All over the world and throughout the ages, archery has been pivotal to war and hunting. Though the development of firearms made a bow-and-arrow approach to battle less practical over time, archery remains highly regarded today, especially in sport.
Whether you’re just curious about archery, have a bit of experience under your belt, or need a little advice on equipment, read on to understand the history, mythology and logistics of this time-honored practice.
History and Myth
As a practice dating back to the Stone Age, archery is firmly entrenched. It has a venerable tradition, and a respected place in myths in many cultures. All over the world, heroes and gods skilled in archery were (and are) valorized in stories and songs throughout Eastern and Western traditions.
You might be familiar with mythic archers from Greek lore. The gods Apollo and Artemis, twin children of Leto, were both closely associated with the bow. Artemis, goddess of the hunt, was deeply respected by sportsmen, while Apollo bow symbolized many of the darker aspects of archery: death, distance and terror. Human archers can also be found fighting their ways through Greek epics.
The Vikings used archery as well. Both Viking sagas and the reports of those lucky enough to escape an attack by the Scandinavian people report the use of impressive coordination between archers and shield-wall infantry techniques. Norse longbows and arrowheads have been preserved, dating as far back as 2800 BC. The sagas detail archers of incredible strength and precision, as well as mentioning Skaði, the Norse goddess of skiing and bowhunting.
In Indian myth, many main figures are skilled archers. For example, Arjuna, a central character of the Mahabharata, was a feared and reverenced archer whose skill lead his armies to success. The famous bows of the gods Vishnu and Shiva are also central to many stories in the Hindu tradition.
In China, the mythic Hou Yi, a god of archery, was believed to have come to earth to save humanity by shooting out nine suns with his bow. China’s Confucian tradition emphasized archery, too: from about 230 BC until the 16th century, archery was one of the Six Arts seen as integral to the aristocratic man. Confucius himself was reportedly an archery teacher.
These stories are just the tip of the iceberg. A rich world of lore and cultural memory surrounds the skill of archers up to today, and the myths haven’t ended. In pop culture characters like Hanzo, Disney’s princess Merida, Katniss Everdeen or Hawkeye, the spirit of the larger-than-life, impossibly skilled archer lives on.
One of the primary sub-genres of archery is mounted archery. Japanese Samarai, North American tribes, Turkish nomadic groups, Persian armies and more honed the skill of hunting and warfare through mounted archery. Though practiced all over, its use by the horseback ranks of the Mongols, whose primary mode of attack was archery, is a particularly stunning example of its use.
Carrying two bows, one for long distance and one for shorter range targets, Mongol archers were undoubtedly killer. They could hit a target while at a full gallop, taking aim and firing in the brief moment while their horses hooves were off the ground. This suspension would keep them from being thrown off target by the jolt of their horse hitting the ground. Mongolian forces would ride forward en masse, fire volleys of arrows, and turn to regroup for another attack.
Innovative technology (including spectacular fire arrows) allowed Mongolians to smite their enemies for centuries. Their skill was so impressive that many of the Mongol’s enemies simply joined their army voluntarily, and they’re believed to have conquered more land in 25 years than the Romans did in 400. Mongolian archery is believed to go back as far as 300 BCE, and was so effective and intimidating that once China conquered the tribes they were forbidden to teach archery until their independence in 1911.
The Decline of Archery
As armor improved, archery came to more and more of a disadvantage. Not every archer was a superhuman Nord or an incredibly precise Mongol warrior, and those who were, needed an incredible amount of dedication and training to become that skilled.
With advancements in armoring and firearms, specifically improvements to the flintlock musket, archery was basically moot. An untrained 15 year old with a musket was more effective than a highly trained archer at killing heavily armed soldiers. Eventually, the time and resources needed to adequately build a fighting force of archers just wasn’t worthwhile in the face of much more effective firearms.
Though archery fell out of practical use, it never fully went away as a sport. As early as the 1480s in Britain, societies like the Ancient Society of Kilwinning Archers were having archery competitions.
British archery societies became increasingly lavish. As pastimes for the upper classes, archery competitions were hubs for hobnobbing and flirting, and became very stylish. By the 1800s, people in lower classes started practicing the sport recreationally, too. Popular representations like Robin Hood contributed to the lasting allure of the sport as well.
Archery was especially appealing to women, since most sports at the time weren’t open to them. Most recently, movies like The Hunger Games and Brave have further popularized the sport of archery, adding fuel to the fire of a time-honored pastime.
Modern Sport Archery
The Grand National Archery Society consolidated recreational archery in England. By 1845, the circus atmosphere had been toned down, and the competitions had become more serious and regulated. Horace A. Ford, an eleven-time winner of the Grand National competition, published a well-loved guide in 1856 and helped to open new frontiers for the sport.
In the United States, romance around Native Americans helped contribute to archery’s resurgence. Ishi, the last known member of the Yahi Indian tribe, came out of hiding in California in 1911. His physician, Saxon Pope, learned a lot about archery from Ishi, and shared that knowledge with the public, leading to increased interest in “primitive” archery styles in the U.S.
Starting in the 1920s, this knowledge was elaborated on by engineers. Studying and improving upon traditional designs and materials, engineers developed and fine tuned the modern recurve and compound bows.
The basic idea of a bow is pretty straightforward. You pull on the bowstring, transferring energy from that draw into the string. When you release the string, the compression of the flexible bow is released and transferred into the arrow.
There are three basic parts to a bow: the riser, the limbs and the string.
The riser is the center of the bow’s curve, where the grip, sight window and arrow rest are. This part might be more or less complex. The grip might be moulded to fit a hand, or it might be wood wrapped in padding or cloth. In any case, the riser’s main function is to create a stiff center point for the bow’s limbs to bend away from.
The limbs are the two sections that curve away from the riser, toward you as you pull the string back. The limbs must be flexible, but can be made out of many different things. Historically, wood is the most common. This can be one piece of wood (which is called a self bow), or multiple materials fashioned together (called a composite bow). Often, bows are laminated with a waterproof material like fiberglass. Many are made of aluminum, too.
Generally, bows can be divided by shape into those that are recurved and those that aren’t. A recurved bow has three curves in it; the bow’s main arch with the riser at the center, then two secondary curves at the ends of the limbs, curving away from the archer. Recurve bows are fairly standard now, since they’re lighter and often more powerful than their non-recurved cousins.
Bows without recurves include longbows, which consist of one curve, and flatbows, which are straight when unstrung. People who are interested in more traditional archery practices, such as Kyudo, are more likely to use these types of bows. These bows are great for bowfishing.
Another popular modern bow is a compound bow, which uses a lever system to multiply the power of the shot. The lever is basically a pulley connected by two cables, where the bowstring turns two cams, or wheels, at the ends of top and bottom limbs. Although they’re often harder to draw than a standard recurve, compound bows become easier to hold in fully drawn position because of the mechanics of the cams. This gives an archer time to aim patiently. Between that and their power, compound bows are great for hunters.
Modern day bowstrings are made of synthetic material and attached to the top and bottom of a bow with loops. The string is often treated with wax to keep it flexible and water resistant. The bowstring on a recurve bow has one permanent knot forming a loop at the top, and an adjustable loop tied with an archer’s knot at the bottom. On a compound bow, both loops are permanent.
In the center of the string, you’ll usually find serving, or extra thread wrapping the bowstring to prevent it from wearing out too quickly from your hand and the nocked arrows. Speaking of the arrow, strings typically have a nocking point, or a small metal marker, crimped onto the string right above where you should put the end of your arrow.
Arrows and Fletchings
Arrows have four key parts: the point, the shaft, the nock and the fletching. The point is the end of the arrow that penetrates a target, fletching is a group of feathers or feather-like fins that stabilize the arrow in flight, the nock is the point of contact between the arrow and the bowstring, and the shaft is what connects it all together.
Let’s get into a little more detail.
The point is fairly self explanatory. Many end in a bullet shape, or a field point. These are standard for range-style target archery. For hunting small game, like squirrels, you might use a blunt point. When hunting large game, broadheads are used. There are several styles of broadhead, each tailored to a specific use.
Fletching comes in groups of at least three, causing the arrow to spin in flight and compensate for turbulence. Three is the most common, and typically one of these fins a different color. That’s the indicating fletch: it should be pointed out, perpendicular from the bow, to prevent the fletching from being torn up when you release. No matter what the material, the fletching needs to all be perfectly balanced and spaced to allow you, the archer, to aim properly.
The shaft of an arrow can be made of lots of things, including wood, bamboo, aluminum, carbon, fiberglass and composites. As long as the arrow isn’t too short, it’s true that you can pretty much use any arrow for any bow—but a mismatch can make aiming impossible. Different arrows have different amounts of flexibility. This is called “spine.”
By matching spine to your specific bow, the stored energy from your draw will allow the arrow to cleanly bend around the riser and hit its mark. Less powerful bows should use more flexible arrows, while heavier draw weights need stiffer arrows.
In terms of storing arrows, the main types of quivers are hip quivers (sometimes called “field quivers”) and back quivers. This is a personal preference, though if you intend on going hunting, you may prefer a field quiver. The arrows don’t knock against each other, making it a quieter option.
When you release your bowstring after a full draw, ideally it’s moving fast and with force. The downside of this can be a nasty snap against any unprotected body part it comes into contact with on the way.
Most archers wear some kind of hand protection, and many protect their forearms or chest as well.
Depending on your style of archery, you might be drawing your bowstring with your fingers in a Mediterranean draw, between your thumb and forefinger in a pinch draw, or using your thumb (a method aptly named the “thumb draw”). The pinch draw is the least common, because it requires incredibly strong fingers to move beyond a certain level of performance.
For the Mediterranean draw, most archers use tabs. These are small pads of leather or cloth that can be looped over a finger to sit on the inside of the fingers. Some archers use gloves for the same purpose. Both of these options prevent the bowstring from injuring fingers upon release, and it’s mostly a matter of preference. That said, tabs are lighter, cooler in the summertime and easier to fit, so they certainly have their benefits.
For thumb draw styles, you might use a thumb ring, or simply tape your thumb. Thumb rings can be made of leather, bone, wood or silicone—the key is that they fit well and protect your thumb.
Bracers (also called wrist- or arm-guards) are typically worn on the inside of the hand gripping the bow. These, similar to tabs, are nowadays pads of leather or plastic.
A chest guard can be used by anyone who’s worried their bowstring might snap against their chest. This is especially important for those who have breasts, but it’s also helpful for people with large pectorals or a little extra bulk. Chest guards can also prevent bowstrings from getting caught on any clothes that might be fluttering in the breeze.
Some prefer using a mechanical release aid to shoot rather than their fingers. These are also sometimes called “mechanical releases” or just “releases.”
The benefit of release aids is simple: they increase consistency. Since there are two main parts of shooting a bow—pulling back the bowstring and letting it go—lessening your opportunity for error or inconsistency in releasing the bowstring can dramatically improve accuracy.
There are two main types of release. Some are trigger style, operated with the thumb, and others are based on rotation. With the second type, the arrow will fly when the release is turned a specific amount.
In terms of how they’re held, some releases are simply held in the hand, but others are attached to your wrist with a strap. That mostly comes down to personal preference.
At the end of the day, using a release aid or not, and what type you use if you opt to use one, depends largely on why you do archery. Some people like a more traditional feel or are looking for a meditative experience, while others want a mechanical edge for hunting or competition.
For many archers, stabilizers are a useful tool to keep a bow balanced in the hand. Though not strictly necessary, stabilizers can be added below the grip to add weight to the bottom of the bow and help prevent it from twisting during a shot. In turn, this leads to more precise shooting.
For those with more equipment on their bow, like a quiver or a sight, side-mounted stabilizers help offset that weight.
Additionally, stabilizers can help hunters by absorbing some of the energy of a shot, leading to a quieter release.
Shooting Technique and Form
There are several archery stances. The square stance is probably the most common fundamental. In this position, you stand “square” to the shooting line, perpendicular to your target. So, if you’re right handed, you’ll put your left foot in front, closest to the target. Your feet should be about a foot apart, at hip’s width.
Keep your knees slightly bent, tuck your pelvis slightly so your spine is in a neutral position. Don’t arch your back or push your chest forward. Stand tall, without bending towards the target or away from it.
Stay relaxed, let your shoulders fall into place naturally, turn your head toward the target, and shoot.
The most important thing is to be relaxed to stay in good alignment with your shoulders over your hips and your feet firmly planted.
After mastering the square stance, you might be curious enough to try out the open, closed and neutral stances to see if one of them works better for you. It’s mostly a personal preference, but starting with the square stance will give you a solid foundation for every shot.
The grip on your bow should be relaxed: many Olympic archers don’t hold the bow at all. Instead, these archers balance the bow’s riser between their thumb and forefinger, with the rest of their fingers open.
Why? Because a tense grip impedes aiming. Instead, these archers will use what’s called a sling, a cord attached to the thumb and forefinger around the grip.
For other styles that don’t use a finger sling, a relaxed grip is still important.
After nocking an arrow, you’ll need to pull the bowstring back, or draw it. This is pretty straightforward on the surface, but careful attention to form can dramatically increase accuracy and prevent injury.
Keep your head straight, looking at the target, and relax your shoulder blades down into your back. Make sure your wrist is straight on your drawing hand; you shouldn’t be able to see any white knuckles sticking out.
When you’re ready to draw your bowstring, remember that your back should be doing the bulk of the work at full draw. Your back muscles are larger than your arm muscles, and can more effective and stably hold the weight. Obviously, your arms are important (they are what pulls the bowstring and holds the bow steady, after all) but once you’ve pulled to full draw try to engage your back by slightly pulling your shoulder blades towards each other.
That said, one important thing to remember about archery is that the strength required for the sport depends entirely on the bow. If you’re interested in getting started in archery, but you aren’t sure you’re strong enough, just start with a lighter bow.
With that in mind, draw your bow. Maintain a flat wrist, and make sure your bowstring is in line with your bow. When you’re ready, with a relaxed grip and aligned posture, let your arrow fly.
Firstly, when thinking about aiming, it’s important to remember that your eye is much higher than your arrow at full draw. Why does this matter? Unless you’re string walking (discussed below) if you try to line up the tip of your arrow with the center of a target, you’ll shoot high every time. Your line of sight isn’t aligned with the nock of your arrow. The angle of your arrow will be pointing up!
For compound bows, you’ll probably use a sight. A sight might have magnification, especially if you’re using the bow to hunt, or it might mostly act like a built-in reference point for you to judge against. You’ll want to look focus through the sight, and release when you’re on target—don’t try to hold perfectly still. Just focus on the central point, and release when you’re centered, rather than trying to pause and hold that centered stance.
That aside, there are a variety of ways to aim whether you use a sight or not.
Instinctive aiming is in some ways the most-stripped down version of shooting. This technique relies on the archer’s subconscious, honed through time and experience, to hit the mark.
Essentially, the aim is exclusively on the target: you aren’t checking a sight or comparing parts of the bow to judge the right angle. Instead, you’re drawing on habit and expertise—really drilling what works in through repetition—to develop accuracy.
Split vision aiming takes another step into consciously using your bow to judge distance and the proper aim. The shooter’s vision is split between looking at the target and seeing the bow. It’s similar to instinctive aiming, but with a more intentional look at the “feel” of the aiming picture before release.
Gap shooting and string walking both rely on a more scientific approach to getting the hang of your arrow’s trajectory.
With gap shooting, you start close to your target, keeping your arrow lined up with the center of the target. As you move backwards, methodically marking down how far above or below the target center your arrow lands, you’ll start to get a feel for your bow’s trajectory. Then, you can measure the distance your arrow tip should be, visually, from the center of the target based on how far from the target you know you are.
String walking is, in a way, the inverse of gap shooting. You’ll move your hand up or down the bowstring to change the angle of your shot, rather than aiming the point of the arrow at a specific gap. The arrow will always be pointed at the center of the target, but the angle of it will change as the point you’re pulling from varies.
The Physics of Archery
The basic physics behind archery are pretty straightforward. When you pull back the bowstring, the bow itself bends. This bend stores potential energy. When you let go of the bowstring, the bow acts like a spring, and the potential energy is transferred to kinetic energy (motion) that propels the arrow forward. Of course, this isn’t perfect. There’s usually leftover energy that doesn’t get transferred to the arrow, and instead is let off as bounce in the bow or sound.
By this logic, the heavier the draw weight of your bow—the more energy you have to put into the bow to pull the bowstring—the more energy is stored to propel your arrow. A heavier draw weight means arrows can fly farther and hit harder.
Compound bows multiply the effect of draw weight beyond a person’s normal physical strength. The cams increase the potential energy stored in the bow, and allow an impressive amount of release. That’s why compound bows are preferred by hunters: they’re more likely to leave a clean kill.
A bunch of archers are arrayed on a field, behind a line. At a set distance, bullseye targets are set up. The archers shoot the targets one by one, a la Robin Hood, and at the end of the day someone is named the winner.
If this is what you imagine when you think of competitive archery, you’re not wrong, though it’s not the only type of archery competition out there. Aside from target archery competitions, field archery competitions allow archers to test their mettle in a more natural environment.
Most target archery is governed by the World Archery Federation. There are several different formats (matches with cumulative scoring or ones with a head-to-head knockout system, individual or team matches, and so on) but they all look roughly the same with archers lined up on a level field.
Field archery competitions force archers to juggle more factors, heightening the challenge. As archers move through the course, they must deal with different terrain and varied lighting situations. If you participate in field archery, you’ll also have to judge the distance to your target, rather than knowing ahead of time as in target archery.
There are many variations on these two classes of archery competition, and they’re both challenging and exciting in different ways. Even if you don’t expect to win, it still might be good to try participating in a competition at some point to build your skill, watch other archers and make new contacts in the archery community.
So, What is Archery?
Ultimately, archery is a simple and ancient practice that offers unlimited challenge to the archer.
It’s a sport, a form of meditation, a way to hunt, a community practice, a lifelong passion…depending on who you ask, archery can be any number of things. If you’re looking for a way to push yourself, archery is a great way to do it. This deceptively simple sport opens the gateway to a long road of mastery.
No matter what style you shoot or why, there’s always more to learn.