Archery has been a documented part of human history for at least the last 7,000 years, as far back as ancient Egypt. However, there’s a possibility humans developed archery even earlier than that — possibly around 20,000 years ago. In that time, bows have undergone many changes. Perhaps one of the most significant advancements was the development of the composite bow. Why? Well, composite bows have more strength and tension than what are known as “self bows,” i.e., bows made from a single material. That gives them more power than self bows, which has all manner of implications for hunting and warfare.
In ancient times, the ability to fire a projectile from a distance meant you were better able to hunt animals for meat. It was harder for them to escape, or worse, turn and successfully attack you. The same principle applied to warfare. If you could fire at your enemies from a distance, you made it harder for them to attack and kill you and your troops. Self bows are okay for both of these pursuits. However, composite bows are stronger, springier, and more durable. They’re also smaller, giving an archer a way to use them even while riding in a horse or chariot. Several different ancient cultures worldwide used composite bows instead of bows made of a single material. The history of the composite bow is quite intriguing.
What Is a Composite Bow?
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A composite bow is made of several different materials laminated together. Ancient cultures used things like wood, animal sinew, and animal horns, and glue made from boiled hooves or tendons to hold the materials together.
The shape and style of composite bows varied by region. One famous example of composite bows is Mongol bows. The Mongols were among the first civilizations to invent and develop the composite bow. While all ancient composite bows used the materials discussed above, the Mongols were unique in that the bowstring was attached to the flats of the bow. That, plus the recurve design, gave the Mongol bow an increased draw weight. In turn, this increased the bow’s total stored energy. Because of that, they were more powerful than other types of bows.
The Long and Storied History of Composite Bows
Archery as a means of both hunting and warfare has been around for thousands of years. In fact, we have evidence that the hunter-gatherers who lived during the last Ice Age used bows and arrows. Back then, bows were self bows, with composite bows not even a speck on the horizon.
Composite bows are stronger and more durable, and they also have greater range than self bows. We’re not sure who first came up with the idea for a composite bow. Some believe ancient Asiatic steppe civilizations developed it, while others think the ancient Assyrians invented it.
Civilizations, such as the ancient Chinese and Egyptians took the concept and improved upon it. People used composite bows while riding chariots, and later, while riding horseback. The ancient Greeks’ and Romans’ primary long-distance weapon was the composite bow. The Huns and ancient Mongols had composite bows as their primary weapon of war, too.
Specific materials used in a composite bow
In general, ancient composite bows used wood, animal sinew, and horns or bones in their construction. The Mongol composite bow had a bamboo core, with horn and sinew layered on top. The Korean bow, which was a version of the Mongol composite bow, used the horns from water buffalo, with a bamboo core and an oak handle. Other cultures used wood such as maple or poplar.
Some composite bows used metal in place of animal horns or hardwoods. But regardless of specific materials, ancient composite bows all had three layers. The core of the bow was wood, while horn material made up the interior portion of the curve. They used sinew on the exterior because it gave the bow its needed springiness.
Bowmakers then glued the layers together and compressed them. Finally, they left the bows to gel, dry out, and become sturdy.
Why composite bows gained popularity
One more question that many hunters have is whether they should go with a clip point knife or a drop point knife. A clip point blade looks like one-third of the spine has been shaved off, giving the blade a curving or downward-sloped angle towards the point. The blade gets sharpened on both the bottom and the top third. The clip point allows you to easily skin game or cut through tough materials. Most knives are clip point knives and a hunter won’t go wrong with one.
On the other hand, a drop point knife is a solid piece of hardware. The spine runs right to the point of the blade, often with a slight curve. This angles the point downwards ever so slightly. Because the spine is solid and the point of the blade is downwards facing, the blade has incredible strength. Also, you can use your finger along the spine for extra support without fear of cutting yourself. While it’s not great for piercing, a drop point blade is perfect for slicing. Because it’s a specialized knife, we recommend having a clip point knife with you if you’re going to take along a drop point.
Composite bow vs. English longbow
The term “composite” refers to the materials used, while the term “longbow” refers to a style of bow. So how can we compare the two? Throughout the 12th and 13th centuries, A.D., both bows were popular on the battlefield. We’ll examine the Mongol composite bow and the English longbow, although you can make similar comparisons between any composite bow and the English longbow.
The Mongol bow was wood (usually bamboo), sinew and horn, with fish bladders used as glue. Compared to the English longbow, the Mongol bow has more reflex. When you unstring a Mongol bow, it curves in the opposite direction from when it’s strung. That places extremely high tension on the bowstring, giving it a lot more power. So the Mongol composite bow causes the arrow to accelerate from first draw all the way through the release motion.
By comparison, the English longbow only accelerates an arrow through the beginning of the release. It needs more of its stored energy just to overcome its own inertia, making it less powerful and efficient overall.
Another important difference is that the Mongol bow was a cavalry weapon, whereas the English longbow worked far better when used on foot. The arrows used with English longbows were also better at piercing armor, while the arrows used with a Mongol bow were intended for enemies with much lighter armor.
Advantages of the English longbow over the Mongol composite bow
An advantage the English longbow has over the Mongol composite bow is that, since it used a single piece of wood, it was far less susceptible to moisture than the Mongol composite bow. They also took a lot less time and labor to make than Mongol bows.
Another advantage is that you can leave an English longbow strung for a more extended period than a Mongol composite bow. Composite bows need to be unstrung and allowed to “rest” to maintain their effectiveness. They lose their power far more quickly because they’re under much more tension than English longbows. In that way, English longbows were easier to maintain.
Regional differences in composite bows
Even though ancient composite bows pretty much all used the same materials in their construction, there were vast differences in design, depending on the region of the world and the culture that used them.
The Manchu bow (otherwise known as the Chinese bow or the Qing bow) was popular in parts of China in the early 1600s. The Manchus introduced composite bows to China through invasion and occupation. The Chinese decided to start producing these composite, recurve bows themselves to aid in their war efforts, and they never went back.
The Manchu bow used wood or bamboo in the core, and on the handle as well. In fact, they used extra wood to thicken the handle, and then horn or bone to reinforce it. They also glued horn material to the bellies of the limbs (the part facing the archer), and animal sinew to the other side.
Manchu bows were recurve bows, meaning they had more power than a standard longbow. However, Manchu bows also had rigid ears (tips of the limbs where the string attached), which were both good and bad. Such stiff ears made it possible to bend the bow to high degrees, but they also added weight, which reduced power. Also, if the ears were misaligned, the bow could come unstrung while firing an arrow (and you can imagine the problems that would cause).
Scythian bows (Europe)
We don’t have any archaeological evidence of Scythian bows. However, ancient Greek and Roman art depict these bows in detail, so they very likely were real. Scythian bows were composite recurve bows, like Mongol and Manchu bows. Unlike those two types of bows, though, Scythian bows tend to be asymmetrical. The handle was higher up, rather than directly in the center between the bow’s upper and lower limbs. The upper limb was shorter and more sharply curved than the lower limb, which is part of why Scythian bows are such a historical curiosity. Most bows throughout history are symmetrical.
However, historians have found depictions of asymmetrical bows in the Middle East and Asia, suggesting that the design had a benefit over symmetrical bow designs. They postulate that the asymmetrical design so prevalent among Scythian bows may have made it easier to aim while riding fast-moving animals.
Turkish bows (Eastern Europe and the Middle East)
Turkish bows proliferated throughout Western Asia and the Middle East around 3000 to 2000 B.C. They were smaller and lighter than many other types of bows, including other historical Asian bows and especially the English longbow. Their size and lightweight design made it easier to fire arrows over longer distances, even while riding a horse. Their handle design made gripping the bow more comfortable, too. These bows strongly resembled Mongol composite bows and other recurve bows, with the primary difference being their size.
Their size is deceptive, though. Turkish bows had extreme draw weights (in some cases, exceeding 130 pounds) making them far more powerful but also requiring far stronger archers to use them. The way the sinew on the back of the bow shrank gave the bow its strong reflex, and heavier arrows were more accurate with these bows than lighter arrows. They were still much lighter than English longbows, though, and more efficient and effective while used on horseback.
How Ancient Composite Bows Gave Rise to Modern Recurve and Compound Bows
One could say that the ancient composite bow is an ancestor to the modern compound bow. Indeed, the designs system of wheels. Also, today’s compound bows are still composite bows; they’re just made from modern materials such as metal, fiberglass, and carbon fiber. The archers of today that prefer modern bows all use composite bows no matter what particular style they like.
The recurve bow design led to the development of the compound bow. The compound bow’s construction reduced an archer’s need for physical upper-body strength to draw the bow correctly. The bow’s system of wheels (or cams) impart more power with less pull weight. What once required, say, 60 pounds of draw weight now requires much less. That opened archery up to more people and also allowed archers to train on accuracy and technique with less focus on raw strength.
You can also customize a compound bow in ways that are impossible with non-compound bows, composite or otherwise.
Are recurve and compound bows composite bows?
We touched on this briefly above when discussing Mongol bows and English longbows. Generally, the term “composite bow” refers to the materials from which a bow was made. A recurve bow is a style of bow where the two ends curve away from the direction in which the limbs curve. So yes, a composite bow can also be a recurve bow, and a recurve bow can also be a composite bow. Most of the time, recurve bows are composite bows because long, single pieces of wood don’t lend themselves very well to the recurve design.
The Bright Age of Modern Bowhunting
Great technological advancements are giving bowhunting a very bright future. We’ve replaced wood with aluminum, which makes today’s bows very lightweight when compared to the bows of yore. That makes it easier for a bowhunter to carry their bow all day long. As such, bowhunters can go on longer hunting trips and possibly bring down more game without the use of a gun. Bow manufacturers now make entire archery kits, too, that have all the archery accessories a bowhunter needs. They include sights, arm guards, rests, and spare arrows.
Besides that, we can now easily manufacture bows of different sizes, meaning you can purchase a bow or have a bow made that specifically fits you. Or, if your child has an interest in archery, you can get a bow that’s suitable to their size, and buy bigger bows as they grow. Today, archery is open and available to anyone who wishes to learn it without the need to spend ages making your own bows and arrows and developing the strength necessary to use them. In short, the conditions that necessitated ancient archery gave rise to something that’s fun, challenging, and useful.
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