A History of Bows and Arrows

Hiebert on Heritage

Richard Hiebert

At the outset, I must give credit to Roland Bohr of Canadian History Magazine for his wonderful account of the history of bows and arrows. He did a superlative job.

Circa 1876. Near Delmas, Saskatchewan (as it would come to be known), Little Wolf, a young man of the Plains Cree, was learning how to hunt buffalo with bow and arrow. His father, Deer Runner, an experienced buffalo hunter, was his mentor and teacher. Little Wolf and Deer Runner could hear the thunder of a large herd of buffalo in the distance. Suddenly, a small herd of about 50 shaggy beasts, came up over a rise.

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Little Wolf’s heart  pounded and his stomach heaved. But only for a few moments. He was a warrior of the Plains Cree and courage was their trademark. He quickly gained his composure. “Go after that three year old,” shouted deer runner. “Get up close. Stay clear of the bulls; they can turn on you and gore you. Quick, my son. Go!”

The Plains Cree were magnificent horsemen. Little Wolf raced towards the herd, directing his pony with his legs only (this left his hands and upper body free). His mount clocked speeds of nearly 50 kilometers an hour. Little Wolf cornered the three year old. He was 15 feet from her; he nocked an arrow and drew the bow to his chin. At 80 pounds of draw weight, he could put an arrow right through a buffalo. Only a strong man could draw a bow of this weight. Deer Runner shouted, “Closer, closer.” Little Wolf moved in closer. He was only 10 feet from his quarry. “Closer, closer, my son.” Little Wolf steered his pony within five feet of the buffalo. “Now, Little Wolf, now!”

It’s not common knowledge, but firearms were not a big improvement over traditional weapons for many years since they were introduced to First Nations people in the late 18th century. Rather, they were useful additions. Firearms were noisy and notoriously unreliable until the mid-nineteenth century. 

Indigenous archery is thought to have appeared on the western plains around 250AD, and possibly earlier in other regions like the great lakes and the high Arctic. Bows and arrows were made of materials found in each region. Algonquin and Iroquoian people crafted long bows from hardwoods – ash, black locust, hickory, elm and ironwood. These bows were very powerful. They were called self-bows because they were made from a single piece of wood and were as tall as an average man. Subarctic people like the Swampy Cree on the west coast of James Bay and Hudson Bay made long bows out of softwoods – birch and conifers like black spruce and tamarack. These bows were not as strong as hardwood bows but they were strong enough to bring down game at close quarters. The Indigenous peoples of the Great Plains used a short bow because trees generally did not grow tall enough from which to make long bows. Regardless, the short bow was extremely powerful and could bring down a 2,000 pound buffalo. Bows of the plains Indigenous people were made exceptionally strong by  employing a technique  known as sinew-backing. Long fibres of the buffalo, elk or deer sinew were glued (glue was made from buffalo hooves) to the entire outside of a bow where most of the tensile stress occurred when the bow was drawn. Sinew is much stronger than wood under tension. When the matrix dried, it clung tightly to the wood and pulled the bow into a reflex, which added more power and elasticity. The power of any bow depends on its draw weight. The draw weight of the plains people in the 1800s was between 40 pounds and 80 pounds. Other tribes in North America had bows that were far stronger.

In the plateau area of the Rocky Mountains, the Salish, the Kutenai and the NezPierce made bows from the horns of the bighorn sheep, which they sinew-backed for greater strength. But they took the art of sinew-backing a step farther. A thin strip was cut along the outside of each horn. This spiral material was straightened by boiling. The strips from each horn were joined in the middle of the grip. They were then covered with animal sinew on the back of the bow. These bows were very strong because both horn and sinew are stronger than wood. They were also very accurate. Modern day archers using horn bows have competed successfully in tournaments against archers using modern bows made of fiberglass and known for their accuracy.

During the 1700s, the plains people began to use horses. The shorter bows allowed greater manoeuvrability on horseback. Short bows and highly trained horses became the standard for buffalo hunting.

The famous English explorer, David Thompson, related that the short plains bow was a fearful weapon in the hands of a skilled archer. Thompson learned from an Indigenous man that, before European traders arrived, battles had taken place between the Assiniboine, Blackfoot and Parkland Cree against the Shoshoni. The Cree warriors’ bows, made from tamarack, were as tall as a man but were not nearly as effective as the Shoshoni bows, which were shorter but made of better wood and covered with buffalo sinews. Their arrows covered a lot of distance. The outcome of these skirmishes was predictable.

As strong as the plains peoples’ bows were, there were bows much more powerful. The Spanish conquistador, Narvaez, who unsuccessfully attempted to colonize Florida in the early 16th century, faced warriors with bows and arrows. An accomplice, Cabeza de Vaca, described the battle. Archers using bows as thick as a man’s arm shot arrows that penetrated armour. The warriors could shoot an arrow 200 paces with deadly accuracy. Cabeza de Vaca, a soldier in Narvaez’s battalion, saw an arrow penetrate a poplar tree to a depth of six inches. The Spaniards sustained heavy losses.

Bows without arrows are, of course, of no use. The artisans who fashioned arrows were as skilled in this endeavour as they were in crafting bows. Bows are of high importance, of course, but the critical component in hunting or war was the arrow – especially the arrowhead. Before Europeans arrived in the 16th century, First Nations people used a wide array of materials to fashion arrowheads – wood, bone, antler, horn, copper and various types of stone. Stone, including chert, flint and obsidian, was highly prized and traded over great distances. Stone in the hands of a skilled arrow-maker had edges sharper than iron arrowheads. The disadvantage of stone arrowheads under constant use is that they soon lose their sharp edges. Also, when a stone-tipped arrow hits a hard target, it is likely to break. European fur traders recognized the demand for steel arrowheads and manufactured them at their trading posts until they were mass-produced in Europe. Steel arrowheads were not as sharp as stone but they were sharp enough to do the job. In addition, they were much more durable than stone. Strong, straight, cured and dried willow is preferred for archery shafts. They are fletched with the feathers of birds of prey – hawks or owls, for example. Three feathers are glued equally apart at the top of the shaft – about 120 degrees between each one. The degrees between each one added together make about 360 degrees. Fletching keeps the arrow straight and true – on a straight trajectory.

Regardless of the type of bows were strung with sinew which was exceptionally strong and resilient. It had to be strong to handle the draw weight of 130 pounds, and more.

Genghis Khan was the greatest warrior-leader and general the world has ever seen. Between 1206AD and 1277AD, he laid claim to 13 million square miles of territory. It is certain that he could not have accomplished this mind-boggling feat without the tens of thousands of superb horsemen and archers at his command. Steeped in one of the great horse-cultures of the world, Mongolian warriors could ride backwards at full gallop firing six arrows a minute. Warriors were expected to carry two bows, a longer bow and a short bow. They were also required to carry two quivers and at least 60 arrows.

The Mongol bow was an extraordinary piece of engineering. The bows were laminate, recurved and made out of local materials. My sources of information for this essay tell me that the draw weight of the Mongol bow was between 100 and 160 pounds and could hit a target 350 yards away. Mongol boys, training to be warriors, were required to practice daily from age six.

The English longbow changed the course of history. It was first used by the Celts in Wales around 1180AD. It was not used by the English military until the 18th century. The longbow was essential in defeating the French in the 100 Years War. Arrows could pierce armor and the longbow’s range was far greater than the French crossbow. The draw weight of the longbow was between 80 and 130 pounds. Unearthed skeletons of bowmen with deformed arms and shoulders from years of practice and warfare have been found. One can imagine  a thousands archers raining down four arrows a minute on an opposing army. At age 12, boys were required to spend a number of hours per week practicing with a version of the longbow.

Longbows were six feet tall by 5/8 inches wide. They were made of incredibly strong yew wood, which had been cured for four years. The artisans who crafted longbows were at the top of English society and were paid handsomely by the English crown.

The Battlefords has a rich and thriving archery club – “The Battle River Archers.” Practices (adults and adolescents and younger) are held on separate evenings in the old curling rink – an absolutely perfect place to practice archery. Targets are set up starting at 25 yards (animal facades) for novice archers, and positioned at intervals to the west wall. Various likenesses of animals including deer and moose are targeted. Archery is not an inexpensive hobby. I have a compound bow, arrows, quiver, trigger, case, etc. from Cabella’s worth about $1,200. In hindsight, I should have purchased it from Battlefords Bait and Tackle. I did purchase some custom length arrows. If I need more, and whatever I need in the way of archery equipment and supplies, I will surely purchase them from the fine gentleman who owns and manages Battlefords Bait and Tackle.

I know of one young woman who owns a $3,500 bow and accessories. She competes in tournaments in the United States and Canada. Her dad pays for her equipment and drives her, of course. The club has a full slate of parents and older young men and women who run the canteen which brings in a nice tidy sum of cash. T-shirts are also sold – definitive orange with black embossments. I have one – best t-shirt I ever had. The club also holds its own tournaments, and participates in tournaments in other major centres.

A gentleman by the name of Ross Macangus, a highly skilled archer in his own right, and an excellent teacher, oversees the club’s training programs. I noticed that he’s the go-to guy. Anyone has a problem with equipment or shooting, they go to Ross.

When I first dropped in to the club to check it out (some time ago), I noticed a young woman practicing  out of the way by herself. I struck up a friendly conversation. I asked her if she hunts. Her response was that a large number of archers hunt – including her. Next logical question: What did you get? “Let’s see – five deer, three moose and two bear.” Hello?

Two bear. “Did you carry a rifle?” “No, no rifle, and you have to get up to twenty-five yards close. One hunting arrow will do it if you hit it in the heart. And you can put an arrow right through a moose at 25 yards.” My kind of club. Gotta start practicing before I go out hunting.

To conclude, a short account of an 11-year-old boy, his mother and a bow and arrows. As a boy, I was fascinated by slingshots, homemade spears and especially bows and arrows. I constructed all of these myself. One of the bows I made would qualify as a junior long bow. I made it from a perfectly formed red willow, rubbed bacon fat into it (on a whim – no good reason), and strung it with white carpenter’s cord. I made arrows out of straight, green willow and “cured” them over a campfire. Then I headed for the bush with a full arsenal – sling shot, spear and bow and arrows. Then it happened. My mother bought me a light weight fiber glass bow with a ten pound draw weight, and a quiver and three commercially made arrows. I was in heaven. I spent many hours and days with my friends target practicing, and hunting rabbits, gophers, and partridges.

Bows and arrows became essential for the survival of the Indigenous people of North America, both for hunting and making war. The Great Plains First Nations were superb horseman and excellent archers who hunted buffalo. The English long bow, the Floridian thick bow, and the Mongolian bows could put an arrow through armor at 200 paces with deadly accuracy. The Plains Cree could bring down a bull buffalo with one arrow. Such was the legacy of bows and arrows.

Today we engage in competitions  (in tournaments) and hunt with fiberglass compound bows. Thousands of people world-wide belong to archery clubs. It is a wonderfully challenging and satisfying endeavour.

(Sources: Canadian history magazine; National Geographic (Exploring History) Internet – Mongol horsemen, Mongol archers; Internet; English longbow). Photo credit (Canadian history magazine)

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