How Heavy Were Iron Age Bows? Part 2
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How Heavy Were Iron Age Bows? Part 2

In my first post on Iron Age bows, I showed that there is a lot of evidence that archers in England, the Ottoman Empire, and the Manchu Empire used bows with very heavy draw weights (over 100 pounds / 45 kg at the intended draw length) around the 15th-17th centuries CE. People who are keen on early modern archery often project these heavy draw weights onto all war bows in all cultures. But we have reconstructions of ancient bows from the area from Egypt to India by people who examined the remains of bows and arrows from that place and time. What kind of draw weights did those bows have?

  • Reproductions of two composite bows from 18th Dynasty tombs in Egypt by Edward McEwen. “They took about 6 months to complete (far less than previous guesses). They are light weapons, with draw-weights of 18 and 23 kg. (40-50 pounds) at 90 cm. They are extraordinarily elastic, and seem capable of any draw-length. They are smooth to shoot, without any kick at release, extremely accurate, and cast a 40-g. arrow 160 and 169 m. respectively.” Source: Edward McEwen and Wallace McLeod, “The Ancient Egyptian Composite Bow: Some Notes on its Structure and Performance.” American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 89, No. 2 (April 1985), p. 341. See also Wallace McLeod, Composite Bows from the Tomb of Tut’ankhamūn. Tut’ankhamūn’s Tomb Series, Volume 3. Oxford: The Griffith Institute, 1970.
  • Another replica of a New Kingdom Egyptian composite bow by Edward McEwen. This had a draw weight of 28.8 kg (63 pounds) and is also based on a bow from an 18th Dynasty tomb. Source: Bergman, C.A., McEwen, Edward, and Miller, R. “Experimental Archery: Projectile Velocities and Comparisons of Bow Performances.” Antiquity 62 (1988) pp. 658-670.
  • Another replica of a New Kingdom Egyptian or Neo-Assyrian composite bow by Edward McEwen. This was made of wood, horn, and sinew and covered with birch-bark. It had a draw weight of 40-45 pounds at 30-33″. Source: Thomas Hulit and Thom Richardson, “The Warriors of Pharaoh: Experiments with New Kingdom Scale Armour, Archery, and Chariots.” In Barry Molloy ed., The Cutting Edge, Tempus: Stroud, 2007, pp. 57, 58
  • A replica of a bow from Subeixi in Xinjiang. The bowyer felt that given the shape of this bow and its construction from wood and sinew without horn, it might break in use if it were any stiffer than 30 kiloponds (66 pounds) at 65 cm (26”), and that stronger draw weights would not have given the arrows which they were using a higher speed (air resistance increases significantly with velocity and there are limits to how quickly a bow can transfer energy into an arrow as it is loosed). Source: Godehardt, Erhardt et al., “The Reconstruction of Scythian Bows.” In Barry Molloy ed., The Cutting Edge, Tempus: Stroud, 2007, pp. 112-133
  • Edward McEwan’s reconstruction of a Parthian-period bow from Yrzi cemetery near Baghouz, Syria. I am told that this had a draw weight between 60 and 70 pounds, but I cannot find the article by Jon Coulston. Source: Brown, Frank E. “A Recently Discovered Compound Bow,” Annales de l’Institut Kondakov (Prague, 1937) pp. 1-10; Rausing, G. (1967). The Bow: Some Notes on Its Origin and Development. Rudolf Habelt. p. 105, fig. 22; Coulston, J. C. (1985) “Roman Archery Equipment.” In M. C. Bishop (Ed.), The Production and Distribution of Roman Military Equipment. BAR International Series (Vol. 275, pp. 220-336). Oxford.
  • A PhD dissertation by Philip Henry Blyth from the 1970s which looked at arrows from roughly the 5th century BCE and asked how much energy they could have delivered before the shafts buckled. His background was in engineering, so he focused on the ability of the join between the arrowhead and the shaft to absorb impact. The most common type of socketed arrowhead from Persian sites in Greece has a socket diameter of about 6.0-6.7 mm (external) and weighs about 5 grams, other types are even lighter. He had trouble estimating draw weights over 70 pounds for the long Persian bows worn on the shoulder, and even less for the short B-shaped Scythian bows carried in bowcase at the hip. Blyth’s work might have benefited from more practical knowledge of archery, and he had to make many assumptions from limited evidence. The species of reed used for arrows in the ancient world is not known, nor is how these reeds were prepared understood; differences in climate and processing can have a large impact on the mechanical properties of a reed arrowshaft. On the other hand, most archers agree that an arrow which is too light and flexible or too heavy and stiff will give poor performance. The anonymous authors at Comitatus have also not yet managed to build a reed arrow which can be shot from a heavy bow effectively. Source: Philip Henry Blyth. The Effectiveness of Greek Armour Against Arrows in the Persian War (490-479 B.C.): An Interdisciplinary Inquiry. PhD Thesis, University of Reading, January 1977. http://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?uin=uk.bl.ethos.450089
  • The first book of the Strategikon of emperor Maurice (+VI but drawing on a thousand-year tradition of technical military writing which was lost once they had his summary) suggests that a soldier’s bow is better a bit too light than a bit too heavy. A few centuries later an anonymous Roman treatise on archery (peri Toxeias) sees shooting powerfully, shooting often, and shooting far as equally important. Both of these sources suggest that soldiers in one ancient culture did not see the ability to draw a powerful bow as the most important attribute of an archer.

The warbow enthusiasts generally do not seem to know about these eight reconstructions, because they are published in places which only ancient historians and archaeologists read (and which are usually only available in university libraries). Their interest is in archery around the 15th/16th/17th centuries CE, not 2000 years earlier! So as far as I know, its not that they reject them, its that they have never heard of them or only by hearsay.

Its hard to understand many things because warbow enthusiasts do not write a lot down, and because I have never lived close to any of them or had a hobby which brought us into contact. Some people have money and energy for constant travel and meeting new people, but I did not even before COVID. But when I see them in old media or online, they cite the sources I discussed in part 1 of this post.

(In this blog post, I am not going to discuss literary sources such as the complaint of the Seven in the Erra epic that because they had not killed anyone recently they could no longer draw their strong bows, the story of the bow which Odysseus left behind on Ithaca which none of the suitors could string, or Amenhotep’s boast that he had shot arrows through a target of Asiatic copper one palm thick. These are interesting, but not as clear or reliable as archaeological evidence, and discussing them requires more space and nuance than makes a good blog post).

A topographical map of central Asia with modern borders and ancient sites
The Ukok Plateau with the Pazyruk Culture tombs (upper right in the Altai Mountains) is about 3,350 km from Chehrābād, Iran (lower left). Only about half that distance was the King’s Land. The distance from Chehrabad to Yanghai, Xinjiang (center right near the Tarim River) is about as far. Map from http://www.freeworldmaps.net/asia/central/physical.html distances from Wikipedia + an online calculator.

So in my first post I showed that there is a lot of evidence that war bows in 16th and 17th century England, Turkey, and China had draw weights over 100 lbs. But McEwen, Godehart et al., and Blythe did not think that the ancient bows they examined had such heavy draw weights, and the Roman treatises on archery emphasize that its better to have a bow which is a bit weak than a bit stiff. Adam Karpowicz and Stephen Selby are the only people I can find who looked at a bow before the year 1 and estimated a draw weight over 100 pounds, and their bow from Yanghai was very early and very far away from the places most of us are interested in. Ancient bows and arrows tend to be smaller and lighter than Turkish bows or Mary Rose bows.

I think that these ancient sources suggest that while some soldiers choose to use bows with a draw weight of 100 pounds or more, and most soldiers may have used such bows in Eurasia in the sixteenth century, its not true that all soldiers choose very heavy bows, or that a bow with a more moderate draw weight is not a war bow. If the best weapon were the one which shoots the heaviest projectile the farthest and fastest, modern armies would not issue soldiers with assault rifles and assault carbines shooting calibres like 5.56 mm NATO or 5.45 mm Russian. Since 1914, most armies which engage in intense combat find that infantry need to carry as much ammunition as possible, need to be able to shoot it as rapidly as possible at targets within a few hundred yards, and need to be able to maneuver their weapons in confined spaces. Relatively short weapons firing smaller, less powerful cartridges meet these requirements better than more accurate, powerful weapons.[1]

These researchers could have been wrong. But if someone wants to argue they were wrong, I think its their duty to make an argument, and not just assert that these bows must have had the same draw weight as much bigger bows thousands of years later in a world of arquebuses, crossbows, and cheap steel armour.

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Further Reading:

  • Csaba Grozer in Hungary produces reproductions of a variety of composite bows at various levels of accuracy depending on the customer’s budget. Nag him to make some New Kingdom Egyptian bows!
  • On the advantages and disadvantages of different kinds of fletching, see some articles by Russ Mitchell which I do not have to hand, probably including Russ Mitchell, “Archery versus Mail: Experimental Archaeology and the Value of Historical Context, Journal of Medieval Military History 4 (2006).
  • Randall IV, Karl Chandler (2016) Origins and Comparative Performance of the Composite Bow. Doctor of Literature and Philosophy thesis, University of South Africa, 10 January 2016 https://uir.unisa.ac.za/handle/10500/21120
  • Riesch, Holger (2017) Pfeil und Bogen in der Römischen Kaiserzeit. Ludwigshafen: Verlag Angelika Hörnig. ISBN 978-3-938921-50-0 (I have not yet seen this)
  • Ivan Semyan and Spyros Bakas, “Archaeological Experiment on Reconstruction of the ‘Compound’ Bow of the Sintashta Bronze Age Culture from the Stepnoe Cemetery,” EXARC Journal Issue 2021/2 https://exarc.net/ark:/88735/10579

The final outcome was a (replica Sintasha-culture, ~2000 BCE) bow of 187 cm in length, and a 64-pound draw weight (26″)

[1] Since I wrote the first draft of this post in the Before Times, the US military became the latest to decide that a round between 6.5 mm and 7 mm calibre might be the ideal balance between the deer-hunting rounds used in WW I and the even smaller rounds which rich armies had adopted by the 1980s. I’m not a rifle shooter and I don’t want to wake up to find a round of .276 Pedersen or .280 British or even 6.5x50mmSR Arisaka or 6.5 mm Carcano in my mailbox, so I’ll just say that these intermediate cartridges are still smaller with lighter bullets than those rifle cartridges from before 1914 and nobody thinks the average private should be shooting .50 BMG. ↑ back to text ↑

(drafted circa 2015, scheduled 17 August 2022)

7 thoughts on “How Heavy Were Iron Age Bows? Part 2

  1. How Heavy were Iron Age Bows? Part 1 – Book and Sword says:

    […] the next post in this series, I will show some of the evidence which the enthusiasts don’t like to tell people […]

  2. Anthony Clipsom says:

    I noticed a fairly recent experimental archery article on a bronze age bow of the Sintashta culture which might be added to your academic references for bows BCE

    https://exarc.net/issue-2021-2/ea/reconstruction-compound-bow-sintashta

    1. Sean says:

      Thanks! I will have a look.

      Its always possible that researchers before 2010 just assumed that ancient bows were like the bows hunters and target archers use, but I would like actual evidence rather than slurs on people’s judgement.

  3. russell1200 says:

    The heavier WW1 and WW2 rounds stayed heavy because they wanted commonalty with the standard machine gun ammunition. You see this today (in reverse) with the US introducing the minimi machine gun to make use of the light 5.56 round.

    The assault rifle is initially an attempt to bring automatic firepower into the infantry assault. This was done a lot with SMG (largish machine pistols) but the pistol round was viewed as being too light. As time has gone on, their has been a realization that it is the support weapons that create the firepower. So dragging around a big heavy rifle, unless your a sniper, keeps you from carrying around more support weapons.

    So your point that bigger isn’t always better is a good one: otherwise everyone would be carrying around a sniper rifle. But the move to the 5.56 from 7.62 is a bit too fuzzy apply.

    I would like to see a bow versus expected armor of opponent comparison. Did people who fought against heavily metal armored (bronze or steel) have more powerful bows? My guess is that there is a slight correlation. Over time, armor got heavier. My guess is where you see heavier hand weapons (to deal with heavy armor) you will also see heavier bows. The Turks circa 1457 seem to have relatively light weaponry that had a tough time dealing with the Italians defending Constantinople. Probably because most of the time, they were dealing with much less heavily armored people. But this is the time period where you are seeing heavy two-handed weapons (and crossbows) in Europe.

    1. Sean says:

      I think the Japanese and Italians used the intermediate rounds for their light and medium MGs too. And when armies adopted 5.56 mm NATO or 5.45 mm Soviet they converted their squad- or section-level machine guns to the same round.

      I agree that in the end what round infantry use does not affect the performance of an army very much, and that all the geeks with a pet round don’t always consider things like “is this suitable for MGs?”

      I suspect that the heavy draw weights of bows in 16th century Eurasia have something to do with cheap steel armour and the need to look useful on a battlefield with guns. The warbow enthusiasts often insist that bows in Turtle Island must have been heavy too, but again, the replicas I have read about don’t bear this out.

      1. russell1200 says:

        LOL – Way off topic, but you can have a lot of fun talking about Italian and Japanese machine guns of WW2. Granted some of the US post-war mg weren’t world beaters either.

        https://nationalinterest.org/blog/reboot/italy%E2%80%99s-breda-37-machine-gun-was-obsolete-it-hit-battlefield-192289

        https://nationalinterest.org/blog/reboot/imperial-japan%E2%80%99s-type-11-was-world-war-ii%E2%80%99s-worst-machine-gun-178144

        1. Sean says:

          I kind of like the gun geek Internet and sites like Forgotten Weapons, they have good ‘fact’ energy until they get into ‘stopping power’ and ‘concealed carry’ and maybe some of the legends passed on from Grandpa’s buddy who was a marine in WW II.

          The other problem with weapons design is that if your weapons are really good at something, the bad guys won’t get into situations where they can do it. “My friends tried that and they all died” is a pretty powerful motivator.

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