Tag Archives: archery

Q&A: Bows and Crossbows

Which medieval weapon took more training time to become proficient with, a short bow or a cross bow? Which took more strength to use? Some writers portray crossbows as much harder to load but easier for untrained persons to hit targets with devestating effect on heavily armored opponents. Is this true?

So, in order.

The bow. I’m talking about bows in general here. To the best of my knowledge, the term “shortbow,” only dates back to the 1890s, so, not exactly a medieval weapon. This doesn’t mean that smaller bows didn’t exist for specialized purposes, just that they weren’t called, “shortbows.”

Training, again, goes to the bow. Training an archer takes much more time, and is significantly more difficult. This leads into your question about it being easier for an untrained user to put a bolt where they want it. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it is much easier to get someone up to speed on the crossbow. Getting an arrow where you want it does require more skill, training, and practice.

Strength also goes to the bow. At least for upper body strength. You’re pulling a lot of weight with every shot, and assuming your archer is getting enough to eat, they’re going to be stacked after a few years. I think I’ve said this before, but the image of a willowy archer from fantasy just does not track with the reality of the weapon. If you’re effectively pulling 80+ pounds of force with every shot, that’s going to be a workout.

“Reloading” a bow is pretty trivial. Drawing and nocking another arrow is a very simple motion, and there’s almost no mechanical considerations. Reloading a crossbow may be more complicated, depending on the arming and firing mechanisms.

Light crossbows can be rearmed by hand. You simply take the bow string and reset the weapon to fire. Heavier weapons often require mechanical systems (called “spanning mechanisms”) to rearm the crossbow before reloading. These range from a stirrup, to allow you to hold the crossbow in place while you draw the string with both hands, to lever systems, and even cranks (both Cranquins and Windlasses were used). Once the crossbow has been rearmed, the actual reload is fairly simple, but that’s a mostly academic distinction.

Saying that it’s harder to reload a crossbow is fair. A little bit of an abstraction, but that’s entirely fair. They do have a much lower cyclic fire rate. With a bow, you simply need to draw another arrow, nock it, draw, and you’re ready to fire. With a crossbow, you need to rearm it (which may be simple, or it might not be), draw and load the bolt, and then you’re ready to fire.

So, when you have crossbows that are delivering force a human archer could not replicate, then, yes, that’s going to impact a target with more power than you could get from a bow. There’s a lot of factors here that I’m glazing over, so, this doesn’t mean that a crossbow will always, automatically, hit harder, and penetrate armor more easily, with heavier designs, especially ones with crank systems, that’s certainly possible.

So some basic physics, when you launch an un-powered missile (doesn’t matter an arrow, bolt, or bullet), it will lose velocity and be affected by gravity (called drop) as it travels. This means, at shorter ranges, these weapons will exhibit better armor penetration, than they will at a distance. So, if you have a character in fairly tight quarters, like a city street, firing a crossbow, it might have better armor penetration than you’d see from a longbow on a ridge.

In fact, crossbows saw most of their use in urban environments, while bows were more common in rural areas, and among standing military forces. The reason is not just tailoring the right weapon to the right situation, but also economic; crossbows were expensive. Even the light crossbows were more mechanically complicated than a bow, so it was easier to produce low quality bows, than low quality crossbows. Cities, with significant economic and production resources could afford to outfit their armories with crossbows, but equipping a village armory, meant you’d probably have to do without. This also meant that crossbows saw use among mercenaries, since they’d be paying for their own gear. European armies transitioned from bows to crossbows at varying points starting in the 12th century. By the 15th century, almost all of Europe had transitioned over, with the notable exception of the British.

Early firearms began appearing in European warfare, in the 14th century. There’s actually a timeframe where the choice would have been between primitive muskets, and crossbows. This persisted into the early modern era, as well. During this period, the crossbow would have been the an alternative with better armor piercing capabilities than those early guns. Also, for awhile, better accuracy and faster reloads. Once you move out of the middle ages, and into the early modern period, firearms start improving beyond the crossbow, but for awhile they both had a battlefield role.

It’s also worth remembering that in these situation, most soldiers would have carried a sword as their sidearm. So, it’s not like your character would have only carried a bow or crossbow, they also would have had something if they ended up in melee.

-Starke

So I have a character who learned how to use a longbow when she was a child to hunt. My question is two-tiered: one, in what ways would that impact her physical development; and two, would this help her if she needed to use a bow against people?

Strong shoulders, strong arms.

In all honesty, the bow is a weapon you build to as a hunter. The first weapon she’d have learned was the sling. More useful for small game, and you can be deadly accurate with it. The David versus Goliath story in the Bible isn’t actually a joke or overblown. A child taking down a grown adult with a rock and a sling is entirely plausible if said adult isn’t wearing a helmet. The sling is the weapon of children everywhere, shepherds and hunters. In many parts of the world, they still use it. It’s also better for small game. Katniss would’ve done better braining the squirrels with a sling rather than a bow, like children do.

As a child, she’d be trained on a child’s training bow and work her way up the different types of bows practicing on a single target. The longbow is a weapon that requires a fairly hefty amount of upper body strength to wield, and she’d have to work and train up into her early teens before she was allowed to use it for hunting. The amount of strength you can draw dictates how far the arrow flies and how deep it penetrates. Depth of penetration is important, as is how far the arrow flies. Both define how close you need to be to your target in order to be successful. Herbivores don’t stand around waiting for a predator to kill them, and carnivores might just decide turnabout is fair play.

So, most of her childhood was spent on dummy duty with her bow as she learned to clean and care for it. Learning to stand, and that’s a whole series of lessons. Learning how to string the bow, learning how to hold it, learning to draw before she was ever allowed to shoot.

What whoever was training her would set her on before that is the other skills, and she’d act as a gopher for them the way all apprentices do. Following behind the older hunter, carrying their equipment, watching them and acting under their direction. You can’t hunt if you can’t find game, and you can’t eat it if you can’t clean it.

Hunting comes with a necessary subset of skills which allow the hunter to work. They don’t just go out into the woods and kill shit then come back. It requires patience. It involves waiting in one place for an animal to come by, sometimes for days. Traps, tracking, reading sign, learning to move through the underbrush without disturbing it, hiding your scent, etc.

Your hunter will catch more food that they eat on the regular with snare traps set for rabbits and other small game than they will with the bigger game like deer. Bigger game takes more investment, more energy, and a lot more luck. There’s also a higher chance of injury.

There are plenty of herbivores that won’t go down quiet, deer included. If your hunter hits wrong and they sense/smell them, there’s always the chance they won’t run and will come right in after the hunter. Animals have “fight or flight” too, and a doe can gore you just as well with her hooves as a buck can with his antlers. Any poor soul chased up a tree by a moose or just gut checked by a horse can tell you, herbivores are assholes. On an unlucky day, they’ll kill you just as well as a carnivore and that’s if you can find them at all.

The chances of managing a “one hit kill” with an animal like a deer are low and, even if you land a killing blow, they’re not just going to fall over dead. You’ve got to be able to follow it, recover the body, and kill it as it lies there bleeding out on the ground if necessary. You’ve also got to have some way to carry it back. Then, there’s the risk you run with whether the herd animals will return to the same place or move somewhere else if too many of their number die. If they do, and they’re your primary source of food, then you’ve got to move with them. Nevermind that there are quite a few animals a bow is simply no good for, like bears and boars. Where you need other tools like dogs and spears.

Hunting is a complicated business, and it doesn’t come with any guarantees.

Now, those skills do translate over well on a certain level to dealing with humans. Though, it’s not the weapon skills so much as the other less flashy ones. Many scouts in medieval armies, for example, were hunters of one sort or another. As were the foragers tasked with feeding them. The ability to tell how many people passed, where they passed, and what they brought with them from the tracks left on the roads or in the hills was a valuable ability. The ability to move through the woods without being seen, to hide your passing, to tell who is breaking trail, and to find their camps was also helpful.

The Ranger class in DnD is built on the hunter. You want a character who has more in common with Aragorn than Katniss. Aragorn uses a bow, but it’s not his only weapon.

The reason for this is that the bow isn’t a great weapon for close quarters. More importantly, it takes time to prepare. You don’t travel with it strung, as that wears out the string. If the string is no longer taut when strung then you can’t fire the bow. You don’t travel with the wood left to the elements. It needs to be wrapped, and packed away. Constantly be oiled to maintain its elasticity/limberness so it can be drawn. A dried bow is a bow you can’t pull, no matter how strong you are. You also can’t get it wet. It’s a weapon which takes a lot of prep in order to be used, a lot of care, a lot of maintenance, more than average, and a lot of hard work.

When you’re in, say, a military or part of a raiding force that knows its attacking then that’s great. Or someone who is on watch for certain periods during the day and will be relieved by another, that also works. Or when you’re sitting alone in the woods waiting for an animal to come by. However, the necessary prep time a bow requires is a lot less helpful when you’re taken by surprise.

By the time you’ve taken it out, unwrapped it, strung it, you’re dead. The enemy was also probably too close for the bow to really be of help anyway. Its a weapon which requires distance. Awesome when you’re pegging people from the ramparts, halfway up a tree, or fifty to a hundred feet off. Less so when they’re standing over you, axe in hand. The traditional role of archers in a military structure is artillery, and not that different from how we use the modern one. Their purpose is bombardment, they soften up the enemy so the vanguard can break their lines and kill them.

There is one kind of single combat the bow is useful for: stalking.

The bow is a silent weapon, and when used in a hunter-stalker mode, can be terrifyingly effective. It’s a stealth weapon, meant for ghosting in and ghosting out as you pick your enemies off. However, this kind of combat requires a proactive mindset and a willingness to get your hands dirty.

It’s also vindictive and, from the perspective of most modern morals, it’s cruel.

Humans are no more lucky than animals when it comes to hunting. The bow is the slow death. No character, no matter their skill level, is going to be guaranteed clean kills. However, what they do get is debilitating blows. An arrow through an arm, a leg, or better a lung, is going to take enemies out of the fight and if they’re not dead yet then potentially another one with them. Harassment is the order of the day. The slow path of carving off opponents, damaging them so they can’t fight back, following as they try to run, before moving in for the kill.

It’s a predatory style of combat, it is (really) just hunting. Hunting humans instead of animals. The terrifying form of combat that haunts so many horror movies. It’s psychological warfare.

However, it’s the kind of combat that takes time, patience, and a strong stomach. It’s up to you to decide if that’s the kind of combat you envisioned for this character to participate in. Or the kind of story you want to tell.

People embrace the Predator and Lara Croft from Tomb Raider (2013), and countless others that have this particular combat style.

It might, however, behoove you to consider coming up with other weapons this character has familiarity with. From knives, to traps, to fishing lines, to other more improvised weapons built on the fly. This character has a range of options within their skillset, and there’s no need to stick to just one.

Also we have a bow tag, and an archery tag for past discussion on this subject.

-Michi

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I’m wondering what you think of the youtube video Lars Anderson: A new level of archery ?

Lars Anderson has mastered a new level of self-promotion of Lars Anderson by mastering the forgotten techniques of Lars Anderson in ways that only Lars Anderson could ever Lars Anderson a Lars Anderson, Lars Anderson.

From what I understand, he’s a bit of a joke in the archery community. He does trick shooting, which is impressive enough, but that’s really the extent of it. It’s not some bold new approach, or lost historical technique, just stuff that looks flashy and gets the attention of people who don’t know much about archery, and then talks about himself in the third person repeatedly so you’ll remember his name.

-Starke

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I’ve spent almost an hour trying to find an answer but nothing comes up on Google, apologies if this question is too simple. Do all arrows need heads? It’s on a tropical island, the targets are only ever animals, and the apex predators are jaguars.

They don’t, but yours probably should.

You can simply whittle down the arrow shaft into a sharp point if nothing else is available. It’s not ideal, but you can shoot something, or someone, with an arrow like that.

For that matter, simple conical heads that sit flush with the shaft are fairly common in sport archery. Those make retrieving the arrow easier, with less to get snagged inside the target, and as a result the arrows, and targets, last longer.

For hunting, heads with pronounced blades on the leading edges are favored. The idea is to get the arrow to cut tissue on impact, causing internal bleeding and dropping the animal sooner. The triangular shape also prevents easy removal of the arrow. So it stays in there and any attempt to remove it will actually cause further injury.

You could go hunting with target arrows, but they’d be less likely to kill the animal. Even successful hits would result in less bleeding, which would let the animal cover more distance before bleeding out. Also, there’s a real risk the animal could get the arrow out, and actually survive the experience.

It’s also probably worth pointing out that hunting wild game is a little more involved than just wandering into the shrubbery and waiting for something to show up. Hunting for food will take a lot of your character’s time, with a real risk they’ll come back empty handed.

Combine that with the problems inherent in using target tips on live enemies, and we’re back to the point where you can probably see why arrowheads, even just crude stone deltas, are necessary for hunting.

Finally, rigging up a functional bow you can actually hunt with is a lot more difficult than you might expect. The overall shape of the weapon is easy to imitate, but making one that can actually deliver an arrow accurately and with sufficient force to kill, is much harder. Also bows require fairly careful handling. It’s very easy to destroy one, by stuffing it in a log, getting it wet, or mishandling it. So, unless this is something your character brought with them to the island, making one will probably be outside of their abilities.

Given we’re talking about an island, I’d actually think fish would be an easier source of protein, either by rigging up a spear or an improvised rod.

-Starke

Can a character really grab a arrow out of the air coming straight at her from afar?

It’s in the range of the possible, basically a yes and a no. You can do it in a controlled environment and it is one of those famous trick shooting stunts, but it requires both participants to be working together. The seconds often don’t get enough praise for their skills and their ability to safely support their partners. Much in the same way we don’t celebrate Hollywood stuntmen and women for how well they train actors and how good they make them look on screen. It’s a fantastic trick, and worthy of all respect to whoever can pull it off.

In a live combat situation, it’s a no. There are too many extenuating variables and it is actually far too chancy to even risk yourself trying it. I mean is the coolness factor of grabbing an arrow out of the air really worth getting shot over? Even if you can time it right, the friction will tear up the hand if it’s barehanded. This means your character sacrificed their hand for the rule f cool. There are too many uncontrollable factors at play in a real battle situation for it to even be considered. An arrow is neither a spear nor a javelin, you can play catch and release with one of those. The northern Germanic tribes are documented using this tactic against the Romans. A javelin or spear is substantially larger than an arrow and the reason why the Vikings could do it was that they practiced throwing sticks back and forth as children. It was part of a game. If anyone is wondering how one trains children for wartime, the answer is you turn many of the necessary skills into games, normalize them, and make them part of the culture.

In regards to trick shots, the character might do this to show off with friends and a trusted partner in their downtime.

For a character like a D&D monk or another character type with superpowers or heading toward an enlightened state/ascension, then it’s not that out there. You just have to be able to justify it in setting and there should be a little more at play than just “oh, really skilled people can do that”.

-Michi

Awesome blog! I have a couple of questions considering a fantasy story I’m writing. a) What is the best weapon, when fighting a humanoid opponent that is much bigger than you (about three meters tall)? b) When fighting with a bow, what is the best place to aim for if you want the hit to be non-lethal?

Three meters isn’t a large enough size difference to really invalidate full sized weapons, like swords, axes, or polearms, though it will alter the tempo of a fight. As it gets larger, you’ll lose options though, by four or five meters, you’ll probably be restricted to polearms.

What’s the most non-lethal bow shot? One that doesn’t connect with your target. Arrow hits to the limbs can easily sever arteries, shots to the torso can rupture internal organs. Both of those are quick ways to bleed to death. If you could actually hit the hand or foot, that’s safe-ish. But, that kind of accuracy takes a kind of mastery that just doesn’t happen on the battlefield. Maybe if your character is a six-hundred year old elf/immortal/vampire/whatever, who’s been training for multiple human lifetimes… but not for a human character. In a non-combat situation, archers do exist who can make shots like that, even today. But, a bow is an incredibly lethal weapon, and as with guns, “shoot to wound” just isn’t a real thing.

-Starke

hi, i just read your post on archery, and i was wondering if you had any advice for writing a scene where someone gets stabbed with an arrow?

Stabbing someone with an arrow is actually a lot harder than it sounds. Consider this: arrows are made to be aerodynamic, not to give you a good grip. So, for a character attempting to stab someone with an arrow, they’ll find that they’re hand is constantly slipping down the shaft. This makes penetration, even into the soft parts of the body, incredibly difficult. You need a good grip to get the stabbing part down, so they have to go hard, fast, and with absolutely zero hesitation on the part of the wielder. You need a lot of force to get an arrow to penetrate and it should go somewhere soft and unprotected like the eye or into the throat.

That said, it isn’t impossible. What is impossible is actually firing the arrow afterwards, because your character is going to damage it no matter what they try.

I hope that helps!

-Starke and Michi