There’s this video, which at least a dozen people have forwarded to me, is circulating the Internet at the moment purporting to “demolish every Hollywood myth” about archery and “prove that Hollywood archery is not historical.” Since apparently hundreds of sites have uncritically repeated its many preposterous and unsupportable claims, with the result that many people have asked me about it, I thought I should offer a detailed analysis.
The question really comes down to three separate categories; (1) the claims made in the narration; (2) the trick shots shown, and (3) Andersen’s actual archery ability.
We’ll start with the third. Andersen’s quick-shooting technique is obviously effective (if speed is the goal), in that he is able to fire a lot of arrows at a very rapid pace. It’s worth noting that the narrator goes to great pains to explain why shooting at close-up distances is so important and denigrates “warrior archers only shooting at long distances,” (just one of many totally false claims) in order to paper over the fact that the man obviously can’t hit anything that’s more than about 20 feet away. No doubt there are literally hundreds of failed attempts that were cut out of the carefully-edited video. His gimmick is speed, not accuracy, and it’s obvious to anyone who actually knows anything about archery that his complete lack of any kind of consistent form is going to require camera tricks and a lot of luck, which is exactly what’s on display here. He may in fact be the fastest archer in the world; he just shouldn’t pretend to be accurate.
The really egregious part is the staggeringly inaccurate, misleading, and hyperbolic narration, written by somebody with little-to-no actual knowledge of archery history and a willingness to distort facts to make a bogus case. Here are some of the patently ridiculous claims put forward:
“He uses forgotten historical methods…” No, they were not forgotten. They just weren’t European. Archery is one of the oldest human activities, found in virtually every culture on Earth, and dating back tens of thousands of years. There are wide variations in equipment and shooting techniques around the world, and Andersen’s “discoveries” are well-known to anyone who has ever studied Asian and Eastern European archery, such as Mongolian, Tibetan or Hungarian styles. The famous Native American archer Ishi was known for shooting in a style very similar to Andersen’s, putting the arrow on the outside of the bow in the style of the Yahi People of the Pacific Northwest. My friend Patricia Gonsalves (archery consultant for Arrow and owner of Lykopis Archery in Vancouver, BC) is currently making a documentary about precisely these allegedly “forgotten” techniques as they are currently being practiced around the world.
“The back quiver is a Hollywood myth.” This howler is put forward in the middle of Andersen’s ridiculous infomercial-like demonstration of what’s supposedly wrong with the back quiver. All it needs is an exasperated voice-over saying “has this ever happened to you?” The back quiver is not a Hollywood myth, it’s a historically-documented method of carrying arrows, albeit one that is more favored by hunters and traditional archers than by target archers. Archers are very practical; they use what works, and when they find something that works better, they change to that, and the back quiver was in common use throughout Europe and North America centuries before Hollywood existed.
The narration actually skirts close to accuracy when talking about target archery. With the invention of firearms, archery made the transition from weapon of war to sporting event, and with that came codification of rules, refinement of effective techniques, and modification of equipment, all in pursuit of what was regarded as the most difficult attribute to master. Something similar happened when the martial art of swordfighting became the sport of fencing. In the case of archery, accuracy at ever-increasing distances was chosen as the goal to focus on rather than speed or trick-shots. Having acknowledged that, the narration than launches back into bogus assertions and ignorance.
The narrator declares that shooting at a stationary target is “something that was unknown in the past,” which is patently absurd; archers who hope to hit a moving target such as an enemy combatant were obviously going to practice on a stationary target, and the modern archery target is a natural evolution of the ancient method; the difference is that what was once basic training is now the end goal.
Continuing on with a complete lack of understanding of the physics of archery, the narrator asserts “these archers started placing the arrow on the left side of the bow. This is probably due to the fact that aiming at a stationary two-dimensional target makes you aim with one eye.” In point of fact, no, it’s not. The reason for moving the arrow to the left side of the bow (for a right-handed archer) is something known as “the Archer’s Paradox,” a complicated collection of physics phenomena that results in the arrow hitting to the right even though when it’s on the bow it’s pointing slightly to the left. You can see it in the slow-motion footage during the tournament scene in Brave; as the arrow begins its flight, it’s oscillating back and forth, swimming through the air like a fish and moving to the left, until the aerodynamic effect of the air passing over feathers causes it to begin spinning, at which point the arrow turns and begins traveling to the right. (You can also see how simple and fast it is to place an arrow on the bow, despite Andersen’s absurd play-acting.) This scene was painstakingly recreated from high-speed footage shot by professional archers for Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood, using historically accurate English longbows. Placing the arrow on the left side of the bow compensates for this effect; without it, archers would have to aim to the left in order to hit their target. In point of fact, most archers, especially those shooting traditional styles, shoot with both eyes open.
“Lars realized that what we thought was historical archery only works well for modern target archery and Hollywood films.” What he claims as a revolutionary discovery is in fact common knowledge among archers. The fact that Andersen didn’t know this is evidence of just how little he actually knows about archery, or how little he thinks his audience knows.
The narration says that Andersen learned his techniques “from studying old historical pictures of archers.” What he obviously fails to understand is that artists in the past were as likely to be just as inaccurate and ignorant of archery techniques as artists today. They generally painted scenes that they either witnessed without understanding, or made up out of their heads, often based on what previous artists had done and compounding the errors. Unless an artist was illustrating a treatise on archery techniques and having their work reviewed by a competent archer, it is very doubtful that anything they illustrated is in any way a reliable record of archery form. What IS accurate is the archaeological evidence in the form of bows and physiological indicators in the archers’ bodies, such as separation in the shoulder cartilage, the thickness of bones in the bow arm and elongation of the bones of the draw arm, all of which is well-documented and known to competent historians.
“If he wanted to shoot like the master archers of old, he would have to unlearn what he had learned,” the narrator tells us. If Andersen had ever actually learned anything from real archers before going on his historical quest, he would have had a lot less to unlearn. What he had learned is the usual collection of bad habits that self-taught amateur archers always display, many of which continue unabated in his new, allegedly historic techniques. He is a terrible archer who can shoot fast. He shoots very fast. He shoots very badly very fast.
His new technique is described as “simpler and more natural, exactly like throwing a ball.” This is accompanied by a shot of him throwing a ball very badly and awkwardly. He throws about as well as he shoots, but nobody would ever put up that segment and try to compare him to Major League pitchers, because most people know how to throw a ball at least enough to know that this is not a particularly impressive example of the skill. Another fun exercise would be comparing Andersen’s clumsy attempts at running and jumping to actual practitioners of parkour, martial arts, or gymnastics. Frankly, I’m surprised people aren’t mocking his awkward attempts at action shots, since to me he looks about as impressive and coordinated as the Star Wars kid.
The real howlers pile up when the narrator tries to expound on the history of how ancient archers carried their arrows, telling us “in the beginning, archers probably drew arrows from quivers or belts, but since then, they started holding arrows in the bow hand, and later in the draw hand.” This is patently absurd, since the historic artwork shown during the sequence clearly illustrates that carrying the arrows in the hand is the oldest method, not a later refinement. The quiver, whether for back, hip, calf or saddle, was invented to simplify the archer’s life by getting the arrows out of his hand. The sequence shown in the video is exactly the opposite of the historic record, but it’s a lie they feel is necessary in order to build up Andersen’s credibility. The reality is exactly what the narrator later says, that holding arrows in the draw hand “requires immense practice and skill, and only professional archers, hunters and so on, would have had the time for it,” though truthfully, there were historically very few professional archers or hunters. Archery was just one of many skills a soldier was expected to have, and a hunter was also known as “somebody who liked feeding his family.” Here the scriptwriter is guilty of the sin of “presentism,” in other words projecting the attitudes and behaviors of the present onto people of the past. Specialization is a modern habit.
In reality, the quiver was the more modern invention that replaced the earlier method of carrying arrows in the hand. The narrator tells us “when guns started replacing bows, this technique was forgotten.” In actuality, it was forgotten long before that, when quivers were invented, in any culture that figured out how to make them. Many cultures never did; there’s plenty of evidence of aboriginal archers around the world who never adopted quivers, such as New Guinea and elsewhere.
After claiming that Andersen’s shooting technique is powerful enough that “his arrows still penetrate chain mail armor” (in truth, a 10-year-old with a 15-pound bow can penetrate chain mail at the short distances Andersen favors), the narrator again demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge of actual archery, paired with Andersen demonstrating what he thinks modern archery looks like.
We’re told “modern archers use only one hand, but in the past, some archers allegedly used both hands to give the arrow more power.” This is utter nonsense, unless you’re talking about one-armed archers like Jeff Fabry. Any competent archery instructor will tell you that an archer’s power does not come from the arm, but from the back muscles, and both sides are used at the same time. A quick skimming of Archery Anatomy by Ray Uxford, Core Archery: Shooting With Proper Back Tension by Larry Wise, Why You Suck at Archery by Steve Ruis, Total Archery: Inside the Archer by US Olympic Archery coach Kisik Lee, or any of a hundred other books going all the way back to Maurice Thompson or Howard Hill will put the lie to this fairytale. Again, either Andersen and his team are that ignorant, or they hope the audience is.
Andersen then goes back to his emphasis on speed over accuracy, power or the avoiding of injury, asserting that “from old texts, we know that Saracen archers were expected to be able to fire three arrows in 1.5 seconds.” More interesting is the fact that apparently the Saracens had stopwatches. How Andersen arrives at this “fact” is anyone’s guess, but it’s a nice lead-in to his collection of circus tricks and stunts, most of which are also popular fare with magicians and martial artists, such as catching a very slow-moving arrow. Just as splitting an arrow can only be accomplished with the use of carefully-prepared equipment (using bamboo for the arrow to be split, for example), all of Andersen’s tricks require equipment modifications, careful camerawork and editing. Splitting an arrow by firing at a knife blade, for example, could only be accomplished by using an arrow without a point, which would require shooting from a distance of about 10 feet or less (an arrow without a point will decelerate quickly), and careful observation will reveal a camera cut between Andersen’s firing and the close-up of the arrow supposedly splitting (it looks to me like the arrow passes close beside the blade and doesn’t split at all, but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt). The second arrow was obviously shot from only a few feet away and was prepped to split. As for the supposed shooting at an oncoming arrow, he may have eventually hit an arrow fired over his head (not at him), but again, it wouldn’t have split, and in fact it probably didn’t. It looks like the arrow was deflected, then he picked up broken pieces already on the floor. I’d love to see Mythbusters demolish this fraud, and I’m only disappointed that so many people are so gullible as to believe it.
Andersen should stick to demonstrations of speed shooting and leave questions of science, history and modern archery skills to people who actually know something about those things. Along the same lines, web editors should check with competent experts before uncritically repeating nonsense.
Special thanks to my friend, animator, artist, fire-dancer and traditional archer Anna Maltese, whose far more polite take-down of this video inspired my own, and my friend Patricia Gonsalves, who taught me almost everything I know about ancient and non-European archery methods.