Primitive man's use of the bow and arrow dates back at least 100,000 years and perhaps well beyond that. As far as inventions or discoveries go, the bow is one of the three greatest ever. Sharing equal importance are the discovery of fire and the invention of the wheel. It may be argued (and is this author's opinion) that the wheel was not a true invention since nothing had to be assembled to make it work. Rocks and trees were rolling around for millions of years before man learned to walk. One day somebody sat down on a rock or fallen tree and it rolled! From then on we just learned how to put things on fallen trees and rocks and roll them around.
The bow was something different entirely. Man had to assemble two dissimilar materials (a flexible stick and a strong string), then load a sharpened, straight rod (arrow) into it and then aim and shoot it. This was the prehistoric equivalent of building an atomic bomb. That required some serious brain power and truly gave man superiority over the wild beasts and his enemies. Just how and by whom the bow was invented was ages ago lost in antiquity. The invention must have been fairly early in human development or else critical to that development since nearly all primitive peoples have some history of bow and arrow usage.
In the more than five thousand years where history has been recorded the bow figured prominently in man's development. Civilizations that have attained "world power" status in the history books have done so with the power of the bow and their version of "death from above," the barbed shaft of war. Egyptians, Israelites, Sumerians, Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Turks, Mongols, Chinese, Japanese, and most notably the Saxons and Normans (English) all relied heavily on their army of archers.
Archery as we know it in the United States traces its development to England more than in other countries. Even non-archers can relate to the legends of Robin Hood and his English longbow. The Normans brought Robin's famous longbow to England. The Normans copied the design from the Norsemen who settled the area along the Rhine River. In days gone by, here is where the best yew trees grew. Yew is a soft wood similar to cedar. Yew wood made the best longbows in the world and accounted for the greatness of the British Empire. Before the battle of Hastings in a.d. 1066, the Saxons used a shorter, weaker bow common among most primitive people. After the conquest the Saxons were denied the use of any war-like weapons; the sword, ax, dagger, or spear. They instead turned to the bow and arrow. It was a weapon they could easily make themselves and so long as the arrows had blunt heads they were allowed to shoot small game in the king's forest preserves (first established by William the Conqueror). But let them get caught with a sharp arrowhead (broadhead) or caught "red handed" (having the blood of the king's deer on one's hands) and they promptly hanged from the nearest tree. It was during this early time that stories and legends of archers such as Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, and William Tell sprang up.
It was from such beginnings that the English longbow grew to legendary status and made medieval England the greatest power in the Western World. The threat of the longbow in the hands of English freeholders forced the signing of the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights upon which all democratic forms of government are based to this day.
By the 14th century archery was so important to the British Empire that her King, Edward III issued a series of proclamations requiring all males over the age of 14 to own and practice regularly with a bow. Other "useless" sports such as golf and nine pins (bowling - someone later added a tenth pin to get aaround the law) were outlawed. In some cases a sentence of death was pronounced for failing to shoot a bow or for being caught engaging in one of the outlawed sports. Special incentives and tax breaks were given to any craftsman who manufactured archery equipment. Sir names still seen today were coined during that period. Names like Archer, Bowman, Fletcher, Arrowsmith, and Bowyer to name a few.
Local church parishes (which always seemed to own a lot of land) often had mounds of dirt (known as butts) at either end of a field one hundred (or more yards) long. Since everyone usually went to church on Sunday AND since everyone was required to practice with their bows, this proved to be an ideal place to have a practice session. Archers would place targets on or in front of the butts and shoot a flight of arrows (some amount of arrows decided upon by the people there) then walk to the other end and shoot back towards where they started. Today a flight of arrows is still called an "end" even if you're not shooting both ways. These practice sessions set the stage for competitive shooting. It wasn't long before small parishes held local annual tournaments (usually associated with a church feast day). Winners advanced to the Grand National Championship. The eventual champion was showered with royal gifts and proclaimed a national hero.
In 1545 the Mary Rose sank off the coast of Albion. It was raised in 1841 and in her hold were two English longbow staves. They were found to be six feet four and 3/4 inches in length, 1 1/2 inches across the handle, and 1 1/4 inches thick. The bows have never been braced (had the string put on) and tested for strength but, they are estimated to be of 100 lbs. pull. However exact duplicates of these bows when pulled to the standard length of 28 inches weigh in at about sixty-five lbs. and cast an arrow about two hundred twenty five yards. It was in the same year of 1545 that the first known book written about shooting a bow was written by Roger Ascham. Ascham was the tutor and personal archery instructor of Queen Elizabeth I. The book was titled Toxophilus (from the Greek toxon meaning bow and philos, loving). Modern day archers are still referred to as Toxophilites.
The longbow's world dominance climaxed during the War of the Roses. During this war it was the deciding factor at Crecy, Portiers, and the famous battle at Agincourt in France. A little later in the 17th century the gun finally made the bow obsolete as a weapon of war. Trained archers who were mustered out of the army, their services no longer required, formed societies, continued to practice archery, and held tournaments. The oldest archery tournament on record is the Ancient Scorton Silver Arrow Contest in Yorkshire, which has been held annually since 1673, except for during the two World Wars. By the end of the 18th century archery was almost exclusively practiced by the aristocracy. It was considered a sign of being high born to be able to shoot gracefully. About this time Sir Ashton Lever formed the Royal Toxophilite Society. This seemed to spark a revival. Soon other societies of archers were formed and the sport started some regrowth, began to regain some of its lost popularity, and spread overseas.
Formal competitive archery was first introduced to the United States in 1828. In that year, the United Bowmen of Philadelphia archery club was formed. The United Bowmen shot regularly in Philadelphia for over thirty years prior to the Civil War. In the years following the Civil War an interesting thing happened that significantly influenced the development of archery in the U.S. Two brothers from Indiana who had been Confederate soldiers, returned to civilian life to find their homes destroyed. Having raised up arms against their country, they were banned from owning firearms. These two circumstances led Maurice and Will Thompson to enter the Florida wilderness and to learn to master the bow and arrow. They wrote stirring articles of their experiences that stirred interest in the sport. A coveted classic in archery literature is "The Witchery of Archery" by Maurice and Will Thompson.
The National Archery Association (N.A.A.) was organized in 1879. It held its first tournament that same year in Chicago, Illinois. Both of the Thompson brothers were there as competitors and Will Thompson became the first American Champion Archer, a title he won five years in a row. The N.A.A. has held a National Championship Tournament every year since that time (during some war years, the tournaments were held as mail-in matches).
Two more people who have had a significant impact on archery particularly bow hunting were Dr. Saxton Pope and Art Young (perhaps you've heard of the Pope and Young Club, the record keeping organization for bow hunting named for them). They became acquainted with archery in one of its purest forms when in 1911 the last primitive Native American archer wandered out of the wilderness and into their lives. Ishi, the last Yana Indian from the northern region of California was discovered one morning near Oroville, California and taken to the Department of Anthropology at the University of California. This is where he met Dr. Saxton Pope who was an instructor in surgery at the University Medical School. During the five years after his discovery that Ishi lived, he spent a great deal of time explaining and demonstrating how primitive man lived including how to make and hunt with a bow and arrow. From Ishi, Pope and Young developed a life-long love of and dedication to archery. They hunted game all over the country and then in 1923, Dr. Pope wrote his famous "Hunting With the Bow and Arrow" forever preserving his experiences with Ishi and the bow hunting exploits of himself and Art Young.
Pope and Young kindled a flame that inspired others to take up the challenge of the bow for hunting. Target archery was about the only form of the sport practiced in the United States until the twentieth century. In 1934, a group of bowhunters in California got together and wanted to tailor an archery range more suited to bowhunting practice. Rather than the single shooting line at one end of the range and target butts at the other, they devised the first archery course. They called it a "field course." The field course was laid out through a wooded area and targets were placed at unmarked distances. Shooting was in the bowhunter tradition, instinctive and without sights. They organized on a national scale in 1939 and called their organization the National Field Archery Association (N.F.A.A.)
The N.F.A.A. was mostly interested in shooting for fun and practicing skills necessary for hunting under conditions as close to hunting as possible. During this time more states began to declare the bow as a legal weapon for deer hunting which opened up a completely new phase of hunting to the growing ranks of archers. Converts from target archery seeking to improve hunting skills helped bolster the ranks of the N.F.A.A. and brought with them the desire to test their skills competitively. To meet the growing need, in 1946, the N.F.A.A. held its first National Field Championship.
From the 1950's on archery (bowhunting in particular) continued to grow and expand. Pioneer archers like Fred Bear, Damon Howatt, Doug Easton, Earl Hoyt and others began manufacturing and mass producing bows, arrows, and archery accessories for the ever growing population of bowhunters and archers. Clubs and organizations sprang up across the country supporting the sport with instruction, shooting ranges, and competitions. One organization noteworthy in the archery community is the Archery Manufacturer Organization (A.M.O.). The A.M.O. is comprised of archery equipment manufacturers who have formed various standards of manufacture and measurement of archery related products. The A.M.O. symbol on archery tackle lets the customer know they are buying a product which is both high quality and compatible with related products.
Little changed regarding targets for literally hundreds of years. Practice and competition alike were shot at some form of straw bale, woven grass mat, or other flat backstop. In the late 70's and early 80's a two dimensional (2-D) foam target began to show up on ranges. The 2-D targets were used in bowhunter competitions and were cut out in the form of game animals. This pumped some new life into the sport. No longer did archers have to shoot animal pictures or silhouettes on a flat backstop. They could now practice under more realistic conditions with free-standing animals at unmarked distances. Later versions of the 2-D targets were nearly 3-D. They were flat on the back but with the scoring side being more like the real thing. It wasn't long before bowhunters and manufacturers got together to produce the first true 3-D targets. Actual life-sized representations of many species of North American as well as African game animals are now available.
In the middle 80's, 3-D archery took hold of the sport. Local and national clubs and organizations began hosting week end 3-D tournaments. Professional organizations were formed, sponsors were acquired and big money became available for the touring professional archer. Today, there is enough money on the pro tours for a skilled shooter to make a living on just the tour winnings. All the hype over 3-D archery has been another shot in the arm for the average archer. Modern technology is being applied in every facet of the sport to keep up with the demands of the shooters and hunters. Bows are stronger and more stable. Strings are stronger, stretch less, and don't unravel their serving as easily. Arrows are the lightest they've ever been, have more strength, greater straightness tolerances, and have a wider variety of choices for fletching, inserts, and points than ever before. A host of other accessories have come along and been improved in the past ten years. Mechanical releases, bow sights, scopes, fiber optic pins, and hydraulic stabilizers are just a few of the accessories that have been improved with technology and because of demands by the archers and bowhunters for stronger, more accurate, or lighter weight components. Let's look in more detail about the bows and equipment necessary to begin shooting archery.
This page Copyright © 1999/2012 Michael A. Tichenor & DRB, Inc.
Last Revised: November 4 2016