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Volume 13, Number 1January 1962

In This Issue

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Ten Thousand Years Of The Bow And Arrow

The wild boar charged from the bush, running blindly. When he spotted the man, he swerved violently, his stubby legs churning the dust. Raising his bow to his shoulder, the man planted his feet firmly and waited. He would have time for no more than one shot. It had to be placed in a mortal spot. At 30 feet the hunter could see the angry eyes, red with fury, and hear the brittle clash of the beast's long tusks. As the boar snapped wide his mouth and began his rush for the man's leg, the hunter smoothly pulled back on the taut drawstring. He aimed for the flat of the head above the eyes and let go.

The drama between the hunter and the hunted in this scene might well have been played out 10,000 years ago when the bow and arrow was a relatively new way for man to kill at a distance. But it actually occurred only a few years ago. Howard Hill, one of America's most skilled bow and arrow hunters, killed the wild boar on Santa Cruz Island, off the California coast. Hill is not unique among hunters in the choice of his weapon. An estimated two million hunters in America alone still stalk their quarry with one of man's most primitive weapons.

Science does not know just how primitive the bow and arrow is or exactly where it was first used. Beautiful Paleolithic carvings in caves at Castellon, Spain indicate that the weapon is at least 10,000 years old. But like the first smelting and forging of iron, bows and arrows were used simultaneously in many different areas of the world. Wherever and whenever it did appear, its use marked a step up in civilization. With the bow, man gained greater control over his food supply and better protection against his enemies.

The bow's importance in man's life gave rise to fanciful legend. "The Arab bow," says one old manuscript, "is that which God sent down to Adam from Paradise," and the skill of Apollo and his twin sister Diana as hunters was rivaled only by the mischievous Cupid from whose arrows no lover could escape. Odysseus, home from his voyages, rescued Penelope from her unwanted suitors by a feat of extraordinary marksmanship.

Odysseus' skill remains a legend, but recorded history following Homer shows the gradual rise of the bow from a single-shot device with which man hunted his own food or protected his shores against marauding neighbors to a tactical weapon of war. Succeeding civilizations of Babylonians, Assyrians and Chinese used it as mass artillery to subdue their enemies. When Darius invaded Greece, his army contained thousands of archers from Persia, Arabia, Ethiopia, Media—each using the bow native to his own land. Here, in one army, was a rich tapestry of archers representing a large part of the known world of 500 B. C.

A thousand years later, Attila and his Huns became the first of a succession of horse archers to emerge from central Asia and conquer vast empires. Because the steppes of central Asia offered the expansive, treeless plains in which the bow and arrow were most successfully employed, it was here that the weapon reached its widest use and took on a different shape. A lack of suitable wood and the need for a shorter bow that could be used more accurately by mounted archers led to the design of a composite bow made of horn and other materials. Tamerlane, laid to rest in his ebony coffin at Samarkand in 1450, was the last of the great Asian warriors who employed nomad horse archers.

A single arrow was a harbinger of the bow's importance in English history. When the Duke of Normandy invaded Britain in 1066 and engaged the Saxon king, Harold, at Hastings, he found himself unable to penetrate the wall of Saxon shields. Toward sunset, in a brilliant stroke of desperation, he ordered his archers to shoot high in the air and drop their arrows behind the Saxon shields. One single drop in that rain of death mortally wounded Harold in the eye, and the Norman conqueror charged through the leaderless enemy troops to victory.

The Norman invaders had used short bows drawn to the chest. Some time later the English bow lengthened, and archers began to draw to the cheek. Their greater power and accuracy, epitomized by the legendary Robin Hood, were to be seen in skillful reality in the English foot soldier-archer. The longbow won battles against tremendous odds for English commanders in the centuries following the Norman invasion, its usefulness reaching a climax in English warfare at Agincourt. In this French village in 1415, Henry V and 6,000 archers sought to win the crown of France from Marshal d'Albret and 20,000 Frenchmen.

The French were drawn up in close order in three lines. With a cry for "St. George and Merrie England," Henry's archers loosed a storm of arrows and advanced to within 300 yards of the French lines. Each archer quickly planted his pointed stake in front of him for protection against the French cavalry.

The French cavalry, goaded by the arrows, foolishly countercharged. Held tightly in formation by the woods on each side of the valley through which they charged, they made an easy target for Henry's archers. With deadly accuracy Henry's bowmen felled most of the French front line. Survivors fell back in disorder, trampling their own reserve line.

French camp followers and peasantry then broke into Henry's rear guard to pillage. Mistakenly fearing he was now being attacked on two sides, Henry gave orders to kill all French prisoners so that his men could fight the new attack unhampered. Seeing the massacre, the French third line fled the field. The army of English foot soldiers with bows had destroyed an army three times its own size and won the prize of France for Henry!

At Agincourt the bow and arrow reached its zenith as a military weapon. Elsewhere in Asia and the Mediterranean men were experimenting with a curious compound of saltpeter, charcoal and sulphur. The introduction of gunpowder in the sixteenth century revolutionized warfare and put bowmen on the retired list.

On the American continent the woodland Indian tribes of the East, the buffalo hunters of the West and the coastal tribes used the bow to battle nature for their food and shelter. Bow wood was limited to what the land could supply—shagbark hickory, ash and white oak in the East; osage orange and cottonwood in the West. Bowstrings were usually made from deer or buffalo tendons or the skin of a snapping turtle's neck.

Early settlers found out the painful way that the Indian was a skillful adversary, but not because of the quality of his bows and arrows. The Indian's skill lay in woodcraft—no modern archer can approach him in the ability to stalk his quarry and kill it. Although some Indians, like the Seminoles, had powerful bows that were almost young trees, the weapons of many tribes were short-ranged and inaccurate by modem standards.

As a basic weapon, the bow and arrow is still popular. Primitive tribes of South America use it to this day to secure food and drive off enemies. Other tribesmen of Asia and Africa hunt animals the same way their ancestors did thousands of years ago. The U. S. Army recently experimented with the bow and arrow as a simple, light and silent weapon for guerilla warfare. For the most part, however, present-day bow and arrow marksmen are either target archers or sportsmen-hunters.

Some modem bows are still made of wood—western yew, osage orange or degame—but most are constructed of various composites of wood, fiberglass, steel and plastic. Target bows require a pulling power of 20 to 60 pounds; hunting bows require 50 to 100 pounds. The old English rule was that a bow should be as tall as the man using it and his arrows half the length of the bow. Modern archers select their five to six-foot bows to match their arrows, the length of which is based on the archer's "drawing length"—the distance between the base of the neck and the tip of the fingers. The arrows must be carefully crafted so that they do not "flirt"—swerve from their true flight line. Both wood and metal shafts are used, tipped with steel or brass and feathered with torn turkey feathers or plastic.

Although new materials are used and although its appearance and power have been transformed many times over during its long, long history, the bow and arrow has stubbornly resisted obsolescence. Like the wheel or the lever and fulcrum, the basic idea of the bow and arrow was so practical—and simple—that it's highly unlikely that it will ever become nothing more than an artifact of the past relegated to dusty corners in museums. Many of man's brightest ideas become curiosity pieces once the world passes them by. With 10,000 years or more of use behind it, the bow and arrow is definitely not destined to be one of them.

This article appeared on pages 18-19 of the January 1962 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January 1962 images.