How Bow Hunting Works

By: Simon Shadow
Person enjoying nature's beauty in outdoor forest sport.
A bow hunter as he takes aim.
iStockphoto/Paul Tessier

­Modern hunters have an arsenal of weapon­s to hunt their prey, and perhaps the most interesting and challenging is the bow. Thousands of years of history have just gone into bow hunting. And even though the tools we use today are far different from the tools used in the Stone Age, the skills needed to be successful at bow hunting are essentially the same.

Today arrows fly further and penetrate deeper. Bows are stronger and lighter -- and compound bows are more complex. Blinds and stands give us an advantage over our predecessors, but skill, intimate knowledge of the game and the ability to move quickly and quietly across the terrain is a skill that can take years to develop. Bow hunters must be able to get close to their prey for a quick, ­clean kill. They must foil the animal's sense of smell, sight and hearing. Then, of course, there are the laws and regulations that govern modern bow hunting, so the sport takes a little more planning than just a trip to the woods with camouflage gear and a quiver full of arrows.


­We have come a long way from the simple wooden bows and arrows of our ancestors, though some of their achievements are still awe-inspiring. In this article, we'll cover the rich and long history of bow hunting, as well as modern bow hunting and how the sport has evolved. Then we'll take a look at bow hunting strategies to help you participate.

Let's get started by reviewing the history of the bow and how it was used.


History of Bow Hunting

It's easy to imagine our human ancestors as big dumb animals, but by the Late Sto­ne Age, humans were using fire and making advanced tools. At some point, the bow and arrow entered into the mix. The oldest known arrows were found in Africa and were dated to the upper Paleolithic period (Late Stone Age, 40,000 to 25,000 years ago). Between 25,000 B.C. and 18,000 B.C., humans used wooden arrowheads and then progressed to fire-hardened stone and flint with feathered shafts.

Archeologists and historians have discovered bow and arrow use in many countries:


  • Italy -- Arrows with feathers and arrowheads made of flint date back to 11,000 B.C.
  • Germany -- Arrow shafts date to 9,000 B.C.
  • Denmark -- Bows date from 8,000 to 6,000 B.C.
  • Egypt -- Drawings date from 7,500 to 5,000 B.C. showing bows used for hunting and war.
  • Italy/Austria border -- Researchers uncovered human remains dating from about 3,300 B.C. This person carried carrying advanced tools such as a framed backpack, utility belt and copper axe, as well as quivers with 14 wooden arrows with flint arrowheads and feathers [source: StrictlyBowhunting].

Some additional interesting dates show the progression of the use of bows and arrows across the globe and the U.S.:

  • 2800 B.C. -- Egyptians make composite bows from wood, animal horn and sinew and catgut.
  • 1500 to 1027 B.C. -- China claims the first crossbows are invented.
  • 1208 -- Genghis Khan and his warriors use composite bows.
  • 1879 -- The National Archery Association (NAA) is founded in Indiana.
  • 1900 -- Archery is introduced into the Olympic Games.
  • 1934 -- The first bow hunting season begins in the U.S.
  • 1939 -- Aluminum arrow shafts are being designed but aren't trademarked until 1946.
  • 1966 -- The compound bow is invented by H.W. Allen.
  • 1966 -- The International Field Archery Association (IFAA) is founded [source: StrictlyBowhunting, Habeishi and Mallory].

Most people know that Native Americans were using bows and arrows throughout their history, but it was more than their tools that made them so successful. Read on to learn how Native American skills and stealth still influence bow hunting today.


Modern Bow Hunting

Modern bow hunting was popularized in the U.S. in the 1920s when Dr. Saxton Pope published a book called "Hunting with the Bow and Arrow". Dr. Pope and his colleague, Arthur Young, learned about bow hunting from a Yana tribesman named Ishi. Ishi was the last member of his California tribe, and he shared his vast wealth of knowledge about bow hunting with the two men. Centuries of Native American knowledge went into the making of the book, and the great American bow hunting tradition lived on [source: Maryland Department of Natural Resources].

In the 1950s, Fred Bear, Earl Hoyt and Ben Pearson developed affordable, high-quality bow hunting equipment for the masses. The three men filmed their hunts and created educational programs that furthered the popularity of bow hunting.


Modern bow hunting hasn't changed much from the original except for the equipment. Today, bow hunters can choose from a variety of bows, arrows and arrowheads. Types of bows include:

  • Traditional bow -- Also known as the longbow, it is the most basic of bow designs. The bow is straight until it is strung, then it curves.
  • Recurve bow -- This is more powerful than a straight bow and generally is not used with any type of mechanical devices.
  • Compound bow -- A series of cables and pulleys reduce the amount of force needed to pull the string back. This is the most popular bow today.

Arrow shafts can be made of wood, aluminum, fiberglass, carbon and a carbon/aluminum combination. Arrow heads or points come in various shapes and sizes and are chosen based on the archer's purpose. Bullet, judo, blunt and field points are all used for target practice and small game hunting. Bowfish points are used for bow fishing. Broad heads are used for small and large game hunting, and types include fixed blade, removable blade and expandable blade.

Want to give bow hunting a try? Read on to learn about classic strategies.


Bow Hunting Strategy

­To be successful at bow hunting, yo­u can follow some basic steps. There are variations of these techniques, so practice a few different stances and positions to ensure your own comfort. The stages of bow hunting are:

  • Nocking: positioning the arrow in the bow
  • Drawing: pulling the arrow into position
  • Anchor point: steadying the bow and arrow against your body
  • Release and follow through: releasing the arrow while maintaining your position

Judging distance is one of the most important aspects of bow hunting. You adjust how you aim depending on how far away the target is. How far you can accurately shoot is based on your bow, your strength and the type of arrow you are using. Scouting the area where you are going to hunt and understanding your prey is very important. You will need to decide where to set up by recognizing game signs and understanding the lay of the land. If you are unfamiliar with the area, ask local hunters or your department of natural resources where to best bow hunt.


In most cases, you can hunt from the ground using one of three methods:

  • Still method: moving around slowly before standing still for periods of time while waiting for a target to arrive
  • Stalking method: locating a target and then moving into position for the shot
  • Glass method: searching for targets with scopes or binoculars before moving on to stalking

Depending on your resources, you can also use blinds and tree stands. These are useful in getting above the hunting area, so you have a better view of the target areas and more time to prepare your shots.

Now that you are familiar with bow hunting, you can try it out. But before heading out in the woods, take the time to familiarize yourself with your gear and to develop your archery skills. Practicing can be frustrating, but once you get the hang of it, you might enjoy this sport for years to come.


Lots More Information

Rel­ated ­HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Archery Australia. "Quick History of Archery in Australia." (accessed 11/30/08)
  • Bourne, Duane. "Jury recommends life for man who killed wife with crossbow." The Virginian-Pilot. 06/05/08. (Accessed 11/30/08)
  • Brissee, Tom. "History of Archery." StrictlyBowhunting. (accessed 11/30/08)
  • ­Habeishi, Beth and Mallory, Stephanie. "Basic Essentials Archery." Falcon. 2003.
  • Hunting Society. "Archery History." (accessed 11/30/08)
  • Maryland DNR. "Maryland Online Bowhunting Safety Education Course: Chapter 1: Introduction to Bowhunting: The History of Modern Bowhunting." Today's Bowhunter. (accessed 11/30/08)
  • Maryland DNR. "Maryland Online Bowhunting Safety Education Course: Chapter 4: Know Your Bow and Arrow: Arrow Points." Today's Bowhunter. (Accessed 11/30/08)
  • Maryland DNR. "Maryland Online Bowhunting Safety Education Course: Chapter 4: Know Your Bow and Arrow: The Arrow." Today's Bowhunter. (Accessed 11/30/08)
  • Maryland DNR. "Maryland Online Bowhunting Safety Education Course: Chapter 4: Know Your Bow and Arrow: Three Common Bow Types." Today's Bowhunter. (Accessed 11/30/08)
  • Maryland DNR. "Maryland Online Bowhunting Safety Education Course: Chapter 5: Preparation Before the Hunt: Preparing to Hunt Your Quarry." Today's Bowhunter. (Accessed 11/30/08)
  • Maryland DNR. "Maryland Online Bowhunting Safety Education Course: Chapter 6: Use of Elevated Stands & Other Techniques: Elevated Stands." Today's Bowhunter. (Accessed 11/30/08)
  • Snavely, Jason. "Bowhunting Accuracy Tips." Hunting, Fishing & Outdoors Online Magazine. (accessed 11/30/08)
  • The Independent. "William Tell: Celebrating a republican icon." 11/17/07. (Accessed 11/30/08)