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The history of the bow

A Scythian archer, armed with a recurved, composite bow. The Scythian short bow weighed about 10 pounds and shot an arrow at 170 feet per second (fps). A modern compound bow weighs 3.8 pounds and shoots an arrow at 328 fps.

Bow hunters consider themselves the elite among hunters – for good reason. Hunting with a bow requires a much closer shot and greater stealth than hunting with a rifle. In fact, bow hunters are practicing a survival skill that’s been handed down through thousands of generations.

Nowadays, bow hunting is a sport, but it traces its roots to early man’s struggle for survival. Arrowheads were discovered in South Africa more than 60,000 years old, and the bow may have been in use as early as 64,000 years ago. The bow is the first device invented by man that stores energy. The bow might have developed as an offshoot of the spear thrower, or atlatl.

Early arrowheads were made from sharpened pieces of bone or flaked stones. Early men became experts in knapping, the skill of chipping flint, obsidian or other suitable stone into blades, arrowheads and other tools. As man progressed into the copper, bronze and iron ages, arrowheads were made of metal, but stone arrowheads remained common until the 20th century.

Early man learned that flexible woods, such as elm, yew or lemonwood, make the best bows. The first bows likely were made from saplings. The recurve bow, with tips that curve away from the shooter and add power, was developed in Asia and spread to Egypt and the Middle East about 2,000 B.C.

The composite bow appeared about the same time as the recurve bow. Nomadic Central Asian tribes are believed to have developed the composite bow about 2,000 B.C. These horse-riding nomads learned that adding layers of horn or animal sinew onto a wood bow greatly increased its power. A composite recurve bow could be much smaller than a longbow, and the equestrian nomads achieved legendary skill as horse-borne archers.

Composite bow technology spread to Egypt, the Mediterranean and China. A recurve, composite bow was the standard weapon for a Roman imperial archer. Although longbows remained in use (most notably by English armies), the compound, recurve bow was state-of-the-art archery technology until 1966, when a Missouri mechanic changed everything.

Holless Wilbur Allen was a mechanic and bow hunter, who was frustrated because white-tail deer often dodged his slow-moving arrows. The tinkerer brainstormed different ideas to increase the power of a hunting bow. After browsing through a physics book that he borrowed from a neighbor, Allen had a flash of genius. He cut the ends off of a recurve bow and attached pulleys. The first compound bow had arrived.

According to “Within two days, Wilbur Allen had built and tested his compound bow. It was crude, even by Allen’s standards – the eccentrics were of wood, the handle of pine boards, limb cores of oak flooring, welded T-bolts held it together with the help of Elmer’s Glue and epoxy-impregnated fiberglass threads. But, it worked!”

Allen’s newfangled bow performed impressively. He achieved a significant increase in arrow speed, along with a 15 percent decrease in draw weight – the amount of power needed to draw the bow. The revolutionary technology would quickly become the standard.

Allen received a patent on the compound bow in 1969. By 1977 – just eight years after Allen received his patent – two-thirds of the bow models available on the market were compound bows.

Compound bow technology has continued to improve, with new developments in power, accuracy and durability almost every year. Outdoor Life Magazine has a run down of this year’s most advanced models at

Modern bow hunters have inherited the technology passed down through the ages by ancient peoples. But despite the better bows, modern hunters still must use many of the same skills possessed by their ancient predecessors. Bows are relatively low-tech compared to firearms. Taking big game with a compound bow gives much the same satisfaction that early man must have felt when he bagged an elk or bison with a good shot from his handmade elm longbow.

One of the newest models featured in Outdoor Life is a 3.8 pound compound bow with an arrow speed of 328 feet per second (fps). A Scythian horseman’s deadly short bow weighed in at 10 pounds and had an arrow speed of 170 fps. But would anybody in their right mind go up against a Scythian warrior, even with a compound bow?

According to author Will Durant, “The Scythians were notoriously barbaric and aggressive warriors. They fought to live and lived to fight and drank the blood of their enemies and used the scalps as napkins.”

I think I’ll pass.








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