A modern interpretation of the traditional Asian Horse bow.
What are horse bows you ask? Well, it’s a broad term that generally covers many different types and sub-styles of bows that were common in Eastern Europe and Asia. If we can for this discussion, we’ll exclude various bow styles from Native American tribes, many of which could also be defined as “horse bows.” So for this discussion we’ll stick with “Euro-Asian” style bows and archery.
In the very broad description of Asian, or Horse bow, there are many variations. Chinese, Korean, Hun, Turkish, Tartar or Mongolian to name a few. Similar composite bows were even in use as far back as ancient Egypt, having been found in the tombs of the Pharaohs. Most Asiatic style bows would be described as fairly short or extremely short in comparison to “long” bows used in Western Europe or the British Isles, and in many other parts of the world, including “primitive” styles found everywhere from South America, North America, Papua, India and Africa. Note too that variety in bow length and style was also pretty varied on all the aforementioned continents, especially in terms of primitive weaponry. Horse culture, or a lack thereof, often defined and refined archery technology.
Asian Horse bows are highly varied to say the least, but some generalities can be attributed without offending proponents of each style. Traditional Horse bows tend to be of composite construction, employing wood, horn, sinew, antler, raw hide, leather and glue. Being short, they also tend to be highly re-curved, to the point that some look like a reversed “C” shape when un-strung, especially those made primarily of curved sheep horn. They tend to be very powerful for their size too. I’ve read that some Mongol bows had 150 lb draw weights…in a bow that might only be 26-30” in length. Refined in military scenarios, “horse” bows were compact to allow for fast shooting, in a variety of positions while atop a running horse in battle or while hunting. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how an English long bow that might be 6 feet long would be a hindrance in close quarters battle on horseback. English Long-bowman were foot soldiers for a reason.
Asian bows often have slender grip areas without an arrow shelf. This is convenient to allow shooting off of either side of the bow, though the common technique is to shoot off the same side of the bow as your draw hand. For example, if you’re a right-handed shooter, you’d shoot the arrow from the right side of the bow and use your right hand to draw.
This technique works well with the traditional thumb grip wherein your thumb, placed under the arrow nock and with the index finger on top of the thumb, draws the string and arrow. This method locks the arrow against the bow “riser” because of the index finger pressure, regardless of the tilt of the bow. This is very different from the “traditional” “Mediterranean“ style of shooting off the left side of the bow with a three finger grip that I’m used to for traditional archery. It requires a lot of practice for the uninitiated like me. It’s tough on the thumb, too. The use of a thumb ring is traditional and highly recommended. Because there is no shelf, you shoot off the hand. It’s pretty common for your fletching to slice the grip hand with every shot….like little paper-cuts. To get started shooting in the Asian style I made a shooting glove and thumb ring from deer skin. Traditional thumb rings are usually made of Jade, bone, metal, leather or plastic nowadays.
Simons Bow Company
I actually stumbled upon Simons Bows accidentally. Being interested in all types of archery and actively shooting and hunting with bows for over 40 years I’ve always been interested in horse bows and was keen to broaden my horizons. As such, I was cruising YouTube and happened upon a channel called Malta Archery produced by a man named Armin Hirmer. It’s one of the best sources of information for modern Asian style bows. Armin reviews and compiles useful information on all manner of Asian style bows from all price points and quality ranges. There are many inexpensive Asian style bows on the market, many cheaply made and traditional in looks only. If you’re interested in getting into Asian bows whether purely traditional or modern interpretations, Armin’s advice and reviews can drastically reduce the learning curve and risk factor you’d experience buying a cheap, crappy Asian bow, so commonly found on E Bay.
One of the reviewed bows that got the highest marks from Armin was Simon’s “Raptor” model. I was impressed not only with the performance but with the looks and apparent build quality, too. Built of modern materials including wood, fiberglass and epoxy, which is what I wanted, it still has the look of a fine traditional wood bow. With a nice leather grip and ray-skin at the arrow pass, it has an understated elegance, enhanced by the very fine lines of its deeply re-curved Asian design. The “Sunburst” finish of my bow includes clear glass over a light brown wood, stained a bit darker near the tips and grip area. Not totally traditional for a “Horse” bow, which are often painted colorfully, mine is very pretty with the look of real wood which I really like. Other color and design options are available from Simon’s.
About Simon van der Heijden
Simon van der Heijden (Simonsbowcompany.com) resides in Velp, Netherlands and just like me, was fascinated with archery at an early age, making bows and arrows out of just about any stick found on the ground or in the forest.
I had the opportunity to communicate with Simon about his background and motivation. Here’s some of what he had to say:
“My parents have a house on the edge of a very old protected forest. It is the biggest National Park in The Netherlands. When I was ten years old, we moved to this incredible location. As a boy, I always was playing in the woods, spotting wildlife and building shelters. Of course, as a boy strolling through these woods, you need a bow. Soon I discovered you could make a simple little bow from a straight hazel branch. From then on I got fascinated making my own simple bows and arrows. I started collecting information about bows from books in the library (no internet at the time). I discovered that the yew tree (Taxus baccata) was the best bow wood. We had a yew tree in the garden. I climbed it almost all the way to the top, reaching for some thick straight branches and cut them. With some practical help from my father, I made some awesome bows from the branches. These bows indeed shot better. From then on, my search for the ultimate bow began. When I became older, I bought “The Traditional Bowyers Bible” and became aware of beautiful handmade traditional wooden bows. I saved some money and bought a second-hand band saw. That’s when it all started.
“When I am in my own workshop making bow,s I lose track of time. I am focused on the task at hand and nothing else is more important. Maybe for me it is a form of meditation.
Making a bow involves different stages in the building process. It is very rewarding to me to be part of the whole process of making a bow. Selecting the raw materials, gluing them together, shaping them, sanding everything smooth and putting a finish on, making the string and the leather handle and test shooting it.
In the traditional archery world, I try to help out other bowyers who have specific questions and when I have questions, they help me as well. We try to promote other products like quivers and arrows from craftsmen we know. We feel we have to compete with cheaper products from Asia, that is why we try to help each other. I think it is very important we do not lose the skill of traditional crafts.
The shape and performance of the Asian and Middle –East “composite” wood, horn and hide type bows have always fascinated me. Tribes from the great plains of Asia to the Middle East used these bows in all their conquests and hunts. They are totally different than plain wooden bows. For me they are the race cars of traditional bows. Short length for comfort on horseback or in the woods, static tips which makes the bow smooth and silent and produce incredible power. For me as a bow maker, making such a bow was a big challenge. Through trial and error I made my modern version of a “horse bow” which has the same performance as a true horse bow but also has the benefits of a modern bow with ease of maintenance, stringing and building time.”
Simon has a modest but modern office and work shop, which includes traditional bowyer tools and modern power tools, including CNC machines.
His busy schedule includes teaching special needs high school students a couple days a week, and of course making and selling his bows to a global clientele. Driven by his passion for bow-building Simon strives to produce the most beautiful, high performing, hand crafted bows that he can.
Beautiful and Well-Performing Bows
I can attest to the beauty and performance of Simon’s bows. The craftsmanship is flawless. My Raptor shoots well regardless of the shooting style employed. Shooting in the “Mediterranean“ style, my normal method, the bow is light and lively in the hand. At an overall strung length of 53” tip to tip it is “longish” as horse bows go so it easily accommodates a three finger “Mediterranean” grip without pinching the fingers. At 42 Lbs. draw weight at 28”, the recurve design really zips arrows with authority with virtually no hand shock. Shooting at 45 yards, I was amazed at how flat it shot. Brace height is right at 7”. It’s definitely one of my faster traditional bows. It’s as light as a feather, too. The draw, release and shot are exceptionally smooth and very forgiving. Shooting Asian style with a thumb draw was also very easy to adapt to and allowed for a wide array of bow positions, tilted right, left or even horizontal, with good performance and accuracy, when my technique wasn’t flubbed. I’ve gone after pheasants a few times with traditional archery gear. This bow from Simon seems like it’ll be a dream to shoot for birds and aerial targets with flu-flu arrows. Can’t wait to try it! It certainly has the power and speed for deer too, which will be its primary quarry. It handled a variety of wood and carbon arrows well too, sinking all pretty deeply into my stacked foam targets.
Traditional Asian archery and bows are a fascinating subject and even a seasoned archer who hasn’t yet delved into Asian horse bows can probably learn a lot studying the subject. The unique strings, with long loops, the composite bow tips with thick wood, antler or horn Syiahs , (the bow tips where the string is fitted), the traditional follow through after the shot called a “khatra” that ends with the top tip of the bow almost pointing at the target, to the many methods for rapid firing arrows and shooting while holding arrows and bow in the same hand to facilitate quick loading of arrows, are all interesting to learn about and have a rich written history to investigate, from the cultures and militaries that developed the technology, going back to ancient times. The early construction methods, which often employed many pieces of wood, antler and sinew, glued and covered with leather, including rabbit and even fish skins, then painted with natural resins to provide waterproofing is fascinating to research,…… as are the modern methods employed by the likes of Simon van der Heijden. If like me, you’re interested in Asian horse bows but didn’t know where to start, you can feel safe with a finely crafted bow like the Raptor from Simon of simonsbowcompany.com.
Brandon Vaughan has over 40 years of personal and professional experience in a broad array of hunting and fishing disciplines, from Alaska to Belize. Past professional experience includes working as a professional guide in Alaska and around the Great Lakes region. In addition to hunting and fishing throughout the lower 48, Canada and Central America, Brandon has been an Orvis Endorsed Fly-fishing guide, a fly-fishing and fly-tying instructor, a hunting guide and shooting instructor.