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European Archery Equipment

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England, 19th century
Grayson Archery Collection, MAC 1998-0475

The archery traditions of Europe are perhaps the world’s most widely recognized and beloved. This land of legendary archers such as Robin Hood and William Tell has a long and respected history of military and recreational archery and is the birthplace of the modern sport of archery as it is practiced internationally today.

The crossbow and the English longbow were dominant in Europe from the Middle Ages until the advent of firearms. Bows of any type had generally become obsolete as military weapons in Europe by the end of the sixteenth century. Many of the archery guilds that had been established during the medieval period to train soldiers gradually evolved into social organizations and honor guards. Recreational archery remained popular, especially in England where it was strongly supported by the monarchy. The English longbow was adapted for sporting use in Great Britain and also became the equipment of choice for most Continental and Euro-American archers. Modified crossbows were also used in some forms of recreational archery.

A number of different kinds of sport archery have long been practiced in Europe, one of which, target archery, became popular during the Victorian period (1839–1901), when recreational archery was at its height of popularity. The familiar ringed target was standardized in 1844 by Britain’s Grand National Archery Society and was later adopted internationally. Victorian longbows show modifications from the war bows of earlier eras, but the basic design remained the same. Yew bows were still prized above all others, but weapons of lancewood, lemonwood, and other woods also became common as yew became scarce. Victorian target arrows average around 70 cm in length. The shafts are usually of pine with a hardwood "footing" spliced into the shaft as reinforcement. Nocks are reinforced with horn inserts. Heads are usually of metal, but horn heads are not uncommon on arrows from the Continent. Fletching is of three turkey or peacock wing feathers glued on in radial form. Cresting usually consists of a series of colored bands.

This online exhibit presents traditional European archery equipment from the Museum’s Grayson Archery Collection. Included are examples of traditional sport archery equipment common in Great Britain, Continental Europe, and the United States during the Victorian period and later. Also included are examples of archery awards and prizes, and artworks depicting traditional archery equipment. Many of the items displayed here are still used by the old guilds and societies that remain active, and by the new organizations that have developed to preserve the techniques and customs of Europe’s celebrated archery heritage.

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References and Related Links

Soar, H. D. 2005. The Crooked Stick: A History of the Longbow. Yardley, PA: Westholme.

Foley, V., G. Palmer, and W. Soedel. 1985. The crossbow. Scientific American 252(1):104-110.

Longbows excavated from The Mary Rose (warship of Henry VIII)

British Longbow Society

Saint Sebastian Archery Guild, Brugge

Text prepared by Mary French, Charles E. Grayson, and Michael J. O’Brien, winter 2006. Photos by Daniel S. Glover.

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