The Archery Library
Old Archery Books, Articles and Prints
Home > Articles > The Journal of the Antropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland > On the Structure and Affinities of the Composite Bow > Part 1
On the Structure and Affinities of the Composite Bow
By Henry Balfour, M.A., F.Z.S.
From: The Journal of the Antropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland
Vol. XIX, 1890, pp. 220-250.


Part 1 of 17

CONSIDERABLE attention has been paid to the history of the bow by General Pitt Rivers, who, in his catalogue of his anthropological collection, published in 1877, has given an admirable general account of this weapon, the result of very careful research in a field at that time but little investigated. To him is due the credit of having first pointed out the necessity for dividing the varieties of the Bow into two principal groups called by him the "Plain Bow" and the "Composite Bow" groups respectively. He has entered, moreover, very fully into the question of the geographical distribution of the varieties, and has pointed out how the "Composite Bow," the offspring of necessity, originated as a copy of the "Plain Bow," in regions where suitable materials for the latter were not available. The series of specimens illustrative of this subject in the Pitt Rivers' collection, lately presented to the University of Oxford, is a very representative one, and in working at this series during the arrangement of the collection in the Oxford Museum, I was tempted to investigate further the structure and affinities of bows of composite nature.

Apart from the writings of General Pitt Rivers very little appears to have been written to describe the complex structural peculiarities of the higher types of the composite bow, and that little, so far as I have been able to ascertain, is for the most part extremely vague and superficial.[1] This is all the more curious when we consider that this species of bow has been in use in its most highly specialized form for a very considerable time, and has been mentioned by countless writers, both ancient and modern. As regards its powers and the skill of Asiatic archers much has been written, and its eulogy has been uttered in the most extravagant terms, and with this I do not purpose to deal, but merely propose to confine myself to a description of the details of the anatomy of the higher types, with mention of some of the more primitive types for comparison, and of some forms allied to the composite bow. I recently had passed on to me by Dr. Tylor the half of a broken Persian bow, of excellent workmanship, and probably of considerable age (perhaps 200 years), which was sent to Oxford with other Persian weapons by Colonel Sir R. Murdoch Smith. This I cut into sections for the purpose of displaying its structure, described below, and this led me to investigate the anatomy of one or two other allied forms by way of comparison.

Before commencing a description of the structure of the more highly specialized forms, it may be well briefly to mention a few points in connection with those forms which shew a more primitive construction, and which may be taken as illustrating, to some extent at least, the stages in the evolution of the highly complex types which complete the series. The distribution of the composite bow is too well known from General Pitt Rivers' writings to need examination here. The more prominent types are those of the Eastern and Western Esquimaux, of some races of North-West America, and the Tatar and Persian forms, there being various offshoots from each of these forms.

In the more northerly regions of Central Asia (where, as pointed out by General Pitt Rivers, it seems likely that, from the lack of suitable wood for long-bow making, the use of a combination of materials for producing bows on the model of the older "self" bow originated), the earlier and more primitive forms have died out. We have therefore to seek elsewhere, in the more barren regions into which this form of bow has extended, for the primitive types which may serve to illustrate the struggles of the early bowyers in their attempts to produce a serviceable weapon.