Bow (weapon)

A bow is a weapon that shoots arrows powered by the elasticity of the bow. It is used for hunting, sport (target shooting), and in historical times was a weapon of war. The technique of using a bow is called archery while someone who makes bows is known as a bowyer, while the maker of arrows is a fletcher. Together with the atlatl and the sling, it is one of the first ranged weapons or hunting tools which used mechancical principles (derived by experimentation and chance), instead of relying solely on strength and skill of its user.

Many bow designs have been used in different cultures and time periods. Common designs are; solid wood (the English longbow), laminated wood (Japanese and Sami bows) and bone-wood-hide composite (Middle East, India, Mongols). In modern times, the plastic composite and compound bows dominate for sport and hunting practices.

Modern-day use of bows for hunting is a matter of controversy in some areas but is common and accepted in others. Modern hunters are often drawn to bow hunting because it generally requires more practice and skill than taking game with a firearm. While modern rifles allow hunters to shoot large game (such as deer or elk) at distances of 100 yards (metres) or more, archers usually take large game within 40 yards (metres) which requires the archer to stalk the game closely without frightening it away. Bow hunting is also still practiced in traditional cultures worldwide.


Rama breaking the Shiva's bow at Sita's Swayamvara in Mithila, by Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906)
Rama breaking the Shiva's bow at Sita's Swayamvara in Mithila, by Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906)

The bow seems to have been invented in the late Palaeolithic or early Mesolithic. The oldest indication for its use in Europe comes from the Stellmoor in the Ahrensburg valley north of Hamburg, Germany and date from the late Palaeolithic Hamburgian culture (9000-8000 BC). The arrows were made of pine-wood and consisted of a main-shaft and a 15-20 cm (6-8 inches) long fore-shaft with a flint point.

The usage of bows in warfare is described in the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.

The oldest bows known so far come from the Holmegård swamp in Denmark. In the 1940s, two bows were found there. They are made of elm-wood and have flat arms and a D-shaped midsection. The middle part is biconvex. The complete bow is 1.50 m (5 ft) long. Bows of Holmegaard-type were in use until the Bronze Age; the convexity of the midsection decreases through time.

Mesolithic arrows have been found in England, Germany, Denmark and Sweden. They were often rather long (up to 120 cm [4 ft.]) and made of hazel (Corylus avellana), wayfaring tree (Viburnum lantana) and chokecherry (Cornus alba). Some still have flint arrow-heads preserved; others have blunt wooden ends for hunting birds and small game. The ends show traces of fletching, which was fastened on with birch-tar.

Bows and arrows have been present in Egyptian culture since its predynastic origins. The nine bows symbolise the various peoples that had been ruled over by the pharaoh since Egypt was united.

Most Neolithic bows are made of yew. Ötzi the Iceman found in the Ötztaler Alps carried an unfinished yew longbow, with a bowstring of nettle or flax fibre.

In the Levant, arrow-shaft straighteners are known from the Natufian culture, ca. 12.800-10.300 BP) onwards. The Khiamian and PPN A shouldered Khiam-points are most certainly arrowheads.

Native Americans used flatbows, often recurved, made from various hardwood species, such as hickory. Likewise, the Fenno-Ugrian nations in Eurasia have traditionally used ash, maple or elm flatbows. The bow was a late invention in the Americas.

Archers, also armed with spears, detail from the archers' frieze in Darius' palace, Susa.
Archers, also armed with spears, detail from the archers' frieze in Darius' palace, Susa.

The bow became the main weapon of war used in the Middle East by the Assyrians and Egyptians, who fired it from warriors on chariots to great effect. The Greeks and Romans did not find this technique useful. Advances in armor made the bow less effective and they both often campaigned in hilly or forest areas that were unsuited to chariots. The development of horse archers by the people of the Eurasian Steppe, brought the bow back to the fore. Using composite bows, Steppe peoples such as the Huns and Mongols became a dominant force.

In the Middle Ages, the longbow was developed. It was an extremely effective weapon in battle and could penetrate armor from a considerable distance. The longbow however is a difficult weapon to master and requires years of training. In Medieval England and Wales, the longbow became a popular weapon and archery a popular pastime. When the quality of English archery began to decline in the 16th century, English monarchs went so far as to mandate by law longbow training for males of military age, and placed restrictions on other physical sports such as football and ninepins so that people would practice archery.

In more advanced countries with better technology, the crossbow was used. It was slower to reload, but easier to use than a longbow and just as devastating. The force of impact of some crossbows is, in fact, greater than that of any bow and so a well-trained crossbowman could be more dangerous than any bowman.

The development of gunpowder, muskets and the growing size of armies slowly led to the replacement of bows as a weapon of war, causing them to be relegated to sport and hobby. See archery for the modern sport of firing bows. Crossbows still have some use by special forces due to their silence when compared with guns.

Bows are found all over the world, except for Australia where the main projectile weapons were spears and boomerangs.

Types of bow

Hun bow

Hun bow
Hun bow

The Hun bow is an asymmetric, composite and reflex bow. It was invented in Central Asia and carried to Europe first by the Huns.

Its asymmetric shape allowed the bow to be increased in size without restricting its use from the saddle of a horse. The lower part had to be shorter to facilitate movement across the back and neck of the horse, but the upper part was not so constrained and could be longer. The result was a stronger, longer-range bow than that of the Germanic tribes of Europe. Quite simply, the users of the Hun bow could shoot down their enemies before they could use their bows. The asymmetry, however, led to less accuracy, although this was offset to some extent by the fact that the weapon was a composite bow.

The respect that the Goths had of the Hun bow was transmitted orally for a millennium among Germanic tribes and comes down to us in the Scandinavian Hervarar saga. The Geatish king Gizur who commands the Goth forces taunts the Huns and says:

Eigi gera Húnar oss felmtraða né hornbogar yðrir.
We fear neither the Huns nor their hornbows.

Hungarian bow

The Hungarian bow, an improvement of the Hun bow for archers on foot, is a symmetric, composite and reflex bow. It was invented in Central Asia.

It improved on the Hun bow by lengthening its lower part until both halves were of equal size. This symmetry increased both its range and accuracy. If the archer was using the Hungarian bow while mounted, he or she needed to stand up on the saddle, an action that was impossible until the invention of the stirrup. See also composite bow.

Korean bows

The Koreans, lacking the use of guns, developed an intricate line of bows and crossbows. There has even been a case of a chinese emperor beggin to know the secrets of making one. The record breaking bows were Suk-Gung (600 meters) and the Kuk-Gung ( record of 1070 meters ).

Perso-Parthian bow

The Perso-Parthian bow is a symmetric recurve composite bow made of Ibex (or for low quality bows, Ox) horn, a variety of wood cores, gazelle, deer, or Ox sinews, and usually hide glue. These bows are highly tensioned. The "arms" of the bow are supposed to cross each other. The finished bow is then covered by bark, fine leather, or in some cases shark skin and laminated to keep out moisture. Traditionally, Ox tendons are considered inferior to wild game sinews since they have a higher fat content.

Perso-Parthian bows were in use as late as 1820s in Persia(Iran). They were then replaced by muskets. Bow making technology improved, but the fundamentals remained the same for millenia.

Iranian people who migrated from central asia and southern europe and settled modern Iran, brought horse archery and improved composite bows to the middle east. Aryan nomads such as Scythians, Sakas, and Sarmatians were skilled archers. Parthians, originally a Scythian tribe, were famed horse archers. Using Perso-Parthian bows, Parthians inflicted several devastating defeats on Romans. Battle of Carrhae is probably the first decisive victory of horse archers armed with Perso-Parthian bows over heavy infantry.

Mongol bow

The Mongol bow is the type most often referred to as the typical Asian recurve bow, made as a composite bow, from ibex or (more traditionally) water buffalo horn, sinew, birk wood and birk bark, and bamboo. The principal technical difference used to distinguish a "Mongol bow" from a "Hungarian bow" is the presence of a string run--an attachment of horn or wood, used to hold the string a little further apart from the bow's limbs. This attachment has been said to aid the archer by either creating a mechanical advantage at the end of the draw or giving an extra "snap" and acceleration to the string after the release.

The Mongolian tradition of archery is attested by an inscription on a stone stele that was found near Nerchinsk in Siberia: "While Chinggis Khan was holding an assembly of Mongolian dignitaries, after his conquest of Sartaul (East Turkestan), Esungge (the son of Chinggis Khan's brother) shot a target at 335 alds (536 m)."


A very long bow, ideally made from yew, Italian yew being the best, but white woods (ash, sycamore and even pine) were used most of the time due to availability. These bows shoot a considerable range (300 yards and more) a longbow was often built to be as tall as the archer.the most famous example is the "English" or "Welsh" longbow, made traditionally of yew wood, (when available) and carried by English armies to great effect in the Hundred Years' War. At this time it was called the “war bow.” At close range, the longbow could be aimed directly at an individual target, and was capable of penetrating all but the very best plate armor of the time. In battle, an archer could shoot 3 arrows before the first arrow hit its target, creating the effect of a cloud of arrows in the sky, sometimes causing the enemy to panic. While reconstuctions have shown that contemporary crossbows had equal penetrating power, they were expensive and not widespread. At distance, archers would fire mass volleys on a high, arching trajectory at enemy formations, making longbow fire in some respects more akin to light artillery of the modern era. Longbow arrows lost some penetrative power used in this fashion, but anecdotes still abound of knights pinned to their horses by arrows that took them through the thigh, etc. The arrows used were very heavy, with bulky heads and wide diameter shafts meaning that even on a high trajectory, their penetrative power was considerable.

This style of bow was used up until the time of the English Civil War but was replaced in many cases by the matchlock musket, mostly because of the years of training involved with archery, even though the longbow was capable of much higher rates of fire--as many as 5 to 10 shots in 30 seconds to the musket's 1 shot in 30 seconds. The longbow, in the hands of a skilled yeoman archer, was also undoubtedly far more accurate than early musketry, and had a greater range. The musket, like the crossbow before it, could be effectively employed with relatively little training, and had the psychological advantages of producing fire, smoke and noise in abundance when it was fired.

To make the bow you would need a stave of yew or another suitable wood. Once you have that you would need to carve the stave so that the inner belly of the bow was made of the dense heartwood while the outer side would be made of the springier sapwood. This combination gives the bow its immense power. You would then need to steam the ends to give them a slight bend and finish by rubbing a combination of natural ingredients into the bow. This would stop the bow drying out and breaking on the battle field.


A self-bow made from very hard and resilient wood, such as ash, hickory or oak. Its name is due to fact that it is made flat, like a ski. The flatbow's limbs are wider near the handle than on the tips, spreading the stress more efficiently than those of an ordinary longbow or composite bow. The traditional Finnish flatbow is made from ash and is as tall as the shooter. Modern flatbows are often made recurved.


An automatic bow: The bow string is tied on a wooden support that holds it. When a trigger is pressed, the wooden support releases the bow string, releasing the arrow. The crossbow required less strength to fire it, but early on took great strength to load, though this was solved with the addition of a crank. Another means of loading the crossbow was to use a small hook attached to the belt of the archer. The archer would then hold the crossbow still by slipping his foot into a foothold at the tip of the bow. He then pulled the bowstring back by placing the hook in the crossbow's string and standing up. This permitted the firer to use his legs, instead of his arms, to pull back the string. Using this method, two-man teams with two crossbows (one would load the bow and then pass it to the firer in exchange for an unloaded bow) could produce a rate of fire comperable to contemporary bows. This method was not long-lived in European landwarfare, however, because the crossbow was soon after replaced by the musket.

The oldest remains of crossbows are found in East Asia and date back to 2000 BCE. Some crossbows are known as a bowgun. They launch stones or lead. This Chinese invention dates back to at least 300 BCE.


An arbalest is large, powerful crossbow with a bow (prod) of steel, rather than of wood or horn/sinew composite. The Hussites were famous for their arbalest archers.


A ballista is a torsion springs crossbow. Depending on size, it was used as a siege weapon or sniper weapon. It has a high degree of efficiency because of the low inertia of the torsion springs, but efficiency decreases if operated under humid conditions and needs permanent anointment. It was usually operated by one (Scorpion) to three men. It shoots large arrows or stones. Nowadays ballista-bows have been constructed.

Composite bow

A composite bow is made from different materials laminated together, usually applied under tension.

The Hun and Hungarian bows use horn on rear and with sinew on front. They are recurve bows as the shape curves back on itself and it is this design that gives the bows tremendous power compared with their size.

The English longbow has a natural composite of yew sap wood and heart wood. The heart wood is on the inside of the bow and resists compression and the outer sapwood stretches. This makes a powerful natural spring.

Modern composite bows use laminated wood, plastic, and fibreglass. These are little affected by changes of temperature and humidity.


A yumi is a Japanese longbow used in the practice of Kyudo (Japanese archery). Traditionally made from a composite of bamboo, wood and leather, yumi are of asymmetrical design, with the grip positioned at about one-third the distance from the lower tip. It is believed the asymmetric shape was designed for use on horseback, allowing the bow to be more easily moved from one side of the horse to the other.

Compound bow

A compound bow is a modern bow that has pulleys or cams at the end of each limb through which the bow string passes. As the bow is pulled back (drawn) the pulleys or cams turn which, in turn, reduce the amount of force needed to completely draw the bow. They are little affected by changes of temperature and humidity and give superior accuracy, velocity, and distance in comparison to the traditional longbow. Unlike traditional bows that are usually made of wood or wood laminated with other materials, compound bows are usually made of aluminium and composite materials. They were first developed and patented by Holless Wilbur Allen in the USA in the 1960s and have become increasingly popular.

With a traditional single string bow as the string is pulled back the tension increases, so the bow must be aimed and released quickly. On release the string rapidly accelerates to its fastest and then decelerates for it to return to stationary. There are mechanical advantages to pulleys:

  • The draw force does not increase as the bow is drawn enabling the archer to hold the bow fully drawn and take time to aim;
  • The pulleys enable the archer to draw a bow with a much higher draw force than they could manage with a conventional single stringed bow (there are very few people alive today who could shoot accurately with a single string using the draw force of the longbows found on the Mary Rose);
  • The string continues to accelerate from the release to rest so imparting more power (and hence speed) to the arrow.

Archers in modern archery competitions usually use a release aid to hold the string steady. This attaches to the bowstring at a point and permits the archer to release the string with a pull of a trigger.

Related weapons

  • Whip bow - An arrow or dart is attached via a notch in its forward end to the knotted end of a cord attached at the other end to a flexible stick. The stick is used to 'whip' or slingshot the dart forward, and the knotted cord releases from the notch. Mainly a children's toy, this "bow" is described in The American Boy's Handy Book
  • Atlatl - Spearthrower or woomera. Although the darts are often fletched, there is no bow or stored energy before firing

See Also

Bows and Arrows


  • U. Stodiek/H. Paulsen, "Mit dem Pfeil, dem Bogen..." Techniken der steinzeitlichen Jagd.

(Oldenburg 1996).

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