The bow and arrow are some of the oldest and most important tools ever developed by humans. First developed for hunting, their use as weapons of war was quickly realized and employed.
Throughout history, the humble bow would go through a series of transformations culminating in the powerful compound bows of today. But, you might ask, what were the most powerful bows in history?
Let's find out.
How is bow draw weight calculated?
If you are familiar with the world of archery, you may hear people say things like "I shoot a 40-pound bow," others may, perhaps questionably, also say "I can pull a 100-pound bow".
But, what does this all mean?
Draw weight, or bow poundage, is a measure of the force needed to draw a bow to a certain draw length. This is usually the length needed to pull the bowstring "all the way back" to release an arrow.
Traditionally, bow weight was calculated by securing the bow in a frame and then pulling the string back using weights or a gauge until a certain draw length was reached — typically 28 inches (71 cm). This would then determine the bow's "draw weight".
Today, special digital bow scale gadgets can also be used.
Draw length, for a particular archer, is determined by their physical build and arm length. You can think of this as the grade of the bow, and it directly translates into the power of the bow (and arrow release speed).
Generally speaking, the lower the poundage, the shorter the range.
Typically, most adults will be able to pull bows between 20 to 70-pounds (9 to 32 kg). There are some special instances where seasoned archers could pull 160-pound (72 kg) bows or, amazingly, 200-pound (91 kg) bows, but these are very rare, record-setting cases. To put those figures into perspective, 20 pounds (9kg) is about the weight of a large sledgehammer, and 60 pounds (27 kg) is (very roughly) the weight of a husky. 160 pounds (72 kg) is the rough weight of an average adult give or take.
Imagine pulling that weight frequently, over several hours? An archer's strength (and the correct technique) comes from the muscles in their back and shoulders as the primary power source (rather than the arms alone), along with the trunk and legs. For this reason, it easy to see how ancient archers were very heavily built, individuals.
It is also important to note that other factors are at play when determining bow power, and ultimately arrow velocity and range. The type of bow (recurve, compound, barebow, etc), bowstring and bow material, type of arrow (carbon fiber, wood, or metal), the archer's form, and windspeed (if relevant), all factor in. This can be quite in-depth (and out of the scope of this article), but, ultimately, the amount of potential energy that can be stored in the bow arms is the most critical factor.
When you see a bow for sale, it will typically have the draw weight recorded in pounds (lbs) with another value, usually in inches. This second figure is the draw length that the draw weight has been recorded at and typically ranges from 28-inches (71 cm) to 31-inches (79 cm) — but it can vary.
It is also important to note, that though the draw weight is recorded at a particular length, the draw length of an individual archer may be different, which will directly impact their particular draw weight.
Generally speaking, for every inch above or below the recorded draw weight of a bow, the actual draw weight will lose or gain about 2.5 pounds (1 kg) respectively.
So, an individual's personal draw weight really depends on their size, draw length, technique, and strength. It is also important to note that competitive and recreational archery is a game of consistency, precision, and accuracy and not strength — unless, of course, we are talking about war or hunting bows.
The latter does tend to require higher poundage bows for penetration and range.
Bow poundage is a very important measurement and one that is typically critical to an archer's performance. Trying to handle something too far above your physical ability will ruin your form. It will also not be very fun.
Everyone has a different draw weight that is right for them, and beginners often start below their "natural ability" before progressively moving up bow draw weights.
The typical "rule of thumb", is to reach a point where you can comfortably hold a bow at full draw for around 10 seconds without experiencing muscle fatigue. For best results, it is always recommended that you visit an archery shop to get your "vitals" measured in order to work out the best bow for you.
How dangerous are a bow and arrow?
How dangerous any activity is dependent entirely on what precautions are taken when undertaking that activity. Bungee jumping, or parachuting, without a bungee-chord or a parachute, would be ultimately fatal.
But the inherent nature of archery — firing a solid piece of material with a sharp point at the end, is potentially very dangerous. After all, bows and arrows were designed from the outset as hunting tools and weapons of war. Despite this, recreational and competitive archery tends to be very safe.
Of course, if you are the target of the arrow, the consequences of being hit can be fatal.
Practicing the correct technique for shooting and stringing the bow, following the rules, and using correct form and equipment to minimize the chances of injury, are critical to ensuring safety for all concerned. When this is done, archery is an incredibly safe sport and a fun recreational activity.
Archery also has a set of rules that are usually learned by rote by all participating archers. Targets are set at one end of a shooting range and all spectators and archers must stay behind the "shooting line". Spectators must stay far behind the archers at all times too, and never distract them.
No one is to pass the line until all archers have shot all their arrows and set down their bows. Bows are always, always, assumed to be "loaded" unless resting on their frames. Such rules are there for the safety of all.
So much so, in fact, that most archery ranges rarely, if ever, have any injuries. In fact, according to statistics from the National Safety Council, archery is more than three times safer than golf. For every 2,000 people or so who participate in archery, less than one will ever be injured.
Golf, on the other hand, tends to record one injury for every 625 participants. Of the injuries sustained during archery, most are self-inflicted.
By far, the most common item here is slapping the wrist with the bowstring. This does hurt (a lot) but usually does not cause permanent damage.
For spectators, being hit with arrows is also incredibly rare — especially at designated shooting ranges. Those injuries that are recorded tend to occur when someone is practicing outside in their own backyard, or in a field or other accessible open space, without proper demarcation and fencing.
What are the world's most powerful bows?
It is inevitable on any subject of this nature, to wonder what the most powerful bows in history are. Well, thankfully, we have got you covered.
Here then are some of the most powerful bows in history. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.
The relative power of these bows is by draw weight, but it is important to note that other metrics are used in modern archery, like arrow speed in FPS (feet per second).
1. The English longbow is famously powerful
One of the most famous bows of all time, the English longbow has a reputation for being a very powerful bow. This is for a very good reason.
Measuring in at around 6-foot (1.8 meters) long. Made famous at the Battle of Crecy and the Battle of Agincourt, this bow would earn its place in history and become the bane of many of England's enemies for centuries.
Made from yew, these bows would serve in the English army right up to the end of the English Civil War.
When the wreck of the Mary Rose was explored back in the 1980s, hundreds of preserved 16th-century longbows were discovered in fairly good condition. Estimates of the draw weight of these bows do vary (typically around 100 lbs), but, when tested, tended to have draw weights of between 100 and 180-pounds (45 and 82 kg)!
The bows had an effective range of up to 350 yards. The heavy war arrows used were said to be able to penetrate all but the very best medieval steel plate armor. This, coupled with the fact that an experienced archer could loose up to six arrows per minute, made them a formidable weapon, although they required a lot of practice to use effectively.
The punching power of these bows is highly debatable, but most historians recognize the utility of these bows in battle. Whether outright lethal or not, these bows were obviously useful enough for them to form a major contingent of English armies over the centuries.
2. The Mongololian recurve bow helped build an empire
Immortalized by the Mongols during the 3rd-century onwards, the Mongolian recurve bow is widely considered one of the most powerful, and deadly, bows in history. These bows could famously shoot with pinpoint accuracy at over 500 yards (450+ meters), and were often used from horseback.
The draw weight of these bows was around 166 pounds (75 kg).
The secret to the bow's potency was its recurved bowstave. This made the bow more compact and easier to carry and wield, while also packing a very real punch.
These bows were also composite in construction, with a mixture of bamboo, animal tendon (sinew), and animal horn, which enabled them to store massive amounts of potential energy without failing. Arrows were typically made of birch, were 0.5 inches (1 cm) in diameter, and were usually between 30-inches and 40-inches (80 - 100cm) in length with a variety of fletchings and arrowheads.
This bow would help the Mongols, and their descendants, dominate many battlefields for centuries and, along with the stir up, allowed them to build one of the largest empires the world has ever seen.
3. The Scythian bow was deadly, for its time
Another very deadly bow from history was the Scythian bow. Made from wood, horn, sinew, and glue, these compound recurve bows were some of the most complex weapons of war at the time.
Used by the Scythians (a group of nomadic warriors in Southern Siberia between the 9th and 1st centuries BC), this bow proved to be a very impressive piece of equipment.
Their draw weight is hotly debated, but replica bows have been shown to have a draw weight of around 100 pounds (55 kgs). However, it is important to note that this is based on bows being half-drawn to shoot very short arrows.
These bows were thought to be designed, like the Mongolian bows, to be shot from horseback.
4. The Turkish bow helped build the Ottoman Empire
Another important historical bow was the so-called Turkish bow. Building on bow designs from the Eurasian Steppe (where the Turkic peoples originate), the Turkish bow would develop into a very impressive weapon of war.
Another form of recurve composite bow, they were built with a wooden core, animal horn belly (central part facing the archer), and sinew front. These bows have a very extreme curvature when unstrung, and are still used widely today in competitive archery.
Like other bows developed in the East, the Turkish bow was drawn using the archer's thumb (unlike fingers in Europe). This technique was developed to assist in shooting while on horseback.
Turkish archers also developed techniques to speed up shooting in battle like the practice of holding spare arrows between the fingers of the draw hand.
5. The Japanese Yumi bow was another deadly bow in history
The Yumi (Japanese for the bow), is another of the world's deadliest bows. The term, when used in English, generally refers to the asymmetrical bows like the longer daikyū and the shorter hankyū.
These weapons were an important part of the samurai's toolkit and were used extensively during the wars of the feudal period. Compared to Western bows, these asymmetrical bows were exceptionally tall and may have been designed originally for use on horseback with a shrunken lower bow arm.
Draw weights estimates vary widely, but some estimates from reconstructions appear to indicate between 110 pounds (50 kg) and 176 pounds (80 kg).
6. The Crimean Tatar composite bow was another impressive bow for its time
Yet another devastating historical bow was the Tatar bow. Assimilated by first the Mongols in the 13th-century, and then later the Ottoman Empire, the Tatars were a group of nomadic peoples who inhabited the Steppes of Eastern Anatolia and Eastern Europe north of the Black Sea.
Like other nomadic peoples of the region, the Tatars developed a means of hunting on horseback using specially designed recurve composite bows. These powerful bows are characterized by their double recurved shape (similar to a stylized letter M), which offered the archer almost unparalleled power.
These bows, like the Turkish bow, would later become the predominant weapon for cavalry units.
These bows were used for shooting heavy war arrows and were much larger than other similar bows of the time.
Draw weights for these bows have been estimated to be between 30 pounds and 75 pounds (13 and 34 kg) at 28 inches (71 cm) of draw length.
7. Modern compound bows are impressive pieces of kit
Looking more like a piece of highly sensitive scientific equipment than a bow, the modern compound bow is by far one of the most powerful ever conceived. Incorporating a series of sophisticated levers, cables, and pulleys, these bows use mechanical advantage to store more energy than the average human could do alone.
The bow arms of these types of bows tend to be much stiffer than traditional bows, which enables them to cope with far higher stresses than recurve or longbows. This kind of bow was first developed in the mid-20th century and has since become one of the most popular for competitive, and recreational, archery in the world.
These bows tend to be made from aluminum, magnesium, carbon fiber, or a mixture of these materials. The arms are usually fiber-glass composite materials.
Compound bows are generally considered easier to master and are much easier to draw and aim. This is because string forces are reduced due to something called "let-off". This term means that the draw forces are held temporarily by special cams on the bow, rather than the archer's own strength. When the string is released, these cams unwind and accelerate the string faster than the "draw weight" held by the archer.
For example, a compound bow with a 70 lb (32 kg) draw weight and a 50% "let-off" will pull 70 pounds (32 kg) of draw weight, but the archer will only need to hold 35 pounds (16 kg) prior to letting the arrow loose.
Draw weights of these bows tend to recorded as between 40 and 80 pounds (18 and 36 kg) but this is simply a convention as these bows offer more release power than traditional bows for the same poundage. However, heavier draw weights are also available.
And that budding Robin Hoods is your lot for today. Have we piqued your interest in archery? Then why not consider joining your local archery club today? You learn a new skill and get some great strength training at the same time. Win, win.