Q&A: Modern Bows

How similar are traditional and modern bows with a ton of contraptions on it? Can someone who is used to using traditional bows use a modern bow? What problems would they likely encounter? Also can any draw be used on any bow or would some types mean a particular draw has a disadvantage?

The basic technology hasn’t changed in thousands of years. The biggest difference is that modern bows are more resilient. A fiberglass bow is more durable than a compound bow made from adhering multiple wood layers together with a water soluble glue.

The only modern invention likely to be even mildly confusing to someone in the past are mechanical compound bows. These are the bows with the cam and pully system. From a use perspective, the major difference is that the pully has a, “break,” sensation. You’ll draw to a certain weight and then the mechanical components will take over, meaning you’ll experience less draw weight as you continue to pull. Similarly, when easing off, you’ll feel the mechanical acceleration tugging until you get past that break point. This affects how you experience the draw, but all it really does is let you deliver more draw weight than you experience.

The thing about most modern mechanical compound bows is that their draw weight doesn’t exceed the weight from some historical longbows. A modern compound will have a 40lb – 80lb draw. It simply requires a fraction of that draw from the user. So the user may experience a 20lb draw, but the bow the will deliver 80lbs.

Modern archers sometimes use release systems, these are separate devices that hook and hold onto the string, instead of the user. They’re recommended for compound bows, but they’re never necessary. They can aid in accuracy.

One issue that can crop up with compound bows is pulling the string off the pully. This can happen when the archer twists the bow string while drawing. This is, generally, not a good idea, as twisting the bow string would adversely affect the nocked arrow. (I think this causes the arrow to wobble in flight, but I’m not 100% certain that’s the issue.) Either way, this is behavior your archer probably wouldn’t engage in, and is more an issue for inexperienced shooters. A release system mentioned above can prevent this prevent this from happening, but as said, they’re not necessary.

A metal shaft mounted on the limbs (usually the lower limb) facing away from the user is a stabilizer. These reduce the bow’s vibration after firing. They’re helpful, but there’s no element to their use that an archer needs to be actively conscious of.

Some modern bows can fit optics. These will provide sights to aid in seeing where you’ll fire. These are fairly self-explanatory except a user may not know where the sight has been zeroed. In the event of a graduated sight (one with markings indicating distance) the user would need to be familiar with Arabic numerals. These were introduced to Europe around the 12th century. Additionally, the user would need the ability to assess distance in the indicated units. The metric system dates back to the late 18th century, so a shooter from before that wouldn’t have any familiarity with what 50m looks like.

Modern bows sometimes offer a contoured grip. You put your hand around it. While the technology that went into creating it is somewhat sophisticated, its use is not. Similarly, the shielded rest to hold the arrow allowing any optics to function, and protecting the user from getting scraped by the fletching is self explanatory.

The biggest change with these kinds of grips is on the engineering side. Modern materials can support limbs that wouldn’t have been viable historically, so we have bows with more convenient grips, because that’s an option.

Arrows are a similar situation. Modern arrows are often made from aluminum shafts, with plastic fletching, plastic nocks, and heads that can be replaced in the field by unscrewing them. It’s still an arrow. The overall quality will be better than a historical archer would be familiar with, but it’s still an arrow.

Worth knowing that, while aluminum is a naturally occurring metal, it wasn’t possible to extract and refine it as a metal until the early nineteenth century. In the middle ages “alum,” (an aluminum salt) was used in the production of dyes, but use of it as a metal (and even recognizing that it was a metal) was a few centuries away. (While I singled out the shafts, aluminum is a common component in modern bows as well.)

Machined wooden arrow shafts are still produced. You’ll also find feather fletchings, though those are rarer. There is one major difference about modern wooden shafts, worth illustrating. They’re not better than the shafts a historical archer would have encountered. They are on par with what an extremely skilled fletcher could have produced, but an individual craftsman could not have replicated the scale of modern production. (This has implications across the board, ranging from weapons, to clothes, to basically any high quality product on the market.)

The bow’s been used in warfare for over five thousand years. It’s invention disappears back into prehistory. The engineering that goes into making them have changed, but the basic concept has been around for a long time, mostly unchanged.


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