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Home > Books > The Archer's Guide > Chapter III
Chapter III
The Art and Practice of Archery.
Part 1 of 2

In treating practically of the art of archery, we shall describe the implements used in the exercise, accompanied by such observations on ancient customs and present usages as may suggest themselves either as useful or interesting.


The Bow

Moseley, who wrote his Essay on Archery in 1792, says, "the modern bows used in England are made of several kinds of wood. yew has been by far the longest in use, but it is not so much esteemed at present as some other kinds. The foreign woods imported into this country for the purpose of dying and cabinet-working, are some of them preferable for the making of bows, such as fustic, rosewood, &c.; and there is a kind which bears the name of cocoa-tree, which answers pretty well for making strong bows."

The revival of archery since the days of Ascham has introduced to the bowyer several sorts of foreign woods, which, says Roberts, have been found to make bows that rival, and even excel, those of the long-famed yew. Mr. Hastings, author of "The British Archer," remarking on this, says, "This may be true in a certain degree, particularly when applied to the novel and excellent invention and late improvement of the backed-bow; but most of these woods are of too brittle a nature to be manufactured into self-bows (or those made of a single piece of wood). The long-famed yew, (he adds,) can never yield its natural superiority; and foreign yew, (as he contends,) free from knots or pins, still stands unrivalled. A yew bow is lighter in hand than any other, and the wood itself possesses a toughness and quickness of cast; a combination of good qualities not easily to be surpassed."

Among the foreign woods now used by bowyers, the dark ruby, a native of the East, is most prized. The tulip-wood, cocoa-wood, acacia, purple-wood, rose-wood, labernum, and lancewood, judiciously backed, all form excellent bows.

Modern bows are of two kinds; the former and more simple is made of one entire piece of wood; and the latter, which is infinitely more durable and costly, is constructed of two pieces a body part, generally of elastic, often of brittle wood, and a thin strip of ash, elm, or hickory, which is firmly fixed on the back of the other. This back not only prevents the body from splitting, but at the same time renders the bow much stronger, and more difficult to draw.[1]

Our ancient archers besmeared the centre of their bows with wax, in order to fix it firmly in the hand; but in the middle of the modern bow there is a binding to enable the shooter to hold the instrument steadily. This binding is termed the handle of the bow; and is composed of shag, or worsted lace, answering the double purpose of a firm grasp and an ornament. Each extremity of the bow is provided with a horn with a notch in them respectively (termed by archers the nocks,) for the purpose of securely stringing the instrument. The lower limb of the bow, it should be observed, has always the shorter nock; the upper horn being not only longer than it, but usually more curved and ornamented.

Ascham has omitted to inform us what was the proper standard length of the bow. The statute of 5 Edward IV. chap. 4, enacted, "that every Englishman, and Irishman that dwell with Englishmen, and speak English, that be betwixt sixteen and sixty in age, shall have an English bow of his own length, and one fist-mele at the least between the necks;[2] with twelve shafts of the length of three quarters of the standard."

In the present state of archery, when the length of the arrow does not often exceed twenty-nine inches, we seldom use bows longer than five feet ten inches; more frequently those which are an inch, and, generally, those which are two inches shorter. But, circumstances considered, five feet nine inches seems to be a very fit length for a bow, when the arrow is not shorter than twenty-seven, or longer than twenty-nine, or, at the most, thirty inches. It is, indeed, said that a bow of five feet eight inches (or two inches shorter if the bow will stand,) will cast an arrow of the length of twenty-seven inches, further than a longer bow will cast the same or a longer arrow.[3]

As a good bow is an expensive article to the archer, and when adapted to his strength and practice, is generally highly prized by him, its preservation must naturally be deemed deserving of some attention. With this view it is recommended that it be deposited, after using, in an oil-cloth lined with baize, in order to protect it from wet or moisture; that it be always kept in a temperate atmosphere; and that it be rubbed about with linseed oil. As to unstringing a bow after every shoot, (which at pears to be much the fashion,) such precaution is wholly unnecessary; as it must be a bad bow indeed which will not remain strung for two or three hours without injury. Care should of course be taken that it be unstrung immediately after the shooting has concluded; and some archers observe the additional precaution of rubbing it with flannel previously to packing it in their case.

It has been matter of common remark that a yew-tree is generally found in old churchyards. Many good writers have affirmed that this hardy and long-lived evergreen was planted in those sacred and secure places, for the purpose of furnishing materials for bows. There does not, however, appear to have ever been any legislative order for their being 60 propagated, and the quantity which could by such means have been produced, must have been insignificantly small when military archery was in existence; added to which, English yew is so very full of knots, and consequently so liable to break, that not only our forefathers but modern archers have found it but ill adapted to their purpose, and, consequently, obtained their bow-staves from the continent. English yew was certainly used for the bows of boys, and other weak shooters; but even in Elizabeth's reign, it was settled by statute, that when a bow of English yew sold for two shillings, one of foreign yew might be sold for six and eight-pence. It is also worthy of remark, that, by the statute of the 35th of Edward I., the planting of yew-trees in churchyards would seem to have been, in part at least, "to defend the church from the force of the wind.[4]

Of the Bow-string, and Stringing the Bow.

The safety of the bow itself depends in a great measure on the firmness of the string. The universal concussion and jar which the practice of the bow-string causes in the bow, never fails either to shatter it to pieces at the moment, or to raise splinters, which, getting more and more deep into the wood, as the bow is used, at length entirely spoil and ruin the instrument. Those bows which, as it is termed, "follow the string," that is, which bend a little inwards, are less liable to injury from the breaking of a string, than those which are in a straight position, or which bend backwards.

The bow-strings mentioned by ancient writers seem to have been made from leather or thongs cut from the fresh hides of bulls, and other animals. They were also anciently composed from the sinews of beasts; especially of such as were remarkable for their strength or activity as, bulls, lions, stags, &c.; and even from those particular parts of each animal in which their respective strength was supposed to lie; from bulls, the sinews about the back and shoulders; from stags, those of the legs.

Catgut, prepared from the intestines of animals, has been made serviceable for the same purpose, and continues to be so used in Eastern countries.

Hair from the tails of horses was also formerly used for the same purpose, and is spoken of both by Homer and Ovid.

And even human hair from the heads of women has, on pressing emergencies, been formed into bow-strings.

The material, however, of which strings are now made in England, is hemp; of which the Italian answers the best; and this substance possesses many advantages over all other sorts. Catgut is too much under the influence of heat and moisture to prove at all times of a proper tension. Hemp and flax have not this inconvenient and disadvantageous quality belonging to them.

Ascham says but little of the bow-string, leaving it to archers themselves to determine whether it should be made of good hemp, as he says it was in his time; or of flax, or of silk. Mr. Roberts,[5] reasoning upon this, observes:

"It cannot be collected, either from record or tradition, that any other than hempen strings have been used for English bows. Indeed, silk was not brought into England in any quantity till the sixteenth century; yet a very old ballad (which mentions English archers,) has the following line:

"Theyr stringes of silke ful sure."
Adam Bell, &c., part ii. 1, 126.
Percy's Reliq. of Anc. English Poetry.

"If silk was used, the string must either consist of a number of threads bound at intervals, (as those used with the Turkish, Persian, and Tartar bows, in which case it would be too thick for the neck of our arrows; (or of raw silk twisted, which probably would answer for this purpose if the fibres were long enought and the elastic quality of silk could be diminished. The Italian hemp is observed to make the best strings, being stronger in texture, and having longer and finer threads than most other kinds.

"The string is made of the longest threads of the hemp, twisted very tight; and afterwards, as Sir John Smith notices, rubbed with a kind of water glue, to preserve it from wet. The eye, (which is that part of the string that occupies the upper horn of the bow,) is first made, and is somewhat the thickest part; the other end is generally without an eye, (though strings have lately been made with two eyes, which answer well enough,) and, when put on the lower horn, is made into a twisted knot or noose termed, and much used by those employed in moving timber, a timber hitch; as, the tighter it is drawn, the more securely it holds.

"Bow-strings are always whipped (that is, wrapped) at the nocking point, and a little above and below it, generally the breadth of the fingers used in drawing, with fine twine or silk, first waxed. This whipping answers two purposes; that of filling the nock of the arrow, (which should always sit rather tight on the string,) and saving the string from wearing at that place. Some archers also whip the eye and noose of the string, and a little below each, adding a slight covering of gum, or glue, to the whipping, for the latter purpose; and ill whipping are careful, when the string is sufficiently stretched, (for most new strings will give a little,) to whip the precise point on which the arrow should lie, (which is called the nocking point,) with white, and, on each side, with coloured silk or thread, that they may always nock exactly. Catgut and silver-wire have, by some modern archers, been tried for this purpose; but, being harder than twine or silk, they have been found often to burst the nock of the arrow, when that goes on tight; and catgut, unless first moistened, is difficult to whip on the string."

The nocking part of the string should be waxed before it is whipped, that the whipping may hold the better; and afterwards, the whole string should be waxed, and also now and then rubbed with bee's-wax, or white wax, (though the former is most generally used,) to prevent its collecting moisture and untwisting: the latter inconvenience is remedied by re-twisting the string at the bottom end.

After the string is put once and so stretched that it does not want altering, the eye and noose, if not whipped, may be slightly rubbed with moistened Indian glue, which will prevent their fraying; and the eye of the string may be fastened to the upper horn, by means of twine or silk, carried through a hole in the latter, which will prevent the string from coming of continually at the lower horn, and thereby untwisting. Fair glove-leather, or any kind of tape or binding, wrapped round the eye of the string, will preserve it from being cut by the nock of the horn.

An old phrase says, "It is good to have two strings to your bow;" and it appears to have originated from an ancient custom. A passage in Ascham teaches us it was practised in his day; and there is reason to think it had much earlier existence. "In warre," says he, "if a stringe breake, the man is lost, and is no man, for his weapon is gone; and although he have two strings put on at once, yet he shall have small leisure and less room to bend his bowe; therefore, God send us good stringers, both for warre and peace!" A law of Charlemagne, made in the year 813, seems likewise to express the custom of using bows with two strings: this is further confirmed by the figure of an archer, represented on a curious antique ring, in the possession of Sir James Pringle. This ring was found in 1791, upon the field of the famous battle of Bannockburn, fought several hundred years ago. The bow with two strings had one of them drawn up with the arrow, while the other remained unemployed. Ascham mentions that they formerly made use of two strings in England; the large thick string, and a sort much smaller. "The one," says he, "is safe for the bow, but does not shoot strong; while the other is infinitely preferable in long distances, but at the same time does not direct the arrow so true, and is sooner broken."

In attempting to give the young archer directions as to the proper mode of stringing the bow, it may be necessary to premise that the flat part of the bow is the back, and the round part the belly, or the part that is bent inward; and that any endeavour to bend it the reverse way will, too probably, snap the instrument asunder.

The method of stringing the bow, as clearly as it can be described in writing, is as follows. The handle, or part round which the binding is affixed, must be firmly grasped with the right hand, taking care that the string be not twisted, and that the back of the bow be towards the body of the stringer, the wrist of whose right hand should be close against his hip. The lower limb of the bow, which, as before mentioned, may be readily distinguished from the upper from having a shorter horn, should be placed on the ground against the inside of the right foot, to prevent the bow from slipping. The left leg, the knee of which should be kept quite straight, should be about three quarters of a yard apart from the right, and rather in advance of it. That part of the left hand which is close to the wrist, should then be allowed to rest on the upper limb of the bow, letting the thumb lightly embrace the outer part, and the first joint of the fore-finger the inner part, of the eye or loop of the string. The bow should then be simultaneously pulled back with the right hand, and pressed downwards with te left, the eye of the string being slid firmly up, as the bow bends, until at length it reaches the nock, into which it should be carefully and securely fixed. During this operation, great care should be taken to keep the three unemployed fingers of the left hand clear of the string, to avoid the danger of a severe pinch. The plate which we have given of the proper position of the hand when stringing the bow, will shew the reader distinctly the precise manner in which each of the fingers should be holden.

Nothing is more liable to cause the fracture of a bow than a bad string. "When the stringe begins to wear," says Ascham, "trust it not, but away with it; for it is an yll-saved halfpenny that costs a man a crowne. Many a good bowe has been broken through the failure of a stringe." It may be recommended therefore, to the young archer, that he even exceed the advice conveyed in the old proverb, "to have two strings to his bow." It is advisable that he supply himself with several; and as good strings are now to be purchased for one shilling each, he can have little excuse if he neglect this counsel.

The thickness of the string must of course depend upon the power of the bow for which it is designed; and the only rule that can be laid down on this head is, that the string should be of sufficient consistency to insure the safety of the bow, which will frequently fly on the failure of a string. A backed bow will generally require a much thicker string than a self-bow.

A thick string, it should be observed, has the advantage over a thin one in a greater certainty of shot, but the thin one will cast the arrow further.

As to the formation of the noose for the lower horn, in cases where the string is not made with a loop at each end, the reader, by reference to one of our plates, will readily acquaint himself with the mode of making the noose.

Of Unstringing the Bow.

The position of the archer and his bow, when he wishes to unstring, is the same as that described as preparatory to stringing. The handle of the bow being grasped firmly with the right land the left wrist should be placed so close to the top of the upper horn, that the fore-finger may with ease reach round the eye of the string. The forefinger and thumb of the left hand should be kept close against the eye of the string, at the back of the bow, to await its loosing. The bow being then, as in stringing, pulled up sharply by its handle with the right hand, and its upper limb pressed down at the same time with the wrist of the left, the string will become loose, and the process of unstringing be completed.

The Arrow.

The figure of the arrow has undergone but slight variation from time immemorial. Indeed, the head or the feathers of an arrow, are the only parts which can be varied materially.

The substances, however, from which arrows have been fabricated, have differed in all countries. That they were frequently made of reeds, may be inferred from the fact that the Latin word arundo signifies both a reed and an arrow. We are, moreover, informed by Pliny, that reeds were in great request for the purpose, as well as that "the calamus, (another species of reed, and which also signifies an arrow,) had overcome half the nations in the world in battle." The tree called cornus, the palm-tree, and the fir-tree, or deal, were formerly used for the manufacture of arrows.

The natives of India, and the inhabitants of Guiana, use cane.

Ascham enumerates fifteen kinds of wood, of which arrows were made in his time, viz.: "Brazill, Turkie-woode, Fustick, Sugercheste, Hardbeame, Byrche, Ashe, Oake, Servistree, Aulder, Blackthorne, Beche, Elder, Aspe, Salow." Of these he tells us Aspe and Ashe were preferred to the rest; the one for target-shooting, the other for war.

A simple stick, without any other alteration than pointing, was perhaps the first kind of arrow used by mankind. The hard wood found in some climates was well calculated for this purpose, as it was capable of retaining its point, though forced with violence against the firmest bodies. But the use of stones appears to be one of the first inventions, with respect to pointing, and there are many curious circumstances relating to this practice. The class of these substances principally made use of in all nations, was the siliceous; as common flint, jasper, agate, &c.

There are the best reasons for imagining that these arrow-heads were in use from the highest antiquity, as there is scarcely any country in which they have not been found buried in the earth. They are not uncommon in Scotland, England, and Ireland; and America produces them in all its parts.

Horn and bone were also anciently used for the pointing of arrows. This, however, must, it is presumed, have been before the knowledge of metals; after which metallic weapons were no doubt fabricated, and introduced in battle. Copper and brass, which are supposed to have been the metals first discovered, are those which were first used. Arrows and javelins were formerly headed with brass or copper, in the time of Homer, as appears from many passages in the Iliad. (See books 4 and 13.)

The soldiers of Greece and Rome had their spears, javelins, and arrows, pointed with brass.

Latterly, iron has been in general use for the pointing of arrows.

The figure of the arrow-head has been very similar in all countries; at least, those made for the purpose of war. They are sometimes barbed, sometimes plain and long, and often flat.

The common shooting arrows in England, as they are not designed to inflict death, are not very sharply pointed. The sides of the shaft converge to an obtuse point, at the distance of an inch.

"Steles," as the bodies of arrows without feathers or heads are termed, are made of six different kinds of wood; four light kinds, namely, deal, asp, arbele, and a kind of poplar-wood, from Flanders, and two heavy, namely, lime and Jamaica lance-wood Yellow or red deal, (with the turpentine in it) makes a good arrow, but it is apt to wear and splinter. Asp being lighter, is more used The arbele so nearly resembles the asp, that there can scarcely be said to be any perceptible difference between them; the asp, however, is the stiffer, and the arbele, the more spongy wood. Lime is an excellent wood for arrows; but unless highly dried, it is too heavy for many bows for target-shooting; but forms a good roving-arrow; as also does lancewood, which, being even heavier than lime, is indeed seldom used for any other kind of shooting.

The shape of arrows should be perfectly round, but tapering slightly in point of thickness from the shoulder, (or close to the pile,) to the nock.

For a representation of the arrow, for the purpose of rendering the titles of its subdivisions familiar to the uninitiated, see plate.

The pile of the arrow, says Roberts, should be precisely of such a weight as will cause the arrow itself to balance on the finger, at a distance of about one third, or rather more, from the pile to the nock.

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