We all know the archetype of the archer: master of the longbow, precise and deadly. It’s a staple of fantasy, and we can point to Tolkien and other British authors of classic fiction as the cause of this. The English longbow has a great pedigree on the British Isles, famed for its use in the 100 Years’ War and by legends such as Robin Hood.
If we want to break the cliché of the fantasy archer molded after British heroes, there are dozens of places to look to. Within the bow family, recurve bows, composite bows, and crossbows were each used time and again by people that changed the course of history. But let’s look beyond bows altogether and explore the oft-forgotten arsenal of thrown weapons.
Thrown weapons have been used effectively by soldiers and hunters throughout human history. They give the thrower greater leverage for their attack and can replace the bow for a hunter or act as a secondary weapon for a foot soldier.
1. Atlatl and Spear
The atlatl is an early spear-thrower, first used 30,000 years ago. For comparison, the first bow and arrows came into the picture only 10,000 years ago. The atlatl was a wooden device about the length of a forearm that cupped the end of the spear. A spearman would flick their wrist at the end of the throw, flipping the atlatl up and launching the spear up to 100 meters.
It was very accurate for the first 20 meters, meaning a lone hunter could easily kill small game with a single spear. For more dangerous animals, a group of hunters could volley spears at longer distances to minimize risk.
Atlatls were most popular in a period of human history when raids on neighboring groups were the primary form of warfare. Rather than form battle lines, warriors would have stalked an enemy camp or hunting party and used atlatls as skirmish weapons to support warriors with clubs, axes, and swords. Distinctions between hunters and warriors in such cultures would have been minor.
2. Sling and Bullet
Slings are severely underrated and mischaracterized as a weapon. While many people think that slings were only used by peasants, in reality they were a weapon of hunters and soldiers for centuries. The sling is as old as the atlatl, and was used in warfare as late as medieval Spain. It is a lightweight weapon and easy to make, needing only a length of rope, a pouch, and bullets of clay, stone, or lead.
With molded lead bullets slingers could hit targets as far away as 400 meters, and could easily incapacitate or kill a man. Dedicated slingers were often used in place of archers, but infantry also used the sling as a secondary weapon prior to the enemy closing with them.
3. Amentum and Javelin
The amentum and javelin were adaptations of the atlatl and spear, in common use during the Bronze and Iron Ages. The amentum was a leather strap wrapped around a javelin and slipped over the thrower’s fingers. It caused the shaft of the javelin to spin, much like rifling in the barrel of a gun. The spinning motion stabilized the javelin, giving it superior distance and accuracy.
While the amentum did not provide the same leverage of the atlatl and was effective to only about 80 meters, the spin made it accurate for that full distance. The amentum was lightweight and remained attached to the javelin, making the arrangement slightly less bulky than an atlatl. The javelin also had design improvements over ancient throwing spears. While throwing spears differed from thrusting spears only in that they were shorter, a javelin was shaped and weighted to improve flight.
Like the sling, javelins could either be used by dedicated skirmishers or by foot soldiers to supplement their melee capabilities.
4. Plumbatae Lead Darts
Plumbatae (latin for lead weighted) or martiobarbuli (“little barbs of Mars”) were large darts used from late Antiquity through the early Middle Ages. A barbed iron head with a lead weight behind the tip made up the front end of the weapon. Fletching provided stability in flight, and the wooden shaft extended behind the fletching for the soldier to grip. In full the plumbata could be between hand length and forearm length.
Roman and Byzantine soldiers would lob the darts in an underhand throw high into the air. The weighted front end would ensure that the dart landed point first on the target and with significant force, punching through shields and armor. Its small size allowed soldiers to carry many of them either on belts or in the hollows of their shields.
A weapon used with an underhand lob may not seem elegant, but foot soldiers were able to quickly loose several volleys on their enemies before closing to hand-to-hand combat. Plumbatae were solely used by infantry at close range, but they could rain death on enemy formations as effectively as a volley of arrows.
5. Francisca Bouncing Axes
The francisca throwing axe was first used by the Frank tribes in early medieval Europe before spreading to Germanic tribes like the Angles and Saxons. The francisca had a long arched head that left it unbalanced and unwieldy as a melee weapon, but the wooden handle gave leverage for throwing.
Franciscas are inaccurate weapons; they spin wildly in the air when thrown. If the axe hits the ground in front of its target, it will bounce unpredictably and violently. While a javelin is accurate for the thrower, and predictable for the target, the francisca is chaotic. Soldiers in formation cannot predict where an axe from the volley will land. When it does hit, the weight of the head can knock a man down or smash through a wooden shield. And if the spinning causes it to hit haft-first, it can still stun a person before bouncing into their neighbor.
Like plumbatae, franciscas were only used as a secondary weapon by infantry. These axes were thrown at close range during a charge to shake a formation. The volley of heavy axes smashing shields and bouncing dangerously and unpredictably would leave even disciplined men stunned. Moments after the volley, the Frank warriors were in their midst with swords and shields.
Breaking away from the archer mold will distinguish your story from typical high fantasy. Choose from plenty of fascinating weapons to arm your heroes and villains. Find something that grabs your interest and works for your story. A weapon doesn’t have to define the hero, but it can definitely help them stand out from the crowd.
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