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Self Bows: Traditional Archery’s Simple Creations

If you ever bent a stick and tied a string to both ends to make a bow, you’re somewhat familiar with self bows.

These are the simplest bows, in that they’re made from one piece of wood. It’s easy to imagine some of the earliest humans learning how to make and use tools for survival. In this case, taking a tree limb and bending it with sinew or other stringy material to make a bow to launch wooden projectiles at enemies or prey animals.

The oldest bows on record are self bows believed to be from around 10,000 B.C. in northern Europe. These “Holmegaard” bows have wide, parallel limbs with pointed tips. The limbs are separated by a thinner midsection, which serves as a handle that remains stiff when the bow is drawn.

Those self bows are made from elm and measure about 66 inches long, a typical length for today’s recurves and longbows. For some traditional archers, shooting a self bow represents archery’s most basic form.

It’s possible to buy a finished self bow, but you won’t find them at most archery pro shops. Plan on finding a custom bowyer, especially one specializing in self bows, because their construction is unlike other traditional bows.

You can also try making a self bow, which appeals to many self-bow aficionados. According to books and articles on the subject, self bows can be made from various hardwoods, but two favorites are yew and Osage orange. A good piece of wood for self bows bends without breaking, and then snaps back with enough force to launch an arrow.

If you plan to build your first self bow, consider taking a class where experienced bowyers guide novices through the building process. These instructors provide ready-to-build staves, which are the raw pieces of wood used to fashion bows.

Those interested can use Google to search “classes to build self bows.” You’ll find a dozen or more bow-building courses across the country. If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, you’ll find instructional videos for building self bows on YouTube, as well as several books on the topic.

Shooting a self bow is a unique experience because most of them have no arrow shelf. If they do, it’s usually thin. Most self bows require archers to rest the arrow atop their grip hand. The arrow slides across the grip hand’s index finger as you draw and release the bowstring.

Self-bow archers usually cant their bows so the top tip leans away from their grip hand, which keeps the arrow in position while drawing and shooting. Because the bow has no arrow rest, the arrow slides off the bow hand if the bow is held vertically.

Self bows are interesting to inspect and admire. They’ll often have bends, bumps and uneven surfaces. That’s a far cry from the neat, polished look of today’s traditional recurves and longbows. In fact, those imperfections are endearing features of self bows, and basically ensure that no two self bows are alike.



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