Roland Renson. Berkshire Encyclopedia of World Sport. Editor: Karen Christensen & David Levinson. Volume 1, Berkshire Publishing, 2005.

Since ancient times, continuing through the legends of Robin Hood and William Tell, and on into the modern Olympics, people have taken up the bow and arrow for sport. Historians claim that all sports originated in the production process and that thus Homo faber (the tool-making human) preceded Homo ludens (the playful human). The bow and arrow was one tool that had a revolutionary impact on human culture. Prehistoric cave paintings in Spain and France depict bows and arrows as hunting equipment, and archaeologists have found stone arrowheads in excavations as evidence of the first human hunters. Moreover, researchers have found evidence of archery in almost every part of the world. Hence, we can assume that archery did not spread from one culture but rather that it originated independently in various areas. People also used bows and arrows as weapons in warfare. The teaching of archery for warfare led to competitions, which were prototypes of organized sports.

However, an opposing theory of the origin of sports is the so-called cultic historical school, which locates the origin of all sports in cultic rituals. People often linked archery with magic and symbolism. Among the ancient Hittites, for example, archery was part of a magic rite to cure impotence or homosexuality. A treatise on this subject describes how a patient dressed in a black cloak and how a priest intoned chants. The patient then had to undress and walk through a sacred gateway, carrying in his hand a spindle that symbolized womanhood. After he had passed through the gateway, he replaced the spindle with a war bow, which symbolized manhood. A magical formula then confirmed that the patient was cured and that all female elements had been removed.

From anthropological and historical perspectives we often have difficulty in differentiating how, where, and when archery was practiced purely for sport. The associations with warfare, hunting, and cultic rituals are never far away, but throughout history they have often been invoked as a rationalization for practicing archery purely for sport. Although archery as a sport is a contest between archers and not a practice of hunting or warfare, one can’t trace the history of archery without alluding to the use of the bow and arrow in hunting and warfare.

Archery Among the Ancients

When the English archaeologist Howard Carter (1873-1939) discovered the tomb of the Egyptian king Tutankhamen in 1922, the tomb revealed, among other artifacts for hunting, bows, arrows, quivers, arm guards, and a bow case that belonged to Tutankhamen’s hunting chariot. The bows were of three kinds—composite, made of wood, horn, linen, and bark; self-bows of a single stave (staff); and bows of two staves—and ranged in length from 69 to 124 centimeters. One 36-centimeter self-bow was probably used by the king during his childhood. Carter also found 278 arrows ranging from 25 to 91 centimeters in length and one arrow of 15 centimeters, probably used by the king during his childhood. Pictures show that the king hunted with bow and arrow not only from a sitting or standing position, but also from a moving chariot, in which he stood with the reins tied to his waist while shooting with his freed arms. The king, of course, hunted not for economic necessity but rather for enjoyment. Moreover, these royal hunting scenes were symbolic representations of Tutankhamen’s military and physical fitness.

The Egyptian pharaohs also demonstrated their archery marksmanship before an admiring public. A granite relief from Karnak shows Amenophis II shooting at a target from a moving chariot. The inscription on the relief reads: “His Majesty performed these feats before the eyes of the whole land.” A text found at Luxor states that the pharaoh not only challenged his soldiers to a shooting match, but also offered prizes to the winners. A stela (a usually carved or inscribed stone slab or pillar used for commemorative purposes) from Giza notes the sporting achievements of Amenophis II as he aimed at four targets of copper that had been set up at distances of twenty ells (an ell was the length of an arm and thus the perfect length for an arrow shaft).

However, sports Egyptologist Wolfgang Decker has argued that we should interpret such shooting records as mythological statements rather than as actual facts. We also find the motif of the king hunting with bow and arrow in a two-wheeled chariot in ancient Mesopotamia, where ninth- and seventh-century BCE reliefs depict King Asshurnasirpal performing his hunting skills before spectators.

The ancient Greek Homer’s epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, also describe archery contests. A series of funeral games was organized to honor the Greek hero Patroclus, whom Hector had killed during the siege of Troy. For the archery contest Achilles had a ship’s mast set up in the sandy soil, with a pigeon tied to it by a ribbon. Two entrants drew lots from a helmet, and Teucrus won first shot. His arrow hit the ribbon, and the pigeon flew away. The second entrant, Meriones, took the bow from Teucrus and aimed at the pigeon as it circled in the clouds. His arrow struck the pigeon, pierced its body, and came to earth with its tip buried in the ground at Meriones’s feet. He won ten double axes, and Teucrus won ten ordinary axes. This scene from the Iliad presages popinjay shooting, which was an event of the Olympic Games in 1900 and 1920.

A story from the Odyssey tells of the archery skills of Odysseus. When he returned home after an absence of twenty years, he found his wife, Penelope, besieged by a hundred suitors, who were eating and drinking at his expense. His bow had been idle for twenty years. Penelope had declared that she would choose as her husband the man who was able to string the bow and shoot an arrow at a target through the eyes of twelve ax heads set up in a row, just as Odysseus used to do. One by one the suitors tried the feat but could not even string the great bow. Then the bow was handed to Odysseus, who was disguised as a beggar. He strung the bow and shot an arrow through the eyes of all the axes to the target. Then he revealed himself, took aim at Penelope’s suitors, and struck them down one by one.

Roman soldiers were skilled with the bow and arrow, but they were more skilled with the sword. Roman legionnaires, until the fifth century CE, shot their bows by drawing the bow string to the chest, instead of to the face, which gives the arrow more accuracy. However, faithful to their slogan, “Castris uti, non palaestra” (barracks are important, not the sports field), historical evidence does not show that the Romans practiced archery for pleasure. Ironically, about 300 CE Saint Sebastian was martyred by being pierced with arrows because of his Christian faith. He was a Roman officer of the Imperial Guard. He became the patron saint of many medieval archery guilds in Europe.

Arrows Shot Around the World

Archery was among the first sports for which people kept records. A Turkish inscription from the thirteenth century praises Sultan Mahmud Khan for a shot of 1,215 arrow lengths. A seventeenth-century miniature portrays archers on Istanbul’s Place of Arrows, where shots of great length were recorded. Latham and Paterson (1970), Faris and Elmer (1945), and Klopsteg (1934 and 1947) have documented archery among the Saracens, Arabs, and Turks.

Just as the Hun king Attila had terrorized the eastern borders of Europe with his horsemen-archers during the fifth century, the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan rode westward with his cavalry in the thirteenth century. The Mongols used powerful composite bows, and their archery tradition survives today in Mongolia, where champion archers are esteemed.

The traditional Japanese art of archery, kyudo, is a branch of Zen Buddhism in which the bow and arrow are used to achieve a spiritual goal via physical and mental discipline. The samurai warriors were not only expert swordsmen but also expert archers. They shot from a galloping horse, a practice still known today as yabusame. They also shot on foot with a 2-meter laminated bamboo bow (yumi). Allen Guttmann (2004) has pointed out that “rationalization” of archery occurred in Japan as early as the tenth century through the transition from mimetic targets to abstract targets with concentric rings. A gallery in an ancient temple in Kyoto served as a shooting range in the so-called Oyakazu contest, which took place between 1606 and 1842. In this contest for twenty-four hours archers shot a maximum number of arrows through an aperture of 4.5 meters without touching the walls of the gallery. Interest in this contest declined drastically after 1686, when an archer scored 8,132 successes with 13,053 arrows and people thought his record impossible to break. This incident shows that the seventeenth-century Japanese understood the concept of the quantified sports record.

Archery is still used in Africa for hunting by isolated groups such as the Khoikhoi in the Kalahari Desert and the Pygmy in the rain forests, who use small bows and poisoned arrowheads. Arrow shooting for distance was practiced in the former kingdoms of Rwanda and Urundi, where participants determined the score by stepping the distance covered. Distances of up to 200 meters were mentioned. The young Intore warriors of Rwanda started their training by shooting at a vertical stick from 30 meters. Later they shot at a shell placed in the V-shaped branch of a tree from a distance of 30 to 40 meters. Archery contests for nonutilitarian purposes have not been recorded, except for children’s play activities. Archery appears frequently as a children’s game all over Africa.

Native Americans have long been associated with the bow and arrow. Types of bows and arrows varied widely among tribes. The Inuits of northern Alaska moved archery indoors during winter and used miniature bows and arrows to shoot at small wooden bird targets hung from the roof of the communal center. After the Spanish conquistadors introduced horses during the sixteenth century, Native American archers quickly adapted themselves to shooting from horseback. The artist George Catlin (1796-1872), who visited the Plains Native Americans during the mid-nineteenth century, painted a vivid scene of shooting for distance. Contests included shooting for accuracy at an arrow standing upright in the ground, at arrows arranged upright in a ring, at an arrow locked in a tree, at a suspended woven grass bundle, or at a roll of green cornhusks. Archers tried to have their first arrow remain in flight for as long as possible because the winner was the archer who could shoot the most arrows into the air before his first arrow hit the ground.

Archery is also widespread in South America, where competitions are usually contests of dexterity in which archers aim at a target (such as a doll, a ball, or fruits). Shooting for the longest distance is also common, especially in southern areas. A variation (for example, among the Yanomami of the Brazil-Venezuela border) is shooting blunt arrows at opponents who try to fend off the arrows.

Longbow Legacy of the English

The traditional English longbow holds a special position in the evolution of archery. The secret of the longbow lay in the properties of the yew tree (Taxus baccata), which was cut in such a way that a layer of sapwood was left along the flattened back of the bow. The heartwood of yew withstands compression, whereas the sapwood of the yew is elastic; both woods return to their original straightness after the bow is loosed. People already had applied this combination in prehistoric times, as shown by Neolithic bows discovered in a peat bog in Somerset, England. Later the Saxons used bows only for hunting, not for warfare, because they considered only man-to-man combat with hand-held weapons to be appropriate. This attitude would change, however, after the Norman invasion of England in 1066, when William the Conqueror used massed archery.

A better longbow, probably perfected by the Welsh, would make England a first-class military power. Folktales celebrated the lore of bow and arrow and featured such legendary archers as Robin Hood. Of particular importance in the spread of the English longbow was the victory in 1346 at the Battle of Crecy in France, where English archers routed the Genoese crossbowmen of the French army. The showers of arrows wounded the horses of the onrushing French knights, who were defeated. King Edward III’s victorious army, which had been outnumbered by the enemy, consisted of thirteen thousand men, half of whom were archers. Even more notable was the English victory in the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, when King Henry V faced a French army five times as large as his five thousand archers and nine hundred men-at-arms. The yeoman archer became respected and feared and was imitated on the continent, where archers adopted the swift longbow side by side with the more precise but slower-to-load crossbow.

A government passed the first law concerning archery in the twelfth century; that law absolved an archer from charges of murder or manslaughter if he accidentally killed a man while practicing. From the thirteenth century to the sixteenth century all servants, laborers, yeomen, and other menfolk were required to have their own bows and to practice on Sundays and holy days. Target archery thus gradually lost its exclusive military nature and also became a social pastime.

Several acts to encourage archery were passed during the reign of King Henry VIII (1491-1547). One act ordered all physically fit men under the age of sixty, except for judges and clergymen, to practice shooting the longbow. During the Field of the Cloth of Gold Tournament in 1520, Henry VIII demonstrated his skill with the bow at the request of his great rival, King Francis I (1494-1547) of France. He also established and granted privileges to the Guild of St. George, an elite corps whose concern was “the science and feate of shootinge” with crossbow, longbow, and handgun.

Such firearms as the handgun made the bow obsolete, despite all the official encouragement and the publication of a treatise on archery, entitled Toxophilus, the Schole of Shootinge, in 1545. The author, Roger Ascham (1515-1568), an archer himself, pleaded for the retention of archery. Such a plea was, in itself, a sign of the decline of archery: “So shotinge is an exercyse of healthe, a pastyme of honest pleasure, and suche one also that stoppeth or auoydeth all noysome games gathered and increased by ill rull … ” (Schroter 1983, 51).

Archery on the Continent

Many Frankish (relating to a Germanic tribal confederacy) knights had joined the First Crusade (1096-1099), motivated not only by religious zeal but also by adventure. During these expeditions to the Holy Land the knights became acquainted with a new weapon, the crossbow, a bow made by fastening a bow at right angles to a stock or tiller. The crossbow was so deadly that it was forbidden to Christians by the second Lateran Council of 1139—another antiwar decree that has never been observed.

Elite troops had been established within the urban militias by the end of the thirteenth century; these were the guilds of the crossbowmen. The oldest records refer to the Saint George guilds of crossbowmen from the county of Flanders and the duchy of Brabant, such as those of Saint Omer, Ghent, Brussels, Ypres, Bruges, and Louvain, which were founded about 1300. During the Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302, Flemish town militias killed six thousand members of French chivalry, who had stormed into battle as if to the joust. During the battle a French sally had been beaten off from Courtrai Castle by a company of crossbowmen from Ypres.

Inspired by the skill of the English longbowmen and their successes against the French in 1346 and 1415, on the continent several Saint Sebastian guilds of handbowmen arose, obtaining their charters and privileges during the fourteenth century. However, during the fifteenth century the invention of firearms diminished the military role of the crossbow and longbow guilds. Moreover, as a result of revolts by cities against centralized authority, many of the privileges of the cities were trimmed and their city walls and arms destroyed. The main pursuit of the archery guilds tended more and more toward representing the prestige of leading citizens. The guilds were unsurpassed in the organization of huge shooting festivities and banquets with plenty of food and drink. Although the guilds thus lost the character of training schools for the military, they maintained their traditional social status and political power.

Flanders, the Netherlands, and the Rhineland—in contrast to France and England—needed no legislative regulations to promote archery. On the contrary, rulers had difficulty in dealing with the many claims from villages, all requesting guild status for their archers. Peasants shot at butts (mounds of earth against which a shooting mark was placed) or at the popinjay (a wooden bird set on a high mast as a target).

Popinjay shooting remains popular in the northern (Flemish) part of France, in Belgium (mostly in Flanders but also in Wallonia), and in the Catholic southern provinces of the Netherlands. We can probably attribute this popularity to the fact that these regions were less affected by the drastic cultural changes of the Reformation and early industrialization.

A few cities in Italy keep alive their medieval crossbow traditions. During the yearly Palio della Balestra in Gubbio or San Marino, two rival societies of crossbowmen compete in medieval attire, accompanied by their drum corps and flag wavers.

Numerous Schutzen (rifle clubs) in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland originated as archery guilds. They have maintained a martial character, bringing together marksmen equipped with sophisticated firearms in local rifle associations.

Toxophilites and Revival

The Toxophilite Society of London, established in 1781 for the practice of archery as a sport, triggered the revival of archery at the end of the eighteenth century and influenced most of the later societies. At that time the form of archery varied from society to society, but rules for scoring, the number of arrows to be shot, and the distances to be shot would slowly evolve as people attempted to standardize the sport. Archers used targets with concentric rings in England as early as 1673. This practice can be seen as the beginning of “rationalization” of archery, one of the seven characteristics of modern sports, according to Guttmann.

Thomas Waring, who had inspired Sir Ashton Lever to form the Toxophilites, played a major role in this rationalization. Archery, which until then had been associated with the lower classes, was now rapidly adopted by the wealthy “leisure class.” Archery tournaments were held on the grounds of fine country houses and drew large crowds. In 1787 the Royal British Bowmen was the first society to admit women as shooting members. Archery thus became an arena of fashion, elegance, and coquetry. The Sporting Magazine of November 1792 expressed the wish to “see the time when it can be said ‘it is a reproach to be unskilful with the bow.'” The British prince regent’s patronage of archery also contributed to its revival, which extended to Scotland. When King George IV visited Scotland in 1822, the Royal Company of Archers, founded in 1676 in Edinburgh, was given the honor of acting as royal bodyguard. Two members of this elite group fought a duel with bows and arrows in 1791. Although each man shot three arrows at the other “at point blank” range, neither man was injured.

In 1844 the first Grand National Meeting was held at York, England. Contestants shot a “York round,” which consisted of shooting seventy-two arrows at 91 meters, forty-eight at 73 meters, and twenty-four at 55 meters. The championship of Great Britain is still based on these rules, decided upon by the Archers of the United Kingdom, assembled in 1844 on the Knavesmire race course near York. The circles on the targets were scored as follows: gold, nine; red, seven; blue, five; black, three; and white, one. Heath has attributed this innovation to the prince of Wales. In 1845 women competed for the first time in the second Grand National Meeting, although some women had already been members of various societies. Such meetings were still restricted to the Victorian upper classes, and the best newspapers reported the sport in their society columns. Victoria herself, before her accession to the throne, had not only been a patron of the Queen’s Royal St. Leonard’s Archers, but also had shot with them.

The archery tradition of England spread to the United States, where the first club was established in 1828 on the banks of the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania. The United Bowmen of Philadelphia was a semi-secret society whose members adopted cryptic names. Members ordered a complete set of archery tackle from Thomas Waring Jr. in London, which they then copied.

The Civil War (1861-1865) was partly responsible for the renewed interest in archery in the United States. After the war men who had fought in the Confederate army were no longer allowed to use firearms. Two war veterans, the brothers William (1846-1918) and Maurice (1844-1901) Thompson, spent the time from 1866 to 1868 in the wilderness of Georgia’s swamps and Florida’s Everglades, living for the most part on the game they killed with bow and arrow. Maurice Thompson’s book The Witchery of Archery, published in 1878, described their love of the sport. The book was widely read, and interest in archery spread. U.S. archery tackle had improved and was at least as good as that of the English. The National Archery Association was established and held its first championship meeting in Chicago in 1879.William Thompson won and repeated this victory in the next five tournaments. However, archery declined almost as quickly as it had spread. People in the United States sought their thrills in other fashionable outdoor sports such as tennis, baseball, rowing, and golf.

Archery also spread to the British colonies. In Australia, for example, archery was one of the few socially acceptable competitive sports for women and with tennis was organized in mixed clubs.

Precarious Olympic History

Archery originally was included in the Olympic Games only at the request of the national archery association of the host country. International rules did not exist; the rules of the host country were used. Archery first appeared during the 1900 games in Paris. Archery consisted of horizontal target shooting (tir au berceau), with the crossbow and with the handbow, and vertical popinjay shooting (tir à la perche) with the handbow. The crossbow contests were held at 35, 28, and 20 meters. The horizontal handbow contests, held at 50 and 33 meters, had two events: shooting at the large target (au cordon doré) and at the small target (au chapelet). Popinjay shooting was practiced at a 28-meter-tall mast. All medals were shared among French and Belgian entrants. Hubert Van Innis (1866-1961) from Belgium won two gold medals in the 33-meter target events and one silver medal in the 50-meter target au cordon doré.

During the 1904 Olympics women participated for the first time in archery. All competitors—men and women—were from the United States. The men shot the double York round (55, 46, and 37 meters) and the double American round individually (55, 45, and 36 meters) and in teams (55 meters). The U.S. archery pioneer William Thompson won two bronze individual medals and one team gold medal as a member of the winning Potomac Archers from Washington, D.C. Among the women Mrs. M. C. Howell won three gold medals: in the double national round (55 and 45 meters), in the double Columbia round individually (45, 36, and 27 meters), and in teams (55, 45, and 44 meters) as member of the Cincinnati Archery Club. During the Olympics’ so-called Anthropological Days, U.S. archers competed against a number of “savages” from different parts of the globe. Whereas the white U.S. contestants placed practically all their arrows at the 1.2-meter square target board at 36 meters, the “savages” hardly hit the target at all. This carnivalistic contest with racist undertones upset Olympics organizer Pierre de Coubertin of France, who had not been present and who called it a vulgar experiment not to be repeated.

For the 1908 Olympics in London, the Grand National Archery Society and the Royal Toxophilite Society joined to organize three days of shooting in the new stadium at Shepherd’s Bush, England. They drew up clear rules of competition, including a regard for courtesy. For example, one rule stated: “Gentlemen will not be allowed to smoke at the ladies’ targets.” The competing teams consisted of twenty-five women and fifteen men from Britain, eleven men from France, and one man from the United States. British archers won gold and silver in the York round, but Henry B. Richardson, the U.S. champion, won the bronze medal. The only women competitors were British. French archers won all medals in the continental style (50 meters).

Archery next appeared in the Olympics in 1920 in Antwerp, Belgium. Archery was Belgium’s national sport, but it was rather idiosyncratic. Hence, the Royal Toxophilite Society of England decided not to enter the competition because the rules restricted archery to popinjay shooting and to target shooting at “uncommon” distances. Only archers from Belgium, France, and the Netherlands took part. No women’s events were held. Popinjay shooting was practiced at a 31-meter-tall mast both in teams (six archers plus two reserves) and individually. Target archery contests were organized at 28 meters with a target of 60 centimeters, at 33 meters with a target of 72 centimeters, and at 50 meters with a target of 120 centimeters. Archers from Belgium won practically all the gold medals. After having already won three medals in Paris twenty years before, Hubert Van Innis of Belgium won three more gold and two more silver medals, making him the greatest archery olympionike (“Olympic champion” in Greek) in history. Archery then disappeared from the Olympics for more than fifty years, probably because of the lack of an international governing body. In 1931 the Federation Internationale de Tir a l’Arc (FITA) was founded at Lwow, Poland, with representatives from Poland, Belgium, France, and Sweden. This founding began a new era in international archery. FITA rules and regulations were internationally adopted. One year later the United Kingdom joined FITA. Under the leadership of Oscar Kessels of Belgium (1957-1961) and Mrs. Inger K. Frith of Great Britain (1962-1977), archery was voted back into the Olympic Games in 1968.

FITA rules were recognized throughout the world. In the single FITA round, competitors shoot six sets of six arrows from distances of 90, 70, 50, and 30 meters. Women’s rounds have distances of 70, 60, 50, and 30 meters. In Olympic competitions athletes shoot a double round, which comprises seventy-two arrows at the same distances. During the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany, two U.S. athletes—John Williams and Wilber Doreen—won gold medals in the men’s double FITA and the women’s double, respectively. Both established Olympic and world records.

The 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Canada, featured men and women archers from twenty-five countries. At the boycotted games of 1980 in Moscow and 1984 in Los Angeles, archery was represented but without splendor. At the 1988 games in Seoul, South Korea, the South Koreans dominated the team and the women’s competitions. South Korean women dominated the individual and team competitions at the 1992 games in Barcelona, Spain, the 1996 games in Atlanta, Georgia, the 2000 games in Sydney, Australia, and the 2004 games in Athens, Greece. Among the men Simon Fairweather of Australia won gold in Sydney, and Marco Galiazzo of Italy won gold in Athens in the individual events; the Korean men won the team events in both Olympics.

Variations on a Theme

Archery lends itself to a variety of forms. For example, shooting from a wheelchair has become a standard sport practiced by many paraplegic persons, introduced in 1948 by Frank L. Bilson (1902-1980) at Stoke Mandeville in England. An alternative to formal target archery is field shooting, based on conditions that might be encountered in hunting. Oddly enough, this more “natural” type of archery has also become standardized and is practiced either as the field round or as the hunters round. In both forms archers shoot fifty-six arrows from fourteen shooting positions, but in the first form at specified ranges and in the second form at unknown ranges.

Flight shooting, or shooting for maximum distance, is a reminder of the form that was developed by the Turks and was an honored pastime of the sultans. It has modern versions both in the United States and in Great Britain. Distances of more than 1,100 meters have been recorded. In clout shooting archers shoot arrows with a high trajectory to fall into a target zone, marked by circles on the ground. A few traditionalist societies in England and Scotland still practice this form.

International crossbow shooting is regulated by the Union Internationale de Tir à l’Arbalète (UIA, UIA was founded in 1956 and has its headquarters in Switzerland, the land of the legendary William Tell. The first Crossbow World Championship was held in 1979 after eleven European championships had been held. Several variations exist both in terms of traditional crossbow types (for example, the bullet crossbow, still used in Belgium) and in terms of the targets (for example, popinjay shooting with the crossbow). Archers practice popinjay shooting not only at a tall mast, from which they must shoot down feathered “birds,” but also horizontally in lanes, especially in Belgium.