What bows are used for different situations and what makes them the best choice?

In my story a village is only easily accessible in one direction (Tall mountains around it and a fast river behind) with hills the path towards it. What would be the best bow to protect against an invasion and why? If the enemy took the time to climb the mountains that surround it would that bow still be the best option?

It's in the medieval era with no magic, the enemy opted for quantity over quality so they out number the village say 1000 to 200. But they only have basic swords and shields(no armour) , Plus they aren't very organized.

Also the village had time to prepare. Due to it being surrounded by mountains. It was excluded from the rest of the world only know by a few traders. So they had time to get comfortable. So let's say around five years. But they never slacked off training.

The enemy's main goal is to take over because of its geological defensive advantages. But will resort to more deadly means since a siege is impossible due to the river being freshwater. The village can use it for food and water. It is also the enemy's villages main source of water. So they can't mess with the river.

And the weather is frequently humid.

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    $\begingroup$ First of all welcome. You really only have two choices, long or short. Long will usually be better due to range. Short are for cavalry or hunting in forest. $\endgroup$
    – mwarren
    May 14, 2021 at 9:46
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    $\begingroup$ Using a bow effectively takes a lot of practice. Using it on longer range requires a lot of muscle training. How much time does the village have to prepare? When it's less than a year, then archery might not be their best bet. $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    May 14, 2021 at 10:26
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    $\begingroup$ One historical example I can offer is that the Mongols used short bows because a longbow would be impossible to use from horseback. $\endgroup$
    – user72058
    May 14, 2021 at 13:07
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    $\begingroup$ This is not an answer, so a comment. Your attackers drink from the same river as you. They are your neighbors! They are your natural trading partners. And they are willing to die to use the natural defensive advantages of your city? Maybe you should figure out who or what they are worried about that they need such a defensible site. Not the current residents of the city, who they think they can overpower. Something else is coming. Your villagers are probably jerks because they have stayed hidden for 5 years and the attackers are morons. But maybe it is time for an alliance. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    May 15, 2021 at 0:31
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    $\begingroup$ Really, you should ditch the bows, of any kind, unless you already have an archery culture. Just use slings, same slings your shepherds must be using. Five years of sling practice will make anybody holding a melee weapon reconsider attacking you. You won't run out of ammo. You won't need to build longbow strength. You won't need to find glues that will work in humid conditions.( for short, recurved bows.) Women and children can usefully join the defense effort. Side effect: Hunting will become much easier. $\endgroup$
    – chiggsy
    May 15, 2021 at 6:18

5 Answers 5


It's complicated

Start by forgetting pretty much everything you have seen in movies or the majority of computer and table-top role playing games. Movies and computer games concentrate on flashy visuals while TTRPGs focus on playable rules. Real life is more complicated.

Bows can be classified in various ways - by draw weight / purpose, by configuration and by stave construction. Looking only at the construction of the stave there are three types of bow from this period:

  1. Self bow - this is fundamentally made of a single piece of seasoned timber, although some fittings may be made of other materials eg horn nocks. When people are referring to an English long bow, they are talking about a self bow that is, well, long. "Long" is not perfectly defined, but most evidence points to a stave that is as tall or taller than the shooter. (For more information, a number of Lindybeige videos are an enjoyable diversion.) The massive advantage of a self bow is that provided an appropriate section of seasoned wood is available, a skilled bowyer can carve it into a bow with a day or so of work (= cheap). The disadvantage is the length of the bow, which makes it unusable on horse back or from pretty much any position other than standing upright.
  2. Composite bow - "is a traditional bow made from horn, wood, and sinew laminated together, a form of laminated bow". These bows can achieve the same draw weight as a much longer self bow in a shorter length (sometimes with superior efficiency), making them usable from horseback and more easily carried in close country. Contrary to most TTRPG statistics, a composite bow and long bow with the same draw weight and efficiency have the same range and ability to inflict damage. The advantage of the composite bow is the aforementioned compactness. The key disadvantages are that they may not be especially weather-resistant, delaminating if they become wet, and they are much more time-consuming to construct (= expensive).
  3. Laminated bow - this is any bow where different materials are laminated together to form the stave. Composite bows are arguably a subset of laminated bows. The same advantages and disadvantages apply to a laminated bow compared to a composite bow, with the expense and weather resistance being dependent on the exact construction method.

For each stave type there are different draw weights. Without getting too specific:

  • target bows are frequently very low powered, only intended for competition or displays
  • hunting bows are intended to propel an (often broad-headed) arrow with sufficient force to mortally injure an animal
  • war bows are intended to propel an arrow with sufficient force to penetrate armour and injure or kill the person wearing it.

Potentially any of the stave types above or a metal stave can be mounted horizontally on a stock to create a crossbow. Crossbows shoot short, thick bolts instead of arrows - these have flatter trajectories at short range but become unstable in flight beyond 70(ish) metres. The main advantage of a crossbow is that it can remain at full draw indefinitely until it is time to take a shot (as opposed to a few seconds for a bowstring being held to the rear by the archer) and it can be shot from prone or kneeling positions. However, a crossbow is even more expensive than the other bow types and is much slower to reload - against 5 to 1 odds, this probably takes crossbows out of contention. (No, I am not going to discuss repeating crossbows.)

Attackers (aka arrow targets) It should be noted that the possession of shields by the attackers is very sensible of them but very inconvenient for the villagers. Shields are great for defending against low-tech missile weapons (provided that the shield-wielder actually holds it in front of them as they advance towards their enemies rather than holding it at their side like a fashionable handbag). A key question is whether they are also wearing armour or relying on their shields alone - see below.

So - with the terms defined, what's best for the village? Frankly, it depends on lots of factors. If they know that the attackers have shields but no armour then the villagers can use hunting bows instead of warbows, requiring less effort for each shot. If the climate is quite wet then self bows are probably a better choice than composite bows that will delaminate. Conversely, if it is generally dry but there is lots of climbing in close country then composite bows are a better choice. Regardless of the weapon choice, the terrain-based tactics are key - the villagers must make their stand/s on ground where a chokepoint limits how quickly the attackers can advance and the villagers must attack from multiple angles to avoid the shields.

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    $\begingroup$ I'd upvote this twice if I could -- just for covering both the various types of bow staves and shield/armor considerations. Might also add straight, recurve, and whatever they call those ones with a non-flexible nock extension (ignoring compound, which is a very late arrival). $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    May 14, 2021 at 12:16
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    $\begingroup$ Would crossbows be viable if the villagers were set up in a line two people thick with one shooting and their pair reloading? $\endgroup$ May 14, 2021 at 12:46
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    $\begingroup$ @JustaWeeb, that brings up the other great advantage of crossbows. They don't require training. Anyone can point and shoot with a crossbow, where the others require years of practice to build the strength to have accuracy. You mention training in the question, if you really want to make that count, stick to stave type bows not crossbows. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    May 14, 2021 at 13:04
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    $\begingroup$ See pavisse for how cross-bow reloading was actually done in battle. (The issue is that to reload a serious cross-bow one needs a lot of force, more than can be supplied by the arms alone.) (And cross-bows can be used as area-effect weapons just like regular bows; medieval cross-bow men could engage massed enemy formation at distances around 300 meters.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 14, 2021 at 13:04
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    $\begingroup$ @EkadhSingh there has been an arms race through history between armour/shields and the various types of weapons. The huge advantage of a shield compared to worn armour is the spacing from the vital organs - an arrow needs to penetrate a breastplate by 5-10 cm to do serious damage, but needs to penetrate a shield held at arms length by [arms length + 5-10 cm]. Spears like the roman pilum were designed to embed in the shield and drag it down, arrows aren't heavy enough. Best to shoot from multiple angles so the shield can't protect against all incoming. $\endgroup$ May 15, 2021 at 4:03

You probably don't hold the Village

I like KerrAvon's answer a lot, but it mostly discusses bow technology. I'd like to address the tactical side.

It's a pretty tall order to defeat an enemy that outnumbers you five to one — and if any of the 200 villagers you mention are children or old people, the odds get even worse.

Even if this village is compact, it's going to be very difficult to build and defend any kind of perimeter with only 200 defenders. And once you're in close combat, numbers really do provide an advantage.

Unless you spend your prep time turning the villagers into well equipped, disciplined, Heavy Infantry (think Roman Legion), I don't think you're holding the village.

But that's probably OK, because...

The Enemy Can't Hold it Either

The word guerilla comes to us from Napoleon's invasion of Spain, when the mountain villagers harassed the most powerful army on the planet so thoroughly that the French were using columns of 1,000 men to deliver routine communications.

So go the guerilla warfare route. Spend your prep time stashing food and weapons in the mountains. Scout sites for camps. Train in moving quietly through the wilderness.

When the invasion comes, abandon the village — bring all the food, and burn all the buildings. Ambush the enemy column, but don't get drawn into a general engagement, just kill a few, and let the rest arrive at the empty husk that was supposed to be their objective.

Now hit every supply column that attempts to bring food, and every scouting party that goes looking for firewood. The first winter will finish them off.

Crossbow Tactics

The original guerillas would issue a single bullet to each soldier, because they knew they would lose any prolonged engagement. The plan for their ambushes went like this:

  • Half the soldiers fire and charge with bayonets. The other half remain hidden.
  • If the enemy breaks, you kill them all.
  • If they enemy holds, the hand-to-hand group disengages, and flees back to the woods. A single volley from the hidden group discourages the enemy from following.

These tactics would translate pretty well with crossbows — like early firearms, crossbows are powerful, easy to learn and slow to reload.

So your villagers train with crossbows and simple melee weapons. The emphasis is on transitioning from sudden volley, to savage attack, to organized retreat.

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    $\begingroup$ I think the villagers could give the attackers more trouble. Before the conflict they agreed on unsafe areas and set up punji sticks. The hilltops contain hidden shelters with arrow slits and camouflaged rear exits. If traps and archers are able to pick off the scouts, the main army is marching up to a high point in the trail with no idea of the mud-filled trenches and low wooden fortifications that await them just beyond. $\endgroup$ May 15, 2021 at 4:10
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    $\begingroup$ depending on how long the way TO the village is you may not even need to abandon it. If the enemies need a weeks worth of trekking through mountainpasses under constant harassment (=close to no sleep etc), and with their final numbers at the gates being more like 2:1 (and demoralized) , the defenders have a good shot. Plus: a marching army will not have theis shields out (at first), and will massively loose speed if they do. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    May 17, 2021 at 8:43
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    $\begingroup$ This, all the way. Until you've done a bit of hillwalking, you don't realise how much effort it takes to climb a hill when you're not used to it - and conversely if you're hiking all day then you don't realise how much it builds your fitness compared to people who don't. Simply forcing the other guys to chase you, when you're fitter than they are (and know the ground) gives you a huge advantage when you decide to turn and attack. Also ambushes, of course - if your mates hold the high ground then the enemies chasing you are in for a rough time, because shooting uphill doesn't work well. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    May 17, 2021 at 13:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Hobbamok and MikeSerfas - I'm on board with an aggressive harassment on the way up, especially if it's a long hike. But if you've only got 200 villagers, there's a limit on how many punji traps and trenches you can dig, so I'd concentrate on the fighting prep, and do traps if I had time. Also, I might burn the village even if I thought there was a chance it could be held. It makes it pretty clear the choices are victory or death. $\endgroup$
    – codeMonkey
    May 17, 2021 at 20:24
  • $\begingroup$ @codeMonkey as I said it fully depends on the way up to the village. If it's a week long hike with some places where a knowledgeable person could build a bridge to shortcut a day out etc., or where a rope can traverse a ravine but supply wagons absolutely can't then a lot of harassment is possible. If there is only like one straight wide roadway with like a days worth of travel then absolutely no chance $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    May 18, 2021 at 7:13

If you must use a bow...

Use a high poundage self-bow with plate cutter bodkin arrows. Not many arrows can get more than an inch or two of penetration through a shield regardless of bow type, but a heavy warbow with plate cutter bodkin arrows can wound someone through a shield if they get careless about how close to themselves they hold it, or if their shields lack a boss. You also don't want to use composite bows in wet environments because they risk coming apart on you.

But preferably you would use Roman Manubalistas and Pilla

Bows are great as a battlefield weapon because of their rate of fire and mobility, but when defending a narrow pass like this fortifications, range and stopping power become far more important. No anti-personnel weapon prior to the invention of gunpowder packed more range and stopping power than Roman torsion spring weapons. By establishing a fortification blocking off the pass, your defenders can use light ballistas to take out enemy archers at nearly twice the range that they can shoot back while your fortifications can be used to block any arrows they try to fire at you if they do close the distance. And if necessary, you can also have a few heavier ballistas to threaten any attempt by the enemy to set up siege equipment.

This basically forces them to charge your position with ladders which is where the Pila come in. A pilum is very similar to a plate-cutter bodkin arrow, but instead of attaching the head to a thick wooden shaft, they would place a thin iron shaft at least a half a meter long behind the point. Because of this feature, a pilum's tip could punch a wider hole than the shaft allowing the shaft to pass cleanly through the hole. Modern tests of pilia show them to be able to stab a shield user through a shield even when held at full extension whereas arrows rarely get more than a few inches of penetration before getting bound up in the wood.

Because pilia can be thrown in rapid succession, once you force the enemy to charge your fortifications, each defender can kill one enemy after another with these thrown weapons because the shields are so useless against them. The enemies of Rome often used armor in addition to shields because of this exact threat, but since your enemies don't have that, they will get slaughtered.


You mentioned mountains surrounding village - you might use them instead. Forget about bows, if the pass to the village is narrow or steep enough defenders can easily win against attacker by using rocks.

No amount of shield or armor can help you against blunt trauma inflicted by a heavy rock falling on your head. Or rolling over you. Defenders can make a palisade on the hill and keep a sizeable number of rocks behind it. Or logs if rocks are harder to come by. When attackers start climbing up the hill, just let these rock roll down the hill at the attackers. Then, number of attackers is all of a sudden much smaller and you finish off survivors by any type of bow, preferably crossbow so everyone can help with target practice. (I do not recommend slings. You need quite a lot of training to be useful with that, and even then range isn't all that good. It is a great improvised weapon but when you have time to prepare crossbow is a much better alternative)

Additionally, you have mentioned a river goes through the village and then to the attackers. Have you considered that village can divert the river, killing all attackers without a single arrow fired? Yes, it might be a bit difficult to do it if the river goes through a deep canyon, but given several years to prepare it would be still quite doable.

  • $\begingroup$ Good, answer in many respects, but I would like to add that the sling was much more than an improvised weapon. While it would not be the best weapon in this context, many ancient civilizations preferred the sling to bow as a weapon of war because it did a better job of killing through armor, and did not require nearly so much strength. While the sling itself was simple, in war they were often paired with purpose made armor piercing lead or ceramic projectiles. A good slinger could strike with similar stopping power as a modern .44 Magnum handgun. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    May 17, 2021 at 13:56

The types of bows I'm aware of, besides construction which has already been covered, are:

  1. Short bows, longbows, (both are self bows)
  2. Recurve bows (often composite but can be made out of a single piece of wood)
  3. Modern compound bows (which I think aren't an option)

So here's the issue, it takes a lifetime to be good enough with a bow to actually use it effectively in combat, or even hunting. So if you want your defenders to be good with them, enough to fight off hordes of enemies, you need a reason for them to train with bows from childhood. E.g there's a river right beside them maybe they do bow fishing, or hunt game, fairly believable. So what kind of game are they hunting, what materials are available for them to build bows with, put these things together and do a little research on ancient civilizations and bow tech and come up with a bow yourself. A little note, a cut-off village like that would have no chance of having lots of Iron or even copper. In Ireland, in the dark ages, a short sword was worth 40 cattle, that's a fortune today let alone in 900AD. Metal was too precious to be used in a way it might get lost, except in war. So stone or obsidian, which can easily be explained by having one of the mountains be a dormant volcano, for arrowheads. good luck with your story and just keep writing, I wish I did.

  • $\begingroup$ While there may have been certain short swords worth 40 cattle, more typically, they would be worth about 2-3 cows. A better way to put it into perspective is that they cost the equivalent of ~\$14,000-15,000 today when comparing minimum wages; however, arrows were not so expensive. They typically cost about \$75 each making them relatively affordable to the common farmer. Also, 5 years as the OP stipulates is enough time to train a pretty good archer, most archers who train regularly peak at about 6 yrs. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    May 17, 2021 at 13:44
  • $\begingroup$ Also, many of history's best archers came from small isolated communities (huns, creatians, etc), it was typically urban societies where it was hard to find suitable archers. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    May 17, 2021 at 13:45

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