Bow and arrow

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A Karo boy holding a bow and arrow Guinea Fowl Hunter (49109425873).jpg
A Karo boy holding a bow and arrow

The bow and arrow is a ranged weapon system consisting of an elastic launching device (bow) and long-shafted projectiles (arrows). Humans used bows and arrows for hunting and aggression long before recorded history, and the practice was common to many prehistoric cultures. They were important weapons of war from ancient history until the early modern period, where they were rendered increasingly obsolete by the development of the more powerful and accurate firearms. Today, bows and arrows are mostly used for hunting and sports.


Archery is the art, practice, or skill of using bows to shoot arrows. [1] A person who shoots arrows with a bow is called a bowman or an archer. Someone who makes bows is known as a bowyer, [2] someone who makes arrows is a fletcher, [3] and someone who manufactures metal arrowheads is an arrowsmith. [4]

Basic design and use

Drawing a bow, from a 1908 archery manual 19th century knowledge archery drawing the bow.jpg
Drawing a bow, from a 1908 archery manual

A bow consists of a semi-rigid but elastic arc with a high-tensile bowstring joining the ends of the two limbs of the bow. An arrow is a projectile with a pointed tip and a long shaft with stabilizer fins (fletching) towards the back, with a narrow notch ( nock ) at the very end to contact the bowstring.

To load an arrow for shooting (nocking an arrow), the archer places an arrow across the middle of the bow with the bowstring in the arrow's nock. To shoot, the archer holds the bow at its center with one hand and pulls back (draws) the arrow and the bowstring with the other (typically the dominant hand). This flexes the two limbs of the bow rearwards, which perform the function of a pair of cantilever springs to store elastic energy.

Typically while maintaining the draw, the archer aims the shot intuitively or by sighting along the arrow. Then archer releases (looses) the draw, allowing the limbs' stored energy to convert into kinetic energy transmitted via the bowstring to the arrow, propelling it to fly forward with high velocity. [5]

A container or bag for additional arrows for quick reloading is called a quiver .

When not in use, bows are generally kept unstrung, meaning one or both ends of the bowstring are detached from the bow. This removes all residual tension on the bow and can help prevent it from losing strength or elasticity over time. Many bow designs also let it straighten out more completely, reducing the space needed to store the bow. Returning the bowstring to its ready-to-use position is called stringing the bow.


Scythians shooting with bows, Panticapeum (modern Kertch), 4th century BCE Scythians shooting with bows Kertch antique Panticapeum Ukrainia 4th century BCE.jpg
Scythians shooting with bows, Panticapeum (modern Kertch), 4th century BCE

The oldest known evidence of the bow and arrow comes from South African sites such as Sibudu Cave, where likely arrowheads have been found, dating from approximately 72,000–60,000 years ago. [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11]

The earliest probable arrowheads found outside of Africa were discovered in 2020 in Fa Hien Cave, Sri Lanka. They have been dated to 48,000 years ago. "Bow-and-arrow hunting at the Sri Lankan site likely focused on monkeys and smaller animals, such as squirrels, Langley says. Remains of these creatures were found in the same sediment as the bone points." [12] [13]

Small stone points from the Grotte Mandrin in Southern France, used some 54,000 years ago, have damage from use that indicates their use as projectile weapons, and some are too small (less than 10mm across as the base) for any practical use other than as arrowheads. [14] They are associated with possibly the first groups of modern humans to leave Africa. [15] [16]

After the end of the last glacial period, some 12,000 years ago, the use of the bow seems to have spread to every inhabited region, except for Australasia and most of Oceania. [17] [ better source needed ]

The earliest definite remains of bow and arrow from Europe are possible fragments from Germany found at Mannheim-Vogelstang dated 17,500–18,000 years ago, and at Stellmoor dated 11,000 years ago. Azilian points found in Grotte du Bichon, Switzerland, alongside the remains of both a bear and a hunter, with flint fragments found in the bear's third vertebra, suggest the use of arrows at 13,500 years ago. [18]

At the site of Nataruk in Turkana County, Kenya, obsidian bladelets found embedded in a skull and within the thoracic cavity of another skeleton, suggest the use of stone-tipped arrows as weapons about 10,000 years ago. [19]

The oldest extant bows in one piece are the elm Holmegaard bows from Denmark, which were dated to 9,000 BCE. Several bows from Holmegaard, Denmark, date 8,000 years ago. [20] High-performance wooden bows are currently made following the Holmegaard design. The Stellmoor bow fragments from northern Germany were dated to about 8,000 BCE, but they were destroyed in Hamburg during the Second World War, before carbon 14 dating was available; their age is attributed by archaeological association. [21]

Bow and arrow pictured in the coat of arms of the historical province of Savonia Savo.vaakuna.svg
Bow and arrow pictured in the coat of arms of the historical province of Savonia

The bow was an important weapon for both hunting and warfare from prehistoric times until the widespread use of gunpowder weapons in the 16th century.[ citation needed ] It was also common in ancient warfare, although certain cultures would not favor them. Greek poet Archilocus expressed scorn for fighting with bows and slings. [22]

The skill of Nubian archers was renowned in ancient Egypt and beyond. [23] Their mastery of the bow gained their land the name Ta-Seti, "Land of the Bow" in Ancient Egyptian. [23] [24]

Beginning with the reign of William the Conqueror, the longbow was England's principal weapon of war until the end of the Middle Ages. [25] Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes conquered much of the Eurasian steppe using short bows. Native Americans used archery to hunt and defend themselves during the days of English and later American colonization. [26]

Organised warfare with bows ended in the early to mid-17th century in Western Europe, but it persisted into the 19th century in Eastern[ clarification needed ] cultures, including hunting and warfare in the New World. In the Canadian Arctic, bows were made until the end of the 20th century for hunting caribou, for instance at Igloolik. [27] The bow has more recently been used as a weapon of tribal warfare in some parts of Sub-Saharan Africa; an example was documented in 2009 in Kenya when Kisii people and Kalenjin people clashed, resulting in four deaths. [28] [29]

The British upper class led a revival of archery as a sport in the late 18th century. [30] Sir Ashton Lever, an antiquarian and collector, formed the Toxophilite Society in London in 1781, under the patronage of George IV, then Prince of Wales.

Bows and arrows have been rarely used by modern special forces for survival and clandestine operations. [31] [32] [33] [34]


Parts of the bow

A Subeshi culture bow, circa 800 BCE, Xinjiang Museum Subeshi bow.jpg
A Subeshi culture bow, circa 800 BCE, Xinjiang Museum

The basic elements of a modern bow are a pair of curved elastic limbs, traditionally made from wood, joined by a riser. However self bows such as the English longbow are made of a single piece of wood comprising both limbs and the grip. The ends of each limb are connected by a string known as the bow string. [5] By pulling the string backwards the archer exerts compression force on the string-facing section, or belly, of the limbs as well as placing the outer section, or back, under tension. While the string is held, this stores the energy later released in putting the arrow to flight. The force required to hold the string stationary at full draw is often used to express the power of a bow, and is known as its draw weight, or weight. [35] [36] Other things being equal, a higher draw weight means a more powerful bow, which is able to project heavier arrows at the same velocity or the same arrow at a greater velocity.

The various parts of the bow can be subdivided into further sections. The topmost limb is known as the upper limb, while the bottom limb is the lower limb. At the tip of each limb is a nock, which is used to attach the bowstring to the limbs. The riser is usually divided into the grip, which is held by the archer, as well as the arrow rest and the bow window. The arrow rest is a small ledge or extension above the grip which the arrow rests upon while being aimed. The bow window is that part of the riser above the grip, which contains the arrow rest. [5]

In bows drawn and held by hand, the maximum draw weight is determined by the strength of the archer. [36] The maximum distance the string could be displaced and thus the longest arrow that could be loosed from it, a bow's draw length, is determined by the size of the archer. [37]

A composite bow uses a combination of materials to create the limbs, allowing the use of materials specialized for the different functions of a bow limb. The classic composite bow uses wood for lightness and dimensional stability in the core, horn to store compression energy, and sinew for its ability to store energy in tension. Such bows, typically Asian, would often use a stiff end on the limb end, having the effect of a recurve. [38] In this type of bow, this is known by the Arabic name 'siyah'. [39]

Modern construction materials for bows include laminated wood, fiberglass, metals, [40] and carbon fiber components.


Schematic of an arrow showing its parts. Arrow.svg
Schematic of an arrow showing its parts.

An arrow usually consists of a shaft with an arrowhead attached to the front end, with fletchings and a nock at the other. [41] Modern arrows are usually made from carbon fibre, aluminum, fiberglass, and wood shafts. Carbon shafts have the advantage that they do not bend or warp, but they can often be too light weight to shoot from some bows and are expensive. Aluminum shafts are less expensive than carbon shafts, but they can bend and warp from use. Wood shafts are the least expensive option but often will not be identical in weight and size to each other and break more often than the other types of shafts. [42] Arrow sizes vary greatly across cultures and range from very short ones that require the use of special equipment to be shot to ones in use in the Amazon River jungles that are 2.6 m (8.5 feet) long. Most modern arrows are 55 to 75 cm (22 to 30 inches) in length. [41]

Arrows come in many types, among which are breasted, bob-tailed, barreled, clout, and target. [41] A breasted arrow is thickest at the area right behind the fletchings, and tapers towards the (nock) and head. [43] A bob-tailed arrow is thickest right behind the head, and tapers to the nock. [44] A barrelled arrow is thickest in the centre of the arrow. [45] Target arrows are those arrows used for target shooting rather than warfare or hunting, and usually have simple arrowheads. [46]

For safety reasons, a bow should never be shot without an arrow nocked; without an arrow, the energy that is normally transferred into the projectile is instead directed back into the bow itself, which will cause damage to the bow's limbs. [47]


The end of the arrow that is designed to hit the target is called the arrowhead. Usually, these are separate items that are attached to the arrow shaft by either tangs or sockets. Materials used in the past for arrowheads include flint, bone, horn, or metal. Most modern arrowheads are made of steel, but wood and other traditional materials are still used occasionally. A number of different types of arrowheads are known, with the most common being bodkins, broadheads, and piles. [48] Bodkin heads are simple spikes made of metal of various shapes, designed to pierce armour. [44] A broadhead arrowhead is usually triangular or leaf-shaped and has a sharpened edge or edges. Broadheads are commonly used for hunting. [49] A pile arrowhead is a simple metal cone, either sharpened to a point or somewhat blunt, that is used mainly for target shooting. A pile head is the same diameter as the arrow shaft and is usually just fitted over the tip of the arrow. [50] Other heads are known, including the blunt head, which is flat at the end and is used for hunting small game or birds, and is designed to not pierce the target nor embed itself in trees or other objects and make recovery difficult. [44] Another type of arrowhead is a barbed head, usually used in warfare or hunting. [41]


Bowstrings may have a nocking point marked on them, which serves to mark where the arrow is fitted to the bowstring before shooting. [51] The area around the nocking point is usually bound with thread to protect the area around the nocking point from wear by the archer's hands. This section is called the serving. [52] At one end of the bowstring a loop is formed, which is permanent. The other end of the bowstring also has a loop, but this is not permanently formed into the bowstring but is constructed by tying a knot into the string to form a loop. Traditionally this knot is known as the archer's knot, but is a form of the timber hitch. The knot can be adjusted to lengthen or shorten the bowstring. The adjustable loop is known as the "tail". [53] The string is often twisted (this being called the "flemish twist").

Bowstrings have been constructed of many materials throughout history, including fibres such as flax, silk, and hemp. [54] Other materials used were animal guts, animal sinews, and rawhide. Modern fibres such as Dacron or Kevlar are now used in commercial bowstring construction, as well as steel wires in some compound bows. [55] Compound bows have a mechanical system of pulley cams over which the bowstring is wound. [52] Nylon is useful only in emergency situations, as it stretches too much. [56]

Types of bow

There is no single accepted system of classification of bows. [57] Bows may be described by various characteristics including the materials used, the length of the draw that they permit, the shape of the bow in sideways view, and the shape of the limb in cross-section. [58] [59]

Commonly-used descriptors for bows include:

By side profile

By material

By cross-section of limb

Other characteristics

See also


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  4. Paterson Encyclopaedia of Archery p. 20
  5. 1 2 3 Paterson Encyclopaedia of Archery pp. 27–28
  6. Backwell, Lucinda; d'Errico, Francesco; Wadley, Lyn (2008). "Middle Stone Age bone tools from the Howiesons Poort layers, Sibudu Cave, South Africa". Journal of Archaeological Science. 35 (6): 1566–1580. Bibcode:2008JArSc..35.1566B. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2007.11.006.
  7. Wadley, Lyn (2008). "The Howieson's Poort industry of Sibudu Cave". South African Archaeological Society Goodwin Series. 10: 122–132. JSTOR   40650023.
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  9. Lombard M (2011). "Quartz-tipped arrows older than 60 ka: further use-trace evidence from Sibudu, Kwa-Zulu-Natal, South Africa". Journal of Archaeological Science. 38 (8): 1918–1930. Bibcode:2011JArSc..38.1918L. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2011.04.001.
  10. Backwell, Lucinda; Bradfield, Justin; Carlson, Kristian J.; Jashashvili, Tea; Wadley, Lyn; d'Errico, Francesco (2018). "The antiquity of bow-and-arrow technology: Evidence from Middle Stone Age layers at Sibudu Cave". Antiquity. 92 (362): 289–303. doi: 10.15184/aqy.2018.11 . S2CID   166154740.
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  17. Monroe, M. H. "Aboriginal Weapons and Tools". Retrieved 2022-08-30. The favoured weapon of the Aborigines was the spear and spear thrower. The fact that they never adopted the bow and arrow has been debated for a long time. During post-glacial times the bow and arrow were being used in every inhabited part of the world except Australia. A number of reasons for this have been put forward [...] Captain Cook saw the bow and arrow being used on an island close to the mainland at Cape York, as it was in the Torres Strait islands and New Guinea. But the Aborigines preferred the spear.
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Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Archery</span> Using a bow to shoot arrows

Archery is the sport, practice, or skill of using a bow to shoot arrows. The word comes from the Latin arcus, meaning bow. Historically, archery has been used for hunting and combat. In modern times, it is mainly a competitive sport and recreational activity. A person who practices archery is typically called an archer, bowman, or toxophilite.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">English longbow</span> Type of ranged weapon

The English longbow was a powerful medieval type of bow, about 6 ft (1.8 m) long. While it is debated whether it originated in England or in Wales from the Welsh bow, by the 14th century the longbow was being used by both the English and the Welsh as a weapon of war and for hunting. English longbows were effective against the French during the Hundred Years' War, particularly in the battles of Sluys (1340), Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and Agincourt (1415). They were less successful later on, as longbowmen had their lines broken at the Battle of Verneuil (1424), although the English won a decisive victory there; they were completely routed at the Battle of Patay (1429) when they were charged by the French mounted men-at-arms before they had prepared the terrain and finished defensive arrangements. The Battle of Pontvallain (1370) had also previously shown longbowmen were not particularly effective when not given the time to set up defensive positions.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Arrow</span> Shafted projectile that is shot with a bow

An arrow is a fin-stabilized projectile launched by a bow. A typical arrow usually consists of a long, stiff, straight shaft with a weighty arrowhead attached to the front end, multiple fin-like stabilizers called fletchings mounted near the rear, and a slot at the rear end called a nock for engaging the bowstring. A container or bag carrying additional arrows for convenient reloading is called a quiver.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Compound bow</span> Type of bow for archery

In modern archery, a compound bow is a bow that uses a levering system, usually of cables and pulleys, to bend the limbs. The compound bow was first developed in 1966 by Holless Wilbur Allen in North Kansas City, Missouri, and a US patent was granted in 1969. Compound bows are widely used in target practice and hunting.

<i>Kyūdō</i> Japanese archery based martial art

Kyūdō is the Japanese martial art of archery. Kyūdō is based on kyūjutsu, which originated with the samurai class of feudal Japan. In 1919, the name of kyūjutsu was officially changed to kyūdō, and following the example of other martial arts that have been systematizing for educational purposes, kyūdō also reorganized and integrated various forms of shooting that had been used up until then. High level experts in kyūdō may be referred to as kyūdōka (弓道家)(Member of the Kyūdō family or house) and some practitioners may refer to themselves as yumihiki (弓引き), or 'bow puller'. Kyūdō is practised by thousands of people worldwide. The bow they use is called a yumi (弓), and the most common one has an asymmetrical shape of more than 2.0 metres, and is characterized by the archer holding the part of the bow below the center to shoot the arrow.

<i>Yumi</i> Asymmetrical bow

Yumi is the Japanese term for a bow. As used in English, yumi refers more specifically to traditional Japanese asymmetrical bows, and includes the longer daikyū and the shorter hankyū used in the practice of kyūdō and kyūjutsu, or Japanese archery.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bow shape</span> Important aspect of archery

In archery, the shape of the bow is usually taken to be the view from the side. It is the product of the complex relationship of material stresses, designed by a bowyer. This shape, viewing the limbs, is designed to take into account the construction materials, the performance required, and the intended use of the bow.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Composite bow</span> Bow made from horn, wood, and sinew laminated together

A composite bow is a traditional bow made from horn, wood, and sinew laminated together, a form of laminated bow. The horn is on the belly, facing the archer, and sinew on the outer side of a wooden core. When the bow is drawn, the sinew and horn store more energy than wood for the same length of bow. The strength can be made similar to that of all-wood "self" bows, with similar draw-length and therefore a similar amount of energy delivered to the arrow from a much shorter bow. However, making a composite bow requires more varieties of material than a self bow, its construction takes much more time, and the finished bow is more sensitive to moisture.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Arrowhead</span> Sharpened tip of an arrow

An arrowhead or point is the usually sharpened and hardened tip of an arrow, which contributes a majority of the projectile mass and is responsible for impacting and penetrating a target, as well as to fulfill some special purposes such as signaling.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Finger tab</span>

In archery, a finger tab or archer tab is a small leather or synthetic patch that protects an archer's fingers from the bowstring. It is strapped or otherwise attached to an archer's hand. In summertime, tabs are far more comfortable than gloves and can more conveniently use thicker material. They are also less expensive and easier to fit, and are the normal finger-protection used with recurve bows.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mongol bow</span> Type of bow and arrow developed in Mongolia

The Mongol bow is a type of recurved composite bow historically used in Mongolia, and by the horse archers of the Mongol Empire. "Mongol bow" can refer to two types of bow. From the 17th century onward, most of the traditional bows in Mongolia were replaced with the similar Manchu bow which is primarily distinguished by larger siyahs and the presence of prominent string bridges.

A longbow is a type of tall bow that makes a fairly long draw possible. A longbow is not significantly recurved. Its limbs are relatively narrow and are circular or D-shaped in cross section. Flatbows can be just as long, but in cross-section, a flatbow has limbs that are approximately rectangular.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Turkish archery</span> Tradition of archery which became highly developed in the Ottoman Empire

Turkish archery is a tradition of archery which became highly developed in the Ottoman Empire, although its origins date back to the Eurasian Steppe in the second millennium BC.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of archery</span>

Archery, or the use of bow and arrows, was probably developed in Africa by the later Middle Stone Age. It is documented as part of warfare and hunting from the classical period until the end of the 19th century, when it was made obsolete by the invention and spread of repeating firearms.

A bow draw in archery is the method or technique of pulling back the bowstring to store energy for the bow to shoot an arrow. The most common method in modern target archery is the Mediterranean draw, which has long been the usual method in European archery. Other methods include the pinch draw and the Mongolian or "thumb" draw. In traditional archery practice outside Western Europe the variations of the thumb draw are by far the most dominant draw types, with the Mediterranean draw restricted to the Olympic style of target archery.

This is a list of archery terms, including both the equipment and the practice. A brief description for each word or phrase is also included.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Recurve bow</span> Type of bow shape in archery

In archery, a recurve bow is one of the main shapes a bow can take, with limbs that curve away from the archer when unstrung. A recurve bow stores more energy and delivers energy more efficiently than the equivalent straight-limbed bow, giving a greater amount of energy and speed to the arrow. A recurve will permit a shorter bow than the simple straight limb bow for given arrow energy, and this form was often preferred by archers in environments where long weapons could be cumbersome, such as in brush and forest terrain, or while on horseback.

Ya is the Japanese word for arrow, and commonly refers to the arrows used in kyūdō. Ya also refers to the arrows used by samurai during the feudal era of Japan. Unlike Western arrows, the ya is close to a metre long or longer. Traditional ya are made from natural materials, usually bamboo, while modern ones may use aluminium or carbon fiber.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Release aid</span>

In archery, a release aid, mechanical release, or release is a device that helps to fire arrows more precisely, by using a trigger to release the bowstring, rather than the archer's fingers. It is used to make the release of the bowstring quicker and reducing the amount of torque put onto the bowstring from the archer's fingers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Takedown bow</span> Bow assembled out of a riser and two limbs

A takedown bow is a bow assembled out of a riser and two limbs to make a working bow when strung.


Further reading