Imagine yourself in a bug out situation. You have had to abandon your vehicle because a bridge is out, and you can’t go back because your vehicle is hopelessly blocked in by others. You leave your vehicle, taking your vest, your rifle, and your BOB. You head across country toward your retreat, which is about 100 miles away, where you plan to meet your family and friends. You think it will take maybe a week or so to get there. You have three or four days of food and 120 rounds for the rifle. You follow the river downstream toward the next bridge, hoping things won’t get too crazy before you can cross. The river is deep and wide with a swift current this time of year.
Let’s fast forward two days. You are now being pursued by six armed men and are running for your life. You have dropped your BOB somewhere back there, in the hopes that they will stop to retrieve it and give you a little more time to escape, but that hasn’t worked. You don’t think you can take on all of them and survive. At this point, crossing the river is one of your best options for giving them the slip. You are already exhausted, but you have no choice but to plunge in the cold water. A couple of hundred yards out, about half way across, the strain of swimming with your boots, fully clothed, with your vest and rifle is wearing you out, and you realize that you just won’t make it without shedding some of this load. You reluctantly drop your rifle and a little while later your vest. The other shore is drawing closer, but you aren’t sure you will make it. You feel solid ground under your feet at last and drag yourself into the shallows and collapse. You made it by the skin of your teeth and with just what you have in your pockets.
This story is just meant to illustrate a scenario where you might end up without your rifle and most of your other gear. I realize that any of us would prefer to have a gun of any sort rather than having to rely on a more primitive weapon, like, for example, a bow, but it’s plausible that you find yourself in a situation where it may be all you have or can fashion for yourself. Tying a string on a bent stick is not going be of much use, but it’s not that hard to make a decent bow with just what you have in your pockets. So, given all that as an introduction, I’d like to give you the basics of making a primitive bow and some arrows you could use to potentially feed and defend yourself until something better comes along.
I don’t make bows for a living and still have much to learn myself. There are many volumes out there that deal with this topic. I’m assuming here you have a knife. I carry a Swiss Army knife that has a blade, scissors, a saw, and screwdrivers among other things. A multi-tool would be great, too. You can make a bow with just a sturdy knife.
Forgive the technical part, but it will help you to make a better bow. Your goal is to impart as much kinetic energy to an arrow as possible. All other things being equal, an arrow with higher kinetic energy will penetrate better and inflict more damage than an arrow with less energy.
(Kinetic energy) Ek=1/2mV2 (one half times the mass of the arrow, times the velocity of the arrow squared)
So, doubling the mass of the arrow will double the energy, but doubling the velocity of the arrow will increase the energy by a factor of four 2×2=4. So a lighter arrow shot from a faster bow is a good strategy for making an effective weapon. Lighter bow limbs and using a faster rebounding species of wood are good guidelines for making an effective bow.
The best species are: hickory, ash, osage, mulberry, honey locust, and black locust
Get familiar with these species; you will find at least one of these growing in all parts of the continental U.S.
Hickory is common in the eastern U.S. and is very forgiving when it comes to making bows. Even an imperfect job of bow making will likely give you a serviceable bow. It is hard, tough, and difficult to split. It does not snap back to shape as quickly as some other potential bow woods but will still produce a good expedient bow.
Ash is a good bow wood. It’s not as tough as hickory but springs back well and is generally straight-grained and easier to split.
Osage orange, also called hedge apple or Bois d’arc, is probably the best bow wood in North America. The heart wood is bright yellow, and, if the tree is straight-grained, it will split fairly easily. It springs back very quickly and will make either a long bow or flat bow. It is more difficult to work than some of the other woods. Osage is more sensitive to mistakes but will make the best bow, if your workmanship is good.
Mulberry is similar to osage in its properties and color; however, the tree looks totally different. The specimens I have worked had a lot of knots and twisted grain. If you can find a straight tree, you can make a good bow from mulberry.
Other woods that will make a good bow are black locust and honey locust. Honey locust is unmistakable with its massive clusters of thorns. If you find one, hang on to some of the thorns; you can use them to make a lot of useful things, like needles, gigs, and fish hooks.
Splitting and cutting. Look for a tree without a lot of branches in the section that you plan to use. Straight, even bark structure can sometimes indicate that the wood beneath is straight grained too. This is not a sure bet but working with straight grained wood will make this a lot easier. You can use trunk wood, or branch wood. Wood from a tree that has been struck by lightning can sometimes be splintered at the stump, leaving pieces of the tree sticking up that can be used. Make sure the piece is sound with no flaws or cracks. Saplings are tempting but don’t work as well. They are mostly sap wood and not as strong as wood from a larger tree. Cutting the stave can be done with whatever you have– a wire saw, a Swiss army knife/multi-tool saw, hatchet, machete, or a knife if it’s all you have and flint as a last resort.
Shaping. Rough it out with a machete or hatchet, if you have one, or a knife if you don’t. In extremity, you can use flint, if available. Using flint will take much, much longer, and you have to change your mindset and level of patience and expectation. Use a sharp edged piece of a pound or two in weight to do the heavy and rough cutting. This will work better if you can attach it to a handle of some sort. Use thinner flakes to scrape and serrated flakes to saw and cut parts, like the arrow nocks. Working the flint to make these kind of tools is beyond the scope of this article. This is something you might want to play with for a few hours when the pressure is off on a Saturday afternoon.
Bow Shapes. There are two basic shapes for primitive bows– the longbow and the flat bow. Long bows are usually five or six feet long and somewhere in the 1-1.25 in wide range near the handle, tapering to .5” or so at the tips. The depth of the limb– the distance from front to back– tapers from tip to handle, and the cross section of the limb is a deep D with the flatter section on the back, facing away from the user. Some woods can’t take the compressive stress on the belly of the bow and won’t make good long bows. If you have this problem, the grain of the wood will “collapse” or indent on the belly. Since the wood choice and quality is more critical when making a longbow, this style may not be the best bet for a survival situation. A longer longbow is less likely to break but also would give you less cast for the same cross section.
Flat Bows. There are a lot of advantages in going with a flat bow. Most Native Americans used flat bows. The bows are shorter (under five feet) and wider than longbows; flat bows are generally 2- 2.5 inches wide on either side of the handle, tapering to .5 to .75 at the tip. The design can be more forgiving, since the bending force comes from the width, not the depth. The stress on the wood is less, which means that it is less likely to break.
The Back of the Bow. (This is the surface facing away from you when you shoot) It should be made from the surface of the wood that was facing the bark. If there is sap wood, it is generally better to shave that off for the types of wood discussed here. Follow a single grain boundary all the way down the length. Follow any curves or waviness in the grain. Don’t worry if it is straight, just be very sure you follow one grain layer down the whole length. You may want to finish the bow to the last grain layer after the drying step.
The Belly of the Bow. (The part of the bow facing the user is the belly.) This should be slightly rounded so that a cross section of the bow at any point would be a flattened D shape. Follow any major grain where possible, especially on the last 1/3 of the limbs.
The Handle. Make the handle about 1-1 ¼” in diameter and blend the elongated “D” shape of the bow limbs to a round or “D” shape at the handle. Make this section 5-6 inches long. You can either rest the arrow on your index finger as you shoot or you can cut a shelf into the side of the bow just above where your hand rests.
The Width. Taper from about ½ to ¾ inch at the tips to max width about 5 inches above and below the center of the bow.
Drying. Wet wood will not make a useable bow. It will take too much of a permanent set, (called string follow). Use heat from a fire or coals to quickly dry the wood. You must be very careful and pay very close attention. Don’t damage your roughed out bow by burning or charring. You want heat, not fire. Of course this is not ideal. Bow makers use well-seasoned wood with controlled moisture content. You will not have that luxury but should still get a decent bow. This is a good time to straighten the limbs if they need it. The heat and moisture in the wood will make it pliable and allow you to straighten minor problems.
Finishing. As you get closer to the finished shape, use the edge of your knife/flint to scrape the wood. Hold it at right angles to the surface to shave very small amounts at a time from the bow.
Even before you get the bow to the point that it looks close to finished, put some temporary nocks on the ends of the limb and tie paracord or some other string material that will take the stress and put a bend in the bow and look at the shape. This is called tillering. If it bends evenly, that’s good; if not, take a few more scrapes off the belly of the bow on the limb that isn’t bending as much. Once you get down to a single grain layer on the back of the bow, you should never touch the back again. Don’t go crazy trying to get it to bend perfectly. If you take off too much, it will either break at full draw or be too weak to be of any use.
The best bowstring material is one that is strong enough to carry the load of the fully-drawn bow and one that will not stretch. You want the bow limbs to be propelling the arrow, not the rubber band effect you get with a stretchy string. Dacron is the material that most bow strings are made of. The core of some paracord might be twisted into a decent string. The outer sleeve of the paracord might be okay, too, if you stretch it well first, since it is braided. A good boot lace could work, too.
Wild plant fibers might not be your best bet for a bow string. Plant fibers are usually only strong enough for a light bow, or else the string diameter gets too big. This also depends on your skill at twisting fibers. If you want to go this way, any yucca-like plant will have strong fiber in the leaves that can be extracted and used to make a bow string. Pound the leaves, soak them in water, separate out the fibers, and get all of the leaf pulp off of them, allow to dry before using.
Sinew works too. It should be cleaned and twisted together while moist into a string. These are very subject to stretching if they get wet or even with high humidity. Gut will also make a bow string. Multiple thicknesses of cleaned, dried gut will work. It has the same problems as sinew; it stretches with moisture and humidity. A good tight twist in the string will limit the stretch. you may need to let the string stretch, unstring your bow and shorten it, and repeat a couple of times before a string made from natural materials will have stabilized There is no need to get fancy with the loops on the ends of your bow string, a bowline knot works well (hence the name). If you leave a wooden bow strung for long periods, the wood will take a set and it will lose strength. It is best to unstring your bow when possible. It’s also not a good idea to “dry fire” a wooden bow. The energy that normally goes into the arrow goes back into the limbs and can cause a fracture.
So now your bow is to its final shape, you have scraped it down to smooth it as much as possible. The next thing to do is to seal the surface. You may be thinking that you don’t care about this, but sealing the surface will prevent it from absorbing moisture and losing strength. Any kind of oily substance– berries or seeds– is good, but a waxy substance is even better. Put some of the oily or wax substance on the bow. Now burnish the surface of the bow. Take an approximately 1” diameter stick from some kind of hard wood, making sure the surface is as smooth as you can make it with your knife. Hold it at right angles to the bow, press down hard and rub vigorously back and forth. This will compress the surface of the wood and if you are doing it right you will see that the bow is becoming shiny. This will help reduce absorption of moisture.
- Small bamboo species,
- blueberry shoots,
- dogwood shoots, anything that is between ¼ and 1/2“ in diameter and about 3 feet long.
You want to start out with a longer piece than the finished arrow to allow for tuning the arrow. Remember that a lighter arrow gives better performance but it must be stiff enough to fly straight.
Adhesives. There are not a lot of natural adhesives out there. Pine resin, when heated, can be used to seat points prior to wrapping with sinew or string. It can also be used for attaching fletchings. It’s not the best, but there are not many choices out there.
Thread. Threads from the middle of a piece of paracord or boot lace can work well for attaching the arrowhead, the fletchings, and for reinforcing the shaft below the nock. Sinew is the best natural material for binding the arrow head on. Spider silk can work if you live in an area like the South, where Banana spiders live. They make really big webs. Yucca fiber can work, too.
Selecting bamboo. Use small species bamboo (not a young piece of larger bamboo). Look for pieces that are as straight as possible, with small straight joints, about ¼ to ½ “ in diameter. The older canes are better. Bamboo is probably your best choice if available, since it is hollow and will be light and stiff.
Hardwood shoots. Look for shoots from blueberries, dogwood, viburnum, or any solid, straight sprout of the right diameter.
Splits. If you find a splintered tree or stump that has been struck by lightning, there are sometimes splinters big enough to be used for arrows. Shave them down to about the right size with your knife. It is more important to the flight of the arrow that they be straight than that they be perfectly round.
Straightening. Any freshly cut wood or bamboo can be straightened with heat. Heat the area to be straightened evenly by holding it near a flame or coals and rotating it. It needs to be hot enough that you can barely touch it. Once it is heated carefully, straighten it and hold it in that position until it cools. Once the wood is dry, this won’t work as well.
Nock. Make the final nock about ¼ “ deep and no more than 1/3 the width of the arrow shaft at the smaller end. Smooth the nock carefully or you could damage your bowstring. Wrap the arrow shaft tightly with thread or sinew just beyond the base of the nock to prevent the arrow shaft from splitting. If you are using bamboo shafts either make the nock just above a joint or carve a piece of hardwood to just slip inside the bamboo at the nock end and long enough to reach the next joint carve a nock as before and reinforce with thread or sinew. This will keep the bamboo from splitting.
Length/tuning. Do this before putting any fletchings on the arrow. The length of your arrows will vary according to the stiffness of the arrow, the weight of the point, and the style of arrow rest. The arrows flex when you release the string. This is affected by the stiffness and point weight. For a given arrow you tune the stiffness by making it shorter. Since making it longer is not generally an option, you start with a longer shaft and trim a little off at a time and re-nock it until it shoots right. “Right” is when the arrow flexes around the handle in such a way as to fly straight and hit the target straight on. In other words, not slanted to the left or right as it sticks into the target. You will know it when you see it. If the arrow doesn’t stick in straight in the vertical direction, you may be holding the arrow at the wrong point on the string. It should be just a little, maybe one arrow’s thickness, above the rest.
If you have a heavy shaft and want to make it lighter, you can shave it down with the edge of the knife blade. This will reduce the stiffness, so it may need to be shortened to shoot right from your bow. Having said all this about tuning arrows to your bow. You can shoot just about anything, but accuracy will suffer a lot. If you can take some time to dial in your arrow, it will make you more effective with the bow.
Point. Anything sharp with cutting edges is a plus. Hammered bottle caps, flint chips, broken glass, a sharpened piece of hardwood, or bone can be used. You will want the balance to be weighted forward. So if the shaft is tapered, always put the thick end forward. For an un-tapered shaft, the weight of the tip will help bring the balance point forward. Flint knapping is beyond the scope of this article, but both broken glass and flint make good points as long as it’s sharp and pointed, it will do the job. Of course, if you hit a rock or tree you may have to replace it. Notice that almost all the flint arrowheads you find are broken.
For small game and birds a blunt point is effective. The shock of impact stuns or kills them. For bigger stuff, a sharp point with cutting edges is ideal. A wider, flatter point will do more damage to the target. Try to avoid any abrupt transitions from the point to the arrow shaft; taper and blend it as much as possible. Pine resin works well for this when heated and formed.
Fletching. Use feathers, if you can find them. Ideally, use the flight feathers from a turkey, goose, duck, gull, or other similar sized bird. Otherwise use your imagination with plastic, paper, leather, duct tape, and so on. If the arrows are tuned and balanced well, you can keep the fletchings smaller. Glue them with resin and tie them on with small thread by winding through the individual fibers of the feather. For other fletching materials, glue, tie, or tape on as your materials and imagination allow. Many cultures use two fletchings, but most use three or four. Three is what I usually go with. Look at pictures of Native American arrows. Some have novel ways of adding the fletchings that don’t require glue or resin.
I know this all sounds like a lot of work, but with a little practice, and a machete or hatchet, it can be done in an afternoon. If you are stuck using a pocket knife, it will be a longer job. Just think of it as an extended whittling session.
I think it’s worth your while to look for some suitable wood and spend an afternoon giving this a try. If the time comes that you need to do it, you will be way ahead of the game.
Some good resources for those that would like to give this a try are: