Archery History

Last Modified: 17 December 1993
Written by: Michael Van Biesbrouck

A friend of mine occasionally gives informal lectures on the history of archery. These are his notes. He is more than happy to have them modified and added to. If there is any interest in turning them into a FAQ, he has no objections. He seems to have put several random notes before the organized sections begin.

Since these lectures are usually done for the SCA, modern information on archery is lacking. There is a bibliography at the end.

This document consists of notes made in preparation for a number of lectures on the history of archery. The notes are not by any means complete; they increase in size with every lecture given. Some sections also exist only as memory triggers with incomplete information.

1776 in a letter to General Lee, Benjamin Franklin regretted that bows weren't used

Prince Louis Napoleon - "A first rate English archer, who, in a single minute was unable to draw and discharge his bow 12 times, with a range of 240 yards, and who in these twelve shots once missed his man, was very lightly esteemed."

point blank, high strung, straight as an arrow, bolt upright, bolt from the blue, wide of the mark
- can be kept strung longer
- examples exist from 3rd century B.C. in China
- 1450's Genoese modified bow to steel limbs (1200 lb pull) with range of 450 yds (wooden had effective range of 200 yards)
- very slow and heavy (18 lbs)
strings were unreliable
two english kings Rufus and Richard killed by bolts Edmund II (ironside) killed by springbow in privy - "entered his fundament and pierced his lung"
- no fletch - fire hardened tip
fire arrows
- cloth tips often soaked in oil or fat
- blunt ends with holes running perpendicular to shaft causes whistling in flight
arrow heads (see illustrations in Grey Goose Wing)
some were designed to fall off shaft to aid in recovery of shaft wood
flint, obsidian
- similar in flight and penetration to modern
- small game
moon shaped for cutting ropes and limbs
scissor shape
- ditto
- to spread the links of chain mail - occasionally coated with wax to help penetrate plate
- to increase size of wound
different sizes according to distance to be shot
while almost any wood could be used for shafts, some are superior to others. you want something which is not totally inflexible, but you also want something which won't explode when you try to shoot it. most common - bamboo/reed, ash, poplar, birch, cedar
while a number of different materials have been used for fletch, feathers are by far the most common and popular, even today. the purpose of fletch is to stabilize the arrow in flight you don't want something heavy that will weigh the arrow down and you want something with a low profile, so as not to cause wind resistance.


the standard design of the arrow had a slot cut in the shaft (perpendicular to the grain to prevent splitting) the head was then inserted and lashed down usually with sinew other designs had notches cut in the arrowhead to help tie it on better since flint cracks into flat pieces, the original pieces were relatively flat, generally oval and coming to a point with the first metal arrowheads this pattern was continued with the creation of the familiar triangular arrowhead still attached in the same way other ways of attaching it were created - pins through the shaft (creates a fracture point), with and with out side pieces on the tip of the shaft and later a hollow cylinder which fit over the shaft and was glued there.
Palaeolithic (35,000 - 8,000 B.C.)
may have developed simultaneously in a number of different locations originally a hunting weapon with a very weak pull fire hardened points and flint arrowheads were used developed alongside the atl-atl, spear thrower
9,000 B.C.
- shafts found in Germany
6,000 B.C.
- first bow discovered - one piece yew or elm
8,000 - 3,200 B.C.
- bows found in Denmark are now tillered, even bend on top and bottom limbs of bow
Akkadians 2500 B.C.
conquered Sumeria with infantry archers
1500-1027 B.C.
First mention of crossbows in China (Shan dynasty) although they didn't come into common use until the Han dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.) where they were used in the guarding of the Great Wall 190 - 380 lbs
Assyrians 1200-700 B.C.
protected their archers - archers shot from chariots with the charioteer holding a shield to protect the archer three types of archers - light, medium and heavy ranging from no to mail armour with the last class also having swords. had some mounted archers but never really adapted the bow for it
Persia 550 B.C.
archer infantry - reflexed and probably a composite with long ears were slow in support of archers & therefore had a higher rate of casualties in that area Marathon - Greek spearman just kept coming against the archers with wings folding in so that the archers were surrounded - six thousand persian dead compared to several hundred Greek - must have been bad archers - greeks came in from half a mile other instances where the persian archers charged the greek spearman who counter-charged when the persians got too close
Macedonia - 360 B.C.
Philip and Alexander - archers used as support for heavy cavalry - light cavalry bowmen and infantry bowmen formed 25-50% of army use of mobility and counter missiles to counteract the effect of the bow
Carthage 260 B.C.
Hannibal - mounted archers - heavy and light used archers to decimate his opponents before sending in his infantry

Cannae - Romans - 79,000 light and heavy infantry
- Carthaginians - approx 50,000
3000 Romans escaped with 6000 Carthaginians killed (p91 A.A.S) was in Italy for 14 years killed 250,000 Romans total size 150,000 including infantry replacements which never reached him when they were caught by Romans without any support

Parthians - 53 B.C.
all cavalry - composite bow - carried 60-80 arrows each with a camel train for more Romans invaded in 53 - 23,000 killed, 10,000 captured by mobile tactics - never closing with the phalanx - parthian general was killed on his return by a jealous king Parthians tried invading Rome, but while they had some success, they weren't as good against fortifications and tried rushing positions were they were slaughtered 37 B.C. - due to success, Rome invaded again - parthians returned to hit and run tactics killing 35,000 Romans Rome eventually paid off Parthia as they controlled the silk road to China
Huns 432 A.D.
originally horse archers - Rome paid them off Attila - hostage in Rome when Huns were allies when he gained control he started to switch to Roman tactics - heavily armed troops with horse archers as auxiliary unit Huns were smaller and at a disadvantage in hand-to-hand combat and they didn't have temperament for siege or city battles greatest defeat came when he didn't allow archers mobility which made them useful and the Romans closed in after Attila died the huns reverted
Rome never learned anything from these battles - they maintained the same army composition and tactics. While they did have some archers and cavalry in later years (bows added during reign of Leo I around the time of Attila), these were almost always mercenaries (Huns) survived by ability to field huge armies and lots of replacements 5 000 000 citizens of military age (85 000 000 population 1 A.D.)
500-900 A.D.- mounted archers followed by cavalry charge took out Saracen bowmen, Vandals, Goths & Franks - used Huns for missile support
900-1400 A.D. - switched to foot-archers (huns undependable?) eventually defeated by Turkish light horse archers
archers were paid more than regular infantry - especially if from certain areas known for their archery skills however they had no ransom value - killed and/or tortured not allowed to rise in social status
no one knows for certain when archery came to England and who brought it. certainly the bow was introduced to britain at several points through it's use by invading armies, however, it did not gain any prominence until after the normans took control in 1066. Before this point, the bow appears to have been regarded as a hunting weapon and archers played little if any role in battle.
change to longbow seems gradual, three finger release originally pulled to chest, later to ear protection - chain mail - worked against broadheads but bodkin points were developed to spread the links shafts often splintered against the chainmail - more damage
1066 - Battle of Hastings
- Harold Godwinson (king of England) was actually waiting for the invasion of William of Normandy who was held up by winds blowing the wrong direction. harald hardrada and Harold's brother Tostig picked this time to invade themselves. they were defeated at Stamford bridge, but a change in the winds allowed William to invade the south of England. While there were archers present at the battle, as seen on the Bayeux Tapestry, they formed a relatively small part of the Norman army (and smaller part of the English) and were used to soften up the English for cavalry attacks. However it is believed that Harold was killed by an arrow through the eye which resulted in a Norman victory (or by a Norman horseman advancing under the protection of an arrow volley). from the illustrations of the period the bows used were shortbows and not yet the traditional longbow (may be misleading as the Bayeux tapestry was designed in Canterbury where the shortbows were more common - Normans may have use
Henry I 1100-35
archer was absolved of murder if he killed a man during archery practice
Crusades 1099, 1147-1149, 1189-1192
the mohammadean army was composed mainly of desert horsemen armed with composite bow (100 lbs +) and scimitar. The crusaders consisted mainly of knights and some crossbowmen. The speed of the composite bow 3 or 4 times that of the crossbow was partially offset by their lighter arrows, especially once the crusaders began using layers of thick felt to reduce the impact of the arrows. However in hand-to-hand combat, the light scimitar proved to be inferior to the knight's sword. end result was that the crusades ended in a stalemate with Christians gaining a coastal strip but never regaining Jerusalem. (in moslem hands until 1917)
Richard was later killed by a crossbow bolt {which was deemed appropriate due to the part he played in introducing the weapon to France (as a major weapon of war?)} Reportedly, the bolt was pulled from the wall by a defender who had run out of ammunition. Richard actually died of gangrene brought on by his wound and the necessity of cutting out the arrow head. He apparently pardone
1208 Temujin became Genghis Khan - kakahn of the Mongols organized mongols into tuman of 10,000 men - basic unit had high wooden saddle and stirrups which allowed them to shoot in any direction - composite bow (70-160 lbs) and thumb ring could kill at 300 yds with max range >600 yds thumb ring allowed a sharper release, increasing range and velocity although requiring greater experience and practice on campaign carried 2 - 4 bows, 60-400 arrows of various types (long and short distance, limb cutters etc) depending on length of campaign (and what book you're reading) army replacements were often just told to find the army and report for duty, even with the army over 2000 miles away

ate dried meat and dried milk occasionally opening a vein in horses neck and drinking blood

often travelled over 60 miles a day (more for messengers who were wrapped up for long trips)

5 ranks - 1st two - leather armour with sabre, lance and bow other three, sabre and bow the back rows passed through the front ranks, shot and retreated until their opponents were demoralized and disorganized at which point the "armoured" mongols charged unarmoured mongols wore silk shirts. realizing that no armour was any real defense against arrows, they minimized injuries. the loose silk wrapped around the arrow head without usually being cut, the arrow could then be pulled out by tugging gently on the surrounding silk. this allowed removal without additional cuts being needed and without the danger of barbed arrowheads it also reduced the risk of infection.

note on mongol tactics - would often wipe out entire cities especially if they had rebelled to use as examples for others - artisans would be sent back to the empire core since they were horse archers, they employed engineers in particular from china to aid in taking fortified cities and castles especially in later times they switched to

Ghenghis had two outstanding generals - Jebei Noyan (Prince Arrow) and Subotai "the Valiant"

1219 Shah Mohammed raised 400,000 men to oppose Genghis (200,000 in main battle rest in garrisons????) G led 100,000 in from the north and sent J with 30000 over one of the world's highest mountain ranges in from the east (3 mile high pass) once across their foragers ran into 100,000 turks after a long battle during which the shah was almost captured the mongols disappeared during the night to meet up with the khan 1200 miles away receiving en route 5000 replacements

180,000 were killed in the main battle, but the shah escaped allowing no one to oppose him and live, ghengis sent Subotai and Jebe with 3 tuman to chase him down five months later they succeeded, effectively wiping out his empire. Subotai then decided and got permission to make a raid around the Caspian sea before returning

1222 returned home after killing the Georgian knights about to go on Crusade, and a russian army of 70-80,000

1227 Genghis died on campaign against China after two years of mourning ogedei was elected great khan following the wishes of his father Ghengis had left a comprehensive strategic plan for the destruction of the chin empire which ogedei followed with subedei as his general

1233 the chin capital fell 1234 the Chin emperor committed ritual suicide after being chased from town to town

1236 korea was reoccupied after a rebellion (was part of Chin) 1236 with ogadei kakahn, Subatai returned to Russia with 150,000 men and consolidated the gains made in Eastern Russia

1237 crossed Volga

1238 Eliminated all of the Northern Russian principalities

Dec 6, 1240 captured Kiev the largest city in Russia using bowmen on the rooftops and lancers in the streets reducing it to ashes then dividing his army into 3 parts he invaded Hungary and Poland

April 1241 > 100,000 in Hungarian army - 80,000 died in one battle and another 100,000 in consequent battles for Pest liegnitz - 20,000 killed including the Teutonic knights

Dec 1241 Crossed Danube but consolidated gains before invading Austria

During invasion, the european countries were incapable of resolving their differences to fight a common enemy (Austria seized parts of Hungary and the pope was rumoured to be trying to get the mongols to attack his main enemies)

Feb 1242 messenger arrives with news Ogadei died on Dec. 11 with ogadei dead, the political infighting surfaced. Batu, now leader of the mongol forces in Europe realized that there would not be complete support for his offensive, pulled back and consolidated his gains

kuyuk became leader of the mongols for two years and then was replaced by mongke. Mongke pushed his attack westwards towards Egypt. in this he had the support or at least approval of many of the christian kingdoms in the hope that he would be able to break the islamic power

1259 Mongke died saving Muslim Asia from the Mongols (p114 Mongol conquests) political infighting caused the mongol general Hulegu to pull most of his out to Azerbaijan, weakening his forces in Syria. The muslim army with permission granted by the crusaders to pass through their territory (against desires of Eastern Christians) defeated the remaining mongols Kubilai kahn eventually won the battle for leadership but his authority and interest was in China (conquered in 1279) after which he made a failed attempt to conquer Japan (1st fleet was repelled by the japanese while the second was wrecked by a summer typhoon)

one estimation is that 19 million people were killed by the mongols in their campaigns

1252 Assize of Arms
previous assize of 1181 didn't mention bows Bow was listed as a warlike arm and all males btw 15 and 60 were ordered to be equipped with a bow those owning between 40 and 100 shillings in land were required to equip themselves with sword, dagger, bow and arrows less then 40 shillings in land - bow and arrows also illustrates changing attitude towards longbow - 1242 battle of Taillebourg (English lost to French) corps of 700 crossbowmen were considered to be the flower of the infantry
13th century
- arquebus first appeared
1298 Battle of Falkirk
English vs Scots under Wallace Scots intended to fight a defensive battle positioning themselves on a hill with a morass in front of them. Their army was mostly pike in four groups with a thousand horse in the rear and several thousand archers on the flanks and between the pike the English knights went around the swamp on both sides, scattering the archers until stopped by the pike, with the Scottish horse retreating without a fight the English then pulled back and had their own archers fire into the massed men, completing the battle with a second charge by the cavalry.
1307 William Tell
a hat was placed on a pole as a sign of imperial power and anyone who passed was to obeisance towards it. Tell ignored this order and was ordered to shoot an apple off his son's head as punishment (he was known as an archer). he succeeded but had a second bolt in his belt to kill the man who ordered it if he failed and killed his son (there are other similar tales-330GGW)
1332 Dupplin Muir
- English against the Scots using tactics which the English later used religiously
***needs more research***
Scottish - 22000 men mostly heavy cavalry English - 2000 archers, 500 knights The english knights dismounted (except for a reserve of 50) and were in the centre with the archers angled on the flanks the Scottish ignored the archers and charged against the knights
1337 beginning of the 100 years war
147 English ships vs 190 French (35000 men) French chained all but 24 of their ships together 2 thirds of british ships had bowmen with half moon arrowheads to cut rigging - after archers had cleared the decks, the ships with infantry would move in to board
1346 Crecy
English were raiding in France - (estimated size 12000 men - 7000 of them archers)(size by time of battle 8100?) in 3 divisions under king, prince of Wales and (a duke?) English were on a hill, with the archers in wedges? rained the day before, some accounts state that the English kept their strings dry by putting them under their helmets French force approx 12000 with mercenary Genoese crossbowmen (6000 ?)

due to the rain the French order of battle became somewhat confused the crossbowmen were in front - they advanced to within range and began to fire - due to the rain many of the strings snapped or misfired - in addition, since the crossbow is slow to load, they only got one round off before being cut down by the english archers the crossbowmen turned and fled, some dropping their bows or cutting their strings. The french seeing this decided to run down their own mercenaries (showing what they thought of archers) the rear lines not knowing what was going on also charged with the result that all of the french army became a mob within range of the english archers and the archers broke the charges English dead - negligible French dead - 1200 - 4000 knights and "no one troubled to count the rest"

In a letter written by the English King shortly after the battle, no mention was made of the archers.

1356 Poitiers
English were again raiding in France - lots of booty, little food estimated size under Edward the Black Prince - 7000 armoured horse, 3000 longbowmen and 100 light troops (spear?) French under King John - 20-60,000 (latter unlikely)

The English took protection behind a hedge and ditch, which had a hole in one spot, after the french army came upon them from behind (English may have been retreating) The majority of the French force dismounted Those who didn't charged against the hedge and were shot down by the archers The German allies of the French (also mounted) then led a second charge for the gap which again was broken up by the archers and the men at arms supporting them However before the archers could retrieve any arrows (some succeeded by grabbing arrows out of bodies) the French who were on foot reached the hedge They were in hand-to-hand combat with the English when the English reserve cavalry charged against the French rear (included archers, but may have been crossbowmen - Gascon)

French dead - 2500 - some (doubtful) reports indicate that the prisoners outnumbered the English - these prisoners did include the King of France (and his son?) who was/were held in the Tower of London (king was ransomed for 3 000 000 gold crowns)

1356 after Poitiers,
French organized their own longbow corps which became so expert that they were disbanded by the military

1363 all men were ordered to practice archery on Sundays and holidays no man under 24 was allowed to shoot at a known distance and no man over 24 was to shoot at any mark less than 11 score yds this was reaffirmed in 1512 and was still in force in 1633

1377 Piers Plowman refers to Rymes of Robyn Hode

1415 Agincourt
English under Henry V had been in France for about 1 month - capturing Harfleur in order to control the Seine Valley and were then retreating towards Calais

The army was hungry, tired and many had dysentery (some of the archers went into battle naked from the waist down due to this) The French were both ahead and behind them, so they decided to give battle. English - about 6000 men - mainly archers (8600 originally - only 38 of whom were crossbowmen) archers told that if captured the fingers on their draw hand would be chopped off French forces - 60,000 (reported to be outnumbered 10 to 1) - one chronicler states that 4000 crossbowmen were actually sent away before the battle due to the cramped nature of the field (may also have had cannon although they certainly weren't effective)

the two armies faced each other (a mile apart) for hours as the French decided to wait out the English The archers were on the sides in the front lines as well as one contingent which was in the woods on the French flank Henry sounded the attack with the archers advancing slightly and planting stakes in front of them and began shooting This prompted the French to attack with cavalry charges to the wings. this charge was broken and the first wave began to retreat right into the second wave causing mass confusion the main French body eventually did continue it's attack on the English centre (knights) but while the English line was pushed back, it didn't break which was important as there were no reserves, and eventually began a counter assault with no arrows left, the archers attacked with whatever was available - swords if they were lucky, axes and even mallets which had been used to drive in the stakes

Somewhere in here two local lords with about 600 peasants led an attack on the English baggage train between this and the threat of another cavalry charge, Henry appears to have ordered the death of the French prisoners (by a squire and 200 archers as the knights wouldn't do it???) however a large number of prisoners were also brought back to England so the extent of this is hard to say

French dead 6 000 - 10 000 (Shakespeare - 10,000 dead 1500 noblemen captured includes a master of the cross-bow in the list of the dead) English <100 (Shakespeare - 4 noblemen and 25 more)

- Joan of Arc discovered weakness of English longbow to relentless and surprise attacks
1452 Castillon
- last battle of 100 years war (116) English archers in a desperate position charged a strong French artillery position and were slaughtered by cannon and lances 1472 archery was declining due to lack of bowstaves - all ships importing from places which supplied staves were ordered to import 4 staves per tun weight
crossbows were forbidden in England in an attempt to increase the use of the longbow (repealed 1536)
General Cortes employed band of Spanish crossbowmen in capture of Mexico
all bows ordered exchanged for muskets
1644 Tipper Muir
- last War with English Archers
1798 sultan Selim,
witnessed by the British Ambassador Sir Ainslie, shot an arrow 972 yards not surpassed until the 20th century when an american Harry Drake shot 1100 yards
- Chinese used crossbow against the British
- Chinese used crossbow against the Japanese
American Indians
horse arrived with spanish so horse archers didn't have as long to develop

used pinch draw - the weakest of the techniques
Ishi - last member of the Yahi indian tribe - very poor marksman - but good tracker, the marksmanship was not really required to put food on the table

- heads were deformed (slant forehead backwards) to try and thicken frontal bones of skull against head shots and allow better shots for overhead targets
South American Indian
read arrows and hardwood tips
bow weights varied - 28-70 lbs
sufficient to cause trouble for spaniards so they performed a test with a prisoner who from a 100 yds shot completely through a steel breastplate. when a second was added, the arrow stopped half way out the back of the second
Northern plains
ash and sinew bows
some groups used bone and even eliminated wood entirely
horn and sinew bows
Robin Hood
You can't really write about the history of archery without including Robin Hood. With everything written on this topic, there is very little agreement. I have read stories which place him from the battle of Hastings to after the reign of Richard the Lion Hearted.

Most of our information comes from early ballads. The earliest surviving ballad is from 1450 - Robin Hood and the Monk.
However, the best known is A Lyttell Geste of Robyn Hode of which there are a number of surviving copies from 1500-1550 but which was probably originally written around 1400.
A Lyttell Geste consists of four tales: Robin and the Knight - the tale of Sir Richard atte Lee; Robin, Little John and the Sheriff - the archery competition with the sheriff being killed; Robin and the King - king goes disguised into the forest, Robin Hood's Death - his betrayal at Kirklee's where he is bled to death.
Maid Marion is not part of the original tales and likely comes from French pastourelles where she was associated with a shepherd Robin.
Little John, Friar Tuck and the Sheriff are also characters likely borrowed from other tales. The outlaw theme was common, in two 13th century ballads: Fulk FitzWarin has King John as the villain and Marian de la Bruere as a maiden in distress (this may be the other tale mentioned in Piers Plowman - Medieval Archer p62) and Eustace the Monk.
The earliest mention of a king's name is Edward which was changed to Henry in later tales - this was possibly to keep the tales current, which may also have happened with Edward.

1227 pipe rolls list a Robert Hood as fugitivus 1338 - Isle of Wight - on the rolls of over 500 names, only one is given which is a shortform rather than a Christian name, listed with 42 other archers joining at that time - Robyn Hod

This is not likely to be the real Robin, but it indicates that the scribe and/or the archer was familiar enough with the name to have it listed on official rolls. This shows that the tales were well known by this time and the name Robin Hood was associated with archers

With all of the raiding which English armies made on the continent, it is not surprising that many of the peasants would not wish to return to their former lives - it also was not uncommon for some of the men not to be paid, inevitably leading to the formation of outlaws and tales of these men fighting injustice. If there was a real Robin Hood, he certainly did not perform all of the feats recorded.

If anyone knows where I can find copies of the old ballads I would appreciate it (especially if a musical score is also available).


Arrows Against Steel:  The History of the Bow,  Vic Hurley;
Mason/charter 1975
comparison of different bows and tactics - military aspects
U 877H87
The Medieval Archer; Jim Bradbury
Boydell Press 1985
U877 B73
good description of 100 years war battles
History of the Mongol Conquests; J.J. Saunders
Routledge and Kegan 1971
DS 19 s27
Mongol history - not bad but didn't do any comparisons
Bowmanship; F.L. Bishop
p21 picture of one type of thumb ring (leather sleave to keep the
ring tight
The Grey Goose Wing; E.G. Heath
Osprey Publications, 1971
GV 1185.H42 (oversize) - in different section in middle of 7th
Heath also wrote a number of other excellent books:  Target
Archery and The History of Archery
Military Service and the Development of the Robin Hood Legend in
the Fourteenth Century; Nottingham Medieval Studies 36 (1992)

This is a section of the FAQ for alt.archery. It is maintained by me at the following e-mail address: Comments, flames, etc. on the FAQ are welcome and should be directed to me. Comments on the specifics of the section can be addressed to either me or the person responsible for this section. If addressed to me, I will forward them to the author of the section. If you wish to see this section cross-posted to another group, please e-mail me a request to do so. If I can access that group, then I will so cross-post whenever I post this section.

Terry Trier

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