Medieval Archery for Fantasy Writers

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Jonas Armstrong as Robin Hood

Jonas Armstrong as Robin Hood

In our distant past, archery nearly became a lost art, a useless tool once weapons technology had moved on. If not for the resurgence of popularity in the early to mid-nineteenth century, it might have vanished in Europe and America entirely, being relegated to the more primitive cultures which rely on it as a means to procure food and make war.

But how best to portray archery in a world where magic is common and monsters are not mere wild animals, but horrific creatures bent on destruction?

First, what type of archery are you trying to portray? Fourteenth century longbows firing war arrows on a battlefield? A band of warriors decimating foot soldiers from horseback? A small group of characters hunting or sneaking through an occupied land? These scenarios all require different things, and their equipment will reflect their needs.

Longbows

Longbows, in their most basic sense, are long sticks (some very long, about eight feet). They have no curvature when unstrung, and would be made of different types of wood regionally available. The best wood for the bow will be strong but flexible, and often it would be backed with linen, glued in layers to lend strength to the weapon. Strings, in wet climates, were almost exclusively made of linen or hemp, especially for war bows, as other materials could not stand up to a 150-pound pull.

So without getting into too many details, how does a longbow work? Traditional longbows are strung when use is eminent, and unstrung when no longer in use. Every time they are pulled, they weaken, but a good one can last years. I’ve seen bows break in half when drawn, and it’s truly frightening, a sound like when a tree is falling, the splintering of wood and then a sharp snap.

Longbows’ weights are varied, depending on their intended use. The 150-pound war bow shoots massive arrows, up to a yard long and tapered from 1/2” to 3/8”. It would have had an armor-piercing, pyramidal, hand-forged bodkin to pierce plate armor. These are atypical bows and took many years to master. In fact, the skeletons of archers are easily identified by their curved spines, a side-effect of the muscles compensating for repeating this action throughout their lives.

While that’s all well and good for an army defending a castle against knights, it’s ridiculous to think a hunter would sport that sort of equipment. He’d most likely be shooting a six-foot bow between 45 and 70 pounds, because anything more than that is hard to draw and hold as you aim. Most human characters will typically fall in this range, because even a 45-pound bow is hard to simply pick up and pull more than a few times if your muscles are not used to doing it.

Mounted archery is a different subject altogether. Many Mongols had two rigid, hinge-top quivers strapped to their saddles, and would shoot short bows with deadly accuracy from horseback. While my research only breaks the surface in Asian archery, I think it’s worth mentioning here because it’s all too easy to confuse the two very different methods and equipment. Longbows from horseback is not likely.

Crossbows

And now on to crossbows. Crossbows are unique, in that they are very user friendly. You can put one into the hands of a peasant and say, “Shoot those men over there,” and essentially turn him into a fighting man, even if he has no experience. So are crossbows game-changers? In a word? No.

Crossbow

Crossbows are clumsy and can be prone to malfunctioning. However, many were very powerful, and mounted on turrets with elaborate winch systems to pull their 350-pound weight. The main drawback to a crossbow is that it is slow. Whereas a longbow can fire every six seconds, a crossbow, especially a powerful one, could take much longer to fire. They feature a stirrup on the end that you can use to put your boot in, to pull back the string.  I’ve tried to cock a 150-pound crossbow and it’s no easy task. Let alone doing it multiple times. But then, I guess, I have no chance of drawing a 150-pound longbow, either.

Arrows

So now that I’ve broken the surface on bows, I’d like to mention arrows. A quiver of arrows, unless it is magical, has a limited capacity. Hinged wooden boxes could carry forty or more arrows, but they were typically transported with other supplies in times of war. Hip or back quivers could probably hold a maximum of thirty arrows, twelve being a very comfortable amount for target practice. During hunting, perhaps you could get away with three arrows tucked into your belt. If you miss, your prey is running after the first one.

Arrows made by the author

Arrows made by the author (click to enlarge)

Arrows come in all sorts of styles. Again, not to go into too much detail, but they are all of pretty much the same design, a wood shaft about 32” long, fletched with feathers, and tipped with bodkins or broadheads.

They could have had three or four feathers. In the case of the former, the feather perpendicular to the nock (cock feather) would be of a different color, usually barred, so you can tell it from the others and can nock the arrow correctly on the string. In the case of four-fletching, the feathers all make an “X” and none of them should hit the bow upon release.

Regarding feathers, any wing feathers from large birds should suffice, but here are a few examples from our history. Turkey feathers were very common, and could be dyed all sorts of colors with natural dyes (those are the barred ones you see most commonly). Belgians preferred peacock feathers, which were reddish-brown, and in Turkey, eagle feathers were used.  However, eagle feathers could only be kept in a quiver with other eagle feathers, or they would degrade the other types of feathers, “eating them to the wood”.

Arrows made by the author

Arrows made by the author (click to enlarge)

Feathers were tied to shafts, not glued, and either sinew or narrow yarn or thread could be used to accomplish this. When feathers were ruined, they could be untied and recycled, arrow repair being far more common than simply throwing them away. Making nocks is time-consuming work, especially where horn is inserted to strengthen them, in the case of high poundage bows.

Being Consistent

So when portraying archery in literature, it’s important to be consistent. Think about the natural world around your characters. Are they importing materials from tropical places or are they foraging for supplies in the wilderness? Does your character visit a fletcher in every town to repair his arrows or buy more, or does he make his own around a campfire while his friends are drinking?

Archers can be colorful and important characters, and doing a little research into the history of archery will help you to include the details, which lend authenticity to the character.

Do you have any questions about archery?  Also, who is your favorite archer in literature or film?

As well as archery, A. Howitt enjoys making period clothing and accessories.  To see her latest creations, visit Caged Maiden Specialty Clothing and Costumes.

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A. Howitt

A. Howitt is a fantasy author and a member of the Mythic Scribes article team. When she isn't writing, she enjoys history, fencing and designing period costumes.

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37 comments
Jonathan A Waller
Jonathan A Waller

I'll try posting again...

There is no fire involved in shooting a bow, you shoot bows and crossbows
and give fire to fire arms, using fire in connection to pre firearm missile
weapons would only confuse the person, firing things is modern.

Long bows almost always have a curve when unstrung they are not completely
straight.Bows can be backed but this is with vellum and sometimes raw hide.
an 8 foot bow was would be very much an exception especially with the
average height being the range of 5'7" - 5'8" range, a bow that long becomes
very hard to string. Yes they have noted effects of musculature changes on
the skeletons of many of the crew of the Mary Rose not just archers, people
who work manually and who haul on ropes for a living, by relating the finds
of archery finds next to bodies and identifying those as archers they could
not some differences , but to say they had curved spines gives a misleading
image.

I agree that a hunting bow would be of less draw weight but the heavy draw
weights in war bows doesn't seem to occur until the improvement in the
armour defences in the 14th century. However the need for a lighter bows is
to do with shooting at relatively short distances at unprotected targets, a
fast draw and loose and instinctive aiming means that one is not really
supporting the weight at full draw.  It is quite possible to shoot a long
bow from horse back, from standing through to the canter, I have done it
myself and know a number of others who do. It also is depicted numerous
times in period sources whether in hunting and also in combat, while
scouting, skirmishing and in pursuing routed enemies. While not horse
archers in the Asiatic sense they could and did shoot from horse back

Long bows can shoot a good average of 12 arrows per minute and I have seen
an archer shoot 21 aimed arrows from a 70lb bow in a minute,

The biggest prohibition on crossbows  if the expense of producing them
especially those with complicated spanning devices and laminated or steel
prods. And while at short distances they are pretty easy to aim and shoot
shooting at longer distances take practice and skill. And even if one can
hand a easy weapon to someone untrained it take more than that to turn
someone in to a fighting .There are numerous ways to span a cross bow, by
hand, with a belt hook and stirrup, goats foot lever, cranaquin and
windlass. Using the windlass and cranaquin will allow draw weights in excess
of the 350lb mark and the heavier windlass draw prods of steel and
laminations could be in the region of a 1000lb draw weight.

In the middle ages and certainly in England the standard number of arrows
was a sheaf, of 24 arrows, this was the standard to muster with though one
could carry a couple of sheaf's and be issued more from stores. Arrows could
be carried in e number of ways but for normal use an arrow bag/quiver, a
soft bags that could be close to protect the arrows from the weather and
could be worn in several ways. Some arrows spacers from these have survived
and most have room for a sheaf though some have room for a sheaf and a half
(36) in one As you say for hunting a small number would be needed to hand
and tucked under the belt 3 is the most commonly depicted in sources and
words well in use, though there are a fair number showing 5 or even 6.

Arrows be of length to suit the archer, one would have arrows of your own
draw length, there are arrows of 32" on the Mary Rose, however the largest
number are around 28-30" mark. These are munitions arrows so would be made
long so that people with longer draw lengths could use them, there are
accounts of archers being issues arrows from stores and cutting them down to
the right length for the user. Broad head and bodkins and also arrow heads
with aspects of both in between. Arrows with four fletching's are rare in
Europe.

Cock fathers on shooting and hunting arrows might have a different colour,
though not always. and most often a slim insert of a different colour/s
would be set in to a fletching of the same colour of the the other two
fletching's. This really  for decoration and symmetry. a reasonable archer
can feel where the cock feather is by feel so doesn't need a colour to
distinguish and can nock the arrow to the string with out looking. Also
really having the cock feather pass by the bow doesn't really make a huge
difference to the flight of the arrow, especially under need.

Being an animal of the new world turkey feathers only became common after
the discovery of the new world and the domestication of the animal In Europe
during he middle ages Goose was the feather for the large numbers needed for
war arrows. Peacock was popular all over Europe not just Belgium. and and
was favoured for hunting arrows, though swan was also used.The fletchings
were not just tied to the arrows they were glued and then bound top and
bottom for generally shooting and hunting and all the way down for war
arrows to make sure that the fletching stayed in place, the glue generally
being water based so effected by damp, because of storage and transport.
Though the binding on war arrows also had a coating of tallow of beeswax and
rosin. The bind was of fine silk normally red or green in colour.

Yes arrows were repaired there are records of both normal and war arrows
being repaired and refurbished after damage in use and storage. However
though one would reuse an arrow whenever possible, at least with war arrows
one would consider then a one use item and there for the necessity of order
the huge numbers (often in the hundreds of thousands) before campaigns. The
same is true for war bows, the large number ordered for campaigns tell us
that they were expected to be consumed though action. 

Archer1066
Archer1066

Shooting a longbow from horseback, while difficult is possible and has some great advantages I doubt it is possible without some form of stirrup so in a historical fiction It would have to take place after the Norman Conquest of England. The trick is to place your stirrup much higher than usual or better install a second higher set. you knock and set your arrow and then stand in the saddle. At a full gallop this is impossible but with a well trained horse at slower speeds. The effect of so powerful a bow coming from different directions would be devastating. I only know this because I've done it with my own Longbow.


Susan Stuckey
Susan Stuckey

Excellent collection of information all in one spot. Nicely done and very helpful.

RiseOfTheTiger
RiseOfTheTiger

Thanks for this great article! Having studied archery extensively for my own writing, I deeply appreciate someone distilling the information for a broader audience. We fantasy authors are prone to make many mistakes in basic accuracy when writing about these fantastic old combat forms.

Jonathan Buttall
Jonathan Buttall

Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games film. She did the impossible by staying ethical, resisting oppression and still fought for her life in a game to the death. The female empowerment theme was also a plus.

Alejandro Torres
Alejandro Torres

Pre-Crisis Green Arrow (or the JLU version, quite close to the original)

Tori Bamford
Tori Bamford

Katniss Everdeen from the 'Hunger Games', she's strong and rebellious.

Ben Hughes
Ben Hughes

Thomas of hookton Bernard cornwell

Tim Martell
Tim Martell

shot an arrow thru a key hole from across a moat lol

Tim Martell
Tim Martell

Missun Akin the Dunmer from The Elder scrolls Lore.

Brekka S. Jensen
Brekka S. Jensen

will and halt from rangers apprentice and legolas from lord of the rings

Feo Takahari
Feo Takahari

What, no mention of handheld repeating crossbows? I guess they're not normally considered medieval, but they've seen use for two millennia. (One of the characters in my WIP uses one. I portray it as a cantankerous hunk of junk that jams if you so much as breathe on it wrong, but that nonetheless has a significant rate-of-fire advantage.)

Helen Snow
Helen Snow

Robin Hood in myth, Astrid Loring nee Larsson in Literature (from the Emberverse series by SM Stirling) and Ishida Uryu from Manga and Anime (from Bleach)

Sunny Cynthia Johnson
Sunny Cynthia Johnson

Robin Hood when I was a little kid, Legolas as soon as I read Lord of the Rings in high school. Legolas is noble too! :-)

Kat Westover
Kat Westover

I always wanted to do archery but now with my eyes the way they are it is too late

Anna Fajardo
Anna Fajardo

Robin Hood for me. But I think what draws me to him was his noble character, not necessarily his skill with a bow.

Stephen Evans
Stephen Evans

Legolas every time. And mainly because of how him and Gimli make everything a contest

Lilly Marlene Hogue
Lilly Marlene Hogue

william tell /i wonder how many tries he had to perfect his apple on the head deal.

AnitaHowitt
AnitaHowitt

@Jonathan A Waller thanks for posting.  We actually have an extensive thread on this site where we went into great detail and I hope you enjoyed this overview of archery in a fantasy setting.  


Jonathan A Waller
Jonathan A Waller

@Archer1066  
I think I mentioned in my comment, that there are images of mounted archers pursuing the fleeing Saxon army in the Bayeux tapestry. Though there were stirrups in England before the Norman conquest so no reason for it not to be there before then.

I have done it and seen it done at a fast canter... the horse itself doesn't need any special training.


Jonathan A Waller
Jonathan A Waller

@Archer1066  Also  yes you might set the stirrup higher than for just riding but standing up in the stirrups is something one does when delivering strikes with hand held weapons too. Though it doesn't mean that they have to be set a lot higher than normal. Also there is no evidence of having a higher second set of stirrups in place. In Medieval Europe people certainly did shoot longbows from horse back in hunting and in war, but they were not horse archers like the Asiatic examples.

AnitaHowitt
AnitaHowitt

@Jonathan A Waller @AnitaHowittYou called my article full of half-truths and inaccuracies and said you responded to refute those inaccuracies, but you gave a lot of what I would call "erroneous information", information I could have given, had it been warranted.  Those were not holes in my research, sir, they were purposefully omitted details to spare the WRITERS reading this article from boredom.  You said I didn't include enough historical facts.  My responses were to those claims, that I included material pertinent to fantasy writers and acknowledge the bits of missing information, saying I was limited on word count and understood very clearly my JOB when writing this article--to produce an ENTERTAINING article for writers of fantasy.  You mention in your last post that you repeatedly acknowledged that I care about the subject matter, when in fact, you haven't and here's a quote from you about the title: "Again I appreciate the piece being an inspiration, but it is called "Medieval Archery for Fantasy writers" in which case those elements of medieval archery should be accurate."  Now, does that sound the same as, "Anita, I appreciate your article as an overview, but I felt some really critical Medieval details were missing.  Here they are, just because I think they're important:"


Does that clarify why I felt your replies were a touch disrespectful?


Honestly, if you cannot read back and see why I find your posts slightly offensive, I don't know what to tell you.  I AM offended I've spent as much time as I have responding to your accusations.  


For your information (because I've had about as much of you as I can take), you sir, come off as a know-it-all and not in a good way.  Rather, the way any fanatic comes off. You may believe you're doing some sort of public service, correcting me repeatedly (or perhaps the thread, because you never before clearly stated with whom you were disagreeing), but in reality, you're not.  If you believe people listen when a zealot spouts, you're sorely mistaken.  If you wish to be heard, try writing your thoughts and the valuable information you would impart, into a well-spoken text so that you might edit into it amusing anecdotes or special bits of surprising information.


Replying in an inflammatory way (and yes, people have written to me privately and told me what a jerk you are, so it isn't simply my hurt feelings, of which I assure you, I have none), isn't the way to make people see how intelligent and well-read you are.  In fact, the reply box of a thread is not a place people search for information anyways.  Why would they?


I get it.  I get that you are passionate.  I get that you want all information distilled only enough to maintain its original integrity.  I appreciate that. 


But to hear that you appreciated "parts" of my article with the things you've posted, and for you to figuratively look around going, "What did I say?" is just another slap in the face I've come to expect from you.


I'm insulted, but not hurt.  I run a retail business and am a writer, and also delve deeply into historical societies like the SCA.  To say I deal with difficult people every day is an understatement.  I've tried to be patient and tell myself you're just a man who wants everything to be well-researched and feels you've already got the whole story and have no need for any contradictory information (like any fanatic).  But I don't owe you anything.  I don't owe you my research, I don't owe you my respect, I don't even owe you the time I take to reply to your rather insulting posts.  


I do so because I give you the benefit of the doubt, unlike the people who have told me in very clear terms what they think of your posts.  I like to think I'm a better person than to reply as they have suggested, but my patience wears thin.


My sources for some of my research date to the 1850's and 1870's so certainly nothing new about it.  I find it very hard to want to share with someone who has shown me so little personal respect though.  I did ask you to respond privately in email if you wanted to speak further of historical archery, but you chose to respond publicly and rather than try to understand how your arguments might have come off as insulting, you act shocked and assert perhaps I'm the one being argumentative.  Really?  Do you want me to drag out quotes here?  This seems rather childish at this point.  If you want to share research and discuss the finer points of historical archery, you know where to find me, at the email I listed last post.  

If I hear from you, I sincerely hope you'll take a respectful tone with me as I'm a woman surely deserving of some gallantry.  If I don't hear from you, I'll assume you had better things to do with your time.  

Antonio del Drago
Antonio del Drago moderator

@AnitaHowitt  I totally agree, Anita.  You wrote an accessible article for writers, which is helpful but not overly scholarly.  In other words, you wrote for your target audience.  

I have no doubt that if you were writing for an academic association of archery scholars, you would have taken a very different, more technical approach.  But such an article would have been wholly unsuitable for our audience at Mythic Scribes.

AnitaHowitt
AnitaHowitt

@Jonathan A Waller @AnitaHowitt 

Again I'd like to reiterate, that for the purposes of this article, a research paper-type style would have been wholly inappropriate, so really, while I appreciate your experience with archery research, your assumption that I was some sort of idiot first, is what I find most insulting.  

I am no such thing and fully respect the sport and the research I've done, but as an artist and writer myself, I know how most writers work.  The question is simple.  When you read a fantasy book, would you rather have gross inaccuracies, like arrows splitting each other, people catching arrows in flight, amazing once-in-a-lifetime shots on every page, bows strung for the entire tale, inappropriate draw weights, etc.  Or would you rather read about an archer who uses an appropriate bow that isn't indestructible, arrows that he fletched in the woods while the party's resting, and a practice that at least supports the laws of physics?


Really, that was my goal here.  If I wrote a research paper, people would have quit reading.  Sorry.  That's true.  It might have pleased you, and others who are solely interested in a complete record of Medieval archery, but that just wasn't the scope of this paper.  I had a word count limitation.  Perhaps if you would be so kind, you'd like to rewrite my article in 1500 words and see how much valuable information you can get across in an entertaining way that people would want to read.


I'm just not certain what you''re even arguing with me anymore.  You wanted it to tell a complete story and be well-researched and wholly accurate.  You know... I think I did a pretty damn good job.  If you RE-READ the title, you'll see how I use the word "Medieval".  Medieval archery for WRITERS.  If I had used the title Medieval archery for TODDLERS, would you expect it contain the exact same information you propose?  Because that's exactly what toddlers need, right?  The whole story and nothing but the truth?  No.  And neither do writers.  They need a way to bring a  certain amount of realism to a combat form that many people know absolutely nothing about.  They can't guess at appropriate draw weights, they have no idea which feathers to fletch with, they have no clue how the arrows actually work or what you do after you shoot, or even how to store a bow.


Now, I'm not comparing authors to toddlers, merely trying to finally get my point across that what you're asking for is rather obscene for this forum and its intended audience.  If I were writing an article for the SCA, I'd do it very differently.  If I were writing it for my kid's show and tell, I'd do it differently.  Each situation in life demands a certain astuteness and I'm absolutely proud of my ability to determine what information and tone are appropriate for which.  


This article is meant ONLY to get writers thinking about different elements which will make a fantasy novel better.  It isn't meant to entice them into trying archery.  It isn't meant to get them to delve into years-long research.  It's sole purpose is to present some lesser-known information, just a teaser (because of word count) to get them interested in making their archer characters a little more authentic, and if actual Medieval authenticity isn't their desire (because let's be real, some of these "archers" will be lizard-men with onyx bows and arrows tipped with shark teeth and fletched with eagle feathers), I have given them a little poke in the ribs to THINK before they just WRITE it.  Consider the implications of such an article in its intended market please before you complain again about my lack of honesty in this matter.  


I'm insulted, I'm tired of hearing your complaint, and I GET it.  You continue to beat the dead horse, but I have already explained myself.  IF I were writing for an academic group, I'd have shrugged off the word count and done my best not to bore them to tears.  That article wasn't appropriate in this forum, so I went with the best thing I could, to bring information to writers who so often miss the target completely when writing archer characters.  They watch misinformation in BBC's Robin Hood and just go with what they saw.


I hope you can agree that to writers who don't have the time or desire to do real research, my article has at least given them an overview whereby they can reconsider the onyx bow and instead use a hardwood of some sort.  


If you want to discuss the matter further, my email is anitahowitt(at) yahoo(dot)com and I'd be happy to cite my sources for my research and give you a copy of my research papers for I suppose your own amusement.  I'm done defending this paper on a public forum and honestly, if you don't agree with my methods, I apologize you feel I misrepresented the sport I love and did it a disservice.  In my real life, I'm an avid researcher and always aim for total accuracy with my competition research papers.  In writing, I aim to entertain and the goal of this paper was only to get other writers to consider the ramifications of their portrayals of archery.

AnitaHowitt
AnitaHowitt

@Jonathan A Waller I'm not sure which "inaccuracies" you are referring to.  Many of the points you replied with are contrary to my historical research and therefore I'm not sure how I'm supposed to respond to your insinuation you're better read than I am on the matter.  I'm sorry you feel so strongly that your research trumps my own, but I have a cited research paper on both historical arrows and quivers and I'm not sure why you feel my work on those subjects is invalid.  I'm an avid archer and have great respect for the history, so in no way am I trying to cheapen the sport by throwing half-cocked concepts around for amusement.  For example, you talk about backing bows with vellum.  I have cited works saying they were backed with hemp.  You cannot say my research is wrong just because we have different accurate sources.  

I never proclaimed my research to be the end-all-be-all of all historical archery, but gave an overview for writers who wanted to lend a touch of authenticity to their work.  Same with the feathers.  I never said only Belgians used peacock feathers.  Just that they were used and honestly, most people wouldn't think of them at all or even know what color peacock wings are.  This is for writers, not avid archers and fletchers.  I could easily have mentioned griffon feathers and harpy feathers in that mix, but you chose to call out the turkey feathers because they're New World?  Really?


Honestly, I wish this was a site that would value a dry research paper because I'm an expert on a few things I consider terribly interesting.  But let's be realistic... most writers don't want to be bogged down by details.  They want a few quick answers and to let their imaginations fill in the rest.  That's why we write, to invent.


When writing this article, I had to carefully select points from my research papers and try to write a concise, entertaining article that would work as a sort of one size fits all for beginning and intermediate writers.  Not historical researchers.


Seriously... congratulations for knowing a whole lot about archery.  I have a lot of friends who would probably love to talk at length about all of this.  On a better day, I would, too.  I steep myself in history and the more I learn, the more I want to learn.  But this article was limited by word count, meant to entertain writers and give them a few things to think about.  I didn't have the luxury of pulling up my 10k word research paper and posting it here to cover every base.  I hope you can understand that this article was written by a lover of archery and was intended as a "fantasy archery 101" for fantasy writers.  In fact, I didn't even pick the title.  



AnitaHowitt
AnitaHowitt

@Jonathan A Waller

I'm sorry you feel my overview of portraying archery in fantasy was inaccurate.  I've done extensive historical research as well, but for this particular type of article, my focus was how best to get across some basics for writers.  I included points most people don't consider and while I could have written at length about various historical aspects and statistics, that didn't seem prudent in this particular situation.  That's why we have a thread where we discussed more detail and actual historic research.  This article was meant as inspiration for writing, not a substitute for historical research.



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