Bows and Arrows

Bows and arrows are among the oldest and most popular weapons of all time.

Nature and Use

Bows and arrows are among the oldest and most popular weapons of all time. Although simple in design, their invention represented one of the most important technological innovations of primitive humans, one that allowed individuals to attack both animal and human targets with greater force, from longer range, and with a more rapid rate of fire than had been possible with the spear or other handheld projectiles. Bows and arrows were presumably first used for hunting, perhaps as early as 30,000 b.c.e., but Stone Age;bows and arrowsNeolithic cave paintings show them deployed as weapons against other humans by about 10,000 b.c.e.Bows and arrowsBows and arrows

In its most basic form the bow consists of a shaft of wood with a string attached to both its ends. When this bowstring is drawn back, the energy of the archer’s pull is transferred to the bending bow, and after the bowstring is released, this energy is channeled through the bowstring to project the arrow forward. The arrow’s speed and distance depend on the flexibility of the bow; a stiffer bow requires more strength to string and shoot, but this added resistance translates into greater velocity and distance for the arrow itself.

The varieties of ancient bows were as numerous as the peoples who made them, but they generally fall into two categories. A self Self bowsbow–also called a simple bow, stave Stave bowsbow, or Longbowslongbow–was constructed from a single piece of wood, although bows of reed and other materials are known. They measured from 1.5 to more than 6 feet in length, and their effective range could extend to more than 200 yards. Self bows were extremely simple to make, but a suitable type of wood was required: Too pliant a wood packed little power, whereas one that was too stiff might break or prove difficult to use efficiently.

The second basic type of bow was the composite Bows and arrows;composite bowsComposite bowbow. It consisted of either a single piece or several pieces of wood glued together. This wooden core was reinforced by bone on the interior, or belly, and by sinew on the outside, or front, lending the bow greater elasticity. Composite bows were extremely strong and difficult to string, but they had an effective range of up to 300 yards, far greater than that of the self bow. They were also smaller and easier to carry, making them more versatile, especially for firing from horseback.

Arrows Arrowsalso came in different types, but their basic design was simpler and changed little over time. Ancient arrows typically consisted of two parts: a light, slender shaft of wood or reed and an arrowhead of stone, bone, or metal. Arrowheads could be flat, leaf-shaped, or triangular and were sometimes barbed. They were attached to their shafts either by a hollow socket, into which the shaft was inserted, or by means of a tang, a flat projection that fit into a notch in the shaft itself. Feathers were frequently affixed to the opposite end of the shaft to maintain an arrow’s speed and accuracy in flight.

A simple bow, the joints bound with animal sinew, shown in both strung and unstrung positions. Also shown are barbed and leaf-shaped arrowheads.

(Kimberly L. Dawson Kurnizki)

Virtually all ancient civilizations, from China and the Near East to Greece and Rome, employed bows and arrows in some capacity. Archers and archeryArchers were common in siege Siege warfare;archerswarfare, in which both attackers and defenders routinely harassed their opponents with volleys of arrows. Their use in battle, however, varied, seemingly along geographical lines. In Europe archers tended to be stationed on the wings, in front of, or behind a battle line of infantry or cavalry, and they tended to provide cover as these other forces prepared to engage the enemy at closer range. In the ancient Near East and Central Asia, however, bowmen on foot or horseback played a more decisive role in warfare; they made up the bulk of many armies and often determined the outcome of battle itself.


As noted above, bows and arrows appear as weapons in cave paintings of the late Neolithic period (8,000 to 4,000 years ago), although their use in combat may be much older. Surprisingly, however, evidence for archers in the warfare of early civilizations is sparse. The Sumerian hero Gilgamesh carried, along with several other weapons, a bow in the Gilgamesh Gilgamesh epicepic (c. 2000 b.c.e.; English translation, 1917), and the so-called Stele of Naram-Sin (c. 2250 b.c.e.) shows the Akkadian king Naram-SinNaram-Sin (Akkadian king)[Naram Sin]Naram-Sin (c. 2254-c. 2218) carrying what appears to be a composite bow. The Egyptians may have been the first to employ archers on a large scale. By 2000 b.c.e. their armies included a corps of Nubian archers, who presumably supported native Egyptian infantry armed with spears and daggers.

The bow and arrow acquired more importance when they were combined with the war chariot. Chariots;and archers[archers]Chariots had been used as transport vehicles in Mesopotamia in the third millennium b.c.e., but by the sixteenth century b.c.e. they had become the preeminent weapon of war throughout the Near East and Egypt. The chariot functioned as a mobile firing platform, carrying a driver and archer armed with a composite bow. As the driver brought the chariot within range of opposing forces, the archer released his arrows, seeking to create confusion and disorder in the enemy line. In some armies archer-bearing chariots numbered in the thousands, and the union of bow, arrow, and chariot figured prominently at the Battles of Megiddo, Battle of (1469 b.c.e.)Megiddo (1469 b.c.e.), between the Egyptians and a coalition of forces from the Levant, and Kadesh (1274 Kadesh, Battle of (1274 b.c.e.)b.c.e.), between the Egyptians and the Hittites. The significance of the bow in the latter battle is reinforced by wall carvings; an Egyptian relief commemorating the battle shows the Pharaoh Ramses Ramses IIRamses II (Egyptian Pharaoh)[Ramses 02]II (c. 1300-1213 b.c.e.) standing on his chariot and shooting his bow, seemingly mowing down the opposing Hittites single-handedly.

A Manchu bowman circa 1871.

(Getty Images)

Chariot archers survived into the first millennium b.c.e. under the Assyrians;archersAssyrians, who dominated the Near East from the ninth through the seventh centuries b.c.e., but bows and arrows also found greater use in other units. Assyrian infantry consisted primarily of archers wearing heavy armor, who released their arrows under the protection of body-sized shields held by attendants. More significant, the Assyrians were instrumental in developing Cavalry;archerscavalry, including mounted archers. Like their counterparts on foot, Assyrian horse Horse archers;Assyriansarchers worked in pairs, as one rider shot his arrows while a second held the archer’s reins and a shield. The combination of foot and horse archers was also adopted by the Persians, who became the preeminent power in the Near East in the sixth century b.c.e. Their tactics are well illustrated at the Battle of Plataea (479 Plataea, Battle of (479 b.c.e.)b.c.e.) during the Greco-Persian Wars (499-448 Greco-Persian Wars (499-448 b.c.e.)[Greco Persian Wars]b.c.e.). At the start of the battle, Persian cavalry harassed the Greek infantry with a constant onslaught of missiles, while refusing to engage the Greeks at close range. The Persia;archersPersian infantry soon followed with its own barrage of arrows, which were unleashed from behind a shield wall. The intention, it seems, was to weaken the Greeks with missile weapons, so that the infantry could emerge from behind its shield wall and overcome the remnants of the Greek infantry with the spears and daggers they also carried.

The heavily armed Greek spearmen, however, proved superior to the lightly armed Persian archers at Plataea, and the Greek victory in the Greco-Persian Wars signaled the end of the archer’s prominence in Near Eastern and Western warfare for several centuries. The Greece;archersGreeks were familiar with the bow and arrow; the Athenians had a contingent of archers at Plataea, and bowmen from the island of Crete;archersCrete were popular as Mercenaries;Cretanmercenaries throughout the Mediterranean from the fifth century b.c.e. onward. Indeed, Alexander the Alexander the GreatAlexander the Great;use of archers[archers]Great (356-323 b.c.e.) utilized Cretan and Macedonian archers effectively throughout his conquest of the Persian Empire. The Greeks, however, despised the bow and arrow as cowardly and effeminate weapons, and archers generally played only a supporting role in combat.

The Rome;archersRomans, too, originally had little use for bows and arrows. They possessed no native archers of their own, and they relied on mercenaries or allies to supply archers when needed. Only as the nature of Rome’s enemies changed in the first, second, and third centuries c.e. did archers take on an increasingly significant role in Rome’s armies. Among these enemies were the Parthians;archersParthians, who in the second century b.c.e. had established an empire where the Persian Empire had once stood. The Parthians fought with composite bows on horseback and were best known for the so-called Parthian Parthian shotshot, in which Parthian horse archers would charge an enemy and, as soon as they released their arrows, would immediately reverse direction and ride quickly out of range of enemy missile fire. Such tactics proved highly successful at Carrhae (53 Carrhae, Battle of (53 b.c.e.)b.c.e.), where Parthian mounted archers annihilated seven Roman legions, approximately 40,000 men.

Developments in China;archersChina mirrored those of the Near East and Europe. Archers on chariots were known as early as 1200 b.c.e., and they remained the elite weapon of war throughout most of the Zhou (Chou) Zhou DynastyDynasty (1066-256 b.c.e.). Archers also served in Chinese infantry, but not until the fourth century b.c.e. did the Chinese begin to develop an effective cavalry. The incursions of nomadic horse Horse archers;Central Asianarchers from the steppes of Central Asia forced the Chinese to adopt their own mounted cavalry, which they did in the third, second, and first centuries b.c.e.

It was in the hands of nomadic peoples skilled in horsemanship that the bow and arrow achieved their greatest successes in warfare. Beginning in the seventh century b.c.e. the Iranian Plateau and Eurasian steppes produced several cultures whose movements threatened and sometimes overthrew the more sedentary civilizations of Europe, the Near East, and China. These peoples included the Scythians, Huns, Avars, and Turks, who shared with one another a life seemingly lived on horseback and a reliance on the composite bow. They wore little armor and were extremely mobile, and with their large numbers they could inflict heavy damage on an opposing force while avoiding direct contact against a more heavily armed foe. The most formidable of these horse Horse archers;Mongolsarchers were probably the Mongols;archersMongols, who emerged from Mongolia in the twelfth century c.e. Fighting on horseback and carrying one or more composite bows and sixty arrows, Mongol warriors were highly disciplined, and they used both mobility and deception to overwhelm their opponents. Under Mongol leader Genghis Genghis KhanGenghis Khan (Mongol king)Khan (between 1155 and 1162-1227), Mongol armies swept across Asia and the Near East and into Europe. They established their own dynasty in China early in the thirteenth century, and by 1250 their empire stretched from Asia to Eastern Europe.

While Mongol horse archers were terrorizing Asia and Eastern Europe, the English were experimenting with the longbow, a development that changed the nature of Western warfare. Longbows;WelshLongbows had been known in Europe for centuries and had played no small role in the victory of William the Conqueror (c. 1028-1087) over the English at Hastings in 1066, but their role in battle was marginal until the English adopted the Welsh longbow in the twelfth century. Made from the wood of the yew tree, the Welsh longbow reached almost 6 feet in length and required considerable strength and skill to wield. It was also inexpensive, and, with training, common soldiers could learn to shoot with enough distance, speed, and power to penetrate even the thickest suits of knightly armor. Edward Edward IEdward I (king of England)[Edward 01]I (1239-1307) was the first English king to enlist large numbers of longbowmen (mostly Welshmen) in his armies, with whom he defeated the Scottish pikemen at Falkirk in 1298. During the fourteenth century, however, native English archers took up the longbow in greater numbers and proved their worth against heavily armored knights, especially during the Hundred Years’ War against France Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453)(1337-1453). At Crécy Crécy, Battle of (1346)[Crecy, Battle of](1346) the English longbowmen first routed the mercenary Genoese crossbowmen before wreaking havoc on successive charges of French cavalry, killing more than one thousand knights by the end of the battle. Similar charges by armored knights on horseback at Poitiers Poitiers, Battle of (1356)(1356) and on foot at Agincourt Agincourt, Battle of (1415)(1415) brought similar results, and helped hasten the end of the dominance of mounted cavalry in European warfare.

The rise of Gunpowder;and archers[archers]gunpowder ultimately brought about the demise of the bow and arrow in battle. That demise, however, did not occur overnight, and for centuries after the introduction of gunpowder (c. 1300), archers remained an important component of most armies. Only with the development of effective and reliable handheld firearms in the sixteenth century did bows and arrows become obsolete.Bows and arrows

Books and Articles

  • Bennett, Matthew, et al. Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World, A.D. 500 to A.D. 1500. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005.
  • Bradbury, Jim. The Medieval Archer. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell and Brewer, 1999.
  • Bradford, Alfred S. With Arrow, Sword, and Spear: A History of Warfare in the Ancient World. Illustrated by Pamela M. Bradford. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001.
  • Diagram Group. The New Weapons of the World Encyclopedia: An International Encyclopedia from 5000 B.C. to the Twenty-first Century. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007.
  • Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe c. 1200 B.C. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.
  • Ferrill, Arther. The Origins of War. Rev. ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997.
  • Grant, R. G. Warrior: A Visual History of the Fighting Man. New York: DK, 2007.
  • Harding, Stephen. “The Deadly Dozen.” Military History 26, no. 2 (June/July, 2009): 58.
  • Hardy, Robert. The Longbow: A Social and Military History. London: Bois d’Arc Press, 1998.
  • Hurley, Vic. Arrows Against Steel: The History of the Bow. New York: Mason/Charter, 1975.
  • Nicolle, David. A Companion to Medieval Arms and Armour. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 2002.
  • Soar, Hugh D. H. The Crooked Stick: A History of the Longbow. Yardley, Pa.: Westholme, 2005.

Films and Other Media

  • Arms in Action: Bows. Documentary. History Channel, 1999.
  • Henry V. Feature film. BBC/Curzon/Renaissance, 1989.
  • Wild West Tech: Native American Tech. Documentary. History Channel, 2008.

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