Of all sports in our modern world, archery has some of the deepest roots. We don’t know when the bow and arrow was invented, and will likely never know, but odds are it is old. The oldest non-disputable age of the bow and arrow is 11,000 years ago. Many other would argue the discipline is much older, perhaps 60,000 years old. Whatever you believe, when you pick up a bow, you are picking up a very old tool of human ingenuity. Celebrating that history is something you can still be part of today.
There are many ways modern archers can breathe life into this ancient sport. Every time an arrow flies, it carries with it the magic of long ago. The satisfaction of a well placed shot, whether from a compound bow with carbon arrows, or a primitive bow with homemade arrows, is the same. By simply picking up a bow, you are a link in a chain that goes back to the first pages of antiquity. It’s a great feeling.
I think one of the best ways you can celebrate the history of archery is by learning to make some of your own gear. This is an art and takes years of practice to perfect. However, even a first timer can be proud of their primitive arrows, arrowheads, or bow. Although your first attempts will not likely be suitable for hunting, they can give you an insight into the lives of the first archers. If you don’t want to just jump right in and get yourself a good beginner bow a good project for a person just starting to explore primitive archery is to build a survival bow.
Building a survival bow doesn’t take an expert bowyer by any means. As mentioned, it takes people years of experience to craft quality archery gear. A survival bow is not a bow you make intending to use for years. You likely won’t take one on your next deer hunt. These simple bows are great for learning some of the primary lessons of bow building and will shoot an arrow. In a pinch they can be capable of doing some hunting with, and knowing how to construct one can be beneficial. As your skills grow, your bows will become better as well.
If you are looking to learn more about the roots of archery, or develop a skill that could potentially help you in a survival situation, follow these 5 simple steps to craft your very own survival bow.
1. Selecting the Wood
Before you get started building your bow, you’ll need to select the wood you want to use. Ancient archers would have garnered an intimate knowledge of the natural world around them. To build your own survival bow, you’ll also need to learn about what types of woods work best or bow building and identify these species. Many types of wood are suitable, but popular materials are yew, ash, osage orange, red oak, and hickory, That being said, these many not always be available in a survival situation. In fact, I’ve used invasive woods like Russian Olive before. The bow was not ideal but it still shoots an arrow.
When selecting the ideal wood for your bow there are a few things to look for. One, your best option is to select one of the aforementioned woods. Two, for best results it should be straight grained with few knots. The stave should also be at a minimum of 4 inches in diameter. Finally, for a longbow, the specimen should be taller than you are. These traits are ideal, and you may not be able to find the perfect piece of wood to work with.
Once your wood is selected, ideally you would allow the wood to dry for a period of at least one year. This time allows the stave to season, or cure. Seasoning is important because it tremendously increases the lifespan of your bow. In his book Making Indian Bows and Arrows…The Old Way, Douglas Spotted Eagle claims that Native Americans cut their staves in mid-winter and hung them over their lodge fire for a few weeks to speed up the curing process. If you need a bow right now though, you won’t have the luxury of allowing your stave to cure. In that case you’ll have to cut a specimen and get right to work on it. Although it may not last for years, it can still serve its purpose. If you are just getting your feet wet in bow making, you may think about selecting an extra stave at this point and allowing it to cure. That will allow you to learn the basics of bow building before getting to work on a valuable cured stave.
2. Roughing Out
Once you have selected your wood, the next step to build a survival bow is to rough out the general shape. This can easily be done with a sharp hatchet. Early on you will be removing large pieces of wood, trying to get a large piece of wood down to bow-size. You can shave the bow down to any dimensions you want, realizing that the more you take off will decrease the draw weight of the end product. Along those lines, at this point be careful not to remove too much wood when roughing your bow out. Wood is easily removed and impossible to add. A good rule of thumb is to spend more time looking at your bow than actually working on it. By spending time examining it you’ll develop an eye for where to take wood.
As far as size goes, it really depends on your preference. In the days of antiquity bows developed differently across the globe. Some bows were fat, others were thin. Some were short, others were very long. Some bows, like the Japanese Yumi, aren’t even held at the center. In a situation where you simple need a bow, I’d recommend just getting something comfortable to hold and carry.
3. Finding Your Ring
If you are making a bow out of woods like ash or hickory, you definitely need to remove the outer layer of bark and remove some growth rings. The rule on the back of the bow (side facing away from you) is to have one continuous growth ring showing. In other words, find a growth ring and follow it all the way up the stave. This is an essential step in the bow making process. The back of the bow is under tension when the bow is drawn. If there are multiple rings on that side, the bow will splinter at that point. With one continuous ring, the bow will spread the tension over the entire surface area and not break. You can use a hatchet, knife, or file for this, whatever is handy. Primitive people would have done the entire project using simple stone edges.
Sometimes you can make exceptions. For example, the “quickie” survival bow I made out of Russian Olive. This is a nuisance tree that is prolific in the Great Plains. When making this bow, I skipped this stage in the process. In fact I actually left the bark completely in tact on the back of the bow. The bow wasn’t the best, but was for experimental purposes and turned out adequate enough. If I had been working with an ideal bow making wood, I would have taken the time to chase the ring on the back of the bow.
4. Carving String Grooves
At this stage in the game it is worth carving your string grooves. If you are fortunate enough to have a file, the side of the file is typically the perfect size. String grooves should be carved out a few inches away from the end of the bow to limit the tension at that point. Place them too close to the end, and you are likely to break the bow. Place them too far down the bow and you will fail to use the full potential of the bow. It is also important to only carve a short distance into your stave. Between 1/8 of an inch and 1/4 of an inch should be fine on most bows. The more material you remove, the weaker the tips become.
The next step to build a survival bow is the tillering process. The goal of tillering is to remove material from the belly of the bow (the part that faces you) to get a nice and even bend through the bow. Tillering can’t be mastered in a day and takes much patience to be done correctly. This is a step where you want to spend more time looking at the bow rather than working on it.
Before beginning, you need to make a string to draw your bow with. Tillering requires you to draw the bow many times, increasing the draw length as you are satisfied with your results. There are many places you can go wrong in the tillering process. Doing so can drastically reduce the life of your bow, and could possibly make it break when you draw the bow back. Experienced bowyers have special devices and gizmos to help them check their tiller and where to remove material from. In a situation where you just need a bow, you won’t have these luxuries.
In that case, the best thing to do is brace the bow with your foot and draw the string back a short distance. Just the first few inches of engaging the limbs. If this is not comfortable, you can brace it like you will shoot it and draw a similarly short distance. While doing this, you are looking for are places where the bow bends unevenly. Begin by looking for places where the bow doesn’t bend nearly at all. These places are where you want to remove material. Again, always work on the belly. On the other hand, you might see a “hinge” developing. A hinge is a place where the bow seems to bend a lot. At times it can look like the bow almost pivots at certain points. If you see hinge developing, stay away from it. The bow is already weak there and removing more will make it likely to break. A gentle bend that is consistent is your goal when tillering.
Once you are happy with the tiller at a short draw length, draw the bow a little further. Maybe only 2 or 3 inches further. You may notice new spots developing that are uneven. Work those out as you go. Eventually you will get to the point where you bow can be fully drawn. Keep in the back of your mind that as you remove material, you are making your bow less powerful. Don’t sweat it early on. Your first bow will likely not be a deer killer, but hopefully could land some small game in your larder if need be. Continue the tillering process until you can draw the bow to full draw and it has a nice even arc. Once you can do that, your survival bow is operational.
Early on your bow making skills may need some polishing. What you build isn’t going to feature on a comparison table of modern recurves! As already stated, bow making is an art and takes time to develop. I would definitely suggest practicing a few times under ideal situations. Try a few different types of wood and see your results. Practicing with “junk” wood is advantageous so if you ever get the chance to work with a piece of seasoned wood you will be comfortable and less likely to make a mistake. Also, the first few bows you build will likely break. Don’t think about it as a waste of time, rather as a learning experience.
If you follow these 5 steps to build a survival bow, you will not only have a functional piece of shooting gear, but will likely have a better understanding of the lives of ancient hunters. Being part of a chain of archers extending for tens of thousands of years, is part of the joy of archery.