With 2012 being jokingly called “Year of the Bow,” it was inevitable that we’d end up doing a primer on it.
The bow is an ancient weapon, it is in fact one of the oldest weapons in the history of mankind. Almost every civilization that has ever existed and perhaps ever will exist has invented the bow in one form or another. It is important then, to note where you choose to draw your inspiration from because there are many varieties of this weapon. Combat with a bow is not unique to any one civilization or society, just as combat tactics have mirrored each other in similarity between different civilizations throughout the centuries. It is also important to remember that unlike other weapons of war, the bow was not invented for the sole purpose of murdering the wielder’s own species. This is a utility weapon, one that is meant to fulfill basic needs such as providing food for survival.
Because of its history, this weapon should be 100% recognizable to any and all serious characters as a dangerous threat. They will know what it is and what it can be used for. This is a weapon that will be noted and noticed by any city guard or local authority, so you’re character better have a damn good excuse for carrying it around (even if it’s not true). In a society that restricts access to weapons, such as futuristic fascist cultures, the bow will not be allowed. The reason for this is that even though the weapon itself may be outdated, it is still a dangerous weapon and any intelligent culture you create will know that and act accordingly.
The bow is still used in modern combat, though it has lost its edge. That said, historically, the bow is not used as a primary weapon for single combat. It has a select set of uses but ones that have it fall short of other weapons like the spear and the sword. The bow takes a great deal of time to master, it lacks flexibility of movement, and a single archer must always be accurate and thus their sighting will be slower. No matter how good your character is, they will always end up in melee, the bow is designed for hunting not killing and there is a vast difference in both technique and tactics between these two approaches.
There are many different bows throughout history, many different versions of the longbow and the recurve, many reinventions of the same weapon over and over through time. Some versions are designed for combat on horseback and some are not. So, be specific to which one it is, research how it is cared for, any reader who is familiar with the care and maintenance of this weapon will know if you ignore it. A bow is high maintenance and finicky, you can skip over a lot with some weapons but you can’t with a bow.
An older, wooden bow requires more strength to draw than a modern one. More importantly, the care for the weapon will impact how easily it can be used. Historical bows require a lot of maintenance, even more than their modern counterparts: the wood needs to be oiled frequently, the bow needs to be kept completely dry, transport over long distances requires unstringing and wrapping the bow, finally fletching a half decent arrow involves a lot of skill, even with modern tools and resources. Any responsible archer must be able to fletch their own arrows or risk being unable to use their weapon. This requires a whole skill set, one common in history but harder to come by in more modern times. This is especially important if the character is alone and without resources such as an army or placement in a lord’s household.
The projectiles are just as important as the care and maintenance of the weapon. This is less true in a society or culture where arrows are more readily available for purchase and the bow is a common weapon, but in a world where it is rarer, then the character will have to fend for themselves.
Arrows are weight your character must carry, if they fire the arrow they must retrieve it or lose it. Arrows do not self-replicate through magic. They are a limited resource and that resource must be considered. So, always ask: how much does the character’s gear weigh? How many arrows can they carry in the quiver reasonably without a huge loss of stamina? How do they protect the arrows from the weather? Arrows are made of wood. If wood gets wet it warps. The sinew that holds the arrows will also warp. The metal heads of the arrows will rust. The quiver needs as much careful protection as the bow itself to maintain functionality and combat readiness.
Also: don’t set arrows on fire. It’ll put itself out the minute you fire it. Self-immolation is not a thing your characters signed up for. Though if you want them to for the sake of the story, go right ahead.
(Michi Note: So, when working with or reading about an archer, always stop and ask yourselves a simple question: where do they get their arrows from? If the storyteller cannot answer that or has not put the answer into the text, then they’ve made a critical error. More than that, where are they getting their bowstrings from?)
Modern bows are usually either fiberglass composites or the more mechanical, compound bows. Composite bows match the general idea of a classic longbow. Compound bows are the ones using pulley systems. Composite ones require upper body strength, to draw. Compound bows tend to have a catch, early in the draw, where the pulleys take over and the bow’s mechanics take a lot of the draw weight off the archer. Because of the mechanical systems, there’s a lot that can go wrong with a compound, and more than most weapons, mishandling will destroy one.
Most modern arrows are hollow aluminum shafts that are bought pre-fletched and have a plastic nock already mounted. The tips can be easily removed and swapped out for convenience.
Target tips are small pointed cones, about the size of the arrow itself. These are easy to pull from a target, and they’re slightly less likely to deal lethal damage if they catch you.
Hunting tips are flying razor blades. They’re usually three or four blades held at an angle working their way towards a tip. They’re designed to cut arteries as they pass through the target. Most also feature barbs that further tear the meat if something tries to remove the arrow.
Hunting is the traditional use of the bow. The reason for its creation and evolution is pretty simple and most of you can probably guess why. This is: firing a projectile at an animal (such as a boar, a deer, or a buffalo) is much safer than trying to go into melee with it using a spear. Most humans who hunt as a profession (not as a sport) prefer some measure of safety and security in their job. When fighting an animal in close quarters there’s a risk of being gored by a tusk or horn, missing the animal with the spear, or frightening it off which is a waste of time, energy, and resources. It is important, though, to keep in mind that hunting an animal or hunting a herbivore is different from hunting a human or a predator. In nature, most of the hunters we hunt will hunt us in return. (Michi Note: This is part of the reason why we domesticated dogs.)
This usage of the weapon has remained popular among some hunters and is part of the reason why the bow can still be purchased today. The reasons of modern hunters, however, are completely unrelated to its value as a practical weapon. For hunting, the bow is an excellent choice. I’m told that killing game with a gunshot kills result in a different flavor to the meat, and of the two, bow killed meat tastes better. Of course, the people who’ve told me that have been bow hunters, so there’s your caveat.
A lot of bow hunters enjoy the additional challenges in taking an animal down with a bow. It’s a similar mindset to those hunters who use a revolver. That said, when you’re choosing a weapon for its “additional challenge” it’s not something you want to take into a fight.
Historical bow combat was built around massing archers and using them to send a lot of arrows in the general direction of the enemy. No, seriously. The idea wasn’t to hit a specific enemy, but to put a lot of arrows in their vicinity, and hope that a few would hit something useful. In many ways, archers are more analogous to mortar teams or artillery on a modern battlefield, than snipers, or even riflemen.
A mass regiment or company of archers was incredibly dangerous, especially to cavalry, but they were almost never in amongst the footmen or on the front lines. The medieval combat disposition was to put a line of skirmishers in front of the archers to protect them from enemy infantry. This is because the bow really does suck in close combat and has no real defensive capability.
There are a few places where bows excel over firearms: armor penetration and stealth. A skilled bow user can easily dispatch heavily armed and armored opposition, provided they can remain undetected.
That undetected part can be a real problem. The bow is very sensitive to movement by the shooter, meaning it’s impossible to fire on the go. Arrows are more sensitive to air movement and have a sharper ballistic trajectory than bullets, meaning it’s harder to fire quickly and accurately. This means that once a combatant is seen, their bow becomes dead weight, very fragile dead weight.
Finally bows are very short range (compared to modern firearms). You’re working with around 20 to 80 feet, or within shotgun range, meaning they need to get uncomfortably close to their enemy to use it, increasing the risk of detection.
Even when hunting tips sever arteries, arrow wounds take a long time to kill. Tracking animals for hours, after they’ve been shot, is fairly common for modern bow hunters.
Arrows tend to seal up the injuries they create, a lot like knife wounds, so even if your archer severed something vital, it’s entirely possible that the character they’re trying to kill will survive for hours. There are confirmed cases, in the modern world, where people have taken an arrow, and survived for ten to twenty hours before receiving medical attention.
So, if your character is shot with an arrow, please do not have them rip it out. Much like the knife, the projectile must be removed carefully or stay within the body to prevent the character from bleeding out. Also, an arrowhead can do as much damage leaving the body as it did going in, so research how to remove an arrow or your character will die, if they don’t already die from infection in a medieval, fantasy, or even a modern day/futuristic setting. (Michi Note: GERMS!)
More than most weapons, bows represent a major commitment when constructing your character. It takes a lot of time and dedication to become proficient with a bow outside of combat, and it can easily take a character’s entire life to truly master the use of one.
In fantasy settings, you can pretty easily give the bow to any adult who spends a lot of time in the wilderness and lives off the land or hunts for a living. In a fantasy setting where firearms exist, bows become less common as guns become more accessible. These characters are more likely to use an axe or sword for actual combat, even if they have a firearm, instead of a bow.
In most historical or fantasy settings, you can have professionally trained archers, who operate as part larger military force. Just remember, these characters will have been trained to fire arrows over longer distances, without any real accuracy. As with the above option, these characters will gradually phase out as guns become more common. Historically: firearms started appearing in Europe and the Middle East in the 14th century.
In a modern setting, you’re basically left with bow hunters, and sport shooting enthusiasts. For these characters, they choose the bow deliberately, over more convenient methods of killing because they enjoy the challenge, prefer the purity, or like the idea of being self-sufficient.
In a post apocalyptic setting where bullets are hard to obtain or produce, the bow has some potential, both in the historical military applications, and for hunting.
In a distant future setting, a variation of the bow might make sense for its stealth and armor penetration aspects, particularly if characters are outfitted with equipment or implants that allows them to aim and fire more efficiently.
In a horror setting with traditional vampires, the bow might be an effective choice for vampire hunters, though, at that point, modern crossbows would probably be a better weapon choice.
I’m just going to go out and say, in a fascist/dystopic setting, unless bows are explicitly permitted or regulated, they’re a very poor weapon choice, because of the difficulty in concealing them, and the amount of training and practice required to gain proficiency with one. (Michi Note: the recognizability and difficulty in concealing them is the kicker here, it’s better to go with a weapon like the sling or the slingshot which is still quite dangerous but considered to be a children’s toy by many, so the adults will be more willing to overlook it and it’s much easier to hide.)