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Becoming the world's greatest archer: The science behind 'Hawkeye'

Clint's hiding something, we know it.

Hawkeye PRESS Still

It's a running joke that Hawkeye is the worst of the Avengers (or is he?), with no real special abilities to speak of aside from a particular talent at shooting a bow. Some of his archery abilities, however, border on the superhuman and might exceed what's humanly possible. We're going to take a look at the strength, speed, and physics of bow shooting to settle the question once and for all.

SPEED (AND STRENGTH) SHOOTING

When you're fighting for your life among a hoard of villainous aliens pouring through an interstellar portal, sometimes being fast is the difference between being dead and alive. Clint Barton has been documented to shoot up to 29 arrows per minute, just shy of one every two seconds. That might not seem all that impressive but firing an arrow requires retrieving it, knocking it, pulling back, and releasing. It's a lot to manage in just a couple of seconds and it's especially difficult to do consistently.

In fact, shooting 29 arrows in a minute, in and of itself, may not be all that mind blowing. It's certainly faster than a typical archer who might fire closer to 10 to 12 arrows in a minute, but it's entirely possible for a human being to fire more quickly. There are, as always, a lot of variables. One of them, of course, is accuracy. Firing arrows willy nilly can be faster than taking the time to make sure you hit your mark. Perhaps the most important consideration is draw weight.

If firing quickly is your only consideration, you'd do well to use a bow with a low draw weight. Draw weight refers to the amount of force needed to pull back the string of your bow and is typically measured in pounds or kilograms. It also refers to the amount of force acting on the arrow when it's released. As you pull back on a bow string, the amount of force required to continue pulling back increases, and draw weight is generally calculated by the amount of force needed to draw your string 28 inches.

For context, a bow used for hunting — which is essentially what Barton is doing, even if he's hunting Chitauri instead of deer — typically has an average draw weight of 60 to 70 pounds. Firing 29 arrows in a minute requires generating that amount of force in 60 seconds. The higher the draw weight, the harder that's going to be.

That all becomes more impressive when we account for the ridiculous draw strength on Barton's bow. For some reason (probably only because it sounds cool) Hawkeye uses a modified compound bow with a draw strength of 250 pounds. Considering that a typical hunting bow is sufficient for taking down large game, a bow with four times as much force seems like overkill.

At that weight, he would have to generate more than 7,000 pounds of total force in under a minute to fire those arrows. If that's not super strength, we don't know what is. And all of that force is being focused into the tip of the arrow.

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The speed of a loosed arrow has a relationship to the draw weight, draw length, weight of the arrow, and a couple of other factors but there's a pretty linear relationship on speed as it relates to draw weight. We need to make some assumptions about the weight of Hawkeye's arrows and the construction of his bow but, roughly speaking, for each pound of draw weight, you get 1.67 feet per second of additional acceleration.

At 250 pounds of draw weight, we're estimating a speed of 639 feet per second, or 435 miles per hour. A 350-grain arrow moving at that speed would carry 317 foot-pounds of energy, compared to the 89 foot-pounds of a typical hunting bow. By way of comparison, an average bullet — depending on weight and speed again — carries about 320 foot-pounds of force.

Hawkeye isn't firing arrows, he's firing bullets that happen to be shaped like arrows, and he's doing it at semiautomatic speeds.

MULTIPLE ARROWS AT ONCE

In case rapid firing isn't taking down your enemies quickly enough, Hawkeye has also been known to fire multiple arrows at the same time, downing targets in different locations. Here, things get a little more complex.

During a fight with Mister Negative in one comic book story, Hawkeye knocked five arrows at the same time and released them, striking five different opponents. We don't want to say that this would be impossible, but it would require a ridiculous innate understanding of geometry.

When you pull back on your bow with one arrow, all of that force is being centralized onto a single point at the back of your arrow. Loading more arrows necessarily means the string is now being bent at multiple points. Take a rubber band and pull in back with one finger, or two or three, and see how the shape of it changes. Importantly, the direction of the force changes, as well. Your center arrow will still fly forward because the opposing angle is straight ahead. The arrows above center, however, will have a downward thrust due to the angle of the string and the arrows at the bottom will have an upward thrust. Knocking five arrows won't result in those arrows flying true. Any archer firing multiple arrows must account for the change in physics. Hitting five targets means understanding the knocking position and the arrow's angles all at the same time.

Additionally, each extra arrow decreases the force of the others. The draw weight of a bow, even if it's 250 pounds, remains its draw weight and that force must be divided into the number of projectiles. Lucky for Hawkeye, 50 pounds of draw weight per arrow is still plenty of force to get the job done. If it can take down a deer, it can take down a lackey.

Our examination of Hawkeye's talents reveals he might actually be a superhero in disguise, hiding his talents in an attempt to live something close to a normal life. In order to accomplish what he does without breaking more than a sweat, and in a vest to boot, Barton would need incredible strength and a savant-level understanding of physics.

Not bad for the goofiest Avenger.

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