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Home > Books > Badminton > Chapter VI: Savage Archery
Chapter VI
Savage Archery
By C.J. Longman
Part 1 of 2

IT IS a common belief among those who know no better that all savage races who use the bow and arrow possess an extraordinary degree of skill. The feats which have been credited to the American Indians, and many other races, would be marvellous if performed by men armed with the finest modern small-bore rifles and aided by range-finders, telescopes, and wind-gauges. It may therefore be useful to collect a few authentic instances of actual performances, which will give a reasonable idea of what the bow is capable of in the hands of uncivilized and semi-civilised races. Its powers at the present day, in the hands of English archers, will be dealt with in another chapter.

Few races depended more upon the how, and were more familiar with its use, than the North American Indians in the days before firearms became plentiful; and on the manners and customs of these tribes we have no better authority than Mr. G. Catlin. He spent eight years in travelling among them, from 1832 to 1839, and succeeded not only in preserving amicable relations with them, but also in gaining a remarkable degree of intimacy with many of their chiefs at a time when the tribes were far more powerful than they now are, and were to a great extent uncorrupted by contact with civilisation. Mr. Catlin was a man of acute observation and a skilful artist ; so that his notes, both with pen and pencil, have great value as contemporary records of the archery of the Indians at a time when they had hardly any guns, and depended on their bows, not only in war, but also for killing the wild animals --especially the buffaloes-- on which they subsisted.

Mr. Catlin's evidence does not show that the Indians were able to shoot any remarkable distance, or that they possessed any extraordinary accuracy of aim. It is not probable that the finest shot among the Blackfeet would win the championship of Great Britain if he were to enter for the Grand National, with his stiff but rudely made tackle, against English archers, whose bows would be made from staves of the best Spanish yew, whose arrows would be absolutely true, and whose practice had been devoted solely to the object of pounding arrow after arrow with monotonous accuracy into the middle of a patient and unresisting target at fixed distances. But change the position, and let our champion approach a herd of a thousand buffaloes (alas ! that such a herd no longer exists) with a fifty-pound self-yew bow, and blunt arrows which would ' spin' with perfect smoothness and ' balance' at the same spot to a hair's breadth, but would only weigh four shillings and sixpence or five shillings in silver, and it is not likely that he would maintain his superiority. To tell the truth, no effective comparison is possible between the highly specialised practice of modern English archery and either the war archery of our forefathers or the wild archery of savage tribes. It is one thing to kill and disable as many as possible of a body of disciplined and armed men: it is another thing to creep up to within fifteen or twenty yards of a wapiti and silently plant an arrow in the neighbourhood of his heart, or to shoot down a charging and infuriated buffalo; while to put as many arrows as possible within a given circle at a distance well known and long practised is a feat of a character quite different from either of the others.

Nerve, strength, and skill arc necessary to perform any of these feats; but these qualities must be differently applied, and the weapons used must be essentially different.

So important was it to the Red Indians to be able to handle their bows well that the lads were early instructed in the art. It was Catlin's[1] good-fortune to witness one of the mimic field days held for the instruction of the boys of the Mandans on the Upper Missouri. One morning, early in summer, some hundreds of boys were marched out with bows and harmless light arrows. They were naked but for small tufts of grass on their heads, the use of which we shall presently see. They were divided into two sides, and put through all the manouevres of Indian warfare. Volleys of arrows were discharged by the one party at the other, and they were instructed in the art of dodging and fending them off. The Mandans seem to have anticipated the spirit of our own 'Manoeuvres,' for, if any boy was hit in a vital part, he was expected to tumble down and sham dead. I hen came the moment of triumph for his adversary, who dashed at him, and with a wooden knife removed his artificial scalp of grass. At other times the young men would practice the 'game of the arrow,' which consisted in shooting up into the air, the winner being he who could shoot the greatest number of arrows before the first touched the ground. Catlin reports that they were so quick that no fewer than eight arrows were sometimes sent up before the first fell; but he does not state that he actually saw this feat accomplished. It will be remembered that Longfellow credited Hiawatha with the power to beat even this record.

Strong of arm was Hiawatha:
He could shoot the arrows upward,
Shoot them with such strength and swiftness
That the tenth had left the bowstring
Ere the first to earth had fallen.

Hiawatha's feat, it must be admitted, is one which no ordinary mortal can hope to achieve, and, speaking from my own experience' I find eight arrows in the air simultaneously far more than I can manage. With a strong bow I can keep an arrow the air about eight or nine seconds, and anyone who can nock, draw up, and loose arrows at the rate of one per second must be very nimble. No doubt the fact that many Indians - for example, the Shoshones - used arrows without nocks would give them an advantage in rapidity over an English archer, who has to carefully fit his nock on to the string; but, however this may be, I find that it is all I can do to get the third off by the time the first falls. It is, however, probable that with practice a better result might be attained. No doubt the power of discharging arrows in rapid succession would be a very valuable one, both in war and in hunting; and we find Sir John Smythe, in 1590,[2] makes this point in arguing in favour of the bow as against guns. 'Archers are able,' he says, 'to discharge four or five arrows apeece before the Harquebuziers shall be readie to discharge one bullet; I meane the Harquebuziers beginning to charge when the archers doo begin to take their arrows to shoote.'

The real business of the Red Indian archer was to kill the bison, or, as it is more commonly called, the buffalo. This animal provided him with food, clothing, and weapons - almost everything he wanted. With the bow and the spear he killed them in vast numbers, and Catlin's pictures, four of which are here reproduced, represent scenes, of which he was an eyewitness, which will never recur. The buffalo no longer roams the prairies; but for a few specimens confined by man, it is said that he is extinct. The Indians, largely reduced in numbers by the small-pox and the whisky introduced by the white men, themselves only exist in a sort of semi-confinerment within their own reserves; and the bow is being rapidly superseded, even in the most remote part of the earth, by firearms.

Catlin's pictures tell plainly enough what are the qualities which the Indian archer required to overcome the buffalo. He needed no great skill, no knowledge of trajectory or calculation of wind-pressure to hit his mark. It was big enough, and he rode up close alongside before he discharged his arrow. He required a short, handy bow, easy to manage on horseback, and stiff, heavy arrows with sharp heads to penetrate the buffalo's thick hide and reach his vitals, and he must have the power to plant one, two, or three arrows quickly in the buffalo's side before he turned upon his assailant.

82. Indians shooting  buffalo on horseback.
82. Indians shooting buffalo on horseback.

Implements of this character and skill of this order the Indian possessed, and beyond this he was good enough horseman to avoid the beast's charge and circle round him until he was again on the buffalo's flank, and recommenced the attack. Sometimes the first arrow would pierce the animal's heart, sometimes he would not fall until he had been wounded many times; but in the end the Indian with his bow and arrows generally won the day. In his great work on the North American Indians, Mr. H. R. Schoolcraft[3] says that 'an arrow from the bow of a Pawnee or Cheyenne has been known to pass through the body of a buffalo. In some old human bones at Saganaw, an arrow-head was found firmly embedded in the tibia of a man, nor could any force detach it. In vol III of the same work, Mr. H. H. Sibley writes:--

The bow and arrow constitute as effective a weapon in the chase of the buffalo as firearms[4], from the greater rapidity with which it can be fired, and the equal certainty of execution. The arrow, which is less than a yard long, is feathered and pointed with iron, and with small grooves along it to allow of the more rapid effusion of blood. The force with which an arrow is propelled from a bow by an Indian of far less than the ordinary physical strength of white men is amazing. It is generally embedded to the feather, and sometimes even protrudes on the opposite side. It is reported among the Dacotahs, or Sioux Indians, that one of their chiefs, Wah-na-tah by name, shot an arrow right through the body of a female buffalo, and killed the calf by her side.

83. buffalo shooting in snow.
83. buffalo shooting in snow.

It may be noted that Mr. Sibley does not personally vouch for the truth of this latter statement.

Another method of killing the buffaloes is mentioned by Catlin as being commonly employed by the Indians. They cover themselves entirely with the skins of wolves, and dragging their bows and arrows behind them, creep right up to a herd. Now the buffaloes, when in herds in the daytime, have no fear of wolves, though if a pack of wolves can isolate a single buffalo by night they will wear him out by degrees, and eventually kill him. Having crept close to a fat beast, the Indians throw off their disguise and shoot him, the commotion stampeding the rest of the herd.

84. Indians creeping up to buffaloes.
84. Indians creeping up to buffaloes.

Another use to which the Indians put the bow and arrow is for providing themselves with fish. They attach their arrow to the bow with a line, and wait silently by the water's edge till a fish comes near enough to the surface to shoot; the arrow being successfully planted, the bow is used as a fishing-rod and the fish quickly hauled out.

In attacking human dwellings the Indians would sometimes set fire to them by attaching burning matter to their arrows and shooting them at the roofs. Mr. J. Long[5] records an instance of this in 1778, when Mr. Shaw, a trader on Lake Manontoye, had some trouble with the Hudson Bay Indians, who 'attempted to set fire to his house with punk wood, which they shot at it lighted, fixed to the points of arrows.'

The Indians with their bows and arrows proved themselves at times formidable opponents to the Spanish conquerors of America. Those of the Spaniards who wore full suits of armour were, of course, comparatively secure, but occasionally one of the myriads of arrows loosed by the Indians would find its way between the joints of the harness of the Spanish cavaliers, and the common soldiers, who were less completely protected, frequently fell before the Indian archers. Still more exposed to the arrows were the horses - those dreaded beasts which played so great a part in the downfall of the empire of Montezuma-- and Cortes and his followers long remembered the flights of arrows which decimated his little army as it struggled along the great causeway across the lake on the Triste Noche, that dreadful night when the Spaniards fled from Mexico to Tlascala.

85. Indian shooting buffalo.
85. Indian shooting buffalo.

An engagement which occurred in De Soto's expedition against the Appalachians in Florida in 1538, the story of which is told by Schoolcraft,[6] may be briefly described as a fairly typical fight in which the chivalry of Spain, with their organisation, their armour, and their firelocks, contended against swarms of Indians armed chiefly with the bow and arrow. De Soto's force consisted of 950 men, among them being many representatives of the Spanish nobility. He had, however, pressed forward with an advanced guard consisting of 100 infantry and 100 cavalry, leaving the remainder of his army to follow by easy marches. He occupied a fortified village named Mauvila, on the Coosa River, stowing his baggage and provisions within the palisades, while part of his force encamped within the. village and part without. He brought with him a prisoner named Tuscaloosa, or the Black Warrior, a noted chief among the Indians. Opposed to him Noms an immense force, consisting of the combined tribes of the Creeks, the Choctaws, and the Chickasaws. The, made no resistance to the occupation of the village by De Soto, but their time was coming

Early the next morning the war-cry of Tuscaloosa was heard, and the Spaniards learnt that they had fallen into a trap. Countless Indians immediately swarmed out of the houses in the village, in which they had been concealed. De Soto and his men were driven out of the town, and forty of the horses, which were tied to trees outside, fell dead under the volley of arrows. De Soto led his remaining sixty horsemen and all his infantry to storm the fort. They were repulsed by flights of arrows shot through the loopholes in the palisades. So the fight went on, the Indians constantly sallying out and charging the Spaniards, who inflicted severe loss on them, while it was only now and then that an Indian arrow-went home in an unarmoured spot of a Spaniards body. At length the rearguard of De Soto's army came up and the place was finally carried. The Spaniards claim that they killed 2,500 Indians, but it cost them the lives of eighty-two men and forty-two horses. Of the eighty-two Spaniards killed, eighteen were snot either In tne eye or the mouth, and but for their armour the result would have been different. In one of the dead horses an arrow was found to have passed clean through the saddle and housings, and one-third of its length had penetrated into the body of the horse. It does not appear that the use of poisoned arrows was common among the North American Indians, though the Rev. J. G. Wood says that it was occasionally resorted to;[7] and, indeed, it is not among the more manly and courageous races that poisoned arrows are generally met with.

86. Indian shooting fish.
86. Indian shooting fish.
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