The Bow and Arrow, an Early Game Changer
In combination with the horse, it was the unique composite bow of Mongol cavalry that gave these deadly warriors from central Asia the edge over the heavier, and more static formations that they encountered in eastern Europe.
The bow and arrow, an essentially very simple concept, precedes recorded history, and variations of it feature in almost every major culture and region of the world. Bone arrow points dating back 61,000 years have been unearthed at a location known as Sibudu Cave in South Africa, but these were of light manufacture, and were probably hunting implements rather than weapons of war. Ötzi, known also as the ‘Iceman’, found preserved in the ice in the Italian Alps, was estimated to have been born in 3345 BCE, and he died as the result of a stone-tipped arrowhead lodged in his left shoulder. This indicates quite clearly that bows and arrows existed at that time as an offensive weapon.
The bow served as a primary military weapon from ancient times through the Middle Ages, and until the introduction of gunpowder and ballistic weapons, although for a while the two systems operated in tandem. It was a common weapon throughout the Mediterranean world and Europe, and for much longer in China, Japan. and on the Eurasian steppes.
Interestingly, the two most storied military societies of the ancient world, Roman and Greek, generally disparaged the use of a bow, although frequently both Roman and Greek infantry confronted skilled archery in battle. The most skilled practitioners of archery in war are generally agreed to be the Huns, Seljuq Turks, Mongols, and other peoples of the Eurasian steppes. The version in general use by these races was a finely crafted and powerful composite recurve bow. These were constructed of thin laths of wood stiffened at the rear with strips of horn, and strengthened at the fore with glued-on layers of cattle sinew. They were formidable weapons, in particular when used from horseback.
The most storied combat bow system was the English Longbow, which was introduced to the European battlefield in the fourteenth century. A highly developed version of the bow concept, the Longbow was probably the supreme infantry support weapon of the middle ages. Usually as tall as a man, firing an arrow about half that length, the English longbow proved to be a force multiplier in numerous battles of the period, most notably the famous English victory and Agincourt. There, an English army of 6,000 men, exhausted after a gruelling march, took on a French force of perhaps 30,000 men, and defeated them handily. The reason for this was that of the 6,000, over 5,000 were longbowmen.
The bow as a weapon of war also gave rise to that hybrid of the same concept, the crossbow, our next revolutionary weapon of war.