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Fascinating Facts About the History of Archery

Archers at the Battle of Hastings as shown on the Bayeux Tapestry.

Archers at the Battle of Hastings as shown on the Bayeux Tapestry.

Bows and Arrows

I suppose I'm not unlike many people in that the first thing I think when I hear the word archery is, "bows and arrows". The next thought will be "Robin Hood". I know, I know. I'm just a big kid.

However, having had the Olympics constantly on TV during the summer of 2012 and having been married to a man who would watch tiddlywinks as a sport (or even snail racing), I found myself watching many new-to-me sports, and the latest of them has been archery.

That was just the start of it: then came the Hunger Games, both books and films. Apparently I'm not the only one who has developed an interest in archery - recently there has been a real boom in the popularity of the sport.

My mind wanders, I must be honest, and I start to wonder how the bows and arrows I associate with Robin Hood have evolved into the technical instruments you see in the Olympic sport of archery. What is its history? Do you really need such, presumably expensive, equipment to enjoy taking part?

A Timeline of Early Archery

Paleolithic Age

  • From 90,000 to 40,000 BCE: Arrowheads found in north Africa
  • 64 000 BCE: arrowheads in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
  • 27,000 BCE arrowheads found in ancient sites in China
  • 20,000 BCE: pictures of bow and arrows drawn on a cave wall in Valltorta Gorge in Spain

Mesolithic Age

  • From 10,000 BCE, sharp fragments of flint inserted into bone or wood arrowheads found across Europe and Asia
  • Bows made from single piece of wood

Neolithic Age

  • About 4,000 BCE, triangular or teardrop shaped arrowheads used in central Asia
  • Compound bows start using wood and antler

Bronze Age

  • Bronze used for arrowheads, shaped to fit arrow shafts
  • 3500 BCE: Egyptians use longbows in war
  • 3300 BCE: use of quivers shown when man found preserved in glacier with quiver of arrows
  • 1300 BCE: Tutankhamun buried with Simple and composite bows, and hundreds of arrows
  • 800 BCE: stone carvings in central Asia show composite bows.

The Stone Age

The earliest examples of archery, both bows and arrows, have been dated to the early and middle periods of the Stone Age, that is, roughly 3 million years ago. The arrow tips were made of flint stone and the shafts of pine. The bows that have been found were made of elm.

How do we know? They were preserved in bogs, one of the most famous finds being the Holmegaard bow found in Denmark. Although these examples were dated to the stone age, they may very well have been invented earlier. These very early bows were made entirely of wood and so they would have rotted in most circumstances.

During the Bronze and Iron Ages archery was used for hunting but also in warfare and sometimes the archers were mounted. Apart from Crete, though, most archery was practiced in the Middle and Far East. The Romans had few archers and those they had were probably recruited from Crete. These later bows were composite bows made of more than one material such as wood and horn.

The Archers of the Ying Zheng

The Terracotta Army (replica)

The Terracotta Army (replica)

At the start of Ying Zheng's era (221 BC), his archers used to make their own bows and arrows, by hand, and generally to their own design. This meant that they were all a little different and so, if one archer ran out of arrows, he couldn't borrow arrows from any other.

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This problem was solved by controlling the length, shape, and size of both bows and arrows. The equipment had to be marked with the symbol of the workshop where it was made, so that the source any imperfections could be identified.

Battle of Crecy, 15th-century illuminated manuscript of Jean Froissart's Chronicles

Battle of Crecy, 15th-century illuminated manuscript of Jean Froissart's Chronicles

During the Middle Ages, archers were employed in armies but they were considered a cheap alternative to soldiers with armour and swords, in spite of the fact that archers needed long training and good bows.

English longbows were used in this period, as in earlier times, both for hunting and warfare. They were first used from the 12th century but weren't widely used until the 14th century when the English used them against the French during the Hundred Years War. These bows were about 6 feet (nearly 2 metres) long but this varied depending on the reach of the archer. They had to be made to fit the individual. Some of the bows found on the Mary Rose, Henry VIII's ship that sank near Portsmouth, were considerably larger.

For a time, arrows shot by a good archer were more accurate and faster than the early gunpowder weapons, but the end was in sight when advances in firearms continued. Gradually archers went out of favour and were no longer needed in warfare.

Modern Archery

Panels depicting Archery in England from Joseph Strutt's 1801 book, "The sports and pastimes of the people of England from the earliest period".

Panels depicting Archery in England from Joseph Strutt's 1801 book, "The sports and pastimes of the people of England from the earliest period".

Even though archery was no longer required in warfare, it continued to be used for hunting and then for recreation. Even as early as the 1500s, people took part in competitions so the sport of archery is hardly new, as much as about 600 years old.

It has now evolved into different types, broadly four: field, flight, clout and target archery, each requiring different skills.

  • Field archery involves moving around different environments, such as woodland, hillsides, while shooting at various targets from various distances.
  • Flight archery concentrates on the distance an arrow flies rather than the accuracy of the shot.
  • Clout archery involves shooting a target which is a flag. The arrows land on the ground and the nearest to the flag wins.
  • Target archery, the only type that is seen at the Olympic Games, is the most popular. The archer shoots arrows at a set circular target at a fixed distance.

Unsurprisingly for a sport as old as archery, there are many other sub-divisions.

Styles of Bow

By Robert Ronald McIan (1803-1856). (The Clans of the Scottish Highlands.)

By Robert Ronald McIan (1803-1856). (The Clans of the Scottish Highlands.)

There are several different types of bow, but the most common ones are as follows:

  • The longbow is the traditional wooden bow, virtually unchanged since medieval times.
  • The compound bow is the most modern bow, developed just over 40 years ago. It uses pulleys to make drawing the bow easier and allows for much greater accuracy.
  • The recurve bow is one where the tips of the bow curve away from the archer. Although they were once wooden, they are now usually made of materials like fibreglass and carbon. It is the only bow allowed in the Olympic Games. It has become very technical, with stabilisers and sights and other bits and pieces, all of which are intended to improve the aim and flight of the arrow. Watching the Olympics, I noticed that the bows fall forward after the shot - that is the weight of the stabiliser.

Are You an Archery Fan?

Results of Women's Team Archery at the Summer Olympics

Results of Women's Team Archery at the Summer Olympics

Sayings From Archery

In the same way that there are names that have derived from archery, as I mentioned above, the practice of archery has had an effect on the English language and no doubt on most other languages too.

Engraved from a drawing by Adam Buck.  Archery was one of the few sports acceptable for genteel women at the time.

Engraved from a drawing by Adam Buck. Archery was one of the few sports acceptable for genteel women at the time.

"The upshot" is the final shot in an archery competition and often the deciding shot.

Having "a quiver-full" means to have a lot of children.

"Point blank" comes from the French point blanc, a small white target, and meant originally to be close enough to hit the target with a direct and level flight, and now means to hit more or less without fail.

"Having two strings to your bow" was once good practice in the days when bowstrings could rot and break easily.

"A parting shot" seems to have come from the Parthians of north east Persia, known to pretend to flee from the enemy but shooting arrows backwards, Parthian shots.

Interestingly, "hitting bull's eye" isn't from archery because bull's eye targets weren't used in ancient archery but were introduced later for rifle shooting competitions.

Names Associated with Archery

I have cousins whose family name is Archer. It's obvious that the family at one time in the far distant past were archers. The name Arrowsmith must have been someone who made arrows, but less immediately apparent are the other names associated with archery: Fletcher, Bowyer, Stringfellow. My journey of discovery continues.

The Hunger Games Effect

Very recently there has been a huge upsurge of interest in archery because of the Hunger Games trilogy, a series of books which is now an enormous success through film, music and other spin-offs. Here is a video taster of what you can expect.

If the trailer has whetted your appetite for more, the movies are available on DVD, or you could even read the original books and get ahead of the movies.

Only the first two movies, The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, are currently available on DVD. The third movie, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I, will be released in 2014 and Part II is planned for 2015.

I have found that my budding interest in archery has fuelled an interest in watching this series of movies but I realise that the reverse is true for many people, and that they have developed an enthusiasm for archery as a result of seeing the movies.

Read all about it

My first inclination when discovering a new subject, is to read everything I can lay my hands on. Here is one book that I'd choose on the subject. I do always tend towards historical themes but there are others about the more modern archery.

Longbow: A Social and Military History

This is my first choice for reading about the history of archery because I always like to know as much as possible about how people lived in former times. It was first published over 10 years ago but republished in 2012.

It's written by Robert Hardy, an actor who has appeared in "All Creatures Great and Small" and "Harry Potter". His part in Shakespeare's "Henry V" led to his interest in medieval archery and he has now become an acknowledged expert.

Please let me know you have been visiting.

"When you shoot an arrow of truth, dip its point in honey. ~Arabian proverb

Your own experiences would be very welcome.

Glenn on January 28, 2019:

Enjoyed your article. I'm a bow hunter, as are my brothers, and my son. I've been reading about the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC) and decided to search on the use of archery in warfare. Thanks for putting up this great history article. I'd like to point out a small typo - the Holmegaard bow was dated to the Mesolithic period which is 15,000 - 20,000 years ago (not 3 million years ago). See

Alexcole on November 01, 2018:

Amazing history i am doing homework about this

amandascloset0 on March 02, 2014:

Thinking of starting my kid in archery. She's very interested and wants to learn. She's not into contact sports so this may be her best outdoors activity.

Bow-hunter on May 24, 2013:

I tried once to shoot a medieval replica bow - takes a lot of skill. Great info!

FantasyFootballRankings on January 22, 2013:

Great information about archery. Thanks for sharing.

getmoreinfo on September 08, 2012:

Archery is a great sport for young and old alike, and many popular movies like the hunger games has spurred its popularity again.

cassieann on September 03, 2012:

I used to practice archery with my Dad and brothers as a youth.

savateuse on August 23, 2012:

I've only tried archery once, but did enjoy it!

LouiseKirkpatrick from Lincolnshire, United Kingdom on August 23, 2012:

When I was younger I used to participate in field archery (using longbows). I used to even fletch my own arrows! I loved it but then life got in the way...I somehow doubt my arm muscles are strong enough to pull a bow these days.

anonymous on August 18, 2012:

We have an archery range not 3 blocks from where I live. I keep thinking I might try it someday. Thanks for spurring me on!

flycatcherrr on August 09, 2012:

We often have an impromptu archery competition at our local neighbourhood gatherings. I'm quite remarkably bad at it, but it is great fun!

Michelle from Central Ohio, USA on August 08, 2012:

Very well done. I love archery but I don't get out nearly as much as I'd like too.

Michelle Hogan on August 06, 2012:

I love my trusty old Redwing Recurve.

LoriBeninger on August 06, 2012:

I was a fairly good archer in high school and have always loved the sport! Great lens.

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