Archery for Fantasy Authors – Novice Archers

I haven’t posted for a while because in my other profession I have been hectically busy. How’s it going in there? Very well, thank you, but we’re not out of the woods yet. Anyway, I was particularly taken with Chuck Wendig’s take on Things You Should Know When Writing About Guns, and I wanted to do something similar for Archery.

Norman Archers from the Bayeaux Tapestry

Bows and arrows have been around since hunters decided to stop throwing sticks at the wildlife by hand, and maybe for that reason writers tend to think they are simple to make and use in a fantasy setting. After all, any self-respecting pseudo-medieval character would have known how to shoot a bow and arrow, right?

Wrong. A novice bowman has about as much of a chance of successfully making a bow and arrow that can be used as an effective weapon over more than ten yards as they have of making a red carpet out of fruit. And if you’re within ten yards of your enemy, a bow is the wrong weapon to reach for.

Let’s dispel some myths about novices:

  • Most novices can’t hit a 4-foot diameter target with an arrow from ten yards until they’ve been taught to shoot. I know, I help run beginners courses. Hitting a target at 30 yards is impossible. They are using the wrong muscles, they’re not aligned properly and they are more likely to injure themselves that anyone else (string-slap is when the string hits your bow arm on release like a high speed garotte. It leaves spectacular bruises)
  • Most novices can’t draw a bow of more that 20lbs in draw weight (the force needed to draw back the string). If they can draw it, they can’t hold it. In order to shoot an arrow more than 30 yards you have to be able to draw and shoot a bow of more than 20lbs, otherwise you’re aiming in mid-air above the target and you have no idea where the arrow is going.
  • Making a bow takes skill, time and knowledge. The right wood, taken from the right places, seasoned in the right way, crafted in expert hands, will make a good weapon. Most modern bows are laminated wood because it performs better. Most self-bows (bows made without lamination) are slow, and they warp because the mix of heartwood and sapwood expand and contract at different rates. Waterproof glue for lamination wasn’t invented until the late nineteenth century.
  • You can make a bow out of almost any springy material and it will work to some extent. An arrow, however, must be straight and must be made of a material that can take the extreme force imparted by the bow without splitting down the middle at the nock (where the string goes) or shattering on release, or coming apart in mid-air.
  • The fletches on the arrow must stay on and must be aligned with a constant offset angle so that the arrow will spin in the air. If they are feathers they should be from the same wing of the same bird so that they curve the same way.
  • Arrows all need to flex by the same amount – too flexible and they’ll break, too stiff and they won’t fly straight. Each set of arrows has to be matched to the bow, the archer, and the style of shooting. And each other. Different weights of arrows fly different distances with the same force, so they all have to weigh the same too.
  • The centre of gravity must be in the right place, just forward of the centre. Too far forward and they’ll stall, too far back and they won’t fly straight. And if you have any intention towards adjusting your aim between shots, they all need to be identical.
  • A bow-string must be capable of holding the full weight of the bow and then stopping the bow from flying apart when it is released. Even some modern materials cannot withstand a bow being released without an arrow to absorb some of the energy. A vine, creeper, or plant will pull apart. Hair is too prone to breaking. String-making is an art, even in the present day.
  • You don’t shoot a bow of more than 20lbs off your fingers. Its like holding a cheese-wire and lifting ten bags of sugar. It will slice into the joints of your fingers. You need a tab, or finger guard, thumb-ring or shooting glove – something between the bow-string and you.

So none of this is accidental. Bows, arrows, strings and the accessories necessary to shoot them require skilled craftsmanship. That’s why there were guilds of Bowyers and of Fletchers. You had to serve an apprenticeship and learn your trade. Sure, a makeshift bow could be cut from a hedgerow, but it will be lightweight and prone to splitting. That assumes that you have a string to string it with, of the right length and capable of withstanding the forces involved. Sinew works well after hours of boiling and shaving and careful preparation, and you have the tools to hand.

And then you have to make arrows.

Maybe it’s just easier to go back to throwing rocks at things?


  1. #1 by Mike on November 1, 2014 - 8:21 pm

    Hi David, and thanks for your comment, but I don’t think you’ve thought this through. Iron tipped bullets? They won’t fire. The gunpowder won’t ignite in a field that absorbs energy they will simply cease to function. Arrows are more controllable, if they warp you discard them, and particularly if they are hazel shafts and iron tipped, they are more difficult to influence. Altair’s tactics are based on arrogance, an idea of overwhelming superiority. He’s not planning a war, he’s planning genocide.

    His tactics are those of ambush, and his enemies flee. That’s how it’s always been. He’s never had anyone fight back except the Warders, and they are mostly dead. It’s like being punched by the kid you’ve been bullying for years and suddenly realising he’s grown. Your tactics no longer fit the fight.

  2. #2 by David Foreman on November 1, 2014 - 4:38 pm

    Just wanted to say I loved both the books and this article which does, however, touch on a pet fantasy gripe of mine. As you say, it would be good if people were better about guns and bows, but it would be even more wonderful if their relevant characters had proper tactical and strategic military skills, appropriate to their weaponry. I’m sorry to say it, but Lord Altair’s generalship could have been defeated by Stewie, and the idea that Mellion would be using iron-tipped arrows, rather than iron bullets from automatic weapons, in a battle for survival in the present day, is absurd. I know it’s an almost universal issue in fantasy, from Tolkein onwards, and it’s a bit unfair moaning at you when you’ve gone to so much trouble to make the collision between magic and the everyday so convincing. But as you seem to care about this kind of accuracy, I’m hoping you’ll understand why I’m saying this, when clearly you’re not trying to write military history or textbooks. The more technologically/magically gifted don’t even have to win: they sure didn’t always in real life, as this shows

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