Monday, October 31, 2016

Mike Loades, author of "The Composite Bow."

Mike Loades is a British weapons and general historian. He is also an author, presenter, action arranger and director. Loades has appeared as a primary presenter or supporting expert in many documentaries covering historical weapons. Behind the scenes, he has worked as an action arranger in over 100 screen productions. As a television presenter/host he is best known for the BBC series' Time Commanders, Weapons That Made Britain for Channel 4 and Weapon Masters for Discovery Networks.He wrote and presented the two-hour special Going Medieval for H2 channel in 2012. His books include, "Swords and Swordsmen" "The Longbow" and his most recent book, "The Composite Bow."

Before starting our conversation, I acquired Mike Loades latest book "The Composite Bow." And I devoured it. Something I should note, I normally don't do. It is a well written and wonderfully informative work. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. My personal lack of education about the subject of Archery and especially Composite Bows, was greatly informed and expanded after reading it.

I think it provides an excellent baseline of information an initiate would want to have as a guide to different types of bows and their usages. For the person or persons who have been interested in archery or practicing archery Loades offers up a lot of what I would call Journeyman level experience tips which the casual practitioner might overlook. 

( I am not an archer.) However that being said, I picked up the odd instance where Loades discusses grip positions, thumb rings, bow conditioning, Etc. As a former gunner (Mortars and Tanks) I can tell you the subtlety of being off slightly at the initial release point for any projectile can translate to a major difference in your targeting at range. Loades brought this out wonderfully, and I hope the readers of the book are able to grasp this subtle set of passages. 

The book starts off with the basic definition and goes forward from there to examples of type and style. There are numerous quotes from Arabic, Turkish and Chinese sources which back up both the distinctive types of bows and their usage. The book is wonderfully illustrated by Peter Dennis which give a historical context to the various cultures using a composite bow, and line drawings by Robert J. Molineaux which helps to clearly and easily understand the various individual components, and different types of bows.The drawings and illustrations coupled with Loades own personal collection of items such a thumb rings, bows and arrows help to bring this book vividly to life.

If I had a personal rating system of stars I would rate this book five out of five stars.

Mike Loades schedule is generally very busy. He has most recently finished filming a documentary for NOVA (PBS) about Chinese chariots, where he test drove a replica over various terrains. Shooting both bow and crossbow from it, as well as attacking it as a horse-archer. Following that appearing in a program for Canadian TV about the history of the horse; doing various sequences, including horse-archery. That was followed by writing, producing and directing NINE x 2-minute films to feature in a forthcoming relaunch of Time Commanders. Also appearing in the studio as on-screen pundit for the new series. Attempting to find a time for us to have a quiet conversation has been daunting. However he was kind enough to set aside time to speak to me, and the following is our conversation. Thank you for your time sir.

MM: What prompted this book?

ML: I wrote an edition on The Longbow for Osprey, which received wide critical acclaim and did very well for them. They then asked me if I would like to do something on the composite bow. Since the subject coincided so much with my obsession for horse-archery, I was happy to accept the commission.

MM: How long did it take for this book to go from idea to press?

ML: Approximately two months.

MM: I wonder though if you have any evidential tales you encountered in your research to back up the prowess of the various Composite bows?

ML: I go to great lengths in the book to make the case that the composite bow was not a universally standard weapon and that it was not employed to face a universal set of challenges. As a chapter sub-title, I coined the phrase “different bows for different blows” in order to try to convey this idea. Some, like the Manchu bow were designed to deliver a heavy arrow with maximum thump, while others, like the Turkish bow were designed to deliver slender, lightweight arrows a great distance. Some bows lend themselves more to rapid shooting techniques, ideal for harassing horse-archers, while others are more suited to the knockout shot from a battlefield sniper. 

Comparisons become difficult because you have to compare like with like – same target, same weight and size of arrow, same conditions etc. For instance, I cite the anecdotal evidence of Joe Gibbs – a highly respected English warbow archer – who shot the same heavy arrow on the same day with first an English longbow and next with a Crimean-Tatar style composite bow. Both bows had a draw-weight of 180 lbs. There was better performance from the composite bow, which shot 320 yards compared to the longbow, which shot 298 yards. 

However, as I note in the book, it is recorded that the Sultan Selim III shot an arrow a distance of 972 yards in 1798. We do not know the draw weight of his bow but we do know that it would have been an altogether different arrow – we have to be very careful not to compare apples and oranges.

MM:Would you be willing to discuss what a world changing tool this type of bow became?

ML: I am probably best known for a television series called Weapons That Made Britain; although made over a decade ago pirated versions are still widely watched on You Tube. I remain mostly happy with the content of these programmes and was given an unusual level of editorial input by the producers but the title was the idea of the commissioning channel. I wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity of the series just because I didn’t like the title but it was a bogus premise. The five programmes that form the series each focus on a medieval weapon – that was the core idea presented to us by the channel. 

The first problem with the title is that Britain (as a political entity) is a post-medieval concept. The second problem is that ‘weapons’ don’t make countries – people and ideas do that. So I would reject the idea that the technology of the composite bow in any way changed the world. 

It may be that some armies - The Mongols for instance - for whom it was a primary weapon, had an impact on world history but that impact was not dependent on the composite bow. In the case of the Mongols it was significant that they were horse-borne nomadic pastoralists who could adapt to a fast-moving, rapid deployment campaign tactics but it was incidental that they were especially adept with the composite bow. Yes, the bow suited their equi-centric style of warfare (though it may be argued that their siegecraft was an equally important aspect of their triumphs) but I suspect they would have had an equal impact on the world stage without the bow.

MM: Did your own physical 'experiments' inform your direction in writing this book?

ML: Well I wouldn’t say ‘experiments’ but yes shooting a composite bow is a daily exercise for me and doing so on a horse is something I do several times a week. Such immersion sometimes leads to a direct reporting of one’s experience but, I think more importantly, it prompts the questions one wants to ask when poring through primary sources. Having the physical experience also connects one much more to the historical material and little details, that may otherwise be missed, are automatically highlighted when looking at both the art and the primary source texts.

MM: What was the biggest misconception about composite bows you were able to (dispel?)

ML: Perhaps the notion that composite bows didn’t see widespread service in Western Europe because they were unsuited to the damper climate. The climate argument is plainly untrue. It is hard to envisage a damper climate than the Far East and composite bows thrived in China, being used on the battlefield by the Qing dynasty as late as the 19th century. Furthermore composite bows were used extensively as the prods for crossbows during the middle ages. Yes the materials, especially the all-important glues, of the composite bow are susceptible to damp and temperature – that is why the leather or bark outer layers are sealed with some form of varnish. However with proper care they can function perfectly well in European climes. In fact I allude in the book to the fact that the Bayeux Tapestry shows archers in Duke William’s army using composite bows and that images of composite bows are plentiful in Carolingian art – the Utrecht Psalter, believed to have been created in the 9th century, is a prime example. Norse sagas also refer to horn bows. I wish I had had the space to explore composite bows in Western Europe more but these little Osprey volumes hold the author to a strict pages count.

MM:  Tell us about the modern application of composite bows, and the resurgence of horse archery as a sport?

Mike Loades' Parthian Shot!

ML: Current themes at play in the development of horse-archery as a modern sport are analogous to the way that jousting has developed over the past 50 years. Initially there are so few people doing it that everyone is on the same page. Gradually distinctions arise. As the popularity of horse-archery grows, the fractures are already clear. 

Leading the fray are those who see it purely as a modern competition sport. I see nothing wrong with that per se – why shouldn’t they? – but with a relatively obscure historical skill such as horse-archery those with an interest in its historical provenance need to be especially vigilant to monitor what is authentic historical practice and what is not. Variations from the historical model manifest in the modern sport in numerous ways including; use of modern saddles; use of carbon-fibre arrows with plastic nocks; not using a thumb-ring (even when shooting with the thumb); extra-light bow weights; use of non-traditional quiver designs; use of non-traditional arrow-carriage techniques (for instance some people have developed systems for carrying 12 arrows in the bow hand. The historical sources are very clear that three or four arrows in the bow hand is the maximum without affecting the stability of the grip; thus it is only possible with non-military weight bows and would also be wasteful of ammunition in a battlefield situation if you had to suddenly drop the arrows to draw your sword); the use of modern track designs with rope barriers.

I do not object to any of these practices but merely note they do not follow the historical model and so this is a concern for archery historians; albeit not a concern for regular people who have no interest in history but do have a love of horses and bows. Very often these people are by far the superior practitioners, so ‘historical archery aficionados.' need to be wary of dismissing them. They have much to teach us; our job is simply to remain aware and informed of where contemporary practice diverges from historical practice. 

The situation is greatly confused by the matter of dress. As well as having the right tack and tackle, some horse-archers garb themselves in traditional national dress. For natives of lands with horse-archer cultures, this is an easy choice. For Westerners without such a tradition the options are more muddied. Some attempt some re-enactment level of historical dress, some indulge in fantasy/fetishistic role-play costumes, some have a semblance of historical dress that is more carnival than traditional and some wear modern riding clothing. Some wear modern safety helmets; some do not. My own feeling is that if the competition factions wish to be taken seriously by other sporting bodies, they need to ditch the traditional dress and settle for some form of modern attire. 

Another reason to beware the model of ‘dressing up’ for competitions is the potential confusion that arises when someone wears Crimean-Tartar dress and shoots a Turkish style bow, with Hun style arrows and Manchu style quiver, whilst riding in modern Western tack. 

As well as the competition sport, there is the performance art. Here I think anything goes for the way people dress. It all depends on the audience. Some people like the tacky faux-historical glittery costumes of “Medieval Times” type jousting, while others prefer authentic armour, tack, solid lances, the right type of horse and historically sourced rules and customs. Horse-archery will deliver a similar range, notwithstanding how some people would wish it to be.

My own quest is to follow and explore the historical model as closely as possible, aspiring to use historically authentic techniques as deciphered from ancient manuals and art and historically accurate equipment. I want to develop it as a personal martial practice and as a performance art. Having said that, I fall a long way short of perfect. For instance I still currently use carbon-fibre arrows with plastic nocks. This is mostly a budget and convenience issue. I do also shoot with bamboo arrows, though still with plastic nocks. I intend to experiment with historically accurate nocks when I find the time to manufacture them. However arrows get lost and broken and using 100% authentic ones all the time puts a strain on time and budget. I have an authentic saddle but I’m only just getting to the stage where I’m going to fit it to my new horse, who has only just reached his optimal weight. These things take time but it is what we learn on the way that counts. Mostly I do it just for the joy of doing something together with my horse. 

Oh, and by the way – for the history pedant - it is called horse-archery. Horseback archery and mounted archery are incorrect modern terms. Historically, mounted archers rode to battle but dismounted to fight. Horse-archers shot from the saddle. It is a useful distinction for the military historian; those who care about such things should strive to keep the distinction alive.

Once again I would like to thank Mike Loades for the time he spent with this interview, as I know how busy his schedule is.

Links to Osprey Publishing:

Mike Loades Facebook page:

Mike Loades website: