Sunday, February 8, 2015

A Taste of Real Archery (a debate of sorts)

It is hard to match our modern archery skills to the skills of our ancestors. We don't do things the same way. However it is possible to get a hint of it. Many still hunt game with bow and arrow and some recreations of ancient warfare also make use of safer versions to simulate their use in war. No one today is a true professional archer because archery is no longer anything more than a sport. That said, some can come darn close. Dedicated individuals can learn a lot of the ancient ways and come close to understanding and reproducing them.

I am an archer myself. I picked up the bow and arrow as a kid and did target practice against a tree in the back yard (a very sizable tree I might add). After many years away, I cam back to it in the mid 90's thanks to the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism). If you aren't familiar with them, they are dedicated to recreating as accurately as possible, the arts, crafts, and warfare of the high middle ages (600-1600 AD). But the purpose is also to have fun so the typical course of going from newbie to expert is to start with modern equivalents and slow work your way up to making authentic items by authentic means. For safety reasons, their armed combat has to use alternate materials and they even have live combat archery equivalents. For archery, that meant learning about and crafting my own bow and arrows. I went as far as getting a piece of ash to make a bow out of, but by the time the wood had cured, the nature of the local group had changed and I had moved on to other things. Such is the way of life. So I did not achieve those goals myself, but I was with many who did.

This gives me the basis with which to compare the claims of Lars Andersen and a rebuttal by Anna Maltese and see who is closer to the truth. In my time in the SCA, I studied several forms of ancient archery in my pursuit of skill. I chose to aim for English archery, but I delved into Native American and Japanese forms of archery as well. All use completely different styles and materials, yet I found a commonality among them. In Japan, Kyudo, as the art of archery is called, uses ancient bows and arrows, unchanged through the years. It ranges from school archery clubs to those who learn how to shoot from horseback. A gentleman in Wyoming has learned again how to make Native American bows and arrows and has proven that they are just as deadly as the other schools of war archery around the world. Also while in the SCA, I met people who studied Mongolian archery. But nowhere did I encounter anyone who went truly ancient in their pursuit of the best the ancient world had to offer.

So in comes Lars with his five minute video where the narrator explains and Lars shows, what he has learned. His antics with the quiver full of arrows is funny because some of those have happened to me. It was a good thing I had more than the 7-8 arrows I can shoot in 30 seconds in the quiver because often some of those would end up on the ground. Not just me, but many archers had the problem. Quivers are very useful for carrying a large number of arrows, but they are not convenient if you are moving. Anyone employing archery for its two historical uses would know this. Anna tries to rebut this, but it is clear she is a quiver shooter and hasn't been in the situations where this causes problems.

Lars claims to have studied ancient images from manuscripts and inscriptions, among other things, for visual representation of the style he sought to uncover. This matches my own research. Anna tries to rebut this by claiming they are not that accurate and that those artists would have no closer association with archery than modern artists who get it wrong. As someone who has used those sources himself, I have to say Anna is plain wrong. Many of those ancient images yield details about the past that help archaeologists and historians make sense out of the written accounts. Most modern artists get their source material from books or movies. Before those things existed, you had to actually see it to know how to draw it. And in the places and times were professional archers were far more common, it was easy to find an archer practicing to see how they did it. Lars has the right idea in this case.

And that leads right into target archery. Lars rightly claims that target archery was unheard of. Most archers of antiquity did not learn to shoot at a target. They learned to shoot things in nature. Mainly food. their targets were things around them, not a board with a mark on it. Target archery is good to train a novice on how to aim and fire a weapon and gain enough accuracy and stamina for battle line warfare (such as Agincourt). That was not, however, how things were done in the ancient world. Archers were sometimes in the thick of things and had to shoot to stay alive. Closer targets are easier to hit but it requires great speed. Again I found Anna does not know what she is talking about and her rebuttal falls flat.

That leads to the main point of Lars' video. He has discovered that people have been using the slow side of the bow and slower techniques. Yes, they get very fast, but not as fast as they could be. Here Lars fails to fully explain what he is talking about and when Anna tries to respond she totally misses the mark. To achieve the greatest speed when shooting a bow in the traditional manner, the arrows must be in a quiver on your back. The motion of pulling an arrow out of the quiver places it in the ideal position to put the arrow in the correct position to shoot. But that requires the motion to reach and pull the arrow. It is out of sight and the first thing you have to do is find an arrow. There is always a bit of uncertainty with this even though good archers make it look effortless. Lars found that holding the extra arrows (and he certainly has managed to get skilled at holding quite a lot of them) in his draw hand saves that time of that entire process of pulling them out of the quiver. At the same time it is nearly impossible to place them in the other side of the bow. So in the interests of speed, he uses the other side of the bow. The many images he found agrees with this. If you notice, many of those images lack any sort of quiver.

Having tried speed shooting myself (30 seconds at 20 years and my best was 9 arrows and my most accurate cluster was 7), I know that any uncertainty and unnecessary movement that you can remove will increase speed. Lars' method does just that. His method removes the motion to reach for the arrow in the quiver. He has managed to hold ten arrows in his draw hand and shoot them all quickly, but the norm seems to be 3. Even removing that reach for the arrows in the quiver 2/3 of the time will increase shooting speed dramatically. Reaching for the arrows is the slowest and most uncertain part of the process.

The last piece of his research led Lars to learn how to shoot with both hands. As he pointed out, modern archers tend to shoot with one eye. While most archers don't close the other eye, they are very concerned with which eye is dominant and pick a left or right handed bow accordingly. Lars claims that this should not be the case because a true expert archery should be able to shoot with either hand and that aiming should use both eyes, not just the dominant one. That matches my experience.

The rebuttal for some of these points is hard to watch. First, Anna doesn't get what Lars is talking about. She has fallen for the myth that the dominant eye should dictate which arm holds the bow. This works quite well for target archery which relies on careful aiming. It does not work so well for the situation where archery was born. Target archery is just a stand-in for hunting and warfare. In those situations you must be aware of your surroundings and you might need to shoot in any direction at any moment (yes, even in hunting, because you and another predator or rival hunter may be after the same game). Anna mistakenly shows several modern bows with their deep cutout (so the arrow doesn't have to bend around the bow) and then talks about the archer's paradox. Well those are two completely different things. Modern bows, especially the compound bow, allow the arrow to shoot straight without having to bend around the bow. They also use aluminum arrows which don't bend. Isn't she supposed to be a professional archer? It doesn't show from the way she completely missed this entire section. For one thing, when Lars speaks of right or left side of the bow, he is speaking of right or left when you hold the bow in your left hand and draw with the right. What Anna is talking about is how the archer holds the bow in their primary shooting position based on which eye is dominant. Every instance she shows of an archer with the bow on the left, they are holding the bow in the right hand. So she just doesn't seem to get what he is talking about at all. Not to mention that the archers paradox only applies to traditional bows that have no cut out. A traditional bow is straight, with no rest or any bend. The arrow must go around the bow because of physics. In modern bows this is no longer the case, as Anna's video clearly shows.

Her rebuttal just falls flat in so many ways. For one thing it shows a lack of any sort of understanding of the type of archery Lars is attempting to replicate. It is not trick archery, though his skills are good for that as well, but it is combat and hunting archery. Anna draws on the Mythbusters test of archery myths and with my historical studies of archery, I have to bust their busting of some of these myths. They messed up on several points and some of the ways they goofed are clear in Lars' video. Let's start with splitting an arrow. They declared that one busted, but their test used modern wooden arrow shafts.

I'll first describe how they are made and then where traditional arrow shafts came from. Modern wooden arrow shafts are made from lumber. You take a large piece of wood and cut it into 1/4" x 1/4" x 30" pieces and then round them into a shaft. There is no consistency in the grain and few of them have grain the runs the length. It requires the luck of hitting the grain direction just right in the few arrows that have any grain that goes the length to split them. Traditional arrows were not made from lumber, they were made from branches. There are several different variety of plants, depending on the region, that provide nice long, straight pieces that are perfect for arrows and only require a small amount of work to even out the length. These, like bamboo arrows, will split because the grain goes from one end to the other. And Lars is not trying to split an arrow in a target, but split the arrow he is shooting on a stationary blade. That is much easier. Hollywood usually achieves this effect by pre-splitting an arrow and having the second arrow run down a hidden wire. They used this quite effectively in a recent episode of Doctor Who featuring Robin Hood. The only real problem trying to do this in real life, if you have the right type of arrow shaft, is that the second arrow must be 100% parallel to the first and that is hard.

The next item they tested was catching an arrow in the air. Mythbusters tried a mechanical hand to grab the arrow, but it could not close fast enough. What Lars does is not so much catching as it is knocking it out of the air and grabbing it in the process. If you can shoot an arrow out of the air, you can swat it like this and grasp it at the same time. It obviously is is possible because Lars does it. Though I would not try that at home. He has ten years of practice at these things.

Anna's next assertion to rebut Lars is just ridiculous. Lars claims that as archery advanced, that the source of arrows switched from quiver to bow hand to draw hand and Anna claims this should follow some historic progression. This right after a section where she enumerates just how many different cultures used mounted archers (something Lars mentions but which Anna seems to be saying he missed). Each culture would have its own progression, but with Archery around for thousands of years before historical records existed, it is more likely that it is an individual cultural level of expertise that is achieved by a few. It is also likely that this was the preferred method of the real experts - the typically undocumented people who used archery in their day to day lives for hunting food. Many of the English archers were such people. Yes, they could fire a 100 pound yew bow and it could shoot for a very long distance and was very useful in battle, but more than likely these archers also hunted wild game and much of their shooting was at closer ranges.

So when you take these two videos together only one comes out on top. Lars, while his video shows a lot of trick shots, is full of solid data about ancient archery. Deriding his sources and attempting, through some downright misleading images, to say that his information is inaccurate does not make Anna's case. Instead it makes her seem arrogant and only a student of modern target archery who is convinced her way is right. Lars was quite right in his assertion that he has rediscovered lost techniques because they are lost to the body of western archers. Many Asian archery traditions have maintained their closer ties to their historical roots, but the west abandoned archery in favor of the less accurate and slower black powder guns. Americans derided Native American archers and only careful research of their equipment has proven that they had the same skills as other historically skilled archery cultures. Lars does exaggerate a number of things, but only to quickly make his point. When I compare the two side by side, I see the truth of Lars skills and research and see through Anna's attempt to debunk his claims. That level of archery does not exist in the target archery world. An Olympic gold medal archer could not do the type of shots that Lars does with similar equipment.

In the end, I think of Howard Hill. He was the master archer in the United States back in the 1930's. Anyone who watches Errol Flynn's The Adventures of Robin Hood can see his work. He used an English longbow and made most of the shots in the film (except splitting the arrow) without any effects work. Even that shot of shooting the rider in the chest (it hit a block of wood under the rider's tunic). I also think of the combat archers of the SCA, who go into the fray (as happened in many battles of the Middle Ages, though not at Agincourt) and pick up arrows that are compatible with their style and shoot them back. I think of the archers I knew who could shoot faster and more accurately than I did. Twelve arrows in 30 seconds seems like so many, but I have since learned that even that is not as fast as it can be done. And I think about the people who taught me how to shoot, about trusting my instincts, about pointing at the target and not focusing on the arrow, but the entirely of my stance and who helped me get up to eight arrows in a nice group (If I got a ninth one away it usually was a bit wild as were a few of the others). I could have gotten faster if I'd practiced more. At least as a writer I can put that skill into their hands and Lars video is a great tool for going from the expert target archer, to an expert war archer, to a truly skilled genius archer.


  1. A brief addendum is this video by Antony Cummins. He has much the same view as I do, but he puts it differently and he is much more into seeing Lars prove his claims.

  2. Hello there, interesting points. The main criticisms I've seen about Lars's video are that:

    1) He uses a weak bow. This one I am skeptical about because Lars has said that real war archers would have used much stronger bows but that at his age, trying to use such bows was giving him injuries. But in addition, no one has shown that Lars's technique couldn't be done with a war bow with someone strong enough to draw one

    2) He uses a half draw. This I think is a legitimate criticism for his really quick shooting, but the thing is, even with using a full draw, his technique would still result in incredibly quick shooting, just not AS fast as with the half draw.

    3) He uses modified nocks. His nocks are much wider than standard nocks which allow him to shoot rapidly. I have read one archer saying that mass-produced war arrows wouldn't have had such modified nocks, but I do not on the surface see why not. Maybe wider nocks was the standard form of arrow back then? Of course, modified nocks might also affect the arrow's flight as well.

    4) For catching the arrow, he is using a very weak bow to have it shot at him, not a war bow.

  3. Here are my thoughts on the video rebuttal my Anna Maltese, who I also think made some mistakes and did not rebut Lars fully:

    1) Why is what Lars doing trick shooting and what most target archers today do not a form of trick shooting as well?

    2) The claim that you can't go by historical images is a weak one. It depends on what the image shows. Why would multiple images show archers holding multiple arrows in the draw hand if they clearly did not? That would mean flat-out lying on the part of the artists, not a simple mistake. Showing the arrow being drawn on the right side as opposed to the left side could be a simple mistake and may not be historically accurate but showing arrows in the draw hand is much more questionable about being historically inaccurate. As the narrator says later on with regards to equipment (back quiver) pictures versus pictures of technique, certain areas of art are much less prone to historical inaccuracy. I would think something like holding the arrows in the draw hand fall there.

    3) Regarding the issue of whether the techniques are forgotten, it would be a stretch to say Lars is the first to discover these techniques. So it is probably more likely that he did rediscover them in some fashion.

    4) On the book Arab Archery, the video makes some excellent points. On the aspect of horsemanship, I think that is meant with regards to the archery would probably be used by cavalry and not foot archers.

    5) Agree that catching the arrow in mid-air is a trick, not something with combat application.

    6) The video makes a mistake in claiming that Lars claimed archers practice on stationary targets. He said that archers today stand still, whereas in the past they more would have moved around. This is precisely what many of the pictures from manuscripts the narrator uses to counter Lars's claim show (such as riding on horseback while shooting and a man running while shooting).

    7) Agree on the issue about shooting from the left side of the bow, but while one can still shoot quickly from the left side, they cannot shoot as fast as when shooting from the right side.

    8) The back quiver for use in medieval combat is mostly a Hollywood myth. That said, Lars is wrong to claim that the back quiver itself is strictly a Hollywood myth.

    10) The narrator criticizes Lars on his bow having an easy pull, but Lars himself has said that a war archer would have used a much stronger bow. He said that at his age, using such bows was giving him injuries.

    11) Agree that Lars is wrong to claim that the arrows in draw hand method was universal everywhere.

    12) The text that claims the Saracens could loose three arrows in 1.5 seconds is "Saracen Archery." As for how the Saracens measured seconds, it wouldn't have been actual seconds but an equivalent measurement that equals 1.5 seconds. I very much would like to know the sources the authors of the book used to arrive at that number (for example, maybe someone needs to find the text (s) they used in the original language and translate them).