How the Bow and Arrow Took Over the WorldS

If pop culture is any indication, bows and arrows are the weapon of the future. Weird, right? But also delightful: The Hunger Games stars an arrow-slinging heroine. Hawkeye will defend the Earth using a bow and arrow in The Avengers. The summer Olympics will have awesome archery competitions to ogle. And the TV's newest superhero will pull back a bow on Green Arrow.

What better time to suss out the ancient tool, and examine how it evolved into the weapon du jour?

The bow was the first mechanical device that could outpace projectiles thrown by hand, and it was the best weapon humans had during horse-mounted combat—all the way up until the advent of the revolving pistol. It was a pretty huge step in the scheme of weapons development.

Prehistoric cultures—amazingly, independent of one another across the globe—developed bow and arrow sets for hunting and combat. The oldest arrow points, discovered in South Africa, were made of bone and date back some 61,000 years. Pre-medieval people in Africa along with the American Indians and Eskimos had their own versions of the bow and arrow. In Japan, gigantic 8-foot-tall wooden bows were found alongside smaller models crafted from whalebone or horn, and pictures of Japan's first emperor, Jimmu, who ruled around 660 BC, depict him holding a large bow.

Even the crossbow has pre-medieval origins. It wasn't perfected until the middle ages, but by then it was so deadly in battle that the Lateran Council of 1139 outlawed using it against Christians. The longbow debuted on battlefields in the 14th century. It could sling arrows much more accurately and rapidly (six aimed shots a minute!). But many warriors still favored the crossbow because it required considerably less physical exertion to operate.

And that physical exertion certainly took its toll on archers. When the English ship, the Mary Rose, sank in 1545, it took with it many longbow masters. Their bodies, later discovered in Portsmouth Harbor, exhibited deformed forearms, fingers, and upper backs from years of archery practice.

But archery wasn't just for battle and food. The recreational sport dates back to the Egyptians and Greeks, and the earliest archery societies in England started popping up in the 16th Century. Early archers had to compensate for inaccurate, unsturdy wood models that sent the arrow on a circuitous trip to its target.

"If it's not stable, the bow will zig zag after the release," and the arrow will follow, explains Douglas Denton, the project engineer in charge of Hoyt Archery's line of Olympic-ready bows.

And yet, for most of history, archers put up with this unruly behavior because there was nothing superior. But in the mid-20th century, bow makers found better, more stable materials like laminated wood, plastic and fiberglass. Temperature and humidity didn't warp these materials and archery became more predictable.

How the Bow and Arrow Took Over the World

Modern models borrow largely from aerospace innovations. "Limbs," or the top and bottom fins that extend from the handle, are made of syntactic foam (think tiny, tiny glass balls) in resin that have been covered in carbon fiber—very sturdy. Super-strong bowstrings are made up of stuff like Gore fiber to prevent the instrument from snapping, which was a recurring—and painful—problem until fairly recently.

The most recent leaps in innovation have been in the bow's geometry. In the last four years, there have been more structural changes in the bow than in the previous 30. In a nutshell, Hoyt rejiggered the way the forces operate within the instrument, so shooting arrows now requires much less effort on the bowman's part.

When you pull back on a bow, forces act both towards and away from the handle, which is called a riser in archery world. Denton fine-tuned those forces by changing the way the three main pieces of the bow—the riser and the top and bottom limb—connect.

Imagine holding a bat with your two fists bunched up way down at the bottom. "If you are holding a bat vertical and someone to grabs it, you won't be able to stabilize it because that connection-your two fists-are too close together," he says. "But if you take one hand and move it up to the middle of the bat and someone tries to grab it, you can more easily stabilize the bat."

The same kind of thing is in play when you consider the connection between the riser and the limbs. Previously, the segment of the limb that fastened to the handle was short with two tightly stacked connectors. But Denton believed the joint needed more stability, so he lengthened that segment by an inch and a half, allowing more space to separate the connectors. The tweak reduced stresses on the riser by 44 percent, which is important when you're competing for a spot on the podium.

The goal is to make an archer forget about the bow and concentrate on the target: especially important when fighting to the death in a televised battle with 23 of your peers.


Rachel Swaby is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.

Image: Shutterstock/lurii Davydov