From a glance, the recurve bow does not look dramatically different from a longbow, except from the tips curving away from the archer when strung. If you are a beginner, it’s most likely that your archer training will begin with some variation of a recurve bow, as it requires less drawing force to launch the arrow at a high speed than a longbow. It’s also easier to handle because its more lightweight and compact. A beginner’s recurve will be likely made of wood, but a compound recurve is normally used for hunting. Unstrung, the recurve bow looks like a big mistake was made in the manufacturing process, as the limbs are pointing away from the archer, which is how the recurve bow got its name. But this counterintuitive design is actually careful engineering. The recurve bow stores more energy in its limbs than a traditional longbow, which means that arrows shot from it at an equivalent drawing force travel faster. This eases aim when timing your shot on moving targets, and the trajectory of the bow is more stable and will be less affected by wind and other external factors.
The emphasis on moving targets is key here. Used since the 8th century BC, there was a good reason why ancient and medieval militaries sometimes took the effort to produce recurve bows. A battlefield usually involves hitting targets that are approaching you on a horse, or that you must hit while moving on horseback, or both. Having faster arrows meant less difficulty timing the shots, increasing the probability of hitting the target and penetrating the armor. Add to that the compact dimensions and lighter weight of a recurve bow, and you have a much more advanced archer cavalry unit than a longbow counterpart. But the flexibility of the bow also means a greater range of sideways movement. In a stationary scenario, the longbow has the advantage as its stiff body, while requiring more effort to draw, requires less effort to aim. So if you’re looking to make a medium-range sniper shot at a stationary target – the longbow wins. Speaking of discrete sniper shots – the longbow is quieter than the composite bow, as the string of the longbow doesn’t snap back hitting the limbs. So if you want your location to remain concealed after you take the shot, in a hunting situation for example, then the longbow wins again.
There are other reasons why the recurve bow didn’t replace the longbow completely. The recurve bow is a composite bow, meaning several pieces of wood (often of different kinds) are combined together to make it; these bows are also referred to as laminated bows. On average, a longbow can be made in about a day, and after a week of drying is ready be deployed in battle. A composite bow took our ancestors a week to make and then months to dry. Not only that, a composite bow is sensitive to moisture, and requires greater care in storage and maintenance. Special leather cases had to be made to go with the bow to protect it from humidity. This sensitivity to humidity is due to the use of animal glue in “laminating” the composite bow. This disadvantage is another reason why longbows were favoured in regions where rain was a regular occurence.