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Home > Books > Archery, its Theory and Practice > Chapter 2
Chapter III
Of The Bow.
Part 1 of 2

Varieties of Form and Material— The Flodden Bow— The Bows in the Tower—The Self-Bow, its Form, Texture, and Weight—Quality of the Yew—The Backed-Bow—Woods mostly employed—The Shape— Cause of the Jar—The Length—Relative Merits of the Self and Backed Yew Bows—The Carriage Bow.


flodden bow
The Flodden bow

Of the various implements of Archery the bow demands the first consideration, and to it I shall therefore devote the present chapter. A general, though necessarily brief, outline of its reign and use in this country, and of its power and character in the hands of the English, having already been given, it may only be necessary further to add that, in almost every nation, it has, at one period or other, formed one of the chief weapons of war and the chase, and is, indeed, at the present day, in use for both these purposes in various parts of the world. It has differed as much in form as in material, having been made curved, angular, and straight; of wood, metal, horn, cane, whalebone only, or of wood and horn, or wood and the entrails and sinews of animals and fish combined; sometimes of the rudest workmanship, sometimes finished with the highest perfection of art. But, as it is certain that in no country has the practice of Archery been carried to such a degree of perfection as in our own, so is it equally undeniable that no bow of any other nation has ever surpassed or, indeed, equalled the English long-bow in respect of strength, cast, or any other requirement of a perfect weapon. This being an indisputable fact, it would be a waste of space and a departure from my immediate object were I to enter into a description of the bows used at various times in different countries, or into a discussion as to their respective merits. I shall not, therefore, do so, but confine myself to the practical point of treating upon the English long-bow, that being still, as it always has been, the only one in use and favour in this country. The cross-bow is, of course, altogether a different instrument. It is a matter for surprise and regret that so few, if any, genuine specimens of the old English long-bow should remain in existence at the present clay. The only one with which I am acquainted was, and, I believe, still is, in the possession of Mr. Muir, of Edinburgh, said to have been used at the battle of Flodden, in 1513, is of self-yew, apparently of English growth, and very roughly made. Its strength is supposed to be between 80 and 90 lbs.; but, as it cannot be proved without great risk of breaking (a risk its owner is very properly unwilling to run), this is matter of supposition only. This bow was presented to Mr. Muir by Colonel J. Ferguson, who obtained it from a border house, contiguous to Flodden Field, where it had remained for generations with the reputation of having been used at that battle. The specimen is probably unique, and has every appearance of being genuine.

There are likewise in the Tower at the present time two bows taken out of the "Mary Rose," a vessel sunk in the reign of Henry the Eighth. They are rough, unfinished weapons, quite round from end to end, tapered from the middle to each end, and without horns. It is difficult to estimate their strength, but they do not appear to exceed 65 or 70 lbs.

Before proceeding to the discussion of the practical points connected with the bow, I must beg my brother Archers to bear in mind, once for all, that these pages profess to give the result of actual experience; and to assure them that nothing to be advanced in them is mere theory, or opinion unsupported by proof, but is the result of long, patient, and practical investigation, and of constant and untiring experiment. Whenever, therefore, one kind of wood, or one shape of bow, or one mode or principle of shooting, &c, &c, is spoken of as being better than another, or the best of all, it is asserted so to be, simply because, after a full and fair trial of every other, the result of such investigation bears out that assertion. No doubt but some points contended for will be in opposition to preconceived opinions and practice, and will be set down as innovations— and so perhaps they are. The value of theory, however, is just in proportion as it can be borne out by practical results; and, in appealing to the success of my practice as a proof of the correctness of the opinions and principles upon which it is based, I am moved by no feeling of conceit or vanity, but wholly and solely from the desire of giving as much force as possible to the recommendations put forth, and to extort, even from my opponents themselves, at least a fair and impartial trial of them, previous to their being condemned. With these preliminary observations, (which will apply generally to the whole course of this work,) I will proceed with my subject.

The English bows in use at the present day may be divided into two classes—the self-bow and the backed-bow; and to save space and confusion, I shall confine my remarks at present to the former, reserving for hereafter anything to be said respecting the latter; premising, however, that much to be said of the one applies equally to the other: the discrimination of my renders will at once distinguish where this occurs.

The self-bow is the real old English weapon; the one with which the many mighty deeds that rendered this country renowned in times gone by were performed; for, until the decline and extinction of Archery in war by improved fire-arms, and the consequent cessation of the importation of yew staves, backed-bows were unknown. Ascham, who wrote in the sixteenth century, when Archery had degenerated into little else than an amusement, mentions none other than selfs, and it may be, therefore, concluded that such only existed in his day. Of the woods for self-bows, Yew beyond all question carries off the palm; other woods have been, and still are, in use, such as Lance, Cocus, Washaba, Rose, Snake, and some others; but they may be summarily dismissed with the remark, that self-bows made of these woods are all, without exception, radically bad, being heavy in hand, apt to jar, comparatively dull in cast, and very liable to chrysal and break, and that no Archer should use them so long as a self-yew or a good backed-bow is within his reach.

The only wood, then, for self-bows, I may say, is Yew, and the best Yew is of foreign growth, though occasionally staves of English wood are met with which almost rival it. This, however, is the exception; as a rule the foreign is best; it is cleaner and finer in the grain, stiffer and denser in quality, and requires less bulk in proportion to the strength of the bow.

The great bane of Yew is its liability to knots and pins; and rare, indeed, it is to find a six foot stave without one or more of these undesirable companions. Where, however, a pin does occur, it may generally be rendered harmless by the simple plan of "raising" it, i.e., leaving a little more wood than elsewhere round the pin in the belly of the bow. This strengthens it, and diminishes the danger of a chrysal (which is a small crack attacking the weak places, almost imperceptible at the commencement, but which, by degrees, enlarges itself, and ultimately eats into the bow, as it were, until it breaks). The grain of the wood should be as even and fine as possible; not cross, nor running out towards the middle, nor winding. It should be thoroughly well seasoned, and of a good, sound, hard quality. The finest grain is, undoubtedly, the most beautiful and uncommon; but the open or less close, if straight and free from knots and pins, is nearly, if not quite, as good for use.

Plate 2
Plate 2
Plate 3
Plate 3
Click on an image for a larger version

The self-bow may be made of one single piece, or of two pieces dovetailed together in the handle. If of one piece, the quality of the wood will not be quite the same at both ends, the lower part being slightly denser than the upper; whilst the grafted bow may be made of the same piece, cut or split apart, and so of exactly the same nature. The difference, however, is so slight as to be immaterial. Care must be taken, in choosing a grafted bow, to see that it be put firmly together in the middle.

In shape, the bow should be full in the centre, and taper gradually to each horn; not bend in the hand, or the cast will be deficient, and it will most likely jar in addition. (See plates No. 2 and 3 .) A perfectly graduated bend from a stiff centre to each horn is best. Some self-yew bows are naturally reflexed, others quite straight, and others, again, follow the string. The reflexed are more pleasing to the eye, but liable to the above objection of jarring. Those which follow the string a little are the most pleasant to use.

The handle, which should be regulated to the grasp of each Archer, ought to be in such a position that the upper part of it may be from an inch to an inch and a quarter above the true centre of the bow: if placed in the exact middle, the bow will be apt to kick. If it be grasped properly (inattention to which will often cause the lower limb of the bow to be pulled out of shape), the fulcrum in drawing will be about the centre. The upper limb, being thus a little longer than the lower, must of necessity bend a trifle more, and this it should do. For covering the handle, nothing is better than green plush.

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