The Evolution of Archery: The Composite Bow

The composite bow, also known as the horn bow, the Scythian bow, and the Hunnic bow, is a genuine marvel of ancient engineering which revolutionised archery and warfare for thousands of years. It was so effective it may be - before the advent of the gun - the greatest weapon in history. This is the story of the composite bow.

Military History
5 June 2024

The composite bow boasts a rich and fascinating history which intertwines with the cultural and military developments from Europe to the Far East, the Arabian peninsula and the Indian subcontinent, over thousands of years.

Made from a combination of horn, wood and sinew, this sophisticated construction technique allowed for a more powerful and flexible weapon than standard wooden bows, capable of delivering arrows with astonishing accuracy and devastating brutality.

Let’s take a time-trip four thousand years into the past to discover the origins of the composite bow, how composite bow parts come together, and why this weapon was sometimes called the horn bow, the Scythian bow, and the Hunnic bow.

What is a Composite Bow?

Illustration of Mongol warriors with swords and bow (Credit: Nick Hewetson via Getty Images)

Unlike simple wooden bows, the composite bow is crafted from wood, horn, and sinew, which was not only a remarkable technical achievement for its time, it was also a hugely effective battlefield weapon. Its design allowed archers to shoot arrows over long distances with remarkable accuracy and penetrating power.

Skilled mounted archers could release arrows while riding at full gallop, a tactic that proved devastating in numerous historical conflicts, and the composite bow played a crucial role in the military successes of empires including – famously – the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan, whose forces used the bow to conquer vast territories.

The History of the Composite Bow

Medieval archers with composite bows (Credit: duncan1890 via Getty Images)

The origins of the composite bow can be traced back to the pastoralist civilisations of the Eurasian steppes, particularly among the nomadic cultures such as the Scythians, Mongols, and Huns.

These cultures were renowned for their exceptional horsemanship and archery skills, which were integral to their military strategies and incursions into settled territories. While the technology likely evolved over time, the bow’s development is believed to have begun around 2000 BC, with evidence of its use appearing in various archaeological finds across Central Asia and the Middle East.

As other ancient civilisations came into contact with nomadic tribes – notably the Chinese, Assyrians, Egyptians, Romans, Parthians and Greeks, and later the North Indians, Koreans and Ottomans – they too adopted the composite bow. It was reported that two composite bows were found in the tomb of Tutenkhamun, which was sealed in around 1324 BC, and they continued to be used for centuries. Indeed composite bows were still being used as gunpowder-based weapons became prominent in the sixteenth century AD.

What’s in a Name?

19thC illustration of a Scythian bow (Credit: Florilegius via Getty Images)

The composite bow is also referred to as a horn bow, a Scythian bow and a Hunnic bow, and there are good reasons why.

Horn Bow

Composite bows are sometimes referred to as horn bows, simply because a component part of the bow is animal horn. In a composite bow, horn – usually from a water buffalo, oryx, ibex, or certain breeds of cattle such as the Hungarian Grey – is used on the bow’s belly (the side facing the archer) because of its excellent compressive strength. Horn allows the bow to efficiently store and release energy, providing greater power and durability compared to wooden bows.

Scythian Bow

The term Scythian bow reflects the historical association between the composite bow and the Scythians, an ancient group of nomadic warriors known for their exceptional archery skill who inhabited the Eurasian steppes. The Scythians used these bows to great effect in both hunting and battle, often while on horseback. The Scythian bow – said to be around 1.2 metres long and more or less symmetrical – was believed to have been the most popular version of the composite bow throughout Asia until around the first century BC.

Hunnic Bow

Similarly, the name Hunnic bow highlights the connection between the composite bow and the Huns, another prominent group of nomadic warriors. The Huns, who emerged in the late antiquity period, were known for their fierce and effective military strategies, with the composite bow being a principal weapon in their arsenal. The Hunnic bow was an evolution of the Scythian bow, characterised by improved angles, greater bow flex, and an asymmetric design, which, according to some ancient weapons experts, may have potentially added 40 – 80% more power, resulting in a shooting distance of an additional 150 metres.

Each of these names reflects different aspects of the composite bow’s rich history and its impact on various cultures. While horn bow emphasises the materials and craftsmanship, Scythian bow and Hunnic bow highlight the cultural and historical contexts in which these weapons were prominently used.

The Composite Bow Parts

Composite bows in silhouette (Credit: Butsaya via Getty Images)

The composite bow is a sophisticated piece of equipment comprising several key components, each selected for its unique properties and meticulously assembled to create a powerful weapon. The primary materials used in a composite bow include wood, horn, sinew, and glue, all of which work together to provide the bow’s superior performance.

The Core

The core of the composite bow is typically made from a flexible, strong wood such as maple, birch, or mulberry. This core forms the backbone of the bow, providing the necessary structure and flexibility.

The Horn

Horn is applied to the belly of the bow, the side that faces the archer when drawing the string. Horn is chosen for its exceptional compressive strength. When the bow is drawn, the horn resists compression, storing a significant amount of energy that is released when the arrow is shot.

The Sinew

Sinew, typically from the tendons of animals like wild deer or cattle, is layered on the back of the composite bow, the side facing away from the archer. Sinew is incredibly strong under tension, and its application to the bow’s back allows it to handle the stretching forces that occur when the bow is drawn.

The Glue

The composite bow parts were bound together using a strong adhesive, traditionally made from animal hide or gelatin made from fish gas bladders. This natural glue was both resilient and flexible, capable of withstanding the stresses and strains placed on the bow during use. The glue ensured that the layers of the bow remained securely bonded, maintaining the bow’s structural integrity and, crucially, its performance.

The construction process was a painstaking and time-consuming endeavour, requiring skilled craftsmanship and a deep understanding of the materials involved. Each of the composite bow parts was precisely shaped and fitted, and the bow had to be carefully glued and cured over several months. The result was a highly efficient and powerful weapon, capable of delivering arrows with remarkable speed and accuracy.

The Decline of the Composite Bow

Composite bow and arrows (Credit: HUIZENG HU via Getty Images)

Despite its effectiveness, the popularity of the composite bow began to wane with the advent of gunpowder and firearms in the late medieval period, perhaps by the late fourteenth or early fifteenth centuries. By the sixteenth century, the dominance of archery in warfare had largely been supplanted by the increasing use of guns, which were easier to use and offered more destructive power.

Was the Composite Bow History’s Greatest Weapon?

Illustration of an ancient Babylonian archer (Credit: duncan1890 via Getty Images)

The innovation and craftsmanship of ancient cultures revolutionised archery technology and significantly and permanently shaped the course of warfare.

Due to its revolutionary design, high power, and battlefield effectiveness, the composite bow ranks as one of history’s most effective weapons, significantly influencing the outcomes of numerous battles and the expansion of empires from the Huns to the Mongols and beyond.

From its origins among the nomadic cultures of the Eurasian steppes to its widespread use by some of history’s greatest empires, the construction and performance of the composite bow made it a vital tool in arsenals all over the world for centuries.

Although its prominence waned with the advent of firearms, the legacy of the composite bow endured, and today it’s renowned for both its remarkable impact on warfare as well as its influence on the art – and later, sport – of archery.


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