Wednesday, February 22, 2012

My Super-Long, Super-Involved Guide to Writing about Archery

This post has been in the works for a while. What with Hunger Games <3 and fantasy's penchant for the sport, I've always wanted to put out a guide for how to write about archery (or really, the things you need to know to make it believable). It is very, very long. Get comfy!

A blurry picture of me from one of my many archery competitions
Back when I was in middle school, my dad insisted that something needed to be done about my intellectual interests and doughy physique. His solution: I needed to pick a sport, any sport. And so, I picked one of the nerdiest and least physically-exertive sports in the world: archery.

I ended up actually being quite good at it, which was a pleasant surprise. Like, "considering possibly skipping my high school graduation for the Olympic trials" good. Like, "invited to spend a summer, costs paid, at the Olympic training center" good.

And then I went to college, left behind my archery team, and hardly picked up a bow ever again (sad).

My years of shooting have left me with both a deep appreciation of the sport and a deep hatred for how archery is portrayed in virtually every movie and book. I get it! Archery is actually the most boring sport in the world, and you have to jazz it up or risk giving your audience the snoozies, but that’s still no excuse not to get some details right. If you’re considering putting archery into your story, here are a few a ridiculously large amount of tips and primers (FYI: links lead to photos, which will open up in a new window).
My beautiful, beloved bow!
Eventually I graduated into something a little more powerful,
but this lovely girl faithfully got me through years of competition

There are roughly four kinds of bows used now: recurve, compound, crossbow, and long bow.

Recurve is what’s used in the Olympics; it’s a typical-looking bow that may or may not have some extra equipment (such as scopes, sights, weights) hanging off it. It gets its name from the two curves at the end of the bow, so that the points of the bow bend out in the same direction as the arrow (as opposed to a C-shape). Recurve bows are usually about as tall as the archer, or a little taller.

Compound is notable because it has three strings (although archers only pull back on one). Compound is what’s typically used by hunters, because the three strings decrease the pull-weight of the bow, so that you can draw the bowstring back and hold it there for a longer period of time. Compound bows also tend to be more accurate, smaller (about as tall as the archer's torso), and lighter.

Crossbows are the most “gun” like. It’s basically a bow placed horizontally on a gun. The archer pulls back the string and locks it in place. They fit the arrow against the string, aim, and fire by releasing a trigger. The ancient crossbows are quite pretty and impressive, but the modern crossbows I’ve seen are huge, heavy, and ugly.

Long bow is what you might expect to see in a Robin Hood movie. It has the shape of an elongated C and is typically very light and long--at least as tall as the archer.

Arrows are composed of four main parts: point, shaft, fletching, and nock

The point of a modern arrow tends to be bullet-shaped and onthe blunter side. Points used for hunting, also called “broadheads” are the traditional triangle-shaped points. Broadheads can be razor sharp and huge (they also tear up targets and are sometimes banned at shooting ranges).

The shaft, or long part of the arrow, can be made of metal, such as aluminum, wood, or carbon. Modern arrows are made of carbon or aluminum. Usually carbon arrows, which are lighter and more expensive, are used for outdoor competitions (where distances are farther), while aluminum arrows are thicker, heavier, and used for indoor competitions (where it’s more advantageous to have a wider arrow, which can “tear lines” on a target and earn you the higher point).

Fletching, or the feathers, can be made from plastic or realor manufactured feathers. Sometimes the fletching is called “vanes,” curly bits of plastic that make the arrow spin extremely fast (and go farther). There are three fletches to an arrow, and usually one is a different color. This differently-colored feather faces towards the archer when the arrow is on the bowstring. Fletching often gets ripped off in competition; every archer should know how to quickly reattach fletching and checking fletching is an important before- and after-competition ritual.

Nocks are little plastic clips at the end of arrows. They hold the arrow into place on the bowstring. There is a right and a wrong way to nock the arrow (“nock” here is used as a verb, meaning to place the arrow on the string). One side of the nock has a little ridge or bump; this bump should face the archer when they nock the arrow.

My BFF Danielle, rocking her chest protector
Protective Equipment:
All archers are required to wear some sort of protection for their hands and arms and some choose other protective gear as well.

Arm guard: this is a leather or plastic covering, about five inches long, which is strapped to the arm that holds the bow and protects it from the bowstring (which will often run down the length of the bow arm after being released). Arm guards are required for modern archery and literally every archer wears them. Some can be as small as popsicle sticks, others the wrist to bicep. If you don’t wear an arm guard, you will get the ugliest bruise you've ever seen and it will hurt like hell. That’s just a fact.

Finger tab: this protects the fingers on the hand that pulls back the string. It consists of three pieces of leather which slide over the middle finger. Sometimes there’s also a little metal shelf on one side, which can be helpful in drawing back the bow to a consistent place. Older finger tabs are more like short gloves, with only the middle three fingers. Finger tabs are also required in modern archery, for good reason. I haven’t shot a bow in about five years, but I still have calluses on my middle three fingers--through the three pieces of leather.

Chest protector: this is a sort of small vest that covers the chest on the same side of the bow arm. It keeps the bowstring from catching on clothing (or, y’know, breasts). It’s not required, although some people like it, just to be safe.

Other Equipment:
Quiver: used to hold your arrows. Simple quivers are nothing more than leather tubes. More complex quivers have pockets or pouches for carrying spare parts or other equipment. Modern quivers hang from a hook on the back of your pants or a belt on the same side of your bowstring hand. Hunters shooting compound bows sometimes lock their arrows into a kind of rack attached to the bow. Traditional quivers are sometimes worn over the shoulder (a la Legolas).

Bowstring: this waxy string is actually made up of several strings, wound together. The amount the string is twisted can affect how the bow is shot (for complex physics-related reasons, which I won’t get into now), so when an archer unstrings their bow, it’s important to make sure the twists don’t get undone. The bow string has two loops at the end, which attach to the limbs of the bow. There’s also a thicker portion (sometimes colored differently) in the center, where the arrow is attached and the archer pulls back on the string. Bows should generally not be left strung for too long--any more than a few days and it stretches out the string too much.

Nock (bowstring): Not to be confused with the nock on the end of the arrow, this nock is a little gold-colored bead that clamps to the bowstring. The arrow is clipped into the string right below this bead.

Sight: Modern recurve bows have sights, which help the archer determine where to shoot. They aren’t telescopes or binoculars (which are illegal in competition), but an aiming system that helps the archer get the right angle for shooting distances (in general, higher angle-->longer shot).

Sling: In modern archery, this is worn on the hand that holds the bow. Modern archers are taught something funny, which is to let go of the bow after you release the string. The reason is that holding the bow tightly interferes with the arrow’s flight. Releasing the bow (it will swing forward, in quite a lovely fashion), allows for a cleaner shot. The sling is there to make sure you don’t just drop the damn thing. Note: literally every archery movie I have ever seen does not use the sling.

Basic Terms:
The person doing the shooting is an archer. This term is gender neutral. There is no such thing as an archess.

You sometimes hear arrows called bolts. This is mostly used to describe arrows used in crossbows.

I used to shoot in my basement at 5AM every morning before school.
That's dedication, man.
Shooting Basics:
The first step, of course, is stringing the bow. There are a few different methods, but all involve sliding both ends of the bow string onto the limbs of the bow first. From there, you can step through the bow, push the limbs down, and slide the string up (known as the "step-through method"). You can also brace the bow against your leg to bend it and slide the string on. Or you can use a bow stringer--which is like an extra long string--hold the bow perpendicular, step on the stringer to bend the limbs, and slide the string into place. Here's a video of these methods.

Archers can shoot righty or lefty, but it’s not based on dominant hand, but dominant eye. To determine if you’re left-eyed or right-eyed, hold out your hands (like you’re saying “Stop!”). Fit your hands together so that there’s a little hole between your hands. Looking through the hole, focus on something in the distance. Slowly bring your hands up to your face. The eye you bring your hands up to is your dominant eye. If you’re a righty, you draw the string back with your right hand and hold the bow with your left hand.

The steps of archery (which I can recite in my sleep, thanks to my awesome coach) are:

This means: Stand on the shooting line (a line that runs parallel to the target lines) with one foot on either side of the line. Nock your arrow. Set your bow by placing your hand on the string. Lift your bow so that your bow arm is straight out. Draw back on the bow string. Anchor the string, usually at a point right below the chin. Release the string. Follow-through on the release by keeping the string-fingers moving back, while relaxing the bow hand and allowing the bow to swing forward. Get another arrow and repeat.

Debunking Archery Cliches
It’s fun watching movies try to spice up archery, because frankly, there is not a lot to spice up without throwing some flat-out lies in there. Here are some truths and fictions.

Splitting the arrow: No Robin Hood movie is complete without a split arrow, but in real life, it is not so easy. There are two whole Mythbusters episodes about this, and the jury, frankly, is still out. I can give you the modern perspective, which is that when you shoot with hollow arrows (made from carbon or aluminum), it’s possible to shoot one arrow into another. The nock of the first arrow gets pushed inside the shaft, while the second arrow sticks out. It is awesome and amazingly cool to see. Appropriately enough, the term for this is “Robin Hooding.”

Shooting with multiple arrows: Dumb, dumb, dumb. Would this work in real life? No! Arrows get their speed and force from the bowstring, wherein all the energy from the pulled-back string goes into the arrow. Two arrows mean each is getting half the force, going half as far. Plus, they would go in crazy directions. Does not work.

Shooting crazy distances, crazy fast, with no sight: Yep. This one is definitely possible. Remember the scene in Hunger Games, when Katniss does her crazy-cool archery for the Game-makers? Totally plausible. There are amazingly good archers who can just shoot anything. A friend of a friend used to go to competitions and have people throw up stuffed animals into the air. She hit every one. Some people are just ballser.

Closing one eye while shooting: No, never, ever, ever. There is no reason to close an eye while shooting, and it will actually make you a worse shot. Keep both eyes open, please. 

Bows or arrows in fancy metals or materials: Eh, maybe. Generally, if you want a recurve bow, you need a rigid center (so something like metal) and flexible limbs--the curvy parts of the bow. For limbs, wood works extremely well, even in modern day, and unless there's a flexible, durable metal out there, it doesn't make sense to have a solid-gold bow or something. Same with arrows. Arrows actually bend like crazy when they fly (check out this nutso video), so a rigid metal would not work for arrows. Fletching goes the same way. Sometimes I read stories where the fletching has been replacing with something like ribbons or bells, but the fletching isn't decorative--it's there to make the arrow fly straight, so if you do want to replace it with something else, it still needs to serve a purpose.

Shooting the bow without an arrow: This is known as a "dry fire" and it is terrible. When extremely inexperienced archers pick up a bow for the first time, sometimes they will immediately pull back (without an arrow) and let the string go. This is very bad for the bow and can sometimes cause the string to snap off or the limbs to break. You would never "test" a bow by dry firing--just pull back and let down, keeping your fingers on the string.

My old archery team. Summit Archers 4eva
What it feels like to shoot:
Archery is an incredibly relaxing, zen sport. I used to joke that I never met an archer I didn't like, because the truth is to be a good shot, you generally have to be calm and patient. Archery has much more in common with mental sports--like martial arts or yoga--than in traditional combat sports. 

Picking up how to shoot is extremely easy. I could teach you perfect Olympic form in less than 10 minutes. What separates good from bad archers is the mental strength to simply let go and shoot. A lot of archery requires trust and clarity--allowing your muscles to work without your brain interfering (as a certified over-thinker, this was my biggest problem...).

The sounds and feelings are so distinctive. Arrows clink together as you move. After a long day of shooting, the handle of the bow feels warm and life-like. Archers develop thick calluses on their three string fingers as well as a long callus down the center of their bow hand. Shoulders and backs ache the most, but archers also need strong core muscles, good eyesight, tough fingers, and steady balance. There's a lot of silence and quiet, release rather than control.

In Conclusion:
So, this is a pretty long and involved primer, and obviously, if you write about archery, you don’t need to stuff it full of details about recurve and compound and fletching and on and on and on. But I hope you have a little more appreciation for the basics and more understanding of the process.

The other thing I would recommend, if you want to write about archery, is go shooting. You can Google local archery clubs (colleges or camps often run them) or shooting ranges, and see if you can get a coach to give you a session. They should be able to supply most of the equipment. It takes 10 minutes, tops, to learn how to shoot--the rest is just practice. Archery is a really fun, great, relaxing sport, and the sights and sounds and feelings are really best experienced first-hand. So go shoot something! And next time you run across Legolas killing cave trolls or the latest Robin Hood incarnation defying the laws of physics, you too can roll your eyes like a real archer.

If you have any questions or comments, let me know! And fellow archer/writers, if you have anything else to add, leave a note in the comments. 


  1. That was fun to read. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Katniss ain't got nothin' on you :-)

  3. Haa no way! Middle school pics not allowed!

  4. OMG THIS IS GREAT! You should take a look at the Ranger's Apprentice books. It talks about this sort of thing a lot, its a great series

  5. Do you remember how long your basement range was? I'm thinking about setting up a range for myself in my basement. Very well written article.

  6. I every time spent my half an hour to read this blog’s posts all the time along with a mug of coffee.

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  8. I love bow hunting. Thank you for your brilliant post about Archery.
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