The Final Bow

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Forgive me for the title; I just remembered the name of the last Sherlock Holmes story, His Final Bow.

Recently I have been posting about the disastrous effects of having unintelligent, greedy Congressmen and Presidents ignoring the advice of our most intelligent Presidents about bankers and corporations. The result is that we are now at the bottom of many categories, particularly those where humane treatment of our own and other peoples is concerned.. Here is one category in which American ingenuity has kept us way up among the leaders and it is one of the last great inventions that has not been desecrated by politics.

I was talking hunting bows and crossbows with Harry at Richton Perk a couple of days ago and suddenly realized that I hadn’t put an article about archery in the ‘ Reading at Richton Perk’ binder of articles. So here comes a posting for here and there..

Some time ago I read of an interview with an American general who was asked what kind of weaponry would be used in the Third World War. He said that he didn’t want to talk about that, but he could give an opinion about the weaponry of the War-After-That. It would be fought with spears, and bows and arrows. Assuming the general had the gift of prophecy or professional insight, it seemed reasonable to have an article for our readers about the bow, as a piece of history, leaving the possible second meaning of exit for the human story on this planet as an option, for those who like that sort of thing.

Some cultural advances were so tremendous that we cannot think of mankind being able to have survived without them. On nearly everyone’s list is the wheel, fire, and the development of speech.

The wheel I could question because the Mayas and Incas had a very high civilization, but they used the wheel only for childrens' toys, as if they had a premonition of what would happen if the adults got hold of it, and developed a wheel-based technology.

Development of speech I question too, because there doesn’t seem to have been any. There are no primitive languages from which more ‘ advanced’ languages have been derived. All languages, apparently from the start of language, seem to have had complex rules of usage and the property of expressing gross and subtle concepts and ideas within the context of the society using them. Chaucer’s English wasn’t more primitive than Shakespeare’s, nor his than ours.

Looking at Sumer, the civilization with 39 historical firsts, including the wheel, a written language, mathematics, accounting systems, libraries, cities with grid plans, astronomy, schools, two storey buildings and many others, including the bow, it seems as if someone or something gave, or taught language to the first homo sapiens. As Carl Sagan said, “Someone or something gave the humans an evolutionary jump start at Sumer.”

I include the bow in the survival group. Without the bow and fire it is possible that humans may not have survived at all. With this wonderful invention that stored up energy slowly and released it quickly, a brave man or woman became equal to the great carnivores and was able both to protect himself and his family, and provide the family with food.

The bow developed all over the world, except in Australia where they had the boomerang, and was a potent factor in human history on hundreds of occasions.

Over 5000 years ago the bow was in use in kingdoms familiar to those who read the Bible. The cities of Assur, Babylon, Nineveh, and Ur were centers of civilization for centuries. Nowadays we say Iraq, both the cradle of human civilization, and a monument to modern Pentagon barbarism.

On sculptures of the periods when these cities flourished we see again and again men in chariots pulling bows almost into a circle. How this was done remained a mystery for four thousand years until late in the last century when an archer from Pennsylvania managed to duplicate a five-foot bow and shoot a four-foot arrow from it.

The Ancient Egyptians used bows and arrows, and Amenhotep III left famous inscriptions recording his success at lion hunting. In one ten year period he killed 102 lions with arrows, firing from his chariot. The ancient leaders didn’t send others to do their dirty or dangerous work, they were expected to be examples.

Some of the best archers in the ancient world came from Crete, where every freeman was a warrior. A young man would learn to read and write up to the age of seventeen and would then join a herd. Apollo, the archer sun god was the patron god of Crete so the young warriors spent a lot of time learning the art and science of archery. When Crete became overrun with archers they just sold their services as mercenaries to the highest bidder. They fought in every major war in the Mediterranean area, and served with Alexander the Great when he fought his way to India..

Those of you with a classical flair will know about the importance of the bow in Homer’s account of the Trojan War in which Hector shot and killed Patroclus, Achilles was slain by the bow of Paris, and the oracle said that the war could not be won until the bow and arrows of Hercules arrived in the Greek camp. Odysseus got the brainwave about the Trojan Horse after they arrived.

My favorite classical archery story is the one where the disguised Odysseus returns home after years at sea to find his faithful wife Penelope besieged by suitors. He kills them all, after stringing with ease his bow, that none of them can even bend. The inner meaning of the story is actually to do with what goes on in the brain during shamanic activities, the totally closed down fortress of the story being the skull of the meditator. But that’s a long story indeed, told at length in The Body of Myth by the brilliant J. Nigro Sansonese. He pointed out to me in a note that the bow in the story is one made by the eyebrows.

Another is the story of the Buddha, when he was still Siddhartha and had to win several contests of warriorship against the other princes who wanted to marry Yasodhara. Here too he strings and shoots a bow that no other can even bend. Incidentally, it was made of black steel in the story, and it was from India that some of the great steel came in ages past. One of their mountains of iron ore had a coal seam in it. Much of the iron was contaminated with carbon, which is what we add today to turn iron into steel.

When Xenephon wrote his historical account about his Ten Thousand warriors coming back home to Greece across the Persian Empire, he tells about their encounters in Kurdistan when the natives used bows about five feet long, but so strong that they had to rest one end against their left foot to draw them. Since the Greeks used the captured arrows as short javelins the bows may well have had a two hundred pound pull.

When the Scythian tribes used horses to overrun territory from Turkmenistan to Finland in the centuries 600 B.C. to 100 they were skilled in the use of the bow. The women were considered equal to the men in their favourite sport of war. Every girl had a right mastectomy before puberty to ensure that the pectoral muscle would not be weakened and that the use of a powerful bow would not be hindered by the right breast. That is history, and may be the origin of the story of the Amazon women who did the same.

One factor increasing the reputation of the women warriors of the Scythians was that every woman was expected to have killed at least three of the current adult enemy before she could marry. Incentives have been with us for centuries. How about that one ladies?

The greatest Celtic male warriors always finished their training as soldiers or knights at the hands of women specialists in hand to hand combat with or without weapons. Now we have a different public consensus, but that’s all it is, a consensus, not a biological necessity that woman always need the protection of a male. Check the Miss Congeniality One and Two DVD’s from Netflix with Sandra Bullock to see how women FBI agents manage rather well.

When archers with powerful bows were used skilfully there wasn’t much to stand against them up to the era of quite modern firearms.

Surenas wiped out 5000 of the Roman soldiers sent against him simply by keeping at a distance and firing arrows at them. Genghis Khan’s army had one hundred thousand highly skilled, mounted archers, each with 60 arrows. When he moved against a country there wasn’t anything that could stand against his army.

The powerful and highly skilled Welsh archers at Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt shot the heavily armoured French knights and their horses full of holes, at distances of over 200 yards. These three battles made heavily armoured knights and their charge an obsolete factor in warfare. The Welsh archers were fast and accurate. They could have three aimed arrows in the air before the first had hit the target. They used ash bows.

Those Crecy bows were very powerful. One six footer was found in the mud of the Tower of London moat and must have had a pull in the region of 180 pounds, and the arrows were a yard long and drawn to the ear using the thumb round the string and the first two fingers locking the thumb into place. Sometimes archers used a ring with a groove in it on their thumb to protect the thumb tendon from the stress of the bowstring.

You can see collections of such rings made of jade in Chinese exhibitions. The owner of one such exhibition was astonished to find out why her rings had mysterious grooves in them when I showed her how to draw an old bow using the ring on the thumb.

Nowadays the weaker modern humans and counter clerks use three fingers to pull back the string, and then sometimes only to the chin. Such people aren’t going to match the old standards. There are documented cases of such ‘fired only by the very strong’ arrows going right through four-inch thick, seasoned oak doors. This was one of the pragmatic Benjamin Franklin’s points in favour of bows and arrows, when he advocated their use on grounds of cost and efficiency. Some firearms could not do that even at point blank range. And there was no flash to give away the position of the soldier at night.

Every English boy for centuries had to learn to shoot with bows and arrows. Practice was compulsory and took place every Sunday near the church. Many older churches in England have grooves in the stones of the porches from the sharpening of the arrowheads. When the ten year old boy could hold out the bow at arm’s length for twenty minutes without slumping, he was allowed to practice the draw by holding the string with two fingers and pushing the bow away with the other hand. This was the beginning of modern strength training with springs and rubber cables, very effective. Later he went on to fire arrows from the rock-steady bow.

Constant practice made the archers very strong, and in the time of Henry VIII there was a legal statute that forbade ANY young man over the age of twenty-four from practicing shooting at a target less than 220 yards away. The arrows of the archer soldier were carried in a loop on the belt. Every man had 24 arrows, and the Scots used to say that every English archer carried 24 Scotsmen on his belt. Franklin had a point.

The story of Robin Hood and his prowess with a longbow has long been a part of archery lore. William Tell and his crossbow, shooting through an apple on his son’s head deserve a mention, even if the crossbow is a mechanized version. Skill is skill.

The archers of Japan could do the most extraordinary things with their six foot assymetrical bows. Their training was that of acquiring the Zen mind so that arrow and target were one. Then they couldn’t miss. Read Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugene Herrigel to see how the Zen master split the first arrow in the bullseye with the second arrow, and he did it without lights in his dojo to show his Western student the real source of the skill. Eugene's wife wrote a book about Zen in the Art of Flower Arrangement.

It took Eugene a long time to learn to draw the 120 pound pull of the bow with totally relaxed muscles. Nothing to do with the Western concept of strength. The Japanese used the same inner source of power for their other weapons and martial arts. Then when he had mastered the drawing of the bow it took a long time to master releasing the arrow.

When the Spaniards invaded Florida they lost 270 of their 300 horses in their first encounters with the Indians there, and were astonished to find that their armour of Toledo steel wasn’t much protection. In their usual Church directed superstitious way they suspected witchcraft immediately, until a slightly more pragmatic Spanish commander offered an Indian his freedom if he would demonstrate his weaponry.

The heaviest coat of mail was draped over a basket on a post. The little Indian backed off 150 of his paces and drove his hardwood-tipped reed arrow right through the target so that it fell to the ground behind the armour. When a second coat of mail was put over the first the arrow still went through and stuck out behind the back of the second coat. If you have seen photos of unbroken straws driven through telegraph poles by the force of a tornado you will get the picture.

The Spanish armour would stop or deflect musket balls but they had to modify their tactics against fire hardened, wooden arrows. Of course not all arrows penetrated, but the Indians learned too. At the battle of Mauvila 18 of the Spaniards were hit in the mouth or eye, which were not armoured, and one conquistador in South America was ambushed and hit by 53 arrows in the head and shoulders. His head and shoulders didn’t touch the ground when he fell off his horse.

The greatest of the Old World archers were the Turks, Mongols, and Persians. They were all horse archers and used fairly short bows for that reason, but the bows they used were composites, made of layers of wood, horn, and sinew. They were reflex bows, and many required a pull in the region of 160 pounds, and that was on a galloping horse.

The Sultan of Turkey in the 18th century was a fine archer, and his cast of 972 yards with a hand held bow has been a record with a non-compound bow since then. Our own Harry Drake made a bow that he held with his feet and whipped an arrow 1410.87 meters; that’s further than a world class runner can run in three minutes remember. He did that in the 1979 flight championship.

Some of the modern bows have pulley and cable systems so that the power of the pull is greatly enhanced. These are called compound bows. On 31st July 1992 Kevin Strother cast an arrow 1207.39 meters with a hand drawn compound. You can check records for men, women, boys and girls on

The cable system of pulleys has also been instituted in crossbows which didn’t have the speed or accuracy of long bows but are easier for some people to use because they bring them to the shoulder like a rifle. The crossbow arrow is called a quarrel and was built more for penetration than accuracy, though modern hunting bows are a great improvement over the military crossbows of the past.

One very recent innovation is very ingenious and I just have to mention it. If you have zero interest in guns just drop down three paragraphs. Many people in the Services were familiar with the M-16 rifle which was derived from the AR-15. The AR-15 is still very popular among the hunting fraternity because of its versatility. The top part is the upper receiver, and the bottom part the lower receiver. It is possible to separate the two. The upper receiver is officially the weapon and can have all sorts of interesting modifications made to it before being replaced on the lower receiver, which remains unchanged.

Precision Shooting Equipment of Tucson, Arizona has just come out with a crossbow kit that can be installed directly on the lower receiver of the AR-15. It turns the excellent rifle into an excellent crossbow and uses the trigger assembly of the rifle to fire the bow.

An important part of the innovation is that their Tactical Assault Crossbow doesn’t use quarrels without nocks to fit on the string. It uses real arrows, specially designed for the bow and just over 26” long. And they have flights too. So the whole weapon can be tuned for accuracy that is quite remarkable for a crossbow. The arrows fly at just over 400 feet a second. On testing three consecutive three shot groups for hunting ranges that bow was achieving close to 1.5” groups at 40 yards. Three arrows in a 1.5” diameter circle at 40 yards. That’s up there with Robin Hood. This may be the bow of the future for some people.

Back to the ancient past and the bows of the past.

The accuracy and power of the bows of the Muslim nations are proverbial, but proven: cutting the horse-hair that suspended a ring at twenty paces, hitting a suspended apple at full gallop, and the like.

Nowadays we have magnificent equipment, as more than ten million Americans know. The scientific research that goes into any competitive sport in America has produced amazing general advances, and we have re-learned many of the secrets of antiquity, though a few still elude us. The ‘new’ hand grip on our bows, for example, was invented centuries ago by the Turks, who wrapped waxed muslin round their bows and squeezed their own hand grip onto them.

Bow hunters have taken every big game animal from elephant through Kodiak bear, and from water buffalo down to lion. Ancient archers could do no better, except that they didn’t have a guide with a high-powered rifle standing by when the lion charged. But we still have a couple of records to surpass. One is the 972 yard standing shot of the Sultan with a longbow, and the other is that of the Persian archer who shot his arrow through two inches of brass. Both bow and arrow must have been pretty remarkable, not to mention the strength of the archer.

But modern engineers, chemists, and metallurgists have been busy. James Easton has perfected the manufacture of aluminium arrows. He was inspired by a ‘ chance’ meeting as a youth with Saxon Pope, one of the greats of archery history. Bill Sweetland has made arrows from a compressed wood called Forgewood that have the same consistency as metal or plastic when engineered to fine tolerances. They were used by Ben Pearson for hunting and Harry Drake for flight shooting. The three Gordon brothers have perfected the fibreglass arrow, and the Brownell family have perfected the Dacron bowstring.

Frank Eicholtz has rediscovered secrets of the Oriental laminated bow, and Harry Drake shot a cast of 533 yards with a hand held prototype.

In recent years every single component of the bow and arrow has received the undivided attention of some great engineering talent, and American equipment is probably the best in the world.

The resurgence of interest in this most ancient of survival and fighting skills is phenomenal. There are more archers in America now than there used to be in the Ancient World. Millions now shoot targets and do the “pure ” hunting with a hand bow. Someone who hunts a bear with a bow and arrow is re-enacting a very ancient ritual, and giving the animal a good chance, compared with the use of a high powered rifle.

When I used a 65 pound long bow in Canada I soon learned to my surprise that it would take only a tiny twig that I hadn’t noticed to deflect the arrow. I realized the tracking skill required to ensure a clear, close, one shot kill. When I encountered the mighty Canadian moose for the first time it made me think about the Plains Indians hunting the bison with their enormous shoulder architecture and only wooden bows to drive through that yardage of tough muscle, while controlling their pony bareback. Awe inspiring skill and guts.

Since I didn’t have a hunting dog I used a fishing bow to retrieve ducks for dinner who dropped into the lakes after I hit them with my 12 gauge. By tying a few fish hooks to the arrow head and firing the arrow over the duck, all I had to do was wind in the arrow and the hooks caught on the feathers and pulled the duck to shore. I never acquired the skill to shoot fish with the bow and arrow by aiming where you know the fish is rather than where the refractive index of water tells your eyes where it is.

Many social commentators and psychologists have noticed that the inner mythology and psychic urges of a modern nation seem to be reflected in their sports and their comic books, now that religion is not the major release of inner forces that the masses use. And the resurgence of one of the primal skills that made man what he is may be of great significance now.

He has certainly brought the art of fire to a new destructive level with conventional and atomic weaponry, and the advertising industry and politicians seem to have done a good job of destroying the ability of speech to communicate undistorted data.

Maybe the great interest in archery is due to the double fact that this is the last of the trio that has not been completely desecrated by commercial interests, and also the eternal lure of action at a distance. I am here, and yet can affect something a hundred yards away with a simple hand movement…one of the old definitions of magick.