Shooting at rovers was a form of medieval archery, reported in the 15th century and described in 16th. Like sporting clays, a group of shooters would move from position to position, taking turns at each station to shoot at a target intended to give a realistic test of the shooter’s skill. The weapon was the long English bow rather than a shotgun, and the targets were stationary rather than clay pigeons in flight, but both sports tried to achieve a more realistic simulation of field conditions. The stationary targets for rovers were challenging in their own way, since they were shot at ranges up to 380 yards.
In shooting at rovers, archers would shoot from mark to mark, choosing the second mark when they reached the first, selecting some feature within range to shoot at like a tree or bush, or choosing one of several marks positioned in advance. Because the distance varied at each shoot, rovers was seen as better training for combat or hunting. At anything but short range the ability to estimate distance and choose the correct elevation was critical, and this was not fully tested by ordinary shooting at butts, where the archer shot repeatedly at a known distance.
The long ranges shot also had practical, if indirect value. To be effective in battle a bow needed a heavy draw to have a chance of penetrating armor. The estimated draw of bows recovered from the wreck from Henry VIII’s Mary Rose ranged from 98 to 185 lbs, with the median values 115 -124 lbs.
Recorded marks of London’s Finsbury archers during the 1500s ranged from 180 to 380 yards, distances that required a heavy bow. The archers had set up a series of prepositioned marks in Finsbury fields outside London, so that archers could shoot from mark to mark, and at every position the group of archers would have a choice of several marks at different ranges. For each round, the archer who came closest to the mark the preceding round would select the next mark. It was customary that the chosen mark would be one that every archer in the group could reach. At rovers the winner of each shoot was simply the closest arrow to the mark, and at longer ranges, the mark itself would rarely be hit. Typically, each archer shot two arrows at the mark, the arrows were scored and collected, and then the bowmen would shoot at the next mark. When shooting at rovers, archers might carry more than one pair of arrows so they could have arrows suited for different ranges.
The Finsbury marks were wooden or stone posts or pillars. An alternative target was the “clout” (cloth), a piece of white fabric large enough to be seen from the shooting distance, fastened to a sharpened stick driven upright into the ground so that the bottom of the clout almost reached the ground.
The heads of arrows for shooting at marks had a specialized shape that differed from heads used for hunting or war: barbless and streamlined with a swelling shoulder so the archer could consistently draw to full length by feel.
Rules have survived in the 1628 pamphlet by James Partridge, Ayme for Finsburie Archers. Earlier editions were published in 1594, 1601 and 1604. I have added some explanations in parentheses. They may be compared with Aime for the Archers of St. George's Fields, London 1664.
1. First, for finding your mark it must be within every man’s reach. Also the precise notion of the mark proveth which is shot. (The mark should be named clearly to avoid confusion or argument.)
2. Secondly, for whites you may have as many as you will, so they be all forwards: and if you shoot at any white - if it is stricken out of sight, it is no mark. (This seems to refer to clouts as alternative marks.)
3. Thirdly, for the highest of stakes, although the wood be above the pin, you are to measure at the pin if there be any, because it is put in for the same purpose.
4. Fourthly, if you find a bush or a black, whatsoever you find highest in it, being within the compass of the mark, you are to take it for the height.
5. Fifthly, for the trees you are to measure at foot and pole, excepting the naming of it you say, at the nail in such a tree or hole in such a tree, or being a tree of so small a height, that you may reach the top of it with half your bow, then you may take the highest. (For foot and pole you must measure a foot above the highest ground which joins the tree)
6. Sixthly, if in measuring of a shot, by haste the mark is stirred, he is to lose the shot that measureth it.
7. Seventhly, when you come to the mark and claim two, and the contrary sides draw their arrows, and when your mate cometh he saith, his would win too, you are to win no more than you claimed.
8. Eighthly, if you aim (or name) one mark and shoot another, you are to lose your shoot, and they are to follow at the mark named.
9. Lastly, if your arrow breaks you may measure to the nearest piece that hath wood and head, or wood and feather.
Given sufficient open space and due consideration of the actual maximum ranges of the archers taking part, rovers could be an interesting contest for modern archers.