The Buryat Bow
Description, Fabrication, String, Arrows, Fletching, Shooting Methods
by Taras Vladimirovich Plakhotnichenko
Translated by Zogit Davidov and Jack Farrell and edited for readability)
The Bow and arrow, an ancient weapon of hunting and warfare, was widely spread among the Buryats before the mid-eighteenth century. Because of limited access to firearms and the suitability of archery to horseback, the bow remained the preferred weapon of choice. N. Witsen [SS1] wrote that when they had good muskets still they preferred their bows as three arrows could be shot before a flintlock was reloaded.
After the mid-eighteenth century, firearms became more prevalent; however, the bow remained the weapon of choice for “surround” hunting for another hundred years. Surround hunting was practised among other nomad cattle–breeding tribes of Siberia. The Altai peoples and Tuva peoples of Siberia used the bow and arrow up to the beginning of the 20th century.
The Buryats identified two types of bows Nomo and Manzha-nomo (номо and манза номо). The Nomo Bow had an almost round кибить (“wooden root”) at the grip and slowly tapered to flat at the tips, whereas Manza Nomo bows were flat and wide. Both types were resilient and had great range.
According to M.N. Hangalov, such bows were imported from Mongolia, and in literature are referred to as бухар шара номо (buhar shara nomo).
Possibly a bow’s shape was a response to weather conditions. According to one Arabian researcher, bows for moderately hot or cold areas were made with narrow horn limbs with a lot of sinew. For areas of extreme hot or cold climate, bows were made with a prevailing wooden base (more than the other) and the horn limbs were broad. Both types of Buryat bows represented universal ethno-cultural shapes, referred to as “Mongolian” in literature.
The length of the unstring bow approached 160cm. Bows from the Medieval Period (16 c. – 17 c.) from the lake Baikal area archeological sites were also 150 – 160cm.
The bows were composed of four layers: a birch wood frame, covered on one side with horn and bone, the other surface sinewed and covered by birch bark. The first three layers give strength to the bow, (хусэн husen), and provided the long range; the birch bark protects against moisture.
Buryat bows have five basic elements and four junctions, each part with its own function. The key to the shooting strength of the bow lies in the handle, “барюул / baryuul”, and in the two shoulders, “бурээс / bureeys”.
At the large bend of the ears (“siyahs”), the horn overlaps 18cm, the sinew somewhat less. The string mock is called “хэршэлэ / hershele”. The bow string, “хубшэ / hubshe”, runs over to string bridges with the string knots laying over the big bends, the place where all composite elements meet. The Sinew backing reinforces the elasticity of the bow, the bridges prevent the bow from unstringing itself.
The Process of building a bow was rather complicated. It demanded professional workmanship and a long period of time. The birch wood frame was cured, birch bark was boiled - as were the cow horns – to make them softer. Horns were cut into flat pieces, cut to even length, made straight and were sometimes made into a mosaic of different colours.
Back-strap sinews were sometimes taken together with skin from deer, moose, oxen, or other animals. Belts of sinew and back skin were called “сур / sur”. The correct amount of sinew needed to be carefully calculated. Sinewing was in two layers. The first was allowed to dry for 4-7 days before the second was applied. The thickness of the sinew when dry was nearly the thickness of a thumb. The entire construction process took two years. A distance shooting bow would be reflexed onto a form and kept dry at room temperature for one year. Glue was made from fish, the skin of a thin cow, or a deer. Such glue was suitable for assembling all the parts. It was damp-resistant and elastic.
The string should be very strong, made from the back or belly hide of a thin cow. The raw hide was cleaned of fat, twisted and stretched. A string made in this fashion would neither stretch nor shrink. Strings were also made from the intestines of thin sheep. Raw intestines were cleared, covered in cooked butter, twisted and stretched. Such a string was good for warm weather; but in wet conditions, this string will stretch. According to a researcher, Tugutov, a string made from twisted raw hide of a horse’s skin remained supple in cold weather. We may assume the Buryats changed string seasonally: horse in winter and other animal products in summer.
Two methods were used for stringing bows. In the first “seated position” the bow was bent against the soles of the feet with legs extended. In the second “standing position” the bow is bent under the left leg while the right one supports the tip. Methods of stringing bows are ethnic. In literature, Mongols have two methods.
The arrow and the shape of its component parts, point to a large range of uses, both hunting and military. In Buryat language an arrow is called “hoмo / homo”, an arrow with a wood and bone head is called “годли / godlyi”; fletchings are “уудхэ / uudhe”, arrows without fletchings are “мохо / moho”, arrowheads are “зэбэ / zebe”, an arrow head with four holes is called “зэн(г) / zeng”, and whistling arrows with horn points are “зэн ,яhан зорхо / zeng yahan zorho”.
Together with common woodworking tools there were specialized arrowmaking tools, “моhо / moho”, and arrowmaking itself is referred to as “моhошин / mohoshyin”.
Special knives are called “онибчи / onibchi” in Mongolia and “сумучи / sumuchi” by Buryats.
Buryat master bowyers were careful in selecting good wood for bow frames. These traditions were known to nomads from time immemorial. Arrows of poor workmanship would warp. The same well-cured birch wood that made bow frames, met the major technical requirements for arrows. “Straight as an arrow” also meant “honest”. Buryat arrows were treasured by Tuva people and were bartered for furs. Because a Buryat man’s prestige was tied up with his bow-shooting, he wanted perfect arrows that could be distinguished from those of others.
Buryat arrows reached 80-100cm in length and 1cm in thickness. The nocks are wrapped in sinew and are sometimes enlarged or cut away at the sides to facilitate drawing. These arrows are very functional.
Fletchings, 3 or 4, are of goose, crane, eagle or other feathers. Tail feathers are preferred to “furry” wing feathers for straight flight. Other sources specify hard and smooth feathers, whether wing or tail. All fletches were the same length and width and taken from the same side or wing so as to impart a rotation. In target shooting, it was noted that an arrow with right wing fletchings spirals left to right and vise-versa.
Buryats knew of arrows without fletchings – “мохо / moho”. Large metal points assisted straight flight. Tuvas were also known for arrows of this type. Birds and rodents were shot with arrows with wood or bone points, as well as light arrows with narrow metal heads. Large game was shot with arrows with wide, rhombus-like metal points. The many different types of arrows point to their various purposes. The Buryats would also select arrows with respect to the distance of the target from the rider. At a close distance, they used arrows with narrower heads; at far distance, fletched arrows with broad heads.
While hunting, Baryats used arrows with bone whistle points. This ancient tradition still persisted at the beginning of the 20th Century. If a male deer tried to escape his pursuers, a whistling arrow was sent after him. The animal would then stop and listen to the sound of the arrow. If, while squirrel hunting, a squirrel was seen hiding high in a tree, a “Singing” arrow was shot along the tree and the squirrel would descend closer to the hunter, or jump into another tree. The hunter then used an ordinary arrow.
There is evidence for the use of whistling arrows by Buryats and Mongols for military purposes. According to N. Witsen “the arrows were made with a thickened front end made of bone, carrying three or four air channels which produced a very loud noise in the air, which was marvellous to hear. Military commanders shot these arrows over the heads of their troops to inspire courage and direct the battle.”
The simultaneous spread of all these types of hunting arrows in Southern Siberia occurred in ancient times.
In a burial ground called Kudyrgey, images of broadhead arrows have been found together with a bunch of arrows without metal points, but lightly thickened and sharpened at the point. In the era of the Huns (0-500 AD) bone whistle points were widespread. Numerous arrowheads designed for warfare point to Buryat military development.
Therefore blunt arrows with wood and bone points, as well as light arrows with spear-like points and arrows with flat Rhombus metal points were all used in hunting, together with whistling arrows.
War arrows were designed to penetrate armour. These arrows were fletched and with flat or faceted metal points. Again, when choosing an arrow, the distance to the target was important.
Buryats held the bow in the left hand and with the right hand, pulled the string back forcefully to behind the ear. The left hand then extended fully until the arrowhead came to the bow. To protect both the fletch and the hand, they used special hallow bone thumb rings called “(яhан эрхэ / yahan erkhe”, worn on the thumb of the right hand. These were also made of thick skin. The main load was borne by the thumb, covered by the index finger just pressing on top and supporting it. This is known as the “Mongolian release”. The arrow is kept in the cleft between the thumb and index finger, so preventing the arrow from deviating to the left. The arrow is always shot from the right side of the bow in the Mongolian release. Whether in hunting or in warfare, archery on horseback, was a tradition among nomadic tribes.
N. Witson described their technique well. They would sit very low on horseback while pointing the bow at the enemy, and turn the body sharply to make the shot. Arrows were shot high so as to fall on the target vertically for greatest penetration. When shooting, both eyes were kept open. The second arrow was shot horizontally so that both arrows would impact simultaneously and nearly touching each other. N. Witson witnessed this incredible feat.
The bow was kept in a case called “хоромго / horomgo” , with the string down, protecting the bow from wet and damage. Bow cases made from whole pieces of tooled embossed leather were called “булгари / bulgari”; the seam ran along the long side. Quivers were “саадак / saadak”. Through the 19th Century, an open type quiver with a hard wooden base and a tooled cover was used. Partitions of thick twisted string covered in red fabric inside the quiver separated the arrows and protected the fletchings. Quivers held from 4 to 15 arrows – depending on the type of arrows and their purpose. Bow cases and quivers were decorated with metal buckles, probably meant to protect the archer against enemies’ arrows. Buryat bow cases were worn on the left side, quivers on the right. An arrow was taken from the quiver by the right hand and brought forward, point first. Bow case and quiver were fixed to a belt by means of special small rings. If the small ring was located in the centre back of the bow case, the belt was let through that ring, and in this event the bow case was not hanging vertically but diagonally. This was more compatible with horseback riding. Quivers were carried on a long belt across the right shoulder so as to protect the right side of the back and the right upper arm. Archeological finds from Eastern Siberia dating from the first and beginning of the second millenium AD show us there were several types of metal hooks and rings for this purpose. The ways of fixing quivers and bow cases which have survived to the current period identify them as traditional to Mongolian speaking peoples.
In response to the harsh hunting conditions which existed in the Buryat area, surround hunting was employed, called «зэгэтэ-аба» / zegete aba” or just “«абаа» / abaa”. A brief description of surround hunting in the scrolls of the 17th Century narrated the following. In spring and autumn, the Buryats got together into crowds of one thousand people and would go hunting on horseback to shoot deer and wild goats. When the hunters come to the hunting area, they spread out in different directions to encircle the animals. Everyone would use his own bow if the animal was close enough. Very few animals were able to escape because every archer was able to shoot 30 arrows.
Traditional hunting entered into imitative games and dances. These forms of dancing and games have changed into a kind of physical exercise which reflects modern everyday life. Currently, the most significant popular games of the Buryat people are wrestling, archery and horseracing. These three sports have come down thorough history under the general title of “сурхарбан / surharban”, or its more commonly known folk title “«эрын гурбан наадан» / erin gurban naadan” – three manly games.
Dzhambalova S. G. “Buryat Traditional Hunting”. Novosibirsk “Science”, 1991
Sandanov B. D "Стрелы летят в цель", “The Arrows Fly to the Target”. Ulaan Ude, 1989