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Kategorie: Bows and arrows

Plains indians bows

Plains indians bowsBefore indians acquired firearms from the whites, they used mainly bows and arrows to kill from a distance.

The bows and arrows were in use as far back as 5 thousands years ago in North America.

Plains indians bows and arrows were fully adapted to the nomadic hunters lifestyle befor the beginning of the 19th century. Just as at other horse cutures, the bows were shorter to enable better manipulation and easier aiming and shooting from horseback.

The bows were 100-120cm (40-48'') long on average, with some specimen longer or shorter (even 70-80cm (27.5-31.5''). Just for comparsion - bows for shooting from the ground (as for example woodland indians bows or english bows) measured up to 180cm (70'').

Basic physics implies, that shorter bow is weaker, than a longer bow made of the same material. Indians tried to compensate this shortcoming by employing such a technical gimmicks, as animal sinew backing or by use such a materials as horn or antler.

Chief Gall - Hunkpapa Lakota. Crow indian. R.Throssel photo. White man runs him on R.Throssel photo.

Most plains indians tribes belonged to nomadic horse cultures and the bow combats and hunting took place from horseback. Compared to foot archers with long bows, shooting mostly at larger distances, hunting and combat on plains took place rather at closer quarters.

For example, during buffalo hunt's from horsback the hunter shot the arrows from two or three meter distance. Thanks to horse mobility the combats and skirmishes took place rather at shorter distances so the radius of effective shooting was not larger than about 25m. This was the reason, that the shorter bow were constructed rather to higher penetration power, than long shooting range.

Plains indians were very skilled archers. Boys started to learn bow shooting from their ealry boyhood. Little boys commonly trained to shoot at small game, birds, squirrels, prairie dogs and other animals. For fifteen years old boy the accurate and effective archery was a matter of routine, including horseback shooting.

When shooting, indians did not aim with the drawn arrow, but shooted intuitively. The arrow was drawn and released in one point.

Compared to woodland indians, who abandoned their bows and arrows and never came back to them after they acquired flintlock smoothbores from the whites, plains indians used the bows and arrows until the Reservation period. Even during the battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 the bows and arrows were commonly employed, although most of indians were armed with firearms, in some instances even with modern repeaters.

Buffalo hunting on plains. Buffalo hunt by George Catlina.

Bow constructions

There are 3 kinds of plains indians bows:


Wooden bows

Wooden bows were the most common and widespread. Northern and central bows were mostly made from ash and juniper, in smaller extent from chokecherry, hickory or mulberry tree. Southern plains bows (up to Southern Cheyennes) were mostly made from osage orange (hard wood of orange-yellowish color), which is perfect for bow making (according to some bow makers the best bow wood ever).

There were several experts in bow making in each tribe. Other braves and hunters can obtain one from them by barter trade.

When making a bow, selected tree trunk was choped up at single staves and let to dry. The rough shape can be cut by an axe, to finer shaping a knife could be employed. The final surface working could be done with a piece of sandstone or glass fragment.

There were ordinary or reflex bows. Reflex bows were made by recurving the limbs. In some cases even the limb tips could be recurved. Shaping the bow were made by steaming the wood or immerting into a boiling water. The wood then becomes much softer and it is possible to shape it in ready made form or between pegs driven into the ground. When the shaped wood cools off, it will keep the changed shape.

Wooden bow with recurved limb tips. AMNH. Reflex wooden bow bent in the middle. Ordinary wooden bow without any recurve. AMNH.

Sinew backing

Northern and central plains bows were in many cases reinforced by sinew backing. The issue is that one or several layers of animal sinew is guled to bow's back. Sinew creates a solid and flexible layer, which prevents bow breaking, increases its strength and also prevents material fatigue.

The sinews are split into thin strands at first, then soaked in water to soften. Afterwards the sinew strands are dipped into melted hide glue and glued to the bow's back, one strand next to other, until they cover entire bow's back. The sinew layer is then let to dry for several days. Another layers of sinew can be added alternatively. Sometimes the bows were wrapped by the sinew across the bow length, particulary in area of the grip and limb tips, to avoid unsticking sinew backing layers from the wood base.

The southern palins bow made of osage orange were not sinew backed at all.

Detail of sinew backing.

Horn bow

Horn bows belonged to the best things that yould plains indian own during 19th century. They were made of bighorn sheep horns and were reinforced by meny layers of animal sinew. Most bows were made of one sigle piece of horn but there are pieces made of two horn pieces in existence as well.

Horn is a material, that withstands compression well, while sinew layer can take even strong tension. The combination of both materials creates very flexible, strong and effective bow. By combination of horn material and sinew can be made very short bow (even 70cm), very light weigth and at the same time stronger, than is common on wooden bows.

That is no wonder, that horn bows were considered by plains indians to be some kind of jewel. It is not easy to make a horn bow. Its basis is consists of bighorn sheep horn, from which a band as long as possible is cut out. The band is then immersed into the boiling water to soften. Then it is straightened and let dry. Then it is grinded to the required profile. Then it is immersed into boiling water again to gain poper recurve on limbs and limb tips.

Applying several layers of sinew follows. The sinews provide strength to the bow, while horn provides the flexibility. The thinner the horn, the more flexible will the bow be. The more sinew layers the stronger the bow.

Hornbows lenght vary from 75 to 100cm (measured following the bend) with average lenght about 87cm.

One piece bighorn sheep horn bow. AMNH.

Antler bows

Another alternative to wooden bows are bows made of elk antlers. Most of them is made of one piece of antler, but there are several specimen made of two pieces joined at the grip

When making antler bow, at first it is necessary to get an antler, long enough and with proper shape. The tines are choped off first, then one side of antler is grinded or choped off alongside. An antler is porous in the center and solid in the outer part. By grinding one side of antler the porous core will expose. The porousd side will be the back and the solid one the belly. The antler is then shaped with a knife and a file. Then the antler is bent to make the recurve. The bending could be done by immersing the antler into the boiling water or by steaming. Mostly only small bend can be made. To make recurved limb tips is almost impossible, as antler is much harder than a horn. Sinew backing follows. It is easy to make because porous back creates perfect surface for sinew adhesion. Special attention is necessary to pay to the limb tips, as they are bent to extreme angles when the bow is in full draw and there is risk that the bow string slides down from them.

Antler bows were longer than horn bows, but still shorter than wooden bows, so they suited better to horseback shooting. They measured from 75 to 110cm with the lenght 95cm beeng the average.

Both, horn and antler bows were very precious among plains indians in the 19th century, today they are even more rare. There is about 22 bighorn sheep horn bows known and about 19 antler bows, mostly in museum or private collections.

Hidatsa warrior Periska Ruhpa. Antler bow he holds is now in collection of Linden Museúm in Stuttgart. Antler bow from Masco collection. It is drawn backwards. Antler bow from Lewis and Clars collection. Now in Peabody museum. Detail of the bow from previous photo.


As a bowsting material, animal sinew was employed in most cases. The best is buffalo back sinew, as it is the longest. The sinew was split into single thin fibres, which were plaited and twisted up to the final form.

Bowstrings twisted from two ply are most common, and each ply consists of 6-10 sinew fibers. The two plies are twisted clockwise, one around the other, while each single ply is twisted anticlockwise at the same time.

It is neccesary to add another sinew fibers to each ply, as old fibers run out. By this simple technique sinew cord of any length and strength can be made.

Sinew bowstrings are very firm and durable, but sensitive to humidity.

Bowstring detail. Private collection.

Bowstring fastening

A bowsting was fastened to one bow end firmly and the other end was put on or off when the bow was driven or loosen.

With common wooden bows, but partially with sinew backed bows the bowstring was fastened with help of ordinary notches. On the end, where the bowstring was fastened firmly usualy two notches were employed, on the end where the bowstring was put on and off one notch was usually employed.

To fasten the bowstring firmly to one end, several ordinary knots was enough. The bowstring end which was put on and off the bow was provided mostly by one moving loop, in some cases even by firm loop.

With some wooden and most antler or horn bows, the bowstring fastening was realized by "bumps" made of sinew glueing or proper material reduction, creating a natural stopper, holding the bowstring loop.

One way of bowsting fastening. One way of bowsting fastening.


Some bows could be decorated. Particulary antler and horn bows, which were not only top class weapons, but also some kind of jewels, decorations and advert for its owners.

The most common wooden bows decoration consited of earth pigmens painting and decorative symbols wood carving. The bow tips could be decorated with attached dyed bunles of horsehair

Another decoration option was wrapping the bows by color woolen cloth, often with combination of porcupine quills decoration (wrapped buckskin thong, or řetízek

Very attractive was decoration by covering the back by rattlesnake skin. This was very practical too, as the snake skin protected the sinew backing from dampness.

Decoration by covering with snake skin. BBHC. Decoration by snake skin and portupine quills. AMNH. Southern plains bow made of osage orange decorated by carvin and coloring.

Bow making

If you are interested how to make traditional plains indians bow, I reccomend the book Pokud máte zájem si vyrobit tradiční indiánský luk, doporučuji knihu

Bows & Arrows of the Native Americans: A Step-by-Step Guide to Wooden Bows, Sinew-backed Bows, Composite Bows, Strings, Arrows & Quivers from Jimm Hamm

which is probably best on the topic. The book is written in detail, clearly and supposes zero knowledges of layman, so amost everyone manages to make a bow and arrows following the instructions.

More informations on horn and antler bows you can find in an Bill Holm article On making horn bows.

Nez Perce chief Looking glass Pawnee chief on George Catlin painting. Lakota chief on period photo. Northern plains warrior on period photo. Chief Two leggings R.Throssel photo.

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