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Home > Books > The British Archer > On the improvement of the bow
Part I: The introduction of Archery, and high consequence of the art to the early hunter and warrior

ON THE IMPROVEMENT OF THE BOW,
FROM ITS FIRST INVENTION.

The first Bows, doubtless, were formed of rough boughs of trees ; and as their value in attack and defence must soon have been proved, the attention of man would immediately have been directed towards the improvement of the weapon.

The simple bough being shaped into a more convenient form, and the utility of making each end more taper than the centre, evident, would have pointed out the advantage of either making the curve of the bow regular throughout, or a distinct bend in each Limb of the instrument, i.e. from either side of the handle to the tips ; and shewn, that with regard to proper length, substance, and quality of the material, for the attainment of a sharp and strong cast, more was to be discovered.

The bow probably remained in its comparatively rude state, for a length of time.

Different Nations have always had their own peculiar mode of making bows, yet the principles upon which bows were constructed, were ever similar in all countries.

Among savage people, and a great part of the eastern world, the practice of using reed or cane is still common. In the days of Job, it appears that steel was used in the construction of the bow.[2] Homer informs us, that bows were sometimes made of horn; speaking of that of Pandarus, he says,

"Twas form'd of Horn and smooth'd with artful toil,
A mountain Goat[3] resigned the shining spoil."

And in the Poet's further description of this same Weapon, we may conclude, that the ancients ornamented their bows very highly.

"The Workmen joined and shaped the bended horns,
And beaten gold each taper point adorns."

Yew is mentioned by Homer as a bow-wood of the ancients.

The Chinese Tartars, East Indians, Turks, and Persians generally manufacture their bows of wood and horn combined.

Sometimes the Persians make small, but very strong bows of the horns of the Antelope, which are generally much more inflected that any others.

The only Materials hitherto employed, with good effect, in the long bow, have been horn and wood; the former, or both combined, are peculiar to the Eastern, the latter, to most of the European and other Nations.[4]

It has been imagined that the horn used in the Bows of the Chinese Tartars and others, undergoes the process of liquefaction; but this must be quite erroneous, as by liquefying horn, the substance becomes short and very brittle, and more fit for the manufacture of combs and small fancy work ; whereas in the natural state of horn, the fibres which may be perceived to run perfectly from one end to the other, are preserved, and ensure, by their tenacity, that toughness and power of cast which are indispensably necessary. Wood and Sinews form the backs of these Bows and horn the bellies of the Instruments. The backs are covered with fibres, or animal sinews, and upon these, the horn is afterwards fixed by strong glue or cement, and runs from the handle to within 8 or 10 inches of the nocks. The Nocks or Ends of these bows are of wood and most artfully fixed to the Sinews and the Horn, over which sinews and birch bark is cemented.

Chinese Tartary bows, vary in length from about 3 to full 5 feet when bent. The largest, possess prodigious power, and are capable of casting a light arrow full five hundred yards. The string is commonly of twisted silk.[5] These Bows are remarkably pleasant in drawing and will allow of Arrows being pulled to the head, of 33 or 34 inches in length,—nearly the full stretch of a tall man's arm.

Plate 2
Plate 2

The South Americans, the People of Surinam, and the Africans, have long straight bows of tolerable great strength to this day; particularly the former people, who use them often, as high as 90lb power. Some of these weapons, are 7 feet in length between the nocks, —and are occasionally made of a most beautiful hard dark wood, called Snake Wood and Copie Wood, and another sort, resembling the finest Mahogany; they bear a remarkably high polish, and although heavy, afford a quick cast.

The backs of American bows are mostly grooved.—In respect to the figures, or length of the various bows made use of in Ancient times, we have nothing to shew us but sculptured tradition, or assertions of historians, most of whom, probably were wholly unacquainted with Archery.

Herodotus says, that the bows used by the Ethiopians, were of Palm Tree, the length not less than 4 cubits[6] and that these people shot with extremely long arrows.

The Carducian bow was, (according to Moseley,) 3 cubits long, and the arrows 2.

During the time of Julius Caesar, the bow was much in use among the Cretans, whose Archers then composed part of the Roman Troops.[7]

From this fact, we must conclude, either that the Romans brought the bow to this country, or caused some improvements to be made on those which they found in the possession of the Britons.

Previous to the Norman Conquest, it does not appear that the English paid any particular attention to archery. That great event was doubtless brought about by the superiority of the Norman archers over those of our own Country. The severe lesson that was then taught to the vanquished, was not forgotten. From that period, the English archers began to rise, and prove themselves " terrible in Arms," and not only ultimately to equal, but to excel all the former exploits of other Nations. Thus, it may be said, that Archery became, the Theme of this Kingdom and naturalized to the Country.[8]

King William encouraged and commanded the practice of the bow, and in a short time after the battle of Hastings, the English archers formed a considerable portion of the National infantry.

The ancient English Long Bows, used as weapons of war, were made of wood only, and the most esteemed were of foreign yew.

The superior value of foreign Yew as a Bow-wood, is recognised by statutes passed in the reign of Edward IV, and Richard III. which direct, that Bow-staves " shall be imported from Venice ;"[9] according to Grose, we find that "To prevent a too great consumption of foreign yew, it was enacted, by Act 33, Henry VIII, that Bowyers were to make four bows of any other wood to one of yew," and any person under 17 years of age, (unless possessed of moveables worth 40 marks, or the son of Parents having an Estate of ten pounds, per annum ;) not to shoot in a yew bow, under a penalty of 6s..8d.

The act, 8th. of Elizabeth, Cap. 10th. regulates the prices of bows, and directs, that when "a common, or Livery bow, or a bow of English yew, is sold for 2s. a bow of foreign yew, may be sold for 6s..8d. It may here be remarked, that Mr. Ainsworth, a Bowyer, living at Walton le Dale near Preston very lately sold two Self Bows made by himself, of Spanish Yew, one for £8—the other for £10. The length of English bows during the reign of Edward IV. became a matter for legislative consideration, questionless for the purpose of preventing an apprehended decline of the then hitherto acquired power of English Archery.

On referring to the statute of 5th Edward IV, Cap. iv, we find that "Every Englishman, and Irishman, that dwell with Englishmen and speak English, that be betwixt sixteen and sixty in age, shall have an English bow of his own length, and one fistmele,[10] at the least, betwixt the necks, with 12 Shafts of the length of three quarters of the Standard."

Estimating the breadth of an ordinary man's fist at about four inches, the bow for a man five feet six inches high was by this law required to be nearly six feet betwixt the Nocks; but the Irish Statute of Edward IV. says " That the bow shall not exceed the height of a man," &c.—Judging from the fact, that the common range of an English Archer's shot in these early times, was from sixteen to twenty score yards, we may form some notion of the prodigious power of the bows used by this country in battle, and of the great muscular strength required, to use with effect, such mighty machines.

From the well authenticated and undoubted records of the effects of our ancient strong shooting, it would not be overrating the strength of the war bow, to say, that it must have been from 100 to 120 and 150 pounds [11]

It would be needless to recount the various acts passed during the successive reigns of the kings of England, for the encouragement of Archery; suffice it to say, that from the days of William the Conqueror, in whose reign, the art attracted the particular attention of the Government, to the Sixteenth Century, it was the great security and bulwark of the land.

In the East Indies, and in South America, the natives make use of another sort of Long-bow, called the Pellet-Bow, which is calculated more for shooting small birds, than to be used as an Instrument of attack or defence. It has two strings of equal length, which are kept asunder by a piece of cane about an inch long, at nearly two inches from each extremity of the bow. At the centre of the strings, is a sort of small webbed half-bag, in which the pellet is placed. The missile is held therein, between the finger and thumb; and at the moment of loosing the string, the bow-arm is stretched out, so as to twist the strings a little outwards, which movement allows the pellet to pass without danger to the bow-hand. The pellets are usually made of clay.

From the time that Archery was first introduced into this country, to the days of Henry VIII, the English bow was formed of only one piece of wood. Had it been otherwise, no doubt Ascham would

have noticed it in his "Toxophilus."—Since his time, a most important discovery in Archery has been made, by uniting a thin piece of tough and spirited wood, such as ash, hiccory, or lance wood, to the principal part of the bow. Bows of this sort have, since the invention, been called backed, and the other sort from that time, received the title of self-bows.—About six years ago, a Mr. J. Dennett, of Newport, in the Isle of Wight, made an experiment by introducing a small slip of quick casting wood along in the centre of the belly of a bow, from the handle to the nocks.—It succeeded admirably.

From the days of the first decline of English archery, the growth of the Bow-woods, particularly that of Yew, has been much neglected ; and probably from the consequent difficulty of obtaining an adequate supply of good clean staves, to make self-bows, (which should be at least six feet in length,) the idea of backing two shorter pieces of bow-wood to make one whole, was entertained, a notion, which might perhaps have been strengthened by the example already set, in the formation of the bows of the Chinese Tartars, and other Eastern people [12]—The invention of backing, has frequently been attended with considerable advantages, not only in enabling a Bowyer to produce a good bow from two distinct pieces of short wood, which otherwise would have been useless, but even in case of a fret, or small crack appearing on the back of a valuable Self-bow, when the back or sap of such an instrument might be cut away, and prepared for the reception of a perfect and well seasoned piece of ash, hiccory, or lance wood.

The Art of uniting two pieces of wood in the construction of the bow, has given birth to a further experiment in Archery.

Bows have been made consisting of three, four, and somtimes five pieces.[13]

It has been justly remarked, "that had the bow continued a military weapon in this country, it would in all probability, have derived new powers; or at least those which it is acknowledged to possess, would have been increased, by means of that perfection which philosophy and the arts have to this day attained." Possibly the present method of working in, and tempering, horn and steel, might, under the skill of modern artificers, lead to something highly useful to Archery, either by connecting those two materials with wood, or by using them separately and independently. The trial seems worthy the effort of genius, for should it succeed, the bow "the peculiar engine of the land," might again become the superior and all-conquering weapon of war!"

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