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Historical background

In discussions about European medieval archery, there is a lot of emphasis on the english longbow, and the physique and training required to field an archer of that caliber. The stereotypical English longbowman must have the strength to draw a 150lb bow, have trained from adolescence as an archer, and even have their very skeleton deformed over time by their dedication to the weapon.

Asian communities have their own stereotypes. Because of historical examples and depictions of fat samurai or generals, there is a narrative that if you want to pull a strong bow you must be fat to have the muscle you need. Some modern archers like Nu-Sensei have even deliberately mimicked this traditional build.

I'm wondering if those depictions are really the only way to have a realistic military archer. English Longbowmen are a radical archetype of archers, and I'm guessing that throughout history, there would be archers in Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Americas with a more friendly pull weight on their war bows (around 100 pounds), and thus didn't require the immense strength and build. Historical examples of mounted archers, and archers with recurve bows, had pull weights as light as 40-50 pounds. As for the prolonged training, there must have been cases of conscripts, hunters with experience with hunting bows, and that sort of thing, to obviate the need for intense training.

There are examples of real female archer warriors in history, especially in Asia and Japan, such as the Onna-Bugeisha. There are also many women who practice traditional archery for either hobby or hunting, such as Anna Sokólska, a mounted archery champion. The competition bow's draw weight is only 40 lbs.

What I'm struggling to determine and find references for is what kind of build a female combat archer would need to have to be part of a practical and realistic fighting force, and how little training you can get away with for an archer.

My setting

My historical fiction setting is Poland in the 1400s, and the character I'm focusing on is the adolescent daughter of a forester. She's practiced bow-hunting since childhood. She's also trained as a hunter and forester like her brothers. I would like her to use a recurve bow with a <100lb draw weight, potentially swapping to a lighter one when she's on horseback. When a war breaks out, she becomes a Robinhood-like figure, using her bow and ambush tactics against the enemy. Her opposition mainly consists of mercenaries, who are equipped with brigandine armor and open sallet helms. She's also training other girls to form a band of partisans.

My question

I want to know if this a plausible background and scenario, and, if so, get an idea of what the physique and training of the archers would look like. Could it match the trope of slender elven or human female archers, or would that build preclude them being a real threat to armored opponents? Would a few months training time be enough for my protagonist to prepare a band of untrained girls to be archers?

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    $\begingroup$ Please edit to remove the rant parts and just focus on the question. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Feb 12 at 18:32
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    $\begingroup$ I agree that some parts are a bit ranty. However, at the same time, I find them to be rather effective in setting the expectations for answers and reminding potential answerers not to rely on popular tropes. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Feb 12 at 19:03
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    $\begingroup$ A how does X look like question.. In this case, find a suitable woman. A character. Why ask this on WB ? you could go to Google Images and search your favorite "female body builder" you'll get to see some ladies who can handle >100 pounds ! $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Feb 12 at 19:38
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    $\begingroup$ I'm going to to compose an edit that hopefully cleans this up a little. $\endgroup$
    – Daniel B
    Feb 12 at 20:26
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for editiing my question. I'm not a native speaker and new to here so I'm really sorry that my raw questions ends up like this. Thanks so much for your effort of correcting much of my sentences cuz I know it must take a lot of time to do so $\endgroup$ Feb 13 at 5:13

8 Answers 8

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Sociology aside, this is a realistic scenario

(or at least as realistic as Robin Hood)

In this answer, I'm setting aside the fact that Poland in the 1400s would not be a conducive sociological environment for this type of thing, since your character's backstory presupposes that she's grown up in a very non-traditional manner.

First, I'll suggest a setting and mode of operation for these archers, and then expand on why I believe it's plausible given the constraints of the situation.

The setting

Winter. A forest in the foothills of a frozen mountain range, either the Sudetes or the Carpathian. The daily temperature rarely strays higher than ten degrees below freezing. The forest is thick, and the snowcover is thick enough to bury a man to the waist in the deeper drifts.

enter image description here

(This isn't strictly necessary, but it will make for a dramatic setting and adds an element of danger from nature itself, so I am going to go with it. Much of what is below applies anyways.)

Tactics

Like you suggested, your archers are going to be using ambush tactics. Your protagonist is the daughter of a forester, and is fighting enemy troops in woods she's explored since she was a little girl. Her main tactics for combat are going to be ambush attacks on sentries or opportunistic attacks on lone messengers and small groups of enemies, firing arrows from within tree canopies, and fleeing on snowshoes, skis, or through the trees.

They will have light bows. 50lbs? Nah. Their bows (your protagonist aside) should be 30lbs, max. That's the sweet spot draw weight for small-framed women. It's enough to hunt deer, (though heavier draw weights are preferred) and will easily kill or maim humans.

A lighter bow cuts the training time by a lot, and while a 50lb bow may be stronger, it's not necessary, either for range, or kill potential. For distance, if there are 30m of open, unobstructed space between them and their target, they are too exposed to be safe. Most of their kills should happen from an elevated position, at a range of 10-20m, in dense parts of the forest. They should not be trying to punch through armor, they should be aiming at any unarmored area. An arrow in the eye or throat will kill you just fine...

But an arrow in the thigh is great too. They don't actually want to kill their enemies, necessarily. A dead enemy is good, of course... but a wounded enemy who takes four weeks to die of a gangrenous infection in his leg from an arrowhead smeared in feces is better.

Most importantly, combat is only a fraction of what they'll do, since the best way to survive a fight is to not be in one.

They'll dig punji pits and troupe de loups on roads the enemy uses, hidden under the cover of snow. They'll sabotage trail markings and steal supplies. They'll goad hounds to howl all night, so garrisons or camped troops get no rest. They'll sabotage bridges across frozen streams, so the timbers snap under the weight of twenty armored soldiers, crashing through the ice, soaking them, and leaving them to freeze to death. They'll find out enemy positions and encampments, and pass that information (by proxies, likely) to any formal military opposition in the area. They'll warn villages of approaching soldiers, and help in denying their enemy the ability to feed off the land. Also, at night, they'll steal, kill, and, if possible, eat horses. (but don't put that in the book. People don't like animal death).

The land itself will be trying to kill these invaders. The girls are just helping out.

Gender discrepancies

For the tactics that your guerrillas are using, gender really isn't going to be a limitation. The main points of comparison are going to be:

  • Endurance. The ability to keep going day after day under harsh conditions. Women match (or sometimes exceed) men at this. Not in marathons, but in ultra-marathons.
  • Climbing. Your girls are going to be climbing trees, rocky ridges, and walls. In climbing, women are not at a significant disadvantage with men. I can't find any stats on tree climbing, but I imagine that would apply even more here, since they are significantly lighter.
  • Riding. Women are comparable horse-riders to men. Hell, the Riders of Rohan were mostly women in New Zealand. (Though I recognize that modern hobby equestrianism isn't equivalent)
  • Shooting. I'm specifying shooting before archery because the most important thing here is accuracy, not poundage. In shooting at the short ranges that forest combat will have here, (10m) women beat men.
  • Archery. Men regularly beat women in archery competitions by a significant enough margin that they don't compete against each other (mostly)... but that margin is still very small, often less than 5% in points (and certain world records are equal)
  • Cold endurance. There is some (limited, disputed) evidence that in long-term cold endurance, women beat men. (Though in short term and in frostbite resistance, not so much). Whether this is true in the mean, in this case, is less relevant that whether it's true in extreme cases. Chloe McCardel has swum across the English channel 44 times (the most of any human in history). The record for most (though not fastest) there-and-back-again swims across the English channel is also held by a woman, Cindy Nicholas, at 5. At least when it comes to dedicated acts of madness combined with cold temperatures, women certainly hold their own. A winter-long murder spree in a frozen forest certainly qualifies.

Training

For our protagonist, we take as given that she is a proficient archer. The question is, how quickly can her recruits pick it up? The fact that we are setting our targets at 10-20m is huge. With a decent bow, (maybe she's also a very good bowyer?) I'm fairly confident that a good archer with a deep understanding of the weapon could teach a teenager to consistently put >90% of their arrows into a medium sized target at 10m in two to three hours. That was my experience when I learned, and some googling around shows that it's not an uncommon number, and some are optimistic it could be done in an hour. (Maybe I was an especially poor student).

A month of practice should be more than enough for them to get >50% bullseye hits at that range, and if their target is a 10cm wide unprotected face... here is an unfortunate mercenary's face plastered on a 50cm target.

enter image description here

That center bullseye is 5cm across —just double the width of your eyeball.

Appearance

They are certainly not going to be fat, because that simply wasn't a thing people other than nobles really got to be. Especially in winter, and especially in Eastern Europe, and especially during wartime.

They are going to be thin. They are going to be filthy. Their skin will be rough, their faces windburned, their eyes hollow. Some will be missing fingers and toes.

Something a lot like this. Complete with the skeleton trophies.

A sepia photo of three women in Russian-style peasant clothes, sitting behind a table pled with human remains

Three Russian women sit behind a table piled with human remains, taken in the Volga region during the 1921-1922 famine. Taken from the Russian government archives, the Peter Struve collection, box 25.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Feb 14 at 17:56
  • $\begingroup$ Several things. Archery and rock-climbing were Olympic events this past summer so there is good data on climbing ability. But before I get specific, I think this post is not balanced. You point out areas women outperform men but to be fair to the OP you should fairly point to the good and the bad. The question is not about having women compete in an evenly-weighted archery competition, it is about what a troupe of women archers would look like. To be fair, you touched on that with the 30lb bow. M/F comparisons don’t actually contribute to this female-based inquiry. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Feb 14 at 23:28
  • $\begingroup$ @VogonPoet The intent wasn't an M/F comparison. OPs question boils down to "desptite historical tropes of longbowmen, is a troop of girl archers plausible". The specific areas of OPs concern were strength and training. The goal of my answer was to worldbuild a backstory, cover the question of training and effectiveness against armored opponents, and address the question of appearance. The purpose the gender discrepancy section was to make a case that, in the relevant skills, the band of girls could plausibly be a threat on or approaching the level of grown men (given specific tactics). $\endgroup$
    – Daniel B
    Feb 14 at 23:54
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    $\begingroup$ @VogonPoet I apologize if that section came across as inflammatory. I do not have any desire to claim or try to prove that teenage girls would make a better cannibalistic guerrilla nightmare deathsquad than men. I simply wanted to establish that it was not implausible for them to be a genuine danger in that role. $\endgroup$
    – Daniel B
    Feb 14 at 23:57
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    $\begingroup$ Not a problem, I was making the opinion that it went without saying and bordered on off-topic. The question itself plainly calls for guerrilla warfare with women. Didn’t see why men or 50# bows needed to be in a response at all. Your answer does address the question well nonetheless. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Feb 15 at 0:11
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Women often fought in wars.

There's lots of historical records of women fighting in wars, and hunting. The norm was that women didn't fight in pitched battles far from home because women tend to have more trouble lugging heavy weights on long marches than men, but that's no real bar to doing such in a home forest where you can forage from the land and don't need to carry heavy stuff around or march long distances.

Women weren't suicidal. It was really shitty to have a town invaded by an enemy army most of the time, with rape, assault, murder, and enslavement being routine. They would help defend their homes with lighter weapons.

You only need heavy bows if you're going up against armour at range.

Good armour can block lighter bows, and so you need heavier bows if you're up against armoured people. This is especially important at long ranges because you're mostly attacking the chest since it's the biggest target and it kills people, and the chest is easy to cover in plate or chain.

If you're ambushing people you can avoid more armoured enemies, and get close, and use poisoned weapons to try and hurt them. Poison isn't that useful for the battlefield unless you have some especially potent stuff nearby, but for hit and run it's great because you can run away and wait hours or days for them to die.

They wouldn't have a great physique for it.

A couple of months of fairly irregular workouts isn't enough to massively augment their bodies. They'll have whatever shapes they had when they started, with them having a bit more muscle and being a bit more lean. English archers had to work a lifetime to get their physique.

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  • $\begingroup$ Workouts don't exercise the correct muscles for pulling a bow anyways. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Feb 13 at 6:54
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    $\begingroup$ Re "workouts", you're dramatically underestimating the fitness of pre-industrial people, even just farmers. Everything was heavy physical work, and they were doing that for most of the daylight hours every day. I do a lot of gardening, and I can testify to how much effort digging and wood-cutting takes. And it's whole-body exercise, so whilst it may not perfectly tick the sport-specific muscles for heavy bows, they're going to be in good shape for lighter bows. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Feb 13 at 10:18
  • $\begingroup$ They'll probably be fairly fit, yeah, I'm more noting they won't have a massively specialized physique. It takes longer than a few months to develop that, especially without a dedicated exercise program. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Feb 13 at 10:19
  • $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen an un-optimised workout wouldn't, you're right. There are some exercises that should help, but they don't matter. "Workout" may not be the best word - what matters is training. You learn to hit your target. Then you learn to hit your target after a day of archery practice interspersed with sprints, when you're already exhausted. Then you hunt rabbits for dinner with your bow. The best shots hunt squirrels instead. $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Feb 14 at 15:51
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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onna-musha

hangaku gozen

Onna-Musha... is a term referring to female warriors in pre-modern Japan.These women engaged in battle alongside samurai men mainly in times of need. They were members of the bushi (samurai) class in feudal Japan and were trained in the use of weapons to protect their household, family, and honour in times of war.

Hangaku Gozen (depicted) was one of these; a member of the samurai class and a military leader in 1201.


You could have someone like this: a woman raised with military training who has somehow become unattached and so is willing to train your girls. If they are to operate as a paramilitary unit it would be helpful to have someone who knows something about tactics and maybe your dishonored lady samurai could be that.

Maybe the lady samurai is pregnant but unmarried. Rather than commit suicide, she chooses baby over family and so leaves her home and lives off the land. Thus it is your band of girls finds her and takes her in.

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Ways to bypass upper body strength requirement for a bow:

Time advantage. Attacks at night for example. This way you can get closer to your opponent and weaker bow is fine too. Good chance to have a surprise effect as well. High risk of distance being too close and being defested by the melee weapons.

Local superiority. For example through horseback riding. Being able to concentrate your forces on a part of the territory where opponent cant collect his forces as quickly. Any transport or teleportation or even sneaky movement can do the same.

Better metalurgy. Heat treatment of the arrow's pointy part to be able to penetrate an armor better.

Better poisons. Archers used bucket of feces for their arrows, to make sure infection will kill theit opponent, but it is a rather slow process that takes days and is not helpful in a non-siege battle. Having a quickly acting poison is a significant advantage.

Formation. If your troops cant practice as much, they can just shoot at once from a formation, to make sure that the cloud of artows will hit someone. Not so much about upper body strength, but about learning time, that is also extreme for a bow.

Territory advantage. For example forest ambush. Being prepared and catching opponent off guard as he moves out of formation in an unknown to him territory.

Exploding arrows. Probably impractical unless very good gunpowder and chaped charve is developed, which is unlikely. Still, added weight would require a lot of upper body strength for sufficient range. Shaped charge allows to penetrate almost any armor and the target behind, but requires modern eqlosives, black powder is not enough. And theory behind this tech is also very non intuitive. Probably time traveler could pull this off, having info about proper explosives, shaped charge and initiators at once. All of which are needed and didnt exist back then.

Altitude advantage. Cliff, tree, castle, all accelerate the arrow as it falls. This can compensate for lower initial speed, especially if other party tries to shoot up.

Higher firing rate. There was some interesting examples of sort-of-automatic crossbow in China. Same tech can be used for a bow too. If you can make lots of cheap arrows, and let your troops waste all of them, you can achieve better military strength just through this. Especislly important as reduction of learning time.

Bow related accessories. Thumb ring, 2 finger glove, bow's counter weight, recursive bow, all could give an advantage in your case.

Going extreme. Bow can be used with your whole body, using legs to hold the bow and arms to hold the tether. This achieves extreme range, much more so than a longbow. It is impractical because how slow it is to reload and because special bow is needed and lackluster precision. But if you manage to build a whole new tactic around this feature, why not.

Diplomacy. You can always make other groups fight each other, so that you dont have to fight. This is what wins the war, and what women could be good at.

Anyway, bowwoman looks will still make todays average guy jelous. And extremely long learning is required. Especially for long range or horseback. Reduced learning time if formation, ambush, accessories are used.

Poisons, metallurgy, explosives, diplomacy, night attacks, likely require societal level change, and are unlikely for a lone adventurer.

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    $\begingroup$ This is an inventive answer, but I suspect you've misunderstood the request. It's seems to me that OP wants us to identify which female video-game character model is the most authentic fit for the 15th-century Polish setting described here. E.g. Lara Croft, or Jill Valentine, or Senua, etc. I think you got downvoted b/c your answer doesn't contain much of that. It doesn't name names, or describe selection criterion, or explore the notion of "authenticity" in the context of the female body in video games. I think that's what OP is looking for. Sorry. :( $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Feb 12 at 21:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Tom direct answer is boring. Its an olimpic champion type of body. And if that is not desired, then my answer. $\endgroup$ Feb 12 at 21:08
  • $\begingroup$ That's alright Tom, I'm taking examples like Lara only because it might be the most direct figure I can refer to when I think about female upper body muscles, it's not mandatory for answers just focusing on just these figures :) (I'll upvote this answer right away), Though I did have extended thoughts on tactics this answer present already, my question did focus on the body size of such female archers and whether the figures presented in different works can fit into such scenario $\endgroup$ Feb 13 at 5:52
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The crossbow was a complicated weapon, and you’d have to explain how these women get and maintain them. But, especially with poisoned bolts, it was considered an especially-suitable weapon for a woman in China and some other places, and they can be used while mounted. (Although I don’t believe the repeating crossbow had made it to Poland by the early 1400s.) The loading mechanism can help someone with low upper-body strength get good pull on the bolt.

The main disadvantage is the long reload time, but a pair of women on a horse could probably hit and run with them.

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The problem we have today when looking at bows is that it's largely driven by myth, fantasy novels and Hollywood nonsense.

In 1400s Poland it would have been fairly unusual for somebody to have a recurve bow as recurve bows generally don't last long in that kind of climate. A noble might be willing to pay for something that wouldn't last, but a poor hunter would never buy something like that for his daughter. There is also absolutely no way that this hunter's daughter would have the knowledge or the expensive tooling to create additional recurve bows for the rest of her merry band. If they're using bows, then they're using straight bows.

We have what I call the "Legolas effect." People have this idea that archers were just running around firing off arrows like machine guns and every arrow would either magically pierce through armor or mysteriously find some point where the was no armor. That's not how it worked in real life.

You are not going to have success using a weak bow and hoping to pick off armored soldiers by hitting their unarmored spots. How do we know this? Because when armies were still using bows, none of them viewed that as a rational strategy.

If you're going to use bows against armored enemies you need something with at least a chance of getting through that armor. Despite what Hollywood movies show, bows had a LOT of trouble against people wearing armor. It's almost like there was a reason people spend huge sums of money for the privilege of carrying around a lot of extra weight.

The problem with heavy bows is that they take a LOT of both energy and upper body strength to use. That is something that a band of rag tag women rebels hiding out in the woods would have trouble with. To highlight the difficulties there, let's look at the English longbowmen that were mentioned here. There are detailed, existing accounts of battles those bowmen fought, and the one that jumps mind here ( and I forget the author ) is one which detailed how effective the archers were after only a single day of marching. Only 1 in 10 of the English long bowmen could fully draw their bow, less than half could draw their bow to 50%. That's from life long archers after only a single day of hard living. These female rebels would be living that life for months or years, they would be half starved and lacking the natural upper body strength advantage those men have. They would struggle even more.

For these women to actually have any chance they couldn't be some small, thin things. The thing elven cliche would not only have been unable to actually use the weapon effectively but likely would have been unable to survive the Polish winter living in exile in the forest. So, this dream of having a band of porn star looking archers probably isn't realistic. You're probably going to need something in line with Brienne of Tarth.

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An addendum to other answers, concentrating on her recruits:

They're orphans and outcasts, some widows. They're a close-knit band of women who have to look after themselves because society won't - at least not without unacceptable terms. They live on the margins of society and already have to hunt to survive. Not the prestigious deer, but small game. So they can already use and make a light bow, and conceal a snare. What they need to learn is how to fight.

If that's not stereotypical enough, they also keep the forest lore, knowing the plants that heal, and the plants that poison.

But for your imagery, they'll be small. Even intermittently poor nutrition will reduce stature, and they'll be skinny and lean. That doesn't mean weak, just no surplus on them. They'll probably carry the scars of old injuries, and other signs of a hard life

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150lbs or as opera translates to 68.04kg isn't anything that requires ''immense'' strength.

I believe any women who has the strength needed to work the land and grow some crops, or to lift up a baby, or to chop down some wood to start a fire and cook a meal.... any woman like that has enough strength to exert 68.04kg of forces by pulling with their scapulae and pushing with the other shoulder.

Longbowmen were not bodybuilders nor strongmen.

While it may seem that visually someone is pulling 68.04kg with one single arm, which can still be impressive anyway but not requiring of elite strength regardless... this isn't even the case since the archer is not doing a one arm row similar to gym exercises, they are actually using both arms to pull the string away from the bow. This makes the act of shooting a longbow viable for any individual who has some basic level of fitness. And most medieval women did have more than a basic level of fitness.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is not reflected in the historical record. Archeologists can identify British longbowmen based on asymmetrical development/deformities of their back and arms from the amount of training required to shoot those bows. There was a reason that only the British fielded longbows. To do so they banned other sports and made archery practice mandatory on Sundays. Speaking as someone who has shot a bow it's an entirely different set of muscles than those used in everyday tasks. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Feb 15 at 22:16
  • $\begingroup$ @sphennings archeologists can also know how much spinach you ate in your life due to the deformities caused on the teeth by chewing on spincah, they might also know how much did you masturbate in your lifetime or which one was your dominant leg when you took walks with your dog. Muscles adapt even for easy tasks. Women are indeed weaker than men but they aren't made of butter, 68kg of drawforce isn't something that requires significant strength. $\endgroup$
    – Drien RPG
    Feb 15 at 22:18
  • $\begingroup$ @sphennings even tasks like writing on a computer will deform slowly your bones and muscles... this doesn't mean you need 10 years of intense gym training to be a programmer $\endgroup$
    – Drien RPG
    Feb 15 at 22:22
  • $\begingroup$ For reference you need to be reasonably fit to shoot a 50lb bow with any skill. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Feb 15 at 22:24
  • $\begingroup$ @sphennings I have a 99lbs bow on my wall, gifted from grampa... I was able to string it and shoot it since I was 13 years old, very skinny and very weak. Did I have good aim? No.... But I was able to shoot without getting too tired. $\endgroup$
    – Drien RPG
    Feb 15 at 22:26

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