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In this article we will be looking at several handbooks on archery written in both the Islamic world and in the West with the aim of determining which is the oldest useful manual on archery. Our investigation is guided with criteria in function of which materials were selected, such as availability of the text, the existence of an English version (original or in translation) and its comprehensiveness in covering archery techniques. On the basis of these criteria, it turned out that the oldest useful manual on archery is a book written around 1368 by Taybugha Al-Ashrafi Al-Baklamishi Al-Yunani, The Complete Manual of Archery for Cadets, known in the scholarship as Saracen Archery.
Writings on Archery from the Islamic and Western Worlds
by Mr. Malcolm Wright*
Table of contents
Figure 1: Miniature painting of the Ottoman Sultan Murat II during archery practice. From Huner-nama (‘Book of Skills’), Istanbul, 1584. MS Hazine 1523, folio 138a, Library of Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul. (Source)
It may seem that shooting an arrow is a simple process. As children, we would make simple bows from a piece of wood and string, an arrow out of a twig, and away we would go. However when it is crucial to hit the target, to win a competition or to injure an enemy, then a simple activity is transformed into an extremely complex one. In the process of shooting an arrow, the archer faces many different factors, some external such as wind, and some internal, such as the archers skill, his level of concentration and his physical strength. He must hold all these factors in mind and eventually express them in a physical manner with the perfect shot. If any one of these factors goes wrong, then there is a good chance that the arrow will not hit the target.
To become a good archer we must first of all be trained and then we must practice. Part of our ongoing education as archers will be to read what other archers have written on the subject. Some people might argue that there is little point in reading books written hundreds of years ago. However if you are interested in any subject, it is useful to learn about its history so that you can put it in context. Also today there is a great interest in “traditional” archery and there is a healthy trade in building and selling traditional bows. This ranges from the English Longbow to Mongol and Hun composite bows. I myself shoot a bow whose original design was created more than two thousand years ago.
However, if we use traditional equipment in a modern way, we are getting only half the experience. If we can see archery through the eyes of ancient archers, learn their techniques, learn to handle equipment that is strange to us, then we become more rounded archers.
In this article we will be looking at several handbooks on archery written in both the Islamic world and in the West, with the aim of determining which is the oldest useful manual on archery. To do this, we need some criteria to be used in the selection of material. The criteria used were:
Having selected the material, we need to test it to qualify it’s “usability”. In any modern manual we would expect to see certain characteristics. These might be defined as:
Figure 2: Miniature showing an Ottoman horse archer, one of the most feared warriors of the middle ages. Note the archer’s skill at shooting behind him while riding a horse. (Source)
On the basis of this set of criteria, the first selection suggested itself. It was a book written around 1368 by Taybugha Al-Ashrafi Al-Baklamishi Al-Yunani. In the translated form, the book is known today as Saracen Archerybut its original title in Arabic is entitled Kitab Ghunyat at-Tullab fi Ma’rifat Rami an-Nushshab, whilst the English translation is The Complete Manual of Archery for Cadets. An Arabic manuscript copy of this book is held in the British Library (Manuscript Additional 23489), but the version used in this article is the translation and commentary compiled by John Latham et al. and published in 1970 by The Holland Press (London).
We know very little about the original author, except that he wrote his book in the 14th century and that he was a Mamluk. Mamluks were slaves who were bought to be trained as soldiers. Once their training was completed, they were given their freedom and then employed in the Mamluk armies. Mamluk training was well organized and thorough – and documented. On the battlefield, the Mamluk armies were formidable opponents. During the period of the Mongol invasions of Syria, between approximately 1240 to 1300, the Mamluk armies held off the Mongol invaders. Eventually, the Mamluks forced the Mongols to change their tactics and even their life style.
The name Taybugha is of Turkic origin, which suggests that the author might have come from what is now central Turkey. However his name, Al-Yunani, “The Greek”, also suggests that he might have been of Greek origin. Arabic was certainly not his native language, as he states at the beginning of his book and apologises for his bad Arabic.
We can assume that Taybugha Al-Ashrafi Al-Baklamishi Al-Yunani had retired from the Mamluk forces by the time that he wrote his book. His book was written while the bow was still a weapon of war and his book was influenced, not only by his personal experience, but by his training as a Mamluk. He must have drawn on Mamluk documents relating to the training of an archer and the writings of earlier Arab scholars on archery.
The second book in our corpus also comes from an Islamic source. Its title in English reads A Book On The Excellence of the Bow and Arrow and the Description Thereof. This is an Arabic manuscript of about 1500 CE. Its title is Kitab fi bayan fadhl al-qaws wa-‘l-sahm wa-awsafihima. The name of the author is unknown, but he is thought to be a North African from Morocco. The version we used is a translation by Nabih Amin Faris and Robert Potter Elmer of the original manuscript held in Princeton Library (Garrett Collection MS 97, 353 pp.) and published by Princeton University Press in 1945. It covers much the same ground as Saracen Archery but there are some substantial differences.
When it comes to Western manuals of archery, perhaps the most famous is Toxophiluswhich was written in England in 1545 by Roger Ascham. The version used is the 1868 reprint edited by Edward Arber.
Ascham was a scholar during the last years of the reign of Henry VIII and he wrote Toxophilus primarily as a present for the king, and for which he was rewarded with a pension. It covers all the archery techniques but in a more discursive manner. The bulk of the book takes the form of a Platonic dialogue between Philologus and Toxophilus and is written in “Middle English”.
Ascham is more generally known for his book The Schoolmaster, though his name is still remembered in British archery circles and there are several archery clubs which use his name. Also a cupboard that is used to hold bows and other archery equipment is known as an “Ascham”.
The final book is Theory and Practice of Archery, written by Horace Ford in 1856. The version we used is a new edition revised and rewritten by W. Butt after Horace Ford’s death and published in 1887. This appears to be the earliest practical manual on archery published in English.
When looking at the books we must be aware that they come from two different cultures and cover a period of about 500 years. We will have to ignore elements of literary style and concentrate only on how the facts and techniques are presented and to the degree of detail that the books go into.
In addition, as a Western trained archer, I will be trying out some of the techniques described in these books. This will mostly apply to the Islamic techniques as they are the ones that are most different to modern Western techniques. I will be trying some techniques that I am not familiar with to see if the books give enough information to follow the technique through to its conclusion. The conclusion is, of course, that the arrow hits the target!
In this article we refer to “Islamic Archery”. This is primarily because the sources we will be discussing from the Eastern World are Islamic sources. However most of the techniques that are described under the term of “Islamic Archery” would also apply to the archery practised in the Near East, Far East, India and the way that some native North American tribes shot a bow.
Figure 3: Islamic composite bows depicted in this mystical scene from an 18th-century manuscript detailing the life of a Persian prince. Source: Charles E. Grayson, Mary French, Michael J. O’Brien, Traditional archery from six continents: the Charles E. Grayson Collection, The University of Missouri Press, 2007, p. 60
Before examining our sources in detail, it will be useful to put archery into its historical context.
While Western Europe was going through what has generally been called “The Dark Ages”, the Islamic nations were going through a period of cultural, scientific and artistic expansion. While European scholars discussed how many angels could sit on the head of a pin, Arab scholars were investigating all aspects of the physical world from medicine and psychotherapy to astronomy. Much of our modern science has its basis in discoveries made in cities like Isfahan, Cordoba and Bagdad. Islamic scholars mixed abstract ideas with practical results. Surgery using anaesthetics was being practised in the Islamic world hundreds of years before it appeared in the West.
The methods of theory, research and experimentation form the basis of all modern science. Islamic scholars used these tools but did not restrict them to what might be called the “Physical Sciences”. In later years they extended these methods into archaeology and the discovery of their past. All of these discoveries were written down to produce an extensive body of documentation.
Amongst these texts there are writings that specifically relate to archery, both in war and as a sport. This is not in the least surprising as archery is embedded deeply into Islamic culture. According to Islamic teachings, God sent Gabriel to give a bow and two arrows to Adam to kill birds that were stealing Adams crops. The Prophet Mohammed was a keen archer – three of his bows are still kept in the Topkapi museum in Istanbul. The Prophet said “The hand of man has wielded no weapon which was not excelled by the bow.”
In Islamic archery practice, the area between the shooting line and the target was considered to be holy ground. Another demands that the archer walk barefooted when he is picking up his arrows for shooting. This is in accordance with a tradition ascribed to the Prophet, which regards the course between the archer and his aim as a strip of Paradise.
However Faris and Elmer in Arab Archery have a slightly different slant on the practice of walking barefoot between the shooting line and the target. They say “Although a mystical significance is assigned to this act of walking barefooted to the target, the practical value of it is so apparent to an archer that he may wonder if such a law of religious observance did not arise as a corollary of empiricism. The compelling motive is the fear of stepping upon a snake; not on a serpent, but on a hidden arrow that is technically called a snake because it has missed the target and has buried itself so nvisibly under the grass or in the sand that its presence cannot be detected by the eye. It is impossible for the layman to realize how absolute this concealment can be. An archer may hunt an hour or more for a snaked arrow-perhaps crossing and recrossing it many times-and even then may find his search to be unsuccessful; unless he finally resort: to the use of a rake or hook to scratch up the ground or should happen to tread upon the shaft and probably crunch it. To avoid this latter catastrophe the Asiatics developed the propriety of kicking off their loose shoes, so that the snake in the grass could be felt, but not broken, by their sensitive feet.”
Scholars think that the bow is amongst the earliest machines invented. In essence, a bow is a device that stores energy and then releases it in one instant. It allows an archer to apply force gradually and store the energy in the bow as potential energy and then by allowing the bow to release it almost instantaneously converts it into kinetic energy.
The first real evidence of the use of a bow comes from the Stone Age, possibly as long ago as 20,000 BCE. The evidence is indirect and comes from the assumption that if you have flint arrowheads you will probably have bows and arrows.
The invention and use of the bow appear to be one of those events that happened in many different places at roughly the same time. In subsequent periods, developments spread so that, for example, techniques developed by the Mongols were assimilated into Islamic bow technology.
Figure 4: Self Bow
In practice – ignoring the compound bow which is a very recent development – every bow is a variation of one of two forms. The simplest is known as a “self” bow and it is made from a single piece of wood. The English longbow is a self bow and is the most common type of bow in the Medieval Western World.
Originally the materials used to construct a bow depended mainly on what was available locally. Later, as specific materials showed their superiority for bow construction, a trade in these materials developed. For instance, the original English longbows were constructed using English Yew but later it was discovered that Spanish and Italian Yew performed better and made the best bows. As a result a trade in foreign Yew developed. This trade became so important that, for a time in the Middle Ages, it became compulsory for British trading vessels to carry a certain quantity of bow staves on every trip to England.
A bow needs two completely different types of material. As you pull the bowstring back the bow will deform. The material on the inside of the bow will compress, while the outside of the bow will extend and will be in tension. The best longbows use Yew wood cut so that the sapwood, i.e. the outer part of a branch, is on the outside of the bow while the heartwood is on the inside. Sapwood takes tension while heartwood takes compression.
Figure 5: Composite Bow
The other type of bow is the composite bow. These are made from different types of material, where each is chosen for their compression or tension capabilities. They were also generally recurved. Self bows take the form of an arc when strung. On a recurve bow, the top and bottom parts of the bow are curved in opposition to the main body of the bow. This allows for extra compression and tension to be available in the bow, and therefore a recurved bow can store more energy for its length than a non recurved bow.
Generally, composite bows are shorter than self bows and are therefore easier to use on horseback. Many eastern bows are composite and specifically designed for horsemen.
Traditional bows were made from organic materials and unless they were preserved, by being put into a tomb for example, then they rarely survive into the archaeological record; therefore it is difficult to say exactly when the first composite bows were made. However, we do know that some of the bows in the tomb of Tutankamun were of the composite type, which means that they were in existence around by 1300-1200 B.C.E. Many of the bows used in the Middle and Far East were possibly based on the Scythian bow, which itself dates back to around 700 B.C.E.
To use a bow and shoot correctly takes training and physical strength. To produce a man who can fulfil the duty of an archer in battle takes hundreds of hours of training and practice. In cultures where the bow was an important weapon, archery training schools became very important. In England, it was compulsory for certain classes of people to train every week at archery. State controlled prices were set for bows so that everyone could afford one.
Henry VIII required “under penalty of default of 12d per month – all subjects under 60, not lame, decrepit, or maimed, or having an other lawful Impediment; the Clergy and Judges & c excepted: to use shooting in the long bow. Parents were to provide every boy from 7 to 17 years, with a bow and two arrows: after 17 he was to find himself a bow and four arrows. Every Bower for every Ewe bow he made was to ‘at the lest ij Bowes of Elme Wiche or other Wode of mean price’ under penalty of Imprisonment for 8 days. Butts were to be provided in every town. Aliens were not to shoot with the long bow without licence”. Thus for every good bow he makes, a bowyer had to make a number of cheaper bows for practice. And this was true in the beginning of Henry’s reign (1511-12), even though at that time the bow was beginning to be supplanted by firearms. The last battle fought in England using bows was in 1513. However, even as late as 1541 Henry brought out “An Acte for Mayntanance of Artyllarie and debarringe of unlauful Games.” As part of this act, no bowyer should sell a Yew Bow to anyone between 8 and 14 years for more than 12d.
In Islamic tradition, archery training was part of the duties of a Muslim. “The Prophet himself, furthermore, was an archer and possessed three bows. The terms in which he urged his community to practise riding and archery – preferably the latter – amount to a standing order, and archery is a… religious obligation incumbent, nor upon each individual, but upon the community by representation.”
As a result of these measures, there was always a large body of trained men available to armies as archers. Their accuracy may not have been to “Robin Hood” standards, but a trained archer was incredibly strong, capable of loosing many shafts during a battle. Skeletons of archers retrieved from the “Mary Rose” show significant distortions to the shoulders, arms and back. An English war bow at the time of Agincourt would need a pull of around 120 pounds for the full draw. That is equivalent to holding sixty bags of sugar on the first three fingers of the right hand and pulling it up to shoulder height, time and time again. It took at least ten years to develop the muscles and the technique to go with it. And that is why England, with its intensive training starting at the age of eight, could supply so many fully trained archers.
The use of the “arrow storm”, where each side would put as many arrows in the air in the shortest possible time, was common to most armies. An Egyptian Mamluk was said to be able to loose three arrows in a second and a half. There are reports of a Mamluk who was able to put fifteen arrows in the air at the same time! A highly trained English archer would be expected to be able to loose twenty arrows a minute. However, these rates of fire would soon exhaust both the supplies of arrows and the archers, so it is unlikely to continue for long periods of time.
The basic design of both bows and arrows are fairly simple and there have been no major changes over thousands of years. There were many small improvements, but it was not until the 1960’s, with the invention of the “Compound Bow”, that the first major change to the design of the bow arrived. A modern archer, even with no knowledge of archaeology, would be able to look at the archery equipment in the tomb of Tutankhamen and be able to identify every piece and be able to describe how it was used.
Any treatise on archery, ancient or modern, breaks down the act of shooting an arrow into several discrete stages. However, in practice the five stages described below are part of a continuous sequence of actions, with the possibility of a very short pause at one point.
The five stages are:
We will see what each of the four books mentioned above say about each of the five stages just defined. We will treat each of the activities separately, but we must remember that they are part of a continuous stream of activity.
The archer’s stance is crucial. The stance selected determines most of what follows. There are three basic stances. The first is the oblique, where the advanced shoulder is pointing straight at the target. The second is where the archer stands facing the target face on and the third is somewhere between the two.
Taybugha describes the three basic stances and one for people wearing armour. He describes explicitly where the feet are to be placed and how the weight of the archer should be distributed. It is apparent that Taybugha has his own ideas of the right way to go about things. After describing the official stance for a man in armour, he said:
“In this position, the archer has his Achilles’ tendons meeting, but parts his feet in front. He stands in this way because he is wearing armour. It is a difficult thing to do, [and I do not care for it], but I record it here in accordance with the practice of our masters. My own view is that the archer should put a space between his legs almost big enough to allow another man to pass between. In this way, he can stand more firmly and can get up, stand, and dodge more rapidly”.
The book Arab Archery also describes the three basic stances and one that involves turning the back on the target while the archer draws and then pivots at the hip towards the target as he releases. The author does not give any preference for any particular stance but does seem to favour the oblique stance, which incidentally is the stance adopted by modern archers as it allows the full use of the back and shoulders in the draw. He also gives details of three sitting stances.
Toxiphilus is not so specific. Ascham says: “The favourite point is when a man should shoot take such footing and standing as shall be both comely to the eye and profitable to his use, setting his countenance and all the other parts of his body after such a behaviour and port that both all his strength may be employed to his own most advantage and his shoot made and handled to other men’s pleasure and delight.” This could suggest the oblique stance. He does not give details of the other different types of stances.
Ford in Theory and Practice of Archery again seems to favour the oblique stance, although he accepts that there is room for some variety according to personal preference. However he does bring another element into the discussion. “That an archer’s general position may be a good one it must possess three qualities – firmness, elasticity and grace”. However, he is most precise on the possibilities that the archer can select from in terms of stance.
Figure 6: Standard (Oblique) Stance
As can be seen from Figure 6, a modern archer stands with his shoulders lined up so that they point at the target and the feet roughly at right angles to the line of the shoulders. Taybugha’s method is roughly the same, but the left foot will be pointed at the target and the right foot will be placed so that the heel of the left foot will point at the instep of the right. However, this stance means that the chest has now naturally moved about 45 degrees so that the shoulders are no longer in line with the target, and therefore to get the shoulders in line with the target the body has to be twisted back by roughly 45 degrees. This introduces a slight element of strain in the body.
The modern stance is probably the more stable, whereas Taybugha’s stance is more flexible and allows movement in any direction. Most modern archers don’t expect to have someone shooting back at them, so stability is preferred to the ability to move quickly in any direction. In any case, Al Yunani’s description is very clear and it is easy to take up the position he describes.
For Taybugha nocking – the putting of the knock of the arrow onto the string – is an operation to be carried out without looking at the bow or the arrow. “In other words, at no time do you look at the nocking operation, but rather keep your eyes fixed all the while on the mark at which you are about to shoot, that is to say the enemy’s position… Your sight must be trained constantly upon this mark without leaving it, even for a single instant, for if an archer takes his attention away from his foe, the latter will do him some injury and perhaps even kill him.”
Bearing in mind that this is a crucial operation that must be done exactly, Taybugha goes into some detail, as to how it is to be carried out and warns the young archer that only much practise and constant training will enable him to do this.
The author of Arab Archery is again fairly precise about the methodology involved, but points out that this operation must be done with the eyes firmly on the target. However, this is now due to the fact that this is the method used by all schools of archery at that time rather than the fact that someone might try to kill you.
Ascham does not spend a lot of time on nocking: “To nock well is the easiest point of all, and there is no cunning, but only diligent heed giving, to set his shaft neither too high nor too low…”
Ford hardly mentions nocking at all!
Knocking is one of the simplest operations, but still a crucial one. If the arrow is not sitting firmly on the string, the shot will be wasted.
Taybugha starts with the way that the arrow is taken from the quiver. It is held approximately one hands breadth from the head and then placed on the bow, where the fingers of the bow hand are used to hold the arrow in position. The other hand then runs back along the body (stele) of the arrow, checking it for damage. This continues until the knock is reached when the two hands will move towards each other until the knock is by the knocking point and is clicked into place. This is substantially different from the modern technique, but it is possible to get used to it very quickly.
Figures 7a-d: Knocking
Taybugha relates that another master, Al-Tabari, said that there are ten points to effective shooting of which nine relate to the draw. So it can be seen how important the draw is.
Before the draw can be started, the fingers must be positioned on the string. There are many different ways that this can be done, but there are essentially two main positions, with one other variant.
In the West, the main method is the Mediterranean Draw, where the index finger, the middle and ring fingers are used to pull back string with the arrow nock between the index and middle finger. It tends to twist the string slightly in the opposite direction to the hand that is on the string. This means that with this draw, a right handed archer will have the arrow on the left hand side of the bow and a left handed archer on the right hand side of the bow. This way, the twist of the string will force the arrow into the bow.
The Mongolian Draw uses the thumb as the digit that pulls back the string. The thumb is locked into position using mainly the index finger, though the other fingers may also be used if the archer wishes. This draw causes the string to twist in the opposite direction to the Mediterranean draw and therefore the arrow will be placed on the opposite side of the bow. To protect the inside of the thumb, a thumb ring, or sometimes a cylinder, is used.
Figure 8: Mediterranean Draw; Figure 9: Mongol Draw
In traditional archery the draw, aiming and release can all be part of one continuous sequence. This is partly due to the draw weight of a traditional bow – an English War bow could have a draw weight of 120lbs – and partly due to the construction of some bows, especially “self” bows. Holding the draw for a long time could damage the bows. In modern archery, using compound bows and modern recurve bows, the draw can be held for as long as the archer wishes, although good practice suggests that the hold should be minimal. In the case of a compound bow, the mechanics of such a bow mean that at full draw the draw weight actually decreases.
To an extent, the draw is also dependent on the stance that the archer takes. If the archer takes the oblique stance, where the shoulder of the arm holding the bow is pointed directly the target, it is possible to use the whole strength of the back and shoulders as well as the arm in drawing back the string. In this case, the draw point – the point where the archer will bring his drawing hand to rest – will possibly be to part of the mouth. If other stances are taken the draw point may take a different position, the ear or possibly the chest, and therefore the muscles involved will be different and there is probably more dependence on the arms and shoulders. It is crucial, however, that the draw is smooth and controlled, so that at the end of the draw the archer is balanced and in a steady and comfortable position.
As always, Taybugha knows the precise way that the draw should be done, and in general it is not much different from the way that a modern archer will draw. He emphasises that consistency in the draw is crucial and that the draw should always be of the same length and to the same point. He recommends drawing to the ear lobe, whereas most modern archers today will draw to a part of the mouth so that the arrow lies under the aiming eye.
The author of Arab Archery tends to agree with Taybugha but also has fifteen different combinations of draw. He also makes the point that the draw is dependent on the length of the arrow. He recommends an archer taking an arrow and drawing it to the point the he finds comfortable for him, and marking the arrow where the draw is completed. He should then cut the arrow at that point and that is then the length of the arrows that he should use.
When discussing drawing, Ascham starts by going off on a tangent and referring to the drawing methods of the ancients, however, when he comes to the point he talks good sense: ”In shooting at a target, hasty and quick drawing is neither sure nor yet comely. Therefore to draw easily and uniformly, that is for to say not wagging your hand, now upwards, now downward, but always after one fashion, until you come to the rig or shouldering of the head is best both for profit and seemliness. Holding must not be long, for it both puts a bow in jeopardy and also mars a mans shoot, it must be so little that it may be perceived better in a mans mind then it is done, than seen with a mans eye when it is doing.” In other words, if anyone else notices the pause then you have held for too long!
Ford goes into a great deal of detail on the draw, starting with selecting the correct length of arrow. He goes on to analyse the details of the draw with reference to each of the parts of the body involved. However, it is fairly obvious that he is talking about an archer who takes the oblique stance only.
He describes three methods of drawing and loosing: “There seem to be three successful methods of drawing, namely, first, to draw the arrow home ‘ at once’, loosing when it has been aimed, without any further draw ; secondly, to draw the arrow within an inch or a little more of ‘home,’ aiming then, and loosing after the completion of the draw; and thirdly, the method of combining the operations of drawing and aiming so continuously that the loose is the uninterrupted completion of the draw.”
The Eastern archer uses a draw that is uniquely Asiatic. It is generically known as the “Mongolian Draw”. The archer pulls back the string using only his thumb which is hooked around the string so that the fleshy part of the thumb is holding the string. The thumb is then locked into position using the index finger. The loose is carried out by relaxing the index finger and thus allowing the thumb to fall back and release the string. In both techniques protection is provided to the fingers and thumbs by either a leather tab, for the Mediterranean release, or a thumb ring, for the Eastern release. One variation on this is to use the other fingers to lock the thumb in place as well as the index.
Another major difference, as we saw previously, is that the placement of the arrow on the bow is different to Western usage. A right handed western archer will hold the bow in his left hand and draw the string with his right. The arrow will be placed on the left hand side of the bow, so that as the string is pulled back the arrow is on the same side of the bow as the archer’s right eye. In this case, the arrow will rest on the top knuckle of the hand. The eastern archer will hold the bow and pull back the string in the same way, but he will place the arrow on the right hand side of the bow, letting the arrow rest on the thumb. This means that the right eye and the arrow are on different sides of the bow. This therefore requires a different aiming technique.
Practically, the main problem is setting the ring in the correct position on the thumb and getting used to the different way of pulling back the string. However, the techniques that Al-Yunani describes will be familiar to any modern archer.
The main muscles used in the draw are in the shoulder and the back. To enable these muscles to be used to best advantage, the drawing arm must rotate around the shoulder but remain in the same plane. Taybugha says that elbows, hands and shoulders should be on a single line in which all points are the same height from the ground, i.e. in a straight line. From there, the drawing arm is rotated back until the full draw is attained.
The final drawing point is not in itself crucial, what is crucial is that the same drawing point is used every time. Taybugha says draw to the ear lobe, modern archers will draw to the mouth. The advantage of drawing to the mouth is that the arrow will then lie under the eye, and thus simplifies the next stage – aiming.
Aiming is where science and art meet. There are two schools of thought on aiming, one is instinctive the other mechanical. As might be expected, the instinctive school is mostly derived from the East. Take, for example, this description of the draw and release using a technique described by Gao Ying in 1637:
“As you draw the string back, you concentrate on the target. Pick the smallest point visible on the target. If it is a target butt, concentrate on a hole left by a previous shot: not on the whole yellow circle. If the target is an animal, concentrate on a single hair or feather, not on the breast. Between the time when you feel your arms and shoulders are level, and before the arrowhead reaches the finger of the bow hand, maximize your concentration. But do not concentrate on the target: you already know where it is and your mind and limbs already know what you want to do. Concentrate instead on your shot. Concentrate on the feeling of the shot being right. Wait for the feeling of the arrowhead on the finger, and when it arrives, do not hesitate: relax and release. The release is not anticipated. It is like a dragonfly touching the surface of a pond or a ripe gourd falling off the vine.”
Figure 10: Aiming
The mechanical approach uses more precise techniques for ensuring the arrow arrives at its mark. The modern archer has a range of bow sights to make the job easier, but in the past archers did not have such aids available to them and aiming was a much more arcane activity. It involves the mechanics of vision and allowance for a physical phenomenon that was not recognised until the 20th century.
Consider that at the full draw for a right handed Western archer, the arrow head is to the left hand side of the bow, whilst the nock end is on the string which is positioned at the centre of the width of the bow. The arrow is thus at a slight angle pointing to the left. As the string is released the arrow will point more and more to the left. The assumption would be that on release, the arrow would fly to the left every time. In practice, this is only the beginning of something that today is called “The Archer’s paradox”.
When an arrow is fired, it undergoes enormous acceleration. This causes the arrow to bend. How much it bends depends partly on the stiffness of the shaft, usually referred to as the arrows “spine” and partly on the force that is applied to it. A flexible arrow has a high spine and a stiff arrow a low.
Assuming a right handed archer, if the arrow has too little spine the arrow will veer to the left, because it is too stiff to bend much and will fly in the way that it is assumed to fly. If it has too much spine, that it bends too easily, the arrow will veer to the right. With the correct amount of spine, the arrow bends a little and will go around the bow and will then travel on in a straight line toward the target. Modern high speed photography shows the arrow shaft deforming its shape to a series of “S” shaped bends after release. This continues for some meters until it has enough speed to start spinning and it then settles down and flies as one would expect.
Figure 11: The Archers Paradox
“The Archers Paradox” was first discovered in the early years of the 20th century, and thus medieval archers of both the East and the West were ignorant of this. Aiming was still a problem. With practise, it could be instinctive and high accuracy could be achieved, but the analysis of why certain techniques work and others don’t is much more difficult to document.
To an extent, the actual aiming method used is not the most important thing. If a method is selected and used and practised enough, after a time aiming will become instinctive. Initially, it is not hitting the exact centre of the target that is important, but being able to hit the same area of the target every time – grouping the shots. Once that is achieved, the aim can be adjusted to put the arrow into the right spot.
Interestingly, both Taybugha and the author of Arab Archery follow the mechanical approach to aiming. However, there is probably a very practical reason for this. We know that Mamluk teaching was very organized and pragmatic. The students would have been of a mixed variety of skills and capabilities, and therefore it would be easier to teach them a clear and methodical way of aiming than to get them to use the instinctive approach. At the end of the day, instinctive aiming is the result of experience, possibly gained using the more mechanical methods to start with.
Arab Archery describes several ways of aiming, but Taybugha sticks to one. The method he uses is the one most suitable for warfare. Aiming has to do with vision and the control of vision. He says: “When sighting the mark, turn your eyes so that the lines of vision of both eyes merge and the two eyes become as one, and a single object is seen in the same way, as it would be with one eye only.”
To develop sighting skills, he recommends the following exercise: “Using either one or both eyes, train your sight on a lamp, and any disparity of vision which you experience will become apparent to you. What you do first is to place a lamp at a distance… Then taking a gentle bow, you squat in the position between the oblique and square… You next nock an arrow and align its head with the flame, all the time pulling on the bow. While so doing, you keep one eye closed and the other open, then open both together and draw to the limit of the arrow, all the while keeping your sight on the light, until the disparity is corrected to your satisfaction.”
Taybugha also sums up success in archery: ”All that we have said so far depends for its success on a steady left hand, a firm hold on the grip, correct locking, alignment of both arms, correct sighting, presence of mind, a sound draw with the [right] elbow in the appropriate position, a clean release with tension in both elbows and, above all – for on this hinges everything else – imperturbability.” Once again, the state of mind is more important than the mechanical details.
The unknown author of Arab Archery describes alternative methods, though he also recommends the same exercise. Once again, the method most suitable depends partly on choice, partly on where the draw is made to. A draw to the breast will require a different aiming technique than a draw to the ear or to the mouth. Some require the archer to focus one eye on the target and the other on the arrow head, some use one of the sides of the bow to line up with the target. This last method is called “aiming inside the bow” and “aiming outside the bow”, depending on which side of the bow is used for aiming.
Ascham mentions an “aiming the bow” method, though he does not make it clear if it is “inside the bow” or “outside the bow”. However at the end of the day, the secret, according to Ascham, is to keep your eye on your target.
Horace Ford takes nearly fifteen pages to describe the techniques of aiming and goes into great detail including a description of possibly the first bow sight.
In talking about aiming, Ford talks about the three things an archer must see at the same time: “Now it will be understood that it is necessary for the archer to embrace within his vision the gold, the point of aim, and the true line in which the arrow is directed.” The “point of aim” is not necessarily the point where the arrow will end up, but the point that the arrow must be aimed at to hit the target, in target shooting, the gold.
Modern Archers use sights – in the case of compound bows telescopic sights. Therefore learning to shoot a bow with no sights is a bit like going back to archery school. However, Al-Yunani has much to say to help.
Immediately, the archer has to make the choice of using a single eye or both eyes. Shutting one eye and sighting along the arrow is the easiest method, but Taybugha suggests that this is only done at the last moment before release to confirm the aim. However, the binocular method is much more difficult and relies on looking at two different things at the same time.
There is another problem with the binocular approach, and that is that both eyes are not necessarily the same. There is a good chance that one eye is predominant and that has an effect on the binocular approach.
I am left handed and have always assumed that my left eye was predominant. When shooting, I would always close my right eye and use the left for aiming. However, while researching this article, I did some simple tests which suggest that my right eye is actually the predominant one. This could explain why I am basically a lousy shot! But this does give me a problem with using some of the techniques that Taybugha describes. The only way round it will be some intensive practise; working from the techniques I know towards using the techniques that Taybugha and the author of others books describe. I hope to report on this in a later article.
The loose is the culmination of the whole sequence. It is the last point at which a shot can go wrong. Essentially, it is the act of releasing the string. This must be done cleanly and quickly. Some experts recommend that on release, the bow hand pushes the bow towards the target; however if this is done it must be done carefully.
Figure 12: Loose
For the Eastern archer, the loose consists of two actions carried out as a swift sequence. Firstly release the forefinger, or fingers, that are locking the thumb around the string followed by the release of the thumb from the string. The Western archer completes the loose by straightening the fingers that are holding back the string. The loose can also become part of the draw, as some archers favour the method whereby the string is drawn back most of the distance, there is a short pause and then the draw is completed with the loose taking place immediately on completion of the draw.
Taybugha describes three separate methods of loosing. As far as the hold and loose is concerned, he says: “What the archer does to achieve this result is to draw until only a small portion of the arrow remains, and then, holding briefly for the count of one, he snatches the remaining portion of the arrow and looses with a snap of the fingers from the inside of the string. At the loose, that part of the arrow which remained at the hold should have been grabbed back, as it were, with such rapidity as to be imperceptible to the bystanders, leaving them with the impression that the archer failed to bring the whole of the arrow to full draw.”
The author of Arab Archery covers more or less the same ground, with perhaps a little more detail.
Ascham has words to say about loosing, but none are of any great practical help. Ford quotes Ascham, but does develop the technique together with an analysis of the equipment used that might have an effect on the loose. He describes in detail the way that the hand is set on the string, and the way that the hand is relaxed to release the string:
“The different looses may now be divided into the slash in the loose, which may degenerate into the snatch or may be improved into the steady continuous loose. The chief contrast to this is the dead loose, which in strong hands is very useful. This consists of the simple opening of the fingers for the escape of the string, and is liable to degenerate into the creeping loose, which need not be further referred to except for the purpose of again urging its avoidance.
Writings on Archery from the Islamic and Western Worlds
by Mr. Malcolm Wright*
…Another loose, which may be called an active loose, is an appreciable improvement upon the dead loose, in that the fingers at the loosing instant are withdrawn from the string, though without any further draw, and will be found, after the escape of the string, to have resumed their previous position— i.e. curled up instead of being sprawled out straight as is the case in the dead loose. The only remaining loose may be called the lively loose, and consists of a short and quick additional draw, after the aim has been taken, of say from half an inch to three inches, and finished with an active loose, and care must be taken to prevent the degeneration of this into a snatch.”
Whether using the Mediterranean or Mongol draw, the trick is to get the fingers clear of the string quickly and cleanly. With the Mongol draw, this is achieved by releasing the locking index finger and letting the thumb straighten. This is actually quite easy and can be achieved with a flick of the fingers. As in all releases, it is helped by pulling the releasing hand back so as not to foul the string.
Having looked at the four books and how they cover the single act of firing an arrow, it is time to draw some conclusions.
Of the four books, the one that least satisfies as a manual is Toxophilus. It is too discursive, too interested in classical stories. As a manual, it is of very little use. Therefore I am afraid that we must dismiss it.
Both the Islamic texts and Ford’s book are designed to pass on information on archery in as clear a way as possible. Bearing in mind the reservations specified when we first met these books, it is easy to say that all three books make a useful contribution to an archer’s library. Historically, there is five hundred years separating the earliest, Saracen Archery from the latest Theory and Practice of Archery. It would have been nice to have a 14th-century Western manuscript on archery, but it is unlikely that one was ever written; or if one ever was, that it exists today. Therefore, Taybugha’s book is easily the earliest usable manual on Archery.
However, to be useful, a manual does not only have to have the correct content but specific content has to be found easily and quickly. Luckily, a copy of the original manuscript of the book known as Saracen Archery is kept in the British Library in London (MSS Add. 23489). Dr. Okasha El Daly, an expert on medieval Arabic manuscripts who had written his doctorate to prove the theory that medieval Arab scholars were well on the way to cracking the secret of ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic writing. He agreed to look at the manuscript with the aim of solving certain questions relating to the ease of access through the manuscript.
Earlier on, we defined some characteristics that a manual should have. If we look at them again ,and also look at the manuscript, we will be able to see how well Saracen Archery fits our criteria:
Is the material comprehensive and organised in a logical sequence?
To help solve this question, Dr. El Daly had copies of five selected chapters of the English translation. It would be interesting to compare these against the original to see if the chapter headings were the same.
The manuscript did contain chapter headings, and of the five chapters two were exactly the same. However, it is quite usual for translators to combine chapters together under general headings, which appears to be the case in this manuscript.
The language used in the manuscripts is clear and in normal every day speech. The body takes the form of a poem with explanations supplied later. The idea of putting manuals in the form of a poem is actually very logical. Poetry is easy to memorize and learn. So many Muslim scholars, even scientists dealing with mathematical and medical subjects, choose this format to make it easier for students/readers to study and memorise the text.
Is access to a specific subject easy?
It would have been nice if the manuscript contained a list of chapter headings, but this is not the case. Neither are any forms of cross reference or indices, but this is common in medieval manuscripts. It is also worth pointing out that the most modern book we have discussed, Theory and Practice of Archery, also does not include any form of cross reference or index.
In addition chapter headings are written in red to make them stand out. In the manual, there is a formula given for calculating the weight of a bow string for a specific bow. Dr. El Daly found the reference fairly easily. He writes:
“It was easy to find this verse in Or. 1358, fol. 44a). It is only one line followed by detailed explanation titled “weight of the string”. This verse is:
يكون ثلثُ عُشر عُشر العشر من حَيل قوس زين بالأوزان
It is roughly translated as: “It is (i.e. the weight) third of one tenth of one tenth of the one tenth, of the HAYL of the bow adorned with weights”.
The translation used in Saracen Archery is:
“As weighed by a balance the string should be one-third of one-tenth
Of one-tenth of one-tenth of the weight of the bow”.
Are complex procedures are broken down into a series of steps?
Saracen Archery goes into great detail on the construction of bows and ancillary equipment. It also describes every activity that is involved in, for example, stringing a bow.
Are illustrations are available to make the text clearer?
The manuscript did not have any illustrations, but again this may well be true of the bulk of Arabic medieval manuscripts. What illustrations that may appear are possibly more decorative than illustrative.
It is easy to see, therefore, that access to information in the original is quite easy and, although the translation includes a list of chapter headings, it is as easy as for an Arabic scholar to find their way around the document, including going directly to specific sections as it is for a modern reader, using the English translation, to do the same.
Archery has been a rich inspiration for writing throughout history, both in the East and in the West. There are obviously many other books written between 900 CE and the 20th century. However, it would not have been possible to use all of them unless the intention had been to write a book rather than an article. Some writers are not mentioned because their writings are difficult to get hold of or, in some cases, known but lost.
As mentioned before the criteria used in the selection on the source material were:
The following is a brief, though not necessarily complete, list of writers who have written on archery through the ages.
Much of what Al-Yunani writes about is based not only on his own practical experiences, but also the writings of authors before him. These are considered to be “masters” of Islamic Archery.
The writer of Arab Archery mentions three men considered as “masters”. These are Abu Hisham al-Mawardi, Tahir al-Balkhi and Ishaq al-Ragqi. There is also a reference to a work by Tahir al-Balkhi (possibly also called al-Tabari) called Kitab al-Wadih (The Clear Book). In several cases, Arab Archery compares the teachings of the three masters.
Figures 13a-b: Views of manuscript pages depicting archery training in Abdurrahman b. Ahmad al-Tabari’s Kitab al-makhzun jami` al-funun, Istanbul, Topkapi Palace Library, MS Revan 1933
Murda ibn Ali ibn Murda al-Tarsusi wrote a book, Tabsirat arbab al-albab fi kaifiyat al-najat fi al-hurub in about 1187, which was mainly about military strategy but contains sections on archery.
Figure 14: View of an Islamic bow and arrow. Source: Murda Ibn Ali Murda al-Tarsusi, Tabsirah arbab al-lubab fî kayfiyah al-nuja fî’l-hurub, Suleymaniye Library, Collection Ayasofya, MS 2848.
It appears that the first useful book to be written in the West on the subject of archery was written by an unknown Frenchman, possibly from the region of Picardie and probably in the late 15th or early 16th centuries. The first publication was of an incomplete text in pamphlet form called L’Art d’archerie and was probably published originally in 1515 in Paris, making it the first book on archery published in the West.
However, towards the end of the 19th century, Henry Gallice obtained a vellum manuscript entitled La Fachon de tirer de l’arc à main which turned out to be the complete text of the original book. This was then published in 1901. The main problem with this book is that, although to the point, it is lacking in detail.
As might be expected, most of the books on archery published between 1532 and the end of the 19th century were written by English writers. They contain a lot of interesting information, but lack the clarity that is expected of a manual. It seems that English writers were more interested in rehashing the story of Robin Hood or other archery themed stories rather than detailing the practicalities of archery.
In this group we get:
These books are, in their own way, marvellous pieces of work, and would make an interesting object of study. Additional Notes on Arrow Release covers only the act of the loose but in great detail. It may be that Edward S. Morse was the first person to use the term “Mediterranean Release”. Hunting with the Bow and Arrow includes a fascinating story of the last Yana Indian in America, and the book looks at his equipment and the way that he hunted, thus giving us a brief window into the distant past.
However, the intention was to find the earliest useful books on archery and it is not until the reissue of the Horace A. Ford book Archery, its theory and practice that we get a book that is sufficiently informative for a beginner, or a skilled archer, to get much from.
– Ascham, Roger, Toxophilus, edited by Edward Arber. London: Southgate, 1545 & 1868.
– Ford, Horace and Butt, W., Theory and Practice of Archery.Longmans, Green and Co, 1887.
– Öztopçu, Kurtulus, A 14th-Century Archery Treatise in Mamluk-Kipchak: Kitab fi ‘Ilm an-Nushshab, Istanbul 2002. View Table of Contents.
– Taybugha Al-Ashrafi Al-Baklamishi Al-Yunani (English Version by John Derek Latham and William Forbes Paterson), Saracen Archery: The Complete Manual of Archery for Cadets. With introduction, glossary, and illustrations. London: Holland Press, 1970.
– [Unknown author]. Arab Archery: an Arabic Manuscript of about A.D.1500: A Book on the Excellence of the Bow and Arrow and the Description Thereof. Translated by Nabih Amin Faris, with notes and appendix by Robert Potter Elmer. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1945. Reprinted Kessinger Publishing, 2007.[Reviewed by William Thomson in American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 51, No. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1947), pp. 469-470].
[Asian Traditional Archery Research Network] Islamic and Middle Eastern Archery Traditions.
Lake, Fred & Wright, Hal, A Bibliography of Archery: an indexed catalogue of 5,000 articles, books, films, manuscripts, periodicals and theses on the use of the bow for hunting, war, and recreation, from the earliest times to the present day. Manchester: Simon Archery Foundation, 1974.
Nabih Amin Faris, “Holy War” (a review on the original manuscript Kitab fi bayan fadhl al-qaws wa-‘l-sahm wa-awsafihima in Princeton Library (Garrett Collection MS 97), The Princeton University Library Chronicle, vol. 4, n° 2-3, February-April 1943, pp. 82-85. Read online here.
Paterson, W. F., “The Archers of Islam”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient (Brill), vol. 9, n° 1-2 (November 1966), pp. 69-87.
Klopsteg, Paul E., Turkish Archery and the Composite Bow. Privately printed by the author, Evanston, IL., 1947. Derrydale Printing, 4th edition, 1993.
Mann, Horace, Traditional Weapons of the Muslim Warriors.
Grayson, Charles E., French, Mary, O’Brien, Michael J., Traditional archery from six continents: the Charles E. Grayson Collection. University of Missouri Press, 2007. “3. The Islamic Crescent”, p. 59 ff. To read online click here.
The Archery Library: an online library of books on archery mainly covering Western archery.
[1.] However there is the possibility that at one time Al-Yunani was a high ranking member of the Sultans Court and was the author of works on mathematical instrumentation. François Charette, in his recently published book (Mathematical instrumentation in fourteenth-century Egypt and Syria: The Illustrated Treatise of Najm al-Din al-Misri (Islamic Philosophy, Theology, and Science), Leiden: Brill, 2003) asserts that ‘Ala’ al-Din Taybugha al-Dawadar al-Baklamishi living in Egypt in the late 14th century can be identified with near certainty with Taybugha al-Ashrafi al-Baklamishi al-Yunani, the author of the book we know as “Saracen Archery”. The title of “Dawadar”–The Amir in charge of the royal inkwell– indicates an important office in the court of the Sultan. According to Rosenfeld and Ihsanoglu, this ‘Ala’ al-Din Taybugha al-Dawadar is also an astronomer and wrote two books on the subject: Risâla fî muqantarat khatt al-istiwa’ (Treatise on Almucantars on the Line of (Terrestrial) Equator), Princeton Universisty Library, MS Yehuda 373; and Risâla fi rub’ al-shakaziyya (Treatise on the Quadrant of the Shakkaziya (Astrolabe)), Cairo, The Egyptian National Library, MS Miqat 774. See B. A. Rosenfeld and E. Ihsanoglu, Mathematicians, Astronomers and Other Scholars of Islamic Civilisation and their works (7th-9th centuries), Istanbul: IRCICA, 2003, no. 761.
[2.] In an electronic article published in 2005, The Training of the Mamluk Faris, Hassanein Rabie presents a brief description of the archery training of the Mamluks..
[3.] However, in archery the two cultures are closer than we might think. Both had intensive training regimes for archers was ingrained deeply into both cultures.
[4.] Faris & Elmer 1945:6.
[5.] Faris & Elmer 1945: 17.
[6.] Faris & Elmer 1945:106
[7.] The encyclopedia Diracdelta of science and engineering defines a machine as “any mechanical… device that transmits or modifies energy to perform or assist in the performance of human tasks”.
[8.] Ascham 1543: 3.
[9.] Ascham 1543: 5.
[10.] Taybugha 1368: 1.
[11.] It would not be fair to give the impression that the four books mentioned are the only works on archery in the East and in the West from the 10th century to the present day. For a brief discussion on other sources, and why they were not used in this article see “Appendix : Historical Literature on Archery”at the end of this article.
[12.] Taybugha 1368: 101.
[13.] Ascham 1545: 147.
[14.] Ford 1887:86.
[15.] Taybugha 1368:48
[16.] Ascham 1545:148.
[17.] Ascham 1545: 148.
[18.] Ford: 99.
[19.] It would be wrong to assume that the “Mongolian draw” arrived in the Middle East and Europe with the Mongols. Thumb rings were found in Meroic graves in North Africa dating back to between 300 B.C.E to approx 300 C.E. The Roman archers used thumb rings as did other contemporary archers. It is possible to theorise that Ancient Egyptian archers used the “Mongolian draw”, but the evidence comes mainly from the shape of the hand drawing back the bowstring in depictions of Ancient Egyptian archers – mainly of the kings. The formalisation of Ancient Egyptian paintings and drawings make it difficult to be absolutely sure.
[20.] Stephen Selby, How do I use a Thumb-ring with a Mongolian Draw? (updated 5 October 1998).
[21.] Taybugha 1368: 58.
[22.] Taybugha 1368: 58.
[23.] Taybugha 1368: 60.
[24.] Ford 1887: 113.
[25.] Taybugha 1368: 64
[26.] Horace: 125.
~ End ~
* Mr. Malcolm Wright is an expert in Computing. He is now retired and lives in Spain. Besides being fond of archery, in practice and theory, he holds a Certificate and Diploma in Egyptology (both Merits) issued by Birkbeck College, University College in London. We are grateful to him for his willingness to permit us the publication of this article.