The bow is as much a part of Mongol culture as the horse. The Mongol style of archery has a tradition that can be dated as far as recorded history in the region. It was a predominant factor in the founding of the world's largest empire and is practice to this day and regarded as one of the three manly sports played at the national Naadam games.
The Mongol Bow is a composite bow made of wood, sinew, and horn held together by a glue made from fish bladders. The process of procuring these materials is seasonal and a bow normally takes at least a year to construct. The Mongol composite bow differs from other Asiatic composite bows of similar design in that the string, when released, rests on part of the limbs. The reason for this has been lost over time but the overall design allows for a longer draw length and higher speed and power from a shorter bow.
When a shorter bow is drawn a longer length, the string forms a sharper angle at the point where it is pulled. This is best accomplished by drawing with a single finger. The thumb is the strongest of the fingers and makes a natural choice. Even so, a composite bow stores a lot of energy for a single finger to bear so a ring is used to protect the thumb.
Thumb rings were usually made out of horn with an extra tab on the inner grip side pointed towards the tip of the finger. They would occasionally have a notch in the middle to rest the string in a stable spot. While horn was a preferred material, thumb rings of jade and other precious stones were used as well.
The draw used by the Mongol archer differs widely from the draw used by the European archer. The string is pulled with the thumb, typically with a thumb ring. Individual styles may vary but the thumb draw is crucial. When you grip the string, you hold you palm down and place the thumb under the knocked arrow. It should be placed so that the string rests in the middle of the thumb ring. You then support the thumb by placing the index finger over the tip of the thumb from the outside. The other three fingers are curled into your palm in sync with the index finger. It is important that as you draw, you keep the forearm in a straight line with the arrow. At a full draw, many people will find this part difficult. Keep the elbow up so it is lined up on the same horizontal plane as the arrow. The natural tendency for your elbow is to drift from vertical alignment towards your body . Try to keep the elbow out as close to the vertical plane as you comfortably can. You can't shoot well if you can't relax.
To release, you gently open your thumb and index finger and allow the string to slide through. As you open your fingers, pull your hand back away from the target. This is not to pull the string back as you shoot but rather to prevent the string from sliding forward before it is completely released. If the pictures of Raschid-al-Dinís World History are to be followed, you bring your hand to where your open palm is over your shoulder facing forward. Unfortunately, in practice this can lead to a bad habit of dropping the elbow and raising the shoulder. Modern archers often only pull back a few inches. I favor the technique taught by Kassai in mounted archery training to pull the hand all the way out, a technique that the Raschid-al-Din's pictures could be an artistic interpretation of.
Chinese Archery by Stephen Selby. The background is an illustration of a Khitan horseman cited in this book.
© 2001, by Luigi Kapaj, in the SCA: Gülügjab Tangghudai (Puppy)
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