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I have a race of elf-like humanoids that live in a forest. One of their best methods of travel is what you may call "forest running". They are attuned to the harmonic movement of the forest from a young age, they can predict the movement of branches in the wind and are agile enough to run and leap from tree to tree without crashing to the ground. Every able-bodied member of their society has been doing it since the moment they could climb a tree, and so it’s quite ingrained in their society.

Available Resources

Since they live in a forest and don’t often trade with other races outside of the forest (at least not until recent years) they don’t really have metal. What they do have is wood, resin and a strong rubberlike substance they produce from the cocoon of a creature that resembles a giant fuzzy caterpillar they keep as a pet. The same cocoon also produces a silk-like material. Leather exists but it is costly because they see the working of leather as a lowly occupation.

The Problem

Now, the problem is that while a projectile weapon is a must for a race relying on agility and dexterity rather than bulk and brute force, I don’t see how they can carry a bow, especially a big enough bow to be lethal against light armor, while tumbling, leaping and flipping head over heels among the canopies of trees. Any unfortunate snag of a branch on a bowstring, any catch of the end of a bow in a vine or some leaves can send a person crashing to the ground in a limb-shattering disaster. The same goes for any normal arrow quiver.

So, what I'm looking for is essentially this:

  1. It needs to be a projectile weapon
  2. It needs to be small and light enough not to over-encumber a forest-runner, not to snag on branches or foliage and be easy to carry
  3. It needs to be quick and easy to draw (so just unstringing a bow and carrying it won’t be enough of a solution. Stringing a bow takes time they don’t have.)
  4. It needs to be powerful enough to be effective in battle, at least against light armor.
  5. It needs to be achieved without metal, with only the resources they have.
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    $\begingroup$ bows are actually a poor choice for a physically weak person, a bow requires a great deal of upper body strength. a sling on the other hand is all about how well you can aim. And your downside for bows is more a downside for carrying anything, not just bows. $\endgroup$ – John Sep 26 '18 at 1:03
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    $\begingroup$ Running and leaping from tree to tree requires the right proportion of strength to body mass. Your "elves" may be weak by comparison to humans in terms of brute strength, the way a gymnast is weak in comparison to a power lifter, but the power lifter will never have sufficient strength to force their body around at the speed the gymnast/elf does. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Sep 26 '18 at 4:25
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    $\begingroup$ I would query the question here - forgive me if i'm wrong you seem to be assuming all bows are long and would snag on things. A short bow would fit your needs nicely here. Given the quite high level of strength they'll need to haul themselves around trees at speed, the high draw weight of a recurve bow it shouldn't cause too much issue, and a short bow would be fine against light armour, particularly if it was a composite bow (as might befit a culture as described with easy access to resin). Given they're elves , a pouch for the bow staff that fits the body shape fits nicely with the aesthetic $\endgroup$ – Miller86 Sep 26 '18 at 10:20
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    $\begingroup$ a projectile weapon is a must for a race relying on agility and dexterity rather than bulk and brute force Why are you discounting daggers and the likes? It takes force to go through armor, but it takes dexterity to instead attack at the weak points (neck, joints, ...) $\endgroup$ – Flater Sep 26 '18 at 12:16
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    $\begingroup$ Miller86: I have looked into recurve bows and bows in general in the process of researching this topic and came to several conclusions, the first of which was that the bow, while relatively smaller than other bows, is still qoute long. if carred onone's back it would still stick out in a manner that would have the potential to be hazardous, as well as restrict the flexibility of the runner. It cant be carried by hand, and I see no other ways to carry it but on the back or in the hand. $\endgroup$ – Kaiannae Sep 26 '18 at 22:38

20 Answers 20

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Consider the lowly sling. A couple of lengths of string or leather lace and a pouch, from which one hurls stones or cast shot.

The sling was one of the earliest weapons created by man, and it was used by regular soldiers in warfare as recently as the Spanish revolution. In warfare, the Aztec slings were considered to be as effective as the Spanish muskets.

The world record for distance with a sling is over 700 yards. In medieval and earlier warfare, archers were considered lethal to 200 yards, but slingers were considered lethal to 230 yards. Unlike archers, slingers were effective against armored troops, capable of inflicting internal injuries to the head and torso from sheer energy of impact.

Using the sling is quick ... Load, whip whip whip release.

To a student of the sling, the biblical account of David and Goliath is a classical case of never try to fight a ranged battle with melee weapons.

Slings are easy and cheap to manufacture, typically requiring about 6 to 8 square inches of leather or cloth. Old tongues of shoes are perfect.

Edit: Ammo Concerns

A couple of commenters have brought up questions about ammo.

Assuming the elves are comparable in size+strength to a 12 year old human gymnast (based on the ideal size/strength ratio for the kind of agility this lifestyle requires), they could easily handle 10 lbs of shot. Think of 12 year old boys out chasing around the forest with "kids stuff" - lunch, airsoft guns, rope, planks for a treehouse theyr'e building, etc.

A slinger encumbered with 10 lbs of 1 to 2 ounce stones for shot would have roughly 120 shots before having to reload. Their agility would only be slightly impaired.

Shot needs to have a certain mass to be effective, with different shot masses being more effective for different purposes. A 5 lb rock thrown a short distance (say 10 yards) was good for breaking horses' legs, but useless against armored humans. A 1 to 2 ounce rock hurled at much higher speed was effective at longer ranges and against armored humans. Lead shot was used by the greeks and romans to achieve an ideal balance of range and energy of impact (i.e. killing power).

Explosive shot has to have a certain mass, again, to be effective. There is a reason that hand grenades are the size they are - it's to produce enough shrapnel moving at a high enough velocity to do real damage. For reference, grenadiers in the Spanish revolution used slings to extend the range they could throw hand grenades.

Explosive seeds would be much like fire crackers. They might sting on impact and leave a welt, but would be unlikely to be as directly effective as simple stone. However, the noise could startle horses, or they could be used to set off larger planted charges at a distance.

Lower density and softer shot, such as nuts and wood pellets, will never have the range or stopping power of stone or lead shot. Getting hit with an acorn travelling at 80 mph (typical of what a 12 year old can accomplish with a sling) stings pretty badly but is hardly lethal, and something as low density as the acorn will lose energy quickly to air friction so it will have short range. Getting hit in the head, with no or unpadded helmet, by a 2 ounces of soft granite travelling at 80 mph will cause concussion. If the head is unprotected there probably also be a skull fracture, and the shot does not lose much energy to the air so it could be achieved at range..

Edit 2: Additonal information from comments

Slings were originally used by hunter-gatherers to bring down small and medium sized game animals, so their accuracy is not in question. However, it does take a lot of practice to develop that accuracy.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tpu-BCSfJ2c

(Credit @Mugluck) The accuracy and stopping power of a sling is approximately equivalent to a .44 caliber hand gun. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4541318/Roman-sling-bullets-deadly-44-Magnum.html

(Credit @Mirror318) At release, the shot from a sling can break the sound barrier. At initial velocity of Mach 1+, shot is continuously slowing down until it hits the target, regardless of relative elevation. There is a slight disadvantage to slinging up hill, but no great advantage to slinging from above versus on the level with the target.

Side note - analysis of David and Goliath from a purely military history perspective

The confrontation between David and Goliath is mis-characterized, making David the underdog. In truth, what happened is David redefined the entire nature of that war. In the heroic age of military leadership, it was expected that the general would be the toughest fighter, and that the two generals might go toe to toe.

Goliath was looking for a man-to-man slugfest wth the Hebrew general, with the stakes being subjugation. David reframed the discussion as extermination of dangerous vermin, and changed the entire war from one of subjugation to one of survival.

David is often painted as a "wimpy shepherd boy". Based on modern day bedouin culture and the written account he was between the ages of 10 and 20 (he was too young to grow a beard).

From the age of 10, he had lived for weeks at a time in the wilderness with his sling being the only thing between having dinner and being dinner for alpha predators (lion and bear are specifically cited). As a shepherd, he had to manhandle livestock on a regular basis. Before the Goliath incident, he served as a part time armor bearer, carrying 50+ pounds of spare parts for soldiers into the battlefield while being unarmored and unarmed himself. "Wimpy" must have a really broad definition.

So, here is a famous clip that puts it into perspective ... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=anEuw8F8cpE

Poor Goliath never stood a chance, even if David had been a "wimpy kid" as some preachers would have you believe.

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    $\begingroup$ I thought of crossbows, then I read this answer... +1 and never dared to answer this. $\endgroup$ – Mr.J Sep 26 '18 at 3:12
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    $\begingroup$ Ammunition might be an issue because you run out pretty quickly and hauling a backpack of ammo with you is not really an option. Depending on the forest, stones are either in abundance or scarce. I still think it is a very good alternative, but ammo could be an issue. $\endgroup$ – Mixxiphoid Sep 26 '18 at 9:36
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    $\begingroup$ A way around the ammo problem could be using the environment to your advantage. If these elves are so in tune with the environment, then surely they know where all those trees with the large and unusually dense nuts/seeds are. Then they can just hop and skip over to them to refill their ammo satchel. $\endgroup$ – TheEvilMetal Sep 26 '18 at 10:57
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    $\begingroup$ Depending on how ridiculously magical you can tolerate your world being, also consider exploding seeds, seeds with poisonous barbs (faux evolutionary theory: they stick to something, kill it, and then the baby plant has fertilizer), etc. $\endgroup$ – mattdm Sep 26 '18 at 12:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Hobbamok if the shot starts at mach 1 + (per Mirror318's comment, then it's already past terminal velocity and will slow before it hits the target, even shooting downwards. With the effective range of 230 yards from ground level, being elevated 20 feet (6 yards) off the ground, has a negligible impact on the range $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Sep 27 '18 at 15:41
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First of all, since you are dealing with forest fighters, you do not need the range of a bow, if your enemies are that far away the vegetation will cover you and you will probably will not see them.

So, there are two readily available options:

Spear & spear-throwers

The basic spear is limited by how fast the thrower can move its arm. But, with a little help from a spear-thrower, he can exchange a little more strength for a lot of speed for the spear.

Image of use of a spear-thrower

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Here you have a video of a guy making and using one of those: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrlr02YDr5A

Slings

Another classical options, slings typically are made of vegetal fibers. You can even "wear" them wrapped around your body when not in use.

For the best effect, the slinger would have selected the best ammo (natural rocks, polished rocks or even ceramic projectiles) way before the battle, but if the need arises he could try to use the rocks available at the place of the combat.

Image of a Balearic slinger

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Here you have the same guy from before making and using a sling: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RzDMCVdPwnE

A small disavantage is that the slinger can be uneffective if there is not a clearing wide enough to propel it, and that while the spear can be used in close quarters combat, the sling is totally unsuited for that. The sling main advantage is that its range is far longer, and can be very effective against armor (with good ammo).

An advantage of both of those weapons is that they are classical inventions that have been tested time after time all around the world. They do work.

Plumbata

As a curiosity (since, as its name implies, it breaks the "no metals" rule), the plumbata is a dart weighted with lead. The extra weight meant that at the same speed (which was limited by the speed of the throwers arm) it could get more penetration power.

I have read some stories of those being used to stop armoured knights in the Middle Ages; here you have to take into account that the impact depends both of the speed of the projectile and the speed of the target (if the target is in full charge towards the thrower, the dart will penetrate deeper).

For the other requirements of your question, it has some advantages: it would work well against armour at short ranges and would be deployed very fast (just take one and throw it).

There is way less info about the plumbata, but I found this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPQGBsQAcb0

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    $\begingroup$ Another name for the spear shown in the image is an Atl-atl. $\endgroup$ – Tim S. Sep 26 '18 at 2:49
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    $\begingroup$ You don't need the range, but you need the penetrating energy. Range is a good approximation of penetrating energy. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Sep 26 '18 at 7:23
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    $\begingroup$ @pojo-guy only when comparing projectiles of similar size and shape. With my bow I have really big range, but up close it isn't better than a decent spear. And in some ways worse - not much of a "stopping power" for example. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Sep 26 '18 at 11:29
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the detailed answer! Both weapons are good examples of something that's less encumbering than a bow, and they are well small enough to carry. however, both require a bubble of space around the use to swing the weapon. That bubble may not exist within the canopy of a tree or inside other foliage. So while they both are excellent throwing weapons, I dont think they would fit the intended use. $\endgroup$ – Kaiannae Sep 26 '18 at 23:49
  • $\begingroup$ Adding to plumbata: Throwing a hefty weighted dart is one thing; dropping a hefty weighted dart out of a tree is quite another. Case in point: Flechettes have been dropped from airplanes since WW1. Obviously, you'd want to drop them from as high as possible, which, in a forest, means that foliage could get in the way- but if these elves as skilled forest-runners as the question implies, that may not be an issue. Of course, useful flechettes are hard to make without metal- but maybe not impossible. $\endgroup$ – Someone Else 37 Sep 27 '18 at 1:43
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Good answers so far! But some do not address your arboreal Elfling's tactics, namely, tree running! Using an atlatl or sling high up in the canopy will be impractical due to space limitations. The slingshot and blowgun are, I think, the best of the answers given thus far.

But there are other possibilities.

They have wood and rubber. They also have access to plant fibres and hair (even their own!).

A good possibility is the rubber-powered dart launcher, a sort of combination between blow-dart and slingshot. Just knock a dart, poisoned or otherwise, and slide the tip into the barrel:

enter image description here

A second possibility is the spear gun:

enter image description here

These weapons have the same advantage as the arrow: power & penetration. But also, there is the added advantage of being able to wield them within the relatively restrictive parts of the forest canopy.

As for dart & spear tips: those can easily be made from stone, bone, antler, fish scales, wood and of course trade metal. Most of these will pierce "light armor" certainly. In the hands of an Elf warrior, I'm sure they're more likely to penetrate between the armor as it were!

enter image description here

But, all this being said, I would not discount the simple bow and arrows! You don't need a big huge bow. You need power and tactics. Consider some of this fellow's tricksy moves and just imagine what your Elves could do a hundred times better! (Take with a grain or three of salt: I make no claims for historical accuracy of claims. Just to clarify: I provide this as a resource for possible manoeuvres & techniques your Elves would probably find quite basic and simplistic. Others have expressed disagreement with this resource on historical grounds. I take no stance one way or the other in that regard other than to point out what your Elves should easily be capable of with a decent bow in hand.)

Lars Andersen's Archery Technique Video

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ -1 for bringing up Lars Andersen. The guy does trick archery with a very low-powered bow; most of his stuff wouldn't work with a bow powerful enough to be used in combat. $\endgroup$ – Mark Sep 26 '18 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ Sorry, Mark, but really, if you have a problem with what Larsen does, go down vote his video! I bring up a valid resource for the OP to examine because he wants Elves that can flit about in trees and trick shoot from the forest canopy. Larsen shows rather nicely what an average human can do with a bow. If you don't like it, go write your own answer! $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Sep 26 '18 at 21:49
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    $\begingroup$ @mark Against armored opponents no, but many of the targets he demonstrates with are harder to pierce than human skin, so with poisoned arrows some of his tricks could be quite effective against unarmored opponents. Plus, for the ones related to speed-shooting and tactical manoeuvring it's the ratio of archer strength to bow weight that matters, not the absolute weight. Someone stronger than he is would have no problem using those. Such people are simply rare in the age of the gun. $\endgroup$ – Perkins Sep 26 '18 at 22:09
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    $\begingroup$ @elemtilas: Mark's comment is valid. Lars Andersen is not a justifiable source for correctness, many experts have debunked his claims and pointed out that he manipulates his tools to seemingly perform like a normal bow (while intentionally hiding that fact). As a performer, what Lars does is perfectly fine (and I enjoy his trick shots from an entertainment perspective). But Lars takes it too far, claiming he's using ancient battle methods and hidden secrets, which is simply not true. $\endgroup$ – Flater Sep 27 '18 at 9:42
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    $\begingroup$ This actually gives me a few nice ideas! Thank you :) While I'm not sure its powerful enough, I like the dart launcher. its simple its small and easy to make, and it can probably pack nice punch on close range. Now, the dart gun, holds promise! however, I am not sure the mechanism can be constructed without metal or modern composites. But maybe a hybrid of this weapon and some kind of primitive triggering system will provide the best solution. $\endgroup$ – Kaiannae Sep 27 '18 at 18:21
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Slingbows. These are slings designed to guide an arrow accurately through a shot.

Elvish, mother******! Do you speak it?

Do you feel lucky, punk?

I don't kill with the bow. I kill with my heart.

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    $\begingroup$ I guess those are only feasible with modern, high quality rubber? How well do they actually perform? $\endgroup$ – Michael Sep 27 '18 at 9:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael as well as a bow, though harder to use. And I think the efficiency of rubber in a less than modern setting can be handwaved. $\endgroup$ – Renan Sep 27 '18 at 10:02
  • $\begingroup$ Oooh, I've looked these up on youtube and they are quite powerful!! However, I'm concerned with the fact that most people say that a sufficiently powerful one takes quite a toll on one's wrist and so it would need to be designed with that in mind. I'm not even sure a wooden one would not crack under the pressure. Maybe a horn could be used..... I'll have to look into that. Thank you!! $\endgroup$ – Kaiannae Sep 27 '18 at 18:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Kaiannae Such things can certainly be made of wood. They can also be locked to a trigger like a crossbow. Examples of both and crazier things are on Joerg Sprave's YouTube channel. $\endgroup$ – Michael Sep 28 '18 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ Remember that people used to make rubber out of tree sap. A race of wood-attuned elves might have millennia of arboriculture that has improved tree-spa rubber well beyond what is achieved with current chemistry. $\endgroup$ – DMPalmer Sep 29 '18 at 17:25
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A Slingshot

You have wood, rubber and resin. A sling shot would be pretty easy to make and you could throw an initiation ritual for the children where they need to find the materials and craft their own slingshot.

Its small enough so you can carry it close to your body and not get it caught, and you can use a variety of different ammunition, ranging from rocks to pieces of fruits or seeds.

It will require less room than a sling and you probably won't get the range of a sling, but its much easier than trying to swing a piece of cloth while your on the move.

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  • $\begingroup$ So far, its one of the most viable options. I'm looking into that. $\endgroup$ – Kaiannae Sep 27 '18 at 18:24
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IMHO the easiest thing is to look at how humans currently have solved the problem. In this case the simple blowgun is quite effective - especially when combined with locally sourced poisons

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  • $\begingroup$ How effective is it really against humans? Especially if they are wearing armor. $\endgroup$ – Michael Sep 27 '18 at 9:12
  • $\begingroup$ OP says light armour. I would take this to mean chain mail and leather with some plate. Therefore, there will be soft patches to aim for. A very thin dart head would slide between the chain mail. It would need to be poisoned to meet OPs lethal condition however. $\endgroup$ – josh Sep 27 '18 at 11:11
  • $\begingroup$ A blowgun can be a viable option. It certainly will be easy enough to make and maintain, I wonder though, what its range can be. Maybe it can serve as a mid-to-close range solution. $\endgroup$ – Kaiannae Sep 27 '18 at 18:26
  • $\begingroup$ @josh no metal means no chain mail. I'm assuming that the "light armour" is leather. If the point is long enough, a dart should penetrate leather, shouldn't it? $\endgroup$ – craq Sep 28 '18 at 1:58
  • $\begingroup$ @craq I read the "no-metal" to be about the weapons, not about the human armour. I think you are right, a dart could penetrate leather, or at least the supple leather around the joins. If these tree-elves are nibble and majestic enough to run through trees, its a tiny step to having lethally accurate blow dart skills. $\endgroup$ – josh Sep 28 '18 at 10:14
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Two possibilities spring immediately to mind -

1) Razor sharp flint knives either dropped from a height or using the "whip" of a flexible branch to accelerate their throw.

2) Organic weapons - you mentioned the fuzzy caterpillar. Caterpillar spines are often horrifically irritant to keep birds from eating them. A silk bag full of those tossed in someone's face will make for a world of hurt.

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  • $\begingroup$ I didnt know that about caterpillars. It could certainly work, but I'm looking for sometihng with more penetrating force behind it. $\endgroup$ – Kaiannae Sep 27 '18 at 18:28
  • $\begingroup$ I imagine it would cause a world of hurt to your hand as well if you tried to throw the caterpillar fuzz. If that could be avoided it's an interesting non-lethal method $\endgroup$ – bendl Sep 28 '18 at 17:46
  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking you could brush some of the spines out with the caterpillar sat on a piece of silk impregnated with the rubber to make it water (and spine) proof. Ball that up and you've got something you can carry safely and can throw with fair accuracy. $\endgroup$ – JosKarith Oct 2 '18 at 12:39
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A Miniaturized Ballista

The ballista is a weapon somewhat resembling a large crossbow that operates with a torsion spring instead of a leaf spring. As a result they could be drawn so that the limbs were parallel to the stock. While they were designed as siege engines, a scaled down ballista would allow a smaller size than a bow once drawn. Have them carry the ballista pre drawn and you allow for a smaller size and quick usage. For the quiver, you could strap it close to the leg and put a flap over the top so the bolts don't get caught on anything.

Note you biggest problem is going to be making projectile heads capable of piercing armour without access to metal yourself. Wood will likely splinter and stone will shatter.

To contrast some of the suggestions given, here is a comparison. The spring based weapons suggested fall into three categories: leaf, torsion, and tension. Leaf springs were typically used for personal weapons (bows, crossbows). They work by bending a stiff material. This makes them simple, durable, light, and accurate. Torsion springs store energy by twisting something attached to a lever. This was generally used on siege weapons (ballista, scorpion, catapult) since it can be easily scaled up (just add more material to the spring). They are still accurate, but require the additional complexity of one or two pivots. Finally tension springs work by simply stretching back (Slingshots). Biggest problem here is they need very stretchy material. Another issue is the pull is less constrained, you can shift and turn side to side, up or down, which makes it less accurate. A bow can only really turn side to side and even that can be easily minimized, a crossbow or ballista can do neither so there is less operator error to degrade accuracy. One big difference between all of them though is draw length and power. Unless you have a very stretchy material or want to put a turn in the line (not recommended), there will be significant length to the tension spring before you start pulling so you will not be able to have as long of a draw, where as torsion and leaf springs allow the draw to start right at the end of the weapon. Next is the draw weight uptake, tension springs start at zero and gain force linearly, leaf springs also start at zero, but can be designed to gain weight faster at the start than the end, torsion springs can be preloaded to give weight right from the start of the draw. The two factors you want to balance are minimize the force required to use, and maximize the energy available. Since work is force integrated by distance, this is achieved by having as long a draw as possible with as even a force required throughout the draw as possible. This is where tension springs lose. English longbows were often about 120 lbs. draw weight (force required to hold all the way back), matching that power with a good slingshot (rubber expands to say 3 times its length) might mean you need a to draw 170 lbs. which will require significantly more strength. Flip side is slingshot is the lightest, followed by bows, with ballistas being the heaviest.

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    $\begingroup$ Isn't this also called a crossbow? $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Sep 25 '18 at 23:13
  • $\begingroup$ @pojo-guy Yes... I believe this is a crossbow... $\endgroup$ – Shadowzee Sep 25 '18 at 23:20
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    $\begingroup$ @pojo-guy Not quiet, a crossbow still works using a leaf spring, a ballista uses a torsion spring. They look somewhat similar, but you can draw a ballista back further to reduce its width where as with a crossbow the width stays close to the same no matter how far it is drawn. $\endgroup$ – XRF Sep 26 '18 at 2:30
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    $\begingroup$ @adonies real-world ballistas typically used twisted rope. With access to silk from a fictional creature it's in spitting distance of plausibility. $\endgroup$ – Blue Footed Booby Sep 26 '18 at 14:00
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    $\begingroup$ @adonies, you can make a torsion spring from rope, and historically, most catapults and ballistas did exactly that. $\endgroup$ – Mark Sep 26 '18 at 21:35
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You could look into darts (blow and hand), yoyos as light blunt force weapons (they were supposedly used as hunting weapons in China and parts of South East Asia as well as Greece), slings or kunai's which are all light, lends itself to the dexterity and speed of your race and small enough to be carried without encumbering them. They would have to strike exposed flesh though this shouldn't be an issue since you mentioned their opponents would be wearing light armor (heavy armor in the forest would be difficult to move in). Coating the blades, stingers, bullets in sticky poison, slow acting acid or anything that they can use to add extra damaging effects would also be good.

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I'm going to go out on a limb (so to speak) and suggest something crazy:

Airguns

They'd be limited in power without metal, but a wooden pressure tank coated inside with rubber to reduce leakage and wrapped outside in silk and resin for strength could approach the pressure containment ability of a fiberglass tank. Which gets you a non-trivial amount of pressure.

Make the valves out of bone and the seals out of just a little bit of leather. Barrels are made out of silk-wrapped wood. Without metals there's no real way to do rifling, so they are probably break-action and shoot (much larger) blowgun darts with far more range and power than a blowgun ever could. Possibly more power than a similarly-sized bow or crossbow depending on whether the silk in question is (like real silk) as strong as steel in tension.

For an added benefit, the fact that the tank allows pre-battle storage of energy means the tree-runner won't be tiring themselves out operating their weapon and can devote all their energy to running, jumping, and climbing. This would make them seem almost super-human to someone who was used to fighting archers who have to stop shooting to rest fairly regularly.

Add poison to the darts for additional effectiveness.

Edit: The valving mechanics of an air gun are not particularly complex. Note the bend in the air passage to allow the striker access to the valve stem. The internal spring in the tank is solely for ease of filling a tank from empty and could be omitted. The overall shape developed by your elves would likely be different as they would not be attempting to re-use firearm production toolings. I would expect a fixed valve-stem instead of a striker pin and a direct striking rubber-powered hammer instead of the spring-powered indirect pressure striker used in the diagram, but the shape of the air passage and valve arrangement would be similar.

Picture from: http://www.beemans.net/images/Austrian%20airguns.htm

Girandoni air gun internal schematic

Feasibility all comes down to how good they are at shaping things from their silk and resin.

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  • $\begingroup$ You could use an animal's bladder or something to hold the pressurised air. $\endgroup$ – Wilson Sep 27 '18 at 7:37
  • $\begingroup$ How would you pressurize the tank? $\endgroup$ – GentlePurpleRain Sep 27 '18 at 18:38
  • $\begingroup$ This is very interesting. Its unique, and has the potential of being ong ranged and lethal enough. Light, easy to carry.... I'm tempted. However, its a very complex weapon. A modern weapon. If I use it, I'll have to think how to make my 'elves' come up with it. Thank you! It sure is a unique idea. $\endgroup$ – Kaiannae Sep 27 '18 at 18:54
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    $\begingroup$ @GentlePurpleRain With an air pump. They're not hard to build: A rod that fits inside a tube with a mostly-air-tight seal and a couple of flap valves. The diesel engine was invented after seeing primitive tribesmen starting fires with "fire pistons" that are effectively low-volume-high-pressure air pumps. They'd made them out of wood. No modern materials required. $\endgroup$ – Perkins Sep 27 '18 at 21:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Kaiannae They're not that mechanically complex. It's a blowgun (which they could easily have invented) with an air tank (not that big a stretch) filled by a modified fire piston (which primitive cultures have invented on our world.) The valve on the tank is a simple stopper that fits against the neck from the inside so the pressure holds it closed. You shoot it by tripping a rubber-powered hammer that smacks the valve stem and forces it briefly open, discharging a blast of air through the blow gun. You need a bend in your piping to make the stem accessible, but that's not too hard. $\endgroup$ – Perkins Sep 27 '18 at 21:10
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I would highlight that there are plenty of hunting animals that don't depend on brute strength, but agility and dexterity to capture their pray. As such, your assertion that melee weapons are not suitable is wrong. As such I will answer with what I would do if I was one of these elves rather than how your list of assertions should demand these elves act.

There are plenty of very fast acting poisons in the forest; and these people are likely to know how to collect them since they're so in tune with it. I would then coat my daggers and blow darts with this.

I would then avoid any direct conflict with any aggressor; and just migrate should an aggressor approach the home. Any fighting would be done using guerrilla tactics; waiting for knights to take off their helmets before shooting them with the blow darts or dropping down from above with the daggers.

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Bolas

If you wish to incapacitate rather than kill an opponent bolas are a good option. They consist of 2 or more weighted balls/rocks secured with string or cord designed to wrap around the target upon contact. Having one of these wrap around an enemy's legs will cause them to trip and fall, enabling you to get away or allowing for follow up attacks with e.g. short spears while the enemy is downed. If it wraps around their arms/torso they will lose the ability to attack you with their weapon, also conferring an advantage to you, but this would require a longer cord than depicted below.

Preparing to throw bolas

Image credit: Instructables.com

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Chemical Warfare

Every scout would carry a few vials of poisonous gas, enough to kill or incapacitated anything that breaths 30 meters from where it shatters. You just need to wait until the army hold to rest inside or near the forest and begin to hurl this inside their camp. In a few minutes everyone who survived the attack would end up with their lungs burned and completely blind.

Then you just need a dagger to end the job.

If they are fighting in the forest, apart to set tons of traps, I would recommend a blowgun with poison darts. And use a poison that doen't kill your target, instead just try to make it cause fever and deliriums. Seeing your brothers in arms start screaming at monsters that you don't see in middle of a dark forest full of 'elves' could offer a great moral advantage to your forces.

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Just because nobody has mentioned it yet, how about the staff sling? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sling_(weapon)#Staff_sling

Much like the humble sling but significantly extended range and also power to hit as hard if not harder than a regular sling shot. Reasonable accuracy can be learned in an afternoon and that could easily grow to pin point accuracy with a few days extended practice. The staff can be user preferred length with longer ones increasing range. Other than a sturdy stick for the staff, the materials are identical to the good old sling.

In a worst case scenario where the enemy is closing in on you, you can pull the sling off the end and use it as a regular sling for a final shot before switching to the staff as a club. Sharpen the base of the staff and you have a makeshift short spear.

As the amount of force required to use the staff sling is not that high, you could probably fashion folding or attachable parts for the actual staff to allow increased portability and thus range at the expense of increased preparation time for initial throw. Once the staff sling is fully extended, all subsequent throw times would make no difference.

An alternate approach would be to simply carry a sling and a portable wood shaping tool e.g. knife/axe. When the enemy is sighted, cut the desired size of staff from the nearest tree and with a few minutes of whittling, you can tie your sling to the end of your newly created staff sling. As I am assuming stealth tactics, you probably have the time to do this undetected and unleash a volley or two from afar with fellow elves once you are all ready. If pursued, keep the sling and drop the staff. Make more as and when needed.

Here is a random YouTube video I found featuring a staff sling https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bdoeqRQqAY

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consider the crossbow. D&D has taught us hand crossbows are possible, and myth busters as shown a paper crossbow can be lethal. the have way better materials than paper and a for a weak race a draw back weapon could be useful

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    $\begingroup$ crossbow are for sure not satisfying the "It needs to be quick and easy to draw" $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Sep 26 '18 at 3:33
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    $\begingroup$ A crossbow does not need to be slow. A friend of mine entered a speed archery contest using a reproduction medieval crossbow with a 70 lb draw, named "baby", which he had built for his young daughters to learn with. He was only two shots behind the winner in the time limit, and he did it while reclining in his camp chair. If he hadn't stopped to sip his beer part way through the shooting he could have won. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Sep 26 '18 at 3:58
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    $\begingroup$ @pojo-guy, he was drawing and latching a 70# crossbow while sipping beer and reclining in a camp chair? In a speed contest.... You wouldn't have a youtube video, would you? $\endgroup$ – JBH Sep 26 '18 at 6:38
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    $\begingroup$ Unfortunately , no. That was back when the SCA was semi-enforcing about anachronous tech in camp, but after they had mostly dropped the fantasy in preference for quasi-realistic re-enactments. reclining in the camp chair is actually part of the secret to his speed. He used a foot stirrup to draw the bow. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Sep 26 '18 at 7:18
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    $\begingroup$ Also, "D&D did it so it must be possible" is not really a valid inference - if that's what we're going for why not just teach all the elves Magic Missile and be done with it? $\endgroup$ – walrus Sep 26 '18 at 8:25
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A couple of possible ideas that haven't been mentioned yet:

  • The boomerang.

    These may be seen as toys today, but they were invented as weapons and used very effectively. With a skilled user, they have good range and accuracy, and if you miss they come back to you so you have the problem of running out of ammo.

  • The yo-yo

    Similarly to boomerangs, we see these as toys today, but they were created with darker intentions. Obviously a fairly short range, but they can be very effective, especially if you equip them with blades. I can imagine these would be used to great effect by your elves if deployed from the branches of the forest down onto unsuspecting enemies on the ground below.

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  • $\begingroup$ Earthbound and Yo-yos (just saying) $\endgroup$ – JGreenwell Sep 29 '18 at 4:27
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Disks

Thinks of something between a frisbee and an Olympic discus. Made from hardwood. Thrown fast enough, its mass will make knock out its target (if not kill right away); thrown with rotation gives is stability in flight. Skilled throwers will be able to make it curve around trees and branches. (Of course, you need some clearance, but that's true for all missile weapons -- if your forest is too dense, no missile is going to work)

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Projectile weapons are NOT a good option for this and bows, specifically, are even worse.

1) Dense forest means dense foliage making it hard to keep track of your target.

2) Lots of tree trunks. They block your shots, give the target lots of easy cover, etc.

3) Bows actually require a LOT of strength, much more so than swords, for example.

Now, as for actual solutions, I think spears would be your best bet, by far. Spears are VERY good in melee combat, both offensively and at keeping your opponents at bay (specially important since metal is very limited and as such your creatures will not have much in the way of armour), they can be thrown to catch an opponent off-guard or for hunting, they are entirely/mostly wood, they can penetrate light armour with the right tip, etc.

If you really, for some reason I cannot fathom, want a projectile weapon then I guess you could go with the blowgun or the sling. But seriously, don't. Projectile weapons are good in open scenarios, not in the middle of forests dense enough to traverse via "forest running".

Bear in mind that weapons are not used in actual battle 99,9% of the time so most "primitive" weapons have other uses such as hunting, defense against wild animals, etc.

Edit: Just to make it clearer, I mean using a spear mainly as melee weapon. It can also be thrown should it be required but this is just a bonus, not its main intended use.

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    $\begingroup$ Note that most of the shortcomings you list for projectiles apply also to throwing spears. 1 and 2 for sure. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Oct 1 '18 at 8:55
  • $\begingroup$ Not really. I suggest the spear as a melee weapon that can also be thrown in specific situations but I guess I can edit it to make it more clear. $\endgroup$ – pgpv Oct 1 '18 at 13:36
  • $\begingroup$ Having fought both with and against spears of 6' and 9' length, I can say that manoeuvring a 9' spear in dense forest is really hard and any stealth advantage would be lost by the noise it would make. As to effectiveness as a weapon, you have no chance of a shield wall/phalanx so are talking random skirmishers. This tactic will work unless the enemy have short arms such as axes or swords. In a one on one between a sword and a spear, you simply have to block one spear thrust and then run up the shaft to execute the holder. The only way to win against swords with spears is to outnumber them. $\endgroup$ – Nicholas Adams Oct 11 '18 at 14:30
  • $\begingroup$ That is simply not true. Given equivalent skill levels, a spear will beat a sword most of the time. Saying that "it will work unless the enemy has short arms" is completely wrong, it works exactly the OTHER way around. Spears are immensely favoured when fighting against short arms. Sure, you block the first thrust, but the spear will simply thrust again and again while you are "running up the shaft". Given their length they have very high tip speeds and as such can reposition and change targets really, really fast. A real battle between a spear and a sword is nowhere near what you describe. $\endgroup$ – pgpv Oct 19 '18 at 9:05
  • $\begingroup$ As for the manoeuvring, well, unless you are using a thrust-centric sword you will have to move it around your body which is much worse if you are surrounded by foliage than thrusting where you have a clear line between you and your target and can adjust for obstacles. $\endgroup$ – pgpv Oct 19 '18 at 9:05
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Another option: rocket artillery. Use gunpowder as the propellant (processed as in fireworks so it works as a rocket motor instead of exploding), a bamboo tube as the launcher and a wooden dowel as the projectile. Small versions are portable for one person.
Drawback: you need to make fire to use the weapon.

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Here is another possibility, if they have something like latex. Presumably their rubber-like material doesn't start out like hardened rubber, so you can shape it.

If you can make something like rubber balloons, and if you can fill them with sticky liquidy latex, then you can throw them at people's faces.

Get someone with a good hit in the face and they are blind and they may have trouble speaking and breathing. Maybe they can recover by removing their face armor or head armor, which opens them up for further damage.

It isn't a lethal weapon but it's light weight, compact, easy, and it can take someone out of the fight for a critical time and make them easier to attack. A blind warrior is no warrior at all.

You might try mixing various noxious substances into the latex, but that makes your balloons more dangerous to you if they break by accident. But if you can permanently blind an opponent that's something.

I could imagine packaging them inside freshwater clamshells or big seedpods, and then using half of the container to hold one in a sling or slingshot. It might take a skilled user to make that last work well.

Not your main or only weapon, but a useful one.

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