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Basic Information

The bow1 is an ancient missile weapon consisting - at its simplest - of a length of flexible wood2, bent into a curve and strung across the arc with a cord3. The user notches the ammunition - known as an arrow - onto the string and draws it back, forcing the bow to bend before releasing it and launching the missile by spring action.

If that sounds simple … it isn't. Using a bow - a process known as archery - is surprisingly difficult and requires a great deal of hand-eye co-ordination and a lot of practise before the archer can get the arrows to land anywhere near where he wants them to. Since the power of the bow is directly related to its spring strength and the bow must be bent by hand a powerful bow also demands a lot of upper body strength - archaeologists can accurately identify the skeletons of English and Welsh medieval longbowmen from the skeletal deformations caused by heavy training.

Most bows are not as simple as a piece of flexible wood either - such a bow would supply relatively little power, and although this design is used, notably for hunting small game4, it never really prospered as a weapon. A large, simple wooden bow can give more power, but suffers from being larger and more ungainly.
The next step is the recurve bow - the bow stave at rest naturally curves away from the direction in which it is bent in use and so is already in tension when strung, thus giving the user a bonus to whatever force he can impart. These can be potentially quite powerful5 but cannot be left strung and tend to consume bowstrings at an alarming rate. Regardless, recurving to some degree became a normal part of the bowyer's craft once discovered although how much recurve was used depended on the culture and what other technologies were available.
Some bowyers also built composite bows - the bow stave was built of layers of different material, usually including wood and horn to give added springyness and power to the draw. These were extremely expensive and time consuming to make, but where they were used they tended to prove highly effective, outshooting simple bows on pretty much every occasion. Unlike crossbows, however, a self bow cannot be made of metal6 - the Bible uses bending a bow of bronze as an example of something that can only be done with the help of God, and does so for a reason. There is some evidence of bows having been made from hollow metal tubes but it is not clear whether they were usable weapons or not - if they were, this would constitute an impressive feat of metallurgy for an unknown level of performance.
A compromise in the simple/composite dilemma could sometimes be achieved by using a naturally layered wood - the English longbow was traditionally made of yew, taken from the boundary between the heartwood and the remainder where the properties of the wood changed markedly and served as a fairly effective substitute for a composite build.

In modern times, archers can also use a compound bow - this uses a series of pullies to store far more energy for a given draw strength and combined with a carbon fibre stave can potentially supply power that their ancestors could only dream of … and all for sport shooting, since the bow is essentially obsolete as a weapon of war.

The problem with the self-bow as a military weapon is that that, as noted above, it requires extensive training to shoot well - crossbows and firearms can be learned, if not mastered in a few weeks, but those that knew the English longbow would have it that to train a longbowman properly, you had better start by training his grandfather. As late as the Napoleonic era the British army cast about for longbowmen in the reasonable expectation that they would be able to outshoot the musketmen and riflemen of the age for range, rate of fire and accuracy - but were told that the skill had all but died out. The last confimed casualty of the longbow at war was an unfortunate German, shot by an officer of the BEF in 1940, but the archer in question was a lone eccentric and the bow as a weapon of war was long past.

Besides the Anglo-Welsh longbowmen of the middle ages other notable archers include:

  • Japanese Samurai: an unusal example of a knightly class prepared to use the bow, but they were certainly proficient and enthusiastic users. Their kyu asymetric longbow is also a rare example of a longbow usable from horseback.
  • Parthians: mostly horse archers - traditionally the virtues most prized by the Parthians were to "ride well, shoot straight and speak the truth" … and that is as cited by their traditional enemies the Romans.
  • Creteans: for some reason Crete developed a tradition of archery and a composite-bow making industry that was famous around the classical Mediterranean and led to Cretean men being much in demand as mercenaries and auxilaries to all sorts of powers.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Few RPGs take accurate account of how hard it is to use a bow. You may want to fix this.
  • The bow is often seen as a 'less macho' weapon in fantasy literature - often suitable for The Chick or some aesthete of a Bard. Not so in a lot of cases.
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