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3. The Composite Bow

In order to find out the exact shape, size, and nature of the component parts of a composite bow, we dissected one of Chinese make by cutting cross sections at every inch. Fundamentally, we believe, all composite bows are built in the same general manner though they differ widely in pattern and materials. All of them are made of a wooden core that is backed with sinew and bellied with horn.

Chinese bows and arrows
Genuine Bowstring Knot
in a Chinese String
Korean, Sind and Turkish light bow
From left to right: Asiatic Bowstring knot, probably Khurasanian,
Timber Hitch, Single Strand Bowstring, possibly Ṣa‘dīyah

In the English translation of Mustafa Kani's book, which came from the Turkish through the medium of German, the wood of the Turkish bow is said to be maple, which is used because it is particularly well suited to hold glue. The wood in our Chinese bow is of two kinds: unmistakable bamboo in the arms and a hard, close grained wood in the siyahs and grip.

The sinews are probably the same for all bows and are taken from the legs and necks of various herbivorous beasts. Although they are molded with glue into a hard, compact mass, the fibers are often found to be surprisingly short if they are teased apart in hot water: anywhere from two inches to a foot or more.

We know of four kinds of horns that are used in composite bows. A crude Korean bow in our collection which is forty-eight and a half inches long, has two thin pieces of what looks like steer horn on each limb, spliced end to end for a total of ten inches. This is a poor and unusual material, however, for a prime requisite of the horn for bows should be that in its original state on the head it should have only a simple curvature in one plane—like the blade of a scythe—and not be twisted in other ways as in the case of cows or rams. Long strips are sawn from the upper and lower surfaces of such horns, but not from the sides, and corresponding pieces from the two horns of the same animal are mated in the two limbs of a bow.

The three horns which fulfill this requirement of simple curvature and are known to be used in composite bows are those of the carabao, the ibex, and certain species of the domestic goat. Although the ibex is a true goat and exists—always in a wild state in the Near East and North Africa, we think that the "horn of goats" mentioned in the manuscript was taken from domestic animals.

In our Chinese bow the flat and wide strip of bamboo extends all the way from one siyah to the other and is joined to each by a single fish splice. The hard wood of the grip is simply glued onto the bamboo and merged into the flexible arm by gradual flattening. Kani says that in the Turkish bow the arm wood is spliced by a single fish to the grip as well as to the siyahs. The author of our text refers to these splices as the "sharp points" of the siyahs and grip.

In all composite bows that we know of, the sinew is carried in a continuous strip from siyah to siyah. At the grip—which is much narrower than the arms—it may be squeezed up into a ridge which the Arabs call the cockscomb and which provides a better hold for the fingers.

The ibranjaq—a word of otherwise undetermined meaning—is a piece of wood on the belly side of the grip which is accurately fitted between the ends of the two horns. Just why it is needed is problematical but, as all composite bows seem to have it in one shape or another, it is evidently necessary. Maybe it is a shock absorber.

In some, but not in all, composite bows, the grip is built out on the belly side to fit the palm of the hand. Whether this elevation was formed in the old Arab bow by the piece of bone called khudrud, or whether the dustār was a binding for some similar purpose, or whether both of those mysterious objects had other functions, is material for further research.

The kidney, or swelling above the grip—as seen in our Sind bow—seems to indicate a transverse binding of sinew to hold the three elements of the bow together at this point of greatest strain.

The neck is where the arm wood, the sinew, and the horn are attached to the siyah. It is the region of the splice.

The general meaning of daffah is something in the nature of a hinge.

One might wish, for simplicity, that the evolution of the composite bow had resulted in a nomenclature that was more in harmony with human anatomy. It is confusing to find the fingernail above the neck and the neck beside the knee.