Archery for Fantasy Authors – Expert Archers

So having talked about novices, let’s discuss expert archers in the context of writing Fantasy.

Firstly I want to distinguish between single archers and companies of archers. The primary focus of this post will be the single archer. A company of archers is a band of men trained to fight together in a battle situation. What they do is a little different. Their tactic is usually to drop a rain of arrows at an approaching force, aiming at progressively shorter distances as the enemy closes, until finally they are close enough to be shot at directly. These companies train to shoot at marks, i.e. to drop an arrow at specific distances by shooting it into the air and letting it fall on the enemy. This is different from drawing and aiming at a specific target and relies on there being many archery to produce a hail of arrows. It’s a very effective weapon used like this, as demonstrated at various medieval battles.

Alternatively there are horseback archery who ride up to or alongside an enemy and pick off targets while galloping past. These were tactics used widely across eastern Europe, the Middle East, and through Central and Eastern Asia as far as Korea and Japan. The Native Americans are also said to have used mounted archery in hunting and warfare.

In the case of the individual archer, the first thing to note is that the bow is not carried already strung. In particular, it isn’t worn across the body as seen in many a Hollywood movie. The main reason is that a bow made of natural materials which is kept permanently strung will eventually stay in the strung shape when unstrung and the bow will lose much of the power gained by bending it. This is the reason that modern longbow archers unstring their bows as soon as they finish shooting. In the case of composite bows, this is even more critical as the bow can de-laminate if left permanently strung (i.e the limbs will split apart as the glue fails) and the bow can injure you and anyone close by.

Armouries Bows

Asiatic Bows at the Royal Armouries, Leeds


Some years ago I spoke with one of the curators in the Royal Armouries at Leeds about some asiatic composite bows (see photo) that had been donated to the collection already strung (he thought they had been displayed on someone’s wall). He said they daren’t unstring them because they would likely fall apart so they were displaying them as they had been donated.

A quick note for D&D enthusiasts. A composite bow and a compound bow are two completely different things. A composite bow is made of more than one material and is laminated (usually a combination of horn, sinew, softened bone and wood). A compound bow is a bow that uses levers or pulleys (called cams) to change the draw weight (the force held by the fingers) to make it more accurate and easier to aim. Compound bows were not developed until the 1940s and are unlikely to feature in epic fantasy. Of course they would be perfect for an alternative history – ArrowPunk anyone?

Bows are deflex if the limbs (the bits that bend when the bow is pulled back) curve towards the archer when the bow is unstrung. It is reflex if they curve away from the archer. It is recurve if the limbs curve towards the archer and then away at the tips (i.e. it curves and re-curves). Some designs of asiatic bow unstrung are completely reflex and form the shape of a C unstrung (see photo) and must be inverted to string them into the classic recurve shape. This is tricky and takes practice as the whole thing can twist and snap in your hands while under tension.

You don’t “fire” an arrow, despite the scene in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings at Helm’s Deep. There are so many things wrong with that scene but we still love the films – my favourite is the Elven archers standing behind the wall shooting between the people on the wall at the orcs on the other side, in the dark, while it’s raining. Never once is anyone accidentally shot in the back. There is never a loose fletch that causes an arrow to spiral, or a sudden breeze causing the arrows to drift sideways. It’s perfect, but then they are elves. An arrow is shot, by the way, or loosed or let go. The term “fire” comes from firearms where you would apply a fire to the powder to shoot. Firing things is a modern term and unlikely to fit into a historical context.

There are any number of archery feats that are thought to be the product of movie special effects, such as shooting one arrow down the shaft of another, shooting things in mid-air, and even shooting an incoming arrow out of the air with another. These are not things to be tried casually as a bow and arrow is a weapon and just as lethal by accident as it is on purpose. However, Lars Andersen, a very talented and imaginative archer has trained himself to perform many of these feats and recorded them in the video below:

UPDATE: For clarity, please note that the historical claims made in the commentary of this video are not substantiated in fact. These demonstrations do require a high level of skill, but they are neither unique, nor ‘rediscovered secrets’. The techniques and skills shown are for illustration only and should not be taken as historically accurate. For instance, a back-quiver is not a hollywood myth, as stated in the narration. If you look at the image from the Bayeaux Tapestry in my previous post you can clearly see that one of the Norman archers is using a back quiver. There are many such mistakes and misrepresentations in the commentary, but the skills demonstrated remain impressive in execution.

It’s a shame that the commentary is not of the same standard as the shooting, but it shows what an archers could potentially do. Just how exceptional the talents of Lars Andersen are is unknown, but if he can do this now then there is no reason it could not have been the case in times past. I would emphasise, though, that most of what he is doing is dangerous and that he has trained for many years. Even shooting at short range can result in arrows bouncing out of a target, going in random directions and injuring the shooter or anyone near them. Not something to try for yourself at home.

As for accuracy, the archers in the traditional Mongolian archery tournament shoot at a stacked row of small cylindrical braided targets, each about the size of a large tea-mug at a distance of 75 metres for men and 65 metres for women, with composite bows that have no sights or modern aids. The judges in these contests stand next to the targets in order to judge where the arrow has hit. The arrows have blunt wooden tips rather than sharp metal or bone but, even so, being hit by one would be painful and would doubtless cause injury. The archers are so accurate that the judges lean forward to see better where the arrows hit. The competitors in these tournaments are master archers, and their arrows hit targets that are difficult even to see at that distance.

This is the miracle of archery. At a distance of 75 metres, the difference between hitting the target and hitting a judge standing one metre away is an angle of less than 1 degree (0.764 degrees for those interested). The difference between hitting the target and not is a fraction of this. It’s not about maths, though, it’s about judgement and skill. It’s about feeling the wind and knowing how much the arrow will be deflected. It’s about using your imagination to place the arrow at the centre of the target from far away. It’s about years of practice that give your muscles a memory of how a great shot feels so that you can replicate it again and again.

An expert archer is a formidable opponent at close range and at a distance. Being an expert archer takes years of dedication, practice, knowledge and skill. If you’re going to include characters in your story that are expert archers then give them that knowledge and skill. Have them practice that skill constantly. Make them care about the condition of their equipment, and the way it is stored or carried, whether it is damp or dry. Have them maintain their arrows and replace the ones that are cracked or broken. Have them check their bow-string and keep a spare under their hat where it’s dry and accessible. Have them check their bow after every fight and carefully unstring it so that it will be ready for next time.

At the same time, draw a balance between making your story accurate and believable and filling it with irrelevant detail. Such details used well can add richness and realism, but used badly it comes across as explication or irrelevant padding that will slow the narrative and steal the pace from your story.

As with all creative writing, the story comes first.

  1. #1 by Brian on March 14, 2015 - 7:27 pm

    Thank you for this useful article. My Mercenaries series (four books) has an archer, Andiriel, as its principal character, and I am not an archer. I am glad to see that I managed to follow most of the advice, including unstringing the bow and constant practice.

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