The Writer’s Guide to Horse’s Paces, Speed & Range

I have unfortunately seen a lot of misinformation on how far and fast a horse can go. In some books and movies, horses can gallop all day with a break. In others, they can barely make it a mile without collapsing. We are going to be looking to real-world averages and records to make your book more realistic.

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

Paces or Gaits

All horses have four basic gaits.

The slowest is the walk, a four-beat pace in which each hoof hits the ground separately. The walk is comfortable for the rider and the horse can go at that pace pretty much forever.

The second gait is the trot, which is also known as the jog if you are riding Western. The horse’s left back leg and right front leg move forward together followed by the other pair. This pace is quite bouncy and uncomfortable. In English-style riding, the rider will post or sit up and down with the rhythm of the gait, allowing them to escape the discomfort. The jog is a slower version and the rider can usually sit comfortably during it. The trot is energy efficient and horses can cover miles at this gait.

The third is the canter, known in Western as the lope, and is a three-beat pace. It is a significantly faster gait with a rocking motion that is comfortable to sit. However, the horse can only keep it up for so long.

The fourth is the gallop, the fastest gait. This four-beat pace is decently comfortable to ride but horses can only maintain it for limited amounts of time, especially if they are sprinting.

If a horse is ridden at a canter or gallop for part or most of a day then it will need rest and will not be able to keep the same pace up the next day. This is why throughout history relays of horses have been used to continue traveling at speed. A rider would reach a remount station and switch to a fresh horse. Pony Express riders changed horses roughly every 25 miles (40 km), allowing them to routinely cover 80-100 miles (128-161 km) in a day. [6]

There are other artificial gaits that have been bred and trained into horses over the centuries including the running walk, slow gait, pace, fox trot, classic fino, and rack. [1]

Horse gaits. Photo source.

How Fast Can a Horse Go?

The fastest recorded speed for a horse is 55 miles per hour (88.5 km/hr). The record is held by the American Quarter Horse which excels at sprinting short distances but they can’t keep up that speed for longer than a quarter mile. [2] The Guinness world record for the fastest speed from the starting gate for a Thoroughbred is 43.97 miles per hour (77.6 km/hr) over two furlongs (0.25 mile or 0.4 km). [3] The average speed of a gallop is 25-30 miles per hour (40-48 km/hr). Modern Thoroughbred races are usually no longer than 1.5 miles (2.4 km) although in some countries such as those in the Middle East, races can be as long as 2.5 miles (4 km). [4]

Race horses. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

How Far Can a Horse Go?

There is a modern sport called equestrian endurance in which horses and riders cover incredible distances. These endurance records give us a good idea of just how far and fast a horse can go. For example, in 2008, an Arab rider and his horse won the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Endurance Cup, setting a new record by completing the 99.4 mile (160 km) race in just under six and a half hours. [5] The thing to remember though is these horses are elite athletes and it is doubtful that the average horse could cover such distances so fast unless there is magic involved. In Robert Jordan’s “The Eye of the World” Moiraine uses her powers to take away the horses’ exhaustion although she still cautions they will have to rest them in the future.

An average horse can cover 20-30 miles (32-48 km) in a day without becoming exhausted. Pushing for more than that is detrimental to their health. A famous race held in 1892 that covered 350 miles (563 km) in 72 hours killed 13% of the horses entered. [6]

Writer’s Tip: I have read so many books in which the horses run full out for days on end. I want to see the realistic consequences of this catch up with the rider.

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.

If you want my blog delivered straight to your inbox every month along with exclusive content and giveaways please sign up for my email list.

Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2020 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

 [3] "Fastest speed for a race horse". Guinness World Records. Retrieved 16 April 2015.

The Writer’s Guide to Types of Medieval Horses

People during the Middle Ages thought of horses differently than we do. Today horses are defined mainly by their breed, which indicates the common size, conformation, and types of work or sport they are best suited to. For example, if I am told a horse is a Thoroughbred, I expect it to be tall, leggy, athletic, and fast.

However, during the Middle Ages horses were usually characterized by their use and if a medieval equestrian were to look at our modern horses, they would probably start putting them into these categories.

Rouncey or Rounsey

An all-round general-purpose horse used for transport and war. Since they were not expensive, they were used by squires, men-at-arms, and poorer knights. At times they were used as pack horses but never as cart horses. [1] They were considered fast and agile. In 1327 in England, when a summons to war was sent out rounceys were specifically requested for swift pursuit. [2]


Yes, they are not just a children’s toy. Hobby horses were lightweight mounts that were popular for skirmishing and often ridden by light cavalry known as Hobelars. They were developed in Ireland from Spanish or Barb stock and were used by both sides during the Wars of Scottish Independence. During the war, Edward I of England tried to prevent exports of the horses from Ireland to Scotland. Robert the Bruce used them for his guerilla warfare and mounted raids, covering up to 60-70 miles (97-113 km) in a day! [3]


A palfrey was a better-quality mount than a rouncey or a hobby horse, usually taller and finer-boned. A well-bred one could cost as much as a destrier. They were fashionable for riding and hunting with wealthier knights and nobles, especially since their ambling gait allowed them to smoothly cover long distances in relative comfort. [4] Palfreys were a popular choice for ladies because of their calm and dependable temperaments. [5]

A lady riding a palfrey and using an early side saddle.
Mai, Breviarium Grimani by Gerard Horenbout. Photo source.


Another type of riding horse commonly used by ladies, but usually not as nice as a palfrey. They were bred in Spain from Arabian and Barb stock. [6]


Chargers, also known as coursers, were strong, fast, and light. [7] They were preferred for hunting and battle. [8] They were an economy option, quality but not top of the line.


The destrier was the most valued medieval horse type and were renowned for their capabilities in warfare and the joust. They were well trained, tall, majestic, and strong and were always stallions because of their extra musculature and aggressiveness. They are referred to as “great horses” in contemporary sources. They were highly desired and prized by wealthy knights and the nobility although they were not common due to their cost. [9] The modern breeds that come the closest to the medieval destrier are Friesians and Andalusians. They were usually trained in special combat maneuvers such as the capriole, in which the horse leaps off the ground and kicks out with its back legs. Here is video of the horses and riders of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna performing some of these advanced maneuvers.

Writer’s Tip: I would love to read a book with a destrier using his combat training in a battle scene.

A 15th century painting showing several powerfully built war horses.
La batalla de San Romano by Paolo Uccello. Photo source.

Draft Horses

Draft horses, also known as affers and stotts in medieval English records, were used for plowing and pulling heavy loads because of their size and strength. Basically, they were the tractors and semi-trucks of their day. They were faster and more efficient than oxen, especially with the advent of the horse collar and horseshoes. Their common use in agriculture and heavy transport continued until the tractor and automobile began to replace them. [10]

Work Horses

A variety of working horses existed during the Middle Ages including cart horses, pack horses (also known as sumpters), and common riding horses such as hackneys, which could be used as pack horses. Generally, these horses were smaller than drafts, about 13-14 hands (52-56 in, 132-142 cms) but could pull weights up to 600 pounds (270 kg). [11]

This is a good video to show you the modern equivalent to these medieval types of horses.

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.

If you want my blog delivered straight to your inbox every month along with exclusive content and giveaways please sign up for my email list.

Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2020 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

 [1] Hyland (1998), p. 222.
 [2] Prestwich, p. 318.
 [3] Hyland (1998), pp. 32, 14, 37.
 [4] Bennett (1998).
 [5] Oakeshott (1998), p. 14.
 [6] Bennett, Deb (2004) "The Spanish Mustang: The Origin and Relationships of the Mustang, Barb, and Arabian Horse" Archived 6 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine. Frank Hopkins. Retrieved 2008-08-14.
 [7] Oakeshott (1998), p. 11.
 [8] Hyland (1998), p. 221.
 [9] Prestwich, p. 30. Gravett, p. 59. Eustach Deschamps, 1360, quoted by Oakeshott (1998), p. 11. Oakeshott (1998), p. 11.
 [10] Claridge, Jordan (June 2017). "The role of demesnes in the trade of agricultural horses in late medieval England" (PDF). Agricultural History Review. 65 (1): 5. Dyer Making a Living p. 129.
 [11] Clark, pp. 27-28 

The Writer’s Guide to Horse Basics

Humans and horses have a long history together so it’s no wonder we include them so much in our stories. Even Brandon Sanderson put them in the Stormlight Archive when he included no other real world animals. Unfortunately, there is so much misinformation about them. I am going to be starting with the basics today.

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

Body Parts

I’m going to spend very little time on this. Please reference the diagram below for the names of specific body parts.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Colors & Markings

The names of horse colors have their own idiosyncrasies. Some of them make sense and others can be quite foreign. Since I’m familiar with them it always makes me winch when I see a horse given the wrong color name. No, Master Dennet from Dragon Age: Inquisition that Fereldan Forder is a bay not a chestnut.

Unless otherwise noted, the following colors would have brown eyes.

Black – Just what you’d expect.

Bay – A brown body with a black mane and tail and black legs.

Chestnut or Sorrel– A brown body with a matching brown mane and tail. This is the most common color among horses. A liver chestnut is a darker brown. A flaxen chestnut has a brown body with a tan or cream mane and tail.

Grey – This one is tricky. The color is judged by the color of the skin, not the hair. Obviously, a horse with a grey coat, mane and tail is a grey. However, one with a white coat, mane, and tail but with grey or black skin, which will be visible at the nose and around the eyes, is considered a grey. I know most of the time a horse with this coloring is called white but technically in the horse world white horses don’t exist. A fleabitten grey has a white coat with small grey or black dots. A dappled grey has a pattern of dark grey rings over a coat of lighter grey or white.

Albino – A horse with a genetic lack of pigment giving it a white coat, mane, and tail with pink skin. It’s also common for them to have blue or hazel eyes.

Cream or Cremello – A horse with a cream-colored body, mane, and tail and normally blue or light brown eyes. This color is caused by a dilution gene.

Dun – A tan or dark gold body with a black mane, tail, and legs. There are also red dun, black dun, blue dun, and bay dun depending on the genetics. The color commonly comes with a dark dorsal stripe and is the most primitive color according to prehistoric cave paintings.

Roan – A coat pattern with a mixing of colored and white hair. The mane, tail and lower legs are usually a solid color. There are multiple variations including red roan, blue roan, and strawberry roan.

Palomino – A light gold body with a white mane and tail.

Buckskin – A horse with a golden tan body and black mane, tail, and lower legs.

Pinto – A horse with large patches of white and another color. There are multiple variations such as piebald and skewbald.

Appaloosa – A breed as well as a color identified by their colorful spotted coats. The spotting can be over the whole animal or confined to a white patch.

There are more colors than I listed above but I’ve covered the most common ones. The remainder are rarer. Horses also come with a variety of leg and face markings. Please reference the diagram below.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.


Stallion – An adult intact male horse.

Gelding – An adult nurtured or gelded male horse.

Mare – An adult female horse.

Foal – A baby horse of any gender under one year of age.

Colt – A male foal.

Filly – A female foal.

Yearling – A horse of either gender between the ages of one and two years old. After two, horses are referred to by their adult gender names.

Measuring Height

A height of a horse is measured from the ground, up the front leg to the withers, the bony bump where the neck meets the back. Horses are not measured to the top of the head. Traditionally, people used their flat palm, counting the number of “hands.” Today horses are still measured in hands, which has been standardized to four inches (10.16 cms).

A horse is 14.2 hands and taller while a pony is under 14.2 hands.

There has been debate about the size of medieval horses with some historians claiming them to be as tall as 18 hands. A review of literary, visual, and archaeological sources done by the Museum of London puts the average between 14-15 hands (56-60 in, 142-152 cms).

Measuring a horse. 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.

If you want my blog delivered straight to your inbox every month along with exclusive content and giveaways please sign up for my email list.

Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2020 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

The Writer’s Guide to Arrows: Part 2

Fire Arrows & Removing Arrows

Today I’m going to be tackling two topics regarding arrows that are rife with misinformation but included repeatedly in books, TV and movies.

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

Fire Arrows

Why am I giving fire arrows their own section? Because it’s complicated.

Yes, there is historical evidence for the use of incendiary arrows. There are accounts of flaming arrows used by both sides during the siege of Lachish in 701 BC. [1] The Romans developed iron boxes and tubes which they filled with flammable substances and attached to arrows. However, they had to be shot from lighter poundage bows or the flame would go out. [2] The Spanish attacking the Moorish town of Oran in 1404 used bolts and quarrels dipped in tar according to the writer Gutierre Diaz de Gamez. [3] Fire-darts were used during the British Civil Wars in the 17th century against enemy soldiers and property. The arrows had a flammable substance attached to the shaft close to the arrowhead and were shot from a bow or musket. The Royalists used them against thatched houses in Chester and the town of Lyme Regis. [4]

The main problem with fire arrows is trying to get them to the target while still on fire all without burning the archer’s hand or bow. The primary idea shown in movies and television seems to be to wrap the arrowhead or just behind it, with rags soaked in pitch or another flammable substance. Unfortunately, most shots of any length will put out the flame not to mention the danger of the fire damaging the wooden arrow shaft. Arrowheads with cages to hold coals were developed but the biggest problem with them is that the bodkin point has to be shortened to prevent the arrowhead from being too forward heavy, lessened its penetrative power. If a thicker arrow shaft is used to compensate, the arrow can become too heavy to go far at all. For a more in depth look at these issues, I recommend Lindybeige’s video here. I will say I have seen fire arrows shot and usually they cannot go further than a few feet without going out.

Probably my biggest gripe about fire arrows in literature and cinema is how they are used. Let me set the scene: An army sneaks up on their enemy at night and decides to launch a surprise attack. Their first volley is flaming arrows which are highly visible in the dark thus alerting their opponent and indicating their location. It makes more sense to fire volleys of regular arrows, which are pretty much invisible in the dark. Think of how devastating that would be! However, I will say that if the point of the fire arrows is to set fire to highly flammable materials like thatch and the archers aren’t having to shoot a long distance then I think that fire arrows are actually a plausible option.

Writer’s Tip: I would love to see a scene in a book where regular arrows are shot at an enemy in the dark.

The Purbeck Bowmen loosing fire arrows at the 2013 opening of the Mary Rose museum.
Notice that the arrow that’s been loosed has left its flame behind. Photo source.

Removing Arrows

Of course, if arrows are being shot in your book there is a high likelihood that a character of yours will have to deal with removing one. The challenge with arrow injuries is that they have the cutting damage of a knife plus the impact and penetration damage of a bullet.

There are only two methods of removal: pulling the arrow out or pushing it through. Which methods works best is determined by the location of the arrow, the depth of penetration and the type of arrowhead. The consensus seems to be if the arrow isn’t stuck in bone or if pushing it through will not damage internal organs or other sensitive structures, especially if the arrowhead has flanges or barbs, that it’s the best option. Otherwise, it has to be pulled out, requiring the wound to be expanded.

Since most people nowadays aren’t being shot with arrows there is not a lot of modern medical literature on their removal and the treatment of the resulting wound. Although there has apparently been a rise in cases thanks to the increasing popularity of archery as a sport. If you’re interested in a modern example, I suggest this article documenting the case of a 35-year-old man shot in the base of the skull. The removal was successful and the patient had no complications. I warn you there are some disturbing images in the article.

The ancient Greek healer Diocles of Carystus wrote of both methods of extraction. He developed a tool named the spoon of Diocles, which was used to remove the injured eye of Phillip II of Macedonia. [5]

During the battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, Henry, prince of Wales, who later became Henry V of England, was struck in the face by a bodkin-tipped arrow. The arrow shaft was removed but the arrowhead remained lodged in the bone of Henry’s skull. The Physician General John Bradmore removed the arrowhead using honey, alcohol, and a surgical instrument he designed himself. For a more in-depth look, I recommend this video.

One of the best historical resources on treating arrows wounds is a 19th century surgical encyclopedia by US Lieutenant Colonel J.H. Bill. In it he discusses both the pushing and pulling methods of removal based on depth and whether the arrowhead was lodged in the bone (determined by gently twisting). All his methods are done by feel, without the help of modern imaging. Most of the causes of death in his cases are due to infection such as peritonitis from the arrow piercing the abdominal cavity but he also lists pneumonia, encephalitis, compression of the brainstem, empyema, tetanus, and shock. [6] Here is the link to Dr. Bill’s work, which is a fantastic resource.

A diagram of a pair of forceps developed by Dr. Bill. 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.

If you want my blog delivered straight to your inbox every month along with exclusive content and giveaways please sign up for my email list.

Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2020 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

 [1] Grant, p. 17.
 [2] Nossov, pp. 190–191.
 [3] Diaz de Gamez, p. 90.
 [4] Stephen Porter, Destruction in the English Civil Wars, 1997, p. 50.
 [5] "Ancient Medical Instruments". Retrieved 26 June 2015.
 [6] Bill JH. International Encyclopedia of Surgery: A Systematic Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Surgery By Authors of Various Nations. Vol. 2. New York: William Wood & Co; 1882. Sabre and bayonet wounds; arrow wounds; pp. 101–117. 

The Writer’s Guide to Arrows: Part 1

Types & Construction

I’ve been spending a lot of time discussing bows but of course the bow is pretty worthless without arrows, which we will be diving into today. Just like bows, modern arrows differ significantly from historical arrows.

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

Arrow Terminology

Shaft – The wooden dowel that makes up on the body of an arrow. Modern arrows are also made of aluminum.

Nock – A notch in the back of the arrow that allows it to be set on the string. To nock, means to put an arrow on the string in preparation to fire, basically “loading” the bow.

Fletching – The feathers at the back end of the arrow that help steady it in flight.

Index or cock feather – On an arrow with three fletches, the one that faces the archer when nocked. It’s common for it to be a different color from the other two.

Arrowhead or Tip – The metal end of the arrow that penetrates the target.

Arrow Shafts

The average length of a modern arrow is 28 inches (71 cm). When Henry VIII’s flag ship, the Mary Rose, was discovered, it carried over 3,500 arrows. [1] They ranged in length from 24-33 inches (61-83 cms) with the average being 30 inches (76 cms).

Most modern arrows are around 5/16 – 11/32 inches or roughly 0.32 inches (0.81 cms) in diameter. By comparison, the war arrows or livery arrows found on the Mary Rose ranged from ½ – 3/8” inches (1.27-0.95 cms). Imagine that coming off a 185 pound (84 kg) bow! It would definitely have some punching power.

Types of Arrowheads

Most arrowheads were made of iron, which wasn’t good at keeping a sharp cutting edge. However, making arrowheads of steel got expensive. There are medieval records talking about “steeled” arrowheads. While historians aren’t totally sure what that means, the general consensus is that they were case hardened. The process of case hardening involves baking metal at high heat for hours which impregnates the iron with a layer of carbon, making it substantially harder. [2]

There were multiple types of arrowheads during the Middle Ages, each designed for a different purpose.

Probably the most widely known one is the broadhead, which has been used since ancient times for hunting. It usually has two to four broad blades, which make it ideal for cutting. Another benefit to this shape was that pulling it out caused even more damage. A swallowtail is a larger version of the broadhead used against game and horses.

With the advent of better armor, the bodkin became more widely used in warfare. It’s a needle-shape arrowhead which gave it a better chance of finding a hole through chainmail. Later into the Middle Ages, the bodkin became thicker and shorter as plate armor became more common.

Leaf-shaped arrowheads are an ancient design that was still in use throughout the medieval period. They are similar in shape to a broadhead but lack the “wings.”

There is some documentation of whistling or signal arrows from the Middle Ages.

I recommend this video by Tod’s Workshop in which he discusses six types of arrowheads.

Types of arrowheads. Bodkins (1-4). Leaf-shaped (5, 6 & 9). Broadhead (7-8). Photo source.

How They Are Made

How arrows were made in the Middles Ages varies somewhat from how traditional arrows are made today.

The body of the arrow began as a square section of wood which was turned on a jig to round them into dowel-like shafts. Then they were sanded until smooth. Types of wood used included black popular, beech, ash, and hazel.

The arrowheads were forged with a cap that slipped over the end of the shaft. It was held in place with hide glue. [3]

Fletchings were made from swan or goose feathers since they were the only feathers long and strong enough to withstand flight. [4] Today, turkey feathers are the standard. The fletching was attached using the same hide glue, sometimes mixed with beeswax or other components. Today a fletching gig is used to hold the feathers in place while the glue dries. However, there is little historical evidence that fletching gigs existed in the Middle Ages. It’s possible but we just don’t know. However, we do know that the fletching was normally wrapped with linen or silk thread to keep the feathers in place. This was important since hide glue is not water resistant. [4] There were several popular shapes for fletching including triangular, parabolic and parallelogram.

Lastly, a notch would be cut into the end of the arrow to form the nock.

Two fletchers at work with finished arrows packed in barrels. Alexander Romance, 14th century. 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.

If you want my blog delivered straight to your inbox every month along with exclusive content and giveaways please sign up for my email list.

Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2020 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.


The Writer’s Guide to Bows: Part 5


This is the last in my series on bows before we move on to arrows. Today we are busting myths! There is so much misinformation being spread by books, television, and movies. Some of it’s completely false while the rest is true of modern bows but not traditional or historical bows.

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

Holding at Full Draw

I have seen multiple scenes in movies and television shows where an archer is holding their bow at full draw for minutes on end. At the end of season three of Game of Thrones, Ygritte confronts Jon Snow, aiming an arrow at him. She holds at full draw for 1:18 before releasing!

While not impossible, especially with a lighter poundage bow, holding full draw for an extended time becomes difficult because of two factors: draw weight and stacking. If the draw weight (pounds of pressure at full draw) is high, such as a traditional English longbow that ranged from 100-185 pounds (45-84 kg), it would require tremendous strength to hold the string back for any length of time. Stacking is the increase in weight as the bowstring is pulled back. On average, this is an increase of 2-3 pounds (0.9-1.3 kg) per inch (2.54 cm). [1]

Modern compound bows have a let-up point at which the string resistance decreases dramatically. An archer with this type of bow can stay at full draw for minutes on end. However, most depictions of holding at full draw in literature and film involve either a longbow or a recurve.

Ygritte, played by Rose Leslie, in Game of Thrones holding at full draw. Photo source.

Effectiveness Against Armor

I covered effectiveness in my first post on writing medieval armor which you can find here. As the bow became more widely used in warfare, armor was developed to protect against it. Early armor only offered partial protection while a full suit of 15th century plate had few spots an arrow could penetrate. By contrast, the peasant wearing a gambeson will be less protected. If you are interested in the effectiveness of a specific type of armor, I recommend you check out my posts on gambesons, chainmail, plate, and brigandine.

Below is one of my favorite quotes about the power of the 12th century Welsh longbow by Gerald of Wales. The wars with the Welsh were the first time the longbow was used to great effect in war and the armor worn by the English wasn’t rated against it.

“[I]n the war against the Welsh, one of the men of arms was struck by an arrow shot at him by a Welshman. It went right through his thigh, high up, where it was protected inside and outside the leg by his iron chausses, and then through the skirt of his leather tunic; next it penetrated that part of the saddle which is called the alva or seat; and finally it lodged in his horse, driving so deep that it killed the animal.[2]”

A photo from Mark Stretton’s practical tests. The full article is here.

Bows Have to Be Unstrung

It is essential when a bow is not in use for it be unstrung. If left strung for too long then it will lose its spring, causing a decrease in the draw weight. The power of a bow comes from a bent bow trying to be straight again. One that is strung for too long will start to permanently take on that bend.

Wet Bowstrings

It is incredibly important to keep the bowstring dry. A wet string stretches, causing your shots to fall short. During the Middle Ages, if there was any risk of rain or damp, an archer would remove the string and place it in an oiled bag or under his helmet. Points to Robert Jordan for including this detail in “The Eye of the World.”

Dry Fire

A dry fire is when the bowstring is pulled back either partially or fully then released without an arrow. This is the greatest sin in archery. Dry firing a bow can damage or even snap or shatter it or cause the string to break. The reason it is so bad is because the kinetic energy generated by drawing which normally goes into the arrow to propel it forward instead slams back into the bow.

Writer’s Tip: Having a character dry fire a bow could be a way of showing what a novice they are, especially if other more experienced characters around them react in horror.

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.

If you want my blog delivered straight to your inbox every month along with exclusive content and giveaways please sign up for my email list.

Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2020 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[2] Weapon 030 - The Longbow, Osprey, p. 66, 12 At the time, 1191, this would be mail chausses, and the story is that having had one leg shot through and pinned to the saddle by an arrow, the knight wheeled his horse around, only to receive a second arrow, which nailed the other leg in the same fashion.

The Writer’s Guide to Bows: Part 4

Use in Battle & Construction

Today I will be covering the use of bows in battle as well as maintenance and construction. There is a lot more to using archers in battle then lining them up and having them shoot. Also, the tactics used in an open field battle are different from the siege of a castle or city.

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

Use in Battle

Archers were an important part of most medieval armies. They could cause damage to the enemy before they even reached your lines. Once the enemy forces closed to melee distance, the infantry would either move in front of the archers or the archers would fall back. During the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William of Normandy opened the battle by placing is archers on the front line and had them shoot into the English shield wall. His initial plan was to then bring up the infantry to engage at close combat. [1] This tactic was repeated in 1415 during the Battle of Agincourt by King Henry V of England. The center front line and the flanks were made up of archers with the men-at-arms and knights held back in reserve in the center. [2]

Battle Formations

There were three main archery formations used in open field battles throughout medieval Europe.

First was the line. This formation provided a large volume of fire, especially if there were multiple ranks and the archers were shooting ranged volleys.

Next was the enfilade, a V-shaped formation with the wings closest to the enemy and the center point the furthest away. Two enfilades could be used together, creating a W shape. In several medieval battles, such as the Battle of Crécy in 1346, multiple enfilades were used.

Last was the defilade, essentially the reverse of the enfilade with the point of the V closest to the enemy.

Both the enfilade and defilade were incredibly effective on sloping or uneven ground.

When using archers to defend a castle or city, they would either shoot through arrow loops or slits or between the merlons, a space called the crenel, of a battlement. Both features provided them with an excellent field of fire while making it hard for the enemy to hit them.


Most of the depictions of quivers from medieval Europe show a belt quiver, such as on the Bayeaux tapestry. Across various sources it is shown in multiple positions, hanging straight at the side, across the small of the back and on both the right and the left as well as canted forward and backward. [3] As well there are depictions of arrows stuck through the belt. Medieval archers also used an arrow bag which was a simple drawstring cloth sack with a leather spacer in the top to keep the arrows separated that could be closed to protect them from dirt and rain.

During medieval battles it was common for archers to stick their arrows in the ground in front of them, their supply replenished by young boys acting as the medieval equivalent of power monkeys. This had the added benefit of dirtying the arrowhead, increasing the likelihood of infection.

Despite popular depictions of Robin Hood with a back quiver, this type of quiver was quite rare in medieval Europe. [4]

War arrows were usually bundled into sheaves of 24 arrows. It was common for archers to go through thousands of sheaves in a battle. To give you an idea of the numbers involved, between 1341 and 1359 the English crown ordered 51,350 sheaves. That’s 1,232,400 arrows! [5]

A detail from the Bayeaux Tapestry showing archers with belt quivers. Photo source.
Arrows through the belt. Photo source.


Like all pieces of equipment maintenance is essential for a bow to operate at peak efficiency. It is important to warm up the bow before stringing it. This involves rubbing up and down the limbs to create heat by friction. Once the bow is strung, some half draws and then several full draws are done to further warm the wood fibers, easing down after each one. If a bow is not warmed up before it is strung, it can snap. I have seen it happen.

Another important task is to keep the string waxed. This will hold the fibers together and help prevent fraying. Wax usually came in a block or a tube in modern times, which would be rubbed up and down the string then smoothed in with the fingers. It’s important to use the heat of your fingers or friction to get the wax to melt into the string. The string would also have to be replaced regularly as it stretched out or frayed.

How They Were Made

The most popular wood for longbows was yew although elm, oak, hickory, ash, hazel, and maple were also used. Most were self bows made of a single piece of wood and in the case of recurves, the ends were shaped by heat or force. [6] The other method of construction was lamination, done by gluing different pieces of wood together. Laminated or composite recurves were the standard weapon of Roman imperial archers and have been found on multiple sites throughout the empire.

A bowyer was a craftsman who made bows. To make a self bow, he would select a stave and set it in the clamp of a bowyer’s bench, which would hold it steady while he carved it into shape with a draw knife. In medieval England, a bowyer could reportedly crank out a longbow in as little as two hours. [7] Modern traditional bowyers average between 2-40 hours depending on whether power tools are used. Although if you include the time to dry the staves, that time increases to years. [7] If you want a step-by-step of the making of a longbow with mostly traditional methods, I suggest this video.

A bowyer’s bench. Photo source.
The visual difference between a composite bow (top) and a self bow (bottom). 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.

If you want my blog delivered straight to your inbox every month along with exclusive content and giveaways please sign up for my email list.

Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2020 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Bennett Campaigns of the Norman Conquest p. 41
[2] Sumption, Jonathan (2015). The Hundred Years War IV: Cursed Kings. London: Faber & Faber. ISBN 978-0-571-27454-3.
[4] Gerry Embleton; Clive Bartlett (1995). English Longbowman 1330-1515Ad (Warrior, No 11). Osprey Publishing (UK). p. 28. ISBN 1-85532-491-1.
[5] Wadge, Richard (2007). Arrowstorm. Stroud: Spellmount. pp. 160–1. ISBN 978-1-86227-388-7.

The Writer’s Guide to Bows: Part 3

Poundage, Range, Rate of Fire & Training

In the third part of my five-part series on bows, I will be covering some more bits of critical information if you are writing an archer, especially if you’re doing a battle scene.

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


Probably one of the biggest differences between historical bows and modern bows is poundage. By poundage, I mean the amount of weight the bow is exerting on the string when it is at full draw. The standard modern draw length is 28 inches (71 cm).

The draw weights of most modern longbows and recurves are in the 25-60 pound (11-27 kg) range. In 1971, the wreck of King Henry VIII of England’s flag ship, the Mary Rose, was discovered. The ship sank during the battle of Solent on July 19th, 1545. In the hold were 170 English longbows, almost 4,000 arrows and various other archery artifacts. The draw weights ranged from 100-185 pounds (45-84 kg)! [1] It took a lot of strength to pull one of these bows. Another indicator of the immense weight of medieval bows are the deformities seen in the skeletons of longbow archers from the period. They have enlarged left arms and most have osteophytes (bony projections along the joint margins) on the left wrist and shoulder and right fingers. [2]

Writer’s Tip: It would be wonderful to see a depiction of a real war bow. Unfortunately, books, movies and television tend to portray the bow as a weak person’s weapon.

Bows found on the Mary Rose. Photo source.


King Henry VIII set a minimum practice range for adults in 1542 of 220 yards (201 m). The longest recorded longbow shot was 345 yards (315 m) in the 16th century at Finsbury Fields in London. In 2012, Joe Gibbs, a well-known English longbowman, shot a 2.25-ounce (64 g) livery arrow 292 yards (267 m) using a yew bow with a 170 pound (77 kg) draw weight. [3] If you want to see Joe Gibbs in action with his 160-pound longbow, I suggest this video from Tod’s Workshop.

Rate of Fire

I can say from experience that a competent longbow archer can shoot at a rate of up to twelve arrows per minute with relatively good accuracy. The heavier the poundage of the bow, the less that rate is sustainable, however. An author in Tudor England expected a longbowman to be able to fire eight shots in the same amount of time a musket shot five. [4] However, the rate of fire could also be limited by the number of arrows available. It would not do to run out of arrows before the end of a battle!


The English archers became renowned for their skills, due in large part to compulsory practice. A law passed in 1252 required all Englishmen aged 15 to 60 to own a bow and arrows. Another law passed in 1363 required them to practice archery for two hours every Sunday. [5] This law is still on the books so if you are a man living in England over the age of 14 legally you should be at the archery range every Sunday.

Despite the simplicity of shooting a bow, it takes time and consistent practice to become good. Being proficient at archery was also patriotic because it meant a man could help defend the kingdom if it went to war not to mention being able to supplement your diet with fresh game.

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.

If you want my blog delivered straight to your inbox every month along with exclusive content and giveaways please sign up for my email list.

Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2020 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[2] Dr. A.J. Stirland. Raising the Dead: the Skeleton Crew of Henry VIII's Great Ship the Mary Rose. (Chichester 2002) As cited in Strickland & Hardy 2005, p.
[3] Loades 2013, p. 65.
[4] A right exelent and pleasaunt dialogue, betwene Mercury and an English souldier contayning his supplication to Mars: bevvtified with sundry worthy histories, rare inuentions, and politike deuises. wrytten by B. Rich: gen. 1574. Published 1574 by J. Day. These bookes are to be sold [by H. Disle] at the corner shop, at the South west doore of Paules church in London. accessed 21 April 2016.

The Writer’s Guide to Bows: Part 2

Stringing & Shooting

Today is my second part in my five-part series on bows. I will be covering more of the basics of shooting so that you are better equipped to write about them in your fiction.

If you have the chance, I highly encourage you to try archery out for yourself. Experience is really the best teacher and there will be a lot of first-hand detail that you can pour into your writing. If you are specifically looking for information to write medievalesque fantasy or historical fiction, I suggest you stay away from modern compound bows. The experience of shooting one is substantially different from shooting a traditional longbow or recurve.

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

Stringing a Bow

Before you can shoot a bow, it must be strung. Bows should always be unstrung when not in use. If they are left strung, they will lose their power as the wood permanently takes on the bend. The power of the bow comes from a bent bow trying to be straight or mostly straight.

There are a couple ways of stringing a bow. One is putting one tip against the inside of your foot and pulling up while you slide the string into the notch with your other hand. Another method is to step through the bow, bending one limb forward while you slide the string up with your other hand. There are modern bow-stringers but I have yet to see evidence of anything like them being used in history.

Stringing a bow by putting one tip against the inside of your foot. Photo source.
Stringing by stepping through the bow. Photo source.

How to Shoot a Bow

Most archers are righthanded so the following description is for righthanded shooting. Shooting lefthanded is simply the reverse of this description.

Before shooting, it’s important to make sure none of your clothing will interfere with drawing or releasing the string. Loose, long, or billowy sleeves can get caught up in the string as you’re firing, dissipating all the energy of the shot and causing the arrow to not leave the string or not go far. Sleeves were usually tucked or tied back unless they were slim and fitted. It was common to use an archer’s glove that covers your forearm, protecting from the string if it hits. Finger tabs or gloves were also frequently worn on the right hand to protect the fingers from the abrasion of pulling back and releasing the string repeatedly.

To start, hold the bow by the grip with your left hand, letting it cradle firmly into the webbing between your thumb and index finger. You don’t want to grip the bow but hold it lightly. If the bow has an arrow shelf make sure there is a bit of distance between it and your hand or the feathers on the arrow could slice your hand as its being shot. If the bow does not have a shelf and you’re shooting off your hand, it’s usually a good idea to wear a glove.

Next the arrow is put onto the bow or nocked. The arrow is always on the inside of the bow. The easiest way I’ve found to do this is by canting the bow slightly to the right, gripping the arrow by the end or nock, resting the front part of the arrow against the arrow rest, pulling back the end and nocking it to the string. Modern plastic nocks will snap on to the string, preventing the arrow from coming off. Traditional arrows had a small groove cut in the end of the arrow that would fit over the string but not necessary “snap” on, meaning the archer would usually have to grip it between their fingers. If the bowstring has a bead, the arrow is nocked right below it.

Most arrows have three feathers or fletching. One is usually a different color from the others and is known as the index or cock feather. When nocking, you want to make sure the index feather is facing you. If it’s facing the opposite direction, it will drag against the bow when the arrow is shot, effecting the flight.

You put three fingers on the string, the index finger above the arrow and the other two below it, known as a Mediterranean draw. However, you don’t grip the string but let it rest lightly against the inside of your first knuckle. As I’ve told a number of my archery students, it’s like plucking a harp string. Some archers do prefer to shoot with three fingers below. There is some evidence that European medieval archers shooting heavy war bows would “lock” their fingers down with their thumb. Some cultures in Asia used a thumb draw instead of their fingers and some Middle Eastern, Eastern European, and Native American cultures use a pinch draw, squeezing the end of the arrow between the index finger and thumb. [1]

Once your fingers are on the string, you sight down the arrow to aim, lining up the arrowhead with your target. Sometimes you must aim higher than your target to account for the distance and drop of the arrow. Then you pull back to your anchor point. It is essential to keep your elbow up to use all your back muscles. Then steady your body as much as possible, do any last minute aiming and relax your fingers to release.

If you are shooting at a distant target, especially if your bow is a lighter poundage, then you will have to raise the bow, usually to a 90º angle. For longer shots, it is common to overdraw, pulling back to touch the chest instead of the face or passed the ear. You must be careful that the tip of your arrow doesn’t get pulled back past the bow.

Here is a helpful video showing how a traditional longbow is shot.

A photo of me shooting my longbow.
A group of archers shooting at range. 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.

If you want my blog delivered straight to your inbox every month along with exclusive content and giveaways please sign up for my email list.

Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2020 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.


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.

If you want my blog delivered straight to your inbox every month along with exclusive content and giveaways please sign up for my email list.

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.