Reading through my file collection the other day I came across an old (1930’s?) article on how the North American Indians made their bows. I have some knowledge of English and Asian bows but this was a field I was less familiar with. One of the reasons that this article so interested me was that I am currently reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Pellucidar series. Many of the characters in these books use bows and there are frequent references to them constructing new weapons after escaping from capture. The Indians tended to favour flatbow designs and I have heard it suggested that such a bow is easier to construct under field conditions than the D-section English Longbow.
I will not bother to reproduce the entire article since there are some excellent websites on the topic available on the internet. Some interesting points from the original article were:-
- The best time to cut wood to make bows was February since the sap had not yet risen into the wood. This was defined in the article as “when the Geese return”.
- The wood of choice was Osage Orange. Where this was not available a number of other woods were used including ash, hickory and yew.
- Like the English Longbow, the bowstave need a considerable period of seasoning before any carving could be done. Bowstaves were hung high up in the tepee above the fire to gently season in the heat. Arrowshafts and other items were seasoned in the same way. The bark side of the stave was used for the "back" of the bow -the part that faces away from you.
- Bow length varied with tribe, intended use and probably the individual. Bows of six foot or longer were known, as were bows of only a few feet. A suggested measure for a bow was the distance from the left hip to the right hand when the hand was held out horizontally to the side. This is about four feet. Some readers will recognize this as illustrated in Lofty Wiseman’s “The SAS Survival Guide” and doubtless this book and the article drew from a similar source. The bow illustrated in that publication is a flatbow.
- Arrows were often marked with three lightning bolt carvings. Practical purpose of these may have been to reduce the tendency of the arrow to warp. It was also suggested in the article that the grooves might have encouraged blood loss.
- Arrowheads were bound into the end of the arrowshaft. Some war arrowheads were constructed so that impact with the target would cut the bindings, leaving the head in the target even if the shaft was pulled out.
- Hard sinew (from the neck of a buffalo) was sometimes used as an arrowhead. The stated advantage of this was that such heads had a tendency to deflect from the ribs of an animal and slip between them while flint or iron heads would stick, shatter or bend.
ERB does not give us any description of the type of bows his characters use, although David Innes in "Land of Terror" does tell us:-
“A species of the genus Taxus is more or less widely distributed throughout Pellucidar; and I had discovered that its wood made the best bows. For arrows I used a straight, hollow reed that becomes very hard when dry. The tips which I inserted in the end of the reeds were of wood, fire-hardened.
A modern archer of the civilized outer world would doubtless laugh at the crude bow I made then at the edge of the Valley of the Jukans. If he uses a yew bow, the wood for it was allowed to season for three years before it was made into a bow, and then the bow was probably not used for two more years; but I could not wait five years before eating; and so I hacked the limb I had selected from the tree with my stone knife and took the bark from it and tapered it crudely from the center toward each end. I prefer a six foot, eighty pound bow for a three-foot arrow, because of the great size and formidability of some of the beasts one meets here; but of course my bow did not attain this strength immediately. Every time we had a fire, I would dry it out a little more, so that it gradually attained its full efficiency. The strings for my bows I can make from several long-fibered plants; but even the best of them do not last long, and I am constantly having to renew them.”
In "Return to Pellucidar" in the anthology book "Savage Pellucidar":-
"Fruit and nuts grew in abundance on the trees and shrubs of the little canyon; but fighting men require meat; and one must have weapons to have meat. These two had not even a stone knife between them, but the first men had no weapons originally. They had to make them.
Innes and Hodon went into the little stream and hunted around until they found a large mussel. They pried it open with a sharp stone, and each took a half shell. With these they cut two pieces of bamboo-like arborescent grass to form the hafts of two spears. Searching again they collected a number of stones: soft stones, hard stones, flat stones, stones with sharp edges; and with some of these they chipped and scraped at others until they had fashioned two spear heads and a couple of crude knives. While Hodon was finding the toughest fibers with which to bind the spear heads to the hafts, Innes made a bow and some arrows, for this was one of his favorite weapons."
Since Pellucidar was constantly under an unmoving noon-day sun it presumably had no seasons and the trees would have always been filled with sap. Perhaps that was why the bow was so rare on Pellucidar!