A Writer’s Guide to Bows, Part Two

Posted: February 3, 2013 in Archery, Articles

In the first segment, we talked about how bows operate and the materials they’re made from. This time, we’ll dig into how they have been used through history.

The bow as a tool:

As humans, we need tools to get many things done in the world. From the first heavy stone that let us smash open a seed pod and get something to eat, we’ve been coming up with stuff to help us out. The bow occurs in almost all historical cultures, and its most familiar role is that of a hunting tool. After all, we might fight from time to time, but eating is mandatory.

The most primitive cultures found that a spear was successful at hunting game, provided that you could get near enough to throw and hit it. Even we modern folk, with our lack of skill at basic survival, can grasp how to make a spear. Find a stick, sharpen the end or affix something sharp to it, and boom, you’re ready to go. As a tool or a weapon, it’s about as simple and effective as you can get.

Spears, though, have pretty limited range, as well as having a logical limit to the amount of them that can be carried around. Many game animals are wary and difficult to approach. The kind of animal that will actively attack you or fail to run away, such that you can fight it with spear in hand..well, that type of animal is probably not the kind of beast you want to tangle with in order to get through the day.

Enter the bow. With a simple bow, even a very light one, it’s possible to hunt small game like rabbits and ground birds effectively. With a bow of greater power, hunting larger animals becomes viable. The Native Americans used a variety of bow designs, some of them quite intricate, to hunt with. Even an animal as large as a bison could be hunted successfully, if a good strategy was employed.

For all but the largest game animals, bows of 45-60 pounds draw weight are sufficient. Healthy adult males can usually draw these bows with some practice. While people of smaller build may require more practice and conditioning, they can often shoot bows of this weight range, as well. Remember that a bow’s resistance increases with longer draw distances, so that a person with shorter arms will deal with a lesser poundage than a long-armed comrade. That said, the long-armed person will get more power out of the same tool.

It should be noted that hunting weight bows are lethal to humans. A rule of thumb is that any weapon that will cleanly kill a deer will do likewise to a human. Without armor, we are quite fragile.

In terms of hunting, the distance at which an archer launches an arrow has a strong effect on how successful she’ll be. With a bow, the closer you can get to the quarry, the better off you’ll be. Thus, bow hunters tend to be either very good at stealthily stalking game, or able to create some sort of hunting blind. The idea of a hunting blind, for those who are not familiar, is to create a hiding place near a game trail or other locale where an animal will likely appear. A popular spot near the river’s edge or near an oasis could be an example. Hunters will, at times, create feeders that they’ll keep stocked with grain in advance of the time they’ll be hunting. That way, the game animal will become used to visiting that area for the reward.

Even a crude bow can shoot with some accuracy out to 15 or 20 yards. A decent archer is able to put an arrow reliably within an 8 inch circle at 20 yards or so, and may be able to put them into half that space at 12 or 15 yards. Remember that a marginal hit that doesn’t compromise the central nervous system or cardiovascular system will probably be ineffective in a hunting scenario. Game animals are prone to run away and be impossible to find unless they succumb to their wounds in the first few minutes. All ethical (and hungry) hunters do their best to avoid a situation where game is injured but lost. If the wound is severe but not life threatening, the animal will likely suffer, possibly dying later because it is hampered by the wound or has an infection.

Even skilled archers hesitate to take shots at more than 25 yards if they don’t need to. Successful hunting shots have, of course, been taken from far greater distances, sometimes upward of 80 yards, but there are a great many things that can go wrong at those distances. Because arrows have a fairly steep trajectory at that range, it is vital for the archer to know how much elevation to add to the shot. In addition, any mistakes by the archer or faults with the bow or arrow are magnified at this distance. Finally, because arrows don’t travel nearly as quickly as a bullet would, it might take a fair amount of time for the arrow to arrive at the target. If the target is moving, that adds yet another level of difficulty to the shot.

Unless you portray your character as a great archer with a lot of confidence, think twice about having shots succeed unerringly out to the long distances. Hitting a moving target or a very distant one is certainly possible, but it’s not easy. The brain has to make a great many unconscious calculations to make these shots happen, and it doesn’t always calculate right. Range estimation, speed of target movement, wind direction…all of these things can play a part.

When using a bow for hunting, the safest shot on most animals is the heart/lung shot. With most four-legged animals, the ideal shot position is coming from slightly behind the animal, with the arrow hitting just aft of the front leg. This makes it highly probable that at least one lung will be compromised, making it difficult for the animal to get far before breathing becomes an issue. It would seem that trying to shoot for the spinal column or brain might be a good idea, but because animals have such quick reflexes, they may hear the sound of the bow or the arrow and move while the arrow is in flight. Beyond this, the ability to hit a very small target may be beyond a lot of archers, at least when the adrenalin is pumping. To shoot for a central nervous system target, the archer must be very good, or very close.

Animals are sturdy, and their stress response will allow them to flee, even with critical wounds, for some distance. If an animal succumbs to its injuries within a hundred yards, that’s considered a good result. Instant incapacitation is rare in larger animals.

A note on arrow penetration: Arrows have excellent penetration capability in soft targets (read: flesh). Unless the arrow hits bone, it may penetrate deeply into an animal, possibly even passing through completely. It is not uncommon for an arrow to pass all the way through a game animal, especially from a bow of significant draw weight. On the other hand, if the arrow collides with a heavy bone, like a shoulder, it might well stop without penetrating any further.

Bows as weapons of war:

It was probably not long after early humans figured out how to make a bow that the first archer thought, “Hey, I could shoot Brolg with my bow. I hate that guy.” People are like that. For most of history, there has not been a huge disparity between the bows that are used as weapons of war and those that are used for hunting. The point of fracture between the two tasks really only happened during the time of very heavily armored warriors. During that period of time, the draw weight of war bows, as well as the types of arrowheads used and the weight of the arrows used, spiraled up to three times that of the average hunting bow.

In order to penetrate the heavy armor of the era, you simply needed more power. Technical innovations to make bows more efficient had not been found, so the brute force approach of making heavier bows was the obvious course of action. This all came to an end as the era of firearms dawned. Even though bows had a much higher rate of fire than a musket or rifle until the cartridge loaded repeating rifle appeared in the 1800s, the level of skill to use a firearm was so much less than that an archer needed that it made sense to go with the gun. The fact that rifles could serve as an ersatz spear or club in close fighting may have played into the whole transition, but that is a whole different line of inquiry.

There needs to be some discussion of the different types of battle that bows might be employed in. In skirmish or ambush tactics, bows were used at close range to shoot at individual targets. That is to say, people would rush in or lie in wait, then shoot at particular people on the opposing side, hoping to wound or kill them in the barrage. This was certainly the way bows were used in the earliest of times, and proved useful during pretty much all of history as an adjunct to guerrilla or ambush warfare. Even in the modern day, there are specific situations where a bow might be a useful weapon, in that they are quieter than even a sound-suppressed firearm and can be as deadly as a rifle at modest ranges.

As was mentioned in the hunting tool section, in order to shoot for a particular target and be confident of success, one must be close to the target. Many historical cultures used this method as a primary strategy for bows. With small battles that took place in environments that were confined in space, this is viable. Archers in skirmish battles must be prepared to move, retreat, or fight hand-to-hand, however, as enemy troops with hand weapons will attempt to bridge the distance as quickly as possible or retreat themselves when engaged in ranged combat.

The second use for archers is in mass battles, as volley fire weapons. One could easily think of massed archers as the first instance of artillery in ware. In volley fire, groups of archers will not shoot for a particular target, but instead shoot large numbers of arrows that are calculated to land within a specific area of the enemy ranks. This is the usage you’ll see when armies are large and troops are specialized. The English, for many years, had the finest archers of this kind. They trained to pull bows of great weight and power, and to shoot an arrow every six to ten seconds. Using this method, their volleys of arrows were lethal out to beyond 200 yards. Remember, though, that when there are thousands of enemy troops massed close together and slowly walking toward you, you just have to get the arrow in the right neighborhood. Likely the most dominant performance of massed archery in the historical record is the battle of Agincourt, wherein the English Longbowmen decimated the French Knights that found themselves mired on a muddy battlefield and unable to either retreat or mount a successful charge. There has been a great deal written about this, and I would encourage you to broaden your research if it sounds intriguing.

In some cultures, specifically in the Eastern World, mounted archery was quite refined. The most dominant horse archers were the Mongols (later the Magyars and the Hungarians). These archers used short horn bows, combined with great horsemanship to be very effective in combat. By combining the mobility of cavalry with the ranged power of a bow, they confounded most of their opponents in that time period.

The Japanese also had a tradition of mounted archery. They created the Yumi, their asymmetrical bow, to allow shooting a longer bow from the saddle.

Horse archery is primarily interested in short to moderate range shooting, often while the horse is on the move. Horse archers developed a variety of specialized techniques to allow them to be successful under these circumstances. Most horse archery is done with the use of a thumb ring, rather than the standard grip taken upon the string in the West, usually with three fingers. In most cases, the arrow was drawn on the opposite side of the bow from the Western technique, with the bow hand thumb or thumb joint acting as the arrow shelf.

It should be noted that many military strategies are not contingent upon the outright death of enemy soldiers. In many cases, military doctrine dictates that it is more efficient to injure enemy troops than to kill them. Why? Injured troops require more resources than healthy or dead troops. They are ineffective in combat, slow down enemy movements, and are demoralizing for the healthy remainder of the army.

Why am I bringing up these macabre ideas? Because archery in war often created wounded troops, rather than killing them. In the chaos of battle, with people moving quickly and doing all they could to take shelter from an archery barrage, the chances of an arrow hitting troops with perfect killing blows was fairly small. The chances of troops sustaining minor to debilitating wounds, however, was high.

In portraying battles, considering the wounded, as well as the morale of troops facing withering archery volleys, is a smart idea. Remember that animals and even semi-fragile items can be compromised if hit too often with arrows. Also consider that even wounds that are minor can easily become infected later on. If you’re writing a historical tale or one in a primitive fantasy world, remember that infection is at least as dangerous as the initial wound. In worlds without antibiotics and a knowledge of wound care, even a minor wound, especially from a dirty or tainted weapon, can kill, slowly and painfully.

Next time, I’ll talk about the mechanics of shooting, some terminology, and the best practices to care for bows.

  1. Great post. Thanks so much. Well done.

  2. […] Part Two, Caveman Jim reviews the portrayal of bows as tools for hunting and warfare.  This episode is […]

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