Bow shape

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The side view when unstrung, the frontal view, and the cross-section of the working limbs are important elements of the bow shape.

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.

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. [1]

Recurve bows made out of composite materials were used by, among other groups, the Scythians, Hyksos, Magyars, Huns, Greeks, Turks, Mongols, and Chinese. The recurve bow spread to Egypt and much of Asia 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.[2] 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”)[3] 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 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.

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