Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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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

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 hand-to-hand conflict.

For 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 trees.

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.

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