Horseback Archery as a Martial Art

This post is basically my take on a debate that pops up now and again on Facebook.  In a nutshell, the proposition put forward (which I oppose) is that in order to consider horseback archery to be a martial art or a martial sport, one must be using a bow of lethal power, defined as one having a draw weight of 40lbs or over.  This proposition is put forward by my good friend Trey Schlichting of A Company in Texas.  Before I set about his argument like hounds on a stag, I shall say for the avoidance of doubt that Trey and I are friends who agree pretty much entirely on the importance of good archery knowledge and technique and I have the greatest respect for him as a competitor, coach and friend.  We simply disagree pretty profoundly on some points, including this one.

In this particular debate I can be impartial.  I do not consider myself to be a martial artist.  Horseback archery, as I practise it, is a sport rather than a martial art.  In addition, I do shoot 40lb.  My current bow is 36lb because it is a prototype that I have on loan until mine in ready.  My new one will draw 40lb, just like my old Grozer.  My status as martial artist is therefore unaffected by this debate.  I argue from a point of view of love of language, as well as my philosophy of how the sport should be.

Without further ado, therefore, let me dissect the argument first.  It can be divided into two parts: a. in order to be called “martial”, the bow must be of lethal power; and b. that means at least 40lbs.  I’m going to deal with b first.


Lethal Power = 40lb Draw Weight

To be fair to Trey, he accepts that this is really a measure of convenience.  Trey knows without having to read earlier posts in this blog that draw weight is just one of many features that determine the power of a bow.  In case the current readership is too lazy to read my previous articles or too forgetful to remember them, here is a quick recap.

The killing power of an arrow is determined by its kinetic energy (and the sharpness of the head, the point of impact etc).  The kinetic energy (KE) is 1/2mv2 and is therefore determined by the arrow’s mass and its velocity.  Both of these things (which for a given bow are interrelated) therefore affect whether a bow has killing power.  For starters, any given bow may or may not have lethal power depending on which arrows you use.  

Arrow velocity is determined by the stored energy in a bow and the ability of the bow to transfer that energy to the arrow.  Draw weight is a factor in the first and has nothing to do with the second.  All else being equal, a 40lb bow will be faster than a 35lb bow.  But things are rarely equal.  The design of the bow: its length, reflex, Perry reflex and recurve all affect the amount of energy stored in the bow.  So does draw length, about which more in a moment.

Then you have the transfer of the energy to the arrow.  Arrow mass, the fit of the nock, the release, the string material, mass and construction, the bow mass and placement of that mass, the brace height and the draw length all affect the transfer of energy to the arrow.  

What all of this means is that it is very easy to imagine a 40lb bow that has nothing like enough power to kill a person and a 30lb bow that does.  My 36lb Border Ghillie Dhu prototype sends an arrow with inconceivably more kinetic energy than my 50lb generic static recurve from eBay.  The examples are endless: I personally would back a bow of 35lbs@33″ drawn to that length against a bow of 40lbs@28″ drawn only that far, even if they were otherwise identical.  Draw length doesn’t just increase draw weight, it has an effect all of its own.  I shall return to draw length a little later.

What we see, therefore, is that 40lb is a huge oversimplification when considering whether a bow has lethal force.  I have to some extent been attacking a straw man here because Trey accepts that it is not a perfect way of measuring it.  He uses it nonetheless, and when a straw man is actively deployed against you there is no shame in peppering it with arrows (using any bow you choose).

Trey’s reasons for using this measure are (taken from Facebook): “The force needed to kill a man is similar to that needed to kill a pig, deer or bear. Traditionally martial (inclined or disposed to war; warlike) bows were much heavier than those used to hunt with. My statement and belief is that if you want to call your archery “Martial” it needs to start with a bow that is at “least” deemed adequate and lethal. At a very minimum it should be deemed good enough, or heavy enough to hunt medium to large game. I understand that modern high performance bows cast an arrow at incredible speeds and a 20 pound Saluki or Border bow may indeed match the performance of a 40 pound Grozer. However fast your bow is, when looking for a bench mark I merely chose a bow weight that has been a universal standard for both North and South America for my lifetime.”

I shan’t quibble about the legalities of it, although a quick internet check suggests that more than half of the US states have a requirement less than 40lbs (about 20 of them) or else phrase the requirement in terms of KE or how far it can shoot (either of which is a more sensible measure of lethal force).  Let us accept for the sake of argument that 40lb is the legal limit for hunting.  The proposal, therefore, is to define “martial” according to the prevailing laws in on part of the world over the last few decades (not that Trey is a day over 21, you understand!).  40lb draw weight is, I suggest, an entirely arbitrary measure by which to define such a term.  If you are going to define “martial” in terms of lethal force then a better way would be to measure the KE.  Failing that, the ability to shoot a given mass arrow at a given velocity or over a given distance would do.  Simply using draw weight is insufficient and, given the huge variation in quality of horsebow out there, probably gives a wrong reading as often as it gives a correct one.


Is Lethal Force Necessary for a Martial Art?

This is the deeper question behind this debate.  Is the term “martial” really to be determined according to the power of the bow (however measured)?  I do not believe that it should be.  “Martial art” is a perfectly satisfactory phrase with its own agreed meaning.  At one point in the Facebook debate Trey urged me not to paint stripes on a donkey and call it a zebra (suggesting that by referring to the use of a non-lethal bow as a martial art I was calling it something it is not).  My reply is to suggest that it is just as wrong to say that a zebra is only a zebra if the stripes conform precisely to the pattern and width that you want.  If it meets the standard definition of zebra then a zebra it is, whether you like it or not.  You can’t just add to the definition.

Let us start with the basics.  “Martial art” is a phrase that appears in most dictionaries.  Most definitions are phrased more or less like the Concise OED: “various sports or skills, mainly of Japanese origin, which originated as forms of self defence or attack, such as judo, karate and kendo”.  Newer versions tend not to stress Japan, having woken up to the contributions of places like China and Korea.  Note the lack of any reference to lethal force.  No dictionary that I have found includes that as a requirement (or even mentions it).  The important word, I suggest, is “originated”.

Many martial arts do not involve lethal force.  Indeed many have had it quite deliberately removed.  Kendo involves using swords that weigh less than half what a proper samurai sword would weigh.  Aikido and judo both involve grappling and locks rather than blows and are not intended to be lethal.  Aikido is explicit about the fact that one should protect the assailant as well as oneself.

The proposed definition of “martial” as requiring the use of lethal force therefore flies in the face of the common definition of martial art.  A martial art is a system of skills, often reduced to a sporting format, that originated as a form of combat.  Horseback archery fulfils this definition whether you use a lethal bow or not.

Technique and Spirituality

Let’s say that we are not happy with the dictionary definition.  Let’s try to refine it.  We should agree that in refining the definition we should not exclude things that are undeniably martial arts.  As we have seen, requiring lethal force instantly excludes such established martial arts as aikido and kendo (as well as a lot of horseback archers!).  If we are to add to the definition then we should ensure that our addition is informative without being exclusive of things that ought not to be excluded.

It is of note that many, probably most, martial arts are practised for their spiritual side (essentially as a kind of meditation) and/or for fitness benefits.  Undeniably many people take it up for self-defence but in my experience few people really dedicate themselves to a martial art for long periods of time purely to be able to defend themselves.  This spiritual side is something that we could add to the definition (it is in some dictionaries already).

Most martial arts emphasise correct and precise technique above all.  This aspect is notably missing from horseback archery, especially as practised outside of the Far East and schools such as Kassai and Nemethy, where lines of students shooting together in time to set techniques is a common sight.  Compare the slow, precise movements involved in kyudo with the much freer, more personalised techniques you see at MA3, BHAA or in other Western associations.  If one were to try to refine the definition of martial art beyond what appears in the dictionary then this sense of ritual, of doing the thing with the proper form, uniform among many competitors, seems to me much more in keeping with most martial arts.  This (together with the spirituality side) is why I personally do not consider my sport to be a martial art.

Let us consider correct technique for a moment, and return to draw length.  We have said that a long draw length increases the KE of the arrow.  This is not new knowledge.  The English archers of the Hundred Years’ War knew it and this is why they shot “in the bow”, drawing past the ear to ensure maximum power.  The Japanese knew it and that is why kyduo and yabusame require a draw back past the ear.  The Mongols knew it:  they draw to the ear.  The Sassanid Persians drew to the ear or further.  So did the Parthians and the Assyrians.  Whether using thumb or fingers; whether their bows were 50″ or 80″ long; straight of recurved; self bow or composite; all these peoples drew the bow back to the ear or further.  

Let me therefore, with tongue only partly in cheek, suggest a new definition of “martial art” for the purposes of horseback archery: it is not a martial art unless you are drawing back to the ear or further.  I might make an exception for those using bows of a design that was never intended to be drawn that far (basically short, straight, non-composite bows) but anybody shooting a bow that is modelled on an Eastern composite bow is not doing a martial art unless they pull it to the ear.  This satisfies the requirement of correct technique, the requirement of military origins and the requirement of lethality, since no self-respecting warrior would draw to the mouth or cheek to kill a man when he can get so much more power by coming all the way back.  This criterion seems to me to be more valid in all respects than the oversimplified and anomolous requirement of a 40lb draw weight.



Trey has said, when I criticised his initial post, that ” I do not give a hoot what other people shoot”.  That is admirable.  He does, however, care if people refer to what they do as a martial art if they don’t draw at least 40lb.  That is not admirable.  The 40lb criterion is arbitrary and nonsensical.  In addition, the requirement of lethal force as part of the definition of martial art flies in the face of the existing use of the phrase in everyday language and would instantly exclude from that category several arts that are universally accepted as being martial arts.  

There may well be a distinction to be made between those shooting heavy bows and those shooting lighter ones.  Maybe we should all be using lethal bows and/or a minimum draw weight.  That distinction is not between martial art and sport.  The status of martial art does not depend on the use of lethal force by any acknowledged definition of that phrase.  


6 thoughts on “Horseback Archery as a Martial Art

  1. Dan, I enjoyed your blog post. I especially enjoyed the idea that Martial maybe better defined by draw length than draw weight. When Scythian archers appeared on the scene reiving the Ionian Greek farmers, the bows they adapted to horseback were short to be handy (20 to 24 inches). It is not until Mid Bronze Age the bows for mounted warriors changed from a 20 to 24 inch draw to 30 to 32 inch. Like you said earlier, draw length trumps draw weight for power transfer. It is the introduction of armor that change the length of draw for war forever. I find it interesting in North America the average draw length was 26 to 28 inches until 1700 when the Pueblo Tribes of New Mexico defeated the Spanish and forced then to leave on foot. Between that time and 1800 horses spread across the continent and the bow that was adapted for horseback universally had a draw length of 20 to 24 inches just like that of the earlier Scythians. I believe this is because the Natives of North America never had to punch through plate or mail armor. They no doubt did take their bows to war and none of those were as weak as 40 pounds. We will just not agree on draw weight as a bench mark. I understand your argument and respect it. I Believe Martial to mean warlike, and the Martial Arts to be the arts of War. I do not think a Tea ceremony to be martial art either but no doubt some do. Thanks for the lively discussion.
    PS. I love that Photo of your son. His look of focused pleasure brings me joy.

    • I think what we come down to, therefore, is that Trey wishes “martial art” to have a meaning different from that in common usage, and to exclude “tea ceremonies”. Personally, I consider it highly disrespectful to refer to traditional martial arts in that way just because you don’t approve of the definition of the phrase, but I am sure that Trey does not, since he, unlike certain others who have occasionally chipped into this debate on Facebook, is generally unfailingly respectful and polite. This, together with his willingness to debate his views in a full and civilised fashion, is part of why he is so well liked and respected around the world

  2. From Claire:
    To my mind “martial” bring connotations of a technique originating in war or fighting. My preferred term for horseback archery and tentpegging is “martial sport” showing the origins of these sports but nevertheless accepting that now the majority of participants treat them as a sport, with the focus being scoring and using the best equipment available to that end (ie lighter carbon fibre lances, sophisticated modern bows with carbon arrows)
    My gut feeling for what a “martial art” is, is one where the technique has become further detached; where perfect repetition and the spiritual link with the horse, the bow and the arrow take precedence over the scoring, the travelling to compete and the drinking 😉 For me, draw weight doesn’t come into the argument at all. But in my head the “art” bit of “martial art” is as Dan says something that I could perceive in the Kassai or Nemethy schools, or the study of Yabusame, but hard though I train at home, I am far from considering myself spiritual or perfectly focussed, or my practice an “art”.

  3. This is silly. Whether an art is a martial art or not has nothing to do with lethality. I can kill your friend with a 10# bow (shot to the eye or just a little poison on the point). A martial art is an art useful in warfare, period. Consequently, karate is a martial art as is archery (all forms).
    The 40# rule is the common rule used as a standard for bowhunters. But a 40# compound bow and a 40# PVC pipe bow possess vastly different amounts of energy at full draw. The 40# “limit” is just to provide some reasonable expectation that the bowhunter can handle a grown up bow with a reasonable expectation of a “clean kill.”
    So, both parts of his assertion are silly and not really worthy of consideration.
    Your contention that horseback archery is a sport, is irrelevant. Whether you are doing what you do to prepare to participate in wars or just for fun, do not determine whether it is a martial art or not. Horseback archery is a martial art because it has been used in war (see Mongols, Parthians, etc.).

    • Thanks for the input! I’m not sure I’d go quite as far as you do, although my view is far closer to yours than it is to Trey’s. Would you say that fencing and target archery are both martial arts? I don’t have a firm view but having done both I don’t think of them as such.

      Lacrosse is an interesting example. It was used by the Native Americans as a form of training for war (though not as warfare itself). Could it validly be described as a martial art?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s