Was there a clear trend throughout early history (say, before 1300 for Europe) to have (or ot have) separate technologies/materials for bows and arrows for hunting purposes, and same-period same-culture bows and arrows for military purposes?

I'm explicitly excluding bow types that were specifically designed for armor penetration (14th century English longbow, crossbow etc...).

I'm OK with the answers being culture specific - e.g. I would naively expect Mongolian bows to be dual purposed. But a great answer would have more generalized analysis and overview. I am especially interested in cultures whose military opponents weren't heavily armoured.

3 Answers 3


The only occasions on which a bow is defined solely as a weapon of war are the English longbow, some heavy bamboo or metal bows from India and the asymmetric bows of Japan.

The English yew bow was practised by townsfolk, merchant and commoners alike...not out of choice but by royal edict. It is a powerful bow, long ranged and throwing a heavy arrow, and even though it can be very accurate in the hands of an expert, it is, in reality, medieval artillery, used to "carpet bomb" an area of the battlefield. I challenge you to take such an overpowered, extremely large bow into a wild woodland to hunt roe dear. A smaller flat, self or composite bow is better in such situations. As well as being powerful the medieval longbow is extremely simple in design when compared to say the Holmegaard design that predates it by a couple of millennia.

The war bows of India are a rarity, perhaps due to their lack of durability (bamboo, though more durable than wooden variants in the west is still damaged by excess moisture) in a country that has a LOT of rain in season, or the steel versions which must have cost a fortune to make in their day. I imagine Indian history would be very different if such bows had been mass produced to counter the assault of mounted warriors that plagued the Indian sub-continent.

The Japanese bows of an asymmetric design are purely weapons of war, of a composite design, mostly of bamboo. To be used on foot or mounted.

On the subject of arrowheads, well this topic can, and has filled whole books. And whilst Rincewind42 has the right idea about differing function in arrowheads his observations are incorrect.

As for the mention of Mongolian archers, the concept of the bow to these people, descended from countless tribes who all venerated horses and bows above all else, is completely different to any of the other examples here. The Mongolians and their ancestors practically worshipped the bow (alongside the horse) as a weapon, a tool, for sport, as a symbolic representation of ones manhood and competence.

So @DVK the OP, no, a bow is a bow until the armies of the middle ages, feudal Japan or Gupta empire of India.(and some middle eastern similar)

Likewise an arrow is an arrow, balanced to the the weapon that casts it (search the archers paradox), with differing a head depending on the task at hand, materials/finances available or current trend. A bullet point bodkin for targets, a long tetrahedral or similar to pierce chain or even plate, or a broadhead to slash the arteries and vitals of prey. Of course there are many many more.

Written by a historical reenactor, field and target archer and hunter.

PS. I don't consider crossbows to be the same class of weapons as bows. Crossbows DO show more polarisation depending on their intended use. Lever loaded hunting crossbows vs crank loaded and heavy stirrup loaded for war.

  • +1 - excellent answer. I agree re: Crossbow not being a real bow, I added it to exclusion list simply because I was afraid people would use it in answers. Oh, and welcome to the site (from another newbie)
    – DVK
    Commented Dec 20, 2011 at 1:47
  • One thing to add, a war bow usually has such a strong pull (some in excess of 100 pounds!) that you simply cannot hold it drawn for any amount of time. (As opposed to modern compound bows, which get "softer" the further you draw, a longbow "stacks", i.e. has even more pull at full draw.) That means that careful aiming, or waiting for the right opportunity (as you would when hunting) is not an option. You raise the bow drawing to anchor and release, no commas and no pause in there. Forget the "ready..." (bowman drawing) "...fire!" you see in the movies.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Feb 12, 2018 at 16:32
  • @DevSolar: A 100 lb longbow is for youths of 16 with just 2 years experience. Joe Gibbs states in these two videos: I can fire a 160 lb bow all day - though after just 6 shots of my 200 lb bow I'm knackered. Even direct hits aren't penetrating plate breastplate, but without a jupon the flying debris is injuring horses and others nearby if lesser armoured. Commented Feb 28, 2020 at 1:19
  • 2
    @PieterGeerkens: Strong words. Joe Gibbs is an exceptional archer. I have had conpetitive archers break out in hysterical laughter when they tried to pull my 50lbs. bow. The Mary Rose bows ranged from 100 to 185 pounds, I don't think Henry VIII. eqipped his troops with children's toys. So... yea. And none of this touches on the fact that holding a bow fully drawn for any extend of time just isn't done.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Feb 28, 2020 at 6:58
  • @DevSolar: Gibbs' words not mine, though I paraphrased slightly for brevity, from the first video: Tod's Workshop: "How long for a fourteen year old lad training regularly to work up to a war-bow?" Gibbs:"I would say, to get him up to a 100 lbs, probably a year. It's achievable by everyone to shoot 100 lbs." From ~7:53. Then Tod describes a 5'2" lady who came in with a 80 lb bow - and taught him the proper method of drawing it, and he was surprised how easy it was - done properly. This from someone who shoots just a dozen or two crossbow bolts a month. Commented Feb 28, 2020 at 7:56

The arrow is the key difference rather than the bow. English longbows were used both for hunting and fighting. When visiting musiums, I usually see just bows described as bows but the arrows described for various purposes.

Both hunting and fighting arrows want to cause damage when hitting the target, and so use blades on the side of the arrow head to maximise the cut on the target. However, a hunting arrow is designed so that it can be easily removed form the animal after it has died. The blades make a diamond or kite shape so that they can be pulled out of the corpse.

In contrast, fighting arrows are designed to be difficult to remove. The blades will have barbed edges making a V shaped head. This is intended to be difficult to remove from the body and pulling the arrow out will cause additional injury to the victim.

There are a range of other head shapes used. These may be intended for cheaper mass production or for use in practice shooting or sport.


The change in bow designs was more about functionality than purpose. Archers were always looking for ways to strike a target at a longer distance, and that had a greater impact on changing styles than trying to determine whether the bow was going to be used for hunting or in battle.

Having said that, archers also recognized that getting an arrow to travel farther did not mean that it would be more accurate. In fact, it was quite the contrary. However, when it came to military situations, the ultimate goal was all about distance and quantity. A thousand arrows shooting a thousand feet were a lot more dangerous and a lot more efficient than a thousand arrows shot from ten or a hundred feet. By firing mass quantities at great distances, you were assured of hitting something. In the meantime, your archers were far enough away that they were not in jeopardy themselves.

This became much more prevalent during siege warfare, and it was effective regardless of which side of the walls you were, but certainly more so for the besieged. While the attackers could fire thousands of arrows into the center of the castle, the defenders had the advantage of being able to seek shelter. The attackers, on the other hand, were more exposed, so they had to stay at a greater distance to keep themselves from becoming victims themselves.

When you contrast this style of warfare to that of the American indian, you find that they basically used only one style of bow for either hunting or doing battle. Since both were done from horseback, they needed bows that were accurate and light weight. They were able to get closer to their prey because the speed of their horses allowed them to move faster. Also, as moving targets, they were harder to hit, so they weren't as concerned about being able to shoot great distances.

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