Anyone who has shot a real bow understands there is more to the string than what you might have thought as a child with a stick and piece of twine. Real bows are weapons, used for hunting in today's world but also lethal in warfare in traditional times. Every part of the bow serves a specific function, and is designed for that function. The bowstring is no different. It has to be strong enough to withstand the weight and stress of each shot yet also efficiently hold and release the arrows. There are ways to accomplish these goals and more, but the string has to be properly made, and properly made as suitable for the bow with which it will be used.
Basic Bowstring Design
The first thing to understand is that a bowstring is not actually a string, rather, it is a series of strings. When the bow is strung up and the string is under pressure, the individual strands are pulled together tightly, making them appear as a single unit. With a modern recurve or traditional bow which are typically unstrung when not in use, this aspect becomes clear to see.
Modern bowstrings are made of synthetic materials and include servings, or a more string wrapped around the actual bowstring at the nocking point and around the loops. They may also include string silencers to reduce the traditional “twang” sound a bow makes, and might also have a brass loop crimped in place to mark where the archer nocks the arrow for repeatable consistency with each shot.
Differences between English Longbow and Eastern Horse Bow
Because bows were invented before recorded history, it's impossible to know if different cultures facing similar problems came up with the same solution independently. The other option being the bow originated before the migration of humanity's spread around the world and then changed certain design features according to the conditions in different areas. There are however two main types of bow, the English longbow and the Eastern horse bow, with a wide variety of regional differences and design features for different military and hunting uses.
The strings for traditional bows are made of linen strands, flax, or perhaps sinew. The longbow being the simpler design is simply a piece of yew, or perhaps ash or hickory in America, carved to shape and strung, with or without a leather handgrip. The horse bow, on the other hand, is made of laminated layers of horn and wood, wrapped in snake or fish skin, with wooden recurve tails at the end of each limb. With these traditional bows, the strings were often twisted or platted (braided) to provide extra strength and keep them in order when in storage, as the strings would be placed in a pocket or under a cap when not in use to remain dry.
Modern compound bows are different because of their gearing, and they are never unstrung other than by a professional or avid enthusiast who has invested in a bow press. Because they have to be more durable, the strings are made of synthetic materials. The earlier compound bows tended to strung with Dacron, later Kevlar and Vectran were used. Since the 1990s, Spectra, Dyneema, and combinations of synthetic strings have been used to balance strength and durability against arrow speed and performance. As technology evolves, it will be exciting to see what new innovations may be incorporated into future compound bow strings.
String Care and Maintenance
Strings have to be waxed regularly to provide a protective coating against rot and to provide lubrication with the movement of the bow limbs. Not all wax is the same, only specially designed wax intended for bow strings should be used. Replacement of the string depends on the draw weight and length along with how often the archer shoots, but in the most general terms is usually recommended about every three years. Before and after every shooting session the string should be visually inspected. A string with any frayed or broken strands should never be used to loose an arrow, because if the string breaks it will result in a “dry fire” which can cause irreparable damage to the bow itself.
Bows can be lots of fun to shoot competitively or casually in the backyard, and can be a wonderful tool for hunting. A well-made bow, whether traditional, modern recurve, or compound will last a lifetime. However, an enthusiast will find advantages to each style of bow and likely purchase several for different types of shooting. Once that's the case is when it becomes important to understand the different types of bow strings and what the advantages and disadvantages might be for your particular shooting style.
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