Why Do Archers Wear Arm Guards?

Why Do Archers Wear Arm Guards?

Most of us are relatively familiar with the basic equipment of archery: bow, bowstring, and arrows. But how many of us are familiar with the often-overlooked arm-guard?

Archers wear arm guards to protect their arms from the string and to prevent their shots from being compromised. Some also use them for historic reasons, mainly as a sentiment to medieval times. Ultimately, arm guards are mainly used by beginners, and experienced archers don’t really need them.

But there’s a lot more to understanding why archers use bracers. In this article, we’ll tackle the origins of the arm guard, why it has persisted into the modern-day, and what options newer archers might consider when considering adding this crucial piece of equipment to their arsenal.

Practical purposes of archery arm guards

The first and most obvious use is its role as a protective element between the string and the bow. Anyone who has shot an arrow from a bow has likely experienced the painful whiplash of a string snapping on bare skin – a shock second only to the realization that archery is a lot harder than it might initially appear.

However, proper form will soon correct this mistake. It should be noted that a great archer has no real need for a bracer. Incorrect rotation of the bracing arm is one of the first lessons a new archer must learn. Proper technique in this regard renders the protective service a bracer offers largely unnecessary.

So why, then do we still see bracers worn at the highest competitive level of archery, if such skilled archers have no need of protection from the dangers of bad form?

If the path of the string were to, in any way, brush up against one’s bare skin or clothes, the speed and accuracy of the arrow will be immediately compromised.

At the highest level of competition, even the slightest advantage (or protection against possible disadvantage) is critical for consistent success.

This is why we commonly see small, sleek plastic bracers used in high-level competition rather than large, bulky leather ones. They are there simply to ensure the speed and accuracy of the shot. The greatest archers in the world do not need such help to be good archers, but every little bit of help can count when one is working so hard to be the best.

Arm guards purposes in history

The arm guard – or bracer – first appears en masse in the historical record in the sixteenth century. Though some scattered evidence of bracers appears in Europe from around 2000 BC and before, it wasn’t until twenty-four bracers were recovered from the wreckage of a Tudor warship, the Mary Rose, that we found tangible evidence of their existence.

The Mary Rose collection had both undecorated and more ornate examples of bracers, indicating that the arm guard had likely been in use for at least some significant stretch of time before. This is no surprise. With the advent of the bow as a military weapon and hunting implement in the medieval era, this small but practical piece of armor quickly proved itself as a small but worthy investment for the common archer.

That said, it certainly was not a universal implement, and we have second-hand accounts that not all archers made use of the protective layer and efficiency it offered. Roger Ascham, an English scholar who lived in the sixteenth century (and also served as Elizabeth I’s tutor) wrote the following about the use of the bracer in Toxophilus:

“Little is to be said of the bracer. A bracer serves for several causes; one to save his arme from the strype of the stringe, and his doublet from wearing. And the other is, – that the stringe gliding sharplye and quicklye off the bracer may make the sharper (better) shoote. For if the stringe should light upon the bare sleeve , the strengthe of the shoote should stop. But it is beste by my judgmente to give the bowe so much bende that the string neede never touche the arme, and so shoulde a man need no bracer, as I knowe manye goode archers which occupy (use) none.”

It seems, then, that there was some sentiment that a great archer had no – or, at least, very little – need for a bracer, but that there was some benefit to be had for those who did not possess the skill or strength necessary to make a bracer obsolete.

The casual observer of archery may jump too quickly to conclusions inspired by Ascham’s words: “arm guards are only for archers who are not good enough!” they might say.

But Ascham is far from the only authority on the matter, and the less-than-complete adoption of arm guards in the sixteenth century is a clear contrast to the almost universal adoption of arm guards we see today. From the casual backyard hobbyist to the highest level of Olympic competition, there is a clear sentiment that they have a verifiable use.

Best arm guards for beginners

There are several options for arm guards the beginner archer may well consider. The first consideration is that it should be smooth. This has been clear for hundreds of years.

Ascham notes that a bracer should “have no nailes in it, nor buckles, that it be fastened without aigulettes. For these will sheere in sunder a man’s stringe before he be aware and put his bowe in jeopardy.” Translation: the string should not be able to catch on to anything. There are quite a few “stylish” bracers available on the market today that present a greater risk of harm to your shot or your bowstring than they present a chance of helping you in a significant way. Avoid these.

With these considerations in mind, you might consider a full-length guard if you are primarily concerned about protection while learning basic archery. There are both Kevlar sleeves and leather options available that are also pretty affordable and are not terribly bulky for anyone looking for freedom of movement. This leather arm guard from ArcheryMax (link to Amazon) is a great option, for example, and will provide good protection.

However, if freedom of movement is your primary goal, you might consider a more standard arm guard of plastic or leather. These run seven to eight inches or so and protect the most often-caught area of the sleeve and forearm. Check out this arm guard from SAS (link to Amazon) as an option, it’s quite a comfortable and durable option.

Lastly, you might consider the most ancient approach – no arm guard at all. While you might initially experience some pain, rest assured you will not be alone and will have all the more reason to perfect your technique early on.

You should consult with your instructor in deciding the best route for you, given your goals with archery. Whatever the case, it will be helpful to keep in mind the history of this rather simple piece of equipment that has clearly found its place in the practice of today’s modern archer.