Just a string & a bent stick... by Gary Hughes

Issue: 19

Just a string & a bent stick...
Thoughts on archery in a wargames context
by Gary Hughes

I may be wrong but archers in wargames armies seem to fall into one of two categories: the dross of society (peasant with stick) or the "medieval superweapon" (English longbowman or Samurai archer).

On reflection, I'm not so sure that either case is really the correct approach to take and definitely not in a fantasy setting.

First off, let's have a quick thought about the weapon itself. Despite the title, most bows are not just "bent sticks with a bit of string". They are generally quite complex beasts - even the ones called "simple" self bows made from one piece of wood rather than a lamination of different woods are not as straightforward as they may seem.

The actual bow needs to be fairly strong and "springy" if it is going to project a missile with enough force to do any damage. It also needs to be flexible, otherwise it will crack. However strong the bow is, the string needs to be equally strong, otherwise it will snap when you pull it back. And then you have to get all those arrows...

What am I leading up to with all this?

Well, basically, if it takes that much trouble to produce a bow. Why give them to a crappy peasant? After all, economically, a spear (and possibly even a shield to go with it) are a much cheaper option for arming the masses. They also don't need much training to use a spear, and more importantly, they are easier and much cheaper to maintain: bows break if not handled carefully, strings fray or snap, feathers fail off arrows (or arrows get lost or broken).

If that is the case, why give them out to the peasant masses? Could it be that the peasant levies with bows were not as bad as is normally made out?

From observation of historical re-enactments, one thing always stands out: archers if attacked tend to run away, for the simple reason that they need to put the bow down before they can defend themselves in melee.

Re-enactment archers are reluctant to risk their bows or arrows getting trampled underfoot - so why suppose that their historical counterparts were any different? The equipment was if anything. comparatively more expensive then than now. "He who shoots and runs away might get to shoot another day" to paraphrase the old saying.

Perhaps it is partially because historical writers have always been biased. After all, the people doing the writing were not usually the peasant masses, so any historical description of their actions would be as extras rather than stars.

At the other end of the scale, you run into the seemingly invincible longbows. If the damn things were so good why did the English stop using them so quickly when muskets came upon the scene? Looking at the major battles featuring longbows, either in the Hundred Years War (Crecy, Poitiers, Agincourt, etc) or the Wars of the Roses (Towton, etc), they may not have been as invincible as some people seem to believe. All of the major battles were decided by close combat rather than firepower alone, despite the huge proportion of archers in medieval English armies.

Perhaps there was little real difference, when you allow for technological advances to armour, between the Norman archers with shortbows at Hastings, and the English ones with longbows at Agincourt?

Okay this type of discussion may be fine in a historical context, but how does it fit in with our fantasy battles?

At the very least it may mean looking at the rules for archery, or just the archers themselves, in a new light. If they are not going to be regarded as "peasants with sticks" or "yeomanry with superweapons", how do you actually deal with them?

In particular, those hordes of cheap and nasty goblin archers are going to need a re-think. After all, the weapons are more expensive, and need more care and maintenance, than you might normally associate with the goblin military system. They will probably not wish to get too close to the enemy, but they may regard themselves as being something of an elite. Possibly even an educated elite? (Any dumb orc can carry a spear, sword or club, but a bow requires a certain degree of co-ordination and dexterity just to get the string in place before you even attempt a shot with it.)

Would any other archers be worth a fresh thought?

Perhaps the ethos of elven bowmen should be given some scrutiny fair enough, they should be quite happy to go around shooting down orcs/goblins etc. but are unlikely to lay down their bows to join in melee - after all, their bows are prized possessions, made by master craftsmen and lovingly cared for.

Dwarven crossbowmen might also share this attitude: take a look at some of the surviving medieval crossbows in museums, and you will see that they are quite intricate pieces of work. The technology may be relatively simple, but it is still quite complex (and expensive) to produce. The stocks of some surviving medieval crossbows are exquisitely decorated works of art. In addition, crossbows tend to be highly powerful weapons they are generally more powerful than bows, and have the advantage that they can be rested on walls etc (making aiming easier or more accurate). All of this could actually make them an attractive prize for hostile forces...

And then there is the question of "how do they retrieve their ammunition?"

Anyway, it was just a thought. Perhaps you might try a go at archery yourself to see what you think. (If you are interested, you could try either a local archery club or a medieval re-enactment society, and see if they will help out, although most modem archery clubs have more wheels and pulleys than a meccano set, it's still worth a try).

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