Thursday 26 September 2019

Choosing Your First Bow III: The Traditional Bow

This is the final article in a series dealing with the types of bow available to the novice archer. It is hoped that these articles will dispel the fog that surrounds the decision-making process as the newbie tries to negotiate the morass of information out there in the big wide world. In this article, I would like to consider a niche bow within a niche sport: The Traditional (Trad) Bow.

Trad Bows
Lately, there has been a resurgent interest in traditional archery. Archers are returning to historical archery and are interested in bows typically used in ancient and medieval times. These bows don’t contain the accessories associated with modern bows. Therefore, they don’t have sights or arrow rests or any of the accoutrements adorning the modern bow, however, it would be wrong to consider these bows primitive or unsophisticated.    

Traditional bows, of all styles, made in the traditional manner, are not as efficient as modern bows. Modern bows are marvels of modern engineering and use materials not available to our ancestors. So what is the appeal of the traditional bow? This is often an emotional question and the traditional archer seems keen to explore the cultural and historical roots of ancient and medieval archery. For some, it is a stand against modernism and a retreat into more simple times……

English Longbow
Let us consider the iconic English Longbow (ELB). This bow is very familiar due to its representation in popular culture. It is the bow used by the mythical (perhaps historical?) English archer, Robin Hood. However, in the recent reincarnation of Robin of Loxley, in Hollywood, he is portrayed shooting an Asian style recurve- may the gods forgive them for they will receive no absolution from me. Typically the bow is made from a single piece of wood. Historically bows were made from Yew although these days most are made from other hardwoods such as Ash or Osage Orange. As the name suggests, they are long, very long and generally exceed two metres in length. They don’t exhibit any recurve and can be best described as a ‘straight stick’. They usually have a horn overlay on the limb tips and in the purest form, there is no dedicated wrapping material on the grip. As with all traditional bows, there is no cut out for the arrow to rest and the arrow is shot off the archer’s hand. Less traditional designs are also available. Thus bows may be laminated with a series of hardwoods and glass fibre and the handle area may be wrapped with leather. I personally own an English longbow in Osage Orange at 66lbs draw weight. It would be great to own a traditional Yew bow, but sadly, good quality Yew is very expensive.

Behold the English Longbow in Action

Horse Bow/Asiatic Bow
Asiatic style bows are also popular with the traditional community and not just in Asia where this style of bow originated. Indeed, in addition to the classic English longbow, I own several Asiatic bows. In truth, this category covers a multitude of bow styles but they do have some features in common and it is these common features that I’ll be discussing here. These bows are a lot shorter than the English longbow and were originally designed to be shot on horseback. Obviously, English longbows are unsuited for mounted archery due to their length.

Unlike the English longbow, the Asiatic bow was often constructed of several materials glued together. Simple self bows (made from a single piece of wood) seem to be less common in Asiatic cultures although there are historical examples. Traditionally, these bows were composed of a wood core with animal sinew and horn attached to the wood base with fish glue. This gave the bow immense strength for its size. These traditional bows can still be purchased today but they are very expensive. More likely the modern Asian bow will have either glass fibre limbs or consist of a composite of wood and glass fibre. What makes these bows distinctive is the aggressive recurve at the ends of the limb. This can be achieved in one of two ways. The simplest way is to add a piece of wood to the end of the limb at an angle. These are called siyahs and they act as non-bending levers. The second method does without the wooden siyah and instead the bow limb is curved toward the end. Regardless the same result is obtained: a sturdy, fast bow capable of high draw weights.

Asian Horse Bow with Syahs

The Rest….
The English longbow and the Asiatic bow remain the most popular bow types on the traditional bow market. But there other bow types that have a minority interest among traditionalists and I’ll just briefly touch on some of these bows. The Yumi bow is of Japanese origin and like the English longbow is very long, but unlike the English longbow, the limbs are asymmetrical. Traditionally they were made from bamboo glued to other natural materials. Viking style bows are also commercially available. However, the Viking longbow is very similar to the English bow and differs only in the design of the nock. The last traditional bow that I’ll mention here is the Native American bow. I’ll mention it only because I own a bow of this kind (Sioux bow). From what I can see bow design varied greatly depending on the Native American tribe, but some generalisations can be made. Native bows tended to be short to facilitate their use on horseback. They are mostly made from a single straight piece of wood. Due to the limitations in the bending properties of short self bows the draw weights and draw lengths of Native American bows tend to be lower than other bow types. 

Yumi Bow: Note the Asymmetry

This is not an exhaustive treatment of traditional bows but merely an attempt to give a general impression of the types of trad bows available for purchase.       



  1. I would suggest a link to your other site would encourage people to visit it.
    My consultation fee is in the post...

  2. The lazy mans way