Paperback: 80 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (25 Aug. 2016)
If this title doesn’t make you want to draw a bow, or just downright chuck it all and devote your life to horse archery then I don’t know what will.
A mixture of experimental archeology, history and first hand knowledge, Mike Loades has written a love letter to the composite bow. The book covers an immense sweep of time, but concentrates mostly on the main spheres of the weapon’s influence, the Middle East and China, though Mughal India does get a look in, there just isn’t the space to investigate it’s place in each culture, and I think it is a very balanced study, of this crucial weapon from 1300 BC to the 18th century.
Not just the bow, but the bowmen who used these supreme weapons in the hunt and in combat but the bowyers themselves and the theorists who wrote how to use them.
Despite space constraints Loades has managed to present a detailed examination of several types of Composite Bows, from the familiar, Scythian types to the more obscure. Taking the reader from statistics, to manufacture, to the battlefield, training and tactics.
Focusing mainly on the horse archer, the author has somehow managed to create a multi layered volume, richly illustrated, that is practical as well as intellectual. Unlike the other Weapon volume I have read, Brown Bess, this book doesn’t try to place the Composite bow into the sphere of world changing significance. This is rather more personal, putting to the fore, the man and the bow, with the horse.
Because Mike Loades is a historical weapons expert, and a historical archer of great experience this almost reads like an introduction to historical archery. This is the sort of book that would be priceless to someone that wants to take it up, and to be honest that might be its most attractive element. Should the book inspire the need to start grasping for bows and arrows, there are plenty of clues were to start, or indeed who to ask from the text itself.
Those that want to understand warfare must understand how it is done. To do that you must get as close as you can, getting closer and closer all the time from print to holding it in your hand, to the tools and the theory. In addition to the hands on experience that shines through the book, there is much to inform the student of combat.
Most people will be unaware of the skill it takes to make a composite bow, and of the intimate nature, the science, of why it was and, to me remains probably the most perfect bow in the world. Literally years go into crafting these weapons, and the skill required to use them in battle takes more years. Master archers and their bows and horses were famous, if not legendary in their own time. Some went to great effort to preserve the art of the bow in treatise and manual. Bows themselves could be works of art, just as beautiful and delicate as a sword. Secrets of firing types of composite are found here, most notably we discover that there is a different way to draw it, than what leisure archers are used to. The thumb draw, which allows a horse archer to lock the arrow against the bow at speed. Here too we find, as in many cases the further east you get, that the care and expertise involved around weaponry breeds art. No one looking at the many illustrated thumb rings, vital to the thumb draw, can deny that the craftsmanship is exquisite.
Peter Dennis does service for the full colour illustrations in this book, typically they are warmly coloured and full of movement and action with plenty of thumb draws. The Chinese plate is especially good. Although the undoubted focus is horse archery, infantry bowmen, who are not always associated with the composite bow, are given a look. Alongside them is a myriad of photographs of bow making, bow firing and horse archery. Spanning a collective knowledge that stretches from the Caucuses to China.
Which brings in another pleasing aspect of this study of weaponry. As Loades points out at the end the composite bow is a conduit. So much history is nationalistic. Even if the writer is open minded, usually they view comes through the prism of their native shores. Not only is this book a fascinating glimpse into an important military technology, it allows people to ease into the history of other cultures and broaden their world view.
Here’s hoping Loades can get the opportunity to bring closeups of more bows like this to us in the future.