Five Ranged Weapons That Can Replace Bows

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 from between 10,000 and 15,000 BCE Atlatls from between 10,000 and 15,000 BCE Image by Daderot used under CC ZERO 1.0

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

435px-Balearic_Slinger Balearic Slinger by Johnny Shumate

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.

Agrianian peltast. This peltast holds three javelins, one in his throwing hand and two in his pelte hand as additional ammunition. Agrianian peltast, or javelin skirmisher.

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 reconstructions. Image used with permission of Fetico Reenactors. Plumbatae reconstructions. Image used with permission of Fetico – Dutch Late Roman Reenactors.

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 Plumbata being thrown. Image used with permission of Fetico Reenactors A Plumbata being thrown. Image used with permission of Fetico – Dutch Late Roman Reenactors

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

Francisca, which is on display in the Romano-Germanic Museum in Cologne, Germany. Francisca, which is on display in the Romano-Germanic Museum in Cologne, Germany. Francisca by Gottescalcus

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.

Different types of francisca. Different types of francisca. Franziska used under CC BY-SA 3.0

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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  1. Vazak

    Very cool & informative, thanks!

  2. Sling-a-ring-ring

    YES! So good to see the sling on here. It is an awesome weapon!

  3. Alex

    Another interesting option – the kestrosphendone, or dart sling.

    It’s a weapon similar to the sling and bullet, except instead of hurling stones or lead bullets in a pouch, it released large front-weighted darts similar to the above mentioned plumbatae from an uneven loop and cord.

    The late-Hellenistic Macedonians used them against the Roman armies of the time, with devastating effect according to Livy and Polybius.

  4. Michael Campbell

    Boomerang is fun for alien races, because it leads to using a nulla-nulla as a hand to hand weapon.

    Giant alien races (say 9′ high with a physique of a gorilla) would find spear & woomera to be powerful enough to send intrepid interstellar dragoons flying backwards and impale them pegged-down against the nearest tree.

  5. Cannoli

    This looks like being different just to be different. The bow is so prevalent because it’s a better weapon.

    • Bunny

      If that were the case, doesn’t it seem like these weapons wouldn’t exist? Clearly they have some benefits, since they’ve been used. Besides, bows can be boring, and are awfully Eurocentric. What’s wrong with shaking some things up?

    • Cay Reet

      It helps diversifying fantasy settings (in historical fiction, it depends on the time and place which ranged weapons are available, after all). The bow is prevalent, because it was the favoured weapon of European middle ages (later on, the crossbow became very popular, too, because it’s easier to master than a long bow or hunting bow).

      Fantasy is horribly European-centric as it is (and most of the weapons listed were used in Europe as well), so every change from the ‘same, same’ is good.

      • BeardedLizard

        I’d say the bow is prevalent because it was the most effective weapons. And it is very far from being “Euro-centric”, since people used it in one form or another all around the world for millennia. (Is you want non-European range weapons, you could use the Indian Chakram (metallic disc with sharp hedge) or the mambele (African weird throwing knife. Don’t know how to describe it).

        If you have an antique setting, javelins, slingshot and the likes were used because they were effective in the context (The armor technology wasn’t so advance as to render them useless, and often being able to use range weapon one handed could come very handy). But as soon as you get armors capable of stopping them from arming you, they become a lot less effective. As for the bow, the technology evolved with times, giving it more and more power until you reach something like the English longbow who was capable of piercing some plate armor giving the right distance (but was so hard to use, the English Bowmans needed to train all is life to be able to use it).

        Although, if you go for a magic weapon, that could easily work (It would be original to find an antique magical sword who reflect the time period it was made in. Like a magical Gladius trap in a stone or an ultimate spear of destiny that was made with caveman technology).

  6. Kenneth Mackay

    One trope that really annoys me is making bows the go-to weapon for forest dwellers; wood-elves, rangers, bandits – if they live in the forest, they use bows. I blame Robin Hood!

    In the open, bows are powerful; they outrange other missile weapons so an archer can attack without their opponents being able to retaliate, and, unlike thrown spears, axes and so forth they can be used multiple times before running out of ammunition. Given favourable terrain – say a narrow steep-sided river valley that the enemy must first clamber down one side of then wade the river before scaling the other side to reach melee range, an archer could conceivably empty a quiver-full of arrows into the enemy and still have time to put away the bow and draw a melee weapon.

    In a forest, these advantages are nullified. For a start, an archer simply can’t see a target at long range through the trees. If they were somehow visible, then to shoot at them the arrow’s trajectory would have to pass through the forest canopy twice (once going up, once coming down) and even brushing past a twig could deflect it by a degree or two, causing it to land tens of yards off-target – if it didn’t get stuck among the branches and fail to land at all!

    This makes overhead shooting very difficult at best, and reduces the range at which a bow is useful to roughly the same as a hurled weapon.

    Assuming our archer does get a clear shot, by the time they’ve notched a second arrow to their bow where are their targets? Behind a tree, if they’ve any sense! The archer might get off an un-aimed snap shot or two as the enemy closes in by short dashes from cover to cover, but then they’re in hand to hand combat – and a bow’s not much use at that!

    It would, in my opinion, be far better to use spears; there would still be the option of a missile attack if chance allowed, and a spear is actually useful in melee – so why, oh why, do authors and game designers insist on arming their forest-dwellers with bows?!

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, ranged weapons in general are not something to use in an environment like a forest. There’s too many places to take cover for them to be any good. Melee weapons are much more useful in a forest and the spear – throwable, quite some range as melee weapon, efficient in close-quarter – would be a great choice.

  7. McvChaos

    Just use a gun.

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