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A composite bow is a bow made from disparate materials laminated together, usually applied under tension. Different materials are used in order to take advantage of the properties of each material.
This article describes mainly the traditional Asiatic composite bow, which normally uses horn on the belly and sinew on the back of a wooden core. Sinew and horn will store more energy than wood for the same length of bow. The strength can be made similar to that of all-wood bows, with similar draw-length and therefore a similar or greater amount of energy delivered to the arrow from a much shorter bow. Some Mongolian composite bows are known to have been able to produce a draw weight of nearly 160 lb (72.5 Kg).
The main advantage of composite bows over self bows (made from a single piece of wood) is their combination of smaller size with high power. They are therefore much more suitable for use from horseback, and presumably from a chariot. Almost all composite bows are also recurve bows as the shape curves away from the archer; this design gives higher draw-weight in the early stages of the archer’s draw, storing somewhat more total energy for a given final draw-weight. It would be possible to make a wooden bow that has the same shape, length and draw-weight as a traditional composite bow, but it could not store the energy, and would break at full draw.
Constructing composite bows requires much more time and a greater variety of materials than self bows, and the animal glue traditionally used can lose strength in humid conditions and be quickly ruined by submersion. For most practical non-mounted archery purposes, composite construction offers no advantage; “the initial velocity is about the same for all types of bow… within certain limits, the design parameters… appear to be less important than is often claimed.” However, they are superior for horsemen and in the specialized art of flight archery: “A combination of many technical factors made the composite flight bow better for flight shooting.”
Water buffalo horn is very suitable, as is horn of several antelopes such as gemsbok, oryx, ibex, and that of Hungarian grey cattle. Goat and sheep horn can also be used. Most forms of cow horn are not suitable, as they soon break with use.
The wooden core is not normally under severe mechanical stress, and a wide variety of lighter woods should be suitable. The wood needs to accept glue well. Bamboo and wood of the mulberry family are traditional in China.
The sinew is normally obtained from the lower legs and back of wild deer or domestic ungulates. Traditionally, ox tendons are considered inferior to wild-game sinews since they have a higher fat content, leading to spoilage.
Hide glue or gelatin made from fish gas bladders is used to attach layers of sinew to the back of the bow. Traditionally it is also used to attach the horn belly to the wooden core.
Other less-satisfactory materials than horn have been used for the belly of the bow (the part facing the archer when shooting), including bone, antler, or compression resistant woods such as osage orange, hornbeam, or yew. Materials that are strong under tension, such as silk, or tough wood, like hickory, have been used on the back of the bow (the part facing away from the archer when shooting).
Bows of any kind seldom survive in the archaeological record. Composite bows may have been invented first by the nomads of the Asiatic steppe, who may have based it on earlier Northern Asian laminated bows.[citations needed] However, archaeological investigation of the Asiatic steppe is still limited and patchy, and it is not possible to reconstruct the details of the process by which composite bows became a usual weapon among all Asiatic nomads. It is also not clear that the various developments of the composite bow led to measurable improvements; “the development of archery equipment may not be a process involving progressive improvements in performance. Rather, each design type represents one solution to the problem of creating a mobile weapon system capable of hurling lightweight projectiles.”