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Traditional Archery FAQ

Last-modified: December 12, 1997
Written by: Rob McNeur (

Cross post to requested.
Please send your questions, additions or corrections to:

Rob McNeur (

Covered in this document are :-


- Any bow which has the tips of the working limbs bent backwards in the opposite direction from the draw when at rest. This allows the bow to develop extra power when drawn, to store and release energy more efficiently, as well as increasing velocity in the arrow by adding an extra flick in the arrow at the last second as the arrow starts to leave the string.
The amount of recurve can vary from a slight curve at the tips, (similar to a ']' shape) to a total curve whereby the whole working limb of the bow bends backwards from the handgrip, giving a totally reversed 'C' shape, sometimes curved backwards to the point that the two tips will actually touch when unstrung.
(Also known as 'retro-flexed')
- a modern bow using a system of one of more pulleys to develop mechanical advantage. These pulleys may be concentric or eccentric and include wheels or cams. If eccentric, they can allow variable advantage and variable let-off, e.g. the elaborate pulley system can allow the draw weight of the bow to be variably set and altered and also to allow the draw weight of the bow to drop off as it reaches full draw (eg a common example is for the bow to be set to 60 lbs when partially drawn (maximum weight) but dropping off to 30 pounds at full draw position so that the draw can be held at that point more easily for a longer period). This is the opposite of other bows which tend to generate their maximum force at full draw and minimum force at undrawn.
Self bow
- a one piece bow, usually made of a single stave of wood, or any other single material (this now includes 'all steel' or 'all fibreglass' bows). Also used to mean a bow which may be made of 2 staves of wood of the same type, jointed at the midpoint (handle), to give a single length of uniform strength and uniform properties. This was often necessary due to the difficulty of getting a single bow stave of a decent length without knots, warps or other defects.
This is the main European/African/American Indian etc style of traditional bow but can be applied to solid fibreglass, steel, horn, etc.
- a bow made by laminating multiple materials together in thin layers. Materials most commonly used in traditional bows were different types of wood and layers of horn, often bound together with sinew and glued in layers.
Modern bows usually use layers of wood, fibreglass and/or steel. Traditional Asiatic and Arab bows were often horn/wood/sinew recurved composites. The different materials allow the bow to use the best properties in the best location to maximise their efficiency. Manufacture of these types of bows is a slow and painstaking task, as any weakness in any of the joints will give either reduced performance, or a bow which will break under load.
Backed bow
- a bow primarily of wood, but having a thin strip of another material along the back of the bow (see composite bow). Usually the material used was a thin strip of wood (eg bamboo or hickory), or a strip of raw hide or even silk glued in place. This backing did not add much (if anything) to the strength or efficiency of the bow, rather it helped the bow to return slowly to straightness. Bows backed with sinew are the exception to this, as the sinew greatly increases the tension of the bow.
- Usually a 'Self' or 'Backed' bow, the longbow is effectively a straight (or slightly curved) length of wood with string on each end. Fibreglass, steel and composite longbows are also often made. It has no recurves, no pulleys or cams, and is the traditional shape associated with the European archers of the middle ages.
- the measure of stiffness in an arrow. Of less importance with 'centre-shot' bows (ie those firing through the centre of the handle), but of major importance with arrows fired past the side of the bow (See 'Archer's Paradox' below)

Hence there can be 'Composite Compound' bows, 'Composite Recurve' bows, 'Self recurve' bow etc. Modern bows are nearly all of a composite style (recurve or compound) although many clubs do have archers shooting with 'traditional' equipment, and some clubs exist (mainly in the UK) solely for the traditional archer.

Arab/Asiatic traditional bows

Usually made of thin layers of horn and softened (soaked and softened) sinew glued to a central core of wood. (For more detail, see the Asian/Arab traditional bowmaking section of the FAQ).

They are often shorter (42"-72" = 107cm-183cm ) than their European counterparts (60"-78" = 152cm-198cm) as they were more often used from horseback, whereas the European bows were more often used from the ground. The Japanese bow was different again, being up to 84" (=213 cm) (or more) in length.

Many of the Turkish, Asian and Arab races drew the bow using a thumb- ring, a ring worn on the thumb of the drawing hand. The string was hooked behind it (in the palm of the hand) and the thumb closed over the string so that it rested tightly against the middle finger. For heavy bows, the forefinger could also be used to lock the thumb closed. To release, the thumb is opened, allowing the string to slip off the edge of the ring. (With the heavy bows, the forefinger should be raised first to save undue strain on the thumbnail as it slides free from the forefinger).

Using the asian release, the arrow would rest on the opposite side of the bow to that of those using a finger release i.e. for a right handed archer, the arrow would rest on the right side of the handpiece, whereas usually for those using a finger release, a right-handed archer will have the arrow resting on the left side of the grip.

Regular war tactics involved charging on horseback until close enough to fire arrows then circling away again for another go.

European/African/American Indian traditional bows

Usually a wooden 'Self' bow of between 60"-78" (=152cm-198cm) and intended for use from the ground, although the American Indian used the shorter versions very effectively from horseback. The American Indian also often used composite (horn/sinew or wood/sinew) or backed bows.

The traditional yew bow of Europe acted as though it were a composite bow, as it was preferably made of a section of yew taken where the sapwood and heartwood joined. The different properties of the two different wood types allowed the bow to act with the best features of each wood type.

The properties of the 'Self Bow' are such that the minimum length of the bow is (2xDraw length) ie with a draw length of 28 inches (=71 cm), the minimum length of the bow will be 56 inches (=142 cm). The greater the length of the bow, the more even can be the spread of forces built up.

The short bows of the American Indian probably varied between 20-70 pounds, the European hunting bows normally ranged between 40-100 pounds, with the European war bow (eg the Welsh Longbows) ranged from 90-180 pounds.

However, the European war bows were drawn both to the chin and to the chest. Due to their great draw weight, and the fact that they were often used in ranks of archers and fired at large masses of opponants at long range, they were often drawn to the chest (with the bow-string passing down the cleft of the chin) using a longer arrow (36" = 91cm) the 'cloth-yard' shaft, and fired high into the air in massive volleys to fall almost randomly into their targets.

(Hence 'clout' shooting - see competitions listing below)

As the ranges got closer and the archers were more able to pick specific targets, they reverted to a more traditional aiming style, with the long arrow drawn past the side of the chin and the fingers of the nock hand back somewhere around the jawbone or ear and aimed normally. The heavy draw weight of these warbows requires a significantly heavier shafted arrow, usually with some form of bodkin head (see 'Arrowheads' below), which had enough weight to strike its target with frightening power.

Indications are that often many warbows were carried half made (as shaped staves) during prolonged campaigns, and finished as and when they were needed during the campaign.

Normal (European) war tactics involved massed ranks of lightly armed or armoured archers firing large volleys of arrows into formations of targets. It was the Welsh Longbow, in the hands of thousands of archers, which effectively obliterated the cavalry force of thousands of French knights at both Agincourt and Crecy. Bad weather and mud were major contributing factors in this, as the French cavalry were unable to close to attack effectively, so that massive volleys of arrows wiped out the opposing crossbowmen and then the French Knights (and their horses).

Woods normally used for these bows include :
  • Europe
Yew, Wytch-Hazel, Elm, Ash
  • America
Hickory, Osage Orange, Lancewood, Dagame (Lemonwood), Yew, Ash, Juniper, Chokeberry, Maple, Locust
  • Asia / Pacific Islands
Bamboo, Lancewood
  • Australia / New Zealand
The local native races down here never had the bow as a hunting or fighting weapon, so there are no traditions

During the reign of England's King Henry VIII, he was concerned enough about the rapidly decreasing availability of Yew wood for longbows, that he made a law stating that for every Yew bow made, there would also be one made of each of the following timbers :- Wytch-Hazel, Brazil, Elm, Ash He also made it a law requiring every male in the kingdom to practice with the longbow, and decreed that it was not murder if anyone killed someone between the target and firing line during practice.

Bow straightening

Virtually all all-wood (self) bows will slowly develop a constant curve during normal usage. This is termed "following the string" (Yew is one of the few woods which should return fully to its correct shape and even it will usually develop string follow.).

This curving will effectively reduce the draw weight of the bow slightly. This curve can be removed by carefully and slowly heating the complete bow until the wood becomes slightly softer, the wood can then be curved to the desired shape and slowly cooled again. The whole bow should be warmed at the same time, not in stages, so this can be done in a section of pipe with the ends closed, and the heat applied to the pipe, rather than directly to the bow.

As long as the wood is not overheated or burned at all, it should return to straightness and recover most (if not all) of the lost poundage. This will, of course, not be permanent, but can greatly enhance the effective life of the bow

Because of this and other reasons, it is always a good idea to unstring any all-wood bow any time it is not required for use for more than an hour or so. Many modern composites (recurves and compounds) do not have this problem as much and are often left strung for extended periods, but for any self bow it is important to unstring them after use.


These were normally made of hemp, gut or silk and either twisted or plaited with beeswax (for waterproofing) to the desired length. I have heard that steel strings were sometimes used for some of the middle eastern bows, but have not found references for this (and would hate to be using one if it snapped during use. The thought of steel wire under stress snapping close to the check and eye with 50+ pounds of tension on it doesn't inspire me). Often a loop is placed in one end, and the other end left hanging. When the bow is strung, this end was tied using a bowyers knot (now called a 'bowline' knot).

Other methods allowed the maker to plait or twist a loop into either end during construction (e.g the Flemish twist method). Turkish strings were made with separate end loops (tundj) tied to the string with a special knot (same with Chinese, Mongolian, Persian and Tatar, probably others as well too) allowing it to be shortened or made longer to fit a particular bow/archer, the loop added stability to these short recurves.

Recently I was informed that the researchers on the Tudor ship "Mary Rose" have found their first complete bowstring of the period. It was preserved intact under the cap of it's unfortunate owner. The string itself is a very strong variant of English linen, although whether plaited, woven or 'endless string' I am unsure.


Although originally made of a single length of wood, many archers used to splice different types of wood together to enhance the properties of the arrow. Hardwoods were often spliced into the head and/or heel (fletching end) of the arrow and softwoods used for the central shaft. Such spliced hardwoods are known as a footing.

The softwoods allow the arrow to retain its flex and lowers the weight of the arrow. The hardwoods in the head and/or heel allow these areas of the arrow to withstand the major stresses in the arrow namely the splitting stress of the string thrusting against the centre of the arrow (if separate nocks aren't used), pushing it forward and possibly splitting the wood, and also the compressive stress of the arrow hitting it's target.

Often nocks would be reinforced by cutting a slot at right angles to the nock and inserting a short section of horn or bone. Hence the stress of the released string is spread across the horn and thence across the whole end of the shaft, rather than being concentrated in the grain directly below the string.

Arrow straightening

Wooden arrows will often warp slightly in normal usage. This warpage can be removed by gentle heating (usually with steam from a kettle or similiar) and carefully bent back to straightness. Fastening the arrow to a straightedge during the process will help to ensure straightness. The ancients used to do this by heating over a fire and then sliding the arrow backwards and forward through a small hole in a piece of bone.

Arrow flights were nearly always made of feather. The stronger and heavier the feather, the better for a flight. Goose and turkey feathers were often used, although many of the middle eastern archers preferred hawk or eagle feathers when available. And wing (pinon) feathers are always preferred over any others although Turkish arrow flights were also made from tail feathers.

Archer's Paradox

This is not as significant with modern bows, many of which have a shaped handle allowing the arrow to pass through the middle of the handle. It is much more significant in older bows where the arrow is fired past the side of the handle, yet the string actually moves towards the centre of the bow, rather than the edge where the arrow rests. The arrow still manages to fly to the point of aim.

In actual fact, the string moves directly towards the centre of the bow which causes the arrow to curve around the side of the bow and continues to curve and oscillate from side to side in flight. This results in a wavering arrow flight which smooths out as the arrow travels until this sideways movement has been fully damped out. During this flight, the arrow is actually flexing. Because of this, it is most important to get the correct amount of stiffness (spine) in arrows intended for a non centre-shot bow. If the spine is too high, the arrows cannot flex correctly in flight and hence are less able to correct for the travel of the string. If they are too low, then the arrow is less able to dampen the flex in flight, and hence the flexing continues too long.

The arrow 'spine' must be closely matched to the bow weight, as a heavier bow will induce greater flexion. The shaft of the arrow needs to be thicker (to take the extra stresses) and also stiffer (to dampen out the added flex) for a heavy bow, and thinner and lighter for a light bow.


Primitive man started with a arrowhead that was hardened by burning the end of the shaft slightly, then sharpened by shaping the burned end. A 2-blade broadhead (2 cutting edges) was used as the primary hunting and war arrowhead for centuries, either cast from bronze, chipped from flint, or forged in iron/steel.

The arrival of plate steel armour meant that the arrowhead had to change to allow it to punch through rather than cut, so bodkin points were developed in a variety of sizes and shapes. They tend to be very narrow and longer than a hunting broadhead, with little or no cutting edges, in a square or triangular cross-sectional shape to enable it to place the maximum stress on the smallest area of steel plate armour as possible, so as to penetrate as deeply as possible.

Japanese and Chinese arrowheads, on the other hand, have a wide assortment of warheads, each of which have specific effects and intended uses. Amongst these are specially designed heads with hollow channels through them to enable the air to flow through them, giving different sounds in flight. These can be used to scare men and horses in combat. They also have armour piercing alternatives etc.

Turkish flight arrows often had horn tips, thus reducing weight as much as possible.


Simple leather forearm-guards (bracers) with leather thongs were most common, although the more advanced craft of archery amongst some of the middle eastern groups used to make bracers from thin strips of wood, bone or ivory and held in or glued to a leather or cloth body and strapped on. Formal English archers were also known to have worn a large glove which extended as far as the elbow, and had pockets fitted for spare strings, wax etc..


Clout shooting
- A large circle or square (rope, painted etc) is laid out flat on the ground 160-240 yards (146-220 metres) from the archers. The object is to get the maximum number of arrows landing the closest to the centre of the circle. The circle is between 8-12 times the size of a standard target face with a light coloured flag marking the centre of the target.
- a wooden parrot is placed on the top of a tall pole. The archers fire from directly underneath and score points for how close they get (feathers knocked off etc) and also whether anyone can actually knock the bird off the pole. Modern rules are extended slightly to having a Cock (wooden cylinder 5"x2" (=12.5x5cm)), 4 hens (4"x1.5"(=10x3.8cm)) and up to 24 Chicks (2"x1" (=5x2.5cm)) with feathers attached, all on platforms on the top of a pole up to 85 feet (26 metres) high. Around the base of the pole is a ring 15 feet (4.6 metres) across, in which the archers stand while firing directly upwards. Because the arrows tend to fall straight back downwards again, the arrows used are wooden with flat ends (3/4"-1" (=1.9-2.5 cm) wide blunts). Scoring is 5 points for the Cock, 3 for each Hen, 1 per Chick. They must be knocked off to score and all are reset as soon as the Cock is dislodged.
Wand shooting
- A peeled willow wand is set up at a specific distance and the archers attempt to split the wand (Robin Hood style). (Aka Prick Shooting)
Butt shooting
- similiar to modern target shooting.
Flight shooting
- Trying to gain the maximum range possible. Hitting a target is not a primary consideration. Early Persians have recorded ranges of up to 900 yards (822 metres) (with documented evidence), and it has been only during the last century with modern technologies that this has been surpassed. The current record is (I believe) somewhere around 1310 yards (=1200 metres).
Speed shooting (aka Shower shooting)
- firing as many arrows as fast as possible, attempting to maintain the maximum number all in mid-air at once. Several recorded attempts have shown archers having 9 in the air at once, The best record I have come across maintains a documented instance of a master Persian archer having 15 arrows all in flight simultaneously, using specially made arrows.

Suggested Reading

Some of these may be out of print. Quite a lot of information is available for the historical uses of European/African/American Indian/Japanese longbow styles. Much less is available for the middle Eastern/Asiatic aspects.

Toxophilius - Aschaum, Robert
15th Century treatise on English Archery
Can be slow reading, but interesting historically
The Archer's Craft - Hodgkin, Adrian Eliot
Faber and Faber, London, England
1974 (second ed.) isbn 0 571 10493 2 - out of print, unfortunately.
Longbow: A social and military history - Hardy, Robert
Bath Press, Bath, Avon.
first printed 1976, reprints 1986 and 1990,ISBN 0951174703
The second edition came out in the fall of '92; you want that one if you can, as it has the Mary Rose data in it.
A good history of European archery
The Traditional Bowyer's Bible, Volume 1 and Volume 2.
Bois d'Arc Press, P.O.Box 233, Azle, Texas 76098
tel.: (817)237-0829
Both of these are well worth the money, having careful instructions on building archery equipment, as well as much discussion on woods and techniques as well as historical aspects.
Target Archery - Elmer, Robert P (He was the US archery champ for several years in the 1920s and 1930s)
Anchor Press Ltd, Tiptree, Essex, England (first published 1952) I believe the book is now out of print. He has quite a lot of stuff about all the different types of wood usable and their good and bad points, as well as a lot on curing the wood and finally making the bow, also includes some information on the Arab/Asiatic styles and equipment.

Some others suggested

Turkish Archery and the Composite Bow" - Paul E.Klopsteg
first published in 1947(?), there was at least one reprint. It is a translation (with additions) of an article by Joachim Hein "Bowyery and the Sport of Archery among the Osmanli" in Der Islam, 1925, which is in turn a translation of an Arabic text by Mustafa Kani "Excerpts from the Writings of the Archers", 1847.
Investigative Report on Bow and Arrow Manufacture in Chengtu" by T'an Tan-Chiung
a reprint (and translation) from Soochow University Journal of Chinese Art History, Vol.11, July 1981. A detailed description of making a Chinese composite bow.
Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries.
Devoted to history and development of traditional bows worldwide. Annual, #7 subscription.
To join: send to D.Elmy, Secretary, 61 Lambert Road, Bridlington, North Humberside YO16 5RD. (I assume this is a UK address)
Bows and Arrows of the Native Americans by Jim Hamm
Bois d'Arc Press (see address with Trad. Bowyer's Bible above).
Very good instuctions on how to make American Indian bows.

Thanks to the following for their thoughts, comments, fixes and additions :

Any queries, changes, additions or abuse for this section of the FAQ to

Rob McNeur

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