Archery Styles

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SO what is meant by archery? Archery is, in physics terms, a fairly simple transference of potential (stored) energy held in a bow to kinetic (propulsion) energy in an arrow. The archer puts potential energy into the bow by drawing back on the string whilst holding the bow in place. Upon release of the string (to "loose") this energy is transferred directly to the arrow which is then propelled (if all things being executed well) in the direction of aim at a target of some description.

Fair enough ... so now we know what archery is but what about style? Are they all the same? Well, no because they use different types of bow.

As you can imagine, given that mankind has been heaving arrows about the countryside for thousands of years for everything from getting dinner to settling the noisy next door neighbours hash to building empires, proving sporting excellence, experimenting with ballistics and finally to spending a pleasant afternoon getting some air and exercise ... there are more than a couple of bow types. These include ...

Primitive Bow
Recurve Bow
Barebow Bow
Compound Bow
Flight Bow

Primitive bow

As a kid, did you take a stick and make it into a bow to shoot garden canes possibly at your sister? (Dont worry, she survived and doesnt hate me that much) If so thats not a million miles from what a primitive bow is. Also known as the self bow (so called because its made from a single piece of wood), this type of bow has been found with indigenous peoples all over the world - in Africa, the Americas, northern Europe, and Southern Asia. The oldest bow artefacts found are all of self or primitive bows.

Their very lack of sophistication is their strength. A self bow can be created in less than a day from many common timbers that can be found anywhere. You just need some basic tools to aid in chopping, shaving, and scraping. A piece of wood must be long enough (approximately the height of the archer) and the grain must be pretty straight. With a little knowledge, a little effort and a few hours ... you'll get a functioning bow that while a little rough, will be perfectly capable of throwing a pointed stick quickly and reasonably accurately. Just the thing if you need a little aid in catching dinner.

You can of course spend a lot of time on your bow, and turn it into a work of art. Bowyers love to sculpt and in a self bow they have a medium that can be worked with their skill in wood alone.

Many books exist showing you how to make a primitive bow (both archer/bowyer and suvivalist are fascinated by this subject for very differing reasons).


This is a traditional type of bow that has been in use for many centuries and there are strict rules as regard dimensions, materials etc. Effectively a sophisticated sort of self bow were the stave is cut from the tree so that the sapwood (on the outside of the tree) becomes the back two thirds and the belly; the remaining one third is heartwood. The longbow gets its strength from the 2 different sorts of wood operating in opposition when the bow is drawn.

These bows were more a long range, artillery barrage type weapons used en mass where weight of fire (Arrow Storm) was more important than pin point accuracy. English and Welsh archers are the best known with their victories over the French at Agincourt, Crecy and Poitiers ... but there are other longbows not quite so well known such as the Hindu Indian longbow which was made of bamboo.

Today the (English) longbow is used in various competitive events and has a separate classification from all the other bow types. Entire societies of archers exist dedicated to preserving the shooting of this sort of bow i.e. British Longbow Society, English War Bow Society and even the International Longbow Archers Association.

Modern Longbows are typically in the region of 60# draw weight however a variant of this is the warbow which is extremely high poundage (150# to 180#) and requires years of practice to prepare the body to actually be able to fully draw the bow more than a few times. Prolonged use will actually change the shape of the users bone structure. Perfectly preserved examples of the warbow were recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose.

Two fine (if expensive) exponents of the longbow boywer's craft are Richard Head and Pip Bickerstaffe. And if you want to check out how to make a longbow ... have a look here.


The horsebow as used by Mongols, Huns, Avars, Persians and Byzantines and is the forerunner to the modern recurve bow. It is always relatively compact (many similar bows have been discovered in numerous regions throughout the world) as it was designed to be used from horseback. The rider would tightly grip the horses body with his legs and thus free his hands for using the bow. With a little flexibility it is possible to shoot in at least a 330' arc around your horse - even directly behind (called the Parthian Shot).

These bows are extremely sophisticated with the bow stave being made up of a laminate of wood, horn and sinew held together with glue created from animal carcasses (even swim bladders in fish!). To get more poundage into such a small frame the bow features the recurve which is a secondary bend of the bow near the tips curving away from the archer (sometimes called sayah). This creates a smaller, faster bow than the longbow. By faster we mean the stored energy is transferred to the arrow (called the ‘cast’) very quickly in comparison to a longbow.

This bow does not need the same range as the longbow because of the horse archers improved mobility over the footsoldier and individual accuracy is more useful in a whirling cavalry melee or while riding in front of massed ranks of infantry than massed fire.

In todays competitions within Archery GB, there is (at present) no separate category for traditional style bows of this sort but they can be used in competitive events under the recurve barebow classification. Generally it is frowned upon to utilize sighting or other such aids when using this bow type and the preferred method of shooting relies primarily on instinct.

Horsebow poundage varies greatly but you will find most are in the 35# to 45# range and shot using woodies (wooden arrows) often with points known as modbods (modern bodkins) - the descendent of the piles used to kill french knights.

For some gorgeously made and pretty damn authentic horsebows, your first stop should be Csaba Grozer's website:


Also known as Olympic Recurve as this is the only bow type allowed in the Olympics (at present).

Single piece recurve bows similar to the horsebow (albeit slightly longer) are usually made from wood or, for beginners bows, plastic. Some of the hand crafted wooden bows are extremely beautiful as well as functional. These bows are often used in the USA for hunting while in the UK they are most often used for field archery or 3D (a simulation of hunting as hunting with a bow is illegal in the UK).

The modern recurve differs from the horse bow or single piece recurve in that it is of the 'take-down' variety. This means where the central handle (or riser) and limbs (see pic) are discrete parts that lock together and are held rigid by the string once in place. Other parts screw into special standardized points on the bow to provide sights, vibration suppression and stabilization. This sort of bow is modular and extremely configurable allowing the archer to mix and match parts to get that perfect feel and configuration.

Materials used in the construction of a recurve can vary wildly depending on the type and cost of the bow. The central handle or 'riser' can be made of plastic, wood, aluminium, magnesium or carbon fibre with the limbs varying though laminates of wood, carbon foam and aerospace carbon fibre.

Modern Recurve bows can be used in all types of competitions except where specifically excepted. Arguably outside the USA, the modern takedown recurve is the most popular type of bow and its the one that most people will learn on ... at least till they decide what sort of archery they want to pursue. 

Recurve bow poundage can vary from very low (circa 20#) to the highest allowed in competition (60#) although the majority of intermediate and internationalists will use a bow with a draw weight of around 40 to 45#. During the Olympics a Mexican and an Italian archer both cranked up their bows to near 60lbs to counter the swirling winds at Lords.


Barebow is a bit of a vague category but is quite tightly defined for competition. The bow should be a recurve but is not allowed any sights or stabilizers other than a balancing weight (where the longrod would normally go) or a draw length aid (e.g. clicker). You are allowed a button (a spring loaded cushion to ease arrows launch from the bow) and a rest.

In effect the barebow is limited to traditional techniques such as arrow point and string walking as well as modern risers, limbs and strings BUT without any aids to accuracy.

Barebow archers can be disturbingly accurate often out shooting their 'sighted' brethren at times although they do tend to suffer a little at longer distances when their points of reference get a little vague.


Compound bows are a relatively young design that stemmed from the USA in 1966. The bow was designed for hunting but is now widely accepted in just as many competitions as A Compound bowrecurve. Many of the unique features of this bow and its accessories are an engineers solution to the art that is archery. Does this make it something less than the self bow or the recurve? No, it doesnt!** ... but it does raise a whole new range of problems to be addressed although these are mostly psychological in the mind of the archer.
**(Other archers do teasingly mock compounders for having training wheels on their bows)

Massively popular in the USA, many are of the opinion that compounds popularity is on the rise worldwide and will become the most popular bow type even in Europe and the UK very soon. Even the recurve masters, the Koreans are now fielding a compound team.

The compound bow is usually made from composite materials such as carbon fibre and aluminium. They tend to be quite compact and are stored as a single unit (limbs etc can be replaced or swapped but thats for the workshop). These bows tend to be in the higher poundage range of 40# to 60#. Although this is the peak draw weight, the actually weight you hold when the string is drawn all the way (called anchor point) can be as little as 15 to 25% of the peak draw weight. This is due to the pulley system (called cams) doing most of the work for you. This means aiming can be a lot more relaxed than the same process on a recurve.

Compounds are allowed 2 sights, fore and aft. The fore sight can be a magnifying lens and often includes a level bubble to help the archer get consistent alignment. The rear site is a simple peep hole on the string that allows the archer to line up his bow through the front sight. This allows pin point accuracy even at 90m.

Compounders shoot with a mechanical release aid. This makes for an extremely clean release of the string, doing away with lateral wobbly motion of the arrow as it leaves the bow. Yet another engineers solution to a problem that has plagued archers for a couple of thousand years.

Again archers will add stabilisers and weights to balance the bow to their own individual tastes.



Flight ArcherFlight archery does not require targets. The basic premise of  flight archery is to shoot arrows (although the arrows will likely be very much smaller than normal) as far as possible. The current record with a recurve bow is staggering 1,222.01m.

Bows for this tend to be bespoke creations with no imposed limits on construction or materials. The bows often have very short lives as the stresses placed on the materials can be ferocious as every possible gram of draw weight is milked from the limbs. Limb configuration is experimented with seeking the farthest point in efficiency. Companies like Border Bows took this extreme approach and applied it to their flagship limb range - the HEX 5/6 limb designs where the degree of recurve on the tips is >90'. (Geo shoots Hex5's if you want to be amazed)

Many archery innovations have filtered down from flight archery such as the use of carbon fibre, alternative limb shapes and string materials.