Cave dwellers carved them in pictures, Stone Age tribes hunted with them, they were key weapons for ancient armies in battle. Whatever else they symbolise, bows and arrows embody a technology that’s been superseded.

Not that they don’t still carry a lethal quality. Even in my politically incorrect young days, when children ran amok with plastic swords or cap-firing guns, bows and arrows (or at least bows of sufficient calibre to fire arrows a respectable distance) were off limits, for good reasons of health and safety. They were thus rendered all the more potent in the realms of childish imagination. 

Summer shoot at Catsfield
PICTURE: Emlyn Jones

In myth, individual prowess with a bow often marks the true hero. Odysseus, dressed as a beggar on his return to Ithaca, reveals his true identity when demonstrating his ability to bend the bow that the rival suitors cannot. Robin Hood infiltrates the archery contest set up by the Sheriff of Nottingham and splits a willow wand at so many paces. And of course, archers were key players in the medieval history of England. King Harold may, or may not, have been shot in the eye in 1066. There’s no doubt that famous victories over the French at Crecy and Agincourt were gained by the skill and valour of English archers.

Parliament steps in

Competence at archery was indeed regarded as a facet of national defence. As late as 1541, by which time gunpowder already constituted the dominant artillery power, the English Parliament passed the Unlawful Games Act, outlawing sedentary contests with dice or shove-halfpenny – the sixteenth century equivalent, it would seem, of physique-sapping computer games –and requiring the King’s male subjects to retain bows and arrows ready to use, and to bring up their young likewise.

Within a few decades military obsolescence was undeniable; but from the following century their use began to acquire a leisure status in Britain, and modern target archery was born. The Antient Silver Arrow, a tournament first held at Scorton in North Yorkshire in 1673 and still contested annually, claims to be the longest established sporting competition in the world. Archery became an upper class fashion in the eighteenth century, and literally a sport of kings as the Prince Regent, later George IV, became a devotee. Those keen on gender equality in sport should note that women were admitted to the society of Royal British Bowmen from 1787.

Winter at Horntye
PICTURE: Emlyn Jones

Olympic competition

Early Olympics between 1900 and 1908 featured archery events for both sexes. However, with participating bowmen accustomed to different bow specifications and variable distances (the British and Americans competed over yards; other Europeans over metres), fair international contests were limited. Only two teams – French and Belgian – turned up to the 1920 Antwerp games, to shoot at clay ‘birds’, moving and stationary; after that, archery was discontinued, and only revived at Munich in 1972.

Since then it has retained its status as a regular Olympic sport, and there will again be both individual and team medals competed for in Tokyo this summer. Top nation over the past 40+ years has been South Korea, claiming 23 out of 40 golds. The UK has claimed just four bronze medals, the last won by Alison Williamson at Athens in 2004. And,although there will be a British team in Tokyo, medal chances are rated as very low, with consequently very little funding from UK Sport.

At club level in Britain there are three main types of bow in use: the longbow, easily recognisable as the elongated D-shape of those carried at Agincourt, or at least in the Laurence Olivier film version; the ‘recurve’, whose ends, top and bottom, curve outwards rather than in, providing more stability and power than a longbow of the same size; and the ‘compound’ bow, which relies on a higher tech design of cam wheels and pulleys to store some of the potential force as it is drawn back, and requires less muscle strength to release a given acceleration. The compound also encompasses a more sophisticated sighting system.

Compounds are most accurate, and forgiving in terms of physical demands, but are barred from Olympic competition – all events there are contested with recurves. However within Britain there are many competitions for all three types, and the local Bayeux Bowmen (read more here) practise with each.


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