The Writer’s Guide to Bows: Part 1

Terms & Types

The bow has almost as much mythology surrounding it as the sword. There are several high profile literary and cinematic archers including Katniss Everdeen from “The Hunger Games,” Legolas from “The Lord of the Rings,” and Hawkeye from the Marvel Universe. This, of course, is not getting into the many retellings and remakes of the legend of Robin Hood.

Since the bow is more common in our modern world than the sword and people are more likely to have contact with them, there does seem to be fewer archery misconceptions. However, the biggest thing to remember when writing archery, especially in a medieval or medieval fantasy setting, is that modern archery can vary dramatically from historical and traditional archery.

Most of the information I am presenting comes from practical experience. I have been shooting since 2001 and exclusively use an English longbow and wooden arrows that I make myself.

As always, magic is the exception to the rules. Because magic.

Writer’s Tip: Since archers usually need to be at a distance from the front line and preferably on higher ground, this could be a great chance for your character to provide an overview of a battle


Archery has its own set of terms which can cause a lot of confusion for those unfamiliar with them. Below is a list of basic archery terms.

Limb – The upper and lower arms of the bow. At the end of each limb is the notch for the string. [1]

Grip – The section of the bow where the archer holds it. It’s usually located in the middle between the limbs.

Arrow shelf or arrow rest – A cutaway portion above the grip where the arrow rests. Not all bows have them in which case the arrow rests on the top of the hand gripping the bow.

Nocking point – The spot on the string where the arrow is nocked. Sometimes it is marked by a small metal bead that the arrow is nocked below.

Drawing – The act of pulling back the string of a bow.

Full draw – When the string of the bow is fully pulled back. The modern standard draw length is 28 inches (71 cm).

Serving – A section of the bowstring that is wrapped in thread. It makes that section more durable and able to withstand the wear from nocking and drawing.

Anchor – Once an archer has pulled back to full draw, they normally steady or anchor their hand against their face before releasing. This gives a chance to steady and aim.

Anchor point – A spot on the face that an archer touches when they are anchoring. Anchoring at the same point helps increase accuracy. In the “Hunger Games” movies, Katniss always anchors under her jaw.

Loose – To fire the bow. The archer relaxes their fingers, allowing the bowstring to propel the arrow forward.

Flight – A group of arrows in the air.

Volley – A flight of arrows shot at the same time by a group of archers.

Overdraw – When an archer pulls the string back further than it should be. Usually this means the head of the arrow is pulled back past the bow and the archer’s hand gripping the bow. If the arrow is loosed, it could be shot into the bow or the archer’s hand.

End or butt – A target or a backstop to which a target is affixed.

Quiver – A carrying bag for arrows worn either on the back with a shoulder strap or on the hip, suspended from the belt.

The parts of a bow. Photo source.

Types of Bows

The two types of bows used during the Middle Ages in Europe were the longbow and the recurve.

The longbow is so named because it is commonly five to six feet (1.5-1.8 m) tall or roughly the height of the archer. When strung it looks D-shaped. The earliest example of a longbow was discovered in the Ötztal Alps in Austria in 1991 with the remains of a natural mummy who was named Ötzi. His body was dated to around 3,300 BC. The bow was made of yew and was 72 inches (1.82 m) long. The longbow was used effectively by the Welsh in their wars against the English. After the English defeated them, they incorporated the longbow into their army, using them in large numbers during the Hundred Years’ War against the French. The longbow played an important part in notable victories such as the battles of Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and Agincourt (1415). [2]

The recurve bow also earned its name from its shape. The middle portion still has a D-shape but the ends of the limbs curve back (recurve) toward the front. It can also be much shorter than a longbow without sacrificing power, making it ideal for mounted archery. This type of bow can generate more energy than a longbow of the same length. Recurves were mainly used throughout the Middle East, portions of Eastern Europe such as Greece and Turkey, North Africa, Asia, and North America. [3]

Longbow. Courtesy of Three Rivers Archery. Photo source.
A recurve bow from Top Archery. Photo source.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2020 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[2] "The Efficacy of the Medieval Longbow: A Reply to Kelly DeVries," Archived 2016-01-23 at the Wayback Machine War in History 5, no. 2 (1998): 233-42; idem, "The Battle of Agincourt", The Hundred Years War (Part II): Different Vistas, ed. L. J. Andrew Villalon and Donald J. Kagay (Leiden: Brill, 2008): 37–132.

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