A Fantasy Writer’s Guide to Medieval Archery

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Archery features heavily in fantasy; it’s one of the reasons why I love the genre so much.

But I’ve learned—the hard way (always the hard way isn’t it?)—that doing your research when it comes to things such as this is necessary.

Not only will you look like a genius for knowing crazy shit about bows, but you’ll have a tale enriched with pleasing detail.

I’ve done a bit of that research for you, and below you’ll find a nifty guide to all things archery.

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The arrow


The anatomy of an arrow

The nock is to hold the arrow to the bowstring.

The shaft was sharpened into a point, or an arrowhead attached to the end. Early arrowheads were made from bone, stone or horn, with metal arrowheads like bronze and iron, developed later.


An ancient Greek/Scythian bronze arrowhead 

There were various ways of affixing the head to the shaft (I can hear your dirty minds working). An early method was using a glue-type resin made from plants. Another was a process known as hafting, which involved softening the shaft with heat or water so that slits could be cut in its heart. The arrowhead, carved in a suitable way, was then fitted into the holes. Another process was split-shafting. This involved splitting the end of the shaft lengthwise, inserting the arrowhead, and securing it using sinew or rope.


A split-shafted arrow

Some lazy bastards just spat on the end and shoved it onto the shaft right before they fired, enough for the head to stay on the shaft and lodge in the body of an enemy.

The feathers used in medieval fletching came from goose, turkey, duck, grouse, pheasant, even pigeons. Goose however, was deemed the best. This type of feather possesses oils which make it waterproof, to a certain extent. The size of the feather depended the purpose of the arrow.

White Goose feather

White goose feathers used in fletching

Arrows decelerate quickly once fired, and the velocity of an arrow was important in penetrating metal armour. Here’s a brief distance/damage guide to give you an idea:

  • From 80 metres an arrow would merely dent steel armour, and leave a knight feeling pretty invincible.

  • From around 30 metres away an arrow would puncture steel, but would cause only a bruise, the padding beneath the armour coming to the rescue.

  • From 20 metres away an arrow would penetrate clean and deep, as the French and Genoese crossbowmen discovered at the Battle of Crécy (1346)—a battle won by the longbow, and one worth reading about.


A depiction of the Battle of Crécy

Arrows were stored in quivers made from oiled canvas to keep them dry.

The only way to cleanly remove an arrowhead was to push it through the victim’s wound and out the other side. (I’m swallowing vomit here). If bone stood in the way, then depending on how good your doc was, it was pulled free with forceps.

The bow

The short bow emerged first, but, as the name suggests, it had limited range, and as a result, limited effectiveness in battle. The longbow changed archery and warfare forever.


Anatomy of a bow

Most longbows were made from a curved stave of, amongst others, yew, ash, hazel, maple, and elm. Yew was deemed the best because it can withstand a great deal of tension. The strings tended to be made from hemp (taken from the world’s favourite plant) because it’s strong, easy to manufacture and inelastic.

The longbow was somewhere between five and six feet tall, and tended to match the height of the wielder to allow for a full draw. Like arrows, a bow was kept in an oiled canvas bag to keep it dry.

The shape of the bow was very important. There were a few different shapes, the main being:

recurve bow

The recurve: a bow in which the tips curve away from the wielder. As the bow is drawn these curves straighten, and when loosed, snap back to propel the arrow at a greater velocity. To achieve the shape the tips were boiled in water. 

self bow

Self-bow: a simple bow made from a single piece of wood with the tips pointing away from the wielder.

How the bow was used

Mastery of the bow required a great deal of practice. Training involved lining up and aiming at markers set at various distances and gradients. A key skill was reading the landscape to note any dips, rises or obstructions. The objective was to create a killing zone, rather than aiming for specific targets.

The act of notching the arrow to the bowstring is known as ‘nocking’, and with this, speed was everything—definitely not like me, fiddling for minutes just to get the arrow on the string, all the while swearing profusely. The arrow is then ‘drawn’ back, the string tightened. To keep it taut an archer had to be physically strong, with power generated from the muscles of the back. ‘Loose’ was the order to fire. “Nock, draw, loose.”

So speed was important, and to accelerate the process in battle, arrows were stabbed into the ground before the archer.

Archers had to be mobile too. If shit hit the fan they had to move and adapt. Heavy armour was spared, with the emphasis on lightness and portability. If archers did get caught up in close combat most were armed with a blade of some kind, a popular one being a falchion—a one-handed, single-edged sword, similar to a machete, but with a cross guard.



Mounted archers became popular during the Iron Age, with the earliest depictions coming from the Parthians of Iran. If you thought firing an arrow while standing still was tricky, how about firing one from a charging horse.


Mounted Parthian archer

Mounted archers provided a massive tactical advantage, able to harass the flanks of foes, cause disruption and confusion, and inflict casualties. The Parthian shot, as it was known, was a tactic which involved retreating from an enemy while turning the upper body and shooting backwards. Mounted archers were, however, pretty weak against a large force of foot archers, who had a much swifter rate of fire, as well as a bigger target to aim for.

The crossbow

I’ve opted to keep the crossbow separate due to the differences in its use and operation. Compared to the traditional bow, the crossbow was cumbersome. It was, however, easier to shoot and packed a hell of a punch. From close range, armour may well have been made from butter.


The anatomy of a crossbow

Some medieval crossbows were crafted with horn and sinew, as well as wood. Horn can take great strain, and sinew, such as that of the neck tendon of an ox, becomes stringy when hammered.

The biggest downside to the crossbow was the length of time it took to reload. With some of the earliest crossbows, the user had to sit down and pull the string back to load the bolt. A totally ideal method in warfare … Devices were crafted to increase this already swift reload speed. A rack and pinion—a winch-type contraption—was one such device (image below). Another was a belt attachment which pulled the string back. Larger crossbows possessed another type of mechanism known as a windlass, seen in the picture below.

rack and pinion cbow

Rack and pinion

windlass cbow

Windlass crossbow (tiring work, as his face suggests)

The crossbow was a weapon rarely used by the common folk. They were high-tech devices in their time, like the floppy disk in the nineties, and as a result cost a pretty penny.

In warfare crossbowmen hid behind a large shield known as a pavise. As you can see in the picture below, one man held up the shield, while the crossbowmen worked away behind.


As well as shields, crossbowmen, and archers too, tended to be protected by pike or bill men who formed defensive positions around them, known as hedgehogs, a tactic used to counter cavalry attacks.


Try charging through that

If you want more crossbow fun, check out this website. 

And if your taste for archery has not been quenched, I couldn’t recommend this documentary more. You can also check out my guide on writing fight scenes which you may also find useful.

If you have any interesting bits of knowledge on archery, please share in the comments below!

If you enjoyed this post, why not join my writing community? Everyone receives a free ebook on the craft of writing, lists of publishers of short and long fantasy fiction, and a list of over 100 fantasy book reviewers. All you need to do is complete the form below!

23 thoughts on “A Fantasy Writer’s Guide to Medieval Archery

    1. That does sound fascinating! I’ve heard of a tribe, I think from Mongolia, who hunt with eagles. They have to catch their own and train it as children. There’s those fishermen in Asia too who train birds to catch fish for them. Incredible

      1. Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything left unsaid in this post as far as I can tell.

        I could nitpick on things such as proper posture (which a lot of movies actually get wrong) and my greatest peeve when it comes to archery in fiction; archers holding a bow drawn for ages like that stuff’s not heavy, but… That kind of thing is more ‘dos and don’ts’ territory I think. 🙂

        And I should mention that the crossbow section has helped me immensely. I’m trying to design a custom crossbow for one of my characters that’s actually somewhat believable. Huge pain. But I might have some ideas now. ^^

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