Thursday, July 30, 2009


I made mention of the bow briefly during the discussion of hunting, which technically by my own rules I should not have done. However, I only gave it a few lines, so certainly there will be no trouble expanding here.

In the game Civilization IV, the archer is the first practical military unit your civilization develops. Early in the game, enemy archers, while defending, prove to be a significant pain. To feel secure, it is necessary to build them quickly and have them distributed about your kingdom.

There were bows in early history, coinciding with the rise of the town and proving their considerable worth with the rise of large social entities such as Egypt and Mesopotamia. While the early bow was developed some 18,000 years ago (consisting of arrows with blackened, charcoal tips rather than imagined stone arrowheads).

The plain bow was a single piece of flexible wood, seasoned and shaped so that the tensioned string would cause it to bend in a regular curve. The shaft was as straight as it could be made; sometimes the point was barbed, to retain the arrow in the wound, and sometimes blunted, for shooting birds. Much later (and not applicable to the early bow), shafts were given fluted, waxed section points for the penetration of armor.

The strength of a bow is usually given in the pounds of force necessary to pull the string. Modern target or hunting bows usually pull at 40 to 80 lbs, or sometimes 100 lb. Military bows in the middle ages could exceed that considerably, up to 150 lbs. or more. The range of a short bow was probably about 220 yards.

To increase the amount of possible pull, composite bows were developed, consisting of several pieces of wood glued together and mounted with horn at the points where the string was attached. Animal sinew was incorporated for strength – initially, these were ‘short bows’, from 3 to 5 feet in length. The Japanese would develop this one further stage, so that the center of the pull would be higher than the actual center of the bow – which gave the power of a long bow without the necessary dimensions.

Prior to the Norman Conquest (and before the age of Robin Hood), the bow was seen as an auxiliary weapon, not intended for open-field battles, but for skirmishes and attacks from ambush. Siege operations, too, allowed for short range application of the bow from movable towers, to create an effective barrage on a wall – or its equally effective defence.

Because the addition of the long bow in Civ IV occurs along with Feudalism (which I will be concentrating on at that time), I’ll go ahead and talk about the long bow as well, just to get the whole subject out of the way.

It is likely that the best archers in Europe in the 11th century were the Norse and the Normans, who had a long history of the bow’s use, and who developed advanced tactics in its use. The policy developed into the English longbow, the most powerful weapon of the 13th to 15th centuries – in which case it was used as a shock device prior to melee.

I would like to make a point about the distances at which bows can be fired. While the long bow can be fired to distances exceeding 700 yards, I have to emphasize that players who imagine they can hit targets accurately at this distance are woefully misinformed. Most well-trained men can fire a short bow to a distance of 250 to 300 yards, a long bow to a distance of 500 to 700 yards – but this was done without targeting an opponent, but by launching volleys at the enemy with the expectation that a great many of the fired missiles would miss.

Practical target shooting is another thing altogether. Clout shooting, a historical practice, consists of a target some 48 feet across laid flat upon the ground, and fired at from a distance of 180 yards. Typically, the contest allows competitors to shoot 36 arrows. Wand shooting, derived from Robin Hood’s feat of splitting a willow wand at 100 paces, is done with 36 arrows at a distance of 100 yards. Shooting at the ‘butt’, a mark placed on an earthen backstop, was typically done at 50 yards.

The more traditional target shooting (such as that done in the York Rounds), allows 72 arrows fired by competitors at a 48 inch target from 100 yards.

In D&D terms, that is considerably less than 210 yards granted by the Player’s Handbook, p. 38. By the same table, short range with a long bow (in the outdoors, though I’ve never understood why players are weaker indoors) is 70 yards ... suggesting that first level fighters have a 55% chance of hitting an unarmed person (a mere 20 inches in diameter) at that distance. This would make every fighter in the game an Olympian, when compared with the measurable success present day athletes have at target shooting.

Typically, the range that some players might be familiar with, a distance of 800 yards or more, was accomplished by use of the ‘flight arrow’ ... useless for battle, but effective for producing greater range. Such arrows were developed for contest purposes. Typical D&D arrows would be ‘hunting arrows’.

The best bows are made from Osage orange, yew, lemonwood and Tennessee red cedar. In the United States, other woods used included sassafras, black locust and hickory.

The best arrows are made from varying cedars, Norway pine, Douglas fir, Sitka spruce. Native Americans used birch almost exclusively, but it is not a superior wood (it was, however, plentiful in the eastern continent).

One last point, with regards to firing speed. The Pope-Young Hunting Round is a contest in which the speed of the shot is placed above target shooting. Contestants are given 36 arrows which are then shot at six targets at six different distances, with a 45 second time limit for each six arrows. That is effectively 6 shots in 7 D&D rounds ... most notably while the contestant is not taking part in a melee.

Once every other round is perfectly fair.


noisms said...

Once every other round isn't perfectly fair. The Pope-Young Hunting Round doesn't sound like it places speed of the shot above accuracy - it simply introduces a time limit so that participants can't gain an unfair advantage by taking aim for ages and ages with each shot. It's not very sensible to base rules for archery on such a tournament.

According to Strickland, an expert on historical bows, more than six shots a minute from a long bow would be unreasonably tiring for the archer. This is imagining longbowmen arranged in a mass battle, like at Agincourt, where accuracy is of lesser importance, but the idea of only being able to take a shot once every 90 seconds seems bizarre in light of it. Twice a round would be about right.

noisms said...

Once every two minutes, rather - not 90 seconds.

Alexis said...


Just to point out, in my world, and on this blog, a round is six seconds. I've posted that enough.

Who the hell is Strickland? Does he have a first name and any credentials? Or an ability to base any of his expertise on something other than his imaginary account of a battle he did not attend?

For the record, Saxton Pope-Young (1875-1926) actually was an expert, not an imaginary one, and the time established for his round was not pulled out of his ass, but was the time suggested for what would be a difficult time period for world-class archers to manage successful hits on targets.

robman said...

I believe he might be referring to Tim Strickland.

If not, this guy is pretty good, too.

Alexis said...

I appreciate the elucidation, robman. The fellow's credentials look good, and I imagine he's a fair judge of what might be tiring for a longbowman.

My only contention would be that all too often the historical person is judged by standards which apply only to the last century. Prior to 1920 and the development of many labor saving devices, musculature was more highly developed in an average person - I can't express how often I've seen 'historical' interpretations which completely ignore the ideosycratic nature of physique in the 20th century.

I can tell you that my grandfather, born in 1886, a sharpshooter during the first world war, could quite easily pull a 120 lb. bow, though he was of less mass that I was at the time when I was a competitive wrestler in my teens. I could not pull his bow, despite my musculature at the time.

Most modern competitive bows have a pull of 50 to 80 lbs.; these would be the bows Mr. Strickland trained on and spent his life on. He might have a different opinion if he trained every day with a 120-150 lb. bow. I have no doubt that he doesn't, and that his judgement is based on his training applied to the harder to pull bow.

Charles Angus said...

Sorry to pull up an old post, I'm reading through your archives (and loving it). I thought you might find this an interesting reference point on the speed of archers.

If you go to 1:22 you can see the impact of the arrows as well as the shooter. By my count, she can consistently manage 5-6 arrows in a six second period. It would thus seem pretty reasonable for a fighter or ranger of sufficient level to be able to shoot 5 or 6 times a round.

I realize she's using a light shortbow, and not a heavy longbow, but she also probably doesn't have a 15 strength or 6 Fighter levels.

I can understand not allowing such high rates of fire for game balance reasons, or limiting damage for high rates of fire, but it does seem to me like something a high-level fighter or ranger would probably be able to do.

Alexis said...

1) If you will take note from the video, there are arrows laying on the ground, where they have simply bounced off the cloth she is shooting at. If she were truly firing the arrows to the degree they'd be needed in combat, she'd have to pull the bow further back than she's pulling. Also, there's zero indication of accuracy in the video.

2) She is using a MODERN bow. I cannot stress how much of a difference this makes, in flexibility, in the manner in which the arrow is matched to the string (no neat plastic ends in medieval arrows) and in durability.

3) Not every target is standing still. Having used a shotgun to fire at game, the speed the shotgun fires is less important than the time taken to AIM - which is different than archery competitions, where the position of the target is known before the archer starts firing.

4) My rounds are 12 seconds long, not one minute, so I have made some adjustments in that way to speed of firing.

5) Finally, a high level fighter DOES get multiple attacks per round, so a decently fired arrow every six seconds.

I realize none of these things matter to you - or else the post itself would have had more impact than a silly video on youtube.