The Pixar movie Brave is a fun movie with some great archery scenes inspired by real archery technique and actual historical archery equipment. So this is a look back at the history of target archery, and archery targets, to see where the inspiration for some of the details in the movie came from.
Here is the archery contest from Brave:
In the contest they use cloth archery target faces with concentric circular rings fastened to coiled straw matts on portable easels.
That is a real type of archery target, common from the 1700’s up until a few decades ago.
Coiled straw matts are still used by competitive archers in some areas, inducing France, and by historical recreationists.
The straw matts are made by tying straw into long, tightly compacted bundles about 4 inches thick, and sewing them into spiral coils. The authors of The Flat Bow, 1936, give instructions:
Having finished all his equipment, the archer will want something to shoot at. Regular straw targets may be purchased from dealers in archery equipment. They are made of rye or wheat straws about 4 in. thick and 4 ft. in diameter. They can be made at home if one has the necessary rye or wheat straw, marsh hay, or dried bullrushes. Such a straw target is made in much the same manner as that followed in making a grass table mat. The coils are made 4 in. thick, and they must be wrapped as tightly as possible with heavy cord.
Keep adding material as you go along to keep the coil uniform, and until the length is sufficient to make the 4-ft. circle. This may mean 40 or more feet of 4-in. coil. Then roll it into a tight spiral, using a heavy upholsterer’s needle to sew the adjacent coils together as the spiral is formed. Then cover the whole target with burlap sewed around the edge.
Making your own coiled straw matt is a lot of very hard manual labor, and historical archery manuals often suggest that even if archers like making their archery gear, straw matts are something archers were better off buying from a manufacturer. In the 1800’s the matts were made by hand. Today, the matts are made with the aid of machines, such as these used at Lyon Archerie / Viking Ciblerie.
Note the round straw bale feeding the machinery in the photo at the right, and the wound, continuous bundle of straw feeding the target coiling machine in the photo on the left.
Before the portable straw matts were invented, large mounds of dirt, called butts, were often used. One common type was around 7 high, flat in front, and sloped like a wedge in back.
Butts like these were common in England in the 1300-1400s when common folk were required to practice at archery to insure that there were plenty of trained longbowmen to be soldiers. The earthen butts began to fall out of favor in the early 1800s, according to The Archer’s Guide, 1833.
Now what about the target face with the concentric rings? We don’t know when they were invented. Historically, archers shot at a mark on the butt and were scored in various ways, such as on whether you hit the butt, the mark or by seeing who’s arrows came closest to the mark.
Targets with concentric rings may date back to 1400s. We know they existed in the mid 1700s, and that by 1781 some archery contests were scored based on numeric values assigned to each ring, but were also judged on the number of hits to the target overall rather than the rings, a practice which continued through the 1800’s. Even today, many archery contests still record the total number of hits in addition to the ring-based numerical score.
Archery target faces were not standardized. There were no national standards. People and groups made up their own targets by their own designs. In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s one high society archery club, the Toxophilites, influenced what would later become the iconic archery target that we all recognize today, by setting standard distances and scoring (9,7,5,3,1 from the gold spot out) on a target design then in use. The target face they adopted had a gold leaf or metallic gold paint center spot, a red ring, a white ring, a black ring, and another white ring. A green outer border was common. Sometimes a light blue was used in place of the inner white to avoid confusion when writing down scores. The version with the light blue ring became the target we now used to day, though the the metallic gold paint center spot that was used up through the 1940’s is now simply yellow and there are now 10 rings instead of just the five formed by the colors. For their “Imperial” rounds the UK still uses 9,7,5,3,1 scoring and just the 5 colored rings. The French still call the 5 color target the “English target.”
For information on the history of Target Archery, check E. G. Heath’s “A History of Target Archery,” 1973. For more on the kinds of targets shot in medieval times, historical recreationist “Sir Jon Fitz-Rauf” has an essay, “European Medieval and Renaissance Archery Contests And Targets” that provides a good overview of the widely varied targets they used, and on how little we actually know about them today. See also, The Archer’s Guide, 1833, for a how to on archery from 1833.