Friday, May 31, 2013

Writing Archery Don'ts

Have you read the following scenes in a book? Or maybe seen them in a movie?

A company of archers stands ready on the battlements of a castle as a horde of (vikings, orcs, Frenchmen) charges towards them. The captain of archers shouts, "Nock! Draw! Hold it! Hold it!" as the enemy approaches ever closer. Finally, at the critical moment the command is given... "Fire!"

Or maybe an archer/sniper is hiding behind a tree, bow at full draw, waiting for a lone horseman to approach.

Or an archer has a bow at full draw, holding an enchantress prisoner.

To all three, I declare... BALONEY!

Hold it, hold it, hold it!

Bows all have a draw weight. This is the pounds of force necessary to hold the bow at full draw. Any bow fit for war is going to have a draw weight of at least sixty pounds. English warbows of the Hundred Years War and later would have draw weights of eighty pounds or more. How long can you pull and hold eighty pounds? Not very long!

Every second you hold it you hand creeps forward to lesson the strain and your arm starts to shake. The two make for weak, inaccurate shots. 

What would happen in reality? On command, the archers would draw and loose the arrows in one smooth motion. No hold it, hold it, hold it.

And... you don't FIRE a bow. You SHOOT it, or LOOSE an arrow.

Unstring that thing!

Archers in books and movies are almost never described as unstringing their bows. Uh-oh!

Keeping a wooden bow strung for long periods of time is extremely harmful for the bow. The wood cells become compressed and the bow loses its strength. A self-bow (a bow made from a single piece of wood) should not be kept strung for more than a few hours at a time. A composite bow, such as a Turkish or Mongolian bow, can remain strung much longer (maybe a week or more). Composite bows are made by laminating horn, wood, and sinew, and can recover their strength after "resting" and/or heated.

Modern wheely-compound bows are a different matter. But who would want to shoot one of those?

Wow! That was an amazing shot. Again.

An archer in a wildly popular young adult novel is praised for her ability to always shoot squirrels in the eye, and by doing so not ruining the meat or the pelt.

Right in the eye? Really? A squirrel?

Archery scenes would be so much better if writers took the time to actually loose a few arrows. Not only will they discover that impossible shots are, well... impossible. They will discover that repeated impossible shots are ridiculous.

Taking the time to carry a real bow teaches other things as well. You start to realize how encumbering a bow and a quiver are. It isn't like what you see in the movies!

Two arrows at the same time? Bah, how about three?

Two bad guys at the same time? No problem! I'll just nock two arrows.

While this might make for a good performance at the county fair (shooting at balloons ten feet away), it is not going to do much good in the real world. Arrow velocity and accuracy at any range are going to suffer terribly.

Oh, and pulling off the fletching to make an arrow curve around an obstacle? Sorry, it doesn't work.

A whack upside the head. 

Uh oh, the enemy is too close to shoot. I think I'll bonk him in the head with my trusty bow.

Sure, a heavy longbow is quite a staff. It is going to hurt. It might hurt you as well. Strung bows are under a great deal of stress. Whacking someone with it will just put it under more stress, and might result in an explosion.

Yes, bows explode. I just had one blow up on me a few days ago. Luckily I wasn't hurt. (No I wasn't whacking anyone with it.)

An unstrung bow would make a better weapon, but don't put any cuts or nicks in it. Those nicks could cause a bow explosion when the bow is next strung.

Armor works. (Except for Storm Troopers)

Armor that is contemporary to the bow in question will usually protect the wearer from harm. It's kind of the point of wearing armor.

Seriously, armor works. You had to shoot A LOT of arrows at a knight to take him down. The closer the range, the better the chance the arrow has. The arrow is at its maximum velocity, and you are probably shooting heavier arrows. Long range flight arrows have a much harder time penetrating armor.

There is always the arrow with "eyes". The one that finds the gap in the plates, or the slit in the visor, but too many lucky arrows makes for poos suspension or disbelief. 

If you want your archery to be more effective, get your opponent out of their armor!

Spoiling your fun.

Excellent. Now when you are reading a novel (or watching a movie) with archery in it you too can sigh with disappointment when one (or all) of the above occur.

Sort of like when police officers watch crime shows, or doctors watch hospital shows, or lawyers watch court shows.

But if you are a writer you now have a few more arrows in your quiver!


  1. As a (very) casual archer, and a (semi) professional writer, thanks for this. Like the old blow to the back of the head that renders a character unconscious, archery is often used as a magic level crutch in writing, and it shouldn't be, because true archery can still be awesome. So, thanks.

  2. Getting the little things right makes for better realism. More realism leads the reader into the realm of willing suspension of disbelief. And that's where you want them!

    Best of luck with your writing.

  3. Nice post Matt!
    One small piece of comment. About the squirrel thing. There are some archers that have achieved a remarkable, almost superhuman, level of accuracy, like the late and legendary Howard Hill, and contemporary professional trick shot guys like Byron Fergusson or Peter O Stecher, who can thread an arrow through a ring on demand, or even shoot a small object like a mint or a small pill out of the air in flight. Shooting a squirrel through the eye- doesnt make sense - hunting small game and birds with a bow was usually done with a blunt arrowhead. That was how it was done in the old days. Deliver a heathy whack- stun the animal or it dies of stress by the impact.

  4. My thoughts exactly. When The Hunger Games first came out, I glanced at it in a bookstore and could tell in a couple pages the author had never fired a bow outside of a video game. Years later I read it, and it's really well done in pulling you into the story, but again, it'd been so much better if she'd spent just a single day doing research.

    Janny Wurtz and Lynn Flewelling are both archers, and they both get it right.

    And for those who haven't seen it, there's a Mike Loades documentary on H2 now and then called "Going Medieval" which has great insight on bows and other weapons.

  5. Ok here's another one I recently discovered in a novel featuring an English Longbow archer shooting a 160 lbs in the 100 years war. My guess is the author based much of his action scenes on the Warner Brothers Kevin Constner movie `Robin hood Prince of thieves'. In that movie you see Costner walking aroung with a strung longbow - bowstring in front of his chest- bowstave at the back.. problem is that when you do that with a real English Warbow with the draw weights that were common in the 100 years war.. you won't be able to breathe.

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