Michael Z. Williamson
  • On Bows

    On Bows

    Bows are a great asset to survival, but I'm going to differ from some of the other posters.

    First of all, compound bows require substantial technology to maintain. While fine, accurate hunting weapons, they are not your first choice for survival.

    Laminated recurves are very efficient and very durable, but are fairly tough to make. They're reasonably priced, however, and a good investment for the kit. Bowstrings for this can be made from dacron dental floss or heavy nylon thread, the kind used for sewing leather, which should be in your kit anyway. Instructions are available in numerous books, and it's not that hard to do.

    The longbows the English (and Welsh) used to slaughter the French en masse were very simple: a D-section of yew. There was no arrow rest, the nocks (correct spelling for this word, btw) were just pieces of horn, and many bows did without nocks. Ash is also a good wood, and American hickory is about the best of all. Such bows are SCRAPED, not whittled, and shaved to shape, slightly flat on the outside (belly) and half round on the inside (back). The wood should be well-seasoned and split so the shaping follows the natural grain. Native American and African bows follow this pattern, too, as did the bow the Otsi, the ice mummy dating from 4500 BC in the Alps carried. You can gain additional advantage with either a heartwood/sapwood split (one being compressible, the other tensile), or by gluing rawhide to the belly.

    Medieval arrows were ash, split and scraped round with a spokeshave. Metal points with conical mounts are fairly tough to forge without practice, but tanged arrows are easier. A broadhead is for hunting. For enemies, especially in armor, one uses a "bodkin," which is a 2" long quadrangular point that will (And did, at Crecy, Poitiers, Agincourt and other places) punch through 16 gauge steel at 100 yards with a strong enough bow. Stone or bone tips are always an option for unarmored targets, and the tip can be socketed so as to salvage the harder to make nocked section. The nock need only be a saw cut slot reinforced with twine, although quadrangular insets of hardwood or bone for reinforcement are possible. By the way, the English longbow had better range and penetration than any crossbow--the energy is a function of limb length, draw length and draw weight, and the heavier longbow arrow retains velocity better in flight. The modern drive for lighter arrows is a function of technological development. When in doubt, bigger is better (the same reason I prefer .45 to 9mm). There is an invoice from the era showing one family in England produced in excess of 1 MILLION arrows in a year. These are production arrows for volley fire, not fine arrows for hunting.

    Fletching is traditionally goose feather, which is plentiful, bound on with thread and hide glue. A jig for 3 or 4 fletches is cheap to buy or easy to make. With four fletches, the nock is angled so as to have the feathers at 45 degrees to the string on either side. This means there is no right or wrong side to the arrow, which slightly increases rate of fire. Three-fletched arrows require the nock be at 90 degrees to ONE feather, so the other two are at an angle to the string to avoid catching. This method means less feather cross-section to slow the arrow. (The AREA of the fletching stabilizes the arrow, but the CROSS SECTION of the leading edges causes drag.)

    The forearm holding the bow should be protected by a 4-8 oz leather bracer, which eliminates most string rash and arrow injuries. Also, be sure the elbow is angled properly (joint vertical) to reduce this. This is easier for women, by the way, with their arm geometry.

    The average draw weight on bows salvaged from the Mary Rose, a 16th Century English warship that sunk in 1545, averaged 120 lbs. This seems at first glance to be very high, but a healthy adult male can manage 60 lbs without much practice, and a combination of practice and curls or pullups can raise that higher. I regularly shoot 60 lbs, and can manage 100 lbs if I have to.

    The key historical aspect of the bow as a weapon is that the rate of fire was superior to any gunpowder weapon until breechloaders came along, but a bowman MUST be healthy. If he's malnourished or doubled over with stomach problems, he can't shoot. A gunner still can. The levies of bowmen during the Hundred Years War numbered in mere dozens per county per year in some cases. Granted, these were exceptional men with heavy bows during an era with little knowledge of sanitation, medicine or nutrition, but gunpowder weapons are logistically superior for an extended engagement.

    En masse, a good volley rate of fire for longbows is 12 to 15 rounds per minute. Aimed shots are around 6 to 8. I have seen 14 rounds in 30 seconds at silhouette targets ranging from 20 to 70 yards, with every shot counting. I'd call that the upper limit of reality.

    For crossbows, I've seen cheap, functional re-enactor bows made from a commercial Chinese prod (The bow part), which I sell for about $30 in 150 lb draw weight (Shameless plug) slotted into a 2 X 4 cut to take a simple press-type trigger. It's worth having a few spare prods on hand for both commercial crossbows and home made versions.

    Advantages of the crossbow are that it can be carried at the ready, can be shot very accurately like a rifle, and can be used prone, when sick or otherwise encumbered.

    An excellent historical reference which will lead to other sources is Sir Robert Hardy's "Longbow, A Social And Military History," ISBN 0-9645741-3-6

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