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Home > Books > Badminton > Chapter III: Forms of the bow and their distribution
Chapter III
Forms of the bow and their distribution
Part 3 of 3

There can be no doubt that the single-stave wooden bow was the original form throughout the continent of Asia, as in other parts of the world. It has, however, been driven out by the composite bow, which is superior to the wooden bow,

36. Ainu bow and arrows
36. Ainu bow and arrows
(From Batchelor's 'Ainu's of Japan')

except in its highest form, in Western Europe. It still lingers among the aboriginal tribes of India and Ceylon. Those tribes, however, which relied on the inferior weapon were doomed to defeat. Their descendants still live among the hills--the Bhils, the Sourahs, the Veddahs, and so forth-- a lowly and probably a degenerate race, still using the bow of their forefathers, which is their ancient title-deed to the soil. Another remnant is to be found of the aboriginal in habitants of Asia in the Ainus of Sakhalin and of Yesso. Hundreds of years before the Japanese landed in Yesso the Ainus were there, armed like their kinsmen of Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands with the old single-stave wooden bow. It availed them little against the superior weapons of their enemies, and they too are already degraded, and are doomed to extinction. It is the races which can adapt themselves to new conditions which survive; those which were not sufficiently versatile to live with the times and invent improved bows and arrows or adopt the inventions of others in old days went under, as do those races nowadays who endeavour to meet lead and villainous saltpetre with the bow and the arrow and the spear.

37. Japanese bow
37. Japanese bow
(Coll. C. J. Longman)

The only other form of wooden bow which requires notice here is the Japanese bow (fig. 37). It is entirely a wooden bow, though in structure it is composite, and it is evidently an offshoot of the composite bow. It is an example of the perverse ingenuity of the Japanese. Being a little people, they have constructed the longest bow in the world, except the gigantic weapons of the South American forest tribes In structure it is a composite bow, yet they have made it of wood, and it bears this resemblance to the primitive or 'gardener's ' bow--that it has a weak upper limb, the handle being about one-third of the way up. Again, the habit of wooden bows is to be straight when unstrung, or even to follow the string (though there are, of course, some partial exceptions), but this bow bends the reverse way, from end to end, as if it were a bona fide horn composite bow. It is generally made of three strips of wood glued and bound tightly together, after the fashion of our English 'backed' bows (see Chapter XVII.), the inner strip being of hard wood, and the two outer ones of bamboo. Sometimes it is bound all over, from end to end, with twine and occasionally lacquered, and sometimes the wood is left uncovered, being merely bound at intervals with a split cane Altogether it is an interesting and original bow, worthy of its makers. I do not know of any other wooden bow made of two longitudinal strips of wood, except our English backed bows already mentioned, and the ancient bow of the Lapps, now long obsolete. In his History of Lapland, published in 1678, Scheffer describes this as being made of a strip of birch bound to a strip of pine, the whole being covered with birch bark. Mr. Balfour says that Indian bamboo bows are also made in this fashion, and he quotes a Chinese bow similar to the Japanese form.


It is only within the last few years that any systematic study of the forms of the bow has been undertaken. This interesting branch of anthropology, so long neglected, is now being pursued with energy in England, in Germany, and in America. The most advantageous moment for such an inquiry has, perhaps, already passed, as the use of firearms is so widely spread that even in the most remote districts many tribes have entirely given up the use and manufacture of the bow. Their disuse of the weapon has, however, been comparatively recent, and nearly everywhere specimens are still in existence which show what is probably the most perfect form to which the different types of the bow will ever be brought.

The Composite bow is essentially, in historic times, the Asiatic form: throughout the whole range of Asia it has superseded the older wooden bow, which, as we have seen, only now remains in a few places in that continent, as the weapon of the lower and probably aboriginal tribes. In the middle ages it penetrated from Turkey far into the western portion of Southern Europe. It is also found throughout the Eskimo region of North America, and thence it spread to some extent southwards. In the hands of the Indian tribes, within what is now the area of the United States, it had not, however, reached such a point of development as to oust even the inferior wooden bows in use there: but for the advent of the white man with his guns it is possible that it might have conquered America, as it had previously conquered Asia. The most primitive form of composite bow is that in use among the Eastern Eskimo, and it can be found in gradually increasing perfection, as one travels westward to the Pacific shores of North America, across the Behring Straits to the abode of the Mongolian races of Eastern Asia, and so on, till it reaches its highest development in India, in Persia, and in Turkey.

Although the Eskimo form is undoubtedly the least efficient, there is no direct evidence that it is the earliest form of composite bow; but it seems highly probable that this was the case. In general structure all composite bows are made of some stiff material, such as wood, horn, or bone as the groundwork or frame of the bow, to which is added a backing of sinews which gives additional elasticity. Mr. H. Balfour was, I believe, the first to differentiate the form of backing in use among the Eskimo from the Asiatic form. In each case it consists of sinew. With the Eskimo, however, the sinews are plaited into cords, which are bound--often in an ingenious and highly complicated way--to the back of the framework of the bow. The Asiatic method (which is also used somewhat roughly by some tribes of North American Indians) is to take the sinew when damp, and mould it on to the back and into the composition of the bow, the whole being generally enclosed in Asia in an outer skin of bark or lacquer; the North American Indians sometimes use snake-skill in the same way. Mr. Balfour's terms will be adopted here, the Eskimo method being described as 'free ' backing, and the Asiatic method as ' close ' backing. It is possible that free backing may have been originally used in Asia, and have been superseded by the superior close backing, but of this we have no direct evidence. A somewhat similar natural evolution seems to have taken place in North America. Geographically, it is hardly possible to doubt that a primitive form of the composite bow spread to the North American Indians from Asia via Behring Straits, and so southwards. But if this is so, there is so wide an interval of free backing among the Eskimo who separate the Tatar tribes (which use close backing) from the North American Indians that it seems certain that the latter must have themselves originated this improvement This is made the more probable by the fact that the American Indian close backing is different in kind to, and much rougher than, that used in Asia. Unless, therefore, we are to suppose that the composite bow was invented independently by the Eskimo as well as in Northern or Central Asia, there is ground for inference that the free backing was universally the earlier form.

Probably the link between the wooden bow and the composite bow was the bow of pure horn. In the search after materials to improve the casting power of his bow, man would naturally be struck by the elastic properties of horns of animals. That bows were made of pure horn at an early date is rendered probable by Homer's description of the making of the bow of Pandarus in the 4th Book of the 'Iliad' (see Chapter IV.) Pure horn bows are occasionally found in Asia, and in the island of Java the horn bow is in use.

In making a bow of horn, whether of a pair of horns or of a single large horn, like that of a buffalo, split up to make the two limbs, the bow when made and unstrung would take the natural shape of the horns when growing on the animal's head. It would at once be found that the only way to get any spring from the bow would be to bend them the reverse way of the natural curve. Here we at once have the reflex bow (Homeric) which is essentially a horn form, and unsuited to the wooden bow. Mr. Balfour[4] says that Dr. Hickson showed him a Javan horn bow which had found its way to New Guinea. The savage into whose hands it fell had never heard of a reflex bow, and, therefore, had fixed a rattan string of his own on the wrong side. History does not relate what success rewarded his efforts with the weapon thus treated.

The necessity of pulling back the bow to the reverse curve each time the weapon was used would soon suggest the desirability of keeping it 'strung' while in use, so as to save some part of this labour, and the rapid deterioration of the 'cast,' if the horns were permanently kept recurved, would quickly lead to the practice of unstringing it when laid aside for the time. Thus, the nature of the weapon would teach its owner a lesson which has not yet been learnt by many races whose bows are made of a duller material which is not put, moreover, to the severe strain of being recurved.

After the newly discovered horn bow had been in use some time it would naturally 'tire' or deteriorate somewhat. Its owner would then cast about for some substance to improve its efficiency. First he probably lashed a piece of wood on to its back,[5] about in the centre, to give it additional stiffness. Still he would find the ends, where the

38. Javan horn bow
38. Javan horn bow
(British Museum)

spring should come from, grow feeble and tend to lose their natural curve and straighten, or even 'follow the string,' at the tips. He would then restore them to their natural shape by running a thong along the back of the bow (the concave side when it is unstrung), which would be secured by being seized tightly at intervals along the bow, with transverse lashings. His thong would probably be made of animal sinew, and he would now find his bow restored to its former power, or perhaps something more. This picture of the actual course of events in the evolution of the composite bow is, of course, imaginary, and no doubt the ultimate result was, in fact, arrived at after many experiments and failures. Here, however, we have the groundwork of the weapon and the lines which are followed, in all the best types, the three main factors being: —

(1) Horn, being a compressible material for the belly.
(2) Wood as a stiffener, especially for the centre, and (as we shall see subsequently) for the ears.
(3) Sinews, an elastic stretchable material for the back.

No doubt it was a bow roughly made of these materials which ousted the primitive wooden bow throughout Asia, and spread through the lands of the Tschutshis of Eastern Siberia to the Eskimo of North America.

The writer feels bound to admit that in propounding this view of the origin of the composite bow he is somewhat in conflict with the views expressed by no less an authority than General Pitt Rivers,[6] who in discussing Mr. Balfour's Paper on the composite bow contends that. this weapon must have been invented either from necessity, from the lack of materials of which to make a plain bow, or from a desire to improve upon the existing plain bow. He chooses the former alternative--viz. that this bow was invented in the far north, or at any rate in regions where a rigorous climate then prevailed, from lack of materials wherewith to make a plain bow. He admits, however, that if it could be shown that the composite bow was an improvement on the pre-existing plain bow, his opinion on this point might be modified. It may here be pointed out that the yew, which is the best of all woods for making bows, is by no means a tropical tree, and further that so far north as Lapland the natives had no need to resort to a composite bow, but found plenty of birch and pine from which to manufacture a plain one. Moreover, all records show that the composite bow, at its best, is, in fact, superior to all forms of the bow, with the possible exception of the long-bow of Western Europe. We have already seen that in regions where the composite bow is general the plain bow still remains in the hands of aboriginal and unprogressive tribes. There seems, therefore, little room for doubt that the wooden bow was the earlier form, and the composite bow developed subsequently as an improvement.

If we have correctly traced the route from west to east along which the knowledge of the composite bow was spread, we ought to find the most primitive form among the people who dwell at that point farthest to the east, at which the form eventually arrived. This expectation is confirmed by fact, as it is among the Eastern Eskimo that the simplest and least efficient form exists. Fig. 39 represents a bow of the Eastern Eskimo from Cumberland Gulf, for which I am indebted

39. Two views of Eastern Eskimo bow
39. Two views of Eastern Eskimo bow

to Mr. J. Murdoch's interesting ' Study of the Eskimo bows in the U.S. National Museum.'[7] This bow is somewhat more simple even than the typical example of a primitive composite bow evolved above. The difference lies in the materials available. Whereas in Central Asia growing wood is plentiful, and horns of different sorts are to be obtained, the Eastern Eskimo had no wood but driftwood, and for horn he was confined to the antlers of the reindeer. In the specimen figured, the frame of the bow consists of reindeer horn only, but in others bits of drift-wood are also used. This bow Mr. Murdoch considers to be the original type from which the three varieties in use among the Western Eskimo are derived. It is probable, however, that the improvements were not originated by the Eskimo, but were received in successive waves from the Tatars of Eastern Asia. Those who wish to study these forms in detail may be referred to Mr. Murdoch's monograph. All of the three varieties distinguished by Mr. Murdoch have the free backing of thongs, but in the case of the Western varieties it is of a far more extensive and complicated kind than in the Eastern bow. Fig. 40 (taken from Mr. Murdoch's work) represents the backing on a bow from Wainwright's Inlet now in the U.S. National Museum. It represents a segment of the bow the natural size. Fig. 41 (also from Murdoch) represents a bow with similar backing, in the same museum. It is from Point Barrow, and, as is frequently the case on the western shores of America, in the neighbourhood of Behring Straits, the form of the ends distinctly recalls the Tatar form found in Eastern Siberia.

It is a curious fact that the composite bow increases gradually in size in its range, from west to east, until Eastern Siberia and Greenland are reached, where the poor materials are no doubt responsible for the smallness of the bows. The smallest of all is the diminutive Turkish bow, which is also probably the most efficient. The specimen in the possession of the Royal Toxophilite Society, which belonged to Mahmoud

40. Backing on  Eskimo bow
40. Backing on
Eskimo bow

41. Eskimo bow of Tatar shape
41. Eskimo bow
of Tatar shape

42. Two views of bow from E. Siberia
42. Two views of bow from E. Siberia

Effendi, the Turkish Secretary of Legation in London in , is figured on the illustration on p. 55, all the other bows being in the museum at Oxford. The Persian and Indian bows are somewhat larger, and largest of all the pure composite bows is the powerful Chinese bow. Farther east again, and still longer, is the curious Japanese bow, to which reference has already been made. Those who wish to study the differences in structure of the varieties of the composite bow will find much interesting detail in Mr. Balfour's Paper mentioned above. It will be sufficient here to give (by Mr. Balfour's kind permission) a brief account of his dissection of a Persian how, and also reproductions of his sections. The figures of the complete bow, and of the sections, are taken from two examples almost identical in size and character, now in the Oxford Museum (fig. 44). They are estimated to be about two hundred years old. In describing the bow Mr. Balfour's names for its different parts are made use of. The dotted lines indicate the points at which the sections were made. It will be remembered that the main constituents of the composite bow were threefold--viz. horn, being a compressible substance for the belly; wood, to give stiffness to the centre; and sinew for the back, to give elasticity and 'cast.'

43. Oriental bows.  A. Chinese; B. Tatar (strung); C. Tatar (unstrung);  D. Indian; E. Indian; F. Turkish; G. Persian 43. Oriental bows.
A. Chinese; B. Tatar (strung); C. Tatar (unstrung);
D. Indian; E. Indian; F. Turkish; G. Persian

Fig. 45 represents the first section through the centre of one of the 'arms' (or, as archers say, 'limbs'). Here we find the centre (a a) consists of two pieces of wood, scored with grooves, to give a hold to the glue by which the sinews are attached. The belly (b b) is made up of numerous strips of horn, and the back consists of a thick layer (c) of longitudinal sinews mixed with glue, and well coated on the outside with glue.

Fig. 46 shows a section through the ridge midway between the centre of the limb and the nock. This is the portion of the bow to which archers look for the 'cast.' If this should be dull and stiff, the cast will be heavy and slow, and zone vice versâ. Accordingly, we find that here the amount of sinew is increased, and the horn diminished.

Fig. 47 is a section through one of the ears. The ear is intended to facilitate the reversing in stringing the bow. It acts stiffly on a hinge, as it were, at the 'shoulder.' Accordingly, the horn disappears from the belly, though a vertical strip appears, for what purpose is not quite obvious. The sinew is naturally reduced, and the proportion of wood stiffening much increased.

44-48. Persian Bow 44-48. Persian Bow

Finally, fig. 48 is a section through the 'grip' (or handle). All archers know that a bow which 'bends in the hand' is uncomfortable and jolty to shoot with, and casts badly. This bow would seem to be well made in this respect. The amount of stiff wood is largely increased, and the compressible horn almost disappears. Altogether, it must be admitted that the disposition of the materials of which the bow is composed is quite admirable from the bowyer's point of view.

In the case of the Persian bow this elaborate structure is covered with a casing of birch bark, which, again, has an outer coating of lacquer, on which beautiful designs are often worked in gold. This casing of a greater or less degree of artistic finish is usual on bows of a composite form with close backing. The map illustrating this chapter (placed at the end of the book) has been drawn up by Mr. Balfour for this work, and is to some extent based on a map made by General Pitt Rivers. It is, however, a considerable advance on the previous map, especially in the distinction which Mr. Balfour has drawn between composite bows with close backing and those with free backing.

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