A Guide to Traditional Bows
It is said the history of the bow is as old and ancient as the history of humanity itself. Some narrations claim the bow was sent as the first tool of Adam when he came to Earth. However, the first real evidence of the use of a bow comes from the Stone Age, possibly as long ago as 20,000 BCE. This is in the finding of flint arrowheads dating to that time.
The invention and use of the bow appear to be one of those events that happened in many different places at roughly the same time. In subsequent periods, developments spread so that, for example, techniques developed by the Mongols were assimilated into Islamic bow technology.
In practice every traditional bow is a variation of one of two forms. The self bow and the composite bow. The English longbow is a self-bow and is the most common type of bow in the Medieval Western World.
Originally the materials used to construct a bow depended mainly on what was available locally. Later, as specific materials showed their superiority for bow construction, a trade in these materials developed. For instance, the original English longbows were constructed using English Yew but later it was discovered that Spanish and Italian Yew performed better and made the best bows. As a result, a trade in foreign Yew developed. This trade became so important that, for a time in the Middle Ages, it became compulsory for British trading vessels to carry a certain quantity of bow staves on every trip to England.
A bow needs two completely different types of material. As you pull the bowstring back the bow will deform. The material on the inside of the bow will compress, while the outside of the bow will extend and will be in tension. The best longbows use Yew wood cut so that the sapwood, i.e. the outer part of a branch, is on the outside of the bow while the heartwood is on the inside. Sapwood takes tension while heartwood takes compression.
The composite bow on the other hand is composed of different types of material, where each is chosen for their compression or tension capabilities. They composite bow also were usually recurved.
Self-bows take the form of an arc when strung.
On a recurve bow, the top and bottom parts of the bow are curved in opposition to the main body of the bow. This allows for extra compression and tension to be available in the bow, and therefore a recurve bow can store more energy for its length than a non-recurve bow.
Generally, composite bows are shorter than self-bows and are therefore easier to use on horseback. Many eastern bows are composite and specifically designed for horsemen.
Traditional bows were made from organic materials and unless they were preserved, by being put into a tomb for example, then they rarely survive into the archaeological record; therefore, it is difficult to say exactly when the first composite bows were made. However, we do know that some of the bows in the tomb of Tutankamun were of the composite type, which means that they were in existence around 1300-1200 B.C.E.
Many of the bows used in the Middle and Far East were possibly based on the Scythian bow, which itself dates back to around 700 B.C.E.