The early history of archery centers on its use in battle. Before the English longbow, archery was considered a military occupation for the lower classes. Bows and arrows were cheap to make and the training was short and easy. Before the longbow, armies used the archer in battle much like artillery, with massed flights of arrows and little precision in hitting the target. This changed decisively during the Hundred Years War (1337 to 1453) when the longbow contributed to English victories at Cercy, Poitiers and most importantly at the Battle of Agincourt.
The English used bows to hunt for food and spent significant time and effort on their creation. The English Army recognized that training for the longbow required a lifetime of rigorous work. The longbow differed from the smaller, weaker bows of the archers on the Continent in its strength and accuracy. The longbow usually stretched between five and six feet in length with a three-foot arrow and could be as long as six feet eleven inches. The draw weight of these bows varied, but was almost always heavier than European bows of the period. The weight could be as heavy as 185 pounds, three times the weight of most bows today. At the Battle of Agincourt, English archers caught French knights as they tried to wade through thick mud in full armor on lightly armored horses. After the French fled the field of battle and gave the victory to the English, the English army of 8,500 had lost 450 and the French army, numbering 50,000 lost 4,000.
The bow and arrow continued to be a part of English, and later American, life from that time forward, even after gunpowder pushed the bow out of military use. The interest in archery in America took a big step forward after the Civil War when two Confederate veterans, Will and Maurice Thompson, used the bow and arrow to hunt for food in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. They were aided by Thomas Williams, a former slave. Williams had knowledge of the English longbow and taught the Thompson brothers how to build and use it. Maurice Thompson wrote a book called “the Witchery of Archery,” which made it to the bestseller list.
In 1911, a Native American named Ishi came out of hiding in California. He was the last of his Yahi Indian tribe and lived the last five years of his life at the University of California at Berkeley Anthropology Museum. He was under the medical care of Dr. Saxton Pope, an archery enthusiast, who took the knowledge given him by Ishi and used it to hunt big game in Alaska and Africa. Archery entered the mainstream of American life and produced research into bow construction. Our modern recurve and compound bows are the result of this research.
The recurve bow differs from the English longbow because it curves away from the archer at the ends of the bow. Recurve bows are usually made of several layers of fiberglass, carbon, or wood on a carbon foam core. Compound bows have a lever-and-pulley system to give the archer a mechanical advantage in pulling the bow. The archer pulls the string farther than the bow bends and the pull weight can be heavier without fatiguing the archer.
Archery became an event in the modern Olympics in 1900 but wasn’t contested between 1920 and 1972. The games in Munich in 1972 featured men’s and women’s individual contests. In 1988, the Olympic committee added team competition to archery. In 1992, the contest went to a round-robin format with head-to-head matches.
Nigel Weathersby focuses on sports, hunting, outdoor activities, hiking and camping, as well as other topical issues; those fascinated by archery should seriously consider viewing the resources available at Shooting.org.
Image via: Toledo Blade