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Archery Throughout the Centuries
By Michael Russell

In the notorious armies of the early civilizations, good archers were great assets and were usually used as the first offense. Their arrows caused mass destruction on the battlefields and could topple large numbers. Civilizations that held archers in high regard in their armies were the Greeks, the Persians, the Parthian, the Chinese and the Indian armies. The famous phrase 'a parting shot' actually originates from the a shooting style wherein the rider turns in the saddle to shoot as he and his horse rode away from the enemy. This shot is called the 'Parthian shot.' Archers often rode on horseback and combined speed with close range like the mythological characters of Apollo and Odysseus that are depicted using bows and arrows riding horses and chariots. Other archers are positioned in strategic places of height increasing accuracy and effectiveness of the shot.

In Medieval Europe, however, the archer's use in battle was not as significant and predominant as myth has it. In reality, bowmen were one of the lowest paid soldiers in the army and were often just trained peasants. The bow and arrow were labeled as lower class weapons because they were cheap to make compared to the very expensive armor and swords that clad men-at-arms. This low value made the bow a mere toy of the nobility and peasants as well. The Vikings, however, saw the prowess of archery and made it one of their foremost weapons in their expeditions throughout Western Europe in the 9th and 10th centuries.

Following this example, the English had learned to appreciate and hold in high regard the power of the bow and arrow. In the Hundred Years' War, the English deployed huge numbers of archers using English Longbows. This strategy gave them tactical dominance. Seeing this much success, archers were soon recruited and farming peasants started training since childhood. Each boy was given and trained with a bow of his height. They held tournaments to encourage and test them for accuracy and precision. Soon after, they would train shooting arrows while riding horses. And at a certain age, they would proceed to join the army.

On the battlefield, archers are faced with enemies from all sides. A technique where an archer shoots two arrows at one time would bring down the enemy's defenses. One arrow is shot on a high trajectory and the other at a lower trajectory thus hitting the target on two different angles. In addition, the development of the bodkin point gave their arrows the ability to penetrate deeper into the enemy's armor.

Longbows require a lot of skill and training before being able to shoot an arrow and hit a target. This training took a lot of years. With the crossbow however, anyone can shoot an arrow, although a little training is needed to hit a target. This and the fact that the crossbow had the same penetrating power and range of the longbow, made it useful in the early civilizations up to today. Unfortunately, it takes a significant amount of time to reload an arrow compared to the longbow.

In centuries after, the use of bows in the army became obsolete with the development of firearms. Even when bows had a longer range and could reload faster than the first rifles, the penetrating power of a bullet and the minimal training needed reigned supreme. In due time, guns and bullets would defeat the bow and arrow in range, accuracy, proficiency and in reload time. Because of archery's decline in popularity, the 16th century English monarch mandated that every man of fighting age practice archery and Henry VIII banned all sport except archery during Sundays. Their efforts to preserve this fighting style helped archery survive until the present day. In this day and age, archery is no longer a weapon of war but a sport that is a true test of precision and accuracy.

Michael Russell Your Independent guide to Archery