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Chapter III
Forms of the bow and their distribution
By C.J. Longman
Part 1 of 3

WE have at present seen that prehistoric man was an archer; that some of his bows, at any rate, were of simple construction, and made of wood; and that he commonly tipped his arrows With heads of flint, bone, or horn, often of beautiful workmanship. Beyond the few bows of neolithic times which have come down to us, we have no ancient evidence from which we can trace the development of the bow till we come to the mural and rock sculptures of the Egyptians, the Hittites, the Assyrians, and the Persians; and, in the case of the Egyptians, the actual bows and arrows of very great antiquity which have been preserved in their tombs. All these nations, however, had arrived at a high state of civilisation by the time that they were capable of executing the remarkable monuments which tell us so much of their life and history, and it is not here that we must look for the most primitive form of bow. Many savage tribes exist to-day, in remote parts of the earth, in whose customs and weapons and art we can recognise a far earlier stage of development than would be reasonably sought for among the comparatively modern inhabitants of Nineveh, or Babylon, or Thebes.

Starting, then, at the time when the savage first evolved the idea of propelling an arrow from a string by means of the elasticity of a wooden bow, it is not difficult to imagine the form which the earliest bow would take. In fact, bows of this elementary form are still being made in great numbers, even in our own islands. Most of us, in the days of our childhood, no doubt possessed a bow, and many have had a similar experience of how best to come by such a treasure. When first a boy has realised that life would no longer be worth living unless he owned a bow and arrows, he usually confides his aspirations to the gardener. He, being frequently a practical and kindly man, pulls out his clasp-knife, and from the nearest copse cuts down a growing stem of hazel, some seven feet in height. The upper three feet he cuts off, as being too slim and weak, and cutting notches near the top and the bottom of the remaining four feet, and pulling a piece of string from his pocket, which he cuts somewhat shorter than the stick, he ties it securely on to each notch, and the job is finished. Even the three upper feet are not wasted, as, when the weakest part of this remnant is again removed, and a notch cut in the butt, a serviceable arrow is made. It may here be mentioned that boys soon discover that the deal sticks used to tie up fuchsias, geraniums, &c., make much better arrows, though the fact that they are tempted to annex them when their benefactor's back is turned would be, perhaps, more in point in a treatise on original sin than in the present work.

The bow thus made will be found to have some features especially characteristic of the most rudimentary weapons. Ill the first place, the stave of which it is made is necessarily weaker at the thinner, or upper, end than at the lower. Consequently, the upper end curves more than the lower, and the centre of resistance, from which the two limbs bend, would be much lower down than the centre of the bow by measurement, the upper limb, as archers would say, being much longer than the lower limb. Now this shape would necessarily persist as long as bows were made from tapering sticks cut without shaping from the growing plant, and in point of fact it has been perpetuated to this day by various races who have advanced considerably beyond this stage of the bowyer's craft, but have continued ignorantly to imitate this early form of bow. It is, of course, a radically bad form, as all bowyers who know their business aim at making the two limbs as equal as possible in length, power, and quickness of recoil. This bow would be technically described as a simple ' arcus ' with uneven limbs.

A second characteristic point in our ' gardener's bow ' would be the fact that the string is permanently fixed in the notches, and that the bow is, as archers say, always ' strung.' Now it is obvious that a bow which is kept always strung must in time degenerate, and, as it is termed, lose ' cast.' yet it is curious that the simple process of making a loop, at any rate at the upper end of the string, which can be readily pushed forward at will into the notch, has not yet been discovered by the majority of tribes which use the bow. It has, of course, been adopted long since by European archers, and the Eastern 'composite' bow is strung and unstrung at will, though in a cumbrous way ; but most savage races keep their bows always strung. Herr Ratzel,[1] in his interesting monograph on African bows --which would have been still more valuable had the author been a practical archer-- discusses this subject, and even seems to approve of the practice of keeping the bow permanently strung, as indicating 'a greater degree of being prepared for combat.' But the time needed for stringing a bow is infinitesimal, and the advantage to the weapon in loosening the tension when it is not wanted for actual use is so great that the invention of the free loop to the string must be regarded as indicating a considerable intellectual advance. It is true that many tribes, especially in Polynesia, use bows with the string fixed at each end, but of such a length as to put no strain on the bow. This plan has its own disadvantages, one being that a severe blow is inflicted on the wrist each time an arrow , discharged. In fact, after the first shot with a bow of this kind, even the toughest savage would find it necessary to do one of two things: either he must shorten the string, so as to reduce the force of the blow on the arm, or he must invent some very efficient form of arm-guard or ' bracer.' Some races took one course, and some the other, but even with the short string a bracer is found necessary by most archers, though not by all.

The plain wooden bow, bending for the most part --though not invariably-- in a single arch from end to end, and formed of a single stave, is, then, the simplest form of bow. The rudest and worst bows known are of this type, which also includes the English long-bow, the highest development of the weapon.

The best method of classification of the different forms of the bow is based on the materials employed in its manufacture. Three main groups may be recognised:

(1) Bows made entirely of wood;
(2) Bows Made entirely of horn; and
(3) Bows compounded of various substances, such as horn, bone, wood, sinew, and so forth.

Bows have also from time to time been made of steel; but the recoil of this, or, indeed, of any metal, is so slow in comparison with that obtained from other materials, that a bow which would give the requisite swiftness of flight to an arrow would be beyond the power of the strongest man to draw. Steel bows have, therefore, never come into use, except in the case of the crossbow. As this weapon was drawn by a lever, or slowly and laboriously wound up by a moulin, the requisite force could be applied to draw bows of enormous strength. This weapon does not come within the scope of the present work, and therefore metal bows need not be further considered.

The following Table is drawn up for the purpose of enabling the reader to grasp at one view the main divisions of the various types of bows. There are many varieties of each form given here :--

Wooden Single Stave
(1) Simple arcus, i. e. bending in one continuous curve. (The old-English form, and very widespread: the typical African form)

(2) Upper limb more bent than the lower. (New Hebrides, Andaman Isles, &c)

(3) S. Shaped (Andaman Isles, ancient Egypt, &c. )

(4) Ends more or less reflexed. Approaching composite bow in shape. (N. America)
Made of two or more pieces
(1) Two 'self' staves joined in the hand. (The best type of wooden bow, Modern English)

(2) Made of two or more pieces joined together longitudinally. (Japan and Lapland, and modern English)
Bow Horn Ancient Greece, Modern Java
Composite (1) With free backing of cords and sinews
(1) Simple longitudinal backing. (Eastern Eskimo)

(2) Longitudinal backing complicating with cross lacing (Western Eskimo)
(2) With close backing of
sinews moulded onto the bow
(1) Sinews roughly moulded close on to the back of the bow. (American Indians)

(2) With close backing of sinews (2) Sinews carefully worked into the composition of the bow. The whole encased in bark or lacquer. (The highest type of composite bow. Turkish, Persian, Indian, and Tartar)
Crossbow Wooden

It is obviously impossible, within the limits of this work, to describe and figure more than a very small proportion of the kinds of bow used by man. It may, however, be useful to notice a few typical examples of each of the above divisions.


The first class, viz. the wooden bow, consisting of a single stave, is undoubtedly the oldest and the most widely spread, and, at its best, the most efficient of all. In this class is the English war-bow of the Middle Ages, of which unfortunately, but few specimens have come down to us. A reference to Mr. Balfour's map at the end of the book shows that the single-stave wooden bow is found throughout Western Europe. From the earliest times it has been the only form of bow --the crossbow, of course, excepted-- which has gained any hold in that region till recently, when backed bows, and bows of two staves joined in the hand, have been introduced. It seems to have been peculiarly the weapon of the Northern races--the Normans, the Scandinavians, the English, and the Flemish; whilst in Southern Europe the crossbow was the favourite weapon. The yew bow of a single stave is the weapon with which Duke William defeated the Saxons at Hastings, and with which the English fought and conquered at Creçy, at Agincourt, and at Flodden Field. This bow is dealt with at length in Chapters VII. and VIII.

The single-stave wooden bow is very widely distributed over the world. Except in the island of Java, no other is used throughout the Pacific, south of the Tropic of Cancer; and, with certain trifling exceptions, the same may be said of the entire African continent. It occupies almost the whole of South America, and is found mixed with other forms in North America up to the regions inhabited by the Eskimo. It is also largely found in Southern Asia. Rarely, however, save in Western Europe, do we find it the weapon of a warlike and powerful race. Throughout these regions the weapon is a feeble one, as compared with the European yew bow, or the powerful and highly finished composite bow of Asia. It is serviceable for hunting, and no doubt was still more so before the game had been rendered wild by firearms. It is valuable for tribal wars, especially for fighting in the protection of forests, where a body of savages can harass an enemy with silent arrows, which hardly give any indication of the whereabouts of the archers; while in many regions poison is smeared on the points, of so deadly a character that a scratch would prove fatal. But the weapon is too feeble to cope with the spear and the sword in the open field, and we find it more in use among the weaker than the dominant races. In Africa, for instance, we find that the Arabs of the Soudan, the Masai bravery many a British regiment can tell. But white men have seldom found any vigorous resistance from natives armed with the bow. The feebler Hottentots, the diminutive Bushmen the hunting-tribes of Central Africa, and many others, have often harassed the white man's caravan on the March through the dense forest, but they have never emulated the deeds of Fuzzy Wuzzy, who, as we well know, with his spear charged and 'broke a British square.' Herr Ratzel bears witness to the inferiority of the African bow to the spea.[2] He says: 'In the basin of the Congo the bow has retired before the spear. Quite a number of nations dwelling and ruling along the principal stream, or its tributaries, have laid it aside; for example, the Ba Ngala and the Ba Ngombe completely, and the Ba Kuba partly. It is the weapon of the oppressed and of the non-organised of the dwellers in the forests or on the savannahs.'

Herr Ratzel gives an elaborate classification of the forms of African bows, and those who wish to study this subject in detail may be referred to his work. The typical African form is that represented on p. 30 (fig. 21, A and B.), and that this form has persisted from time immemorial may be seen by a comparison with fig. 21 C, which is from a tomb in ancient Egypt. Except that the one bow is strung and the others unstrung, the bow that was made over 2,000 years ago might easily be mistaken for those which were made probably within the last twenty or thirty years.

This form varies considerably among different tribes, and probably even with different bows from the same tribe. Thus, some bows are longer and others shorter, some are carefully finished and polished, others are rougher, and even are left with the bark on. Some tribes use animal sinews for their strings, rattan, rattan, or fibres from other plants. In some cases a spare length of string is wound round the bow, and ill others the bow is wholly or partially wrapped with snake or lizard skin, or even iron rings. These wrappings are in some cases, no doubt, ornamental, and in others they help to preserve the bow, especially from longitudinal splits, or 'shakes.' It does not seem possible that any transverse wrapping can be put on with the idea of reinforcing the power of the bow, though Herr Ratzel suggests that this may be the case. one feature appears to be almost universal--namely, that the string is permanently fixed at both ends. The stave is saturated with oil and bent to the required shape over a fire. The string is then finally fixed.

21. A and B. African bows; C. Ancient Egyptian bow.<em>(Coll. C. J. Longman)
21. A and B. African bows;
C. Ancient Egyptian bow.
(Coll. C. J. Longman)

As has been already noted, the practice of keeping the bow permanently strung, which Herr Ratzel approves, is, in fact, very detrimental to the cast of the bow. To fix a string comparatively loosely to a stave which has been moulded into the shape of a strung bow by the method above described, might at first appear to be less harmful than keeping a straight stave always strung, as little or no tension would exist. The flatter system is, however, ill reality the worse of the two, as the mischief is already done by warping the stave permanently out of its original shape. In its natural shape it would possess sufficient energy to recover its original form when the string is loosed, and part of this elasticity is wasted when the fibres are softened and moulded so as to retain permanently a bent form. En the same way, an English self-yew bow, after much work, will begin to 'follow the string' --that is to say, it remains permanently somewhat bent when unstrung. When this occurs a bow is often softer and pleasanter to shoot with than it is in the first vigour of its youth, all jar having disappeared. But part of its elasticity is gone, never to return.