Writer’s Guide to Archery
Got an archer in your story or an idea for an epic archery scene?
But you’ve never held a bow in your life? Then this guide is for you !
Even though they are one of the most ancient weapons in mankind’s history, they are to this day misunderstood and greatly misused by authors – as well as top Hollywood filmmakers.
The purpose of this post is to give you the essentials about archery – how it works, the types of bows, the injuries, the vocabulary, … – to make your writing life easier, and avoid mistakes.
Let’s get started!
Table of Contents
Let’s destroy some basic archery myths and make your story even better.
1. Fire !! = MYTH
Maybe the biggest myth of them all : you don’t “fire” a bow. We get it, it sounds way cooler but you are just going to piss off any archer among your readers with that.
You either “shoot” the bow or “loose” / “release” arrows.
The term “fire” is modern and relates to guns or cannons. So do yourself a favor and don’t ruin your badass fight scene with the wrong term.
So during a battle scene, the commands for archers would be : Nock… Draw… Loose!
2. Carrying it strung = MYTH
Unless you are using your bow for battle or hunting, it’s usually not strung when you carry it around. Having the bow strung puts constant stress on the string and the bow itself, quickly degrading it.
People who think a bow can be carried this way probably have never tried it themselves. The tension of the bow’s limbs would pull the string tightly against the chest; this is likely to get uncomfortable rapidly and a strong bow would provide enough tension to significantly impede the wearer’s breathing. It also is quite challenging to walk all day, do everything you have to do with a bow (which is quite tall) constantly on your back.
Apart from that, if anything damages the string the tension would suddenly unload which could possibly break the bow or cost someone an eye if the string snaps. That’s why medieval archers always carried an extra bowstring on them in case theirs snapped.
However, today’s compound bows can remain strung even after use.
3. Your bow is always at the top of his game = MYTH
Bows require care and maintenance.
Waxing the string keeps it from fraying. Bows themselves are quite fragile to the exterior; rubbing some oil into a bow can keep it in good condition, as well as add a mental preparation exercise for your character much like caring for a sword.
Bows don’t last forever (a couple of years at most fore a self-bow), so the idea of having a multi-generational heirloom bow is quite unlikely. However modern bows using fiberglass and carbon fiber can last a very long time.
4. Pierce things with arrows = COULD BE
Arrows don’t pierce hard objects like a thick piece of wood, will iron or brass. For example, only the heaviest of War Bows could pierce plate armor back in the day.
5. Hold it! Hold it!= MYTH
Bows have draw weight which is the pounds of force necessary to hold the bow at full draw. Self made bows have little bow weights but any bow fit for war would have a draw weight of at least 80 pounds. How long can you pull and hold 80 pounds?
Every second you strain to hold the bow weight, your hand creeps forward to lessen the strain, your arm starts to shake and you end up with poor shots.
We’ve all seen this scene were a company of archers stands on the battlements of a castle as the enemy charges towards them. The captain of archers shouts “Draw! Hold it!…. Hold it!” as the enemy approaches and then at the critically precise moment commands his archers with a … “Fire!”
This scene is completely unrealistic and possibly exasperating for anyone knowing a little something about archery. In reality, the archers would draw and loose the arrows in one smooth motion. No holding it.
Exception made to compound bows that are designed to hold the weight for you when you’re at full draw. That means you can hold your draw for ages.
6. Part bow / part staff? = MYTH
Sure a heavy longbow can be quite the weapon in itself, and it sure is going to hurt your enemy if you whack him upside the head with it. But it could also hurt you. When your bow is strung, it becomes under a great deal of stress. Hitting someone with it will just add more stress and might make the bow explode. You definitively don’t want that.
An unstrung bow could be the solution but don’t put any cuts or nicks in it. It would cause another explosion when the bow is next strung.
That’s why your character should always carry another weapon, for his sake.
7. Shooting all day everyday = MYTH
Archery is tiring. Needless to say that if your character is a practiced archer, he will have more strength and endurance than others. But shooting arrow after arrow is tiring, especially if he has a bow with a heavy draw weight and/or it’s a battle scene.
8. Bows make cool creaking sounds = MYTH
Bows rarelly creak, when you draw it is usually completely silent.
Great for hunting your enemy or a deer; but not for the making of a good Hollywood scene it seems.
On the same note, arrows don’t whistle (except if it is what is wanted, in which case they can be carved or bored).
9. Arrows appear like magic = MYTH
You can only keep so many arrows in a quiver. A large quiver can carry about 25 arrows, 12 for a smaller one.
So if your character runs out during your scene, he’ll have to recollect the ones he fired, grab enemy ones lying around or resort to another weapon.
You should also consider how your character will get his new arrows after he runs out (make more? Collect others? Buy new ones?)
Bows and how they work
A bow is in theory, a pretty simple weapon. It’s a spring with a string attached. The bow can be separated between 2 distinct elements : the riser and the limb.
The riser is the part of the bow containing the grip for the archer. It usually is rigid and doesn’t flex when the string is drawn back.
The element that will flex during the shot is the limb. There are two symmetrical limbs on either part of the riser. Both ends of the limbs are connected by the bow string.
When the bow is strung, the limbs are put under pressure; it’s called the “preload”. As the bow is drawn back, the load increases. It will accelerate the string as it springs back to its initial preload position and therefore releasing the arrow.
If an arrow isn’t fitted to the string when it is released, all the energy of the spring is channeled back into the limbs which is very damaging to the bow. It’s called “dry fire” and bows can sometimes crack or fail on the spot.
How do you use a bow?
There are 10 steps to shoot an arrow:
- STANCE : The archer stands perpendicular to the target, with his feet parallel and shoulder-width apart.
- NOCK : clipping the arrow to the bowstring
- SET : the archer picks up the bow (grip on the meaty part of the hand and held between thumb and the first two fingers) and places his other hand on the string
- LIFT & DRAW : the archer lifts his bow so that the bow arm (who carries the bow) is straight out and simultaneously draws back on the bow string using his back muscles. The elbow should be directly behind or a little higher than the arrow. The archer usually uses the middle three fingers to draw the bow string.
- ANCHOR : the archer draws back the bow string until it is anchored, usually at a point right below the chin or on the cheek. However the best archers do not always need an anchor point; they can choose to lengthen or shorten their draw length. This technique is used to modify the speed of the arrow so that they can anticipate its drop; it can be extremely helpful in a forest where they have to shoot between branches and leaves.
- RELEASE : the archer releases the string and the chest expands
- FOLLOW-THROUGH : the archer follows though on the release by keeping the movement of the string-fingers which are moving back; all the while relaxing the bow hand and allowing the bow to swing forward (toward the target)
Types of bows
Longbows are about the same height of the archer a allow a full draw. They are straight at rest and create a “D” shape when strung.
Traditional European longbows were usually made of yew wood. The bow is made from one entire piece of wood.
Recurve bows have the limbs curving away from the archer when unstrung. The curves straighten out as the bow is drawn.
The return of the tips to its curved state after release of the arrow will add extra velocity to it.
Compounds bows are modern bows with mechanical aids to help with the drawing of the bowstring: pulleys and lever systems with both a string and a cable that are designed to increase efficiency.
In a crossbow, the limbs of the bow are attached at right angles to a crosspiece to allow for mechanical pulling and holding of the string. It is essentially a bow placed horizontally on top of a gun.
The mechanism that holds the drawn string has a release or a trigger that allow the string to be released. A crossbow will “shoot” “bolts” or “quarrels” rather than arrows.
Keep reading for the next part about The Vocabulary and Writing about Archery !