The target sits in the distance. The archer draws an arrow from their hip, nocks it to the string, raises the bow, and draws. They aim, exhale, and let go. In one still moment, everything comes together: the archer’s stance, their breathing, the tension of the bowstring. The arrow flies, and thwacks into the bullseye.
Archery is older than recorded history. Ancient arrowheads date as far back as 70,000 years, and famous archers are baked into mythology. For centuries before firearms, bows and arrows ruled the battlefield and decided the fate of kingdoms. The lessons and values of this art persist today, where archery is practiced as a sport, a hunting skill, and a martial art.
Today, the quiet concentration required of the sport, as well as the ability to do it alongside others while also social distancing, have made it more appealing than ever. The basics of archery can be picked up in a few hours, and refined for years. To pick up these basics, most beginners start in modern target archery. Target archery equipment is easy to find, clubs are plentiful, and certified coaches are trained to a high standard. Use this guide as your introductory walkthrough.
To start archery from scratch, begin by booking an introductory class at a range. A beginner class will teach you to shoot safely so that you don’t injure yourself or the people around you. These classes are usually also required before you can register for membership at a range. When you arrive for your class, a coach will show you around and set you up with some rental equipment.
The most important piece of equipment, of course, is your bow. It should be matched for your eye dominance and height, and have a low draw weight of about 15 to 20 pounds. The draw weight represents how much force it takes to pull the string back. A lower weight makes your arrows fly slower and shorter, but is better for practicing proper form. Whenever you handle a bow, always look for damage to the string or the body. A weakened or damaged bow can break apart — explosively — when drawn.
Next, you’ll put on an arm guard and finger pad. These devices protect you from the bowstring. The finger pad is a sheet of tough fabric that protects your drawing hand from blistering, while the arm guard is a stiff plate that protects your bow arm if the bowstring whacks you due to incorrect form.
The final piece of equipment you’ll need is the quiver and arrows. When you handle your arrows, pay attention to the fins and the notch at the end of the arrow. The notch is called a nock. “Nocking” your arrow means to fit the nock against the bowstring. The fins are called fletching, and their role is to stabilize the arrow in flight. Watch for warps in the arrow shafts and tears in the fletching.
Obtaining the “archery mindset”
Now that you’re kitted up, your coach will take you to the firing line where archers line up to shoot at targets. Before you start shooting, you’ll need to learn the two most important lessons for archery.
The first lesson is safety. Archery carries risks, and safety rules are far more complex than “aim away from your face.” Common “don’ts” include: don’t shoot with damaged equipment, don’t dry fire your bow (in other words, don’t fire your bow without a nocked arrow), don’t aim at anyone, don’t leave the firing line when shooting, and don’t walk onto the range to retrieve your arrows until the all-clear is given. Always follow range rules.
The second lesson for good archery is consistency. The Katniss Everdeen and Legolas heroes of fiction treat bows like machine guns that can shoot accurately from any angle and position, but a good archer practices to shoot an arrow the same way, every time. Shooting with consistent form means you’ll always know where the arrow will go.
Basic shooting — best practices, best successes, and worst mistakes
Now it’s time to shoot. For basic shooting, you’ll take your stance, nock your arrow, draw, aim, and fire. The most basic stance for beginners is the box stance. To take a box stance, stand at the firing line with hips and shoulders perpendicular to the target, keep your feet parallel, relax your shoulders, and very slightly relax your knees.
To nock, pull an arrow from your quiver and fit the nock to the string; make sure the fletching points away from the bow, or it will warp the arrow’s flight. Rest the shaft of the arrow against the bow’s arrow rest, which is a shelf on the bow that stabilizes the arrow.
To draw, raise your bow to point at the target. Level your draw arm parallel to the ground. Pull the arrow back by turning your waist and contracting your back muscles. Don’t rely on your arm muscles. Pull until your shoulders and hips are perpendicular to the target again. Your elbow points back and your draw hand touches your face. The spot where your hand touches your face is called an anchor point. You want to touch the same anchor point, every time, to ensure your form is consistent. Most Olympic archers prefer the bend of their jawbone as their anchor point.
With everything in position, scan your body for tension. You should be as relaxed as possible, while still keeping your body aligned. Aim and fire, releasing the bowstring by pulling back your draw hand, like you’re strumming a guitar.
Your very first shot might land on target, and it might not. Frankly, it’s not important. What’s important is that you took your first step on a journey that can last a lifetime. The next step is doing it all again. Continue to shoot, and iron out more details in your shooting form so that each shot becomes identical to the last, and each arrow lands in the same spot. This practice takes focus, mindfulness, and strength.
Once you’ve finished your first class, and maybe taken a few more lessons, you’ll have the basics and confidence to work more on your own. You can also start to branch out into the many types of bow sports. Here are a few archery disciplines that you can pursue.
Target archery is a sport in its own right, governed by the World Archery Association, and performed at the Olympics. To get started, get some additional training in shooting form and tournament rules, and sign yourself up for a tournament. At your first tournament, you’ll face off against other archers over a series of rounds.
Perfect for Hunger Games preparation. Field archery is target shooting in the woods. Archers need careful aim and insight to get their arrows to the target.
If you want to focus more on distance, flight archery is for you. Popularized by Ottoman archers, this sport focuses on using shooting technique and equipment to see who can shoot the farthest, without focusing on accuracy.
Traditional archers use the equipment, training methods, and shooting styles of past eras to connect with history or appreciate a culture. Traditional systems abound for European, Middle Eastern, and Asian shooting styles.
Rather than follow the archery systems of historical civilizations, primitive archers get prehistoric. These archers reconstruct their own bows and arrows using stone-age techniques, and try to optimize them. Primitive archery is part pastime and part reconstructive archaeology.