Ottoman Bows-An Assessment of Draw Weight, Performance and Tactical Use

By Karpowicz, Adam | Antiquity, September 2007 | Go to article overview
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Ottoman Bows-An Assessment of Draw Weight, Performance and Tactical Use

Karpowicz, Adam, Antiquity

The Ottoman fighting bow emerged in Europe from a long eastern tradition of using high velocity projectiles to hunt and fight on horseback. The author compares its performance (favourably) with the longbow and explains how the tactics employed with this singular artefact accounted for Ottoman success in battle.

Keywords: Ottoman, arrow, bow, equestrians, fighting, hunting


Bows of composite construction, made of wood, horn and sinew, have been known in Asia for thousands of years. Among many other types, the Ottoman Turkish bow has attracted the most attention in the western world. According to Turkish sources (Yucel 1997), Tozkoparan Iskender and Bursali Suca in the early 1500s used this bow to achieve a range of 930 yards (1yd = 0.91m). In 1798, a record shot by Sultan Selim was recorded to a distance of 972yd (Klopsteg 2005). The Ottoman bows were the most important weapon of war, particularly for Turkish horse archers and remained the preferred weapon long after the introduction of firearms (Celebi 1991).

Little information exists, however, about the effectiveness of Turkish bows in combat. Hansard wrote about the penetration of a metal helmet, made to withstand pistol shots, with two holes and the head (Hansard 1841). Shots through 2 inches (1in = 2.54cm) of metal, as well as through a 0.5 in plank at 100yd, have been recorded (Klopsteg 2005). A wooden mannequin clad in chain mail was completely penetrated (Ozveri pers. comm.). Data about the mechanical efficiency and performance of the bows have been published elsewhere (Karpowicz 2005). The purpose of this article is to assess the effectiveness of the weapon, through a consideration of the actual draw weight, i.e. the force required to pull the bowstring to the full length of an arrow. The results will allow a realistic assessment of the effective striking distance, together with the arrow's penetration. This in turn will help us to better understand the battle tactics of the Ottomans in conquering other countries during their period of expansion. The research on Turkish archery is also relevant to the use of bows in other areas of the world, either on a horse or on foot, and will help to shed light on the bow's effectiveness in warfare.



Construction and use

The Ottoman bow has several distinct sections: a centrally located grip of bulbous shape (kabza), two bending sections (sal) attached to the grip, two non-bending sections (kasan) with a ridge along the centre and two tip sections (bas) with notches for the bowstring (nocks). The bows represent the typical composite construction (Figure 1). A wooden core lamination runs through the entire bow. Horn strips are attached to the side of the bow facing the archer with the exception of the tips. A layer of sinew is attached to the opposite side up to the transition between the tips and the rigid sections. The horn-faced side is made round, the sinew-faced side is usually flat n the sal sections. Without the bowstring, the limbs have a pronounced reflex curvature. In a strung bow, only the bending sections are flexed. The rigid kasan sections retain their curvature, giving the bow the familiar 'Cupid' shape (Figures 2 and 3).

The archery collection of the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul contains several hundred Turkish bows, dated from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries, as well as many bows of Persian, Crimean-Tartar and Arab origin. It is without doubt the largest collection of Ottoman archery equipment in the world (Yucel 1998). All the bows are very similar in appearance, with a maximum difference in length of about 25cm. Bows used by infantry were longer, other types, including war bows used on horseback (tirkes), target (puta) and flight bows (menzil) were of similar length (Yucel 1998). Generally, the length of bow was selected individually, depending on the archer's length of draw.

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Ottoman Bows-An Assessment of Draw Weight, Performance and Tactical Use


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