Archers of Antiquity
This Bow Has Been Under Development For Some Six Thousand Years,
And The End Is Not Yet In Sight!
By Col. Robert H. Rankin


 Although the bow is one of the oldest of all martial weapons, we are fortunate in that we do have some idea of what even the earliest bows were like.  We are fairly certain that bows were being used in warfare as far back as 400 B.C.!  Pictures of these bows and those of later eras are to be found in bas reliefs, carvings and paintings in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine and other sections of the Middle East.





 Yet there is some doubt as to just where the bow originated.  Some military historians believe that the Semetic peoples, who thousands of years ago come out of the Arabian desert and spread throughout the Middle East and along the north coast of Africa, invented the bow.

 Incidentally, the bow is of particular interest to military historians inasmuch as its introduction made possible for the first time the tactical element of surprise, as well as attack from beyond range and from behind cover.  In addition, it greatly reduced the possibility of retaliation.  All of these are important military considerations in any age.  In fact, the bow was directly responsible for the introduction of armor and it was one of the few weapons actually to revolutionize warfare, itself.

 The simple bow was, of course, the first type to be introduced.  It appeared as early as 4000 B.C., possibly earlier.  The earliest representation of the composite bow is to be found on a 2000 B.C. Bas relief commemorating an Accadian (Babylonian) victory over the Summerians.

 In discussing composite bows of any era, it is interesting to note the words of an Arab writer of the fifteenth century, A.D., who wrote:

 “The structure of the composite bow is not unlike that of man.  The human body is made up of four basic elements- bones, flesh, arteries and blood.  The composite bow has the same four counterpart elements: Wood – its skeleton; horn -its flesh; tendons – its arteries; glue – its blood.  Man has back and belly.  So has the bow.  And just as man can bend forward but is likely to damage himself by bending too far backward, so with the operation of the bow.”

 Composite bows were, of course, complicated and difficult to make, so their manufacture and use was restricted to the more civilized peoples of ancient times.

 From evidence which comes down to us through the centuries, we know that the bows were not braced until just before use.  To brace the bow, the string was fastened by means of a loop to one end of the bow.  This end then was placed on the ground and the bow was bent by arm until it was possible to attach the loop on the other end.  Several interesting pictures of this operation exist.

 Bows were used both in open battle and in the attack and defense of fortified positions.  The war chariot, introduced sometime around 200 B.C. By either the Hurians or the Hitties, was used principally as a mobile fore platform for archers.  Chariot bowmen usually carried a quiver at their side suspended from a strap which passed over the shoulder.  In addition, one and sometimes two additional quivers were attached to the side of the chariot within easy reach of the archer.  Mounted archers carried the quiver at the side or on the back, as did the foot archers.  As an exception, some early Egyptian paintings show dismounting archers with bundles of arrows at their feet.

 From the number of bas reliefs, paintings, et cetera, which have been preserved for thousands of years, showing archery practice, it appears that great importance was attached to archery training.  Apparently the novice had to develop basic skills with the simple bow after which he progressed of the composite bow. 

 Quivers usually were made of leather, metal, wood or of a combination of these.  Assyrian quivers were unique in that they had a fringe – covered opening to prevent arrows from jostling out.

 Although most composite bows were of the conventional pattern, triangular composite bows also were used, the arms forming a 120 degree angle.  Many of the painting of the time of Rameses III of Egypt (1192-160 B.C.) show these triangular bows in use.  Just how such bows compare with the conventional pattern is not known, although it would seem that from their basic design they would not be as efficient.

 Sometime during the 800’s B.C., the ends of the bow were turned back in a so-called duck’s head pattern.  This served both as an ornament and as a means of making the ends of the bow string more secure.

 The ancient archers of the Middle East used what would later be called the “Mediterranean Release.”  The tips of the first two fingers were used to draw the string back and the arrow was held between these two fingers.  The string was drawn back to the point of the shoulder, with the bow held at arm’s length in front of the body.

 Although the early Greeks used the bow extensively, it was practically discarded later, the Greek warriors apparently preferring close combat tactics.  The Romans did not regard the bow with favor.  They placed reliance on various forms of the javelin and their wicked short double-edge sword.  Interestingly enough, however, the Athenians developed a highly efficient body of naval bowmen.  During the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.), these specialists were used with great success against the Spartans.

 From the early beginnings noted above, the bow would continue, in one form or another, to be a decisive weapon in warfare for many centuries to come.