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  • Writer's picturePSBN David

Point End Forward: Korean Bows and Archery

Last month, we went over the great benefits of a spear when defending yourself. As in the LindyBeige video, we saw how, even with very little training, the spear gave a pretty sizable advantage compared to a sword. It was pretty clear: staying away from their sharp-pointy while still being able to reach them with YOUR sharp-pointy is a pretty ideal circumstance.


This naturally leads to the evolution of the bow and arrow! Now you can REALLY stay away from their sharp-pointy!


As mentioned last month, Major Kwonwoo Kim (https://www.hsdl.org/?abstract&did=830303) attributes Korea’s historical ability to drive off powerful forces from all sides to their defensive, attrition style of fighting. Korean archers are still to this day a force to be reckoned with, as many Olympians will attest! Since 1972, South Korea has won 23 Gold Medals and 39 medals in total (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archery_at_the_Summer_Olympics), well over double that of the United States in 2nd place. As well, the World Records are almost entirely held by South Korea, save for 2 in the Men’s category.


Suffice to say, Korea is pretty good at archery.



 

Mechanics of the Bow and Arrow


The advantage of the spear compared to the sword is straightforward: it’s longer, so you can stay at further range. If you want them to be further away, you get a longer stick. The bow is quite a bit more complicated, however. It’s not just a case of “build a bigger bow” as you quickly run into a very unwieldy weapon that isn’t going to do archers much good.


What goes in to firing a bow, then? You have a couple main factors:



1. Draw weight of the bow

This is the maximum power a bow can put into an arrow. This is often the metric you’ll hear when people are talking about bows, i.e. a 30-pound bow will shoot the arrow with 30 pounds of force behind it. The higher this is, the faster the arrow will fly out. Or, alternately, how heavy your arrows can be and still be effective.


2. Weight of the arrow

There are many different arrow types depending on what you’re trying to accomplish. though it’s fairly intuitive that it’s a lot easier to throw a pebble than a cannonball.



Okay, so that means we get a bow with the highest draw weight, and shoot the lightest ammo, right?


Well not quite. You’d quickly find with a giant bow that the archers, no matter how much they trained, just wouldn’t be able to draw the bow back far enough to do much of anything. Even if they could, most armour was pretty good at stopping lighter arrows from getting through. The arrow would still hit the target, but it would be like our modern bulletproof vests: packs a punch, but you walk away with a bruise.


This is why we see so many different designs of bows. Instead of making a bow that’s too difficult for a person to draw, you change the design to add some mechanical advantages. This is how we started with a plain Bow, progressed to Recurve and Reflex Bows, and ended up with Compound Bows and Crossbows.


Balance the factors you, and you end up with a bow giving your archers a bit more oomph, able to fire arrows large enough to punch through most enemy armour. Pop them on top of a hill with enemies approaching on a wide-open plain, you’re going to be very hard for outside invaders to conquer!



 

History


As with most ancient history, it’s difficult to pin down the origins. Bows, unsurprisingly, have been used for a very, very long time. Based on artifacts found, bows were used from the Gojoseon Period (http://contents.history.go.kr/front/eng/tz/view.do?levelId=tz_b33), which would put them in use from roughly 2300 BC. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that they’ve been around as long as you could say Korea was Korea, however. Evidence of arrowheads have been found in caves, aged at roughly 70,000 years old.


The traditional bow of Korea, the Gakgung, is a Reflex bow (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gakgung). Where a Recurve bow just has the tips of the bow pointing away from the archer, the entire length of a Reflex bow will be trying to point away (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bow_shape#Reflex_bows).


The Gakgung themselves were made out of a variety of fairly elastic materials. Traditionally, they would use processed bamboo and mulberry, along with a thin slice of water buffalo horn (http://contents.history.go.kr/front/eng/tz/view.do?levelId=tz_b33). These bows would be difficult to string in the first place, requiring the archer to be fairly strong. The end result, however, was a bow just a meter tall that was able to shoot between 150 to 300 meters (approx. 500 to 1000 feet). In comparison, the famed English Longbow was nearly double the height, with the same range (https://www.britannica.com/technology/longbow).


Bronze pieces of a crossbow were found in China that dated back to around 650 BC (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crossbow#History from Mike Loades’ The Crossbow). They didn’t seem to quite catch on in Korea, however. Even after early rifles started making their way onto the scene in the early Joseon Period (1392–1897), the Gakgung was an important weapon in the military up until the end of the Period.



 

Nowadays, archery is still a huge part of Korean culture. While not every child gets a bow put in their hands, they’re still very much scouted from an early age (https://www.bow-international.com/features/korean-archery-secrets/). Add in a very systematic approach to training and scouting, and you can see just why South Korea has such an amazing record at the Olympics.


Oh and I guess thousands of years of having to defend your country on all sides from invaders that vastly outnumber you.


That’s a pretty good incentive, too.

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