The bow was the first mechanical device that could outpace projectiles thrown by hand, and it was the best weapon humans had during horse-mounted combat—all the way up until the advent of the revolving pistol. It was a pretty huge step in the scheme of weapons development.
Prehistoric cultures—amazingly, independent of one another across the globe—developed bow and arrow sets for hunting and combat. The oldest arrow points, discovered in South Africa, were made of bone and date back some 61,000 years. Pre-medieval people in Africa along with the American Indians and Eskimos had their own versions of the bow and arrow. In Japan, gigantic 8-foot-tall wooden bows were found alongside smaller models crafted from whalebone or horn, and pictures of Japan’s first emperor, Jimmu, who ruled around 660 BC, depict him holding a large bow….
[A]rchery wasn’t just for battle and food. The recreational sport dates back to the Egyptians and Greeks, and the earliest archery societies in England started popping up in the 16th Century. Early archers had to compensate for inaccurate, unsturdy wood models that sent the arrow on a circuitous trip to its target.
“If it’s not stable, the bow will zig zag after the release,” and the arrow will follow, explains Douglas Denton, the project engineer in charge of Hoyt Archery’s line of Olympic-ready bows.
And yet, for most of history, archers put up with this unruly behavior because there was nothing superior. But in the mid-20th century, bow makers found better, more stable materials like laminated wood, plastic and fiberglass. Temperature and humidity didn’t warp these materials and archery became more predictable.
Modern models borrow largely from aerospace innovations. “Limbs,” or the top and bottom fins that extend from the handle, are made of syntactic foam (think tiny, tiny glass balls) in resin that have been covered in carbon fiber—very sturdy. Super-strong bowstrings are made up of stuff like Gore fiber to prevent the instrument from snapping, which was a recurring—and painful—problem until fairly recently.
The most recent leaps in innovation have been in the bow’s geometry. In the last four years, there have been more structural changes in the bow than in the previous 30. In a nutshell, Hoyt rejiggered the way the forces operate within the instrument, so shooting arrows now requires much less effort on the bowman’s part.
[Archery was the one sport I desperately wanted to participate in during sophomore gym class. They tried to put me in driver’s ed during that unit (which made no sense — I wasn’t turning 16 until an entire year later), and I actually sobbed while trying to convince the teacher to switch me over to bows and arrows. Robin Hood and Artemis made a huge impression on me.]