Writer’s Guide to Bows, Part Four

Posted: February 13, 2013 in Archery, Articles

Last time, I put forward a list of terms and definitions. This time, we’ll bat cleanup and see if I can leave you with a fair understanding of archery, such that you can portray it convincingly in your stories.

If there is one thing that I can stress before the end of this series, it’s that nothing I can say will teach you as much as actually trying out archery. Do yourself a favor and go down to your local archery club. Chances are, they’ll have a bow to rent and an instructor who can give you a few pointers. If you’re not lucky enough to be near a place like that, it’s possible a friend or relative might have a bow you can try.

Failing that, there’s always my article about how to shoot an arrow on this site. CLICK HERE to check that out, as it goes through a step-by-step process of a typical target shot with a bow. If you’re a little handy, you can also build your own bow out of PVC pipe. I have an article about that, as well. CLICK HERE to check it out.

Finally, if you want to see some footage of bows being shot by yours truly, please look in the Videos section of this site, and you’ll find me shooting a variety of different bows in all manner of ways.

Now, on to a few procedural things that you should consider:

Bows are usually not strung when you’re carrying them around. Unless you are actively hunting or going into battle, a bow will usually not have the string braced. Why? A few reasons. The first is that having the bow strung puts a constant stress on the string and the bow itself. Prior to modern materials, bows left strung would quickly degrade, losing power because the material of the limbs would “follow the string” and begin taking on a curvature, even when unstrung. Secondly, strung bows are harder to carry. The curvature they assume when strung makes them far more bulky and difficult to handle. If you’re walking around the forest all day, doing other tasks, having a bow to always account for just becomes a drag. Even unstrung, the bow is a big long stick that will catch on things in tight brush. A few other possible concerns might come into play, as well.  If anything cuts the string, the bow could be damaged from the sudden unloading of tension (or someone could lose an eye). If we go back to thinking, as we conceived of in the first segment, of the bow as a spring with a string attached, we are keeping that spring under load at all times. Whether shooting an arrow or doing something else unexpected, the strung bow has all this stored energy that is probably not necessary or safe when you don’t intend to shoot.

How does this play into your story? Well, if there’s an unexpected fight, your characters will need to string their bows, which will take several seconds, even for the slickest archer. Mentioning this and possibly using it as a disadvantage in a fight will give you credibility with your reader.

How does one string a bow? There are a few methods. With a longbow, the push-pull method is one way to string or unstring a bow. One puts the string loop over the top limb and allows it to push down over the limb, then hooks the loop on the lower limb tip. Bracing the lower limb tip on the ground, the archer pushes at the grip of the bow and pulls back with her hand on the upper limb until the string loop can be guided into the string notches on the upper limb tip. The same method is used to create slack to unstring the bow. On wet ground, the archer will probably want to put the lower limb tip on their boot, rather than into the mud. Water isn’t great for bows, and mud really isn’t good for much of anything except bee sting first aid.

Another way to string a bow is the “step through” method. This is often easier with recurved limb designs. A right handed archer will brace the lower limb tip on the outside of his right foot and step across, allowing his left calf to brace the lower limb on the belly side of the bow. Grasping the upper limb, the archer pushes and bends the upper limb until the bow can be strung. As above, the same process can unstring the bow, as well. This method can actually be employed while sitting down. In some cases, it can actually make stringing the bow easier. Some modern historians believe that Odysseus’ bow at Ithaca couldn’t be strung by his wife’s would-be suitors, not because they lacked the strength, but that they didn’t know how to go about it. It is possible that the bow was some type of horn bow from the East, and that one had to employ the proper technique in order to get it braced.

In the modern day, we usually use a bow stringer that allows us to bend the bow without the fear of twisting a limb or losing grip on the bow and injuring ourselves, but this was often not the case in the days of old. The exception was for very heavy bows, where they would often have secondary string notches on the limb tips for a bow stringer. The way most bow stringers work is to hook onto the bow limbs and allow the archer to step onto a string, such that pulling the bow riser upward will bend the limbs and allow the bow to be strung. Since these are not “technical innovations” per se, it is perfectly reasonable to include these in a fantasy setting, if you desire.It should be mentioned that using a bow stringer is slower and clumsier than the older methods. The practicality of trying to string a bow while actively being attacked is called into question. You’d probably get stabbed.

Another thing: bows require care and maintenance. Waxing the string, for instance, is important. It keeps the string from fraying or being negatively affected by moisture. Bows themselves are somewhat fragile. Extreme heat and cold, impact, and sustained pressure that might warp a bow is to be avoided. To protect the wood from damage, some kind of sealant is usually applied. Something as simple as rubbing a bit of oil into a bow to keep it in good condition could be a detail that will help your credibility.

Bows made of solid don’t last forever. A self-bow that is made out of a single piece of wood has a realistic lifespan of several years, but the idea of having a multi-generational heirloom longbow is questionable, unless you allow for some magical process to keep it from being degraded by time. Wood can only stay in the condition which will allow it to efficiently and safely bend and flex for so long. Unlike, say, furniture, the bow requires the material to store a great deal of energy, and this simply does not allow for great longevity. This has, to some extent, changed with the advent of materials like fiberglass and carbon fiber. There are bows that are from the 1950s and 1960s that still shoot well. I personally have a bow that is as old as I am, and still flings an arrow with purpose. Let the record show that I am not as young a man as I once was.

It is sometimes portrayed that a character can use a bow as a makeshift staff or club when enemies draw near. This is generally a bad idea. Bows are not easy to make or repair. A serious archer would much rather use a weapon more suited to melee combat than risk his bow. Archers were traditionally troops that had light armor (or none), and simple weapons. Having your archer character at least have some kind of small weapon for close combat only makes sense, especially if working outside the strictures of an army. Having a knife, sword, or some other hand weapon is the way to go. Hitting with the bow looks cool in the movies, but is probably a stupid idea. At best, they’re a clumsy and awkward club, and they’re likely to be damaged more than the person you’re hitting by the blow.

Shooting multiple arrows is possible, but usually not useful. While it is possible to shoot two arrows at once, the accuracy you’ll achieve is marginal at best, and it’s both clumsy and inefficient. The issue here is that a bow has a certain amount of power to confer. If you nock multiple arrows and shoot them at the same time, each arrow only has part of that energy. If you want to be realistic, an archer would rather shoot fast with one arrow at a time than shoot two or more arrows simultaneously. Looks good, but not practical. It’s far better to hit once than miss twice.

When mounting anything on an arrow, be sure to remember that arrows are light. Even a heavy arrow will only weigh about 1/10th of a pound. Putting something that weighs even a few ounces on the front of an arrow will have a significant effect on its trajectory and range. Flaming arrows were certainly used, but the range at which they were effective would have been much shorter than arrows that were not adorned with flaming pitch and cloth. Any other device or use that would apply drag or weight to an arrow would produce a marked decrease in range and change in flight characteristics. It’s just physics. My feeling is that the more realistic the normal parts of any setting, even one filled with fantasy creatures and magic, the more your readers will trust you. It’s in the details where we show that we understand how things work.

Well, that’s essentially all I can think of on the subject for the moment. I hope that you’ve found this little series helpful in improving your understanding of archery.

  1. […] Part Four lacks a title, but I would call it “The Logistics of Archery.”  Here you’ll learn facts nearly universally ignored in pop culture portrayals of archery, such as:  Bows are not usually strung when you are carrying them around.  Leaving a bow strung when not in use puts constant, useless stress on the bow and the string, particularly when the materials are medieval in nature.  The bow snaps, the string breaks, and our archer is left weaponless – unless he’s carrying replacements around with him on his long forced marches into battle with the Enemy, which seems less than likely.   What this means for you as a writer is that your hero will need to string his bow when the Bad Guys appear.  Ok, stop the groaning; as Caveman Jim points out, the disadvantage to the hero inherent in this delay can build credibility and opportunity into your story.  Use it! […]

  2. Hi Caveman, just wanted you to know I linked a post I wrote today to all four parts of your series. I hope it gets the attention it deserves from authors everywhere!

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