How hard is it to split an arrow with a longbow?

Splitting an arrow from nock to point is the classic feat of archery prowess in stories and movies, from ancient legends like Robin Hood to, well, brand new ancient legends like Pixar’s new animated feature, Brave. Here is Merida shooting the archery contest in Brave.

She is good, really good. But how hard is that to do in real life? Well, here is someone who should know:

Horace A Ford shooting a long bow.

Horace A Ford

That’s Horace A. Ford from around 1859. His record breaking tournament scores led him to be considered the greatest target archer in the world back when English longbows were the bows used for target archery. Here’s what he had to say about splitting nocks from far away:

As for the nock-splitting, it is only necessary to say that beyond fifteen or twenty yards the nock would not be visible. I will not, therefore, insult my readers by arguing the possibility or otherwise of Robin’s being able to split it at four or five times that distance whenever he chose!

Archery: Its Theory and Practice, by H. A. Ford, 2nd Edition, 1859. Chapter XV.

So, Ford is a bit skeptical. Here’s a still from the famous arrow splitting scene in the 1938 version of Robin Hood, staring Errol Flynn.

Split arrow on a target.

The producers of The Adventures of Robin Hood hired famed archer and trick shooter Howard Hill to do the archery in the movie. He is still considered one of the best archers ever. He was so good he could cut a rope with an arrow. And he could split arrows under the right circumstances. But wooden arrows don’t split all the way down, from nock to point. Instead, the flying arrow hits the nock of the arrow in the target and follows the grain of the wood, splitting a sliver of wood out, as Mythbusters discovered for themselves. That isn’t very spectacular looking, and it isn’t good enough for the movies. One of the stuntmen on Robin Hood, Buster Wiles, tells us how they did it. The special effects crew launched an arrow down a wire into a hollow arrow, which split nicely all the way down. If you ever get to see the 1938 version of Robin Hood projected from an original 35mm print you can see what seems to be the wire leading off to the left of the screen.

Today, many archers shoot with high tech bows and bow sights. Splitting an arrow is still tough, but today’s arrows are hollow tubes, which makes it easier to shoot one end into the other and for the arrows to stay jammed together, which is called a Robin Hood. They happen sometimes during practice sessions and in competitions.

Getting a Robin Hood for the first time is a great feeling. Until you want to shoot again and realize you are out of a pair of arrows. :-0 If you Robin Hood someone else’s arrow it is considered polite to offer to pay for the arrow so you can keep them both as a souvenir.

A Korean TV show challenged a competitive recurve archer using sights to Robin Hood an arrow. They shot a slender arrow into a slightly wider arrow so that the arrows could fit together better, and they took of the nock to make the shot easier, so it isn’t quite what a Robin Hood “normally” looks like with today’s arrows in real world circumstances, but it is still a spectacular shot.

So, getting a modern “Robin Hood” is pretty challenging but you can get an early start by playing our Splitting the Arrow Game for Everyone using an alternate to a regular arrow. Yes, it is a lot easier than splitting an arrow for real, but it it is still challenging and a lot of fun—and maybe, just maybe, a stop on your road to splitting your first arrow for real.


  1. Dave on July 13, 2012 at 8:51 am

    Did anyone catch the error in the thumb nail of the little brave video?

  2. Katherine on August 12, 2012 at 10:07 pm

    Thumb nail? I didn’t catch that…I did notice that she had no shelf and used a bare hand, no leather glove. Doesn’t it hurt?