Aiming with a Longbow

British Library – Royal 10 E IV f.59v

The other day I was shooting next to a compound archer – for those not in the know a compound bow is the one with the wheels, triggers and fancy sights. After I’d let fly a few arrows we had a little conversation that went a long the lines of…..

Mr Compound: Wow, Jester you’re such a crack shot!* How do you aim with the longbow?

Jester: I use my eyes.

Mr Compound: I know that but what do you aim with?

Jester: My hand.

*The conversation may not have opened like this but the rest is accurate.

Now I may have been a little sarcastic in my response to his question but in essence this is how I aim and when I tell the recurve and compound archers this I tend to get a raised eyebrow or a shake of the head.

This standard response got me thinking, is the longbow that different to any other bow to aim? Now I’ve only been shooting since March this year and like all knew archers I was given a recurve bow to complete the beginners course with and learn the basics. Out of two groups of beginners I was the only person to abandoned the recurve for the longbow. Now I think it’s down to how some of the basics are taught that is leading to the raised eyebrows I’m receiving now. Let me explain.

When you first pick up a bow you do a test to find out which eye is your dominant eye. After that you shoot a few arrows at a target and a sight is then fitted to your bow (the adding of a sight, I noticed, seems to be the first step in the archery arms race to add as much stuff to your bow as you can in as short a space as possible). When a sight is fitted to your bow it becomes difficult to look through a small sight at your target with both eyes open so you’re told to try closing your weaker eye to help. At the start I tried to close my weaker eye but I found that it just made me tense and when I switch to the longbow it felt more natural to aim with both eyes open.

Using both eyes is an important aspect in how we’ve evolved to judge distance and depth. The science behind it, I believe, is that we have two eyes which is known as binocular vision. Each eye is offset so views the world at slightly different angle. These images are then sent to the brain where the pictures are melded together and width, height and depth of the world around us is worked out. This now allows our brain to know how far to move our muscles in relation to what we want to interact with in the world around us. Now that’s not to say that if you close an eye you can’t judge depth or distance it just makes it a little harder for the brain to do the working out especially if you have both eyes open during every other event you do apart from archery. This won’t be an issue if you’re shooting through a sight as the sight becomes your aid to judge distance. The way I shoot however, is to do the aiming before my draw begins. Once the draw starts I try to draw back in one fluid motion, get to full draw and then release, having both eyes open seems to give me more consistent results than closing my weaker eye.

Because I don’t have a sight my bow hand now has two functions. The first, not surprisingly, is to hold the bow and the second is that my fist now becomes something that I point at what I want the arrow to hit. It’s all very neanderthal but again it works for me. This technique tends to get me in the right area of the target and the rest, I believe, is all down to instinct and muscle memory. I’ve heard golfers mention this and it’s the same with longbow archery in that you know you’ve made a good shot immediately after you’ve hit the ball or released the arrow, it just feels right.

So if you want to know how to aim with a longbow my advice, for what it’s worth, is this

  • Keep both eyes open
  • Feel the shot
  • Know you’re going to hit the target
  • Use your fist as a guide but don’t concentrate on it
  • As soon as you’re at full draw, release