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Since my beginnings with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons until now (playing Wrath of the Righteous, having played 2e and Pathfinder in between), I'm still asking myself:

Is there, in term of D&D game mechanics, an interest of equipping a normal shortbow rather than a normal long bow?

Immediately, the shortbow comes with two hindrances in my experience:

  • it does 1d6 damage against 1d8 for the long bow
  • it has a lower range: the enemy can reach the archer faster

I am not aware of any advantage to the shortbow in any edition I have played. Had it ever had any? How has the relationship between shortbow vs. longbow changed across editions?

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Cheaper and lighter, and sometimes you cannot use a longbow

In basically every edition, the shortbow is somewhat cheaper and somewhat lighter than the longbow. These differences are consistently small, however, and the longbow has consistently greater range. In later editions, the longbow also does more damage.

Assuming you aren’t extremely strapped for cash or carry capacity, the longbow is effectively strictly superior to the shortbow in every edition. So the only mechanical reason to use a shortbow over a longbow is that sometimes, you’re not allowed to use a longbow at all, or take large penalties for doing so

Bottom Line Up Front

This table summarizes reasons you might not use a longbow, and use a shortbow instead, in various editions:

Longbow Difficulty OD&D AD&D 1e B/X BECMI AD&D 2e 3e/3.5e 4e 5e
Class Restrictions *
Size Restrictions ✘*
Not while mounted ✘†
Shortbow-only feats
  • Class restrictions are times when a given class could use a shortbow, but not a longbow, at least not without difficulty.

  • Size restrictions are times when smaller characters could use a shortbow, but not a longbow.

    * Note: in B/X and BECMI, non-human races were “classes,” that is, you couldn’t be a halfling cleric, you were a (human) cleric, or you were just a halfling. BECMI’s restriction on halflings, goblins, and similar thus amounts to a “class restriction” by that game’s use of the term. I’ve chosen to mark “size restriction” rather than “class restriction” because this is a very unusual definition of “class” by the standards of the rest of D&D.

  • Not while mounted means that the longbow, but not the shortbow, is unusable while riding a mount.

    Note: in 3e/3.5e—the only one that implemented this restriction—longbows could not be used while mounted, but composite longbows could be. This meant that the restriction was pretty close to meaningless most of the time—if not actually meaningless all of the time, which it might have been.

  • Shortbow-only feats means there were feats that did special things with a shortbow, but not a longbow.

In the original Men & Magic book, and in Moldvay’s B/X books, I can find no mechanical reason to ever prefer the shortbow over the longbow other than the small difference in cost and weight.

Note: Evolution of D&D’s assumptions about the rules

For lack of a better term, “D&D game culture,” that is, with players’ relationship to the rules and the assumptions their authors make about them, has changed over the years. Whereas today, Wizards of the Coast emphasizes that there are no “hidden rules”—and thus, any feature of the shortbow or drawback of the longbow should be found in the printed rules—earlier D&D was all about hidden rules and rules made up by the DM as they saw fit. The rules weren’t supposed to cover everything; that was the DM’s job. And it wasn’t the players’ place to know a lot of the rules, either—they were supposed to learn them as they played and tried things.

To wit: it may well have been expected, in 1974 and really right up to 2000 or even a bit past that, that the DM wouldn’t allow you to use a longbow in circumstances that would hamper one in real life. Cramped spaces, tight formations, shorter archers, horseback, whatever: a longbow is a pretty large weapon that, in reality, is pretty awkward to use. I can easily imagine Gygax taking the position that a DM who allowed a longbow to be used at full effectiveness in such circumstances, who didn’t make a distinction between shortbow and longbow for this, was a bad DM. This kind of thing seemed to be a major part of his conception of the role of DM, and the players being forced to just intuit this, or learn it the hard way, was a part of the game as he saw it. So the entire left half of the chart should be viewed with a certain amount of “these editions may well have assumed the DM would implement these restrictions.”

Note: Longbow advantages aren’t that important

The advantages of the longbow are not immense: the range is quite a bit bigger, but the shortbow’s is pretty big already, and a lot of adventurers spend most of their time indoors where you rarely get to use those big ranges. And for the editions where the longbow does more damage, it is consistently just +1 damage on average—nothing to get too worried about. They matter more than the (negligible) money or weight, but they aren’t likely to make or break anything. So if you want to use a shortbow for whatever reason, backstory or imagery or whatever, you really aren’t missing out on that much. Ultimately, the two weapons are very similar in every edition.

Detailed Breakdown by Edition

With all that said, the meat of this answer: exactly what each edition says about longbows and shortbows, and why that might mean you’d prefer to use a shortbow.

Original Men & Magic, 1974

The original “Dungeons & Dragons, volume 1,” included both the short bow and the long bow. These would continue to appear in the first book of each edition ever since.

Anyway, Men & Magic values a short bow at 25 gp and a long bow at 40 gp, but mostly relied on Chainmail for its combat rules. (Except—optionally—with different tables for hitting and being hit.) Chainmail gives short bows 15″ range, while long bows get 21″ and composite bows get 24″ ( is shorthand for “inch,” by the way—these were out-of-character table measurements), but other than that, they’re identical, with the same rate of fire (which was usually once per round but you could get a second attack by not moving). So the tradeoff seems to be “spend 60% more to get 40% greater range.”

1e Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1978-1983

AD&D introduces a number of complications, not all of which I’m completely fluent in. There are composite versions of both shortbow and longbow now, which for a greater price results in ... different ranges. Not always better, bizarrely.

AD&D also has a sense of weapons you are or are not proficient in, and has weapons each class is or is not allowed to use. In its Player’s Handbook, all classes are equally capable of using both shortbow and longbow (that is, either they can use both or they can use neither), which oddly enough includes the thief (who couldn’t use bastard swords or two-handed swords but was not otherwise restricted, as far as I can tell). However, Unearthed Arcana removed longbow from the weapons allowed to the thief, and its new sub-class, the thief-acrobat.

In addition to that class-based limitation, there is also a height-based one:

***Characters under 5′ height cannot employ the longbow or any weapon over 12′ in length.

(Player’s Handbook, 1978, pg. 19)

This means dwarves, halflings, gnomes, etc. cannot use longbows. (Just as can indicate inches, can indicate feet—these are in-character measurements.)

Anyway, when both are options, longbows are consistently more expensive, and have greater range, than shortbows. They do the same damage. Their rate of fire is identical. There is some kind of “Armor Class Adjustment” that varies between shortbows and longbows.

Hurled Weapons
and Missiles
2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Bow, composite, long −2 −1 0 0 +1 +2 +2 +3 +3
Bow, composite, short −3 −3 −1 0 +1 +2 +2 +2 +3
Bow, long −1 0 0 +1 +2 +3 +3 +3 +3
Bow, short −5 −4 −1 0 0 +1 +2 +2 +2

(Player’s Handbook, 1978, pg. 38)

@Kirt tells me that this is supposed to represent that longbows have better “penetrative” value, particularly against more armored targets. The shortbow is never superior to the longbow here.

Moldvay B/X, 1980-1981

“B/X” stands for Basic Rulebook and Expert Rulebook, the two books in it. Basically the same as Men & Magic in every respect relevant to short bow vs. long bow: both do 1d6 damage (even using the “Variable Weapon Damage” option), both attack at the same rate (just once per round), the short bow costs 25 gp and the long bow costs 40 gp, and the long bow has greater range (210 feet instead of 150 feet, which is the same 15:21 ratio that Men & Magic had). All of this is found in the Basic Rulebook and the Expert Rulebook doesn’t seem to have anything to say on the matter.

Mentzer “BECMI,” 1983-1986

This version of D&D starts with updates to the B/X Basic Rulebook and Expert Rulebook, and then adds three additional books, Companion, Master, and Immortal. Together, you get “BECMI.” These were collected and reprinted into a single hardback book called the Rules Cyclopedia.

Anyway, the BECMI Basic Rules update to the B/X Basic Rulebook added the stipulation that halflings could not use “large” weapons, which included long bows. At some point by or before the Rules Cyclopedia this grew to include “goblins and other small races.”

2e Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, 1989

Pretty much the same as the 1978 version: longbows have greater range, short bows are cheaper, “Small” characters cannot use “Large” weapons, which the longbow is, and so must use the short bow. Rate of fire and damage are identical.

But again,

Thieves have a limited selection of weapons. […] The allowed weapons are club, dagger, dart, hand crossbow, knife, lasso, short bow, sling, broad sword, long sword, short sword, and staff.

(AD&D 2e Player’s Handbook, 1989)

No long bow on the list, so 2e rogues can only use short bows.

D&D 3e, 2000-2004, and “v.3.5 revised edition,” 2004-2008

New publisher, new rules, pretty much the same paradigm: shortbow is slightly cheaper and lighter, longbow gets greater range and damage.

Likewise, as before, several classes¹ got proficiency with the shortbow, but not the longbow. This includes the rogue, and a bunch of classes that are at least somewhat “rogue-like.” Unlike previous editions, you could use a weapon you weren’t proficient in, but you took large penalties to your attack roll and the loss of accuracy completely swamped the small benefits of a longbow over a shortbow, so no one should ever do that except maybe in desperation. You could take a feat to gain proficiency, or be an elf, or multiclass, but those all cost scarce character-building resources, so not wanting to could be solid reasons to not use a longbow.

Some other differences:

  • Size was no longer a concern—you just got the shortbow or longbow that was sized appropriately for your character. A Small longbow deals the same damage as a Medium shortbow, but gets greater range (though exactly what its range would be is somewhat ambiguous).

  • You could no longer use the longbow while mounted, so mounted archers might be forced to use the shortbow.

    However, this restriction applied only to the regular “longbow”—the composite longbow explicitly could be used mounted. Composite longbows have “a particular strength rating (that is, each requires a minimum Strength modifier to use with proficiency),” and “The default composite longbow requires a Strength modifier of +0.” The rules discuss the effects of a higher Strength rating (greater cost and damage), but they don’t discuss a lower Strength rating—but nothing says they can’t exist. If a composite longbow with a Strength rating of −5 (the minimum possible Strength modifier a creature can have) is allowed, any creature could use it. It would cost just 25 gp more than a regular longbow, deal the same damage, have 10 feet greater range, and be usable while mounted. Even if we take the default +0 rating as the minimum, it still means the restriction against using longbows while mounted effectively only applies to low-Strength characters.

The “v.3.5 revised edition” in 2004 did not change any of these things.²

  1. Specifically—across both the original 3e and the 3.5e revision—we have the following classes with shortbow proficiency but not longbow proficiency: assassin, bard, beguiler, fatemaker, ninja, rogue, scout, shadowdancer, spirit shaman, and Yathchol webrider. Note that several of these (assassin, fatemaker, shadowdancer, and Yathchol webrider) are “prestige classes” that could not be taken at 1st level and had to be multiclassed into—in most cases it would be pretty easy for someone to pick up longbow proficiency somewhere else along the way if they wanted it.

  2. Pathfinder 1e—the core of which is based on the core of 3.5e—also didn’t change any of these things, at least for the classes shared by both systems, namely assassin, bard, rogue, and shadowdancer. Pathfinder also introduced archetypes, which could vary a class, including its weapon proficiencies, and additional classes besides; I’m not going to attempt a full listing of all the ways to wind up with shortbow proficiency but not longbow proficiency. I also can’t address Pathfinder 2e—that system, unlike 1e, is an entirely new system, and my understanding is that the distinction between shortbow and longbow is actually pretty considerable in it.

D&D 4e, 2008-2010

The Player’s Handbook for 4th edition classified the shortbow as a “small” weapon, which meant that Small characters could use it even though it was two-handed. The longbow did not have this trait, and so was unavailable to Small characters.

There were also, in later supplements, a couple of feats—Moonbow Dedicate and Moonbow Stalker—that allowed the shortbow, and not the longbow, to be used with certain powers that wouldn’t normally work with bows at all.

D&D 5e, 2014-present

The shortbow was classified as a simple weapon in the Player’s Handbook, while the longbow was classified as a heavy, martial weapon. The means that (non-Battle Smith) artificers, (non-Valor) bards, (non-War) clerics, monks, rogues, and warlocks get to add their proficiency bonus (+2 to +6 depending on level) to shortbow attacks, but not longbow attacks. The longbow being heavy meant that Small characters take disadvantage using one.

Again, race or feat could change get you proficiency, but allowing you to choose other race or feat options is a strong advantage in the shortbow’s favor. And I don’t believe there was any solution to the heavy weapon trait on the longbow aside from simply not being Small.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I also vaguely remember that there were rules in splat books about which bow you could use properly from horseback, but I never really played a campaign where "on horseback" would have been more than an improvised sidenote. \$\endgroup\$
    – nvoigt
    Oct 13, 2023 at 5:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ In older versions of D&D, the length of a weapon can matter. A 6' longbow couldn't be drawn in a small enough tunnel or cramped corridor, as an example. \$\endgroup\$
    – Yakk
    Oct 13, 2023 at 19:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Yakk Interesting; can you point me to any of those rules? \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Oct 13, 2023 at 20:24
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Rogues

In 3.5e, Rogues are proficient with all simple weapons, as well as hand crossbows, rapiers, saps, short swords, and short bows.

In 5e, Rogues have similar proficiencies, but short bows are now categorized as simple ranged weapons, so they no longer require specific exceptions.

To become proficient in a long bow, a rogue would need to either multi-class into a class that has proficiency in the long bow, or take a feat for proficiency in the long bow.

And given the damage difference is a mere 1d6 to 1d8, and that rogues get most of their damage pool from the numerous d6s they roll in sneak attack anyway, there's little reason to invest so much in such a modest increase in weapon damage dice.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Regardless of how many sneak-attack dice you roll or not, 1d8 vs. 1d6 has an average damage per hit that's higher by 1. So the key factor with rogues is that they only attack once per turn, not getting Extra Attack. And/or that extra weapon damage dice don't help them hit in the first place to do their sneak attack damage, so investing in things that help with that is more valuable, so I guess it's fair to phrase it that way if comparing a feat against an ASI to boost their dex modifier, or something like Elven Accuracy. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 12, 2023 at 15:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes In 3.5e, a competent rogue basically never accepted getting only a single attack per turn, except for maybe at the very lowest levels. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Oct 16, 2023 at 19:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan: I was talking about 5e, where this answer is talking about the tradeoff of spending a feat or a multi-class to get longbow proficiency. (vs. feats like Crossbow Expert or Sharpshooter.) Oh, but I guess the same tradeoff applies in 3.5e; I think I misread the answer previously. I was only talking about 5e. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 16, 2023 at 19:13
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I've played several OD&D and AD&D1e characters who used shortbows, but it was always for non-mechanical reasons. A longbow is awkward to carry, in ways that encumbrance rules don't fully capture, being both long and fairly easy to damage.

It offends my sense of game verisimilitude for a character who wears heavy armour, or climbs walls, squeezes through narrow spaces and meets similar physical challenges, to be carrying a 6' bow stave. My suspension of disbelief has a much easier time with a smaller bow.

To me, if a character intends to use archery as their primary combat tactic, then a longbow is worth the implied extra trouble. If missile-fire is a secondary activity, then a shortbow is less trouble. A sling is even less, of course, but lacks the intimidatory value of a bow.

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Many DMs ignore this these days, but there are also certain environments/circumstances where the longbow essentially becomes unwieldy or all but unusable; especially for example, in narrow passages or aboard a boat with lots of rigging. You might still be able to use a short bow in those circumstances.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It is widely commented upon—including by the authors—that D&D doesn’t have “secret rules” these days. If longbows are to have this drawback, you should be able to point to a specific rule on a specific page saying so. And I don’t think you can in any of Wizards of the Coast’s work. IMO, this answer would be much improved if you could indicate which editions have such a specific rule, or a general rule that the DM should invent circumstantial rules like this. I think you’ll find it’s only in TSR D&D that you can. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Oct 14, 2023 at 21:54

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