Thhhhhhh-thwock—that’s the sound of success to an archer. But what makes archery what it is? Why did some Elves and other Middle-Earth dwellers prefer the sword or spear to the bow? How does modern archery relate to traditional archery? What are the basics of archery and how would one go about learning it?

Why archery? What gives it, even today, such a great degree of respect?

The World Book Encyclopaedia defines archery as the sport of shooting with a bow and arrow. Those who have read Tolkien’s works, or any literature that deals with time periods where the bow was in extensive use, know it to be much more than that. What (long-range) good would Legolas be to the Fellowship without his legendary bow? If a warrior only had one or two knives, he wouldn’t want to throw them around haphazardly. What would Beleg’s surname have been had he not been a bowman?

Probably something potentially derogatory, considering the fact that he was overwhelmed by a bunch of “Usurpers.” “Atani.” “Second-born.” “Men.” “Whatever you want to call them.” Much later, the English army’s longbowmen were the most feared division of the English army. It gave superior military might to English forces. In the Battle of Agincourt (1415) about 6,000 English longbowmen defeated a French force of about 20,000 or 30,000.

Apparently the Teleri were armed with smaller bows. At Alqualondë, the Noldor Exiles, led by Fëanor, slaughtered the outnumbered Sea-elves. (That’s partly why the Sindar were so ticked when they found out about the Kinslaying. It’s also the reason the Noldor Elves had to learn Sindarin, and why Sindarin was the most commonly used language. The Sindar outlawed Quenya.) Beleg the bowman had a bow made out of horn (Silmarillion and Lays of Beleriand) and the Elves of Ossiriand used the surprise-attack method with their bows.

In short, the bow is a simple device, and versatile – most of the world came up with some form of archery. It allows the archer to begin his work on the enemy forces before the first of the enemy soldiers make it to his army’s lines. Even when the archer runs out of arrows, the bow itself can be used as a weapon: the string was used in many cultures to strangle the enemy. If all else failed, the soldier could stab the enemy in the eye with the tip. Plus, he was likely to run across some usable fallen arrows. Does it really matter whose archers used the arrows first?

Why did some Elves and other Middle-Earth dwellers prefer the sword or spear to the bow?

Archery is not for everyone. Can you imagine Frodo trying to pull back Legolas’ bow? Good luck! It takes strength of different muscles than swordsmanship does. (To pull back a lightweight bow puts forty-five pounds of pressure, depending on the bow, on a muscle in the back of the shoulder … a muscle that gets very little work. Forty-five pounds is quite a shock to it. Archery takes a good deal more room than close knife-work would: if the enemy is bearing down on an archer from half a yard away, the archer will realistically not have time to get hold of an arrow, nock it, aim, and release it. Yes, Legolas did it in the movie. Legolas is the obvious exception. He also rode a shield down stairs.

Just as some people like grammar more than they like algebra, some people are better suited to full-body combat than the form and momentary motionlessness required for archery. Breathing is probably not going to upset a sword’s aim; most archers hold their breath when releasing an arrow. Gil-galad might be able to whack an orc that is coming up behind him smack in the jaw with the spear, but it really does not work like that with a bow. The archer has to have a clear view of the target, whether it is a competition archery target or an Uruk-hai. If something is in the way, the arrow does not get there. Obviously archery would be difficult in the dark.

Yes, Legolas shot the Nazgûl’s mount in the dark, but we have already established that Legolas in an exception.

Modern archery vs. traditional archery: what has changed?

Very little, and the change is mostly in the equipment.

Wouldn’t some of the Teleri just loved to have had a good compound bow to get at the Noldor Elves with when they sailed off in the swan ships? Twang…oops, just accidentally got one. The advantage of the compound bow is that it is made up of a system of pulleys and cables that allow the archer to rest when at full draw. It is especially good for people with natural tendencies for weaker upper bodies. (Like girls…no gender discrimination intended, but it’s true. We just aren’t built to have the upper-body muscle that men do.)

Bows in “the old days” were mostly longbows before the advent of the crossbow. Longbows consisted of two pieces—the bow and the string. This is a very simple design, and very effective. The recurve bow is somewhere between the longbow and the compound in simplicity. The tips of the bow curve away from the archer.

Most of the bows that you see kids practicing with are recurve. They have no cables or pulleys, but they are not all that difficult to draw back.

The sight is one of the advantages modern-day archers have over the traditional archers. In some bows, the sight is a peephole placed in the string that the archer sights through, using the pins in a box mounted on the back of the bow (the part that faces the target) to line up the target.

Another innovation (one that I don’t care for) is the trigger release. The trigger release is exactly what it sounds like—the archer has a trigger on a piece of equipment that fits around the string. When the archer is ready to shoot, he squeezes the trigger and the catch releases it. It makes for a smoother release; there is less impact from the trigger release than from the traditional finger release.

What else has changed? Mostly the materials. Most arrows now are made out of carbon, with solid soft plastic fletching. The carbon compound keeps the arrows’ shape better, giving it a more reliable flight; and the fletching improves stability. In addition, the fletching is easier to replace these days.

Instead of having to chase down a goose and pluck its pinions out, the archer can keep a stash of plastic fletching around and use a fletcher (that’s where the last name Fletcher comes from: all Fletchers are descended of arrow-fletchers before there were nifty little devices that do it for you) and glue to replace damaged fletching. Most bows are now carbon, aluminium, Fiberglas, or wood. Very few serious competition archers use wood bows anymore that I know of. There may be a special division of competition for wood bows. Who knows? Before they became the standard, there was a separate competition division for carbon-compound arrows.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the arm-guard. Say the archer has an extremely good opportunity to shoot an orc…he nocks the arrow…sights…and ruins a perfectly good shot when he jerks the bow as the string hits his forearm. Worse, if he is a strong archer, he will have a strong bow. That much force (probably over sixty pounds) plus a taut string against the skin of the inside of the forearm is certainly not pleasant. If an archer happens to be unlucky enough to catch his arm in the path of the string, he could get a nasty bruise or rip the skin entirely away. So, not only does he have either a trauma-numbed arm or a skinned arm, but also he has an orc that he could’ve shot that is now hurtling at him with a brandished sword. To remedy this situation, archers invented the arm-guard. Basically it is a piece of material (leather or other substances hardy enough to protect the arm; now it is usually plastic-based cloth) strapped to the arm that supports the bow. (A note on this: the only reason an archer would need an arm-guard would be sloppy form or haste. If the archer has plenty of time, the inside of the arm can be rotated out of the path of the string, therefore keeping the arm out of harm’s way and allowing the shot to unhindered by a foreign object [i.e. the arm] jarring the string. I don’t use the arm-guard anymore because I find I am actually more likely to get my arm in the string while wearing it. Most archers, on the other hand, choose to use it because they shoot bigger bows that could do a lot more damage to the forearm than my forty-five pound bow could.)

The other equipment that has changed little if at all is the tab, which is sometimes called the finger tab or shooting glove. Typically the tab is made of leather, covering only the palm, back of the hand, and the index, middle, and fourth fingers. The sides are open and let the thumb and little finger stick out. If you’re having trouble visualizing this, get down your DVD (don’t pause VHS tapes; it damages the tape) of The Two Towers and check it out on the Elven archers. Their tabs should be on their right hands. The reason the index, middle, and fourth fingers are covered is that these are the shooting fingers. No, you don’t use only two fingers to pull back a bow. It’s not as stable or as comfortable as having the index finger above the nocked arrow and the middle and fourth fingers below it.

What are the basics of archery and how would one go about learning it?

FORM is the utmost concern of the archer. Why? With good form come good shots. If the archer can establish a pattern (a place where the bowstring always goes when at full draw, a preferred angle to shoot from) then the rest will come with practice. A good place to draw the bowstring back to is your nose. And no, if you do it right, you really won’t hit your nose with the bowstring. Stance is imperative.

The archer’s body is at a ninety-degree angle from the target, the feet are about shoulder-width apart, and the arm supporting to bow is towards the target. Of course. Depending on whether the archer has a right-handed bow or a left-handed bow, one eye will sight down the arrow and eventually establish the aiming degree.

Yes, right-handed and left-handed make a difference. Left-handed bows really are made, mostly for left-handed people. (“Wait a minute,” you say. “Why would a right-handed person use a left-handed bow?” I’m getting to that.)

Typically if someone is right-handed, he will be right-eyed also. Yes, there is eye-dominance. Left-handed, left-eyed. Notice I said typically. I’m right-handed, and, guess what…left-eyed. If an archer is mismatched like that, he has two choices—cater to the eye and train the arm (this might require special-ordering a left-handed bow) or let the arm have its way and train the other eye to stay open and the dominant to stay closed while aiming. The latter is what I did, and now I keep my right eye open and left closed without a second thought.

The best place to start is my favourite place: the library! Check out a book about archery to see if it’s really what you thought. (It can get very expensive. Don’t rush out and buy the best bow you can lay your hands on, take it home, and discover that you don’t care for archery a whit.) Borrow someone’s bow if you can, and do a little practice archery. If you like it, go to the next step – getting a bow of your own. The advantages of having your own bow are obvious enough: all the settings are just for you, you don’t have to make sure it is all right with your bow-owning friend before you shoot, and it is around when you want it. The drawback is the potential cost. Sometimes, however, the cost can be justified by the amount of use you get out of it. Go to a shop that specializes in archery. The larger stores that have bow-kits probably will not be able to help you beyond what is least expensive.

Back to the eye-dominance. If you don’t know which eye is dominant, go to a bow/hunting shop and the staff will help you determine which eye is dominant. If they don’t know how, go somewhere else. They have no clue what they are doing and do NOT trust them with an arrow near your person. The type of bow that would be best depends on your personal preferences, intended uses of the bow, and how long you want it to last. I was surprised at how quickly I worked up on the draw weight to the maximum that my bow does – forty-five pounds. Some bows, like mine, have adjustable draw weights.

Now to the rules. Yes, I know, this is the part that no one likes to hear but everyone has to listen to anyway. Always when you are shooting practice basic firing-line protocol. Make sure everyone is back away from the shooting line before you shoot, NEVER point a nocked arrow, drawn or otherwise, at ANYONE at ANY TIME, always fire at a target that is in a safe position away from people, houses, animals, and other damageable objects. And always, always have fun. Shooting orcs is fun. Remember that every bull’s-eye is really an orc’s peephole. Orcs sometimes try to sneak up on unsuspecting archers in the guise of a target. How dense can they be? Of course, they are orcs …

References:

World Book Encyclopaedia, 2001 Ed.
The Silmarillion, by J. R. R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien

Researched by sindar_gloriel