Bows and Arrows -- Part One: The Bow
Nature Bulletin No. 592 February 20, 1960
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Daniel Ryan, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist
BOWS AND ARROWS: PART ONE THE BOW
Primitive man, although at different times in various parts of the world,
seems to have passed through three stages of development. During what
is called the Old Stone Age he discovered how to make and use fire but
had only clubs, stones and crudely shaped axes as weapons. During the
Middle Stone Age he invented the spear, perhaps a throwing stick to
hurl it, and finally the bow and arrow.
Then man became a match for the mammoth, mastodon, cave bear,
saber-toothed tiger or any predator. Then he was able to kill his food at
a distance, or from a hiding place, with less risk of his life Then, too, he
was enabled to ambush an enemy instead of meeting him in desperate
the first time, assured of an abundance of food, man had some
security and a little leisure time He began to domesticate animals and
experiment with agriculture He left the caves and built shelters. He
made utensils and clothing. He invented pottery and developed skills
comparable to those of our American Indians. With bow and arrow, he
entered the New Stone Age.
Paintings on the walls of caves in France and Spain picture prehistoric
hunters with bows and arrows. Archers are portrayed in ancient
Assyrian sculptures, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and rock carvings in
Sweden. Warriors in ancient China, Japan and India used the bow. In
fact, bows and arrows have been used in practically every part of the
world with one curious exception -- Australia -- where, instead, the
aborigines invented the boomerang.
Medieval warriors in :Europe used the cumbersome crossbow. It
consisted of a bow placed across a stock with a groove or barrel to
guide the arrow and the string of the bent bow was released by a trigger.
More practical and more deadly was the famous English longbow made
of wood from the yew tree, a slow growing evergreen. Five feet or more
in length, it was flat on the back but round on the belly (the side facing
the archer), had a heavy "pull", and shot a long, feathered arrow.
The American Indians perfected a better, more elastic bow: flat on the
back and on the belly. Even when a foot shorter than the longbow, as
long an arrow could be used and it would travel farther. The woodland
Indians east of the Mississippi used bows, about five feet long, made of
hickory, ash, elm, hawthorn, ironwood, oak, cedar, hemlock and other
The Indians of the Great Plains used any elastic wood they could get.
The worst was willow and the best was osage orange -- very elastic,
very tough, and the bois d'arc still preferred by many archers. Some
were made of elk antlers or mountain sheep horns, carefully sanded,
fitted together and bound with rawhide. Some had buffalo sinews along
the back to protect it and add strength.
The Plains Indian used a short bow -- from three to four feet long,
depending upon the tribe -- and a short arrow, but he could use it with
amazing rapidity and accuracy. Mounted on a horse running at
breakneck speed, he could fire several arrows in the time it took to
reload a Civil War muzzle-loading rifle. He could bury an arrow in the
ponderous buffalo and kill as many as there were arrows in his quiver.
A bow must be made of tough elastic material because, when drawn, the
back is greatly stretched while the belly is equally compressed. Modern
bows are made of yew, osage orange, lemonwood, steel, aluminum,
magnesium and fiberglass. One expensive model is made with a wood
center and layers of fiberglass glued on the back and belly.
To return to the Nature Bulletins Click Here!
Update: June 2012