Inspecting Composite Bows

An excerpt from the travelogue entitled "In Pursuit of a Fascination: Insights and Incidentals of a Trip to Tartary" by Luigi Kapaj

I am starting to get a sense of how to inspect a Mongol composite bow. It is very difficult but there are some basic things to look for. Since most of the mechanics of a composite bow are completely hidden from view, checking of the quality of a bow is a big black box puzzle of piecing together outside clues.

First, look carefully at the horn. It will never be in perfect condition. Mongol bowmakers use Ibex horn exclusively. Since Ibex is a protected species, they do not kill the animal for a good fresh piece of horn. Rather, they search for the carcass of one that already died of natural causes and then salvage the horn. This means they must settle for what can be found, however old, and the quality is pot-luck. Look for cracks and discolored weak points. Aside from an obvious split, these spots are not always problems but give you something to look carefully at when the bow is strung.

Next look over the birch bark coating (and if present, nylon string wrap) to see if there are any breaks that may be evidence of a spot where a limb is warping. Again, draw no conclusions until after the bow is strung.

Looking to see if the bow is straight is very difficult since there is no one angle to line up the entire bow at once. The idea is the same as with other bows, only must be done in sections. From one end of the bow, look from one ear to the next and see if they roughly line up. Also see if each ear lines up with the rest of that limb by holding the handle and tilting the top forward a little. Then look from the top again, but down the horn side, to be sure the two limbs line up at the handle.

Next put the string on and check the alignment all over again. Look to see that the string is straight between the two rests. Be sure the rawhide knots are not slipping and line up with the horn rest. The brace height is the same as recurves.

Look at the curve of the limbs from the side and check carefully any potential weak points noticed earlier. Both limbs should have a smooth curve with no bends. Any horn patches should be secure and result in the limb holding a good shape. The two limbs will not be completely identical, the top limb should curve a little more than the bottom, but they should be very close to symmetrical.

Have someone draw the bow and let down slowly a few times. Be sure the limbs maintain a smooth curve at full draw, one point bending more than the rest of the limb is a sure sign of a weak point. Look for the standard string alignment but also that the top and bottom portions of the string land on the rests at close to the same point.

Finally, have one or two arrows fired from the bow then give another look over to be sure the stress did not warp the bow at all.

Splicing a horn patch
Repairing a bow before a tournament
I have seen quite a few ways these bows could fail and not all lead to a dangerous incident. A weak point can cause a limb to either fold or break. A fold is harmless to the archer and easily repaired as it is only the horn that is the problem. I have seen a piece of horn spliced onto a folded limb with glue and nylon twine having the bow in shootable condition in under an hour. A break is impossible to predict by inspection. It usually occurs near the handle (a major stress point) and causes no injury that I witnessed, merely a bewildered archer with string in one hand and half a bow in the other. I am told even that is repairable but have never seen how.

Warping limbs is the most common problem. A bow with a minor warp is still usable so long as the string lands on the rests when fired. A bow just a little more warped can be compensated with beads attached to the side of the rawhide loop at the end of the string forcing it over when released so it lands on the rest. Another method is to tie a stick to the limb so that it goes through the rawhide loop which slides along the stick to the proper rest when released. Often a warp can be adjusted by bending the bow back towards a straight position firmly but not pulling too far. For example, one limb not bending as much as it should can be adjusted by pulling the point which requires more bend against the knee, with a hand on either end of the limb at a stress point. Pull back two or three inches and hold for no more than a second, if at all, and repeat a few times. Also, a twisting limb could be twisted back with one hand over the rest, where the ear joins the rest of the limb, and the other at the closest point where the limb is straight and counter twisting carefully. Such measures are not a magic cure, but help to counteract the warp many bows are subject to. Most archers fight this constant battle every time they string their bow.

Another problem I have seen is both limbs warping in sync with each other so that the string still lines up perfectly but the handle will appear to be twisted. The easiest way to detect this is to hold the bow loosely at the handle a tighten your grip and see if the string stops at a comfortable distance from the forarm, then do the same with the other hand and compare the distance the string is from the forarm. If both sides do not line up the same, then the handle is warping. In most circumstances, the bow is still fine to shoot but this will get worse over time. The repair for this involves taking two pieces of wood, about one inch thick and five inches long, and placing them along the sinew side of the limbs immediately above and below the handle. Tie down with nylon twine only the sides closest to the handle. Pull both the other ends towards each other by turning both to the side of the bow that the handle is warping towards. When they are about perpendicular from the limbs, use a third piece of wood to complete the square and tie them in place. The result is a square of wood, visible from the archerís perspective, that is wide enough to not interfere with the grip, arrow, or sighting the target.

Most bows on the range were in some state of repair but still shooting effectively. Only once did I see someone attempt to use a bow so warped that the string came off repeatedly while trying to shoot. After the second or third time, he was told by the other archers to stop using that bow.


© 2002, by Luigi Kapaj, in the SCA: Gülügjab Tangghudai (Puppy)
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