On Fantasy/Historic Archery: Guest Post by David Watson

Posted: January 26th, 2015 under Background, Life beyond writing.
Tags: , , ,

David Watson, known in the SCA as Master Iolo, is a crossbow maker and experienced archer who has studied archery in warfare a long time, including visits to museums in the US and Europe.   Here’s his take on the recently very popular YouTube videos of superfast shooting, including by people who insist that they’ve discovered historical truths unknown to mere sport shooters.  

Pursuant to our host, Ms Moon’s request, here’s an edited version of a series of posts I made concerning a popular video clip of a guy from Denmark who does amazing archery tricks, including parkour-style leaps, bouncing off walls while shooting small foam targets, as well as shooting arrows out of the air, splitting arrows, and similar Robin-Hood/Legolas Greenleaf stunts.

Having watched the video several times, I have this to say: Most of these tricks have nothing to do with ancient archery.

Frinstance: The fabulous Dane shoots from the right side of the bow, rather than the left. That lets him position arrows on the string with fewer moves, giving an improved rate of fire. In fact, It’s widely known that many Asian archers, who used a ‘thumb’ release rather than the European three-fingered release, did indeed loose from the right side of the bow.
However, based on my study of period manuscript illustrations it appears most Northern European archers, who used a ‘three-finger’ release, shot from the left side of the bow: not all, but most. Of course it’s possible the illustrators simply made a mistake in depicting which side of the bow was favored, but I doubt all of them would.

Arrows do fall out of quivers if you’re jumping around. It’s possible to alleviate that to some degree with clever design, but it’s a constant problem. Back quivers work fairly well for horse archers, and Hollywood seldom uses anything else, but it appears most European ancient archers used belt quivers. In battle quivers may have been simple cloth bags of two dozens, as delivered by the ammo-boys running back and forth from the supply train.

Asian horse archers used combination arrow and bow-quivers (often works of art in their own right) that could be attached to the belt or the saddle. And yes horse archers commonly held a few arrows in one hand, ready to shoot. For hunting in the forest, it’s like Europeans did the same. Evidence suggests European war archers shooting from a fixed position stuck arrows in the ground, (target archers in Elizabeth I’s day used a little ground-rack called an Ascham, after Roger Aschem, the Queen’s archery instructor.

In fact, drawing arrows from a quiver can result in damaged feathers or heads, or having more arrows come out than you initially wanted. For this reason, crossbow bolts were usually stored in an archer’s belt-quiver point up, so the shooter could select the desired head (pick a quarrel). Crossbow quivers were also enlarged at the bottom to make extra room for the fletching, but I don’t think this is the case for hand-bows.

As for the running/leaping, stuff: in fact everybody shoots better while standing still. Bounding through the forest (of a video-set) while snapping shots from half-draw at foam targets from 5 yards didn’t actually occupy much of a medieval archer’s time. It’s damned impressive, but not very important. Battle archery mostly involved archers in fixed positions, shooting Very Strong bows that would have wrecked the shooters if they tried to loose three shafts a second.  (ENM note: my mother had occasion to watch the specialty shooters who used to travel the country for gun manufacturers, showing off what the gun could do in expert hands.  She said they demonstrated accurate shooting on the run and other fancy tricks, but told the crowds who came to watch that shooting when still was better, more reliable, more accurate.)

Fast shooting from horseback, necessarily at full draw for best effect, could be useful for skirmishers, or sudden encounter fights involving small numbers of contestants.

Ishi, the last of the California Yana people, who walked out of the woods in the late 19th century taught his anthropologist sponsors a lot about woodland archery. The academics reported the guy was a remarkable snap-shot at close range, but an indifferent marksman at a York round (40-60-80 yards) So for primitive archers, living in close country, the short-range stuff really is important.

As for piercing mail (with an appropriate point) that’s not particularly hard if the mail is butt-linked. If the rings are welded or riveted, it’s a bit harder. Boiled leather, wrought iron, etc. can be rather more difficult, and in fact it turns out slack-quenched Italian steel export armor is nearly arrow-proof.

So these speed-shooting videos are fun, and the Danish guy does Legolas stunts real well, but trick shooting has more to do with fantasy archery than the realities of ancient combat archery.

So what IS possible? I have watched my old archery buddy Leon loose 13 shots from a 60 lb. longbow in 30 seconds and get every one within the blue-line on standard archerytarget at 30 yards. It’s not splitting arrows accuracy, but pretty fast shooting from a bow at the very bottom end of militarily useful. Incidentally, he stuck his arrows in the ground for the speed trial. No quiver.

And finally: An important point that most people haven’t considered about rate of fire for bows or guns–target identification.

I used to participate combat archery in SCA melees, where you’ve got a couple of hundred people slamming away at one another. Using my ultra-light 65 lb. crossbow and heavy padded bolts, I could get off 9 shots in a minute, without bothering to watch the bolts’ flight, just load and shoot at a standing target, judging hits by the sound. I got six hits on the man-sized target at 50 yards. In another test, I shot ¾ in. rabbit-blunts, from a 180 lb. crossbow from a sitting position. I got 9 out of 9 hits on the 50 yard man-target, getting all but one in a 6 inch circle on the figure’s chest at 50 yards. All this in about 2 minutes. That’s probably a pretty authentic test, but please note that the target wasn’t moving AT ALL, I didn’t have to move, and nobody was shooting back.

So yeah, if the Duke of Osterfurstengoggle is standing still yelling orders, and the bowmen get reasonably close, they can put shots right into his open-faced helm, or maybe in his armpit the next time he waves that stupid sword in the air.

In practice on the battlefield, my actual service rate of fire was unlikely to exceed 2 or 3 shots a minute. Why? Because I have to find an available target, and I have to load on the move, and people sometimes shoot back, so there’s a lot happening.

If you have a thousand orcs charging the Deeping Coomb wall, one might get close to maximum rate… though it really does help to aim even then. Random shots tend to glance off random shields, helmets, shoulder plates, etc. So the ability to release x number of shots, whether with a bow or a repeating rifle is often seriously reduced by the availability of workable targets.  (ENM note: Experienced soldiers with weapons capable of very fast fire rarely “hose” an area, both to conserve their own ammo and because( other than when you need suppressive fire) it’s more effective to pick a specific target and hit it.)

Medieval archers in field battles shot in volleys of hundreds of arrows at blocks of troops maneuvering on the field, at ranges out to @ 300 yards. It’s likely plenty of their arrows actually missed the target, but that didn’t much matter, so long as enough hit and wounded the enemy. There, massed fire from very strong bows, shooting very heavy arrows makes perfectly good sense. But giving the powerful bows medieval archers used, I doubt they had a service rate over say, 6 shots a minute… with occasionally flurries of 3 or 4 in 20 seconds.

Presumably a fantasy archer like Legolas’ real advantage lies in his superb conditioning and skill at multi-tasking. A 2000 yr. old Elf, after a vast amount of practice, can taking an unerringly accurate shot at this orc, while simultaneously identifying the next three targets… not to mention shield-surfing donwtairs.

So enjoy the marvelous videos of amazing trick archers, but remember they don’t have much to do with military archery and only a little to do with hunting.

DRW, Curmudgeon/crossbow maker.

New World Arbalest


  • Comment by elizabeth — January 26, 2015 @ 10:28 am


    This version came out OK. Yay. There’s a link to David’s crossbow business New World Arbalest on the LINKS page,

  • Comment by Jonathan Schor — January 26, 2015 @ 11:44 am


    I have read that the quantity of ammunition expended per fatality is really immense in actual war. I have never read what the arrows per fatality ratio was in the old time battles.

  • Comment by june — January 26, 2015 @ 11:59 am


    Still would like to purchase the mini crossbow that shoots goldfish. Just never enough money left at the end of the month.

  • Comment by elizabeth — January 26, 2015 @ 12:04 pm


    In period accounts there’s talk of scavenging arrows (the enemy’s or one’s own, depending) from the field for reuse. So it’s clear there were often a lot of them around to be picked up an re-used, either as-is or after a repair. The chroniclers didn’t have our interest in percentages (alas!!) so we dn’t know. But running out of ammo (arrows or cannonballs or cartridges) has lost battles, hill tops, forts, etc. Replacement is time-critical. I heard a supply sergeant tell about a situation in Afghanistan where a unit was running out of ammo but someone screwed up loading their resupply aircraft and it brought some paper product instead.

    Whether the point was stone or metal, it was a valuable resource–depending on the kind of arrow, the shaft might also be difficult to reproduce in quantity for the next day’s fight. Picking up a shaft with perhaps a damaged point but intact fletching was going to save you a lot of trouble.

  • Comment by David Watson — January 26, 2015 @ 12:20 pm


    I can’t guess arrows shot per casualty, but I do seem to recall seeing an estimate (by John Keegan, a well respected authority) that the English at Agincourt had well over half a million arrows in their baggage train, yet they pretty much ran out in a single morning and archers were indeed gleaning ‘shorts’ at least from the field. DRW

  • Comment by elizabeth — January 26, 2015 @ 3:55 pm


    Here’s another takedown of the original video, link thanks to David Watson:


  • Comment by Sam Barnett-Cormack — January 26, 2015 @ 4:31 pm


    This is interesting coming after I heard about the latest bit of strangeness out of people determined to keep sexism in video games at all costs…

    Apparently, they were expressing disdain that fantasy video games feature women using longswords. Some people I know commented that really, if you’re going to complain about women doing something that they “aren’t strong enough” to do, you should be arguing about archery, not swords – and fantasy frequently depicts women as archers.

  • Comment by Sully — January 26, 2015 @ 4:56 pm


    On the Danish guy: Accuracy while parkour’ing is certainly impressive!

    But speedshooting a 30-35lb bow(as listed in the credits) is a whole different beast than speedshooting something with a draw 2-3x that.

  • Comment by David Watson — January 26, 2015 @ 5:03 pm


    Women may have trouble drawing heavy warbows in the 150 lb. range, but I’ve known plenty of women who were capable of pulling a 70 lb. recurve, given enough training. And there are always crossbows. Goatsfoot spanned crossbows are light and portable and should equal the power of a serious military longbow. And as for longsword, there are plenty of very competent women training with longsword. Sword and shield requires more power, but I’ve known women who could do that, too.
    Besides, thes games are FANTASY, aren’t they? DRW

  • Comment by elizabeth — January 26, 2015 @ 7:35 pm


    Sam, the people who argue against women wielding swords in fantasy games on the grounds that real women could never have done it…should read more real history. Every woman? No. Some women, though, could and did, either those with enough rank to give them an opportunity (wives of lords who were on Crusade or otherwise abroad were expected to rule and hold their lands. Several armored up and went into battle) or women who dressed as men and were not detected until death or an injury serious enough that someone undressed them to tend the wound and…got a big surprise.

    But of course…the kind of person who is offended by capable women in a fantasy game will also be offended by them in real life.

  • Comment by jjmcgaffey — January 27, 2015 @ 12:15 am


    And here’s Peter Morwood’s take on Andersen – pretty much the same (he focuses strongly on how light a bow Andersen’s using).


  • Comment by elizabeth — January 27, 2015 @ 12:42 am


    Morwood’s post is excellent; thanks for putting the link up here. As the online discussion grows, you can see the guys with experience coming out of the woodwork to say “Not so fast, Grasshopper–there’s still more for you to learn.”

    Like Morwood, my first thought on watching Lars’ video (not some videos I found last summer on a different style of fast shooting) was the trick-shooting of the gun manufacturers’ demo guys who used to travel the country and put on shows…circus trick, exactly. Because my grandfather had a hardware store and sold guns, they would stay at his house and my mother did learn things from them. But she said they emphasized that their shooting was tricks–not practical for hunting or war.

  • Comment by Jonathan Schor — January 27, 2015 @ 1:16 pm


    Paks was depicted as a rather strong girl from handling her Father’s sheep. Certainly she could and did wield a sword. I would suspect that using a broadsword would be partially sheer strength, or would technique overcome a stronger opponent. So far as women playing games – why not, as long as they are having fun.

    Perhaps I am just prejudiced in favor of women because I have two girl children and one of them in turn has a girl child – I would not trade them for any amount of boys. I also think that they should have full opportunity.

    Really heavy snow here in NH.

  • Comment by Kip Colegrove — January 27, 2015 @ 4:23 pm


    Thanks for an excellent discussion of a subject I’ve always found fascinating.

    In re scavanging arrows on the field, I suppose that if everyone is using heavy warbows, variations in the spline of the shafts would not be much of a problem. Nor would variations in the length of the shafts, if the bows had pretty much the same dimensions.

  • Comment by Nadine Barter Bowlus — January 27, 2015 @ 5:20 pm


    If we’re going to get statistical, how many hundreds? thousands? of pounds of lead and steel were left behind on the battlefield at Waterloo (muskets, rifles, and artillery together), Gettysburg, any of the protracted engagements in WWI, etc.?

  • Comment by Genko — January 27, 2015 @ 6:02 pm


    When Paks was recruited, she arm-wrestled with Stammel and held her own with her right arm (though he bested her on the left). She was tall and strong, and eventually built like a man in some ways (thick neck from all the fighting). Women aren’t all built the same way. Some of us have large bones and broad shoulders and can get to a place of being really strong. Others are definitely built more lightly and delicately.

  • Comment by elizabeth — January 27, 2015 @ 6:16 pm


    Nadine, I vaguely remember reading something in some military history book (a VERY vague ref!!) about the tonnage of munitions wasted in a given campaign. Not sure it was accurate, but it was amazing. I sometimes think the reason military organizations declare so many things secret is to keep the civilians to supply them from knowing the extent of the waste on the battlefield. The reality is that battles aren’t a time for conservation except in the cause of winning: if you lose the fight but have spent 30% less ammo, you don’t get credit for it.

    Genko: The thing many people don’t know (or forget) is that both males and females exist along a range of “strength” and “agility” (and other) levels, and the ranges overlap between the sexes. There are some women who are stronger (more agile, more effective/etc) than some men. The question isn’t “Is X as strong/agile/skillful” but “Is X strong/agile/skillful _enough_?”

  • Comment by Nadine Barter Bowlus — January 27, 2015 @ 11:08 pm


    I was thinking about the procedure common in the European armies engaged in the Peninsula Wars, early 1800’s–rolling volleys aimed at an advancing column. Lots of musket balls in the air, some fraction of which connected with humans. Where did the rest end up?

  • Comment by Sully — January 27, 2015 @ 11:16 pm


    On the overlap of athleticism between genders-even if games/scrimmages aren’t mixed, it isn’t uncommon for both genders to do drills together in HS or college basketball. It happens with some NBA/WNBA teams as well. Purely an anecdote, but in recreational basketball it’s totally possible for a skilled&fit woman to more than hold her own against boys, if she’s got either more skill or fitness than any of the boys.

  • Comment by elizabeth — January 27, 2015 @ 11:58 pm


    Nadine: on the ground, stuck in walls, in animals. If large enough to be picked up and anyone had time, they could be recast…or used for other things lead was used for. Wealthy armies don’t bother to pick up the enemy’s wasted ammo or discarded weapons…poor armies do, and make good use of every scrap.

    Sully: When I was in college we had a couple of women’s flag football teams that played almost full contact (you couldn’t tackle the ball carrier. But blocking was as usual, except no helmets or pads.) We also had male undergrad coaches, some of them buttheads. One coach decided to show the front line how they were ineffectual compared to men, how the line was full of holes, etc, and charged the center and left guard. To everyone else’s glee, they locked arms, came up from the set and he went flying to land with a large THUD. “Want to show us again how easy it is to get through the line? Because [name] and [name] haven’t had their turn yet.”

    He didn’t get any nicer, but he did get quieter.

  • Comment by Sharidann — January 28, 2015 @ 2:23 am


    Interesting Posts and fascinating to see Lajos Shooting from horseback…

    The really interesting thing is the weight of draw needed to penetrate plate or even chainmail…

    Reminds me alot of “Dies the Fire” by S.M. Stirling. At least some of the stuff he wrote about archery seemed lot more accurate than our danish prodigy.

  • Comment by GinnyW — January 28, 2015 @ 10:50 am


    This is a fascinating line (lines) of discussion. Thank you all, especially Elizabeth for inviting the stimulating article from David Watson, and David Watson for writing it.

  • Comment by Kevin Marsh — January 29, 2015 @ 9:26 am


    When I first joined the SCA 32 years ago, Iolo set a great example for me. He would train anyone who asked for it, male or female, as hard as they were willing to work. I have continued that tradition on the armoured combat field as well as the rapier field. Sure, the average guy starts out a bit better in upper body strength than the average girl, but fighters are individuals not averages. I was never prouder than when one of our War Company “thugettes” bounced a big ol’ boy off our shield wall and sent him tumbling into a line of his own spearmen. Training and conditioning counts for a lot more than initial fitness. I’ll take a squad of well-trained women soldiers over a gang of 20-something male hero-wannabes any day.

    Sir/Don Maelgwyn also know as
    Kevin Marsh

  • Comment by AThornton — February 6, 2015 @ 1:36 pm


    Interesting discussion!

    Volume of rifle fire versus hits: in World War II it was computed it took ~20,000 shots, in Viet Nam it was over 60,000 — IIRC. (I can find the exact figures if anyone really wants to know.) The basic reason for this “ineffectiveness” (sic) is the enemy was (and are) unobliging enough to hide behind rocks, trees, folds in the ground, behind walls, etc., where they can’t be seen (and shot.)

    Women in Combat:

    In modern combat women are just as, or more, effective as men as the CNT/FAI columns during the Spanish Civil War, the Red Army women snipers, and, on-going, the YPJ demonstrate. In ancient times women were generally kept from front line combat for many reasons some of which were sound, some unsound, with the over-riding reason: they didn’t need them. Ancient logistics (or more precisely the lack of logistics) meant fighting units in an army were sharply restricted wrt to the over-all population. Using the Dohomey Female army as a comparable women _could_ have been as effective as a ‘just us boys’ military. Without modern medicine a mixed force simply wasn’t practical because human nature.

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 6, 2015 @ 2:01 pm


    For your last sentence to be completely true, you’d have to find a way to explain those many instances in which women did fight in pre-modern-medicine armies. Modern medicine (esp. pre service physicals) ended opportunities for women to sneak into uniform & pretend to be men. Multiple examples of women who were discovered to be female only when severely wounded or dead. Or, in the case of one woman, when she got mad at her commander and admitted she was female to get out of the army.

    In the 20th c., having women actually fight in the military would have meant admitting they were “as good as men” and eliminating more than just military barriers. Since western Europe was stuck deep in the belief that women weren’t equal, couldn’t be equal…and opposed to “godless Communism” which in theory said they were…there were multiple reasons to “protect” women by letting them wear a uniform while they typed, programmed computers, nursed (including in combat zones, for which they were not paid), and so on. Certainly the women who ferried planes across the Atlantic were equally good pilots and could have fought in air combat as well as Russian women, but…they weren’t allowed to have ammunition in the guns.

    But change happens. And now they can. And do.

  • Comment by Daniel Glover — February 16, 2015 @ 3:33 pm


    Sort of related to this thread. Saw this on other social media. Longsword fighting received some “ink” in the New York Times.


  • Comment by elizabeth — February 17, 2015 @ 11:54 am


    Yes, I saw this. This was my reaction to swords (rapiers, mostly)–I just wanted to fight. Costumes are fun, social interaction, OK, but really…with a sword in hand, I just want to fight. Or did. Boy, do I need reconditioning and relearning skills.

  • Comment by Leo — October 30, 2016 @ 8:58 pm


    This is a fascinating line (lines) of discussion. Thank you all, especially Elizabeth for inviting the stimulating article from David Watson, and David Watson for writing it.

  • Comment by James — June 24, 2019 @ 1:41 pm


    This was really entertaining to read. The community here is awesome. Thank you.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment