By Mistress Arianna of Wynthrope
A few years after I joined the SCA, waaay back in the early 1980s, I took up archery. The Barony where I lived had archers with enthusiasm, but not a lot of knowledge. For almost ten years my Royal Round average was in the high teens and low twenties and never really improved.
Then in 1990 I moved to the Debatable Lands. Lord Ferdon of Glasger was Archery Marshal and within weeks of my working with him, my Royal Round average doubled. Over the years I have benefited from the tutelage of numerous fine archers like Master Gwilym o’r Avonydd Tair and Master Urho Waltterinen. Under their guidance I reached a Royal Round average in the 60s – not mastery, but pretty respectable.
The difference wasn’t just practice, it was knowing what to do and what not to do.
If you are in a group without experienced archers to teach you, this article is for you.
I’m still just a fair-to-middlin’ archer, but I know who the experts are. Conveniently enough, many of them were gathered at the Scarlet Guard Inn on June 12, so I took the opportunity to pick the brains of Master Jacopo di Niccolo, Master Urho Waltterinen, THLord Brada Æthelward, Master Alaric MacConnal, and Baron Edward Harbinger. This article is the result.
Let’s start with equipment.
Arrows must be made of wood, not aluminum or plastic, and their fletching must be feathers, not plastic. However, nocks can be plastic. Only use target points; do not use hunting points that look like wide arrowheads as they will tear up the targets. Arrow length is best determined by pulling back an arrow on your bow and having a marshal mark on the arrow where it hits the front of the arrow rest, then add an inch or two. Arrow prices are highly variable, so go online and shop around. You’ll save money by cutting them to length and tipping them (adding the points) yourself instead of having the vendor do it; you just need a hacksaw to cut the shaft to length, an extra large pencil sharpener or penknife to shape the end, and some hot glue to attach the points. The most common point weights are 70 to 100 grain. You need at least 6 arrows to shoot a Royal Round; 12 is a good number to start with since you will inevitably lose and/or break arrows. As Master Jacopo likes to say, “Don’t get too attached to your ammunition.”
You can use many different types of bows: recurve (like the one shown here), longbow, crossbow, and Mongolian are just a few. Fiberglass bows are permitted, but Master Jacopo recommends that you cover the rubber arrow rest with cloth or suede to prevent drag on your arrows. You cannot use a modern compound bow (the kind with pulleys) and your bow cannot have modern sights on it. Bow weight is a personal decision; most adults start with bows in the 25 to 35 lb. draw weight range, but stronger adults may choose to shoot heavier bows since they offer flatter trajectories. Try a bow out before you buy, and if you buy a bow from a merchant at an event like Pennsic, ask an experienced marshal to inspect it for you to ensure that it doesn’t have any twists, cracks, or other issues.
Other equipment you may find helpful include:
- Finger tabs or a glove to protect your string fingers. Gloves are preferred as they are easier to use. Make sure they fit snugly.
- An armguard to keep your forearm from being struck by the string when you release. Armguards are easy to make out of leather.
- A quiver to hold your arrows. You can use a hip quiver, back quiver, or ground quiver. Crossbowman sometimes use a quiver that attaches to their lower leg. Quivers are often made out of leather or canvas.
- A stringer to ensure that you string your bow correctly without twisting it
Targets can take many forms. For Royal Rounds, we use a color-face standard competition target that looks like the one below and is scored as shown. Arrows that break the line between two rings, even by a tiny amount, are scored at the higher value.
Targets are attached to a mat, usually either a straw or foam backing, which stops the arrows from continuing straight through the target face. Mats are often placed on a wooden stand. Together they are called the archery “butt.”
Next, here are the basics techniques you should learn and practice.
- Take a comfortable stance. Some people recommend that you put your feet shoulder width apart, but the important thing is that you find a stance that’s comfortable and then don’t move your feet for the entire round of shooting (called an “end”). If you move your feet, you change the trajectory of the arrows, which means any corrections you may try to make from shot to shot will not work. Stand with your body perpendicular to the target, so you are looking over your shoulder at it while your body is facing 90o away from the target.
- Use good posture. Arch your back, hold your head up straight, not bent forward, and pull the string with your elbow and forearm parallel to the ground.
- Load the arrow safely. As soon as you pull the arrow from the quiver, it’s a dangerous weapon. Make sure it’s always pointed at the ground or down range. Never point an arrow at another person, even if it’s just in your hand.
- Push the bow down range with your bow arm extended. If your arm is bent, you will lose power, causing the arrows to fall short. You also won’t get consistent shots, and you’ll work harder. Make sure that your elbow is locked but not turned inward where it can be struck by the bowstring when you release.
- Draw the string in one smooth motion. If you make multiple short pulls to bring the string back toward your face, it will be physically harder and beginners are more likely to have the arrow fall off the arrow rest. If you can’t pull the string back in one draw, then your bow may be too heavy for you. Try a bow with a lighter draw weight.
- Anchor the string. This means placing your string hand in the same position every time. Most archers find a spot on their face, like the corner of their mouth or their ear, and draw the string to that spot every time. Resting your hand against your face ensures that you’re in the same spot every time. Consistency is the key to accuracy. Baron Edward recommends that full-figured ladies try drawing to their chin in order to avoid the possibility of having the string brush painfully across their chest.
- Find an aiming technique that works for you. Some people point the tip of the arrow at the gold or another spot on the target depending on the distance. Others use the arrow rest as a reference, or put a piece of tape on their bow’s riser and use trial and error to mark where the target should be relative to the bow at typical Royal Round distances of 20, 30, and 40 yards. Some people are “instinctual” shooters who just look at the target and know where to point the arrow by getting a “site picture” in their mind. Experiment and choose a technique that works for you, and then use it consistently.
- Breathe. Some people hold their breath while anchoring the string. This tenses the muscles in the chest and back. If you breathe naturally, those muscles will relax and be in the same place for every shot.
- Keep both eyes open when aiming. Some people like to close one eye, but this means you’ve lost your binocular vision. Only people with vision problems in one eye should shoot with an eye closed.
- Always use a “dead hand” release. This means that when it’s time to release the string, you simply open the string fingers while leaving the hand in place at your anchor point. Many people have trouble with this – you’ll see them fling the string hand up or back, which is called “plucking.” This is a sure way to send the arrow off on the wrong trajectory.
- Don’t hold the bow drawn too long before firing. Your arms will tire quickly and your bow arm may start to shake. As soon as you have the string anchored and the arrow aimed, release the string.
- Never “dry fire” your bow. Dry firing is when you pull the string back and release it without having an arrow on the string. When you fire an arrow from a bow, most of the energy from the string goes into the arrow. If you dry fire the bow, with no arrow to absorb the energy, it all goes back into the bow, which can damage it.
- Pull arrows from the target by putting your hand on the arrow as close to the target as possible. If you try to pull an arrow out of the target from the back of the arrow, you are likely to damage it by twisting or bending the shaft. You could even break the arrow. Use your other hand to hold the target in place so you don’t pull it forward.
- If an arrow shaft is damaged, dispose of it. Even if the arrow’s shaft just has a small nick in it, it won’t fly right and it could be dangerous. Fletching, nocks, and points can be replaced, and arrows that break near the point can even be retipped, but if the shaft is damaged, it’s done.
In the SCA it’s not unusual for archers to wear clothing that’s a hazard when shooting. Here are some common concerns:
- Floppy sleeves can catch on the string and interfere with the arrow’s flight. Garter or tie the sleeves back if you must wear them.
- Jewelry can also catch on bowstrings. Viking necklaces have been known to fly down range after being caught on a bowstring. Big earrings can also be caught on a string, resulting in serious injury or pain. Remove jewelry before shooting.
- Big felt or straw hats can also interfere with the bowstring. Try tipping them back, or wear a smaller hat or hood.
Finally, it’s important to observe good etiquette on the shooting line. Here are some tips to ensure that you remain safe and help make the experience enjoyable for you as well as everyone else on the line.
- Bring your bow to the inspection point unstrung, and string it while the marshal watches. Especially with take-down bows (recurves that come in three parts that screw together), a strung bow can mask problems like loose screws, so the marshal will want to look at the bow both strung and unstrung.
- Stay back from the line with your bow down and your arrows in your quiver until the marshal instructs you to approach the line.
- Do not nock or release any arrows until the marshal gives the signal to shoot.
- If you see anything unsafe down range – a person, an animal, a target that has fallen over – call Hold.
- When a Hold is called, stop shooting immediately, take any nocked arrows off the string, and lower your bow. Then wait for instructions from the marshal.
- If you drop an arrow while shooting and it falls in front of the line, do not step or lean across the line to pick it up. This is very unsafe. Leave the arrow on the ground until the marshal calls an end to the round and instructs the archers to retrieve their arrows.
- When you are done shooting, especially if there are more people than there are slots on the line, take your bow and arrows and step away from the line so other archers can take a turn.
- While shooting on the line or standing near it, do not chat with other archers. Many people find conversation distracting. In particular, do not talk to the line marshal, who needs to focus on the archers and monitor the line for safety.
- Do not cross the line of fire until the marshal gives the signal to retrieve.
- When retrieving arrows, leave your bow back at the line or behind it. Never bring a bow down range.
- When walking toward the target to retrieve your arrows, keep your eyes on the ground so you don’t step on “dead wood” – arrows that fell short of the target. Arrows are expensive – you don’t want to break any, whether they belong to you or someone else.
- When pulling arrows from the target, stand to the side. If another archer is pulling arrows and you are standing in front of the target, you are in the way and could get accidentally jabbed with an arrow. It is courteous to hold the target from the side or back while others are pulling their arrows.
- Do not retrieve another archer’s arrows without permission. Even if they missed the target, their arrows’ location provides the archer with valuable information about where their arrows are landing and how to make corrections in the next round.
- If you find another archer’s arrow buried in the grass, you may pull it out, but then stick it upright back in the ground at the spot where it landed so the archer can find it there. When putting an arrow into the ground, hold it close to the point so you don’t bend or twist the shaft.
- If your cedar arrow breaks, share the scent. Jokingly known as “archer’s crack,” the scent of broken cedar arrow shafts is wonderful, and broken arrows are often passed among archers on the line to sniff.
- Treat other archers with respect, including children. While we may sometimes be in competition, it should always be friendly. Take time to offer encouragement to your fellow archers.
Click the video below to watch Master Alaric MacConnal demonstrate how to shoot with good form.
Have fun shooting! If you have additional questions or want to know who the archery marshals in your area are, visit the Æthelmearc Archery web page or contact Æthelmearc’s Captain-General of Archers, Baron Edward Harbinger.