Power of the bow known by hunters, warriors throughout the ages
I'd seen her cross the field scores of times, from her earliest days as a spindly fawn, as a yearling and with her own spotted twins. This time she stumbled and I saw an arrow protruding from her left rib cage. Her breath, smoking in the cold, came hard. To not further alarm her, I did not move, but she bolted into the woods. Last week, one of our technicians noticed buzzards circling over fallen trees in the valley.
Deer, a valuable prey animal, have succumbed to the bowman for thousands of years. The Paleo-Indians who colonized what became the Chesapeake region first hunted with long darts or spears, either sharpened to a fire-hardened point, or headed with a knapped, stone point and hurled with great force using an atlatl or throwing stick.
It's not clear when the use of a bow to hunt and do battle took precedence among the Chesapeake's Native American tribes.
In Iowa, it seems to have been about A.D. 500, more than 10,000 years after evidence of the first native tribes there. But the many and varied sizes and shapes of "arrowheads" found at archaeological sites are simply called "points" because what they were attached to is unknown.
They are not found in association with shafts of any kind, and most of our inferences about them are taken from 19th century usage by Western tribes, often against white interlopers. One burial in the fort at Jamestown, though, gives pretty good evidence for a small "true arrowhead" found adjacent to the thigh of a dead English colonist.
The bow had a couple of advantages. It did not require standing in the open nor did one need the vertical space for the wide arm swing of the atlatl.
A bow could be drawn and released silently from a clandestine site in brush. It could be fired with the bow horizontally, vertically in or any angle between. I'm told the arrow flies faster than an atlatl thrown spear, although the spear, of greater mass, impacts with more energy. The bow and arrow, in skilled hands was easier to use and more accurate. Even small Powhatan children, trained up with little bows, could bring down a bird in flight. Bows were also used to hunt deer.
English colonists often experienced the arrow's sting when leaving the fort, including ambushes while they were attending to the "necessities of nature."
Capt. John Smith was dismissive of native bows and arrows when arrayed against English matchlock muskets, or presumably the famous English longbow, then still in use.
Native American bows were made of a single "stave" of wood. Author William Vollman says some used a sapling of witch-hazel. Others say ironwood or hornbeam was used. Two surviving bows from Virginia collected in 1665 and made of what's believed to be mulberry are in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, Great Britain, and were exhibited at Jamestown a few years ago as part of its quadricentennial.
The Ashmolean Museum bows are 67 and 68.5 inches long. Made from a single piece of wood, these are called "self bows" and had a simple notch at each arm of the stave that held loops fashioned in the bowstring ends. In cross section, the front of the bow was relatively flat while the rear, facing the shooter, was rounded. This thickening of the rear part of the bow was the source of most of its power; compression in these fibers made the bow harder and harder to pull as it was drawn and vastly increased the power - and speed - with which an arrow was released. The "belly" in the letter "D" shape of a bow stores energy when drawn. The limits of strength were in the separation of fibers on the outside curve of the drawn bow. Some bows were supported by wrapping or whipping in the area of the grip.
The bowstring was a challenge for Native American technology because of the extreme tension it was under when the bow was strung, and even more when drawn. A strong, tough cord was made from the stems of dogbane, an American hemp, that the natives called "pemmenaw." It was picked fresh, and the stems were crushed and separated into long thin fibers. I'm not sure if this had "bowstring" strength, but I once made a length and could not break it using my hands.
Some sources say that the thin fibers of deer sinew from major tendons along the spine or leg would have been stronger when laid up as cord, but I'm not sure how moisture sensitive this might have been. The ends of the string, where it made sharp turns around the tip of the bow, were sometimes reinforced by spiraled cord whipping, which kept the plaited natural fibers aligned with each other where they were asymmetrically strained the most. Bowstring fibers were later rubbed with beeswax - after Europeans introduced this valuable insect to the American wild.
The bow enters human history deep in antiquity, back at least 11,000 to 12,000 years ago. Easily carried and quick to load and fire again, it was a weapon of choice for Egyptian, Greek and other armies throughout the Middle East. As humans began to use horses during war, they found it impossible to effectively fire a long bow from horseback. Technical geniuses in the Middle East and Asia innovated, and made shorter, more powerful bows using two techniques, the re-curved and laminated bow.
Recurved bows traditionally have a relatively thin core of wood, laminated with tiny fibers of sinew attached with hide glue to what will be the outside of the strung bow's "D" shape. On what will become the inside curve of the "D" are glued thin layers of horn (water buffalo works very well). The result is a broad "C" shape, which, when stringing, is bent backward and outward (usually by two people) to almost a straight line and then, against all logic, continuing to bend it around as if trying to make the "C" shape face in the other direction. The bow is then strung and this holds the weapon under incredible tension into the graceful recurved shape.
Craftsmanship must be perfect, because sinew in the outward facing back of the bow is stretched, and the tiniest speck of oil or grease on it will cause failure.
The power of these bows was legendary. It was said that one was capable of piercing through two inches of brass. The Ottoman Sultan Selim shot an arrow 963 yards, a distance which, if supportable, has never been surpassed.
Technology can arise in different places and evolve along similar tracks. North American Plains Indians, once the horse was introduced there, also developed short, laminated bows for use in war and hunting from horseback.
Author Lee Lawrence states that the technical apogee of the compound bow was achieved by the Turks and he suggests the success of its archers contributed to the survival of Byzantium a thousand years beyond that of the Roman Empire.
Most European armies relied on vast hordes of foot soldiers, and the introduction of archery to the field of battle was tantamount to adding machine guns. Historian Robert E. Kaiser says that from the 13th to the 16th century, the longbow was the national weapon of England. Bows were fashioned from yew or boxwood and crafted to be just a little longer than the shooter's height, 5-6 feet. The arrows, it is claimed, were 36 inches long.
This weapon was responsible for countless victories. An archer could reload in a few seconds and, thus with ranks of archers firing several times a minute, a terrible rain of arrows could be sent 180-200 yards down the battlefield. Modern English archers with lighter, draw weight bows of 55-60 pounds have a target arrow range of 180-200 yards. With a draw weight of 90-110 pounds, arrows could be projected out to 249 yards and at closer range had sufficient power to pierce armor, making the light, maneuverable English yeoman the equal of a knight in battle. (A draw weight is the effort in pounds needed to draw the bowstring and hold it stationary. As a rule, the greater the draw weight, the more powerful the bow: heavier arrows, faster speed, greater distance.)
In 2006, Matheus Bane tested modern longbow replicas of Oregon Yew against various armors of fabric jack coat, several types of chain mail and steel plate. These bows shot arrows at almost 180 feet per second and under the right conditions with the right choice of arrowhead, they defeated all the armors.
King Henry VIII mandated that his archers practice often. When Henry's favorite warship, Mary Rose, capsized and sank in 1511, her armory was well-stocked with longbows and arrows. When remains of this ship were raised, this collection of bows was the largest sample ever measured and analyzed. They were not, like Turkish compound bows, finished art objects, but appeared crude, with irregularities in the grain and texture of the wood that retained the natural structure and strength of the source wood.
The last battle in which English long-bowmen were decisive was fought in 1513 at Flodden Field, in Northern England, and the longbow was obsolete in 17th century "modern warfare." Nonetheless, after the Native American uprising in 1622 in Virginia, when many English colonists at outlying plantations were massacred, historian David Price noted that King James sent the colonists about 400 bows and 800 sheaves of iron-tipped arrows in addition to muskets, halberds, various steel mail and armor plate. So as not to offend His Majesty's generosity, these archery supplies were discretely stockpiled at Bermuda lest they fall into Native American hands more skilled at using them, where they would decrease rather than increase security, Price said.
Native bows generally had a draw weight of 30-40 pounds. If these were English Yew longbows, some might have had a draw weight of 60-100 pounds. While Smith mentioned the modest range at which native bows could be effective, one must not ignore that many wounds were inflicted and many lives lost to Indian archers, thanks to their skill at concealment and marksmanship.
Many 20th and 21st century craftspeople build 'self bows' today. Bob Holzhauser, who has honed his craft over 40 years, and appeared on New Hampshire Public Television, uses modern tools like a draw-knife and chooses the wood of Osage orange, allowing the twists and irregularities in the tree to determine the shape of his bow. He has shot such bows four or five times a week over the last 20 years. Botanically, Osage orange is part of the mulberry family. French explorers named it bois d'arc, or "wood for bows."
I spoke with Kirk Dryer, a Marylander who also likes Osage, but uses hickory, mulberry and hornbeam. He seals his bows with resins to protect them against moisture and preserve stiffness in the dry wood.
Which, of course, brings us to the modern, leveraged, compound bow, an amalgam of fiberglass, light metals, pulleys and cables. These weapons combine the lessons of physics, mechanics and the chemistry of fibers and resin with the sighting capabilities of the gun. Compact versions are only 31 or so inches long, weigh less than 3 pounds and release arrows at high "muzzle velocity." These bows are a U.S. invention and are the most widely used for hunting in this country.
One hopes that the skill of the hunter enables a clean kill and a harvest of useful flesh and leather. The deer population certainly needs serious hunting management. In my small part of the Chesapeake, our herd is never thinned enough to compensate for the fecundity of the white-tailed deer. Still, I mourn the sad end of this doe, slightly gray at her muzzle, whom I have known and often looked in the eye over several years.
My cousin Gail sent me this couplet years ago, when her father, my uncle Franklin Mountford, died. He was New Jersey's state champion archer for a time.
"So long as the new moon returns in heaven a bent, beautiful bow, so long will the fascination of archery keep hold of the hearts of men."
"The Witchery of Archery," 1879
- Category: Heritage + History
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