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Another of the “Lost Secrets” school of stories:

The “Ulfberht” swords:

Ignoring the guy they have chopping away in the opener (his technique is terrible, no way I’d let him play with any of my swords), there is a lot of blather in this, right down to saying the guy they found to make the sword is, “one of the few people on the planet who has the skills to unravel the mystery of how the Ulfbehrt was made”.  It’s bullshit. Lots of people know how it was made.  They talk to several.

The question isn’t how it was done.  I can tell you the basics.  The question is where it was done, how the steel made it to Scandanavia, why it stopped coming, etc.  That the smith they got to take part is good is obvious, but there are a lot of people who could do what he did: sure, in relation to some 6 billion people on the planet, there are only minuscule number who can do it, probably between 20-100,000.  I have a knife worked by a guy in Ukraine which, were you to give him the same sort of steel, I’ll wager he could work up as well (into a knife, I doubt he has a market for swords, and so hasn’t bothered to learn the specifics).

If you look at the documentary, the things they make such a big deal of: how to make steel, mumbo-jumbo about, “the bones of one’s ancestors, burnt to char and used to turn iron to steel…” is rubbish.  The steel came from elsewhere (perhaps from the same area the swordsmiths of Damascus were getting theirs) and when the supply dried up, the blades stopped being that good.

There is no mystical magical “Steel of Ulfberht”, there is just steel, and it got made into a style of (really solid) sword.

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Imma gonna rant some

And it’s likely to be a bit disjointed.


You may have seen the video of the Danish archer who is purported to have “rediscovered” the “lost art” of combat Archery. It’s hogwash. I think I first saw it back in 2013 (because I am the sort of guy who watches such things). I filed it under, “overblown” and forgot about it. Then, last week sometime, a friend asked about it. I dismissed it as being overly simplistic, and moved on.

Then it started popping up everywhere and I started drafting a rant. Then Elizabeth Bear posted her beefs with it, and so I am spurred to actually put pen to paper.

First… it’ s really reductionist. It’s argued that gunpowder so eclipsed archery that it lay fallow for, “hundreds of years” before being reinvented as a sport, and that the “real combat techniques” were lost. Nope. Archery lost out on the battlefield, but in the first case, not so recently as all that (with people still arguing for its merits in European warfare as little as 250 years ago). In the Americas there was still a martial culture using bows and arrows not much more than 100 years ago.

Second, his technique is inadequate to combat: full stop. I’ve been using weapons all my life. I’ve been playing with bows and arrows for… call it 35 years. I’ve used a fair number of types of bows and (because I am that sort of guy) read up on a lot of techniques. Because (in part) I am also something of a nut for military history (as well as having been a career soldier) I’ve read/studied a lot about the actual application of bows, and how they worked.

He’s fast, and (apparently) pretty accurate, but his arrows won’t do squat in a combat environment. As he demonstrates his technique, they aren’t going to be very good at bringing down game either. Why? He short pulls (look at the video, right around the 0:55 mark, he’s not drawing the bow more than a third of its; short, length.

That’s fine for knocking over a lightweight cutout, and it will damage an unprotected person, but it’s not going to be more than a nuisance against someone wearing armor, even so little as what is dismissively scorned as, “quilted”

He argues that speed is the big deal. He’s wrong. It would be if the archer were in a duel, and had to be able to deal with more than one opponent before those opponents were able to engage in direct offense, but that has never been the way archers were used. Archers have always been used en masse, to either deny parts of the field to the foe, or to harass them before the melee phase of the battle (Crecy, Poitier and Agincourt were outliers).

He conflates things to the point of absurdity: seriously… he’s taking prehistoric images from cave walls, to Egyptian tomb paintings, Japanese woodcuts, Assyrian stele carvings, the Bayeux Tapestry, ancient Greek cartoons, Medieval illumination, coinage, and treats them as 1: dispositive, and 2: all showing pretty much the same thing.

Then he argues the things he does is what they show.†

Which they don’t. If you look at the detailed pictures, the Egyptian Pharoah, the woodcuts, the stele carving, all the archers are taking a full draw. As to the “they put the shaft on the outside of the bow”, there is no way to tell. Some of the images aren’t clear enough to tell what the artists thought the subjects were doing. Which is an important point, those pictures weren’t made by the archers, but by artists. Artists can be ignorant of details. Sometimes they change things because it looks better that way.

But those full draws, which he seems to avoid, can be fast. In my teens I spent a lot of time doing archery (and rifle). I had a 35lb fiberglass recurve. I probably shot about 100 arrows at a time, three-four times a week (and the same for the rifle, air-rifles are really cost effective ways to gain/maintain skills, but I digress). M y targets were bankers boxes, about 50 yards away. I’d guess a practice session took about an hour, to an hour and a half. What I was trying to do was keep the arrows bunched. I wanted to have a forest of shafts, about 18” in dia. I started with about 24 arrows. When enough of them got dinged past being useful I’d go and get some more. So I’d have between 18-36 functional shafts at a time. I used a hip quiver, and the “stick ‘em in the dirt method (referenced in accounts of Poitier, Crecy, and Agincourt)

So I’d shoot through my supply, Feel what caused the outliers. walk up the hill, collect them, and do it again. Three or four times in an an hour, using the inside rest style of shooting.

I was working to establish rhythm.

I’m not sure he could get the accuracy I did either. (the one example of distance he shows is 70m, and he’s able to hit a cubical target, about 1.5 meters wide. It would be adequate for hunting… if he was close, and using some sort of point capable of causing traumatic damage, but for war… nope, not the way he talks about archery as some sort of super tool.

War bows (of all their stripes) were brutes. They had draw weights of 50-100 lbs (the lighter draw were shorter bows, fired from horseback, more on that in a bit). They had that heavy a pull because they needed to do two things… punch through armor, and carry a long way. Arrows are pretty good at punching into things, if they are heavy (E=1/2mv^2) but they need the initial V if they are going to be more than a massive irritant§. Reports from the 16th century were that Turkish archers could punch through the curaisses of the Hapsburg cavalry. Turkish accounts say that archers of foot had to be able to fire arrows to a distance of 500-600 meters.

The declaration of the student’s proficiency was possible only when he could shoot a pishrev arrow to 900 gez (594 m) or an azmayish arrow to 800 gez (528 m). This particular shot must have been witnessed by a minimum of 4 persons, two being at the shooting spot and two at the spot the arrow landed. After then the archer was recorded to the Tekke’s Registration Book and accepted to be proficient. One of these books remains until today.

But Lars (or his amanuensis) doesn’t actually cite his sources (and when he does, it’s problematic, either images (some of which contradict his thesis) or mythical figures having propagandistic dialogues.

Archery, as with all human endeavor is a creation of culture, and need. It has never been (and never will be) homogenous.

Archers shooting from horseback tended to have lighter bows (in the 50 lb range: English longbows had a pull somewhere between 75-110 lbs. Modern hunting bows are in the 45-65 lbs rangeº). They may have been shorter (as with the bows of the Huns, Mongols, Turks) or not (as with the bows of the samurai). What they had in common was horses.

The Roman complained of the Parthians, who wouldn’t stand still and fight but rather harassed the marching columns, riding up; firing at them, riding away, all before the Romans could form up and engage.

He blathers about how his archery is superior to all the “sport” archers with their degenerate methods. He confuses differences of technique with deviation from purity, and he pretends the way he likes to shoot is the one and only TRUE WAY OF THE BOW.

It’s nonsense. Take his, “rediscovered” idea of, “two-handed drawing”. First all archers use two hands to draw the bow. I think what he means is a style of draw where the bow hand and the string separate in a somewhat equal manner. This used to be called, “The English Draw”. It’s how we think the archers at Agincourt did it. It’s also faster when one has arrows one’s arrows stuck in the ground (as reports say the English were fond of doing).

Mongols, and Turkish, archers had a “push” style, where they set the string on their chest, and stretched out the bow hand. This was faster for use on horseback from a hip quiver; it also had the advantage of keeping the body in a more contained position when doing the sorts of twisting, turning, horsemanship those cultures were fond of.

The Samurai were mounted archers before they were famous for swordplay, but they liked to ride in straight lines, across the face of units drawn up to fight. They also had bows which were large for their power (because Japan didn’t have good woods, for self bows, nor the understanding of glues, sinew and horn needed for the compact recurves common to the steppes). They stood in flat stirrups, and pulled the bow back.

And (to go back to his technique) he’s got a light weight on his bow… I’m guessing not more than 40 lbs, and probably more on the order of 30-35. He’s not pulling all the way back, so he’s got a lot less than that (which is how he can catch an arrow… the nonsense about “splitting one on a blade… just that. Arrows are spinning, they will deflect off before they can split.  Writers in the past talked a lot of rubbish, he’s just perpetuating it.). Can a 35 lb bow pierce mail? Yeah… if the mail is cheap, and the point is thin. That’s a bit part of the drive for plate armor… to defeat arrows (and it did. Those flutes in “Maximillian” armor… more than just decoration, projectiles have their best penetration at right angles, be it arrows or the main gun on a tank).

I could go on (a lot) about the technical flaws in his arguments (and others have). What really bothers me is the question of how it came to be that this took off.

Part of it is simple ignorance. Most people have not made a lifetime study of things like this. This video paints a coherent (too coherent) picture of the “forgotten past”, and has a lot of flashy stuff, none of which is more than cursorily explained (really… WTF is the thing with the bow at the table?… The time he spends reaching back to grab the bow [and arrows lying loose behind him, is less than the time it took someone to stab Kit Marlowe in the eye. Yes, one can fire that close, but there is a reason for the weapon known as an “archer’s sword”)

But a lot of it, perhaps most, is the idea that we missing some secret knowledge, that there are mysteries which have been lost (and some have e.g. the close fit of the massive drystone construction of the Mayans, or the amazing durability of Roman concrete) and that we can “rediscover” them. This is really common with weapons.

Which is what really pisses me off about this clip. Not the specifics about archery, it’s the idea that we are so much less smart than the people of the past, and that the past had “ONE BEST WAY”, which has been lost until now.

It’s the problem of, “The Katana is Better” I get a lot of this in my day job, where one of the things I do is sell cutlery. Oh My God. The blather I hear about Japanese steel; and the myths of how special it is, and how one must study for years with a master before one can sharpen a knife made in Japan… because the steel is so special, and the angle is so precise. It ain’t so. Knives are knives, and sharpening is, as any other skill, a question of application, and practice. I’ve been sharpening things for 30+ years. If you want me to sharpen it, I can (and probably have). It’s not because I spent years in a mountain cave fetching ice cold water from a stream to boil for my master’s bath… nope. It’s because I’ve spent a lot of time dragging pieces of metal on rocks.

Movies (and television… Kung Fu, anyone?) make this worse. They take short cuts. Luke goes to visit Yoda, and Boom! in twenty minutes we see him listen to a lot of half-baked aphorisms, and do some soul-searching and off he goes… a Jedi. Except that he isn’t, because he didn’t stay long enough to have The Master, show him all he needed to know. Andersen actually makes reference to this when he compares himself to Legolas, and with all the jumping and bouncing and spinning and stuff.  Thats dramatics.  Archers were in groups.  They didn’t need to do that.  Most of them just couldn’t (because they were inside a large formation).  As someone who has been in the Army… running and jumping and the like is exhausting.  Add the adrenaline of people tying to kill you, and the accuracy needed to avoid getting dead… goes down the drain.

Even films which try to show that it’s about work, and practice, and diligence (e.g. The Karate Kid, with the tedium of muscle memory shown in the Wax On/Wax Off, and Paint The Fence) suffer from the limits of time. So we have the trope of it being about learning The Secret. That’s what Lars Andersen is selling, “the secret”. He’s ignoring history (if archery was all that he says it is in the two videos I’ve seen, why didn’t it displace swords, and pikes, and how is it that the pathetic firearms of the 1450 managed to displace it so quickly?… oh right, it took years to get good enough for it to be a combat weapon of limited utility). Our ancestors weren’t stupid. If Archery was so powerful as to be the ultimate weapon… they’d have given it pride of place on the battlefield.

Why didn’t Europe have horse archers? Because they couldn’t compete with mounted knights. You can’t really wear heavy mail while managing a horse and handling a bow. The guys who were wearing heavy mail (and later plate) would ride up and fetch you a serious knock with a sword, mace, or spear.

A solid shield wall meant that most arrows were nuisance. If there were spears to chuck , life was gonna suck for the people who were having them rain down on them… while guys they couldn’t do much do were marching up to hack at them with swords.

So the idea that someone, somewhere, was keeping The Secret of ancient archery, and it was “lost” (except that it wasn’t, anyone who wants to look around the internet can find the things Andersen found, and the things I found; and a lot more besides), and now it’s been found is selling something.

What Andersen is selling is Andersen.


†: I don’t know how much of the drivel in the narration is his argument, or the producer of the video trying to sex it up… at root it doesn’t matter, since the video, as seen, is what people are talking about.

‡: Quilted armor was layers of wool, and wool felt. It wasn’t great against arrows, but much more effective against swords than people give it credit for. Being light it also made it easier to run away if the enemy was encumbered with armor.

§: Don’t underestimate the irritant value of arrows. Reports are that cuts, and piercings get ignored (by accident, or design) in ways that having an arrow stick out of one don’t. This is one of the reasons most military arrowheads, even bodkin points, had a protrusion of some sort. It’s also why, the story goes, the Mongols wore undershirts of raw silk… because it let them extract even barbed arrows. That it might also function as a self-administering bandage was a secondary feature.

¶ There are at least two videos of showcasing his arguments, one discusses ambidexterity, the other is more vague, and seems to be talking about the method of draw, not the choice of bow hand.

° Most modern shooters used a “compound” bow, this is a complex arrangement of pulleys, and leverage to cause “fall-off”. The longer the draw, the more energy the archer has to put into pulling the string back, then one has to hold that to the moment of release. When used en masse, the time of holding was minimal, when making sure one is spot on the target it may be a bit longer. The resting energy of a compound bow can be as much as ½ the resting energy of a non-“compound” one. I remember the first time I pulled one (about 40 lbs). I got to the point of “fall off” and thought I’d broken it, so dramatic was the decrease in pressure on my fingers.

Endnote: Some of the comments at antipope are about how hard it is to make a bow… long list of materials and skills. Not so much, at least not for potting small game. I’ve done it. A simple self bow, draw weight of about 15 lbs. The tricky part stabilsing the arrow. I used twine (which is pretty easy to make). Yeah, it cuts range, a lot, but it works, and if I wanted to get a rabbit/squirrel, it’s just fine. Has the advantage of “drag-trapping” a wounded animal.