Ancient vs. Modern Archery

Michael Huang

Brief history

The oldest arrowheads found so far were found in Africa, dated to be from around 25,000 years ago. The origin of the bow and arrow has been theorized to be an offshoot from the spear-thrower. In 2800 BC, Egyptians made bows made out of wood, tipped with animal horn, and held together with sinew and glue.  The bow looked like a "C" when unstrung, and needed at least two people to string it. The arrows were very light and could easily punch through armor 400 yards away. As others saw the effectiveness of the bow, they began to use it, and archery soon spread to every major civilization. Arrows evolved to include barbs,, long tips to pierce mail, , and half moots to cut through riggings. In 1520 AD the invention of the musket in warfare slowed the use of archers. However, people of east Asia have used archery in warfare as recent as the 19th century.

Ancient Archery Techniques

Instinctive shooting- The archer doesn’t need a sight or anchor point. They can instantly and instinctively shoot arrows by gauging the distance and pulling back anyway they see fit. One of the most basic skills ancient archers used.

Rapid fire shooting- many old books (“Saracan archery”, and “Arab Archery, an Arabic Manuscript of about 1500 A.D A book on the Excellence of the bow and arrow and the description thereof.”) talk of a technique where archers hold arrows in their hands and are able to shoot 3 arrows in less than 1.5 seconds. This is because while archers with arrows in their quivers need a minimum of 3 movements to shoot an arrow, archers using this ancient technique can shoot in one motion. It is written in the “Letters and notes on the manners, customs, and conditions of north American Indians” by George Catlin that an Indian chief “was able to shoot 10 arrows into the air before the first one hit the ground.” Rapid fire shooting was used by many ancient civilizations, although the method for holding arrows in the hand varied.

Chariot archery- archers could stand on a chariot often driven by someone else

  • Components- driver, archer, + sometimes a shield bearer.
  • Frontal charge- Chariots acquire some speed, and ram into the front line of the enemy army. The frontal charge was probably used as last resort and almost never used at the beginning of a battle, as the charge left the weak point of the chariots (the back) mostly unprotected.
  • Parthian Shot- In this attack, the chariots would approach the enemy lines shooting, and then making a U-turn, while still shooting, back to their own lines. While the chariot returns to the original positions, the archers would stand facing away from the driver and continue shooting at the enemy. The tactic was made to entice the other soldiers to break lines to chase the chariots, and served as a good way to harass the enemy before the main shock of the infantry attack. However, in order to protect the archers from enemy archers while they faced out the back of the chariot, they would need a form of protection, such as a small shield.

Mounted Archery- Mounted archery was the technique of shooting from a horse, greatly increasing the mobility and use of archers, for quick, confusing attacks. The archers of the Huns were well-known for their prowess in shooting accurately from horseback. Chinese archers also used this technique after the warring states period, replacing chariot archery.

Traditional Archery Techniques

Traditional archery is the area of modern competition that is closest to the ancient techniques.

String walking- “String walking is a primitive sighting technique. It allows the archer to use the arrow point as a reference. To accommodate the placing of the arrow on or near the spot, the archer needs to change his hand placement on the string for a given distance. Let’s say at 3 fingers under, index finger touching the nock, the arrow is point on at 40 yards. If the archer slides his index finger 1/2" below the nock, he is point on at 30 yards. At one inch he is 20 yards with his point. The further away from the nock, the closer the distance with the point as a reference.”( However, this technique forces slow shooting and is therefore not used for hunting.

Gap shooting- the archer uses the distance from the center of the target to the tip of the arrow as a reference point for aiming. The archer develops a system of set distances based on how far the target is. The drawback for this system is the inaccuracy of the archer in correctly gauging the distance between him/her and the target.

Part of a Recurve Bow and Arrow

Recurve Form

1. Stance- Stance provides the foundation for angular motion. 60% of the weight of the body is just below the toes. With an open stance, your feet should be approximately shoulder-width apart, close to parallel to the shooting line. The back foot should not be parallel to the shooting line, angled slightly less than 30 degrees. Hips stay in the same direction as feet, and the majority of the pressure should be in the front feet.

2. Hooking the String and Gripping the Bow- the Hook and Grip important because they are the only places your hands touch the bow. The string should rest just before the first joint on my middle finger; most of the string pressure should be focused on the top finger during setup, but on full draw 50% of the weight rests on the middle finger, 35-40% on the index finger, and 10-15% on the ring finger. Keep the thumb curled at the first joint, and the pinky as far back as long as it is comfortable. Twist the bow arm elbow so that it is not facing down. To grip the bow, most of the pressure should be focused beneath the web between index and thumb finger; the bow should be pushed onto the palm by pressure exerted by the string.

3. Set position- Set position is the position of the body just after setting the hook and grip. The drawing arm should be slightly pulling back on the string keeping the bow in place. The bow arm should be extended in a natural position, with a slight tension in the triceps and a slightly pronated elbow. The chest is rotated slightly away from the target and provides basis for power.

4. Setup- the setup position refers to the final position of my body before the drawing phase. Also called the “The barrel of the gun”. First, raise the bow arm while continuing to feel tension in the bow arm triceps. The bow arm should the bring up the bow 3 inches higher than needed, and, as the archer draws down, the chest should “coil” (twist into perpendicular position in relation to target). At the end of the Setup, the scapula is pushed into the spine, creating a straight line through the bow-arm wrist, bow shoulder, and drawing shoulder.

5. Drawing- the process of moving the string away from the pressure point on the grip. To draw, pull back the string while focusing on moving the triceps area around the spine. It is important that this is done correctly as doing it incorrectly could result in a repetitive motion injury. Motion must be angular.

6. Achieving angular motion-

  • Angular motion- movement around a fixed point. (More consistent and energy efficient than linear motion) In archery, that fixed point is the spine.

7. Loading and anchoring- the drawing motion leads to the loading phase of shooting. Anchoring is the process where the drawing hand returns to a certain position around the head every time. In the standard anchor point, the hand is usually around an inch below the jaw, with the thumb hooked next to the sternocleidomastoid (the big tendon in your neck that sticks out as you turn your head). The string is either on the center, or the corner of the mouth (based on personal preference) and centered on the nose.

8. Transfer and Holding- after reaching a solid anchoring position, it is time to hold. Holding refers to the time when most of the archer is still, and focused on transfer or aiming. Transfer is slight movement that transfers the remaining tension into the back’s stronger muscles.

9. Release and Follow-Through- the release should happen subconsciously- most experienced archers don’t even remember letting go of the string. After transferring and rotating, the string should slip through the fingers. The guy in the first video at 0:30 isn't doing it right!( He ins't transferring or subconsciously releasing- as a result his hand doesn't trace the back of his head, and the consistency probably goes down) or After the string is released, the draw arms should still follow the angle of rotations and slip around the head, fingers tracing around the neck. Also, the wrist should flick down, which “locks” the bow arm, making it easier to hold the bow arm straight.

Making the bow

Multiple sources I found talked about the use of fancy tools and time (2 years!) that I didn't have over the course of this project. So, I made do with some sticks I found in the woods behind my backyard.


5 ft flexible stick, averaging around ¾ in in diameter

string (make sure it doesn't stretch) Examples include: hemp cord, fishing line, rawhide… etc.

1 cm diameter straight stick (although more is an option), see below for how long to make. Types of wood include yew, oak, cedar, juniper, mulberry- wood that can be bent with a little effort.

Soft, thick string (optional)

Three 3 in feathers (optional)

Making the bow

First, I took a hike through the woods and found a 7 ft long stick that gave way easily when I pressed upon it. I took it home, and went to work with a few knives. This was the longest part of the process, because I couldn't seem to get through the hardwood at the center of the stick. After a few hours of hacking, shaving and ripping, I finally got an overly thick section of the stick, bark, and small twigs off the future bow.

Next, it was time to get the string on. I pushed the stick down, and found its natural curve (the direction the bow bends naturally when pressure is applied). From that time on, I used the outside of the curve as the “front” of the limbs, and the back of the curve as the “back” of the limbs. I cut two notches on each end of the bow, each curving from the back of the limb around to the string side. Then I took my string of choice, hemp cord, and ran it through the nocks four times, leaving about 3 ft of loose string on each side. After cutting the hemp loose, I then circled the loose string around the main string, creating the servings near the string loops (not sure what they're called). The remaining unneeded string was cut loose. Then, I pulled back the string, and moved my bow arm hand up and down the length of the bow, finding the positioning that felt most balanced and natural. Using that, I marked the section of the bow that was to be the grip. Using the grip position, I marked the central serving position (Where my three fingers will pull back). I cut a 5 ft stand of hemp cord, and twirled it around the string between the marks to create another serving. Afterwards, I wrapped some to the softer string (twisted jute twine) around the marked gripping section to make the grip. At this point, the main body of the bow was finished.

Making the Arrows

Rummaging around the woods behind my backyard, I found a satisfactory straight stick. Pushing the base of the future arrow against the center of my chest, I stretched my hands as far as they could down the length of the shaft. I then cut off the end of the arrow an inch further than the point my hands touched. Next, I cut a ½ notch in the base of the arrow, for the string to fit in. To make the point, I sharpened the end with a pocketknife, and hardened it by rubbing it on the top of a hot stove. Finally, I held three feathers at 120 degree intervals around the circumference of the base, and tied them on with hemp cord.

Euge! Et sic arcus feci!


Even though modern archers have many fancy tools  and parts to help them shoot, ancient archers are by far the better shooters in terms of efficiency and ability.

Comment Stream

4 months ago

Either you remove the feather from the arrow altogether or cut the feather in half from the feather spine. Then, attach it on the arrow like you see on rockets or like on the tail of an aircraft.

4 months ago

But still, a good job trying to build it