To be an archer

After watching the British Archery team go out in the first round of the Olympics, it made me realise just how much we have fallen in the world rankings in the last seven hundred years. So, presented here are my thoughts on the bowman in a role playing game. Enjoy.

The following tips and advice are all based on widely perceived historical fact, so feel free to use them, whilst I take some pleasure in using my History& Heritage degree for the first time since graduating over a year ago. The aim of this blog is to make being a ranged combatant in any medieval like setting a bit more interesting than standing at the back loosing arrows while staying out of trouble.

First let us consider one of the finest examples of a bowman from the medieval period, the English warbow user. This isn’t idle speculation, or a sense of national pride (why should I be proud of something I had nothing o do with, just because it was done by people born within a certain geographical proximity?), but is actually true. It wasn’t naturally the case though, it was actually a law that made the common Englishman so proficient. All males of a certain age were required to practice for several hours a week, giving them the barrel chested build one needs when trying to pull a big ass longbow. And I mean big. Taller than a man kind of big. One point of note is that they weren’t trained to hit targets as much as you would think. Ignore Robin Hood and the archery butts with round targets; that was very much what the better bred shot at whenever they lowered themselves to take part in this activity. No, what they were trained to do was pick a range and land an arrow in it. At the time this was key because they would be firing in volley and wanting to concentrate the arrows as much as was possible. Since most archers in roleplaying games aren’t loosing arrows with 200 hundred of their mates, we shan’t spend any longer talking about that.

Lets get to the good stuff. Why use a warbow instead of a crossbow? Sure, a crossbow is a devastating weapon, designed to work well over long distances, without losing much of its stopping power. It was also designed to be used from withing a castle shooting out, with a small team of men to cock and load it. For a quick reason as to why you shouldn’t rely on them out in the open, just look at what happened at the battle of Crecy. The rain plays merry hell with a bow string, and a warbow can be unstrung when required, with the string coiled up and put under a hat. It’s not exactly easy to re-string in a hurry – even the men who used them all the time and were built like oxen couldn’t do it that quickly – but a combat round or two is well worth it if you don’t want your arrows to fall very short indeed. If anything did go wrong with the bow, or for that matter the string or arrows, don’t fret. Due to the nature of using a bow, it should be safe to assume you know how to repair, replace or just make new bits, provided you have access to basic resources. If your GM disagrees, I’ll have a word.

On top of the basics, most bowmen would also carry around molds for arrow heads, and know how to melt down and reform metal to make new ones. This fact isn’t probably that important, unless you’re playing with a GM who likes to punish careless archers for missing their targets and instead sending arrows over the horizon. No, the thing to take advantage of here, is the type of molds you should expect to have:

Regular. Nothing too special about these, but just remember that they’re all barbed. Only way to get them out is to push them through. Nasty right? It gets better. If you’re going to be loosing more than a couple of arrows, take them out of your quiver or satchel and put a decent handful point down into the ground. Not only will this be quicker to grab them, but also give the arrowhead a nice coating of dirt. Just in case they survive the shot, the infected wound will kill them. This works for all arrow types by the way.

Bodkin. Armour piercing. Don’t get too cocky though, you’ll need to have your target within fifty feet and hit straight on. If you do though, they punch through a breast plate and right into the person wearing it.

Broadhead. Mainly used as a horse stopper, as most other arrows don’t do that much damage to the half ton of muscle that is a war horse.

To make it easier to swap arrow heads, and more of a pain to get them out of wound, they’re not stuck fast to the shaft. Simply spit down the join, then push it on to the arrow with a twist to keep it as secure as it needs to be. A simple twist and pull will take it off again meaning you can change arrow heads in a hurry if you need to.

And one final point; never rely on just your bow. Have a short sword or long dagger about you too. Sometimes an arrow will drop a chap, but not finish him off, and if they’re still wearing armour, you want something that get into the gaps between the plates (armpits are the best if you can get nice and close). And of course it wouldn’t kill you to get the blade of your weapon nice and dirty too, just to make sure it will kill the bugger you’re sticking it into.

I hope you all have some fun with that, and please feel free to show off about the cool stuff you’ve done with a bow in your own game. Next time, we discuss crossbows, and ask why they’re never as deadly in games as they are in real life.

7 thoughts on “To be an archer

  1. Nice read, don’t forget the mattocks carried by the English on campaign as well (in fact the Engish archer on campaign was very well equipped, in addition to his bow he have a short choppy sword, hand axe, light armour, buckler and more). Even more so if he was a mounted archer!

    Now as someone who has played archers in games I’d offer up a couple of tips

    1. Your bow will be of no use to you for 75% of the game (unless you are playing some sort of super cinematic game like Feng Shuei)

    2. Your other fighter friends might not appreciate getting stabbed in a fight while you stand at the back plinking arrows into the fight, and theyll definately hate you if there is any blue on blue…

    3. Be prepared for your bow to fail or break.

    • Ps by mounted archer I don’t mean a horse archer like the Mongols, but an archer with a horse for mobility across country, and who were a mainstay of the English in France.

    • Depends on the system, and the shot you want to fire. In five second with arrows readied as described you could loose two of them but not at full draw and without really aiming well. Mind you, Japanese archers do very well indeed with barely a second to aim, but that’s very different discipline. Take a look at some zen archery stuff and you’ll see what I mean.

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