Archery History

Archery History

Archery is the art, practice, or skill of propelling an arrow with the use of a bow toward a target, from Latin arcus. Historically, archery has been used for hunting and combat, while in modern times, its main use is that of a recreational and competition activity.

A person who participates in archery is typically known as an “archer” or “bowman”, and one who is fond of or an expert at archery can be referred to as a “toxophilite”

Research has found the bow was invented in the later Paleolithic or early Mesolithic periods. The oldest indication for its use in Europe comes from the Stellmoor (de) in the Ahrensburg valley (de) north of Hamburg, Germany and dates from the late Paleolithic, about 10,000–9000 BCE. The arrows were made of pine and consisted of a mainshaft and a 15–20 centimetre (6–8 inches) long fore shaft with a flint point. There are no definite earlier bows; previous pointed shafts are known, but may have been launched by spear-throwers rather than bows. The oldest bows known so far come from the Holmegård swamp in Denmark. Bows eventually replaced the spear-thrower as the predominant means for launching shafted projectiles, on every continent except Australia. The oldest “BOW” we know of is from ancient Egypt 2800 B.C.

Classical civilizations, notably the Assyrians, Persians, Parthians, Indians, Koreans, Chinese, Japanese and Turks fielded large numbers of archers in their armies. The English longbow proved its worth for the first time in Continental warfare at the Battle of Crécy. In the Americas archery was widespread at European contact.

Archery was highly developed in Asia. The Sanskrit term for archery, dhanurveda, came to refer to martial arts in general. In East Asia, Goguryeo, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea was well known for its regiments of exceptionally skilled archers.

Use by Eurasian and other nomads

Empires throughout the Eurasian landmass often strongly associated their respective “barbarian” counterparts with the usage of the bow and arrow, to the point where powerful states like the Han Dynasty referred to their counterparts, the Xiong-nu, as “Those Who Draw the Bow”. This association proved fitting, for numerous such nomadic groups demonstrated uncanny skill and innovation with regard to bow-wielding. In the aforementioned case of the Xiong-nu, for example, their lethal effectiveness as bowmen made them more than a match for the Han military, and was at least partially responsible for Chinese expansion into the Ordos region, to create a buffer zone against them. There even exists some evidence suggesting that “barbarian” peoples were responsible for introducing archery or certain types of bows to their “civilized” counterparts—the Xiong-nu and the Han being one possible example of this type of exchange. Another example, short bow technology seems to have been introduced to Japan by northeast Asian nomadic groups. Archaeological findings in Northern Japan have uncovered the type of short, composite bows most commonly associated with the northeast Asian region, contrasting heavily with the traditional Japanese longbows, routinely longer than six and a half feet.

Innovations in archery made by other such groups generated another iconic image associated with the face of the barbarian: that of the mounted archer. The invention of composite, recurve short bows allowed for a level of maneuverability previously unseen, giving these “barbarian” groups the ability to shoot from horseback with devastating results. “For the first time arrows could be fired behind the rider with penetrating power. This maneuver, later known as the “Parthian shot”, was immortalized as the iconic image of the steppe archer…An army of mounted archers could now fill the sky with arrows that struck with killing power.” Central Asian tribesmen (after the domestication of the horse) and American Plains Indians (after gaining access to horses) thus became extremely adept at archery on horseback. Lightly armoured, but highly mobile archers were excellently suited to warfare in the Central Asian steppes, and they repeatedly conquered large areas of Eurasia. Perhaps most famously, Mongol horsemen were renowned for fielding mounted archers in their armies. Both mounted soldiers and infantry were issued bows in the Mongol army, and one of the most effective Mongol Strategies involved showering the enemy with massive torrents of arrows unleashed by all of these bow-wielding warriors, and using the ensuing chaos to lure enemy troops into lines of heavy cavalry. As a result, the Mongols were able to conquer vast expanses previously unheard of thanks to their proficiency with archery and mounted warfare.

Decline and survival of archery

The development of firearms rendered bows obsolete in warfare. Despite the high social status, ongoing utility, and widespread pleasure of archery in Armenia, China, Egypt, England, America, India, Japan, Korea, Turkey and elsewhere almost every culture that gained access to even early firearms used them widely, to the neglect of archery. Early firearms were vastly inferior in rate-of-fire, and were very susceptible to wet weather. However, they had longer effective range and were tactically superior in the common situation of soldiers shooting at each other from behind obstructions. They also required significantly less training to use properly, in particular penetrating steel armour without any need to develop special musculature. Armies equipped with guns could thus provide superior firepower, and highly-trained archers became obsolete on the battlefield.

At the end of the eighteenth-century archery became popular among the English gentry thanks to a fashion for the gothic, curious and medieval. Encouraged by Royal patronage and, later, the popularity of the work of Sir Walter Scott, archery societies were set up across the country, each with its own strict entry criteria, outlandish costumes and extravagant balls. The clubs were “the drawing rooms of the great country houses placed outside” and thus came to play an important role in the social networks of local elites. As well as its emphasis on display and status, the sport was notable for its popularity with females. Young women could not only compete in the contests but retain and show off their “feminine forms” while doing so. Thus, archery came to act as a forum for introductions, flirtation and romance.

From the 1920s, professional engineers took an interest in archery, previously the exclusive field of traditional craft experts. They led the commercial development of new forms of bow including the modern recurve and compound bow. These modern forms are now dominant in modern Western archery; traditional bows are in a minority. In the 1980s, the skills of traditional archery were revived by American enthusiasts, and combined with the new scientific understanding.

Types of bows

While there is great variety in the construction details of bows (both historic and modern) all bows consist of a string attached to elastic limbs that store mechanical energy imparted by the user drawing the string. Bows may be broadly split into two categories: those drawn by pulling the string directly and those that use a mechanism to pull the string.

Directly drawn bows may be further divided based upon differences in the method of limb construction, notable examples being self bows, laminated bows and composite bows. Bows can also be classified by the bow shape of the limbs when unstrung; in contrast to simple straight bows, a recurve bow has tips that curve away from the archer when the bow is unstrung.

The cross-section of the limb also varies; the classic longbow is a tall bow with narrow limbs that are D-shaped in cross section, and the flatbow has flat wide limbs that are approximately rectangular in cross-section. The classic D-shape comes from the use of the wood of the yew tree. The sap-wood is best suited to the tension on the back of the bow, and the heart-wood to the compression on the belly. Hence, a cross-section of a yew longbow shows the narrow, light-coloured sap-wood on the ‘straight’ part of the D, and the red/orange heartwood forms the curved part of the D, to balance the mechanical tension/compression stress. Cable-backed bows use cords as the back of the bow; the draw weight of the bow can be adjusted by changing the tension of the cable. They were widespread among Inuit who lacked easy access to good bow wood. One variety of cable-backed bow is the Penobscot bow or Wabenaki bow, invented by Frank Loring (Chief Big Thunder) about 1900. It consists of a small bow attached by cables on the back of a larger main bow.

Compound bows are designed to reduce the force required to hold the string at full draw, hence allowing the archer more time to aim with less muscular stress. Compound bows utilise cam or elliptical wheels on the ends of the limbs to achieve this. A typical let-off is anywhere from 65%–80%. For example, a 60-pound bow with 80% let-off will only require 12 pounds of force to hold at full draw. Up to 99% let-off is possible.

The compound bow was invented by Holless Wilbur Allen in the 1960s (a US patent was filed in 1966 and granted in 1969) and the compound bow is now the most popular type of bow used today.


The arrow consists of a shaft with an arrowhead attached to the front end and with fletchings and a nock attached to the other end. Arrows across time and history are normally carried in a container known as a quiver. Shafts of arrows are typically composed of solid wood, fiberglass, aluminium alloy, carbon fiber, or composite materials. Wooden arrows are prone to warping. Fiberglass arrows are brittle, but can be produced to uniform specifications easily. Aluminium shafts were a very popular high-performance choice in the latter half of the 20th century due to their straightness, lighter weight, and subsequently higher speed and flatter trajectories. Carbon fiber arrows were introduced in the mid 1980’s, they are very light but much thinner, this allows these arrows to travel faster and flatter than aluminium arrows.

Today, the best arrows are all carbon construction or composite (aluminium/carbon) the best being the Easton X10 and A/C/E.

The arrowhead is the primary functional component of the arrow. Some arrows may simply use a sharpened tip of the solid shaft, but it is far more common for separate arrowheads to be made, usually from metal, stone, or other hard materials. The most commonly used forms are target points or field points for practice or competitions or broadheads for hunting.

Fletching is traditionally made from turkey feathers. Modern archer’s uses flexible plastic vanes or very thin light weight vanes made from Mylar called Spin Wing. They are attached to the rear end of the arrow near the nock (rear).

Three fletches is the most configuration although you can use as many as six have been used. The three-fletches are equally spaced around the shaft with one placed when shooing Recurve or Longbow such that it is perpendicular to the bow when nocked on the string (though with modern equipment, variations are seen especially when using the modern spin vanes). For Compound this fletch is placed vertical eith up or down depending upon the type of arrow rest.

This fletch is called the “index fletch” or “cock feather” (also known as “the odd vane out” or “the nocking vane”) and the others are sometimes called the “hen feathers”. Commonly, the cock feather is of a different color. However, if archers are using fletching made of feather or similar material, they may use same color vanes, as different dyes can give varying stiffness to vanes, resulting in less precision.

The fletching may be either parabolic (short feathers in a smooth parabolic curve) or shield (generally shaped like half of a narrow shield) cut and is often attached on the shaft straight, angled or helical. Fletching is intended to stabilise and rotate the arrow while in flight.

Whether helical, angled or straight fletched, when natural fletching (bird feathers) are used it is critical that all feathers come from the same side of the bird. Oversized fletchings can be used to accentuate drag and thus limit the range of the arrow significantly; these arrows are called flu-flus.


Dacron which was popular material used from the 1950’s to mid-1980’s but it had significant stretch and was replaced in the mid 1980’s with a synthetic non stretch material which replaced and other modern materials offer high strength for their weight and are used on most modern bows. Prior to the 1950’s linen, gut and other traditional materials were used

Aiming methods

Over history some form of aiming method was adopted such as marks or binding on the bow. Today there are two main forms of aiming in archery: the most popular Freestyle, using a bow sight attached to the bow or barebow.

Barebow aiming methods include Gap, Split Vision, Point of Aim, String Walking, Face Walking and Instinctive aiming.

Mechanical sights can be affixed to the bow to aid in aiming. They can be as simple as a pin or optical with magnification. For compound they can also have a peep sight (rear sight) built into the string which aids in a consistent anchor point.

Barebow is the most common method of aiming when not using a sight and is used generally by using the arrow point and spending time on an archery range practicing and determining where you place the arrow point for various distances. The archer looks down the arrow since the back of the arrow is under to the dominant eye.

Instinctive shooting is a style of shooting that uses no aiming method other than looking at the target, drawing and releasing with any thought as to aiming.