With today’s post, we tackle the recurve bow, which has been around in some form since the days of ancient Egypt. The recurve bow is therefore considered “traditional” by many of today’s archers, but it is by no means simple in construction when compared to the longbow we discussed last time. Even though both bows were very popular during the middle ages, the recurve bow was mainly used by the Mongols, while the Europeans preferred the longbow because of its simplicity and ease of creation.
(If you find yourself confused at any point because of archer lingo, you can refer back to part one of this series, which has a small glossary of archery terms and definitions at the bottom of the page).
Origins: As stated above, the recurve bow has been around for a very long time. Though it was used in ancient Egypt, it was often imported from other parts of the Middle East instead of being made there in the land of the Pharaohs¹. The Mongols², however, were really the ones that perfected the recurve bow, and were frighteningly accurate with it. (Well, frightening if you’re not a Mongol).
Description: The recurve bow is different than any other bow, because the tips curve away from the archer, oftentimes even when fully drawn. When not strung, the recurve bow may even bend so far in the opposite direction so as to form a crescent or even a nearly-complete circle. They are also composite, made that way even in the time of the Mongols.
When making a recurve bow, the Mongols started with³ a wooden backbone or spine typically made of birch, because it’s resilient and was readily available. The total length of this wooden frame was about five feet. On the curved tips, where the impact of the string was the greatest when released (the side towards the archer) they attached flattened pieces of sheep’s horn which added an extra “pop” to the arrow as it was released. They then covered the bow with a layer of birch bark and sinew to keep out moisture, and held the whole thing together with fish glue.
After all this, they wrapped it tightly in ropes and put it in a form where it was allowed to dry at room temperature for a year or more. When it was done drying, it was strung with stretched and twisted animal hide. What animal, you say? Horse was preferred. (My apologies, horse-lovers). Made this way⁴, a Mongolian recurve bow would last for many years, even with frequent shooting.
The difference between ancient recurve bows and modern ones is mainly the materials used for construction. Though the limbs are sometimes still made of wood, they are also made of other layered materials, such as fiberglass or carbon. The riser is actually separate most of the time, and can also be made of wood or carbon, but also magnesium or aluminum alloy. The string, it is safe to say, is no longer made of horse. Instead, various synthetic fibers have taken over.
Why These Bows Were the Pride of the Mongols: The Old Mongolian Bow had a draw weight of about 100 to 160 pounds, and archers could hit their target at about 350 yards (although there is evidence⁵ that suggests they could and did really shoot much, much further than that. Possibly even up to 585 yards).
Also, the recurve nature of these bows means that they pack a bigger punch in a smaller package, which in turn means they can be shot from horseback much more easily than, say, a longbow. (Think about it—wielding a six-foot longbow on horseback would be difficult).
Shooting: I described basic shooting techniques in part one of this series, but the Mongols had such an interesting way of shooting their recurves that I thought it was worth noting. I’ll quote Cold Siberia⁶ on this one. They proceeded as normal, up until the release stage: “Since this bow has immense power, the Mongols have to use a special technique to hold the string during the drawing of the bow and before the arrow is released. The technique is as follows: The string is held by the thumb, since this is the strongest finger. Still, it is not easy to hold 166 pounds* comfortably. Thus, the thumb is supported with the index finger curling around, placed atop the outermost joint, exactly at the base of the nail. The other fingers are also curled, forming a fist. Even so, this is not enough. Hence, the Mongols use a special ring on which the string is hooked before release. This thumb ring, a cylinder that fits around the outer part of the thumb and protects its pad from damage as the string is released, is typically made from Chinese jade or agate, but leather, metal and bone is also known to have been used.”
Recurve bows today may be shot using the techniques I outlined in part one of this series, since they usually have a much lighter draw weight, but strings hurt—they really do—so most archers still use a finger guard or tab when shooting. “And what about callouses?” you say. "Wouldn't that eliminate the need for a finger guard?" Well, some of you may know how to play the guitar, and if you don’t play it often enough the callouses you built up while practicing go away and then it hurts to play again. It’s much the same with archery. An archer may build up callouses, but it takes time and regular practice to keep them.
The Arrows: Traditional Mongolian arrows⁸ are made of birch, and fletched with the tail feathers of birds (usually crane, but eagle feathers were also used on rare occasions). The arrows could also be tipped with anything from wide metal blades used in hunting big game or in war, to bone and wooden points used for smaller game. They also had whistling arrow tips, which were used for signaling in war, or for distracting game long enough to aim a second shot and kill it. These tips were made of bone, in which holes had been bored.
1.) The Mongols routinely shot off horseback⁹, but waited until all the horse’s hooves were off the ground before releasing the shot. This prevented an untimely jolt that would make the arrow go awry.
2.) Modern recurve bows may be strung with a polyester material called Dacron, or something called HMPE¹⁰.
3.) Bowstrings need to be waxed every so often to prevent fraying. The most common way to wax a bowstring is with beeswax. It keeps the string supple and makes it last longer.
4.) When riding out for war, the Mongols each carried two bows, and two quivers of arrows¹¹. One bow was for long range, and the other was for short distances. They carried at least sixty arrows, which varied in purpose from armor-piercing arrows tipped with steel, to fire arrows and whistling arrows.
5.) Amenhotep II really liked his bow and arrows¹². He: “... drew three hundred of the bows hardest to bend in order to examine the workmanship, to distinguish between a worker who doesn't know his profession and the expert.”
After choosing a bow without flaw that only he could pull:
“... he came to the northern shooting range and found they had prepared for him four targets made of Asiatic copper thick as a man's palm. Twenty cubits divided between the poles. When His Majesty appeared in his chariot like Montu with all his power, he reached for his bow and grabbed four arrows with one hand. He speeded his chariot shooting at the targets, like Montu the god. His arrow penetrated the target, cleaving it. He drew his bow again at the second target.
None had ever hit a target like this, none had ever heard that a man shot an arrow a target made of copper and that it should cleave the target and fall to the ground, none but the king, strong and powerful, as Amen made him a conqueror.”
I believe in one God, (and He isn’t Montu or Amen or any other Egyptian creation), but I found this little excerpt interesting from a historical perspective.
6.) The recurve bow is the only type of bow permitted for use in the Olympic Games.
And there you have it! Part three of the Archery for Writers series. If you have any questions, hit me up, or visit the sources I listed below. Next time we’ll talk about the compound bow, which is by far the most popular kind of modern bow.
* This is an average, not necessarily the most common draw weight of the time
¹ Tour Egypt – Projectile Type Weapons of Ancient Egypt
², ³, ⁴, ⁵, ⁶, ⁸, ⁹, ¹¹ Cold Siberia – The Mongolian Bow (This website is great, but it does like to say how much more powerful the Mongolian recurve bow was than the English longbow, but on average—not all the time, on average—they were really about the same in range and power. The greatest advantage the recurve bow has over the longbow is that it packs more power into a smaller frame—which makes it great for shooting on horseback, something the Mongols did regularly).
¹⁰ Legend Archery – The Details You Need to Know About Your Bowstring
¹² Reshafim – Projectiles
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