From Sticks to Pulleys: The Evolution of Archery

On Sunday at 5:30PM in the Hyatt Kennesaw Room, author and archery enthusiast Teresa Patterson and archery coach Devon Boling presented a docent tour, “Tools of the Archer,” to a standing room only crowd. Patterson noted that people started out using rocks as weapons, progressing to throwing rocks and then to using spears and javelins, before the bow was invented. The bow is still an ancient weapon, though. Arrow tips have been dated as far back as 64,000 years. Bow fragments found in Germany seemed to be from 3,000 BC but were never carbon dated because the fragments were destroyed in World War II.

Most old bows consisted of wood and string, which are biodegradable, and so have decayed beyond recognition. Some of the oldest surviving bows were found on the Tudor warship Mary Rose, which sank immediately after launching. Preserved by centuries in salt water, the archery staves discovered when the ship was raised are a major source of knowledge about medieval bows.

Patterson described a bow as a spring with a string that takes the energy from the spring to the string and transfers it to a projectile to send it downrange. Fletching, originally made of feathers, helps stabilize the arrow’s flight.

Boling described the longbow as unique in that the string doesn’t touch the face of the bow (the side that faces the archer). He and Patterson agreed that while most people consider the longbow older than the recurve, they developed at approximately the same time.

Unstrung and with the riser or grip up, a recurve bow looks almost like a handlebar mustache, with the ends curving upward. Boling said that some people are tempted to string the bow from the upward end to the upward end, above the riser, but the string has to go below the riser, creating the recurve that generates the bow’s power.

Longbowmen were the medieval equivalent of snipers. The English longbows at Crecy had 150-pound draw weights, giving the arrows in flight the impact of a .50 caliber bullet, and their bodkin tips, four-sided with a keen point, could pierce plate armor.

The expression “flipping the bird” comes from medieval warfare. When a besieged castle fell, the first two fingers of the archers inside were amputated, Boling said, because they’re the fingers that drew the bow. Waving those two fingers on an intact hand, demonstrating that they’re still attached, is called flipping the bird.

All arrows had wooden shafts, and the different grain patterns in the different woods affected the arrows’ flight paths. A medieval archer might have 100 shafts in his quiver, each named for the type of wood and the deviation the grain caused in the flight path. “John” might dip left while “Mary” might veer right, and the archers adjusted their aim to compensate, much as modern snipers compensate for windage.

Patterson noted that the British appreciated the power of the longbow. Training for the weapon was mandatory and started in childhood.

The crossbow, however, did not require training. Patterson described it as “a firearm without explosives.” Crossbows generally had much higher draw weights than a longbow’s, making them very difficult to draw. Instead, they were cocked with a tool called a cranequin. Newer models have a windlass system that makes them easier to crank. Instead of arrows, they shoot quarrels, and the curved part is a prod rather than a bow. The crossbow is fired with a trigger rather than loosed like other bows.

Because the crossbow is so difficult to load, it’s a slower weapon than a longbow. It’s also less accurate. To deliver multiple shots downrange quickly and accurately, an archer would use a longbow. The benefit to the crossbow, in addition to its greater power, is that using it requires no training. As a result, knights hated it. Anyone could wield this weapon that could pierce their armor and kill them.

Boling, who is a Level 3 certified archery coach and a participant in the Junior Olympic Archery Development program (J.O.A.D.) demonstrated modern recurve bows, which have accessories to stabilize the arrow’s flight and keep the bow from rebounding on the archer when the arrow is released.

Compound bows, which are not currently allowed in Olympic competition but are permitted in world competitions, have a set maximum draw. Recurve bows, however, do not, so they can be fitted with clickers that let the archers know when their bows reach full draw, helping to keep the draw consistent.

Boling briefly discussed anchor points, the places on the body where an archer holds the string at full draw. Many archers draw to the cheek, next to the eye. This lets them look down the shaft, using the tip of the arrow, not the bullseye, as a point of reference. Others draw to the chin with the string touching the nose as well. Boling said he was taught not to wear a baseball cap, but current thinking is that the cap’s bill provides a third anchor point for a chin draw. The more anchor points, the more consistent the archer’s draw.

Patterson pointed out that compound bows are usually louder than recurves because the pulleys make noise. For stealth, a recurve is better. Boling added that a recurve has fewer chances for things to go wrong because it’s “a stick and a string” and requires less maintenance.

For pure accuracy, Boling said, a modern compound bow serves best. An arrow shot from a recurve bow will travel about 180 feet per second while one shot from a compound bow will go 300 feet per second, meaning there’s less time in flight, less wind effect, and a flatter flight.

An audience member asked whether technology is trumping skill with the addition of all the accessories on modern compound bows. Boling responded that the shooting skills remain the same. In some compound bow competitions, an archer who misses the bullseye once can go from first place to eleventh, while in a recurve competition, an archer can miss the target completely and still win.

As the program ended, audience members clustered around the speakers to continue the discussion.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.