Thursday, 10 March 2016

Discussions with the bowyer Mike Roberts.

Here are some excerpts from a  series of emails I conducted over a few months with bowyer Mike Roberts. It concerns some of the paradoxes and questions raised by the sources concerning Gaelic archery. 

want a bowyer's opinion on some historical descriptions of Irish/Gaelic bows. 
we have three written descriptions one hostile, one friendly and one neutral they all describe a similar bow and we have pictorial evidence that agrees. In short it looks like we have to accept that the bows described are what people were using in period. I am unsure whether the wood would be able to take the strain of the design at high poundages.

 First question: What British reed would be usable as an arrow? 
Second: How would the described bows stand up to use, how hard would they be to make. It looks to me like the historical bows have a "D" section but this would seem to me to place a phenomenal strain on the wood and produce an appalling shooting bow. How high in poundage would it be possible to go?
Third: sinew string? In Western Europe, this sounds off to me. Have you an experience with waxed sinew strings in our climate. 
 So this looks like bows about 60-90 cm with a sinew(?) string shooting 55cm long reed arrows about 240 odd meters.


Also and unrelated I remember reading that the bow from Stellmoor was made of pine, any ideas. I would have thought a wider bow made from the heartwood would possibly make a bow capable of killing reindeer. 

Hi Neal,
umm reeds....I suspect it would have to be reed mace if native. Maybe somebody traded for some psuedosasa japonica at some point! Other than that I'm really don't know.
As you say if you try to make a wooden bow to those dimensions something has to give and if dimensions are set that short then draw weight would be the obvious answer. However the American Indians made plenty of very short but serviceable bows once the horse arrived in America but they were limited to short draws,wide limbs and maximum draw weight of around 60#. However they had started development of hornbows because that is really the only way to make short bows with a decent draw weight. Remember that cattle back then had much bigger horns, I've seen various hornbows made with cow horn and if you can get a piece to stay together (eg. not delaminate between layers) it is every bit as good as water buffalo. I would probably be tempted to hypothesize that a hornbow is the most likely way they built these short bows if their effectiveness isn't being exaggerated. After all Robin Hood had a Turkish bow  from the Crusades...didn't he!? Most people would say 'they can't be used in the rain/humidity of our climate' but I have been shooting one I made repeatedly for about two years with no loss of performance and it is finished with shellac varnish. Also people may say that they are too complicated to make and yes whilst you have to get every step perfect they can be made with very simple tools.
Finally sinew strings....well I've made a few and whilst not a master at making them and there being plenty of room for improvement they are still very effective.....when it's dry.....rain and sinew strings do not mix but that's not to say that they couldn't be water proofed. However back then nettle, hemp or flax would have been my bet as they all make excellent strings, grow very well here and would have been durable in the rain.
So there are my thoughts, I hope you can get something from them but if you have anymore questions feel free to fire away. 
I could make a simple hornbow that would meet the criteria and I think I know where there is a patch of reedmace...there is nothing like a working example :)

 Thanks Mike, I think that if they had used horn it would have been remarked on. Well it would be interesting to shoot some reed arrows, dangerous I would have thought. So what do you think laminated bows or that the descriptions are wrong? I wonder if the bows weren't built as described but shot at about 60#.
 There are laminated bows known from Scotland and Scandinavia, Horn bows are mentioned in Kings Mirror (from Norway) and Beowulf. Definitely  a possibility. Would it be a layer of horn on a yew bow or made from different materials?

Hi Neal, 
our best wood for hornbow cores would be yew or hornbeam. They simply have to be backed with sinew. A laminated wood bow doesn't really have any significant advantage over a selfbow, maybe 10 fps maximum if made to very exacting standards. If a reed can be found that is stiff enough there would be no problem in shooting it.

Hi Mike, so what do you think is the maximum draw weight we could expect for a self bow made to the dimensions given #60? I don't think laminated horn bows could have been at all common in Ireland or Scotland, it would be just too hard to keep them dry. The examples I know were used in forts so are possibly not representative and could have received lots of attention and care. We've only really got the reports of non military, non archers to go on and then it's only anecdotal. Despite hating the Gaels, Spencer's account seems plausible to me, he lived in Ireland and was intimately involved with the English administration. 

 "Shot forth weakly" compared to a warbow #60 or thereabouts would seem weak. Personally I don;t really see why warbows were so powerful experiment and historical accounts attest that armoured men were unharmed (but perhaps not unaffected) by arrows while #60 will wound an unarmoured man at 100 meters. I have recently seen estimates of English warbows as high as #200 draw weight, this seems excessive to me, sadly the discussion is so heated and emotional its quite hard to get a decent dialogue going. 

When we talk about what draw weights were used 'back in the day'  what we have to realize is that most people nowadays are a really poor example of what a human being is like....over weight, weak, not in the least fit etc etc As an example I can do at least 10 straight arm pull ups with two fingers purely because i go climbing lots. I don't even train specifically other than going climbing. Your average joe nowadays can barely do a full pull up with all their fingers it doesn't take much to transpose that example back a few hundred years and swop climbing for archery. IF you train specifically for something that is really important to you the sky is the limit. I can quite easily draw 100# with zero specific training for heavy bows I know that if I trained properly and it really meant a lot to me to keep it up I could draw a heavier weight still. When I was learning how to make hornbows i got Adam Karpowzi's book on Ottoman Turkish bows, in it he lists the dimensions of many hornbows that are in the Topaki Palace museum, i'm not 100% on the actual number without checking in the text but the avberage draw weight is around 140# (the weights can be worked out accurately by examining the draw weights of similar modern bows and comparing the dimensions of bending sections etc). Some of these bows are pushing 200#, there is also a monster 'double' bow that is estimated to be around 300# draw weight and there are records of it being drawn. also the distances that the Turks shot in flight are disputed but again Adam shows that it certainly is possible to get those sort of distances but you would need about 180# draw weight. When it comes to the English bows of yesteryear we have all the Mary Rose bows....IF you've actually made enough elb's to get real world experience of them then you quickly realize that with the unchanged dimensions of these bows you are talking about heavy weights, that is a fact. Those bows in my estimation would range from around 100# to around 200#. Like I say though the real problem when we talk about draw weights is a) most people nowadays are weak b)most people haven't made lots of bows for that real world experience c) most people have never trained specifically and for a long time for anything...and therefore have no real comprehension of what they are capable of!
Anyway enough rambling from me! If you have anymore questions I'll reply a bit quicker this time!
All the best

Lovely stuff, here are the dimensions : not past three quarters of a Yard long, with a String of wreathed Hemp slackly bent, and whose Arrows are not much above half an Ell long, tipped with steel Heads

so half an ell is 57cm (22") from a bow  68cm (27") long, we'll be generous and say this is strung. If the bow was a self re-curve in good quality yew what would be a reasonable upper limited on draw weight? 

Right I have had to do 10 straight arm pull ups off my stairs....phew I am still a man! I had to use all my fingers but then I'm not a rock climber. But I agree modern post industrial humans don't stand well next to our ancestors. You may have seen the post I did about runners in Scotland, it is shocking what people would do just as a normal part of their activities. I think Hardy puts the decline of the warbow down to (in part) the shift from heavy agriculture to more livestock pasturing producing people who found it hard to pull bows to the required standard. I'm not sure but it is interesting, I also think the environmental collapse in temperatures and concomitant reduction in physical build could also have had a part. Though in truth I think that the manifest superiority of firearms against heavily armoured troops was the deciding factor. 
 I agree that the sky is the limit in terms of the physical ability of the archer and would have thought that the bow/bowyer would be the limting factor. I have read that beyond a certain draw weight there is a marked trade off between accuracy and continued increased in power. The result being that beyond 170#(?) there is little benefit in increasing the draw weight. Modern archers shooting in the mid 150s seem to shoot as far as historical archers so I would guess most bows would be around that draw weight.  That said how the English warbow was actually effective is a bit of a disputed point. Armies were clearly not expecting arrows to kill with every shot or even that often so there was another factor of the weapon being exploited, probably the distruptive power of the volleys. A long winded way of saying a really high draw weight may have been required but without actually staging real medieval battles we can't actually know. 
 Did you manage to find a stave suitable for a warbow type bow?

honestly with those dimensions you couldn't make much more than a kids bow....The normal rule of thumb is that your bow should be double the drawlength you require from it and that's a bow that bends in the handle area (doesn't narrow here). If it has a rigid handle then you would double your drawlength and add the length of the handle/fades.
Even hornbows lengths are held to drawlength x 1.5. So a 22 inch draw would require a wooden bow of 44 inches (bendy handle), 44 + 8 = 52 inches (stiff handle), a hornbow with a stiff handle could be made to about 33 inches. Making a hornbow without a stiff handle would be possible and that bow might get you close to 27 inches.
You see I know that a wooden bow can't be made to those dimensions for that drawlength and not either break or take so much set that you wouldn't have to bend it to put the string on! However, just cruising my memory banks here, the Kalahari Bushmen use mega short bows with super light arrows and short draws, i'm not certain of what wood they use but I do know that it's super dense.....dunno maybe it's worth you googling them to see the gear they use if you don't already have an idea. The yuse poisoned arrows and don't really need any penetration, a super light and ease to carry archery set is their main priority. They use their superb tracking/trailing skills to get close enough.
What's know as Ultra' running is becoming more and more popular as people rediscover the capabilities of the human body. Every one of us who is born with all the bits we need working can run close to 200 miles a day. There are many examples of great distances being run in history but people tend to just dismiss them as fanciful! The thing that stops us doing it now are - modern shoes and laziness! I've been trying my hand at persistence hunting and have definitely got the deer tried but the ones i've got near to tiring out have given 'last gasp efforts' as if they knew the game was almost over and managed to lose me. Honestly i'm sure they know what i'm trying to do. Anyway that's another discussion. 
Yes there is a whole load of nonsense talked about draw weights.....I think testing armor of the period against arrows is more or less a waste of time as we weren't necessarily trying to put down armored men what we were trying to do is stop the other army advancing close enough to us to have to engage in hand to hand fighting - we were trying to take the horses out of the equation. Most horses don't like being shot by arrows.....even the best, most solidly trained horse will start misbehaving, to put it mildly, if you stab it with an arrow.....once a heavily armoured knight is without his horse he is immediately next to useless. Look at the arrows we were using big and heavy with a point designed for pure penetration - these arrows were designed to give a bloody good wallop to whatever they hit, they weren't designed to cause bleeding like a broadhead is. A broadhead will kill in minutes if it hits something vital but a bodkin won't necessarily do the same - we were trying to disrupt the 'common well known tactics' of the French. We knew how they would try to fight a battle so we designed our weapons accordingly. So these big, heavy arrows need quite some horsepower behind they to make them go far enough to be effective. We design a bow style that is relatively easy to make, gives you good yield from the yew logs you can get, you make it long enough so that you can draw it a long way to increase efficiency and of course you make the draw weight close to the upper limit that your men can use. As with the running distances there are examples of heavy bows in use in history and people dismiss them as too powerful because they can only just shoot a 50# bow themselves.......not a great basis for any meaningful conclusion to be drawn! As I mentioned before probably the most solid proof of the draw weights used is Adam Karpowzi's book on Turkish Hornbows and the bows of the Topaki Palace museum, it cannot be disputed that these were actual bows in use and his equations for determining draw weight cannot be dismissed as fanciful. If you can't get hold of a copy I could send you mine for a loan.
Yes I do have a couple of suitable staves for a heavy bow.

 Hmm funnily enough that description fits nicely with some drawings, what do you think 30#? I found the Royal Armouries tests on armour penetration very rewarding. They are less involved (shall we say) than some on the subject. They found chain mail alone was enough to stop any attack from a medieval weapon. This accords with contemporary sources. They also stated that these tests are incredibly difficult to do as medieval armour was made to an incredibly high standard which is almost unrepeatable (an colossally expensive) today. So as you write the effect of the heavy arrows was highly effective against armies rather than individual soldiers. England's greatest warbow victories were against the lightly armoured Scots again contemporary chroniclers state explicitly that it was the poor armour of the Scots that made them vulnerable. I think it was this factor that lead to the English in Ireland employing archers on such a massive scale. Now that said it looks alot like "Viking" bows were also way up in the mid 100 pound draw weights despite the vast majority of combatants wearing little armour and all carrying effectively arrow proof shields. As you mention a broadheaded arrow will kill an armoured animal in short order so in terms of lethality the Scandinavian bows were over built.  So it would seem the sheer physical impact of thousands of heavy arrows crashing into an army may by itself have been the desired outcome with any casualties being a welcome bonus, a bit like artillery barrages, though modern analogies are not too useful.

I have a bushman bow, it's a hypodermic needle for injecting poison. I have done some bow hunting here in France I think hunting with a rifle spoiled me! It's also quite a bit more visceral yet seemingly painless. 

 For my research project this is interesting at it seems that Gaelic bows were smaller and weaker but also employed somewhat differently, with an emphasis on dropping individuals or killing members of a rival group. This is why I am trying to work out potential draw weight of depicted or described bows.
 As for running , DO YOU KNOW wIM hOF (effing caps lock) yes I absolutely agree that humans are capable of physical feats of truly stupendous achievement. I am not at all convinced of persistence hunting being an evolved niche for humanity. I personally think that for hunter gatherers it is a technique that comes more out of the right circumstances (suitable prey and high temperatures) and I also think it is worth noting that the hunting success rate for chimps is as high as for industrial humans and way higher than persistence hunting. 

More thoughts here:

Also and unrelated have you ever put up a climbing wall? I am thinking of putting in a bouldering/traversing  area on the barn.

Hi Neal, 
Yes 30# would be possible but the wood with anything over a 13 - 14 inch drawlength would be breaking down fast. Yes you can draw bows past this 'ideal' drawlength but the belly wood cells lose their elasticity and the bow as a whole will become a much less efficient spring. The problem with this is that if you look at virtually every cultures different bows from around the world every one of them is the best bow that could be made with the materials available to them and the conditions it had to be used in. We just don't go wasting our time making 'rubbish' unless we can look at the whole situation  the bows in question would have been used in , tools, wood, weather etc it's hard to draw any real conclusions? 
Have a good Christmas.

 Yes I absolutely agree, spencer's measurement's make no sense at all. That;s a great way to look at it too. I would have thought anything less than a high hunting weight would have no utility at all and a minimum of 60# would be required. dRAW LEGTHS WOULD PROBABLY BE LOWER  as heights in the medieval period were lower than at present, but this is sadly conjecture. 
 It was certainly possible for Gaelic people to make warbow type bows they encountered them regularly too. It does look that it was a bow type they did not use in favour of a recurved and smaller type bow. Probably reflecting the raiding type warfare that predominated.

 I was thinking of taking a similar look at scandinavian archery, ever made an ovoid section warbow?

Have you read this, it's a useful document as (I assume) Native Americans were using bows of a far lighter poundage than warbows.

 The next post will be on some thoughts concerning the above article...I'm also ruminating over some points raised in a Thomas Sowell Essay on some of the Gaelic origins of Modern American "black" culture.