A Writer’s Guide to Bows, Part Three

Posted: February 12, 2013 in Archery, Articles

Last time, we talked about the usage of bows as both hunting tools and weapons of war. This time, I’ll be discussing terminology. As I wrote this one, it became clear that I’d need at least one more segment for the “thoughts” element of the series, so this one turned into an extended list of terms and ideas.


Riser: The fixed portion in the middle of the bow, where the bow’s grip area is located. On a traditional longbow or flat bow, these grips are often very simple. They may be bare wood or have leather, fur, or cloth wrapping.

Limbs: The bending portions of a bow. If, at rest (unstrung) the limbs are bent away from the direction they’ll be moving in use, this is called a reflex or recurve, recurve being a much more pronounced bend. The reflex is usually applied by steaming wooden limbs and pressing them into a form. It should be noted that any excess weight added to a bow’s limbs decreases efficiency. The highly ornate bow designs that are sometimes seen in fantasy art are unrealistic. Some of those designs would likely not function at all in practice. Functional bows are fairly plain.

Limb Tips: At the point where notches are cut into the limbs, such that the string is retained, you have the limb tip. Because this area is subject to a lot of stress, it sometimes reinforced. Animal horn, antler, or even bone can be used to reinforce this area.

Arrow Shelf: Primitive bows do not have this feature, instead using the archer’s knuckle to hold the arrow steady. If an arrow shelf is cut into the bow, it serves to be a channel where the arrow travels. Arrow shelves serve a few purposes. One is normalizing the point at which the arrow sits, rather than using the hand, which can be variable. The other is to protect the knuckle from the fletching, which can cut skin as it passes at speed.

Nocking Point: In order to fit the arrow to the string (nock the arrow) at the same point each time, archers often affix a small demarcation point at the middle of the string. This is most frequently done by tying a small amount of thread onto the string at the place which will put the arrow at the appropriate orientation with the riser of the bow. An archer can tune the arrow flight by raising or lowering this nocking point. When they find the best position, they can drop a dab of glue onto this string loop to hold it in place.

Brace Height: When a bow is strung, there is a measurable amount of space between the string and the lowest point of the grip. This measurement is called brace height. To string a bow is also called “bracing the bow”. In longbow history, an appropriate brace height was called a “fistmele”. To test this, make the “thumbs up” sign and place the bottom of your fist into the deepest part of the bow grip. If the string is touching or slightly above your extended thumb, you have sufficient brace height. Different bow designs require more or less brace height to shoot their best. In most cases, a recurved design requires a higher brace height than a longbow.

Arrow Shaft: This is the primary element of an arrow, the straight stick that the rest of the arrow materials are mounted upon. Historically, wood and bamboo have been the only viable materials for arrow shafting, but modern arrows are typically made from aluminum or carbon fiber. These new materials are easier to standardize, straighter, and require less upkeep. Making wooden arrows and keeping them from warping is a skill. Wooden arrows require upkeep and need to be made with exacting care, if good accuracy is to be achieved. The stiffness of an arrow shaft is often referred to as “spine”. The correct spine allows for better arrow flight, and all serious archers are aware of the length, relative spine, and arrow weight that will work best for their bows.

Arrowhead: Arrows can function with even the simplest of arrow heads, which is a sharpened wooden point. Often, if this is all that is available, the fletcher (person who creates the arrow) will fire-harden the wood in order for it to be more durable. That being said, an arrow of this type will only last a handful of shots. Arrowheads have been made out of flint, bone, obsidian, and whatever metal was available to the crafter. Generally, the heads would be inserted into a notch on the end of the arrow and tied on with thread. Glue, if available, was also used.

As technology got better, arrowheads would often slip over a tapered end of the arrow shaft, which was a sturdier and easier solution, but required far better metallurgy. Modern arrowheads typically are screwed into inserts that are glued into the hollow aluminum or carbon fiber arrow shaft. Target or field points are arrowheads designed to be easy to pull out of a target. They are generally bullet shaped, and not designed to do great damage. Broadheads are designed to do maximum wound damage to living things, and are used in warfare and hunting situation. Bodkin heads are designed to pierce through armor, and were used extensively in the era of plate mail.

Fletching: The fletching on an arrow keeps it steady in flight and corrects the arrow’s path, especially in the case of a poor release by the archer or if the arrow is not tuned well. Fletching has typically be feathers in the past, but modern arrows often use plastic vanes. They perform the same function, and an argument could be made for feathers still being the superior choice. There are usually three fletchings on an arrow, but there could be two (often seen in Kyudo, the Japanese martial art), or a larger number.

Fletchings that are put on “straight” impart no spin on the arrow, and are easiest to apply without a special jig. Fletchings that are put on at a slight tangent angle to the arrow shaft apply a helical spin. Helical spin can improve accuracy to some extent, as well as correcting for poor flight more quickly. Helical fletching does produce additional wind drag (as does larger or more numerous fletching), which slows the arrow faster, decreasing the maximum effective range of the arrow.

Arrow Nock: The notch that fits on the bowstring is called the arrow nock. It can be as simple as a notch on the back of a wooden arrow. If this is the case, care has to be taken to make sure that the arrow will not split as the arrow is loosed. The traditional method for adding strength to the back of an all wood arrow with self-nocks (groove cut into the arrow shaft itself) is to wrap sturdy string around the back of the arrow just below the arrow nock and then apply a layer of glue. Arrow nocks can also be fashioned out of bone, antler, or horn, though this is a painstaking process that isn’t practical when making arrows in great number. Modern arrows usually use a plastic composite arrow nock that can be quickly replaced or tuned.

Anchor Point: During the process of drawing back the bow, an archer who is taking a careful shot will generally have a place where they will touch with the back of the arrow, a feather, or their fingertips. This is their anchor point. An archer looking for accuracy tries to always come to the same anchor point and have the same inclination of their head, so that the view they have down the arrow shaft will act much like the sights on a firearm. The brain is a wonderful thing, and can make a lot of lightening-quick calculations to get your arrow where it should go, but consistency is king when it comes to being accurate at longer ranges. One of the primary concerns here is that we have a consistent anchor point.

Release: One doesn’t fire a bow. The word “fire” comes from the tradition of guns, and is improperly applied when it comes to archery. Some people are really adamant about this, and will do great bodily harm to you if you happen to slip up and use it. The correct terms to use include: shoot, release, and loose. Shooting a bow, loosing or releasing an arrow…these are perfectly acceptable.

The release, by the way, is likely the most crucial element of bow accuracy. Ideally, the releasing the string should be utterly consistent, and as undramatic as possible. In reality, the less the archer does, the better. Any movement other than holding the bow steady, drawing back the string, and releasing it cleanly is destructive. Archery is a humbling pursuit, in that almost all errant shots can be directly blamed on the archer, provided that weather and mechanical issues do not arise.

Quiver: The container for holding arrows is called a quiver. It has been made to be carried in a variety of places on the archer’s body, and made out of many materials. It can be as simple as a cloth bag with an cinch at the top, and as complicated as a highly-tooled leather tube that has partitions within it for different types of arrows. Other materials that have been used include wicker and woven reeds. The typical place for a quiver is across the torso, with the archer being able to reach back over her draw hand shoulder to get the next arrow. Target archers, or archers that are primarily on foot and not required to move quickly may prefer a quiver at their hip, although this will bounce around and make running difficult.

String Grip: Over the years, and in different places around the world, archers have employed a variety of grips on the string when drawing a bow. The most commonly seen method is the split-finger or Mediterranean style, in which the archer holds the arrow nock between index and middle finger, so that one finger is above the arrow, and two underneath. A similar method using just index and middle finger has also been seen, though this will make it more difficult to draw a heavy bow.

Another method using fingers to retain the string is the three-under method, which is just as it sounds. The archer puts the three largest finger of his draw hand beneath the arrow nock. This method is contingent upon the arrow nock being tight enough on the string to make sure that the arrow does not fall off, as there is no equilateral pressure on the arrow nock during the draw. This is a more modern technique, but there has been evidence put forward that some archers have been using this style for a long time.

In the Eastern tradition, drawing with the thumb is common. The archer hooks the thumb around the string and then braces the thumb across the nail with her index finger. This technique requires either a leather strap around the thumb, or a thumb ring made from some hard material, like metal or bone. In most cases, the thumb-ring technique is used in combination with an archery technique which places the arrow on the “far” side of the bow, rather than the side nearest the bow hand, as Western techniques employ.

Volley: A barrage of arrows sent to a distant target is sometimes referred to as a volley. Medieval warfare used this type of massed archery.

Point Blank Range: This refers to short range archery, in which the arrow does not appreciably drop between being released and hitting the target. While the arrow is always either moving slightly upward from release or falling toward the ground, these short ranges make this imperceptible. The best accuracy for most archers is found in this range, and a practiced archer can often succeed in hitting small targets at this range. For instance, an old archery trick for sharpshooters is to attempt to snuff out a candle flame without knocking over the candle. An accurate archer may be able to do this out to 15 or so yards. Not every time, perhaps, but it is possible. Within 15 yards or so, it is possible to shoot arrows into a target, such that they are touching or nearly touching each other.

Snap Shooting: This is an essentially unaimed shot. Any aiming that happens is purely subconscious, as the bow is drawn back and released in one movement. Some archery traditions do this almost exclusively, and reasonable accuracy can be achieved with practice. The swift archers of the Mongol and Magyar tradition pride themselves on being able to shoot multiple arrows and hitting a target while riding by on a horse. Is this easy? Clearly not. But it is realistic for a highly trained archer who has practiced her craft.

Compound Bows: A bow that uses a pulley and lever system, in combination with both a string and a cable, to increase efficiency. These were devised in the late 1960s, and have become the dominant style of bow for hunters. Compound bows usually have a sighting system installed, as well as using a release aid to allow for easier shooting and greater accuracy.

Recurve Bows: Any bow design in which the limbs are bent in such a way as to increase preload when the string is braced. Early designs of this kind include the Mongol Horn Bow.

Longbows: A bow design that is straight at rest, has a flat belly and round back, and creates a “D” shape when strung. The definition of a longbow can be fairly broad in modern terminology, and may be further qualified by those who like to argue on Internet forums. In the classic sense, a longbow was considered to be ideally proportioned if it was as long as the archer was tall while at rest.

Flat Bows: These designs are basically similar to a longbow, and are often referred to as such. The main difference is that flat bows have limbs that are basically rectangular in structure, rather than being rounded on the back. Flat bows are often somewhat more efficient than longbows, and can be made from types of wood that are not ideal for a classic longbow design. The Native Americans had many good designs for flat bows, and the “American Longbow” has been created as a sort of fusion of longbow and flat bow designs.

Short Bows: This term is applied to a variety of bow designs that are significantly shorter than the archer’s height. While easier to carry, and often used as hunting or ersatz fighting weapons, they tend to be a shorter range weapon, as well as having deficits in long range accuracy. This is primarily the case with all wood bows of 48 inches or less. Because wood is only so pliable, wooden short bows could not be pulled back all the way to the archer’s cheek or ear. This created a “floating anchor”, which makes consistent shooting more difficult. It should be noted that the horn bow, while short, did not suffer from this issue, because of its high level of recurve and deflex.

Reflex: This refers to a small amount of bend in the bow limb, such that increases preload when the bow is strung. Reflex is a less extreme bend than recurve, and might be included in some longbow and flatbow designs to improve efficiency or shooting dynamics.

Deflex: This refers to the riser/grip of the bow being recessed, so that it is nearer to the archer than the limbs. Deflex grip position is usually used in combination with recurve or reflex in the limbs. Mongol Horn Bows are the perfect example of this design.

In the next (and final, I promise) segment, I’ll cover close with some final thoughts about using archery in your writing.

  1. Great job on the blogs about bows, Pat. I’m so glad you put in the part about “fire” and “release,” which as you know, is my biggest pet peeve. If you’re writing a Medieval type story, and gun powder hasn’t been invented, no one “fires” their bow. They release it, shoot it, loose an arrow, or whatever. Anyway, thank you so much for putting all this together.

    Well done.

    Paul Genesse
    Author of the Iron Dragon Series
    Editor of The Crimson Pact

  2. What a great list! May I suggest you add: facewalking, kiss button, and thumb ring?

    • Fern,

      Good additions. Because I don’t want to overburden the readers, who may be completely unaware of archery at the beginning of the journey, I have tried to keep it somewhat simple. That said, I will put in a few thoughts here in the comments section, if they care to read down this far.

      Facewalking: This is an aiming technique in which the archer changes the anchor point to a lower or higher point on her face in order to change the trajectory of the arrow. By maintaining the “sight picture” at a familiar level, such as using the arrow tip/shaft as the the sight plane, the archer can increase the effective range of the shot by lowering the anchor point. By raising the anchor point, the archer can maintain a “point on” sight picture at a closer range. It should be said that, at short ranch, the archer will usually have to hold the point of the arrow well below the desired point of aim. “Point On” distance is the distance to target that will allow the archer to put the arrow shaft/point directly on the target and have the arrow land at that point. Depending on anchor point, face shape, arrow weight, and bow design, this point on distance can be as short as 20 yards and as long as 80 or 90, although I believe that the average is something between 35 and 50 for many traditional archers. This has no bearing on compound shooters or recurve users who use pin sights, as all of these calculations are made while getting the sights dialed in.

      Kiss(er) Button: This is some type of small feature that is installed on the bow string to help archers achieve ideal anchor point and extension. In the old days, it would probably have been a small amount of string or twine applied and tied to the string, such that it would touch a particular point on the archer’s face when the correct extension and anchor had been reached. Target archers in modern times often use these as training aids and as mechanisms to make sure that their technique is ideal before releasing the shot. Most modern kisser buttons are made of rubber, I believe. That said, I am not a competitive target archer, so I have limited experience with these tools.

      Thumb Ring: This has been mentioned a few times here. The thumb ring is a tool that allows the archer who is using the Eastern style of archery to draw the bow with his thumb. Thumb rings are made of leather, bone, or metal, and protect the digit from the forces that string exerts, much like a shooting glove will do with the Western archer’s fingers. Thumb Ring shooting is usually done off the “far” side of the bow, rather than the more familiar method when the arrow is on the same side of the bow as the bow arm.

      Thanks for making the comment, Fern. Cheers!

  3. […] is covered in Part Three.  Writer’s rule of thumb:  use the correct word.   If you are not an archer, at least read […]

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