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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!


Archery Myths

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.
  • AIM
  • 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


Russell Crowe as Robin Hood

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

Rosamund Pike as Andromeda in Wrath of the Titans

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.

Compound bows

Jennifer Garner in Elektra

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.


Gemma Arterton as Gretel in Hansel and Gretel : Witch Hunters

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 !

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10 Responses to “Writer’s Guide to Archery

  • As an obsessive traditional archer, I just gotta say this is the most accurate and involved article for writing about archery I have ever seen. The only improvement I would make is that, in the steps of shooting a bow, the lift and draw is usually done simultaneously in one step. Also, you mentioned the anchor point- which is great, because most articles don’t- but the BEST archers don’t always need an anchor point. Instead they can shorten or lengthen their draw length to make the arrow fly slower or faster and therefore drop slower or faster. It’s a difficult but great technique, especially for forest hunting scenes where you have to anticipate the arc of the arrow in between sticks and leaves.

    • Tales of Wonderland
      6 months ago

      Thank you so much for leaving this wonderful comment! I will definitely use your advice to improve the article. I’m so glad you liked it as a professional archer!

  • Love it!

  • I would add, on the point of arrows whistling, that traditional Western arrows generally do not whistle, but can be carved or bored to create a whistling sound depending on the use to which the arrow is put. As an amateur archer myself, I have to agree with Emily that your information is quite factual, and helpfully laid out.

    • Tales of Wonderland
      6 months ago

      Thank you for your comment! That is a good point you’ve made, I will add to the post 🙂

  • I think this is an excellent piece of writing with concerning archery. The only thing I would disagree with is the blunt force trauma.

    Hew Soar, in his book “Secrets of the English War Bow”, does talk about blunt force trauma with regards to plate armour. Despite what some may think his research has shown that the war bow was capable of piercing but not always. But it does not have to penetrate to kill. Soar mentions that modern research for military body armour has shown that a projectile with kinetic energy of 80 joules or greater can be considered fatal. He calculated that an arrow having a total weight of 102 grams moving a 47.23 metres per second would impart 113.76 joules of energy on impact. So even if it did not pierce the armour an arrow hitting on the head or over the heart could cause sufficient blunt force trauma to kill a knight in plate armour.

    I cannot remember the source but I do remember reading that there is research which shows that archers did aim for these areas when shooting at the enemy. As good place as any when you aim at your enemy no matter what he is wearing as I am sure you will agree.

    I hope you have found this useful.

    Happy trails

    • towadmin
      4 months ago

      Thank you for your detailed comment Peter! 🙂
      You’re right, I looked into it and arrows are sure to cause grave blunt force trauma in some instances. I added it into the post but didn’t go into too much details as I think writers will more likely write about penetrating injuries caused by arrows.
      Thanks again ! Jemma

  • TheStarlightLass
    14 hours ago

    As an over half a year junior archer (so for more experienced ones feel free to correct me if you see anything!) I’d clarify the ‘hold it’ ‘hold it’ myth: It is true the longer you hold the harder it becomes, but bear in mind that the less pounds the easier it also is to hold the string. So you can, and in some cases even have to or at least it’s very well recommended, to ‘hold’ the string while you try to find the correct height, check that the lining with the bowstring is correct and then aim. Just after that process you’ll release the arrow and hold the both hands up for so long that you hear the hitting sound or then long enough that the arrow has already got far away from your hands, because if you lower your either of your hands too early when the arrow hasn’t flown away from the string your hands’ movement can affect and change the arrow’s course. For instance the arrow can end up lower than you intended because of this.

    I just wanted to say this because you only mention compound bows. I’m a longbow archer myself and it’s true you can hold compounds for ages, but depending on the pounds of your longbow/recurve bow proportioned to your strength those can also be held for several seconds if you don’t have much strength in your back muscles/can’t use them or if you are the one with great strength can even hold them minutes. Again it depends on the strength of the archer and the amount of pounds on his bow. (Of course, tiredness can make things worse but that’s not the point).

    Oh, and here is probably good to tell why it is so. Because unlike tons of movies show, you actually draw the bowstring using your strong back muscles. (Or well that’s the correct way to do things.) Why so? Well, the back muscles are far stronger than the ones in your hands, do you agree? And also when you draw with your back muscles it sort of ‘activates’ the one you use for releasing the arrow, when you press that muscle and your fingers “slide” over the bowstring. That’s how it should go, but finger releases happen too, that just means you aren’t using your back muscles, which can make the loose appear more unsure, easier to fail.

    Another thing I want to point out is this: bows aren’t completely silent when you either draw them or loose the string. And one archer friend of mine told me that bows can even creak. At least the wooden ones do, like longbows. Well, that’s wood, surprise, surprise. They may not make as loud noises they’d be worth showing in a film but they do let out hearable sounds. This is also why hunters use those tufts, (modern things as far as I know) the furry things attached to their bowstring to silent that sound in question, because their prey can hear the sound of drawing and run away before the hunter gets to even aim. Imagine that delicious-looking deer escaping before your very, hungry eyes, not a very pleasant sight.

    But I still have to thank you deeply for doing such a fine job so far on putting this site up! And a little secret: this is one of those things that got me to try archery myself and caused it to become a hobby of mine, so I’d say this introductions has already proven to be successful! Thank you, you’ve done a great job, I appreciate your effort, after all you mention many things many don’t even know. Keep up the good work! 🙂

    • towadmin
      1 min ago

      Hi The Starlight Lass ! First of all, thank you for posting such an informative and detailed comment! 😉
      As to the “hold it” myth, you’re totally right; a little holding is necessary/crucial to shoot the arrow correctly. In the post, I was only referring to those scenes where archers are ready to release their arrows (aim is right, position is right) but wait long seconds, even minutes to get the perfect dramatic timing for the scene. Of course depending on your strength, or your bow, one could hold it for up to a few minutes if one wished but that would only happen in the context of training, of exercising. What I wanted to demonstrate is that during a fight, while on a hunt,… no archer would sap his energy holding his bow at full draw any more than he needs to to shoot straight. That is especially true in the context of fighting as it would take an extraordinary amount of strength to keep holding a war bow anymore than necessary.
      As to the sounds bow can make, you’re also completely right; sometimes it can happen and also be prevented.
      The aim of this article isn’t an exhaustive writing on archery, there are wonderful books and other articles that touch on every detail out there. I simply wanted writers to get a strong knowledge base of what archery truely is and how it is done so they are not building their scenes with what they have been shown in movies/books which is often a “romanticized” version of it. That means I had to cut out a lot of details and make some general assumptions so to not have a too long post of a million characters 😉
      That being said, I really appreciate the time and effort you put behind your comment, all the precisions you made, as I’m sure every reader will find them useful too.
      Thanks again for your comment and keep having fun with archery!

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