If you haven’t yet watched this fantastic doc from KBS1 about the history of the Korean bow and it’s influence on the current Olympic team, do so immediately. (Click on the little ‘CC’ button to access English subtitles).
So in the last couple of days, perhaps a dozen people have been kind enough to forward me the video of Lars Anderson’s latest exercise in speed and stunt shooting. It has been wildly popular on the internet, racking up (at this writing) over 14 million views in around 48 hours, in a superb, engaging display of viral success. If you haven’t seen it already, you can tick up the counter right here:
Unfortunately, almost from the gun, I smelled bullshit. Firstly, it would be vastly more impressive if any of the shots were taken under any kind of controlled conditions. As an audience we never see the first take, or the fifth, or the thirtieth; we only see the one that comes off; just like archers only ever Instagram the best end of the day (holds guilty hand up) – and, crucially, just like Hollywood. To be honest, I’m sure if I did at least a couple of the short-range shots thirty times I’d pull them off once too – and I hope I wouldn’t make a video full of generalisations and straight-up inaccuracies about what is and is not ‘faster’, ‘better’, and ‘more fun’ archery.
There are many references to ‘ancient’ texts, ‘old manuscripts’, ‘old texts’ and ‘ancient’ archery – which could mean anything, basically. The bow was invented at least 11,000 years ago and possibly an order of magnitude before that, and spread to every culture across the globe. What part of ‘ancient’ is he talking about?
The only old script actually cited in this video is Arab Archery, which is described as ‘the most extensive historical book ever made about archery’ (which Roger Ascham might take issue with). The hundred pages or so available on the internet in English translation has a quote pulled about a speed-shooting method – the technical details of which are left undescribed – claiming “This is the best type of shooting and there is nothing beyond it in power or accuracy”. Take a minute to read the thing in context, and you can read the full text here.
Others said that Kisra once ordered Bustam to shoot a lion in his presence. One arrow, however, failed to kill the beast, and Kisra exclaimed that an arrow was not a satisfactory weapon; unlike a sword with which one can strike one blow after another, or a spear with which one can thrust repeatedly… The interval between each two shots might endanger the safety of the warrior or the hunter. Bustam gave thought to the matter and subsequently devised the shower or successive shooting, with five, ten, or fifteen arrows, all held at the same time in the archer’s hand. They are shot one after the other in rapid succession thereby rendering the bow and arrow superior to the sword and spear… Al-Tabari said that he himself had shot in this fashion fifteen arrows, one after the other in rapid succession. This is the best type of shooting and there is nothing beyond it in power or accuracy, and no one can manage to do it except a person who has trained himself in it and has obtained mastery in it and also in horsemanship. The kings of Persia were wont to take children and teach it to them, rewarding those who mastered it and punishing those who did not.
Unfortunately Kisra, and probably Bustam as well, are mythological figures, the Islamic analogues of the Grail legends. (As for Al-Tabari, a scholar who died many centuries before Arab Archery was published, well, you may want to have a read of this).
This isn’t evidence. It’s a folk tale. But it’s cited as evidence, on screen, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it. It sounds like the sort of patter magicians have been using for eons to bolster exotic tricks. And Lars… where’s your horse? As for the quote that “Assyrian artwork shows that the method was at least 5000 years old”, I’ll let you look at what someone on Reddit spotted. The oddest thing is this: there are dozens of available academic texts concerning historical traditional archery (you can read some here). Why pick out one that is at the very least of extremely doubtful veracity to back up what you are doing?
Don’t get me wrong; he’s obviously worked hard. He’s learned a great speed-shooting method – but that doesn’t make him unique, now or in the past. He’s developed some serious trick-shot skills. They can stand up on their own. Why does he feel the need to back up what he does with a load of thinly-gleaned ‘facts’ from a tiny, tiny handful of ‘sources’? And saying his is the ‘best’ method of archery is like saying that Thai food is the best food because it’s served quickest.
Also, I am pretty certain I know what would happen if he went toe-to-toe with the top tier target archers at Nîmes in action today. If he’s that good at these short distances, moving or not, why doesn’t he enter an open competition at 18m and show them all how it’s done? And I suppose it is mildly infuriating for a fan of the sport that Lars Andersen is ALL OVER the internet, with hyperbolic assertions made by laymen about the ‘World’s Greatest Archer‘ or the ‘Greatest Archer Alive’ – when Mike Schloesser banged in a staggering perfect 600 round in Nîmes a couple of days ago, one of the greatest displays of compound shooting of all time, and he probably can’t get arrested in his own hometown. Lars Andersen is doing the best thing that HE does, not necessarily the best thing archery can offer, and maybe not even the best thing archery can offer this week.
Apart from the historical inaccuracies, later on, the three arrows in 0.6 seconds bit doesn’t ring true. The sound, particularly. Listen closely for yourself. There’s some curious artefacts in the video at the 3.06 mark, which also suggests that the more spectacular shooting footage has been, at the least, ‘enhanced’ in some way. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he can do exactly as he says, in which case – why doesn’t he? Why doesn’t he appear on TV, on Mythbusters or in front of independent journalists or whatever? The only thing we have to go on is these videos. Why haven’t we seen him anywhere else? He doesn’t seem to like probing questions, mind. On his YouTube channel, he states that “I will also remove dumb “archery experts” comments” – which doesn’t exactly sound like a confident man who is happy with a reasoned debate.
There are many other half-truth statements and curios in this video (you have to close one eye? you can’t bend your knees with a back quiver? firing?) – but I hope the above will suffice to make it clear that this is not science.
The thing is; I know well why this has gone big. It’s punchy. It’s unique. It’s entertaining. It’s quick. What he ultimately produces is great shareable content, designed specifically to go huge on the internet, and resonating with an audience who have seen LOTR and the Hunger Games and Arrow. Good for him. I don’t know what he is looking to ultimately do with this thing, but I do want to know why has he surrounded it with a load of pseudo-historical bullshit – and I’d like to see his skills tested in a slightly more skeptical environment.
This is what I don’t get: Why doesn’t he celebrate what he does – a showy modern distillation of not-remotely-forgotten mounted archery skills – for what it is? Why try and back it up with a lot of historical flimflam? He could easily have been a bit more careful and accurate with the sources and a touch less arse-y and arrogant with the commentary and it would STILL have been a great video. Why go to all that trouble, and then veneer it so thinly? Unfortunately, I suspect it’s all, ultimately, to do with making dollar. Am sure he’s shooting down offers left, right and centre at the moment, and good luck to him.
It’s an entertaining six minutes of trick-shots. But I love archery. You know why? Because it’s deeply, passionately, frustratingly real. And this… this isn’t real.
There’s a lengthy discussion of the historical aspects of the video here.
This post was edited on 27/01/15 in response to extensive discussions on Reddit and elsewhere. All comments and feedback are very welcome.