Tag Archives: writing hunters

Q&A: A Hunter’s Tools

In fantasy stories, the bow and arrow is an overused choice of weapon. What other weapons are there that I can give my huntress heroine for effective use in the woods? She’s skilled in a variety of weapon use, such as swords and daggers and other things, but I want to give her one weapon that she excels at.

I’m not sure if it’s really overused. The bow is a very versatile hunting tool. Slings were used to deal with predators, and could be lethal, but aren’t usually associated with hunting in the same way, at least in fiction. Slingshots can be used to deal with small game, though those date to the 19th century.

Slings date to the neolithic period, and are formed with multiple lengths of cord connected to a pouch which holds a (usually stone) projectile, called a “bullet.” The user spins the weapon, releasing one of the straps to release the projectile into flight. With practice, these can be surprisingly accurate. Historically they were used as military weapons during the bronze and iron age. Though, as I said, I’m not sure on their use in hunting.

The bolo is somewhat similar to the sling. This is a thrown weapon with multiple weights, joined together by a flexible line. The weapon is thrown by spinning one of the weights and releasing, so that it will tangle the target’s legs dropping it.

The atlatl is a paleolithic weapon, dating back approximately 30k years. These consist of a simple shaft with a cup designed to hold a spear (or dart.) The butt of the spear is loaded into the cup, with the atlatl’s shaft under the spear. The user then launches the spear by “swinging” the atlatl. Because of the length of the shaft, this effectively magnifies the initial launching force from the projectile. I’m unsure of the exact timeline for use in Europe. There are surviving examples dating back 17k years, but I don’t know exactly when they fell out of use. In the Americas, they were still used, sometimes in preference over, bows up to the time of European colonization. (In fact the name, atlatl is of Aztec origin.)

Failing that, it’s worth remembering that the spear. These things have been around longer than homo sapiens, and we’ve been using them to catch dinner and poke holes in people we don’t like for almost all of our existence. They’ve been used for hunting, in warfare. They’ve been thrown, used as melee weapons. If your character hunts, especially in a low-tech setting, it’s a virtual certainty that they’d use a spear, at least some of the time.

Also, the spear would be the preferred tool for killing a wounded animal, as it allows the hunter to remain at a safe distance; closing in with the knife would be borderline suicidal, especially against wounded herbivores.

Following closely behind the spear are traps. We’ve been getting creative and killing things by turning the environment to our advantage throughout history. These include pit traps, where you dig a small trench, and line it with sharpened sticks, cover it with leaves, and then startle an animal through it. Deadfall traps, where a rock or other heavy object is suspended over bait, when the targeted animal approaches it, the suspension is removed or cut. Finally, snares are another common trap, where a cable or rope latches onto and holds the animal that trips it. In some cases, these are combined with bending tree branches to tension, in order to suspend the target. We don’t usually think of traps as weapons, but they’ve been an important part of human hunting throughout our history.

I’m going to say this again for emphasis. If your character is a hunter in anything other than a modern setting, they should be using traps. Full stop. These were a vital tool for hunters historically, so it’s worth your time to look into those in a little more depth.

Another incredibly important hunting tool is a dog. They’re not as durable as a human, but they are far more mobile, especially in dense areas, and can be incredibly useful for driving prey into traps, or tracking wounded prey across difficult terrain. It’s easy to think of dogs as companions, but many breeds did have specific working roles, including hunting.

Also, worth remembering, the sword is for use on people. If your character is also hunting people, then that’s a natural fit. Otherwise, they probably wouldn’t own, or even know how to use a sword, unless there were other cultural factors at play. (For example, if your character is a game warden for some feudal lord, or a retired soldier they may have and use one.) The sword isn’t useful for hunting. So, unless your character is also a combatant, you can safely ditch this.

Depending on setting, it’s entirely possible your character would go hunting with a spear (or spears, if they intend to throw them), a sling, some snares, and a knife (for setting the traps.) They may also carry an axe, which might also double as a shovel for digging pits. Though that’s somewhat less likely. If they found themselves threatened by another person, the spear would function as an entirely effective weapon, so at that point the sword is somewhat unnecessary. Depending on context, it’s entirely likely they’d have a dog (or some other animal that acts as a hunting assistant.)

I’d also recommend you take some time to research hunting tactics, with things such as lures and blinds. If you’re wanting your character to be a hunter, it’s probably a good idea to have a fundamental grasp of their job skills, even if you can’t replicate them in the wild.

-Starke

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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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