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Archery, fencing, shooting and military re-enactment

by Megan Cook

Sports derived from military practices include archery, fencing and shooting. Since the 1990s groups have formed to re-enact historical battles.


Archery – using a bow and arrow to fire at various kinds of target – has been used in battle, for hunting and for sport. In 2013 there were four different forms of archery practised in New Zealand.

  • Target archery involves shooting at a target on a ground laid out for this purpose. It is an Olympic sport.
  • Indoor archery is target archery done under cover.
  • Field archers move through an outdoor course shooting a limited number of arrows from different distances at a variety of objects. Field archery was sometimes used as a training exercise for bowhunting, which a small number of people continued to practise.
  • Clout shooting uses a post or flag marker and a long range (up to 185 metres, depending on equipment, age and gender). A target is laid out around the marker, and points are scored according to where an arrow falls upon it. Accounts of the origins of clout shooting vary – it may have been used to deliver fire behind defensive lines during battle.

Going postal

In a ‘postal shoot’, competitors are distributed across the country or internationally. Their results are posted to the adjudicator, who then announces the winner. Archery and shooting both use postal shoots.

Two national associations, Archery New Zealand and the Field Archery Association, represent 36 and nine clubs respectively. A 2007–8 survey found that less than 1% of New Zealanders had practised archery in the previous year.


Neroli Fairhall raised the profile of archery when she won a gold medal at the 1982 Commonwealth Games and went on to compete at the 1984 Olympics. Fairhall, who was the first paraplegic athlete to ever compete in the Olympics, also took part in the Paralympic Games in 1980 (where she won a gold medal and set world, Paralympic and New Zealand records), 1988 and 2000.


In 1957 Jim Burton featured in Ripley’s believe it or not! after scoring 238 bullseyes with 238 shots. Burton was exceptional. After taking up archery during the Second World War, when a scarcity of ammunition limited rifle shooting, he won 11 international archery titles and 30 New Zealand titles, becoming known as the world’s greatest short-range archer.

At the 2011 World Bowhunter Tournament, 12 of New Zealand’s 21-strong team came home with medals. In 2012 New Zealanders won three gold medals and one silver medal at the World Field Archery Championship in Argentina.

Early New Zealand archery

The first archery clubs were formed in the 1870s, with the New Zealand Archery Association set up in 1943. The first national championships were held the following year, and have been run annually since then. The championships have been both tournament and postal shoots. Bowhunting was formally organised in 1945, when the Auckland Archery Club set up a field section. The New Zealand Bowhunters Society was set up in 1955.

    • Quoted in Wallie Ingram, Legends in their lifetime. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1962, p. 28. Back


Fencing – fighting with swords – is a minority sport in New Zealand. In 2012 there were 21 clubs affiliated with Fencing New Zealand, the sport’s national association. Although a 2007–8 survey found that fewer than 1% of New Zealanders had participated in fencing in the previous year, the sport remained well known. The long history of swords as a weapon of war and their later association with aristocracy and duelling, combined with swords and sword fights in films and television, gave the sport an aura of dangerous glamour.


Three types of sword are used: the épée, foil and sabre. All have blunt tips. The épée, originally used for duels, and the foil, a practice sword, score with the tip. A foil blade is slender and tapered toward the tip, and designed to bend on contact. An épée is a thicker, heavier sword, with a fluted blade. The sabre, light and virtually straight-bladed, was originally a heavy, curved sword used by cavalry. Fencers can score with the tip or edge of the blade.

A bout or match between fencers takes place on a piste (fencing mat), 1.5–2 metres wide and 14 metres long. The speed of a fight varies, depending on the weapon – sabre bouts are fast throughout, while épée and foil bouts are slow with sudden bursts of speed.

Fencing is dangerous – an accident at the 1982 world championships resulted in the death of a competitor. Those engaged in a bout wear a full mask with a bib that protects the neck, a form-fitting jacket, breeches, a long glove on the weapon arm, and underarm and groin protection. Women also wear a chest protector. The clothing is made of heavy cotton or nylon, and is reinforced for top-level competitors.

Sword talk

Some say fencing was better to watch and more interesting to do when a hit had to be seen to be believed. A ‘conversation’ between blades was more likely to occur, fencers duelling until one picked an opponent’s error or moment of indecision, lunging forward to deliver a decisive hit.


Scoring has been done electronically since 1936 for épée bouts, 1956 for foil and 1988 for sabre. An épée is connected to a scoring box by a body cord and has a depressor in the tip. A touch on any part of an opponent’s body by the épée tip turns on the appropriate light on the scoring box. When fighting with a sabre or foil, lamé – a cover made of electrically conductive material – is worn over the areas of the body to be targeted. Both lamé and weapon are connected to the scoring box. A successful hit on the lamé is electronically recorded.


New Zealand fencers have won gold, silver and bronze medals at Commonwealth or Empire Games.

  • Gold: Dot Coleman, foil, 1962.
  • Silver: Patricia Woodroffe, foil, 1950; men’s foil team, 1950.
  • Bronze: men’s sabre team, 1962; Gaye McDermit, foil, 1966; women’s foil team, 1966.

Brian Pickworth, a member of the men’s sabre team that won a bronze medal in 1962, competed at four Commonwealth Games and the 1960 Olympics. Across the five competitions he took part in foil and épée individual events, and sabre individual and team events. Another notable Olympic competitor was Martin Brill, who entered foil events at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, placing highly in the latter.

Early history

Fencing and cavalry sword exercises were practised as military drill in 19th- and early-20th-century New Zealand. Bouts were also held informally – port towns have been described as an important location for matches between naval officers, cadets, crew from visiting ships and local residents.

The late-19th-century development of fencing as a sport in Europe reached New Zealand in the early 20th century. The first clubs were formed at Otago and Canterbury universities in the 1920s. By the late 1930s there were clubs in the four larger cities and some towns, the New Zealand Amateur Fencing Association had been formed, and the first national championships had been held.


Associations and clubs

The New Zealand Shooting Federation (NZSF) represents 250 clubs with 14,000 members, spread across the following associations:

  • New Zealand Clay Target Association
  • National Rifle Association of New Zealand
  • Pistol New Zealand
  • Target Shooting New Zealand.

NZSF is the governing body of target-shooting sport in New Zealand. Hunters are represented by the New Zealand Deerstalkers’ Association.


A 2007–8 survey found that 3% of New Zealanders over the age of 16 had been target shooting in the previous year, while 4.6% had been hunting (a very small percentage of hunters use bows rather than guns).


New Zealanders have won a number of international competitions, including 51 medals at the Commonwealth Games (15 gold, 16 silver and 20 bronze). Greg Yelavich, competing in pistol shooting events, won 12 of these (two gold, five silver and five bronze) at games held between 1986 and 2010. Ian Ballinger, a member of a well-known shooting family, gained a bronze medal at the 1968 Olympics for small-bore rifle shooting. A New Zealand women’s team won a gold medal at the 2004 world clay shooting championships, and team member Natalie Curtis won the women’s title. She repeated her win at the 2010 championships. At the Rio Olympics in 2016 Natalie Rooney won a silver medal in the women’s trap shooting final. 

New Zealand’s oldest sporting competition is the national full-bore rifle championship, first held in 1861 and still going in the 2000s. In 1907 three-time winner Arthur Ballinger was entitled to keep the trophy (a black leather belt and silver cartridge pouch). Instead he donated it to the New Zealand Defence Rifle Association (later the National Rifle Association) for ongoing competition, at which point it was renamed the Ballinger Belt.

Live targets

Live birds – pigeons, starlings, and sparrows – released from traps were more fun to shoot than clay targets mechanically flung into the air. The birds’ swift, darting flight was far more challenging than the predictable track of an inanimate target. Early competitive shooters voted with their feet – the first clay-target championship (held in Dunedin in 1908) attracted only 13 shooters, compared with fields of 30 or more for live bird shooting. Although many people disapproved of live shoots, some clubs continued to hold them until their abolition in 1954.


Unlike archery and fencing, shooting is a current military practice. The link is clear in the history of shooting in New Zealand – the national full-bore rifle championship was set up by the government during the North Taranaki war, shooting associations were linked to defence forces well into the 20th century, and rifle ranges were sometimes bought outright or contributed to by the government.

Newspaper reports of New Zealand's early gun clubs first appeared in the late 1860s. The New Zealand Rifle Association was formed in 1878 (and became known as the National Rifle Association in 1923). By 1899 the New Zealand Gun Clubs Association (for trap and clay-target shooting) had been formed. Small-bore or miniature rifles – .22 rifles and air rifles – were used by cadet and territorial army units in the early 20th century, and the first small-bore clubs were set up. The New Zealand Small-bore Rifle Association first met in 1924.

Pistols were not used for target shooting in New Zealand until 1962, when the Christchurch East Small-bore Rifle Association Club held the first such competition. By the 2000s there were several different types of pistol shooting, including six International Shooting Sport Federation events, four of which were Olympic competitions.

Military re-enactment

Military re-enactment groups, sometimes called combat and culture clubs, re-enact or perform battles. Some groups focus on the historical accuracy of a battle and the weaponry used, while others are more interested in exploring weapon use and wearing the outfits. Many groups put on displays (often to educate as well as entertain). Some hold feasts, dance, perform plays and practise arts and crafts of the era they are dedicated to. The periods covered vary from the 8th century BC (Rome and the Etruscans) to the 20th century (Vietnam War).


Across the developed world there has been a strong surge of interest in military re-enactment. From the 1990s groups formed in New Zealand, and in 2012 there were between 20 and 50 groups nationwide. They were found in all New Zealand’s main centres and some smaller towns.

Some New Zealand societies or groups are chapters of larger overseas groups (the English War Bow Society of New Zealand is a chapter of the British society of the same name, and one of several such groups around the world). The clubs vary in their focus, not only in terms of the time period. The Order of the Boar, for example, has a particular interest in horse-based military re-enactment.

Fighting on film

Different ways of fighting helped build the characters of orcs, elves, dwarves, hobbits and others in the Lord of the rings films. New Zealander Tony Wolf, fighting styles designer for the trilogy, drew on his knowledge of the history of European weaponry and fighting systems, which he developed as editor of the online Journal of Manly Arts.

An element of humour and fantasy in some groups linked them with Alf’s Imperial Army (formed in 1972) and the McGillicuddy Highland Regiment (1978). Other groups were committed to reproducing particular battles or fighting styles as closely as possible. The inherent danger of re-enactment activities such as jousting (two fighters on horseback charging at each other, attempting to unseat their opponent using a long pole known as a lance) or a medieval battle also resulted in a concern with safety.


Re-enactment has a competitive element. An annual joust held in the Wellington region drew competitors from across New Zealand and overseas, and in 2012 a New Zealand team was being assembled to compete in the Battle of Nations, held annually in Europe since 2010. As well as competitive encounters there were camps at which people made equipment, shared information, feasted and fought.


Since 1997 some of those interested in historical enactment have worked with martial-arts treatises, the oldest of which dated back to the 14th century. In 2004 schools of European martial arts were set up in Auckland, Hamilton and the Hutt Valley. They taught both unarmed fighting – grappling, punching and kicking styles – and armed fighting – knife, dagger, stick, poleaxe, halberd (combined spear and battleaxe) and sword fighting.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Megan Cook, 'Archery, fencing, shooting and military re-enactment', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 September 2021)

Story by Megan Cook, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 27 Jan 2015