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Back to the Gwyntarian Archer's Guild home page Ask Archy, part three

"Ask Archy" was a series of articles devoted to answering questions about traditional archery in "The Bodkin's Point", a Gwyntarian Archer's Guild publication that ran from 1992 through 1995.  The following questions and answers are from Volume III, Numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Note:  A question about who makes traditional crossbows and quivers is not included here, as the answer included information (names and addresses of makers) that is quite out of date.

Q:  On page 4 of the most recent "Bodkin's Point" there is a small paragraph about archery peers.  It assumes that there are no peers as of yet.  Well, there ARE peers in archery (people given peerages specifically due to their work and skill in archery).  I believe there are three of them.  I KNOW that Master David McDougalls (Order of the Pelican) is one, and he was not the first.  Who are the others?

A:  Not being the author of our announcements page for the Vol. II, #4 issue of the "Bodkin's Point", I can't guarantee what was on the mind of the person who did write it.  But, I agree with them.  It is true that Master David received a Pelican for service to East Kingdom archery.  William of the Blackfletch, who is no longer active in the Society, received his Pelican for archery service also.  I also know of Iolo FitzOwen Who received a Laurel for crossbow making.  If there are any others, I am unaware of them.  But none of these individuals, and no one else to my knowledge, has received a peerage for the skill of the archer, for shooting true and superbly.  This, I think, was the sense of the announcement notation to which you refer.

Q:  How many arrows did an army go through during the average large battle in the Middle Ages?  I keep coming up with numbers in the hundreds of thousands.  How many arrow makers accompanied the army on campaign?  Wasn't quality control kind of a problem?

A:  Your estimate for the number of arrows is reasonable.  Consider the Agincourt campaign.  Henry V brought with him, we are told, something like 8,000 archers.  Each of those archers was supposed to be equipped with 24 arrows, and given Henry's very detailed organizational efforts at Porchester, they probably had close to that.  That implies roughly 190 to 200 hundred thousand arrows on hand.  I don't have any precise figures for fletchers on the campaign, but I do have more than one reference to Henry's unusually meticulous preparations with respect to logistics and supply, including such exotics as chaplains, masons, armourers, a drover corps, and (for the very first time in English military history) surgeons.  I gather, therefore, that 10 to 30 bowyers, fletchers, and apprentices is not too inaccurate a figure.  Two hundred thousand arrows sounds like a lot, but in context it isn't enormously huge.  A moderate sized ash tree can produce 2 to 5 thousand arrows; say 3,000 for figuring.  That means that the Agincourt campaign consumed perhaps 50 to 65 trees worth of arrows - not a catastrophic loss of lumber, overall.  Note also, that arrows are very often reusable, requiring only that the archer spend the time to pick up spent ones that aren't fatally damaged.  Quality control both was and was not a problem.  It was a problem in that, sure, a hastily produced arrow from uncoppiced stock is likely to be poorly balanced and badly mismatched to the particular bow and bowman it is issued to; for target shooting it would be hopeless.  But it wasn't a problem, because the archers weren't target shooting.  A military mission involved volley fire at long range into a packed crowd of opponents, either stationary or charging.  One usually didn't aim for individual targets, and if your particular arrow veered off center, so what?  It would harass something else in that direction.  By medieval military standards, SCA archers shoot extremely slowly, at extremely short ranges, with extremely high accuracy.

Q:  I saw some late period crossbows in the Art Institute Museum in Chicago that had metal prods (I assume steel - though probably not very good steel).  They looked like the leaf springs off a Kenworth.  What draw weight did they have?

A:  I haven't seen them, so I can't say for sure, but I have a real good idea.  Your description sounds like late period siege crossbows, 15th and 16th century stuff.  These specialized beasts averaged (are you sitting down...?) at between 400 and 800 pounds draw weight.  Nine hundred pounds was not uncommon.  A specimen from Nurnburg was tested at 1,200 pounds.  (As part of the test, it fired a bolt 450 yards across the Menai Straits in Wales.)  I have heard of a slightly damaged specimen gathering dust in an Austrian armory that has been indirectly measured at something like 1,400 or 1,500 pounds.  Why?  To punch holes in wooden hoardings set up along parapets and walls, to punch holes in wooden drawbridges, and to chisel out holes in stone.  Incidently, the steel was perfectly respectable case-hardened low carbon alloy.  What they could have done with Kenworth leaf springs, which are chrome-vanadium tool steel with anti-shock, anti-vibration characteristics, is a frightening thought.

Q:  Given the SCA Board's recent decision that archery is a Laurelate activity, what is archery, an art or a science?

A:  This question is constructed on the premise that archery can be pigeon-holed in one category, and assumes the possible answers to be mutually exclusive.  I wish reality were as easily codified; unfortunately, things are a bit more complicated than that.  I feel that archery has both artlike aspects, and sciencelike aspects.  I further feel that these two aspects receive greater or lesser emphasis depending on the particular moment in an archer's round of activities.

A science is the testing of an idea in terms of real-world experince or experiment.  Archery is scientific when it takes a concept (hitting the bullseye), and submits that concept to testing (maybe if I aim it there... no, ok, I'll noodge up just a hair... no, ok, a little more... alright, on line but to the left; I'll try a change in release...).

An art is the expression of an idea in terms of real-world metaphors.  Archery is artistic when it displays a concept (perfect, controlled blending of human ability with a particular tool or device) in such a fashion that viewers can see and appreciate the approach to excellence on the part of the shooter.

The SCA seems to have categorized activities into arts, sciences, or martial activities.  Dancing, calligraphy, and the like are styled arts; armoring, brewing, and research are considered scientific; and the use of rattan is martial.  I would like to suggest that there is a fourth category which could be added: sport.  A sport is an activity one does for relaxation and pleasure, and as such can have sciencelike and artlike, and even martial-like aspects to it.  It depends, ultimately, on what your persona is about.  We are all in the SCA for sportlike (or at least hobbylike) reasons, but our personae would have very different viewpoints.  They would spin, card, and weave as a job, a household need.  They would brew, smith, practice calligraphy, etc..., as responsibilities in their world.  They would paint, compose poetry, dance, and so forth, as artistic expressions of their feelings in their world.  They would fight in battle to defend their homes or advance their Lord's interests.  And they would practice target archery, or fence, or play chess, or engage in tournaments, or practice equestrian skills, or propound for each other puzzles and logic-games among a great many other activities, to recreate themselves in a relaxed and semi-competitive atmosphere.

Therefore, is target (as opposed to combat) archery an art or a science?  I would say both, but I would add that it is better seen as a sport, and that "sport" is a grouping under which many SCA activities, as seen through the eyes of our personae, could usefully be viewed.

Q:  I had heard that yew wood had become extinct, but I've also seen what was described to me as a yew longbow of recent make.  Can you clear up the confusion; and could you also explain why yew has such a reputation as a bowyer's wood?

A:  Yew isn't extinct, but its European subspecies are a lot scarcer now than they used to be.  'Yew' describes any of a number of closely related subspecies of a coniferous tree found from northern subarctic to altiplano semi-arid conditions, although it tends to prefer northern temperate cool and wet areas best.  It has been known as a good bowyers material for thousands of years (the so-called 'Ice-man', a 5,400 year old glacier-preserved corpse found recently in the Austro-Italian Alps, was carrying a yew longbow).  It achieved that reputation because it combines the lack of density and general springiness of all conifers with a fairly straight and very even grain.  Oaks and hickorys have the same kind of wood, but are much denser and less pliant.  Ash is a reasonable substitute, though not quite as good.  Some American (and hence non-period) woods are actually better, such as osage orange or lemonwood.

The best yews for bowmaking weren't Welsh, they were Spanish; the more arid the climate, the tighter and shorter the grains.  When England came to appreciate the longbow as a fieldable weapon, a law was passed requiring merchants trading with Spain to import their products on pallets of yew staves.  The Spanish caught on to this, and when Spain and England became enemies in the 16th century, most yew groves in Spain were destroyed by royal edict.  Land clearance of a more gradual sort has been responsible for its disappearance in Great Britain as well, although there are still some trees remaining; its main use today is as an ornamental.  There is a species of yew growing in North America, in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon; it is the main source of bow staves for traditionalist archers today.

Yew actually has some severe limitations; it is subject to a gradual fiber deformation from stressing that, over time, will build up to the point where it will break suddenly.  The typical life span of a yew longbow is 1 to 3 years, and what is commonly seen is a bow that shoots superbly for the whole period and then shatters without warning.  Yew being as expensive and exotic a material as it has become, this characteristic tends to keep it out of the hands of any archers who cannot afford the initial $250 to $600 investment, or the replacement cost of that investment in the next several years.

Q:  Can you describe some of the common types of arrowheads used in the Middle Ages?

A:  I suppose I should first mention bodkin points, since that's the name of this newsletter.  They were narrow, unvaned wedges, ground or hammered into points and used as armor-piercing ammunition.  The target points we use today come closest to these in spirit.  Pheons were the typical 'arrowhead' shapes, basically a bodkin wedge with flight vanes to either side.  They were used in warfare to harrass massed enemies, and most particularly the horses of massed enemies.  As hunting arrowheads, their intent was to stick in flesh and hopefully be difficult to remove, at least by brushing out.  Bird blunts were, as the name implies, anti-fowl ammunition designed to knock birds out of the air without damaging them by penetration.  So-called Bowel-rakers had wide lunate edges, or "Vee" tips used primarily as naval ordnance, fired to cleave ships' riggings.  Humming bulbs are usually thought of in a Japanese context, but they were known in Europe as well.  They were any of a variety of fluted or hollowed out heads, designed to make peculiar buzzing sounds in flight, once again with the intention of scaring the horses and lowering morale.

Q:  I have no depth perception.  How can I shoot archery without being a danger to myself and others?  Is there some aiming technique that could help?

A:  Depth perception isn't a sine qua non in archery, though it certainly helps.  And as far as being dangerous, poor depth perception would only be a factor if someone were sneaking around behind the targets.  The only shoots you should avoid are woods walks and random distance ranges, where an ability to judge how far away the target is, is crucial.  For known range distances, you can learn to shoot accurately; it'll just take awhile longer than usual.  In fact, most archers are functioning without depth perception in the commonly understood sense of that term anyway, in that most archers shut one eye to aim.

Since depth perception is a function of the eye's ability to focus, my first suggestion would be to get a pair of prescription lenses; but if that is not feasible or desirable, then you must concentrate on proper aim points.  The simplest way of doing this would be to affix a length of tape to the inside of your bow, make a non-permanent mark on it, and shoot a target of known distance while noting whether the target is above, even with, or below that mark.  Note where the arrow lands; if it is beyond the target, you need to lower the tape mark with respect to the target.  If the arrow hits the dirt in front of the target, the reverse is true.  Eventually, after some trial-and-error, you will be able to calibrate a mark that is quite accurate at that given distance.  You may then go on and sight in marks at other distances; you will find that they tend to space themselves evenly from one another.  Thereafter, merely line the mark up to the target and you will have a good approximation of where to aim the bow.  It won't be exact, and variables such as wind, heat, cold, humidity, mental attitude, and so forth will affect shots to a greater or lesser degree.  But you will be pretty close.

An alternate method is to line up your eye, the tip of the arrow, and some terrain feature, such as an odd looking tuft of grass, with one another.  Then, after firing the bow you once more note where the arrow falls, and adjust accordingly.  This method has the advantage of keeping you legal for traditional longbow class, since that class forbids the use of bow-enscribed sights.

You will need to practice regularly, or course; and being tutored by a local marshal would be of great help; but your circumstance is by no means hopeless.

Q:  I want to buy my spouse archery equipment.  What's a good beginner bow and how do I buy good arrows?

A:  Getting a bow for a novice comes down largely on the question of poundage.  I would recommend having your spouse test-pull a number of different bows at varying poundages.  The ones that feel 'about right' will be the draw weight that you want to look for.

Unless money isn't important, you will then want to look around at garage sales, flea-markets, and the like.  These will be your best source of a reasonably inexpensive used bow.  If you can, I would strongly urge that you get a local archery marshal to accompany you on these jaunts, for they will be able to inspect possible bows for flaws or other problems.

A marshal's opinion will also be of use in purchasing arrows.  The marshal, and other experienced local shooters will be able to name good fletchers.  You will have to order these from the fletcher, either in person or by mail.  Be prepared for the fact that a typical set of SCA-legal arrows may be more expensive than a bow; in the case of a flea-market bow, they will be a lot more expensive.


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