Useful Notes / Archery

Disclaimer: This information is presented purely for educational purposes, particularly for creators who may want to depict archery more accurately. You should seek professional instruction if you want to learn archery, and we are not responsible for any harm that may come from attempting to imitate the practices described herein.

Ah, archery. Basically the art of using a bent stick with a string tied between the ends to shoot a smaller pointed stick at something quite a long way away, it began as a techinique of primitive survival, spent a long time as a major force on the battlefield, and has finally become a rewarding pastime enjoyed by athletes and hobbyists the world over. Fiction loves to depict archery, as demonstrated by the enduring popularity of folk heroes such as Robin Hood, along with more modern characters such as Legolas, Green Arrow, and Katniss Everdeen. However, what you see is often determined by Rule of Cool and may give you an unrealistic or overly narrow idea of what archery is. This summary can help you to start learning about archery.

First, some safety rules in no particular order. See here for a full list.

  1. Follow all laws and regulations pertaining to archery in the place where you wish to practice it. Seek out a licensed club or professional instructor: they will make sure what you're doing is safe, and you will not bear sole legal responsibility if there is an accident.
  2. Never point your bow at any living thing that you do not intend to shoot, even if there's no arrow drawn.
  3. Never draw an arrow if there are any people between you and your target. Do not go to retrieve your arrows until everyone has stopped shooting.
  4. Maintain your equipment, and make sure your bow, string, and arrows are undamaged every time before you shoot. Replace any worn or damaged equipment immediately.
  5. Never dry fire your bow. This means not to draw and release the bowstring without having an arrow knocked: it could damage your bow and cause personal injury.

Arrow wounds can be very serious, and are particularly tricky with barbed arrowheads. You can't leave any part of an arrow where it is—and the process of removing it is probably more painful than being shot in the first place, if you're not unconscious or drugged. You'd need to get the arrow cut out of your flesh, by the way. And that's only if a trained surgeon has the tools for it, lacking that the only alternative is to push the arrow out the other end, break it and then pull the shaft out which is as painful as it sounds. Yanking it out would cause lots of bleeding, may cause permanent damage depending on where it is/wasnote , and at the very least would make the wound much harder to treat than if a trained medic/surgeon made some very careful incisions before carefully pulling it out. Musket balls had their own complications, particularly their tendency to force dirty clothing fibers into the wound, and the method of extracing them was somewhat different.

The main drawback of archery was the learning time needed: It takes weeks to build up the strength to shoot even a light 25-pound bow, much less a war-bow needing several times that force, and it takes more weeks to become proficient enough to hit targets consistently. A popular saying was that "To make a good archer, start with his grandfather." Also, something as minor as slouching or head position can affect your shooting drastically, while guns can be shot from any reasonable position. The fact that early guns were comparatively quicker to learnnote  and did not require great physical strength to use was a major factor in them replacing bows in a military contexts. Other factors were that guns tended to have more "stopping power" than arrows, that the lead ammunition was a lot easier to mass-produce than arrows, and that opponents unused to guns could be terrified by all that noise and smoke. These advantages helped to make up for their lower rate of fire and the reduced accuracy of smoothbore muskets. That said, the disappearance of the bow from military conflict was mainly a Western European phenomeonon: in Eastern Europe, Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, many warriors carried and used both bow and musket for different applications.

Despite what it looks like, arm strength is the worst way to judge how much draw weight you can pull—you'd risk dislocating your shoulder every time you draw. The back and shoulder muscles are the ones that should bear the draw-weight, and one should only use the arm muscles to keep them properly aligned. (This is why archers are typically depicted as Fragile Speedsters or Glass Cannons.) Most people are unaccustomed to using their back muscles, and may need a much lighter draw-weight than they think; rule of thumb is to get a bow that only requires 75% of one's strength at first. Beginners are strongly advised to have someone act as a spotter for the first few weeks, since improper technique can lead to extensive problems both short- and long-term.

Also, if you prefer traditional archery (anything but a compound bow), you should always unstring your bow when it's not in use. This greatly increases your equipment's lifespan, so you won't have to worry about your bow and/or string breaking in half only a few months later.

It's pretty damn awesome once you get it right, though.

Useful Terms

  • Anchor point: How far the archer draws, so-called because they need to "anchor" the bowstring at the same spot. Common anchor points are the chin, just under the cheekbone, the nose, and as far back as the ear for longbows.
  • Arm-guard/Bracer: Gear for the bow arm to avoid getting hit/bruised by the string. Essentially a piece of material (often leather) that covers the inside of the forearm. While most garden-variety bracers cover the majority of the forearm, the more skilled archers only need small bracers (3-4 inches) since having very good/consistent form results in a smaller possible area that the bowstring might hit.
    • Of note is the fact that one can avoid being hit entirely by rotating one's elbow and not locking the joint, which some prefer not to do because it interferes with their grip on the bow and can put stress on the bow arm.
  • Bow arm/hand: The hand that holds the bow. Requires an arm-guard/bracer to keep from injured by the bowstring if it strikes the forearm (resulting in a potentially nasty bruise). Modern bowyers often make specifically right- or left-handed bows, while traditional bows are interchangeable.
  • Dominant eye: The eye used to aim, which is usually determined by one's dominant hand. Right-handed people draw with their right hand, so their right eye is dominant. The reverse is true for left-handed people. However, if your eye and hand dominance is different, choosing your eye dominance is preferred. In that case, your draw hand will be the same side as your dominant eye. Most people determine eye dominance by pointing at an object a few feet away and closing one eye at a time—if you're still pointing at or close to the object, that's your dominant eye.
  • Draw arm/hand: The hand that pulls the string. Requires a shooting glove or tab or thumbring or release to keep the bowstring from cutting into the fingers. Which hand is the draw hand and which is the bow hand can be determined either by your dominant hand or your dominant eye.
  • Bow length: In traditional archery, the length of the unstrung bow. This is important, since correctly-sized strings are about four inches shorter than the bow. Longer strings would decrease the bow's power and make it difficult to shoot, and significantly shorter strings run the risk of damaging the bow. A sixty-inch bow would ideally have a fifty-six-inch string.
  • Chest guard: Exactly What It Says on the Tin. A virtual necessity for women, particularly if that woman has a more generous chest - otherwise that woman will be wearing turtlenecks most of her life to cover the bruises.
    • It should be noted that as with many sports, enough practice with the bow will shrink one's bust size, and chest guards should be adjustable to accommodate that.
  • Draw length: How far the archer can draw. A rough approximation of draw length can be made by dividing one's arm-span by 2.5 (rounding up to the nearest inch if necessary). Arrows should be two or three inches longer than this.
  • Draw weight: The amount of force needed to draw the bow, often used as the main description. A "light" bow requires less force than a "heavy" bow: For example, a 25-pound bow is commonly used for target practice, while hunting requires at least a 35-pound bow to ensure a humane killing. Bows for children should not exceed 20 pounds of draw-weight, while adults can usually learn to shoot from a 20- or 25-pound bow. War-bows, if needed to punch through armor, could reach well over the sixty pounds of draw weight typical for a contemporary hunting bow. The English longbows on the Mary Rose ranged from 100 to 185 pounds (averaging 150—160 lbs.), while Turkish horse bows are reported to have had draw weights of 175 pounds or more (with reported arrow flight distances of 845.5 meters, 220 pounds is not unreasonable).
  • Nock: The action of putting the arrow to the string, the notch in the end of the arrow for that purpose, or the notches for the string at the end of the bow (e.g., the horn tips of an English longbow).
  • Quiver: Used for holding arrows, and often made of leather in western cultures.
    • Ground Quiver: A device for holding arrows on the ground, suitable for target shooting or other times where movement is not necessary. Has the advantage of not causing any interference in body movement and stance. Usually consists of a horizontal ring attached to a stake driven into the ground, sometimes with a rest for setting the bow on.
  • Shooting glove/finger tab: Protection for the draw hand. The former is a glove that covers the first three fingers, while the second is a piece of leather held against the fingers. Do not confuse shooting gloves with Fingerless Gloves—they are the exact opposite and do absolutely nothing for protection. While one can develop calluses akin to that of string musicians, nobody short of a determinator would tolerate the constant pain long enough to do so. A middle/far-eastern alternative is a thumb ring, which may be made of leather, bone, jade or a myriad of other materials. There are a number of other options, as well as the mechanical releases commonly used on modern compounds.

Types of bows

While the most famous type of bow in the Western world is the English longbow, there are several commonly-found types that vary in style, materials, and shooting technique.

  • The (English) longbow: This bow was made from a single piece of wood, often taken from the place where the springy sapwood meets the stiff heartwood: the heartwood forms the belly of the bow and the sapwood forms its back. One reason they might have done this is so that the tensile strength of the sapwood and the compressive strength of the heartwood would combine to make it more efficent, like a composite bow, but it's just as likely that they did this to make manufacturing easier, and bows made entirely of heartwood were not unheard of. And although yew was preferred (and often called the King of Bow-woods), it wasn't rare to make the bow out of ash or elm either. A yew bow would have plenty of knots in it, which were left standing proud when the bow was shaved into shape because shaving them off would create weak points. The cross-section of the bow was D-shaped, with the back of the bow flat and the belly of the bow curved. While less efficent than a bow with flat limbs, the D-section reduced the danger of breaking under the enormous stresses they were subjected to. Unlike Victorian longbows, which have a hand grip and only bend in the arms, the medieval longbow usually had no special grip and would bend along its entire length. Since the wood changes shape and balance slightly in response to moisture, archers may have preferred the freedom to adjust their grip to wherever the arms were balanced. Nice ones had knocks made of horn on the ends, and the tips of the arms were slightly recurved. On lighter bows the string could be made of linen, but the heaviest bows used hemp as one could get a single long fiber that would be guaranteed not to snap. Hunting bows were rarely more than 50-60 pounds in draw weight, as all but the largest game can be penetrated and dropped with that much power, and more power would have been a waste. This is because animals don't wear armor, and are usually engaged at relatively close range. Since warbows had to deal with these things, their draw weights could be truly monstrous: surviving warbows recovered from the wreck of a Tudor warship, the Mary Rose, range from 100-185 pounds at a 30 inch draw, with the median being 150-160 lbs. The average length of the Mary Rose bows is 6 ft, 6 in (1.98m). The high draw weight of the warbow was used to propel heavy war arrows, which carried more force to the target than light arrows and were more likely to penetrate. Boys practiced from a young age, using progressively more powerful bows as they developed the powerful back and shoulder muscles required to draw heavy bows. The basic form of the longbow has been around since prehistoric times, and bows similar to the English longbow were used throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. What made the English different was that they had a bow-shooting culture that enabled them to raise large numbers of archers who were proficient with very powerful bows, something that few other countries were able to do.
  • The recurve bow: The main differences between recurve bows and longbows are size, and shape. Recurve bows are smaller than longbows with tips that curve away from the archer when unstrung, and they require comparatively less effort for more power than the straight bow. They were common in heavily-forested areas and with mounted archers.
  • The composite bow: Made of different materials laminated together, and can be even more powerful than ordinary bows despite often being the smallest in size. The most powerful bows use horn and sinew, and can reach over 160 pounds of draw weight. It should be noted that while many composite bows are recurves, not all recurves are composites. These were often used in areas where quality bow-wood was hard to find.
  • The yumi: A kind of Japanese bow. They, like longbows, are massive at nearly two meters (6.5 feet) in length, and traditionally made by laminating bamboo, wood, and leather—thus they can technically be considered composites as well. They are asymmetrical in shape, with the grip located at the bottom third of the bow rather than the center. There is no clear reason for this—theories range from making mounted archery easier, to being able to shoot while kneeling, to the shape being the best way to deal with inferior materials. As with many other aspects of their culture, the Japanese prefer to uphold tradition; while bows of synthetic materials exist, they are often passed over in favor of bows with the traditional wood/leather combination.
  • The compound bow: A newer bow design which uses cables and usually pulleys (cams) to provide mechanical advantage, reducing the pressure on your muscles at full draw. Often includes significant parts of metal, usually aluminum or magnesium. While compounds can be used like a traditional bow—it is unusual to find a compound bow set up for shooting with fingers, normally they are fitted out with stabilizers and a sight and for the use of a mechanical arrow release as well.

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