Bows. Just about every fantasy world has them, and they all tend to gravitate towards the generic wooden stick thrower trope. You know what I’m talking about, just your basic wooden stick with a string that shoots arrows. But that’s not what we’re going for here, right? We want our worlds to feel big and well thought out, like the things that exist in it exist for a reason. It’s fine if your archers use that kind of bow (it’s called a self-bow, if you were wondering. I know, it’s a dumb name.), but there are also other options that might fit your world/characters better. It’s not a big detail, but one that can really help add believability and depth to your world.
We also don’t want you to get so bogged down in researching whether cat gut or deer gut makes a better bowstring that you let your main characters languish over in your word processor. Those sorts of details are irrelevant in your first draft when you should be focusing on the story, the character dynamics, driving the plot forward. To be fair, some of the details we’re about to share may be somewhat irrelevant too, at least until later in your revisions…but gosh darn it it was fun to write! So here’s everything you need to know about archery for your first draft.
There are a few different factors that go into which bows that exist in your world, and we’ll go into each one individually: Technology level, available resources, and character specific traits.
Tech Level: The first and most obvious factor here is the technology level of your society. Neanderthals weren’t walking around with modern compound bows, and neither should your Iron Age fantasy archers. Well, unless there was some sort of time distorting black hole incident that brought modern technology to an under developed culture in some distant parallel world…which can happen I guess, but…probably don’t do that…but I digress.
Don’t try to get too fancy here, stick with bow archetypes that existed in the past. Not to fear; there are lots of historical bow types to choose from. The simplest and likely earliest bow to be developed was the self-bow. Remember that one? It’s your basic curved stick with a string. These were used pretty much across history, most famously as the English longbow, so just about any society you come up with can use them, from positively primitive to massively medieval. If you like this type of bow but want to spice things up a bit, turn your basic self-bow into what is called a flat-bow. It’s still your basic curved stick with a string, but now the stick is flattened instead of cylindrical/ovular/D-shaped like an English Longbow. See, at some point some genius figured out that making a bow flat gave it more spring, and therefore more power. They’re harder to make, but most people consider them objectively better than their rounded counterparts. Well, unless material availability is an issue, but more on that later.
Next up comes the recurve bow. You might recognize this bow type from movies like The Hunger Games or the Marvel franchise, as it’s the bow of choice for both Katniss and Hawk-Eye. Not much to say here, they’re cool looking and effective, but harder to make, since there is more shaping of the wood that is required. They came a little later on in the evolution of bows. You might use them in parallel to self-bows as the more expensive option, the favorite choice of those who can afford them, and of horsemen because of their smaller size.
The most advanced form of traditional bows is the composite bow, and it’s a little hard to explain so stick with me. Traditionally, this sub-category of the recurved bow is made of three primary materials: wood, horn, and sinew. Wood as the primary material, horn on the inside to provide rigidity, sinew on the outside for extra spring on the release. Sometimes they’re reinforced with bits of bone as well. Put it all together and you have a bow that can pack the same punch as a much larger self-bow (wow I feel silly typing “self-bow”), even some long-bows, and in a significantly smaller package. They’re small and quite bendy (to use the technical term), perfect for short characters like dwarfs and whatever kind of halflings you have in your world. But not children. More on that later. These bows are complex and labor intensive to build, not the bow of your everyday archer. Consider this an upgrade to the recurve bow in most cases, particularly for mounted warriors. However, be aware that these bows are even more susceptible to moisture, and were often uncommon outside of more arid regions, like the Mongolian steppe.
So why wouldn’t everyone use composite or at least recurved bows if they’re so great? Wouldn’t everyone want the advantages of larger self-bows in a smaller package? Well, not everyone had them for the same reason that not everyone has the top-of-the-line iPhone today. I buy last year’s model because it’s cheaper and offers me the essential functions I need, even if the newer, better one is available. There’s always a tradeoff between quality and cost. Mounted archers can’t use large self-bows and have to use the smaller recurve or composite bows if they want to have similar power. But a foot soldier doesn’t need to make that tradeoff. Your everyday hunter or soldier (who must often supply their own equipment) just needs an arrow delivery device of some kind, and would likely not have been able to afford anything but your basic self-bow. But hey, those things work great too.
So there you go, in order of technology level: self-bow, flat-bow, recurve-bow, composite-bow. There’s more to it than that, but that should be enough to get you started. Moving on.
Resource Availability: Simply put, bows are made of wood. I know, shocking. If your world is short on wood as a resource, bows are going to become less common and more expensive. Basic supply and demand stuff. What you should definitely not do is pull a Skyrim and make bows out of things like metal, glass, and dragon bone. It’s fine in Skyrim because it’s not really meant to be taken too seriously, but in a novel it would just look silly and unrealistic. Weird bow materials immediately make the reader go “oh, it’s THAT kind of fantasy story…” If wood is scarce you can get away with having some bows, especially composite-bows since they’re less wood-intensive, but for the most part, archery just isn’t going to be very prevalent. There’s not really a good alternative for wood when it comes to the bow.
A quick note on flat-bows: Because trees don’t come flat, you have to start with a bigger piece of wood in order to end up with enough width for a strong bow. A world with limited wood wouldn’t have really discovered this, as they would have been more concerned with using as little wood as possible. More likely, they would have stumbled upon the composite bow in an attempt to use alternate materials.
Character: This has less to do with what bows exist in your world and more to do with what kind of bow a specific character would use. There’s this myth popular in fantasy and historical fiction that archers are scrawny and weak, almost like they’re the rejected swordsmen that couldn’t cut it. Nothing could be further from the truth. A medieval long-bow could have a draw weight upwards of 100-150 pounds. Pulling 150 pounds with one hand all the way back to your ear and holding it for the 0.5 to 2 seconds required to aim requires a lot of strength and training, let alone doing it six times a minute. Don’t relegate physically weak characters to the archery bin; it’s not accurate. That includes kids, by the way. Young characters simply wouldn’t have the physical strength to use a bow strong enough to do much damage. Furthermore, self and flat-bows need to be quite tall to have an effective draw length. This is why recurve and composite bows are great for dwarves. Dwarves are strong enough to pull back a full sized bow, but the draw length would be too great for their stubby little arms. Because composite bows combine that same power with a much smaller frame, they allow dwarves to join in the archery party.
Look up “fantasy archer” on google images and you’ll find a wall of female archers, usually drawn in blatantly sexualized fantasy costumes. This trope goes along with the trope of weaker soldiers as archers, perhaps because the assumption is that they are too weak to wield a sword while the bow offers them a way to attack from a safe distance. This is completely the opposite of the truth. Bows and arrows were not typically used by women, even women who were warriors back in the day. The upper body strength required to draw very powerful war bows is enormous, particularly in a battle scenario when it must be done over and over again with the ability to reliably aim. Women can certainly use some bows, but most likely smaller hunting bows that wouldn’t do much against armor. Of course, if your fantasy character has magical strength because they’re some sort of elf or shaman or something, that’s another matter. In general though, women are typically going to be more suited to using bladed or perhaps pole weapons rather than bows. But what if you really want to have your female protagonist face down the big baddy clad in plate armor? Well, not to worry; women, children, and smaller characters still have good, realistic options when it comes to powerful ranged combat.
Other Options: There is indeed a way to get those characters involved in the long range attack game, and that way is the crossbow. They’re still tough to draw back, but they have two distinct advantages over a traditional bow. They don’t require sustained draw during the aiming process, and there are devices that aid in the drawing process, such as a goat’s foot. A goat’s foot is that funky looking crank thing you might have seen at some point, and it makes it possible for weaker characters to draw a crossbow that otherwise would be too difficult. These two advantages put together make it possible to keep physically weaker and/or young characters involved even if it’s not realistic for them to wield a bow with enough power to punch through armor.
Misc: Here are a few more miscellaneous facts that might spice up your archery.
Archers almost always carried their bows unstrung, often in cases or bags so that the strings didn’t get wet. The slung-across-the-chest style of Legolas in Lord of the Rings is not something you’d be likely to find in real life, especially in humid/rainy climates.
Speaking of bowstrings, they weren’t always gut. Gut is very susceptible to moisture. Longbow strings, for example, often used hemp, flax, or silk strings, silk of course being quite expensive.
Archers would often shoot barefoot. Shoes back in the day didn’t have grippy rubber soles like ours do nowadays. Sometimes, archers pulling back massive weights found greater purchase on the ground with bare feet.
Effective ranges for bows ranged from 150 to 400 meters, with smaller self-bows being the shortest and something like the English longbow with the longest range. You can tweak things depending on special materials you use unique to your world but keep the ranges within this, well…range.
Only within about 30-40 meters can an archer shoot an arrow at a flat trajectory. Any further, particularly for shorter bows, and the arrow will drop, requiring the archer to aim well above the target in order to actually hit it. This makes long range shooting quite difficult without lots and lots of practice.
In a world where firearms exist, bows can still be an effective tool on a small scale. In larger battles, it’s likely that the superior range of gunpowder will win out, but in smaller encounters, particularly mobile ones, archers can use the advantage of their quicker firing rate to win out. Don’t dismiss bows just because muskets exist in your world.
You can always experiment, or draw inspiration from alternative types of bows that were far less common, such as the cable bow used by some inuit tribes. However, keep in mind that these types of bow existed in certain places for specific reasons. To keep things realistic, be aware of those reasons and decide whether the conditions of your story world justify using something more complex as opposed to the simpler types of bow mentioned here.
You can break any of these rules you want. After all, it’s your story. But be aware that this will affect the tone of your story. If you have your twelve-year-old female protagonist picking off soldiers with her trusty composite bow thanks to her pinpoint accuracy while mid-backflip, that’s going to set the expectation that this is a fun fantasy frolic that isn’t meant to be too realistic or serious. That’s fine; there are great stories with that tone that many people enjoy. But make this choice deliberately, and be aware of what this decision will mean for your intended audience’s enjoyment and immersion. I personally find the grittiness and the limitations of real life make for more engaging worlds and characters.
So what is the point of all this? Bows are bows, right? Who cares? Well, first of all that’s hurtful, I care. Second, bows are one of those things that get mentioned in just about every fantasy story, but so often with very little detail or depth. But we know better, we want everything to have depth and detail. Things are the way they are for a reason. Take the details of your world and characters and use them to inform what does and does not exist. Don’t let a bow just be a bow, use a bow to tell a story about your world and the people that live in it.