It’s the weapon of choice for Artemis and Apollo, Robin Hood and the elves of Middle Earth.
And it has decided battles by felling peasants, knights and kings alike.
Whether in the hands of fictional heroes, Greek gods and goddesses or medieval warriors, the bow and arrow has made its mark on history and legend.
So the archers of today, whether enjoying target practice at their local club or getting ready for the Olympics, are following a grand if grisly tradition.
‘The bow and arrow really shaped man’s history because it allowed him to hunt quickly and devote more time to things other than survival,’ says Daniel Hawley, who has been competing and teaching the sport for more than 20 years and is also fascinated by the history.
These days archery is one of the most popular sports around, with many clubs oversubscribed and keeping waiting lists.
Daniel, 41, is one of the longest-standing members of Fort Purbrook Company of Bowmen, who practice at the fort on Portsdown Hill.
Also based there are Havant and Hayling Bowmen and Purbrook Bowmen Display Team, who give historical costumed displays.
Daniel says his club has a waiting list but is taking names for a beginners’ course in September.
He agrees that the consistent popularity of the sport has something to do with the romance and drama of archery in fiction and history.
From Robin Hood to eagle-eyed Katniss Everdeen in recent movie The Hunger Games, some of our favourite heroes and heroines have set nerves and hearts aquiver with their bow and arrow prowess.
‘There is usually more interest when there’s a Robin Hood series. And the other one is the Lord of the Rings,’ says Daniel. ‘But actually it’s always popular, it’s pretty consistent.’
So the Middle Earth inhabitants of J R R Tolkien’s classic have had some inspiration.
But Daniel, who lives in Portsmouth, believes one of the main reasons for archery’s popularity is its accessibility.
‘It appeals to a wide range of people. We have members from six to 86. And I should also explain that despite our name, we don’t exclude women,’ he says.
The sport is relatively cheap. The club supplies bows and arrows for beginners. And although equipment can cost up to £2,000, it’s possible to get the whole kit for around £350.
For Daniel, the appeal of archery is the social side of the sport.
‘I’m one of the more competitive archers in the club. So I travel around a lot and meet people all over the country with similar interests. For me that’s a really important part of this.’
Club members of varying experience certainly seem to be having a fun evening of practice in a small field deep in the walls of the Victorian hill fort.
Wandering around with modern versions of traditional arrow-holder the quiver at their sides, they’re shooting targets with remarkable precision from impressive distances.
With intense focus 16-year-old Alex Joseph sets a circle the size of a 10p piece in his sights and thwack! slams the arrow into its target.
He’s at 50 metres and although it’s taken a few attempts, it’s an impressive shot as the normal distance to that particular target board is 20 metres.
‘Well we like to have a bit of fun and challenge ourselves,’ says 41-year-old Duncan Elm, as they use binoculars to see if they’ve hit the targets.
Duncan, from Portchester, is a former national champion and Alex is one of the club’s rising stars.
Among the club’s many other competition successes is Daniel, who is three times British Archery Champion with the longbow and has broken records with his scores.
There are two main types of tournament – target archery and field archery, which is a series of targets around a course.
The Olympic hopefuls will be competing in target archery and, although the Koreans are the sport’s world leaders, Daniel is hopeful of a GB medal. Big names to look out for at the Olympics are Alison Williamson, Naomi Folkard, Alan Wills, Larry Godfrey and Simon Terry.
For those at the highest levels, success requires pinpoint precision and nerves of steel.
At the other end of the scale is grass roots level archery where beginners are just finding their bow fingers and just about anyone can have a good time.
You don’t even need to have great eyesight. ‘We have someone who wears glasses and he’s actually better when he takes them off, because all he can see is the blur of the target and that helps him focus,’ says Daniel.
Whether experienced or new to the sport, members of the Purbrook club seem to agree on one thing.
‘It’s really therapeutic after a day at work, it helps you get a bit of the stress out,’ laughs Emma Hicks, 23, from Portsmouth.
The fort hosts one of the most popular competitions in the country for field archery. This gives participants the opportunity to aim for targets placed around the building and even shoot from the ramparts.
It’s an appealing setting, says Daniel, even if the fort was built well after the period of bow and arrow warfare. Of course a sense of the past is the other most important aspect of archery.
Daniel is also a member of the display team who, poised with longbows and dressed in medieval garb, mimic the archers of the Hundred Years War.
That is without being fired at of course – some things in bow and arrow battle have changed.
HISTORY OF ARCHERY
The bow and arrow became a hunting tool thousands of years ago and until the 16th century was the most feared weapon of warfare.
So it’s not surprising that its use echoes on the sports fields and in the language and culture of today.
Some of the phrases we still use have their origin in archery.
‘Fast and loose’ refers to the safety cry ‘fast’ and the term for firing the arrows ‘loose’, which are still used. If you loose your arrows after someone has cried ‘fast’, perhaps because someone is within range, you’re acting dangerously.
‘Highly strung’ refers to a string that is too short for the bow and will snap more easily.
The bow and arrow has been the main weapon in some of the most important battles of history including Crecy in 1346 and Agincourt in 1415.
By the 1500s firearms were being used, although Henry VIII kept archers in his army.
HOW TO HAVE A GO
Archery instructor Daniel Hawley tells me to point at him.
Resisting the urge to say ‘you’re fired’ in a gruff Essex accent, I realise this is a serious matter.
It’s my first archery lesson and he’s assessing my dominant eye.
It seems I’m already at a disadvantage. I’m left eye dominant but right-handed which means I’ll either have to learn to pull the string with my left hand or keep my left eye closed while I aim.
Apparently Alex Joseph had the same problem but has become one of the club’s rising stars so there’s hope for me yet.
Or so I think before I’ve lifted the bow, fired several arrows and scored a total of er, one. Just to clarify that’s the score you get when you hit the outer white at the very edge of an archery target.
The French wouldn’t exactly have been quaking in their boots if I’d been their foe at Agincourt.
But eventually I edge towards technique. The stretch in archery is pretty wide and you must keep your string hand under your chin. The last arrow I loose hits the blue. A six and I’m happy – or less humiliated.
If you would like to find out more about archery, the Purbrook club will be at an open day at Peter Ashley Activity Centre, Fort Purbrook tomorrow, from 11am to 4pm. It’s £4 for adults and free for under 16s. For information on archery courses call the centre on (023) 9232 1223.