What kinds of advances have been made in the design of the bow and arrow? What are the different parts of a bow and arrow? What is the human element of being a master archer?


How has technology changed the bow and arrow through the centuries?

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David explores the physics and technology of shooting a straight arrow.  Segment length: 8:07


The use of the bow can be traced back to the earliest civilizations, as witnessed in writings and drawings from all over the world. Drawings, biblical writings, and ancient cultures make references to this tool and weapon. The bow and arrow have shaped history, whether it be on the plains of the ancient Roman and Greek battlefields, the defeat of the French army at Crecy in 1346, or the expansion of the American West. And, the sport of archery is considered one of the oldest traditions.

Today, archery is classified into two areas: target and field. Target archery requires archers to shoot a specific number of arrows at different distances, with set targets that have established values. Field archery includes an open-field target range where archers shoot different arrows at different targets or different distances around a course. This simulates the type of shooting experienced while hunting. Other field-archery sports include archery golf, roving, and bowhunting.

The bow is a simple machine, a two-arm spring. The archer stores energy by bending the bow. This potential energy is transferred to the arrow in the form of kinetic energy when the arrow is released.

Bows initially were made from one material, usually wood, and were called self-bows. These bows had difficulty handling the forces and stresses placed on them when they were drawn. The stresses would cause the bows to break. Early hunters developed the use of wood, horn, and sinew, glued together in layers to increase the bow's tensile strength. These bows were called composite, because they were made of two or more different materials. Today's bows are a combination of wood, fiberglass, lightweight metals, and high-technology materials. The evolution of the bow continues with the recurve design, the use of pulleys, and the latest in engineering research that makes the bow more efficient and easier to use.

Arrows have undergone an evolution of their own. Early arrows were made of wood and were fletched primarily with the feathers of such birds as eagle, crow, goose, and turkey. Most of today's arrows are still made of wood, but some are made from aluminum, fiberglass, and graphite. They are often fletched with feathers, although some have more modern spinwings or plastic veins.


  1. What other kinds of sporting equipment have changed with the introduction of modern materials? Are all the changes for the better?
  2. A bow is a simple machine. What other sports incorporate the use of machines?

Main Activity

Arrows R Us!

Find out which design factors contribute to the best bow and arrow.

You will learn the differences between self-bows and composite bows. Explore which types of arrows fly best, and identify and describe the parts of the bow and arrow.

CAUTION: Safety precautions should be followed when using any kinds of bows and arrows. Adult supervision is recommended.


Part I

Make a bow following these directions:

  1. Notch a small "v" in each end of a straw.

  2. Place a rubber band over the ends of the straw, as in stringing a bow.

  3. Hold the straw and draw back on the rubber band as an archer would.

  4. What happened if you drew too far back? Record your observations.

  5. Diagonally roll a sticky note from the plain side to the glue side. Insert it down the middle of the straw.

  6. Draw back on the rubber band again and record your observations.

Part II

Make an arrow following these directions:

  1. Use 6" straws for arrows; fletch with paper and cardboard.

  2. Create several different arrows, paying attention to tail-feather construction, weighting, and notching.

  3. Record all the information that went into designing your arrows.

Test your arrows by holding the angle constant and measuring which one flies the farthest. The use of different rubber bands is likely to give different results, so try large ones and small ones, thick ones and thin ones.


  1. What types of bows did you make Part I? Which one had greater strength?

  2. What kinds of materials used on actual archery equipment was the rolled paper simulating?

  3. What type of rubber bands worked best?

Invite a member of the local archery club or archery team to speak about archery equipment and safety. Ask your guest to bring in bows and arrows to allow students to get a first-hand look. How do archers prepare for competition? What are the human components of shooting a bow and arrow? Purchase a toy bow and arrow made of soft foam and hold your own competition.
Construct your own arrows! Use a piece of dowel stick (12" long) for the shaft. Use cardboard to design and shape tail feathers or other methods of fletching. Personalize it with a crest. Have a competition, awarding the most artistic efforts, the most aerodynamic arrow, the arrow with longest flight, and the arrow that best represents the information given in the segment and the lesson, to name a few. Don't forget to display them!
Research the history of archery and the development of the bow and arrow. Divide into teams or groups and focus on particular regions of the world or particular time periods in which the bow and arrow played an important role. Present the results of your research to the class.


to modify an arrow in a way that assists in the stability of flight (e.g., adding feathers to the tail)
kinetic energy
the energy of motion, equal to half an object's mass multiplied by the square of its speed (1/2mv2)
a device for multiplying forces or changing the direction of forces
potential energy
energy that is stored and held in readiness by an object by virtue of its position
the bending of the ends of the bow away from the archer; acts as a lever to help distribute the forces on the bow
tendons and other animal parts that have a high tensile strength and a large spring constant
tensile strength
the ability to withstand the forces that produce stretching


Elliot, C. (1982). Archer's digest. Northfield, IL: DBI Books.

Hamm, J., ed. (1992). The traditional bowyers bible, vol. 1. Azle, TX: Bois d'Arc Press.

McEwen, E., R. Miller, and C. Bergman (1991). Early bow design and construction. Scientific American (June): 76-82.

Additional sources of information:

National Archery Association
1750 E. Boulder St.
Colorado Springs, CO 80909
(719) 578-4576

National Field Archery Association
Rt. #2 Box 514
Redlands, CA 92373
(714) 794-2133

Traditional Bowhunter Magazine
P.O. Box 15583
Boise, ID 83715

Community resources:

Archery clubs
University archery team

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