Writerly Crash Course: Archery

Writerly Crash Course: Archery

A lot of writers include archery in their novels when they’ve never actually done archery, and what happens? It shows. It shows that they’ve never held a bow and have no idea what they’re doing save from what they’ve seen in movies. However, I do archery. Every Friday. I’m not very good, but I know how to use a bow. If anyone here is better than me and would like to contradict anything I say, please say so and I’ll edit as necessary.

Like Charley R’s ‘Writerly Guides’ (but more factual and less humorous), this is a crash course in archery specifically for writers.

There are a few questions you need to ask yourself before you start:

What time period is it?

This is very, very important. It not only decides what sort of bow your character’ll be using, it also decides how they’ll be using it.

Historical or alternate world with old fashioned technology? Probably a long bow. That means one like this:

Now, this says it’s from about 2000BC, so wow. Old. But I went to a castle the other day and they had similar bows in the middle ages. My ‘expertise’ is to do with medieval bows (thanks to my castle visit), so here are a few things I know:

– Often made of yew. The wood that’s all covered in resin is on the outside, with the darker wood being on the inside (facing the string). This forms a sort of natural varnish to make it slightly shiny.
– Should be about six inches taller than the archer.

In medieval archery, the arrow is drawn back to the ear. There’s nothing to rest the arrow on except your hand, so you keep your fingers straight and just grip the bow with your thumb and your palm, resting the arrow on top of your fingers. You draw, aim and shoot in one movement, pretty much.

Modern or futuristic? Well, here’s where I was pleased with the Hunger Games – Katniss actually uses her bow like a modern archer. Hooray!

Main difference is the type of bow, obviously – it’s often going to be a compound bow or a recurve bow. Now, a recurve bow is the sort I’ve learned to use, and it looks like this:

However, when I started, I used a bow that was a lot simpler.

This is me when I was about ten. The bow I’m using is, I think, a longbow, made of fibreglass or plastic or something. One-day archery courses will generally mean you use these sort of bows. They’re relatively easy to pull back.

When I resumed archery classes recently, I used one of these too, but I just got upgraded to the recurve bow. The one I use is a little more complicated than the diagram above – it’s got an adjustable sight, for a start – but we don’t need to go into that much detail.

In modern archery, the arrow is drawn back to the chin. Or nose. It depends on your instructor. Mine insists I pull it back so that the bowstring goes into my chin and into my nose, as I can’t keep it straight otherwise :D

The string should dig into the centre of your chin. Your hand is right below your chin, so it’s touching. Not your ear. Not your chest. CHIN. Hawkeye might be able to shoot from his stomach, but no one else can. It won’t be accurate.

Here I am doing archery recently. Notice where the bowstring is pulled back to. I'm using a 30lb recurve bow :)
Here I am doing archery recently. Notice where the bowstring is pulled back to: my chin/nose. I’m using a 30lb recurve bow :)

You also need to know sizes.

How long should arrows be? Well, in medieval archery you’re drawing the arrow back to your ear, and you have to rest it on your fingers. The arm holding the bow is straight, so it needs to be long enough not to fall off the bow. In modern archery, the rule of thumb is that when one end of the arrow is in the centre of your chest (the fletching, preferably!), the point should be about an inch beyond your finger tips (which are held straight out in front of you, holding the arrow. It’s not going to levitate).

I wish I had pictures. This is hard to explain.

As for size of bow, depends on your height. Longbow, as I said, should be taller than you. My recurve bow is a couple of inches shorter than me, but because it’s not mine, it belongs to the club, it’s kind of approximate whether that’s the right size.

Oh, and parts of the arrow.

Modern arrows are usually made of metal. The metal ‘stick’ is the shaft. The feathers on the end which are sometimes feathers or sometimes made of plastic (it makes no difference) are called the fletching. Usually, there are two of one colour and one of a different colour. When you ‘nock’ the arrow (clip the end onto the bow), the different coloured one needs to be facing up, away from the bowstring. That’s to do with the angle. If you do it differently, the feathers will get knocked off when you loose the arrow.

Medieval arrows had all sorts of different points for shooting different things, from a very thin sharp one that pierced armour, to a shorter one with a ball to stop it going too far in in order to shoot birds (you wouldn’t want to mash them, they’re so small). These are the arrowheads. There were also large ones for shooting horses, and ones with holes in for tying cloth to and setting on fire – called fire arrows, appropriately. You can look these things up.

Archery equipment besides the bow.

The bracer – a piece of leather or plastic tied around the forearm of the arm that’s holding the bow (if you’re right handed, that’ll be the left hand). This stops the bowstring hurting your arm. It may still ‘twang’ against your elbow so you need to make sure you’re holding it right. The bruises don’t fade for days.

The tab – a piece of leather that has two holes in one end, through which you put your middle and ring finger. The tab then covers your index, middle and ring fingers so that you can draw back the string without hurting your fingers.

You need these. Trust me. Some tabs are thicker than others, and personally I prefer a thin one so that I can feel the string more easily, but others disagree. Some people have long bracers that go up to their upper arm; these are less common.

Quivers – the ones we use are usually flat pieces of leather that hold about eight arrows comfortably, and they clip onto your belt or hook over the waistline of your trousers. Not over your back, though those exist. It’s easier to get the arrows out with a quiver at the side, in my experience. You can also get stands to put your arrows in while you’re on the line, shooting, or you can put them on the floor.

Oh, and the target? Generally, the centre is called ‘gold’. Not ‘bullseye’. Rookie mistake. It’s gold, red, blue, black, white, miss. Each colour has two lines, as it were – if you get it in the inner red you get more points than on the outer red. If it’s on the line you go for the higher point scorer. (Outer white – 1 point, outer black – 3 points, outer blue – 5 points, outer red – 7 points, outer gold – 9 points. There are three ‘rings’ of gold, with the very centre circle being worth 20 points.)

One final thing you may need to know for writing about archery – it makes your shoulders ache. A lot. The next day, if they’re new to archery, your character will have an aching arm, shoulder and neck. Drawing the string back is hard and takes a lot of strength, especially on a stronger bow. The stronger bows will send the arrow deeper into the target and are more accurate, but it’s hard work.

Any questions or contradictions? Leave a comment!

Oh, and while we’re at it, check out this video of some seriously fast shooting. Her technique is … strange, but it’s fast. And cool.

19 thoughts on “Writerly Crash Course: Archery

  1. So, suppose my character has arrows of an unusual shape, sporks specifically, would that change anything? I hadn’t given much thought to whether spork-shaped arrows would really work or not when I wrote my character having them; at any rate, I’ll definitely be sure to give her proper equipment otherwise. I wouldn’t want my poor character bruising her arm or anything; she has enough troubles already.

    1. I’m not sure. They would need an ordinary shaft in order to fly, but an arrowhead in the shape of a spork might work, and a fork almost certainly.
      Using a crossbow to shoot sporks might be a better bet, generally.

      1. “Using a crossbow to shoot sporks might be a better bet, generally.”

        I love that I come back to this blog after a week away and find this first thing. Makes my morning. :)

  2. Long bows were used more often in the fields – but what about in the woods? Did they use those there too? I feel the need to look up what Native maerican’s used to see if they are the same or different from what developed over in your part of the world.

    This was excellent. thank you. :}

    1. It’s true, this is very much what the English archer used. Mind you, they were famous for being very, very good. Interestingly, my surname ‘Longman’ – well, its etymology is confused at best, but one theory is that it comes from ‘Longbowman’. I like this idea :D

    1. I find the time by not sleeping and by writing in my lunch break! And by typing fast and going straight from archery to band and orchestra to ballet.

      Also, good question. At the moment, good, but after Hawkeye went back to the Avengers I expect Loki is looking for an archer and I would be very glad to join him. World domination is fun. However, I’m not very good yet, so my services may not be required.

      1. I heard they are making a second Avengers – I see a potential part for you in the making of that movie! Go, Miriam!! By the way, I would LOVE to walk a day in your shoes – ballet sounds like a lot of work, but also like so much FUN!

        1. I would do almost anything to be in that movie, seriously. Almost anything. Anything legal, probably.

          Ballet is tough especially for people who aren’t super skinny and flat chested, but I love it anyway. I intend to prove one doesn’t have to be that shape to do ballet!

  3. I’m married to an archer so I’ve had my fair share of having sore shoulders and arms. He spent time teaching me how to have an anchor point and such and when we were watching the Hunger Games, I leaned over and said “her forms pretty good.” He got a kick out of it :) I’ve often shot a compound bow but I would like to shoot a recurve as I’d imagine its different. Fun post!

  4. Thanks for this! The measurements are very useful~

    I’m hoping to have an archer in my comic, and I was wondering if you know anything about how convenient/inconvenient a longbow would be to carry? And how? Anything on care of bows would also be very helpful.

    1. I’m not a longbow archer, so I can’t give you a lot of help. I think it would depend on the type of longbow, and how it was being carried — just in the hand? In some sort of case? That also goes for care. What’s it made of? Wood is going to need more treatment and protection than fibreglass. Also, what’s the time period? Nowadays you can get all sorts of fancy things to treat them with, but in the past it’d be different.
      So yep, lots of factors to take into consideration. Sorry I can’t help more!

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