually out points the crossbow in distance.

1st Edition

Enter a far more complex weapon system that included individual to hit modifiers for each armor class.  1E also first introduced Composite Bows to D&D, but their advantage was strictly in range.

Weapon Prof DMG RNG WT Cost Group Properties
Short Bow 1d6 45/90 2 lb. 15 gp Load Free
Composite Short Bow 1d6 54/108 2 lb. 75 gp Load Free
Long Bow 1d6 63/126 3 lb. 60 gp Load Free
Composite Long Bow 1d6 63/126 3 lb. 100 gp Load Free
Light Crossbow 1d4 54/108 5 lb. 12 gp Load Free
Heavy Crossbow 1d4+1 72/144 8 lb. 20 gp Load Standard

Both the longbow and the short bow could fire TWICE per round.  A light crossbow only once while the heavy crossbow had to spend a round reloading.  If you look at the armor class bonus progression, the crossbow gets a only slight advantage at hitter heavier armor (AC2) than the composite bows (+1 advantage), but is strangely equaled by the longbow as an armor piercer.  It appears that Gary Gygax had an elf crush.

You’ll also notice that the outdoor range of all weapons has been increased substantially.   In 4E terms, these ranges are insane … and quite unrealistic if you’re targeting a specific individual.

Net effect: In exchange for a little more range, Crossbows have been weakened drastically.  Not only can the bow fire twice per round (or four times faster than a Heavy Crossbow), but it does more damage per attack.  It is strange that there’d be such a change of design philosophy on the two weapons considering that the two were rule sets (Basic & AD&D) were created within 3 years of each and continued to run in parallel for over a decade.

2nd Edition

The big change in this version is that different types of arrows were introduced, primarily the flight arrow (1d6) for range and the sheath arrow (1d8) for damage.  Flight arrows will be presented in the table where appropriate.  In addition, bows can be crafted for a high Strength to add Strength modifier to the damage roll.

Also, the Hand Crossbow was introduced in 2E, but its about as effective as targeted farts.

Weapon Prof DMG RNG WT Cost Group Properties
Short Bow 1d6 45/90 2 lb. 30 gp Load Free
Composite Short Bow 1d6 54/108 2 lb. 75 gp Load Free
Long Bow 1d6 63/126 3 lb. 75 gp Load Free
Composite Long Bow 1d6 63/126 3 lb. 100 gp Load Free
Hand Crossbow 1d3 18/36 5 lb. 300 gp Load Free
Light Crossbow 1d4 54/108 5 lb. 35 gp Load Free
Heavy Crossbow 1d4+1 72/144 8 lb. 50 gp Load Standard

Bows again maintain their exceptional ROF (2/1) and now with the opportunity to do much more damage with a Str bonus.  The Hand Crossbow at such a prohibitive price and terrible performance is only filling up space on the weapon table as there is absolutely no point in using it.  Other than a little price adjustments, nothing else changes.

3rd & 3.5 Edition

Weapons are now broken into tiers of proficiency (Simple, Martial, and Exotic).  Bows are martial weapons and crossbows in general are simple.  Repeating Crossbows were added (light & heavy), both Exotic along with the Hand Crossbow.  It was now expressly stated that Composite Bows are the only bows capable of high strength bonuses to damage.

3E D&D
Weapon Prof DMG RNG WT Cost Group Properties
Short Bow 1d6 60/120 2 lb. 30 gp Bow Load Free
Composite Short Bow 1d6 70/140 2 lb. 75 gp Bow Load Free
Long Bow 1d8 100/200 3 lb. 75 gp Bow Load Free
Composite Long Bow 1d8 110/220 3 lb. 100 gp Bow Load Free
Hand Crossbow 1d4 30/60 2 lb. 100 gp X-Bow Load Move
Light Crossbow 1d8 75/130 4 lb. 35 gp X-Bow Load Move
Repeating Lt. X-Bow 1d8 75/130 6 lb. 35 gp X-Bow Load Free
Heavy Crossbow 1d10 120/240 8 lb. 50 gp X-Bow Load Standard
Repeating H. X-Bow 1d10 120/240 12 lb. 50 gp X-Bow Load Free

Pretty big shift, huh?

This weapon table hearkens back to Basic with the decided advantage in damage and range back to crossbows.  That’s even exacerbated when you consider that Heavy & Light Crossbows are simple weapons.  Bows get their bread and butter in rate of fire and with additional damage in composite versions.  But at least there is a genuine case to be made for historical armies equipping their soldiers with crossbows.

4th Edition

Probably rightly so all the different versions of bows and crossbows were condensed into two versions each.  And now every ranged weapon gets a bonus to damage equal to Dexterity modifier from a basic, ranged attack.  Call it precise aim.  All crossbows are Simple weapons and all bows are Military weapons.

4E D&D
Weapon Prof DMG RNG WT Cost Group Properties
Short Bow +2 1d8 15/30 2 lb. 25 gp Bow Load Free
Long Bow +2 1d10 20/40 3 lb. 30 gp Bow Load Free
Hand Crossbow +2 1d6 10/20 2 lb. 25 gp X-Bow Load Free
Crossbow +2 1d8 15/30 4 lb. 25 gp X-Bow Load Minor

What happened?  Once again, bows have alternated back to dominance – both in damage, in range, and rate of fire.

Historical Comparison

It is obvious there has been extreme changes of opinion among the game designers at TSR, WotC, and now Wizards into the various vascillations of the bow and the crossbow.  Part of this must be the fixation with the fantasy race that relies upon the bow – the Elf.  Call it the Tolkien Effect.  No other author as had more influence not only on D&D, but on the entire fantasy genre as a whole than Tolkien with The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

  1. Most people that read the Lord of the Rings fall in love with the uber race.  Elves.  Legolas, Elrond, Glorfindel, Arwen, and the lot.  They are super-powered.  They are all wise.  They are magical.  They use … bows.  In Basic D&D, elves were presented as Fighters and Magic Users, getting the best of both worlds.
  2. Now take the mythic status of the English longbow among the Empire and her children (such as America) and a perfect marriage is formed.  Elves rely upon the greatest missile weapon known to man and it makes them unstoppable on the field o’ battle … particularly against this author’s favorite race – the dwarves.  Hmpf.
  3. Lastly, one of the overwhelming themes in Tolkien’s masterpiece is technology vs. nature.  In his lifetime, he saw the pastoral England of his youth carved away for smoking factories with the rise of industry (exhibit 1: all of Manchester).  Sauron’s Isengard simply means in Old English – Iron Gate.  In the inherited themes of D&D, naturalism is foremost among them and its obvious when you look at how all technological weapons are treated – such as the crossbow or the arquebus.

So it would seem that the longbow is D&D’s favorite.  I admit that as a lifelong gamer, all of my rangers used it as well.  History though is quite clear on each and their distinct advantages and disadvantages.

Ease of Use

The English longbow dominated the medieval battlefield, because it had a substantial range advantage on other European bows and its arrows, contrary to popular belief, actually could penetrate steel armor at times.  But the English longbow was only viable  because of the English archer.  The yeomanry were forced to practice with it their entire lives as part of the warrior-dominated, feudal society.  When that social structure ended, farmers stopped mastering the longbow and the time required to train basic levies in its use was daunting and impractical.

The crossbow on the other hand was much simpler to aim and fire, because it uses a shoulder, rifle stock.  Most sources agree that a crossbow can be learned proficiently within an hour and mastered in a few days.

Advantage: Crossbow


There are examples of bows that can fire an arrow over a half mile (the Turkish Bow in particular).  But just because the arrow can travel this distance does not mean that the archer has any idea of where it is going to land.  The archer is angling the bow 45 degrees off the ground and just releasing.  Against tightly packed formations of soldiers, this works fine.  Archers boast that they are able to drop arrows within a 10m circle at a range of 200m.  That may sound great, but that’s hardly accurate in a D&D encounter.

In reality, the range is substantially closer.  Today’s hunters using modern bow and arrow materials have realistically a maximum effective range against large game (deer) of 160 feet (32 squares).  And at this range that is an extremely difficult shot, but for the purposes of fantasy capabilities, we’ll give them their 40 squares as 4E prescribes.

The medieval crossbow has been reported as being able to penetrate steel armor at 600 feet (120 squares).  In addition, larger crossbows are reported to have a range hovering around 900m (2,500+ ft) – again without much accuracy.  Not only that, but because crossbow bolts are smaller than arrows and do not lose as much speed in flight as the heavier arrow, their ballistic trajectory is flatter longer, making it easier to aim.

Advantage: Crossbow


Because the longbow is dependent on the physical strength of the archer, the draw weight has an upper limit.  Using the maximum draw of 75 pounds, you could fire an arrow that moved at about 150 feet per second (about a twentieth a of modern rifle).  Assuming that the arrow is 985 grains, the energy imparted at the point of firing is 55 foot pounds.  That’s about the equivalent of a derringer palm pistol.  There are a variety of different arrow heads that can impact its armor piercing or tissue trauma.  Source

On the other hand, crossbows can use mechanical strength for their draw.  Shooters do not need any level of strength to draw the weapon, but the bow of a crossbow is shorter thus less energy is transferred to the projectile.  The bolt of a crossbow is smaller and thus travels faster, but does it travel fast enough to make up for less mass.  Studies indicate that the required draw for a large game hunting is about 200 pounds (a far cry from the upper end of 9000).  That produces 330 feet per second with a 525 grain bolt, generating 127 foot pounds.

Advantage: Crossbow

Rate of Fire

This is where the longbow shines, because the well-trained archer can fire about 8 arrows a minute.

The crossbow with its slow hand crank shoots 2 bolts per minute.

Advantage: Longbow

Realistic Statistics

With all that being said and game balance aside, here’s how I’d historically and realistically construct the longbow against the crossbow in 4E D&D terms:

Simple Ranged Weapons
Weapon Prof DMG RNG WT Group Properties
Crossbow +3 1d10 30/60 4 lb. Crossbow Load Standard x4
Arbalest +3 2d6 50/100 8 lb. Crossbow Load Standard x6
Military Ranged Weapons
Weapon Prof DMG RNG WT Group Properties
Short Bow 15/30 2 lb. Bow Load Free
Long Bow 20/40 3 lb. Bow Load Free
Bodkin +3 1d6
Broadhead +2 1d8

The Bodkin arrow is an armor piercer.  The Broadhead is designed for tissue damage.  Also, since crossbowmen do not need to stand to fire, they often stood behind a standing shield called a pavise for cover.

Shield Bonus Min Check Speed Price Weight
Pavise +2 5 15 lb.

Let me know what you think.

4 Comments on “Historical Bows in D&D”

  1. Darkfist says:

    A medieval crossbow cannot have a kinetic energy of 127 ft-lbs.

  2. Mr. Necro says:

    The upper end of English longbows was something like 165s in draw weight, a lower-end would be half that and that brings it inline with crossbows favored by continental Europe in the period. A typical ‘light crossbow’ would have a draw weight of 150-180lbs. I dunno your source but besides some hypothetical one-off siege weapon no crossbow would have a draw weight of 9000lbs. Even with a winch/ winlass that’s like pulling up a 4 1/2 ton armored vehicle off the ground with a tiny hand crank. Nobody can realistically do that. A powerful siege crossbow in the era would be more like 220lb draw. Comparable hunting x-bows in modern times would perforate and elk from one side to another on at 40 yards about as well as a modern handgun does. A 9000lb crossbow would perforate your neighborhood.

    • Lucky says:

      9000 pounds is not the draw weight, but rather the force pounds of the bolt. It is parallel to the muzzle energy of a round from a firearm.

      Looking back over this article I can’t remember my original sources, so I found stats of a very powerful and very large arbalest with a 1200 pound draw, firing a 4 oz. bolt or 1,750 grains. Is this source accurate? Don’t know.

      To reach 9000 ft.lbf with that heavy of a projectile, the arbalest would have to reach 1,500 feet per second. In comparison, an M16 shoots a 5.56mm round at 3,100 fps.

      That’s probably too fast for a crossbow bolt, granted. But for the sake of comparison, the crossbow/arbalest definitely generates significantly more power than a traditional bow.

      If you’ve got other numbers, I’m happy to edit the article to reflect more accurate sources.

      Cheers, Lucky

  3. Dan says:

    What did you mean by the multiplier (x4, x6) in the crossbow properties?

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