Korean Traditional Archery


by Prof. Thomas Duvernay

It is generally accepted that, overall, the best archers in the world are from Korea. In fact, of the top one hundred men archers (Olympic style, 1992), almost thirty were Korean, and of the women the number was almost sixty.

Why are the Koreans so dominant? I am no expert (I've always been told an 'ex-spurt' is a "drip under pressure"), but I have been involved with Korea and Korean traditional archery long enough to see that archery is part of the very spirit of the country and its people. First, we should look at Korean archery from a historical viewpoint.

Korea has had, without interruption, archery for thousands of years. The bow was primarily a military weapon, used to help unify the peninsula over 1,300 years ago, and later to repel Japanese invaders in the late sixteenth century. Even during the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945), archery was a popular athletic event. Today it is enjoyed by thousands of Korean men and women.

There are two types of bows used in Korean traditional archery. The first type is the modern laminated bow. Draw weights vary, starting at about forty pounds. The bow is about 46-50 inches long. Most have one inner layer of carbon, while others have two for a higher cast. The full-draw length of most bows is more than thirty-one inches, with the anchor point being about even with the shoulder.

The second type of bow is the traditional Korean composite horn bow. It is made of several materials. The core is bamboo, which is sinew backed, with oak at the handle. On the belly is waterbuffalo horn. The outer ends of the limbs are made of either mulberry or acacia spliced (v- splice) onto the bamboo. The glue is made from fish air-bladder. Over the sinew backing is a special birch bark that is imported from Northeast China. It is soaked in sea water (I understand for one year). It is applied to the back using diluted rubber cement (using benzene as the solvent).

The draw weights vary, but most are above fifty pounds. The cost for this type of bow is in the US$800 range. For the laminated bow, the cost is US$200-300. For most competitions, either bow may be used (bare bow only), but for national competitions, only the composite bow may be used.

As with the bows, there are two types of arrows available. One is a carbon type. It can most often be seen at wet-weather competitions. The other, more common type, is the bamboo arrow. The cost of each arrow is about US$30. The fletcher can make about ten arrows per day.

Most of the arrow's body is made of bamboo, which the fletcher finds and cuts himself. The point is made of machined brass. The fletching comes from pheasants, and the nock from bush clover. The nock is secured with sinew and both nock and fletching are held on with fish air-bladder glue. In national competitions, only the bamboo arrow may be used. All bamboo arrows are custom- made. There are only ten traditional bowyers and twelve traditional fletchers in Korea (one of each is a friend of mine).

Koreans use what some people might call the "Mongolian Draw," which uses the thumb and index finger to draw the string. This is different from the more familiar "Mediterranean Draw," which uses the first three fingers. A device (similar in use, but not in appearance, to a finger tab) is used, called a GAHK JEE in Korean, to hold the string. It is a teardrop-shaped thumb ring. It was traditionally made from ox horn, but today they will often be made out of plastic (from pool balls, usually).

A long cloth bag will cover the unstrung bow. This bag serves two purposes: bow cover and sash. When the bow is taken from its cover, the cover is wrapped around the archer's waist and tied. Arrows are twisted in the sash (points in, feathers pointing to the front). Only five arrows at a time are allowed.

Arrows are usually stored in the club house, in a temperature controlled box. However, when transporting arrows from one place to another (such as to and from meets), the Korean equivalent of a quiver is used. It is a tube, usually intricately detailed, made from one of several materials, such as bamboo, wood, or paper. Hand made, finely detailed cases, called JUN TONG in Korean, can cost from $50-500. However, many people will either borrow a case or improvise.

The central point of the archery grounds is the pavilion hall, called a JUNG in Korean. However, not all jungs will actually have a building; sometimes it may be in name only. Whether or not there is a building, there will always be a sign, written with the Chinese characters JUNG GAHN (literally, 'Righteous Room'). Jung Gahn has various, interpreted meanings, depending on where in Korea you may live. One meaning might be that you will always be upright and righteous inside yourself. Another might mean to always have God within you. In any event, an archer will always give a slight bow to the Jung Gahn when he/she first arrives at the jung.

The shooting line will vary from jung to jung. One jung may have three targets with eight positions for each, while another may have only two targets with five to seven positions for each. Each position will be roughly one square meter (yard).

The targets (made of plywood, covered with hard rubber from an old conveyor belt) are located 145 meters (about 159 yards) away from the shooting line. The target is 2.67 meters high (2.9 yards) and 2 meters wide (2.2 yards). It is tilted 15 degrees back.

As I stated earlier, an archer will bow to the Jung Gahn when first arriving at the jung. Also, just before an archer makes a first shot, he/she will give a slight bow to the target saying "Hwal bae oom ni da," which means, "I am learning the bow." If other members are present, they would reply, "Ma ni ma chu sayo", which means, "Have many hits." A novice archer would also bow to the target after the first hit of the day, while advanced archers would not.

During the first end of shooting, the order would go from left to right, and alternate at the next end. An end is when the first archer shoots one arrow, then the second archer shoots one arrow, etc., until each archer has shot five arrows.

In Korean archery, formality is everything. An archer will not go to practice in old, dirty clothing, but will wear clean, nice clothes. The reason being, if you look unclean, your mind will be unclean, but if you look organized, that is how your mind will be. As in all types of archery, mental attitude is very important. One very important precept in Korean archery is JUNG SHIM JUNG GI. It means "Straight Mind Straight Body." If you don't have this, your shooting will probably be off.

For competitions, archers will wear white shirts, white pants and white athletic shoes. The shirt is usually of the polo style. The pants will usually be a comfortable cotton or blend.

One thing many foreigners have noticed is the absence of bow hunting in Korea. I wondered about that too, at first. While the Koreans very effectively used their bows in war in the past, their traditional teachings (primarily from Buddhism) discourage the use of the bow for killing. It is interesting to note, however, some of these same people will very happily take up a gun during hunting season (it should also be noted that Korea has strict gun control laws). With the bow, however, they feel there would be a "loss of balance" if they were to use it for hunting. But they are still very interested in American traditional archery, especially regarding hunting and Native American style (as they consider themselves kin to the first inhabitants of America).

Handling the Korean bow is almost the same as any other with the exceptions of the way of holding the string, and the side of the bow where the arrow is. As mentioned earlier, the string is held withthe thumb and index finger (in a position like you were going to flip a coin); the arrow rests just above the thumb. If you are right-handed, the arrow is on the right side of the bow, and if left- handed, on the left side. The bow is generally slightly canted to the arrow side.

The stance is roughly at the two o'clock (ten o'clock for lefties) position, with legs shoulder-width apart. The draw is past the standard anchor point, all the way even with your thumb ring-hand shoulder. Shooting angle will depend a lot on the cast of your bow. Some archers may shoot at a 45-degree angle above horizontal, while others may have a more flat trajectory.

Scoring is simple. If you hit the target and your arrow did not break the plane of (go past) the target, it's a hit. At competitions, there will be a target judge with a flag to show what the arrow did. A circular motion shows a hit, straight up means the arrow went long, straight down means it went short, etc. There are both individual and team events at competitions. A round will be made up of three ends of five arrows for the individual event. The team event is decided by elimination (quarter-finals, semifinals, finals), with one end of five arrows for each team member in each event.

When a novice archer makes his/her first hit ever, he/she will usually buy all the other members some refreshments. For the next three levels (two, three, four hits out of five), members would congratulate the archer. However, when an archer has a perfect end of five out of five, a semi- official honor is bestowed upon him/her.

A perfect end of five out of five is called a MOHLGI in Korean. When you reach this level (make sure you have witnesses!) you are called a JUB JAHNG, which roughly means "ace." The time and date of this event should be noted (coincidentally, I achieved this level on one of the anniversaries of Ishi's* death--March 25).

The other members will give an elaborate, but short, ceremony, usually during the following monthly meeting. You will receive your MUHO, or your "MARTIAL PEN NAME." Usually it is picked by the director of your jung, and it should describe something about you or your background. For instance, my muho is CHUNG HO. Chung means 'blue' and Ho means 'lake'. As my home state is Michigan, the director of my jung found this to be a suitable name.

Several times each year, special competitions are held to decide members' official rankings. The ranking system is similar to that in taekwondo, as DON levels are used. Each member will have a total of 45 arrows to shoot (nine ends of five arrows). The first don will start at 25 hits, the next will is 28, 29, 30, 31, 33, 35, 37, and the top, ninth don, is 39 arrows (a separate competition is held for each level, and only two levels may be reached per year). There are only two people in the world who are at the top level (one lives in the USA). A close friend of mine (and my mentor) from my jung, Mr. Bak Dong Sub, is the top shooter from my jung; his ranking is fifth don, a special level called MYUNG GOONG, roughly translated as "famous name archer." Each don is represented by the MOOGOONGHWA flower, known in English as the ROSE OF SHARON. Whenever a member reaches a don level, he/she will be presented with a bow cover, with the flowers embroidered on.

When I first joined the archery association here in Korea, I became, as far as I know, the only non- Korean member. With this distinction also comes responsibility.

The hope of Korean members is that Korean traditional archery will be propagated to other countries, most notably the United States. When I joined, their stated hope was that I would introduce this style of archery to America. Very happily I am doing so.

As the details of this sport are too numerous to mention in this article, I am preparing a book and video on the subject. The book will cover everything I have stated here (in greater detail), and will have many areas not covered, including detailed discussions on the manufacture of the Korean horn bow and bamboo arrows.

I would like to thank all the members of my jung, HO RIM JUNG (Tiger Forest Pavilion) for their enthusiasm and support. [You may share the information from this document, provided you attribute the source]

*Ishi was known as the "Last Wild Indian In North America," when he stumbled into a northern California town in 1911. He taught white people arts and crafts (including archery) from his culture. His close friend and student was American archery pioneer, Dr. Saxton Pope.

Tom Duvernay can be contacted at -