We tend to think of life as an Indian or Native American (as we tend to call them these days) as an idyllic one. Living in peace and harmony with nature on perfect bluebird days, as long as the white man wasnt around.
Truth be told, life for an Indian was very difficult at best, fraught with danger and hardship. Rather than the perfect autumn weather we normally see in the paintings of the Indians, if you were from one of the Midwestern or northeastern tribes, the weather could have been very wet or very cold (or both) for many months of the year. If youve done any extended primitive camping you know just what a pain nature can be. When you are hungry and need to find some food (game) its not all that romantic to head to the woods when its 45 degrees, been raining for three days straight and that pristine path you normally walk is now a soupy slippery mess. Indeed life was no cakewalk for the countrys early inhabitants and although some managed to live to a ripe old age, the vast majority died very early.
So what does this have to do with primitive archery? It would only make sense that anything that the Native American could do which would maximize results while minimizing effort and resource would make life a little bit easier. Important when life is hard. Lets talk bows. If you examine the bows in Jim Hamm and Steve Allelys excellent reference books Bows, Arrows and Quivers of the Native Americans Vols 1 & 2, youll see a commonality among the bows, no matter which tribe or which area of the country the tribe comes from. Having had thousands of years to develop their primary weapon, why would nearly all the Native Americans from every part of the country, come up the same design?
Well for one the design works, and works well. Secondly because its the simplest, easiest design to build requiring the least amount of resource and effort. Lets examine this "superior" bow design and some of its benefits. Nearly all of the bows illustrated were (1) made from a whitewood (2) bend through the handle (3) are of small diameter (4) have a rectangular cross section (5) have side nocks (6) are narrow (7) are short (8) have the string tied to the bottom nock. Lets examine the "whys" of these similarities one at a time.
(1) Made from a whitewood This ones easy, even though we all know osage is a much tougher wood, superior to most whitewoods for making durable hard hitting bows, the fact is there wasnt much osage around especially before European settlers arrived and planted it for fence rows when they started farming. There was however plenty of hickory, ash, elm, mulberry, black locust and many other native whitewoods readily available.
(2) Bend through the handle Often called "D" bows. Again a 48- inch-long piece of wood that bends throughout will accommodate a 24- inch draw (normal for an Indian using a pinch draw to the chest) whereas this would require a 60 inch long piece of wood or longer in a rigid handle design to accommodate the same draw length. A 48-inch long bow requires less effort and less resource to make with primitive tools than a 60-inch bow.
(3) Area of small diameter Which means you dont need to go through all of the effort to chop down 7 Volume 12 Issue 5 Primitive Archer Magazine a large diameter tree for quarter splits or bow blanks. A young growth tree or nice sized branch will indeed do the job. Again, you are using less effort and less resource.
(4) Have a rectangular cross section Again take a small diameter tree or branch, using a stone axe chop it to the proper width giving it flat sides, then split, chop or scrape the belly flat and you have your rectangular cross section. Minimal effort.
(5) Have side nocks Actually this has several benefits. First two nocks are twice as easy to make as four nocks, again an economy of effort. Secondly even if your bow isnt perfectly straight, if you put the side nocks on opposite sides of the top and bottom limb, at some point along its length the string is going to bisect the bow, automatically aligning the tips and cross over point (most likely used as the arrow pass).
(6) Are narrow Again a by-product of using small diameter trees or branches but once again providing other benefits, like being easier to hold without having to do much shaping on the handle again saving effort. More importantly a narrow handle means a narrow arrow pass, which means the bow will shoot a large variety of spined arrows without having to deal with the dreaded archers paradox. Important when good arrow material of a single given spine is hard to obtain.
(7) Short Beside the benefits listed in number 2 above, a shorter bow is physically lighter in weight than a longer bow of the same material, is easier to carry, easier to maneuver through brush or dense woodlands and swings on flying or running game easier than a longer bow.
(8) Have the string tied to the bottom nock Having one end of the string tied directly to the bow has several benefits. First, you only have to make one loop in your string again saving effort. Secondly the string can be made almost any reasonable length and still fit the bow. Of course if your bow happens to break having a reusable string, which will fit nearly any bow, is a real time and resource saver. Thirdly, if the string is tied on you dont have to worry about it falling off at an inopportune time, and fourth if it cant fall off, you dont have to worry about the string untwisting changing its length, therefore the brace height of the bow.
recently made a replica of the above bow for my good friend John Scifres
from Indiana. Made of ash, it has side nocks, a tanned elk hide handle
wrap and a tied on string pulling 46 pounds at 27 inches, it is the ultimate
in simplicity and efficiency.
Build, carry and hunt with one for a day and you will appreciate the simple " D" bow design and understand why it was considered the perfect bow design for thousands of years.
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