A Short Introduction to the Traditional Archery Bow Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

A Short Introduction to the Traditional Archery Bow

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No one is quite certain who invented the bow and arrow. Some have speculated that some savant may have attached a string to a sapling and used it to cast stones a bit further than one could typically do with the leverage provided by the human arm. This theory works fine until one encounters environments where saplings are in short supply and quite frankly there is nothing to argue against the genesis of the bow in the treeless steps of Asia. The composite bow may have evolved there somewhat earlier than the wood bow did in the forests of Europe for example.

Let us agree then that the bow most likely arose in several widely separated and environmentally distinct places at different times and that it may represent one of the most elegantly ingenious inventions of the human mind, employing a phenomenally simple principle. One can effectively store the energy provided by human muscles in a bow and sequently release the energy all at once. This energy when imparted to an arrow shaft causes the arrow to go further than it would if simply thrown by the arm, however augmented by leverage. In this sense then the bow is a distinct improvement over the atlatl or throwing stick. It is for this reason that the distance the bow sends an arrow is often referred to as cast, with the limbs of the bow effectively substituting for, and augmenting the power of, the limbs of the human shooting it.

The ancient Greeks seem to have had some sort of problem grasping this principle, however. Action at a distance seemed to mystify most of them. One of Zeno's famous paradoxes involves a bow and arrow, arguing in effect that the flight of the arrow is illusionary since it defies the laws of logic. Not until the advent of the calculus was this apparent violation of logic resolved to everyone's satisfaction.

Practical Issues

In the meantime, people more concerned with practical than philosophical issues found the bow and arrow most effective for taking wild game or dealing with one's enemies at a distance.

The Altaic people of Central Asia may have developed some of the most technically sophisticated bows ever devised. To fully appreciate this one must understand how their designs deviated from the straight stick bows more familiar to people of Anglo-Saxon heritage.

The stick bow is just that - a long stick or pole to which a string is attached to both ends. Since the string is shorter than the stick, the stick must be bent describing the more or less classic shape of the arch. The stick, which we trust we may now call a bow without engendering consternation in the land or other confusion, is said to be braced or strung. The archer then grasps the bow in the middle, usually referred to as the handle or riser, and places an arrow on the string that passes across the top knuckle of the hand grasping the bow.

With the other hand, the archer draws the string back with the arrow on it further bending the bow then at some point releases the string. This action sets the arrow in motion causing it to pass more or less around the bow and onwards towards what we hope is the intended target. The bow limbs, which are the portions of the bow above and below the handle, are arrested in their forward motion by the string and the archer will typically experience some sort of intense shock or vibration in the handle that is usually referred to as the 'kick' of the bow.

Altaic people employed the principles of deflexing and reflexing of the limbs to reduce the 'kick' of the bow while restoring the cast that would have otherwise been lost. Deflexing bends the limbs towards the shooter and effectively dampens the bow when the forward motion of the limbs is arrested by the string. However, this reduces the cast of the bow because the bow is more bent to begin with. The lost cast can then be restored by reflexing the limbs near the tips. This effectively increases the length of the bow when it is fully drawn, thus providing increased leverage.

A typical example of such an Asiatic bow might be described in detail when braced and held at arms length by the archer as follows: the limbs would bend slightly away from the archer above and below the handle, then describe a long and relatively radical curve back towards the archer terminating in recurves or 'ears' at the tips which radically bend upward or downward depending whether they are on the upper or lower limb. When unbraced the ears actually bend 40 degrees or more away from the shooter than a straight stickbow would. Each limb could then be described as a shallow 'S' curve or its mirror image connected to the handle.

The English and Their Bows

Among the Europeans, the English are usually credited with producing the finest traditional bows, often referred to as Longbows. While these bows couldn't compete with the Turkish composite bows in terms of cast, they were quite clever in design nevertheless since the bowyers typically employed the physical characteristics of the different parts of the bowstave wood to provide rather impressive performance.

All bows fundamentally work the same in the sense that the material on the side of the limbs facing the shooter, usually for that reason called the face, needs to compress while the other side, usually called the back, of the limbs needs to work in tension. The Turks solved this problem by employing horn, which is very strong in compression, on the face of the bow, and sinew or animal tendon on the back of the bow. These materials were usually glued to a wooden core that served mostly as a matrix or holder for the active elements of the bow.

In contrast, the English cut their bowstaves then carved them such that the heart wood towards the centre of the tree limb ended up on the face of the bow while the sap wood immediately under the bark ended up on the back of the bow. This took advantage of the natural characteristics of the tree itself because heartwood tends to be stronger in compression while sapwood tends to be stronger in tension.

The limbs ended up with a pronounced D-shaped cross section. This was because the power of the bow is mostly provided by the compressive elasticity of the face so the more material there, the better. The curve of the D formed the face of the limbs and thus the face of this type of bow is often referred to as the belly. However, while this improved cast, it also increased what is known as 'stack' or the tendency of the draw weight of the bow to increase precipitously near full draw.

This is also one of the reasons the English bow was a longbow. The inception of stack was a pretty good indication that the bow was nearing its breaking point and shorter bows made this way tended to break more frequently. Thus one savant observed that the bow when braced or strung was already 90 percent broken. Interesting enough this is not a problem with the Turkish composite bow and probably accounts in no small way for its performance superiority over the English bow.

Consequently modern traditional bows tend to follow the Asiatic designs more than the English unless the bowyer is interested in specifically replicating an English longbow. In America, the evolution of the traditional bow has also borrowed design features found in specimens produced by the indigenous people of the Americas as well as materials not available previously such as fibre glass, which can serve as an effective and more durable substitute for both horn and sinew.

Bows of the World

The principles of deflexing and reflexing among other design features were apparently independently discovered by Indian people. They also seem to have got around the breakage problem with solid wood bows, also referred to as self bows, by changing the cross section of the limbs from a D to an oval or rectangular shape. For this reason, modern bows based on this design are often referred to as flatbows rather than longbows. In theory they do not have the power of the D section self bows but in practice this doesn't seemed to have mattered much, particularly when the backs of the bows were coated with sinew and the limbs were bent with heat to configurations similar to the Asiatic bows.

The Indians also employed much shorter bows than the English, especially after they adopted the horse and in time these bows came to more and more resemble their Asiatic counterparts. The Indians also employed shorter arrows and hence a shorter draw. Even though this would have effectively reduced the cast, the bows were sufficiently strengthened to compensate.

Consequently, when the Spaniards first invaded the New World they faced bows and arrows that could effectively penetrate their body armour. Eventually many were forced to adopt the quilted cotton armour employed by the natives.

From War to Leisure

When the English first came into contact with the indigenous people of North America, the Longbow was in the process of being replaced by the musket after a distinguished career in the Hundred Years War and the War of Roses. Archery was becoming more and more a sport of the wealthy instead of the military purview of the not so wealthy. Consequently, like so much else in the indigenous cultures, Indian archery was almost universally disparaged by the Colonists as backward and savage.

American colonists, therefore, embraced the Germanic technology of the Jaeger rifle instead of the bow. This is not surprising when we consider that out of Jaeger rifle evolved the famous Kentucky Longrifle.

It has only been recently that a general dissatisfaction with the challenge - or lack of it - posed by the modern hunting rifle has encouraged a renewed interest in the traditional bow. Traditional bows are once again being considered an effective hunting weapon and modern traditional bowyers are incorporating more of the indigenous design in their bows than many realise. While some of the English design is also incorporated, British archers are quick to point out that American longbows are actually flatbows for the most part and most American longbow enthusiasts find the English design much too fragile and antique for their tastes.

Consequently, the modern American traditional bow now incorporates mostly Asiatic and indigenous designs and will outshoot any English longbow. It's main competitor is the modern compound bow that many consider necessary for the continued evolution of bow design and the sport. However, others have suggested that whatever else the compound bow may be, it's rather an overly complex contraption or simply a heavy, awkward, ugly bow with training wheels.

As such it doesn't fit into this discussion except in passing and we trust further evolution of bow design will not depend on it since there is plenty of inspiration left, particularly in the design of the Turkish bow. Traditionally bows have been elegant and that's a good thing to preserve.

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