The Compound Bow

Twenty-five years after Allen's patent of December 1969.

by W.E. Flewett

This article was first published in the Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, volume 37, 1994.
Reproduced with permission. Please read the copyright notice.

'Here was I, preparing to unfold the pageant of the past, and the present quietly put it's hand through the printed page of history and said: - 'it is here, it is now'. (Prof. J. Bronowski)

The scene is a plain in Mesopotamia 4500 years ago - a line of archers clad in homespun, woven from the hair of their goats, holding wooden self bows; they are gazing with astonished resentment at a newcomer whose arrow, loosed from a strange-looking bow with angled limbs, has just swept far past their shafts on the field of flight.

`Do you think he's a sorcerer? -There must be a demon in that bow!`-

'I did hear him tell the chief that his bow contained horns from an Ibex and tendon from a bull '...
Well, I think his bow - if you could call it a bow- is disgusting, an ugly monstrosity, - but what else could you expect from a Sumerian?'

How fascinating it would be, if we could travel back in time and observe at first hand, episodes such as this in the history of the bow, noting as the centuries slipped by how, despite initial opposition, the 'ugly monstrosity' with recurved limbs, rigid 'siyah' and composite construction became acknowledged as effective in hunting, deadly in war, eventually even being recognised as a thing of beauty, decorated and proudly signed by the makers, whose advertisements might truthfully have claimed:- 'As used by the Sultan himself!'

But wait! Substitute 'Compound' for 'composite' and 'American' for 'Sumerian', and some of us, even in this present decade, have heard muttered comments remarkably like those of our imaginary scene of ancient times!

Original Allen Patent Drawing

In 1967, after six years development in the garage of its inventor in Missouri, a strange looking device, described as a 'compound' bow was born. Many a new-born infant appears unattractive - except, of course, to its mother!- And a photograph showed this to be no exception.

Twenty-five years have gone by, and this extraordinary bow is now of age, and despite the serious drawback (to the antiquarian) that it has not yet had a chance to grow old, it would be a pity not to avail ourselves of the opportunity to look at the development of this most interesting weapon, while appreciating our good fortune that its evolution is still continuing.

Archers have always cherished their traditions ever resistant to and (rightly) wary of changes threatening to disrupt the nature of their ancient sport. Some of us recall the appearance on the target line of steel bows. Though their Indian ancestors look magnificent in a museum of oriental weapons, the modern equivalents (made by the makers of golf-club shafts: need one say more?) were not exactly welcomed by all.

In the late 1930's, after the war, and even as late as 1960, despite the interest in new 'gadgets' by the average American, recurved bows of composite construction were still regarded with doubtful suspicion by bow-hunters in America, notably the physically powerful and supremely skilful Howard Hill. However few bowhunters had as good a physique as he, and even with the latest composite recurve, many archers lacked the capability to send a heavy broadhead arrow on its way with sufficient speed to ensure a clean kill of a wary deer. (In Olympic years we have seen how quickly a human can react to a starting pistol.) In 1960, bowhunters were complaining that, even at a range of only twenty yards a deer could react so quickly to the twang of bow string that the arrow missed or -much worse- only wounded.