Short bow

Bow shape

Profile in side view

Straight bow

Many bows, especially traditional self bows, are made approximately straight in side-view profile. They are generally referred to as straight, despite the minor curves of natural wood and the "set" or curvature that a bow takes after use.

Bows with curved side-view profiles

Recurve bow

A recurve bow has tips that curve away from the archer when the bow is unstrung. By one technical definition, the difference between recurve and other bows is that the string touches sections of the limbs of recurve bows when the bow is strung. A recurve bow stores more energy than an equivalent straight-limbed bow, potentially giving a greater amount of cast to the arrow. A recurve will permit a shorter bow than the simple bow for a given arrow energy and this form was often preferred by archers in environments where long weapons could be cumbersome, such as in brush and forest terrain, or while on horseback. By contrast, the traditional straight longbow tends to "stack"—that is, the required draw force increases more rapidly per unit of draw length as the string is drawn back.

Recurved limbs also put greater strain on the materials used to make the bow, and they may make more noise with the shot. Extreme recurve may make the bow unstable when being strung. An unstrung recurve bow can have a confusing shape and many Native American weapons, when separated from their original owners and cultures, were incorrectly strung backwards and destroyed when attempts were made to shoot them.

Historical and current use

Recurve bows made out of composite materials were used by, among other groups, the Scythians, Hyksos, Magyars, Huns, Turks, Mongols, and Chinese. The recurve bow spread to Egypt, much of the rest of Asia, and the Middle East countries in the second millennium BC. Presumably Greek and Phoenician influence would have introduced the recurve form to the rest of the Mediterranean region. The standard weapon of Roman imperial archers was a composite recurve, and the stiffening laths used to form the actual recurved ends have been found on Roman sites throughout the Empire, as far north as Bar Hill on the Antonine Wall in Scotland. During the Middle Ages composite recurve bows were used in the drier European countries; the all-wooden straight longbow was the normal form in wetter areas. Recurved bows depicted in the British Isles (see illustrations in "The Great War Bow") may have been composite weapons, or wooden bows with ends recurved by heat and force, or simply artistic licence. Many North American bows were recurved, especially West Coast bows. Recurve bows went out of widespread use with the availability of effective firearms. Self bows, composite bows, and laminated bows using the recurve form are still made and used by amateur and professional bowyers.

The modern recurve bow

The unqualified phrase "recurve bow" or just "a recurve" in modern archery circles will usually refer to a typical modern recurve bow, as used by archers in the Olympics and many other competitive events. It will employ advanced technologies and materials. The limbs are usually made from multiple layers of fibreglass, carbon and/or wood on a core of carbon foam or wood. The riser (the handle section of the bow) is generally separate and is constructed from wood, carbon, aluminium alloy or magnesium alloy. Several manufacturers produce risers made of carbon fibre (with metal fittings) or aluminium with carbon fibre. Risers for beginners are usually made of wood or plastic. The synthetic materials allow predictable manufacture for consistent performance. The greater mass of a modern bow is itself an aid to stability, and therefore to accuracy.

The modern recurve is the only form of bow permitted in the Olympics (though the Compound bow is permitted in some categories at the Paralympic Games) and is the most widely used by European and Asian sporting archers.

The modern Olympic-style recurve is a development of the American Flat Bow, with rectangular-section limbs that taper towards the limb tips. Most recurves today are "take-down" bows—that is, the limbs can be detached from the riser for ease of transportation and storage, and for interchangeability. Older recurves and some modern hunting recurves are one-piece bows. Hunters often prefer one-piece bows over take-down bows because the limb pockets on take-down bows can be a source of noise while drawing.

Modern recurve bow terminology

  • Arrow rest - Where the arrow rests during draw. These may be simple fixed rests or may be spring-loaded or magnetic flip rests.
  • Back (of bow) - The face of the bow on the opposite side to the string
  • Belly (of bow) - The face of the bow on the same side as the string
  • Bow sight - An aiming aid attached to the riser
  • Sling - A strap attached to the bow handle, wrist or fingers to stop the bow falling from the hand
  • Brace height - The distance between the deepest part of the grip and the string
  • Grip - The part of the bow held by the bow hand
  • Limbs - The upper and lower working parts of the bow, which come in a variety of different poundages
  • Nocking point - The place on the bowstring where the nock (end) of an arrow is fitted
  • Riser - The rigid centre section of a bow to which the limbs are attached
  • String - The cord that attaches to both limb tips and transforms stored energy from the limbs into kinetic energy in the arrow
  • Tab or Thumb ring - A protection for the digits that draw the string. Usually made of leather.
  • Tiller - The difference between the limb-string distances measured where the limbs are attached to the riser. Usually the upper distance is slightly more than the bottom one, resulting in a positive tiller. Reflects the power-balance between both limbs.

Other equipment

Recurve archers often have many other pieces of equipment attached to their recurve bows, such as:

  • Clicker - a blade or wire device fitted to the riser, positioned to drop off the arrow when the archer has reached optimum draw length. Used correctly, this ensures the same cast-force each time. Many archers train themselves to shoot automatically when the clicker drops off the arrow.
  • Kisser - a button or nodule attached to the bowstring. The archer touches the kisser to the same spot on the face each time (usually the mouth) to give a consistent vertical reference.
  • Plunger Button - a fine-tuning device consisting of a spring-cushioned tip inside a housing. The plunger button screws through the riser so that the tip emerges above the rest. The side of the arrow is in contact with the tip when the arrow is on the rest. The spring is tuned so that it allows a certain amount of movement of the arrow towards the riser on release, bringing the arrow to the ideal "centre shot" location. The plunger button is used to compensate for the arrow's flex, since the arrow flexes as the string pushes onto it with a very high acceleration, creating what is known as the archer's paradox. The device is also known as a pressure button or Berger button (after its inventor, Vic Berger).
  • Stabilizers - weight-bearing rods attached to a recurve bow to balance the bow to the archer's liking, dampen the effect of torque and dissipate vibration.

Reflex bow

A reflex bow is a bow that has curved or curled arms that turn away from the archer throughout their length. When unstrung, the entire length of the bow curves forward from the belly (away from the archer), resembling a "C"; this differentiates a reflex bow from a recurve bow in which only the outer parts of the limbs turn away from the archer. The curves put the materials of the bow under greater stress, allowing a fairly short bow to have a high draw weight and a long draw length. The materials and workmanship must be of high quality. Highly-reflexed bows are more difficult to string and may reverse themselves suddenly; they have seldom been used for hunting or for war.


Bows of traditional materials with significant reflex are almost all composite bows, made of the classic three layers of horn, wood, and sinew; they are a variant of the recurve form normally used for such bows. Highly reflexed composite bows are still used in Korea and were common in Turkish and Indian traditional archery.

There is an interesting section in Homer's Odyssey when the suitors attempt to string Odysseus' bow and are unable to do so, whereas Odysseus is able to string it without standing up. A reflex bow is almost impossible to string unless you know the technique and is easiest to string from a sitting position. This passage has been suggested as evidence that reflex bows were just beginning to spread into the Aegean area at the time of writing.

Decurve bow

A decurve bow is a bow that has arms curved or curled at the ends to turn towards the archer. This bow form reduces the strain on the bow when it is used, and the bow may be under no tension at all when strung, so that it can be kept ready for immediate use at all times. It also reduces the energy stored in the bow, and the speed of the arrow. The form is seldom used in modern or historical bows, but was occasionally used by groups such as the Mohave who did not have easy access to good quality bow wood. It allowed them to make effective hunting weapons from the poor-quality material available.

Deflex bow

A deflex bow is a bow that has arms curved or curled at the base, to turn towards the archer. This bow form reduces the strain on the limbs and also the energy stored by the weapon. Most modern recurve bows are built with some degree of deflex. It has been used occasionally in traditional bows, for example to make a bow that looks like a traditional hornbow without using any actual horn.

Outline in frontal view

Bows usually taper from the handle to the tips. Tapering may reduce mass in the outer limb; this increases the amount of energy available to accelerate the arrow. Shapes may be optimized for various purposes, especially maximum speed of the arrow; the details are the subject of active research.

Narrow bows normally taper uniformly. However, the taper of flat bows varies. Terminology in this area is not well-established, but some current usage can be presented. The working limbs of "paddle" bows maintain width for the entire limb length, "pyramid" or "triangle" bows taper uniformly from the handle to a narrow tip, and "Holmegaard-style" bows taper gradually to about two-thirds of the way along the limb, then narrow sharply. "Eiffel Tower" bows taper sharply, but smoothly, to a very narrow outer tip.

Cross-section of limbs

The optimal cross-section of the bending section of a bow limb is rectangular, and almost all modern bows have such limbs. However, many, perhaps most, traditional bows have had a cross-section closer to circular, with every possible variation being used at some point. Current definitions of the traditional longbow require approximations of a U-shaped cross section.

Further reading

  • The Traditional Bowyers Bible Volume 1. The Lyons Press, 1992. ISBN 1-58574-085-3
  • The Traditional Bowyers Bible Volume 2. The Lyons Press, 1992. ISBN 1-58574-086-1
  • The Traditional Bowyers Bible Volume 3. The Lyons Press, 1994. ISBN 1-58574-087-X
  • The Traditional Bowyers Bible Volume 4. The Lyons Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-9645741-6-8


See also

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