Bows and Arrows

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Yumi Bow. The Samurai's ACTUAL primary battlefield weapon.

An arrow is a modified version of a spear. It is smaller, lighter, typically has a set of feathers on the back end known as fletching to improve it's ballistics and a notch in the end. Arrows are used as ballistic projectiles launched using a bow. A bow at it its most simple is a cord of elastic material (such as string, sinew or silk) held between a rigid but still elastic arch of material. The arrow is notched to the string, held against the bow and pulled back, putting the string under tension and storing energy. When released, the arrow is accelerated to a high speed. Bows were soon adopted on every continent save Australia for hunting and warfare for at least 12,000 years. A person trained in the use of a bow is called an archer, the skill of making use of a bow to shoot arrows at targets is known as archery.

In typical western fantasy, the Bow is the preferred weapon of Elves, which makes some sense given the facts about elves (long lives, good vision and dexterity and speed on foot), but is still a little problematic if you think about it. The biggest limitations on bow use are the physical strength and stamina of the user, who was subject to heavy fatigue, and elves have a Constitution penalty and aren't always known for lifting. Well, unless they are Tolkienian elves (especially Noldor) - than you may see some pointy-eared guy launching arrows the size of a javelin that pierce through dragons and giant flaming daemons, and doing this for HOURS without his hands falling off from exhaustion.

In modern-setting fiction, and the attendant games based around them, bows are phenomenally popular (compared to the rest of the traditional medieval arsenal). Tons of superheroes like Hawkeye and Green Arrow who have it as a gimmick, sure, but also relative normies like Katniss from Hunger Games, Kagome from InuYasha, the rebooted Lara Croft, John Rambo, even the Dukes of fuckin' Hazzard. Something about the mystique and elegance of the bow ("...a weapon from a more civilized age") lends itself to becoming a unique non-firearm option for shooty heroes who are trying to make it through the gun-control skub of the 21st century. (The fact that it's relatively silent weapon is also a big draw even in video games - "Silenced" guns are still loud enough that you can hear them from the next room.)

Archery in Warfare[edit]

The big advantage of a bow in pre-modern warfare was simple and obvious: range. When compared with javelins or thrown axes and spears, bows have a notable advantage in terms of range (Only the Aztec atlatl's could get close), rate of fire and the amount of ammunition which could be carried into battle. Certain bows such as Welsh Longbows had range of up to 300 meters. Though when bows were used at such distances they were more akin to artillery than a modern sniper rifle, being loosed in volleys at the area in which enemy forces were standing rather than individual archers trying to hit individual enemy soldiers. A fit, well-trained archer could loose up to twelve arrows a minute, a rate of fire which was better than that of most firearms until the 19th century and the rise of breech loading rifles. The biggest downside of bows and arrows is that they are basically useless in hand to hand combat. At best, they are an inefficient club and a short brittle spear. For this reason archers in battle would carry a backup weapon in case of close quarters fighting: usually a dagger, a short sword or a warhammer (which is also used to set anti-cavalry spikes).

As mentioned, the basics of archery were common across the world for both hunting and as a sport, and archery continues to be practiced in the present day. A basic bow and basic arrows are fairly easy to make and use and save for Australia basically everyone made use of archery. Military archery was much less common however. Arrows loosed from a simple hunting bow may kill a deer or a naked human being, but they can be stopped by a basic wooden or even wicker shield. Their range was also limited. To a formation of well armored and/or shield equipped soldiers, arrow fire from common hunting bows were little more than a annoyance, and they would only be used in warfare as a weapon of last resort. For bows to be worthwhile against such forces, they needed to go beyond a simple oak branch and hemp string. Large bows made of yew and ironwood were one option if said trees were available. The English were famous for using such bows. Another option would be to make bows by gluing together layers of horn, sinew and either wood or bamboo.

Both heavier longbows and composite bows had considerable power and could penetrate shields, mail and even plate armor at close range but were more difficult to make and were (in the case of composite bows) more sensitive to moisture. Either way, both of these types of bows took a lot of time to master. Training an archer usually began in childhood. Archeologists can identify the skeletons of such archers with just a glance because the constant strain on their bodies from using the bows forced their skeletons to compensate (enlarged left arm bones and bone spurs on the left arm, left wrist, and right fingers). Due to their value in battle and the time which needed to be invested in training them, said archers were considered elite soldiers and were seen as valuable. In 1571 at the Battle of Lepanto, the Ottoman Fleet was dealt a major defeat. Amongst the biggest losses they had suffered was the deaths of many skilled composite bow armed archers. While their forces of galleys was reconstructed and recrewed fairly swiftly, it took a decade to train replacement archers. It should be noted that at this time, both the Ottomans and the Christians were making heavy use of matchlock firearms, yet the superior rate of fire and accuracy of archers made they were still in high demand along with the arquebus-wielding soldiers.

Archers could fight either on foot or on horseback. Mounted archers equipped with composite bows could be quite devastating, raining arrows on forces armed with spears and swords from a safe distance while easily avoiding the slow moving masses of men. Many ancient armed forces are known for their use of mounted archery, and the resulting rage it inspired in their foes: See the Parthians (i.e. Persians) vs. the Romans, the Huns vs. Europe and the Mongols vs. Pretty Damn Well Everyone. Foot archers sacrificed this mobility for increased accuracy, increased numbers (cavalry archers also need to be trained in horsemanship and have a horse) and the ability to hide and dig in. Foot archers, if used properly and backed up with pikemen, were the best pre-gunpowder counter to cavalry archers. In fact, up until the invention of the breech loader Longbows were STILL better weapons then muskets because you could fire several volleys of arrows in the time needed to reload after firing a musket only once.

On foot, bowmen excelled in forests. At close range the bow had a chance to either go though early armor (and longbows had decent odds against all but the heaviest of plate), or pick of weak unarmed points. Further against other armored foes a bowmen would have higher speed and could be a lot more quiet then the walking tin cans of the other guy, additionally armor has a tendency to get caught on things further accenting the maneuverability advantage. While Robin Hood may never have existed, bow armed bandits most certainly did terrorize woods.

The decline[edit]

Bows have two major issues that make their use on the battle field problematic: training time and user fatigue. Compared to a crossbow or a firearm, bows require years and years of practice to become really, really good at, and to build up the endurance to perform the difficult feat of pulling back a high-tension wire, holding it to aim, and letting go over and over again. There is an old English proverb which goes; "To train a longbowman start with his grandfather." The best archers in human history were the English Yeoman, the Japanese Samurai, Ottoman Janissaries and Mongol Horse archers: entire social classes full of hard-training men. In fact, we can go into any English graveyard and figure out who the longbowmen were just by looking at the left arms on the skeletons. Conversely, crossbows and guns are easy to train with and don't necessarily wear you out as quickly. If you can field more men than your enemy, it gives you a pretty massive advantage. (For added hilarity, anything more than minimal training on early musketeers was a waste of time, because the first generation of guns would wander off-target no matter how carefully you aimed; instead of training better gunners, you were better served training even more gunners).

Once stronger crossbows, more reliable firearms, and better reloading mechanisms and manufacturing methods for both became commonplace, the longbow faded from martial prominence, like the sword before it.

The bow held out a while longer in England and Japan, the two great strongholds of archery, the english stopped using the bow around 16th century when gunpowder had finally got good enough that while it was still not the equal of the longbow, it's other advantages, namely easy of use and armor penetrating ability meant it was no longer worth cost training a relative handful of longbowmen as compared to vastly cheaper army of musketeers. The occasional general got it in his head to revive the longbow tradition as late as 1792 (or in one hilarious case, 1940), but it never gained any traction.

Types of bows and arrows[edit]

  • Hunting Bow: Any one of a billion variations on the theme of a simple bow made from local wood with a low draw weight. Easy to make and easy to master. Such bows would be (and still are) used for hunting, training and sport, but due to their low power they had little to no ability to pierce armor and were of little military use, but you know, throw enough paint at a wall some of it's gonna stick so levy's armed with bows were still used in the army despite there relatively little use, because that one time in a hundred there useful make that pittance you pay them worth it.
  • Composite / Self bow: Not a type of bow, as much as a way of building them. the self bow is what we think of when we say "bow" a single piece of curved wood with a string. Composite bows on the other hand are made of layers of different wood, horn and sinew glued together. The tougher materials allow composite bow to store as much energy as a self bow that has a bigger draw, but it's more complex to build and the glue can break apart in wet weather, which is why they were used mostly in the mid east and never caught on in Europe. Recurve bows are often built using composite techniques.
  • Longbow: The prime missile weapon of England, (the rest of Europe tended to use crossbows during the Middle Ages due to how damn hard it is to get large army of longbowmen). Longbow is actually an anachronistic term; in their time they were known only as bows or, outside of England, English bows. The first usage of "longbow" comes from the late 15th century and is used to differentiate them from crossbows, because they are held LONGwise rather than CROSSwise (not because they are long). It was unquestionably the best range weapon of the time period, and thus the most common type of bow seen in fantasy. This is not actually due to the design or functionality of the bow; the thick cross section and heavy limbs of a longbow make it quite inefficient as a bow design, with many other bow designs (such as the recurves used by asiatic horse archers) being more efficient designs. The main advantage of a longbow is how rapid they are to make, since they can be made from a single straight stave of wood; some bowyers give a figure of less than two hours from seasoned stave to bow. The longbow is defined as a bow that is big as the person using it, but the most powerful bows inthe medieval period were often longer than the user was tall, to reduce the chance of breakage. Another advantage of the Longbow is that, unlike the smaller and more efficient composite recurve bow, thet were made of one bit of wood, meaning they won't break apart every time it rains. English and Welsh long bows are traditionally made of yew and are composed of one solid piece of wood, meaning you can make a powerful bow fairly quickly. In fact, the way they were cut from the yew made them natural composite bows, using the different parts of the trunk to give extra springy strength. Good yew was so valued by the English that Edward IV put a tax on Italian traders stipulating that they had to supply a certain number of bowstaves for every tun of cargo (Italian yew being the best). Making a longbowman on the other hand takes a lot longer, and the English were the only ones to pull it off on a large scale. To do that they had to structure their entire society around making longbowmen, training from the age of 7. The French and Scots also produced respectable numbers of longbowmen. Longbowmen were mostly drawn from the yeomen, the land-owning commoners with a status between the peasants and knights (incidentally making them part of the first examples of the emerging middle class). Many were basically professional soldiers in an age of levies and warrior aristocracies, and were well equipped and very well paid. They were in huge demand as mercenaries, especially in the Prussian crusades and Italian civil wars. The English longbowmen were so notoriously dangerous that, supposedly, during the Hundred Years War, the French would sever the fingers necessary to a draw a longbow back, the index and middle, of any longbowman they captured. In response, Brits would taunt the French before battles by presenting said fingers, something which later evolved into the modern "Up Yours!" gesture. The long bow has the last recorded wartime bow kill in history, when British Lt. Col. Jack Churchill used one in World War II. He was also carrying a Scottish claymore and a set of bagpipes, so we can safely say his nickname of "Mad Jack" was well deserved.
  • Yumi: The generic name for all asymmetrical Japanese bows, further divided into the daikyū longbow and the shorter hankyū. The yumi is a type of long bow that can be over 2 meters in length end to end, with the grip being displaced from the center of the bow towards one end or the other. Exactly why the yumi is asymmetrical is debated, some think it is so the bow could be fired kneeling, others thing it helped when firing on horse back. Fortunately, any accuracy problems caused by that weird shape are mostly ironed out by the Japanese style of archery.
    • Kyūdō: The way of the bow, the Japanese style of archery. Like a lot of Japanese fighting styles it bundles spiritual learning into it's raw martial technique, which is why it's hung on a bit better then other archery styles. What makes Kyūdō different from western archery is that you draw the string farther back, behind the ear, and that you spin the bow as you fire it so that the string ends in front of your forearm eliminating the need for a bracer to stop the string raise welts on your arm. Additionally the other big difference is that Kyūdō techniques are incredibly exact with 8 or more steps each with an exact way of doing each.
  • Recurve Bow: A bow where the tips of the arms bend away from the archer, and the bow as a whole actually curves forward when unstrung. This gives the bow much higher tension and power at a shorter size, making it ideal for cavalry. It was one of the oldest types of bow more complex than "bendy wood with a string," and revolutionized warfare when it was first invented.
  • Compound Bow: The powerful modern version, utilizing both high-tension materials and the use of multi-stringed pulleys to thoroughly outpace anything the ancient world had. The near-complete obsolescence of the bow in modern warfare has ensured that most compound bows are used today by sportsmen and hunters. Note: In the past people called composite bows "Compound bows."
  • Cable backed bow: a cable backed bow uses ropes or cables running bow tip to bow tip to reinforce the structure of the bow. the big advantage of a Cable bow is that the cable reinforcment lets you make a bow out of very weak wood, they where common among the Inuit who could use drift wood to make fairly powerful bows.
    • Penobscot or Wabenaki bow,: Invented by the Penobscot nation, (which was a part of the Wabenaki confedeation hence the name skub), the Penobscot bow is type of cable backed bow. The difference is a Penobscot bow uses a second smaller bow with the arms pointing forward to help to get further tension out of otherwise weak wood.

While bows are largely the same from one type to another, the type of arrows they fired could be very different, with each built for a different task.

  • Barbed Arrow: arrows with at least a pair of barbs pointing out the backside so that they would get stuck in whatever they impacted, meaning wounds were both nastier and more difficult to treat. Also pretty damn useful for fishing since they won't float away since they're stuck.
  • Bodkin point: a European four sided pointed arrow head, the Bodkin looks like a tiny tall pyramid with steep sides. The Bodkin point was, thanks to it narrow tip, better able to penetrate, or at least heavily dent, armor then other arrow heads, and was good at deal with most kinds of armor at close range. The french learned this to their dismay in the Battle of Agincourt where the french knights charged across a muddy field, were slowed and made easy picking for the mass of English longbowmen. Even if the arrows couldn't penetrate some of their armor, the slow down and denting of their gear made them easy targets for the English longbowmen who, coupled with their innate strength from heavy bow use, smash their way to victory with the mallets they wield.
  • Broadhead: what we think of when we say "arrowhead", a broad base coming to a narrow point. The broadhead was built to take on animals by wounding them, then causing them to bleed out through the large gash and internal bleeding it created. When humans started killing each other it was just as effective against unarmed humans, but once we started wearing armor the broadhead had things more difficult. Still in use today for most hunters, and soft armor (ranging from leather to kevlar) are still vulnerable to penetration.
    • Mechanical Broadhead: A modernized version of the broadhead, these arrows feature heads that are normally small and blunt like field point arrows, but deploy retractable blades when they hit something. This allows them to deploy arbitrarily wide "heads" without affecting the arrow's accuracy and are more effective at wounding big game, but they tend to be more difficult to maintain than their fixed-blade cousins, require more draw strength since kinetic energy is lost when triggering the blades, and it's possible for the blades to deploy too early. Which type of broadhead is better is still a subject of intense debate among bow hunters.
  • Target Point Arrow:This type of arrow has a bullet-shaped heads with a sharp point, meant for penetrating archery targets without causing permanent damage by doing so.
    • Field Point Arrow: A relative of the target point arrow with a distinct "shoulder" on the point, which keeps the arrow from sticking into objects like tree stumps if a shot is fired outdoors and misses. It is commonly used for shooting practice and small game hunting, since they can be made with similar weight and flight properties to broadheads without causing damage to the target upon removal.
  • Fowling Arrow: Also called a blunt or bludgeon arrow, these arrows have a flat, bulb-like tip. They were designed to have limited range and penetrative power, instead focusing on downing birds in flight or killing small game via blunt force trauma. The impact of the arrows was enough to break the bird's bones. The limited penetration kept the meat edible and largely unexploded compared to broadheads.
  • Judo Arrows: A recent design, these arrows are designed for field practice and small game hunting in outdoors areas. Small spring wire "arms" attached to the arrowhead allow it to catch on grass and debris if it misses its target, preventing it from being lost in vegetation.
  • Elf-Arrows: Yes, that's what they're called. These are flint arrow heads used by the indigenous peoples of Europe, and particularly England, before they got a hand on the whole civilization thing. When the medieval people found these things in the ground they assumed they were arrows made and used by fairy and elves to kill cattle and humans.
  • Flaming arrows: These were NOT just setting the shaft of your arrow on fire, a Flaming arrow replaces the arrow head with something to carry the fire to the target. In a hurry (or on the cheap) you could just wrap rags soaked in something flammable around the tip of your arrow, but if you were ready you would use specially made arrows heads which were built like a cage so you could shoot a burning coal. It should be added that, given the small amount of flame these things put out, they were primarily used to light flammable things on fire (sails, thatch roofs, dry grass, and so on). Against anything living, they put out so little flame that they would be useless as anything other than a very marginal terror weapon ("look how many arrows we can put out; surrender before we have the light to shoot accurately").
  • Fire Arrow: Not to be confused with a flaming arrow, a Fire arrow is just like a normal arrow, only with a rocket attached. Fire arrows were used by all of the major "eastern" nations, China, Mongolia, Korea and Japan. China invented them and their use spread to the others. The Korean version was called the Singijeon and could be loaded for long range or for shorter ranges but with an explosive warhead. After the mongols used them in their attempt to conquer japan, the Japanese picked up a version for themselves called the Bo-hiya which was fired from out of an Arquebus rather then the lunching platforms (most famous being the Korean Hwacha) that the Chinese and Koreans favored.
  • Ya: Japanese arrows, unlike European ones these could be over a meter long.
    • Kaburi-Ya (Whistling Arrow): Used both to signal to commanders and to scare the crap out of enemy soldiers, the "whistling arrow" works as you think it would, either the tip of the arrow was replaced or they added something along the length of the arrow to cause the whistling.
    • Karimata: A wacky looking arrow head, the "ropecutter" is a Y shaped arrowhead, with the two upper arms of the arrow pointing out toward the target. The Karimata was used to hunt big game by causing bleeding, but logically it would also create horrible wounds on a human.
  • Explosive Arrow: Relatively modern, but nevertheless still entertaining. Take a bomb and tie it to front of arrow in place of arrowhead. Generally very forward heavy and not very aerodynamic so it might not fly the way one might want it to, but given the whole "exploding" thing it doesn't need to be that accurate as long as it hits the general vicinity of where you want it to hit.
  • Safety Arrow: Arrows with wide, padded heads that make them (relatively) safe to use for re-enactment combats, although their users still advise the use of armor to avoid any accidents.

See Also[edit]

Medieval Weaponry
Melee
Weapons:
Battleaxe - Dagger - Lance - Mace - Club
Pole-arm - Spear - Sword - Warhammer
Ranged
Weapons:
Blowgun - Bows and Arrows - Cannon
Crossbow - Firearm - Rocket - Shuriken - Sling