Bow (weapon)

From Academic Kids

A bow is a weapon that shoots arrows powered by the elasticity of the bow and/or its string. It is useful for hunting and war. The technique of using a bow is called archery.

Many bow designs have been used in different cultures and time periods. Common designs are; solid wood (the English longbow), laminated wood (Japanese and Sami bows) and bone-wood-hide composite (Middle East, India, Mongols). In modern times, the plastic composite and compound bows dominate for sport and hunting practices.

Although the bow is nowadays thought of primarily as a weapon, it is not clear whether this was its original use. It may have started life as a musical instrument and only later used to shoot arrows. The bow is still used as a musical instrument in some cultures today. It is usually referred to as a musical bow when used in this way, both to distinguish it from the weapon, and from the kind of bow used to play string instruments. The berimbau is a Brazillian instrument that probably developed from the bow.

Modern-day use of bows for hunting is a matter of controversy in some areas but is common and accepted in others. Bow hunting is also still practiced in traditional cultures worldwide.

A yumi is a Japanese longbow used in the practice of Kyudo (Japanese archery).

The artillery forms of a bow are ballista, and arbalest.

The automatic form of a bow is a crossbow.



The bow seems to have been invented in the late Palaeolithic or early Mesolithic. The oldest indication for its use in Europe come from Stellmoor in the Ahrensburg valley north of Hamburg, Germany and date from the late Palaeolithic Hamburgian culture (9000-8000 BC). The arrows were made of pine-wood and consisted of a main-shaft and a 15-20 cm (6-8 inches) long fore-shaft with a flint point.

The oldest bows known so far come from the Holmegrd swamp in Denmark. In the 1940s, two bows were found there. They are made of elm-wood and have flat arms and a D-shaped midsection. The middle part is biconvex. The complete bow is 1.50 m (5 ft.) long. Bows of Holmegaard-type were in use until the Bronze Age; the convexity of the midsection decreases through time.

Mesolithic arrows have been found in England, Germany, Denmark and Sweden. They were often rather long (up to 120 cm [4 ft.]) and made of hazel (Corylus avellana), wayfaring tree (Viburnum lantana) and chokecherry (Cornus alba). Some still have flint arrow-heads preserved; others have blunt wooden ends for hunting birds and small game. The ends show traces of fletching, which was fastened on with birch-tar.

Most Neolithic bows are made of yew. tzi the Iceman found in the tztaler Alps carried an unfinished yew longbow, with a bowstring of nettle or flax fibre.

In the Levant, arrow-shaft straighteners are known from the Natufian culture, ca. 12.800-10.300 BP) onwards. The Khiamian and PPN A shouldered Khiam-points are most certainly arrowheads.

The bow became the main weapon of war used in the Middle East by the Assyrians and Egyptians, who fired it from warriors on chariots to great effect. The Greeks and Romans did not find this technique useful. Advances in armor made the bow less effective and the both often campaigned in hilly or forest areas that were unsuited to chariots. The development of horse archers by the people of the Eurasian Steppe, brought the bow back to the fore. Using composite bows, Steppe peoples such as the Huns and Mongols became a dominant force.

In the Middle Ages, the longbow was developed. It was an extremely effective weapon in battle and could penetrate armor from a considerable distance. The longbow however is a difficult weapon to master and requires years of training. In Medieval England and Wales, the longbow became a popular weapon and archery a popular pastime. English monarchs went so far as to mandate by law longbow training for males of military age, and placed restrictions on other physical sports such as football and ninepins so that people would practice archery.

In other countries where archery was not a popular pastime or military skills were not encouraged, the crossbow was used. It was slow to reload, but easier to use than a longbow and just as devastating.

The development of gunpowder, muskets and the growing size of armies slowly led to the replacement of bows as a weapon of war, causing them to be relegated to sport and hobby. See archery for the modern sport of firing bows. Crossbows still have some use by special forces due to their silence when compared with guns.

Bows are found all over the world, except for Australia where the main projectiule weapons were spears and boomerangs.

Types of bow

Hun bow

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Hun bow

The Hun bow is an asymmetric, composite and recurve bow. It was invented in Central Asia and carried to Europe first by the huns.

Its asymmetric shape allowed the bow to be increased in size without restricting its use from the saddle of a horse. The lower part had to be shorter to facilitate movement across the back and neck of the horse, but the upper part was not so constrained and could be longer. The result was a stronger, longer-range bow than that of the Germanic tribes of Europe. Quite simply, the users of the Hun bow could shoot down their enemies before they could use their bows. The asymmetry, however, led to less accuracy, although this was offset to some extent by the fact that the weapon was a composite bow.

The respect that the Goths had of the Hun bow was transmitted orally for a millennium among Germanic tribes and comes down to us in the Scandinavian Hervarar saga. The Geatish king Gizur who commands the Goth forces taunts the Huns and says:

Eigi gera Hnar oss felmtraa n hornbogar yrir.
We fear neither the Huns nor their hornbows.

Hungarian bow

The Hungarian bow, an improvement of the Hun bow, is a symmetric, composite and recurve bow. It was invented in Central Asia.

It improved on the Hun bow by lengthening its lower part until both halves were of equal size. This symmetry increased both its range and accuracy. If the archer was using the Hungarian bow while mounted, he or she needed to stand up on the saddle, an action that was impossible until the invention of the stirrup. See also composite bow.


A very long bow that fires at a far range: a longbow was often built to be as tall as the archer who carried it. Perhaps the most famous example is the "English" or "Welsh" longbow, made traditionally of yew wood, and carried by English armies to great effect in the Hundred Years' War. At close range, the longbow could be aimed directly at an individual target, and was capable of penetrating all but the very best plate armor of the time. At distance, archers would fire mass volleys on a high, arching trajectory at enemy formations, making longbow fire in some respects more akin to light artillery of the modern era. Longbow arrows lost some penetrative power used in this fashion, but anecdotes still abound of knights pinned to their horses by arrows that took them through the thigh, etc.

This style of bow was used up until the time of the English Civil War but was replaced in many cases by the matchlock musket, mostly because of the years of training involved with archery, even though the longbow was capable of much higher rates of fire--as many as 5 to 10 shots in 30 seconds to the musket's 1 shot in 30 seconds. The longbow, in the hands of a skilled archer, was also undoubtedly far more accurate than early musketry, and had a greater range. The musket, like the crossbow before it, could be effectively employed with relatively little training, and had the psychological advantages of producing fire, smoke and noise in abundance when it was fired.


An automatic bow: The bow string is tied on a wooden support that holds it. When a trigger is pressed, the wooden support releases the bow string, releasing the arrow. The crossbow require less strength to fire it (but more to load it).

Composite bow

A composite bow is made from different materials laminated together, usually applied under tension.

The Hun and Hungarian bows use horn on rear and with sinew on front. They are recurve bows as the shape curves back on itself and it is this design that gives the bows tremendous power compared with their size.

The English longbow has a natural composite of yew sap wood and heart wood. The heart wood is on the inside of the bow and resists compression and the outer sapwood stretches. This makes a powerful natural spring.

Modern composite bows such as a compound bow use laminated wood, plastic, and fibreglass. These are little affected by changes of temperature and humidity.


A ballista is basically an oversized crossbow. It is used as a siege weapon and it's very effective because it only requires two men to fire it. It fires large arrows.

Compound bow

A compound bow is usually a composite recurve bow coupled with pulleys known as eccentric cams. It is little affected by changes of temperature and humidity and gives superior accuracy, velocity, and distance in comparison to the classic longbow. They were first developed and patented by Holless Wilbur Allen in the USA in the 1960s and have become increasingly popular.

A composite bow is made from different materials laminated together, usually applied under tension. Modern composite bows use laminated wood, plastic, and fibreglass. These are little affected by changes of temperature and humidity. With recurve bows, the shape curves back on itself. It is this design that gives the bows tremendous power compared to their size.

With a traditional single string bow as the string is pulled back the tension increases, so the bow must be aimed and released quickly, on release the string rapidly accelerates to its fastest and then decelerates for the rest strings return to stationary. There are mechanical advantages to pulleys:

  • the draw weight does not increase as the bow is drawn enabling the archer to hold the bow fully drawn and take time to aim;
  • the pulleys enable the archer to draw a bow with a much higher draw weight than they could manage with a conventional single stringed bow (there are very few people alive today who could shoot accurately with a single string using the draw weights of the longbows found on the Mary Rose);
  • the string continues to accelerate from the release to rest so imparting more power (and hence speed) to the arrow.

Archers in modern archery competitions usually uses a release aid to hold the string steady. This attaches to the bowstring at a point and permits the archer to release the string with a pull of a trigger.


An arbalest is a crossbow with steel prod (the "bow" part). It was much more powerful than a crossbow with a wood prod.


Further reading:

  • U. Stodiek/H. Paulsen, "Mit dem Pfeil, dem Bogen..." Techniken der steinzeitlichen Jagd.

(Oldenburg 1996).

External links

de:Bogen (Waffe) es:Arco (arma) fr:Arc (arme) it:Arco (arma) la:Arcus nl:Boog (wapen) ja:弓矢 pl:Łuk (broń) sl:Lok (orožje) sv:Pilbge ko:활 zh:弓箭 he:חץ וקשת


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