middle ages Search TheMiddleAges.net

Bow and Arrow Making

Ever wanted to know how to make a bow and arrow? Several books explain how to make bows and arrows, inclugind the Klopsteg book and the article by T'an Tan-Chiung. While they deal mostly with Turkish and Chinese bows, bowmaking of other nations can be learned from these two (since all bows have similar construction).


There are three layers in the composite bows: sinew on the back (the side under tension), wood for the core and horn on the belly (the compression side facing the archer).

Various hardwoods and bamboo were used for the bows core. Limbs in Turkish bows were usually made of maple, sometimes yew, in Chinese of bamboo or mulberry. Wood was selected very carefully, although not necessarily flat grain, if made of bamboo, outer side of a stem would face the horn.

All composite bows have several sections, roughly worked to shape before final assembly: a handle section joined to two arm sections (in bows with bamboo arms the handle is a chunk of wood glued in the middle of one split bamboo stem), arms are joined to a mid-portion (siyah in Turkish or a "knee" or "brain" in Chinese), which in turn is joined with strongly reflexed tips, usually straight pieces with nock grooves at the ends, often called ears and reenforced with a piece of horn. Single fishtail splices, about 3-5" long for knees/siyahs joints and 6-9" for arms/handles are used. Sometimes Cornelian cherry was used by Turks as an overlay for the handle section.

The relative lengths and the reflexed curvature of the various wooden sections varied, depending on the make and origin of a bow: in Turkish, Chinese, Mongolian or Persian bows the arms were more reflexed before assembly, in Tatar and possibly Indian bows the arms were straighter. In Turkish bows the ears were 3-4", siyahs 6-8" and arms 10-12"; in Chinese bows, the ears were much longer relative to arms, could be almost as long as the arms. Handles were short (6-7"). Bows had different lengths: Turkish bows are generally shorter (flight bows were about 44" betw. nocks), Persian a little longer, Chinese and Tatar could be over 6' long. Turkish war bows were longer than flight, but still shorter than target bows, Chinese bows used by foot soldiers were quite small too.

Chinese (and possibly Turkish) bowyers purchased green wood or bamboo. The parts were shaped and reflexed as needed, seasoned for about a year, fitted, joined with glue and dried for another year. Pre-shaped horn strips were glued onto the belly of a bow. Both wood and horn were scored with a special toothed tool and glued together (clamping was achieved by tight binding with rope). Maching pairs of water buffalo horns were used almost exclusively, with an exeption of longhorn cattle horns for some Turkish bows. For best Chinese bows, expensive, translucent, white horns were preferred. Buffalo horns have no sidewise twist as present in cattle horns. Cattle horns had to be boiled, heated and pressed into a correct shape in special wooden molds. Buffalo horns are also more flexible and resilient than cattle horns and provide thicker strips. It is probable that in Persian bows, instead of a solid strip, many thin ones were glued together into one wider strip.

The back of a bow was then covered with sinew, leaving most of the ears/tips bare. Sinew usually came from cow leg tendons, possibly neck (back) tendons. Tendons from wild animals (deer, moose etc.) must have also been used, and, in the authors opinion, are better, leaner, stronger, longer and easier to work with. The dried tendon is pounded until separated into fibers, which are sorted into bundles of similar length. The bundles are soaked in glue and laid onto the back of a bow. 2-3 layers are used for a dry thickness of approx. 3-6mm. On Turkish flight bows a ridge along the centre of siyahs was formed to increase cast. Bows were always seasoned after this last operation from 6 months (Chinese) to at least a year (Turkish). Due to shrinkage of sinew and glue (and from deliberate, progressive reflexing betw. layers of sinew in case of Turkish) bows were at this point very strongly reflexed with tips touching or even crossed. The reflex made the tillering and stringing, which followed, a rather long and complicated operation.

Glue was an important component of the bows, the amount of glue in a finished bow was almost equal to the relative amounts of sinew or horn. Only three kinds of collagen-based glues were used: fish, tendon and skin. For the fish glue, either dry skin from "the roof of the mouth" of Danube sturgeon (Turkish, other fish for Chinese) or isinglas (sturgeon air bladder, Chinese) were soaked in water and heated into solution. The Turks mixed this glue with tendon glue, made from boiled tendons. A glue of lesser quality was made from boiled skins. Such glues readily absorb moisture rendering the bows useless in relative humidity above 70%. The bows had to be stored as dry as possible, kept by the fire, in the sun, or in heated cabinets.

The tillering was accomplished by gradual bending a warmed bow with minimal scraping of the horn layer to balance the arms. The arms were also given the desired curvature and/or weight by warming and tying to special wooden forms until cooled. Turkish flight bows were heated in "conditioning boxes" for 24 hours up to 4 days before competitions to thoroughly dry them (the sinew, glue and horn acquire very high strength and elasticity when very dry). Of course, the bows were never shot when warm; heat, as well as moisture, would make them weak and follow the string.

The finished bows (with an exception of Turkish flight bows) were richly decorated with painted and gilded leather or birchbark. Wooden or horn "bridges" were glued on the belly side where the ears join the siyahs/knees as supports for string loops. Chinese bows had cork and sharkskin wrapped handles and coloured writings can be seen through transparent (if white) horn on the belly.

Strings were made from unspun, raw silk wrapped with cotton at the centre and at a few spots along the length. All reflexed, composite bows had strings with two separate end loops for stability, the loops were tied to the string proper with special knots (the knots rested on the "bridges", as above).

The weight of the bows generally varied from 20 lb (Chinese infantry) to probably up to 100 lb. Turkish flight bows were usually 65 lb (the conditioning process however, see above, could easily add another 20 lb). There was a separate class of very heavy exercise bows. Military examinations in China required drawing heavy bows, up to 200 lb (!).


The Asian/Turkish bows were drawn with a thumb, protected with a special thumb ring, of various forms, made of horn, metal or semi-precious stones. The string rests on the smooth, inside surface of the ring, sometimes covered with a small leather tongue. There is a detailed description of the Turkish release in the Klopsteg book. The release is sharper than the three finger release and arrow spine becomes less important. The string was drawn to the ear. Turkish flight shooters used a device called siper, tied to the bow arm wrist, to allow for overdraw (flight arrows were 24- 25" long); also, a waxed strip of fabric was wrapped over the handle to provide a more comfortable grip.

The bows were highly efficient and the record shot with a light Turkish flight bow was close to 900 yards, far beyond the capability of a self bow.



Related Links:

The Middle Ages

The Black Plague

Return to The Middle Ages