Making a Survival Bow

A bow is not difficult to make, relative to arrows and string, that is. Really! All you need is a good knife. However, two knives are better: a machete-like Bowie and a good pocketknife. Plus, you will need a knife sharpener.

You will also need some string—nylon parachute cord, fishline, Dacron, linen, hemp, or even sisal. They all work. But for heaven’s sake, carry some kind of string in your pocket, because while a bow is easy to make in the woods, cordage is not as easy. I like that artificial sinew that is already waxed. You can either tease it down into five smaller strands, or you can twist it up into stronger sections. It is easy to work with, does not fray, is very strong, and is easy to carry.

There are some experts out there, who can give you detailed instructions on how to make good bow cordage out in the woods, and maybe they can. I have tried it and failed, so I suggest that you do not take a chance. Always carry string and two knives. (A firestarter should be carried at all times, too).

Again, you must have a knife. You will have a very hard time chewing out a bow with your teeth or a flint or jasper spall. Maybe it can be done, but it would be extremely time-consuming. A good knife is everything! And, if you do not want to carry a knife, you should stay out of the woods.

You have your knives and cordage. Now, choose, if possible, a standing dead limb. Standing is best, since most down wood is rotten, waterlogged, or just too old. It should be dead, but not dead for too long, or else it will be checked and brittle. Look around at several possibilities, and when you find one, ask the tree if it is all right to remove one of her limbs for a good purpose. You will know when you find the right one, and the bow will be a better bow.

The standing dead limb should be about 4-1/2 to 5 feet long and about 1-1/4 to 1-3/4 inches in diameter. It should be as free of knots, checks, bumps, and irregularities as possible (at least on the back of the bow), since that is where bows break. If the stave is naturally bent or curved a bit, so much the better, as it will shoot more smoothly and be less liable to break. [Safford’s Law: All wood bows break in time.]

You can use green wood, but the bow will be heavy in the hand and sluggish of cast. It will throw an arrow with far less speed and force than a dry, seasoned bow of the same strength. Also, as it dries out, it will tend to split at the ends.

As to woods, you can make a serviceable bow with just about any kind of wood, but some are better than others. The best bowmaking woods are: Oregon yew, osage orange (“bodark”), Southern red cedar, mulberry, ironwood, apple, sassafras, slippery elm, white ash, juniper, black walnut, black locust, and even willow. They all work. Generally speaking, dead limbs from conifer trees will not make bows. Pines, spruce, and fir are all too brittle. They all break. Also, cottonwoods tend to be brash.

Cedar and yew, yes. Hemlock and tamarac, perhaps. Cottonwood, no. Mountain mahogany makes good bows. Ishi liked to make his bows out of mountain juniper. I once made a bow out of redwood. It broke.

In the end, the factors that are more important than the type of wood are the shape of the bow, the freedom of knots and checks, the age and condition of the wood, and the way in which the bow was made.

Before you cut down a limb and start to work on it, test some of the smaller dead branches from the same tree. Bend them and see if they will stand stress.

Now look at your stave. Think about it. The inside of the curved limb is the belly, and the outside is the back. You do your entire cutting on the belly, the inside of the curve. Do not touch the back! Even leave the bark on the belly. Do not mess with it.

Slowly, carefully, and evenly cut flat strips down the belly of the bow all the way. You do not cut any dips on either side of the handle, as in modern bows, but remove wood evenly from one tip down through the handle to the tip at the other end. You are carving one flat even plane.

Contrary to modern bows, which bend in two arcs with the handle rigid, primitive bows bends evenly throughout their entire length. They will kick in the hand a little more easy this way, but it will draw easier and be less prone to break. Also, you can get away with a shorter bow because all of the wood is working.

As you remove wood from the belly, test the bow. Bend it by placing the tip of the lower limb up against the instep of your right foot, grasping the middle of the bow in your right hand, and pressing out and down against the tip of the upper limb with the palm of your left hand. The back is facing you, and the belly is facing away from you. Watch how it bends. It should bend in a single, even arc.
You probably will have to remove a little more wood from the lower limb than from the upper, since the lower limb is thicker to begin with.

The upper limb of the bow should be the top of the branch that you cut from the tree, and the lower limb from the bottom nearest the trunk of the tree. This is the way that the tree grew. Keep it that way, so that the earth forces, which swept up through the tree in its life, still flow in the same direction through your bow. Also, the spirits in the wood do not like to be turned upside down any more than you like to be stood on your head. Your bow will be happier this way, and will shoot straighter for you.


Now, somewhere in the process, you must trim the ends cleanly and smoothly. If you do not, they will tend to check and split later on.
When you are satisfied that your bow is bending evenly and is about the right weight, strength, and pull for you, then cut the nocks on each end, about an inch or so in from each tip. Make your cuts in the sides of the bow only. Do not cut through the back, or it will split when you string it up and draw it. The nocks do not have to be very deep, just deep enough to tie the strings into.

The steps of choosing, cutting down, trimming to length, and removing wood from the belly, and then cutting nocks, all go quite rapidly. The whole job is relatively simple. Actually, there is a bow hidden (imprisoned) within each limb of a tree. All you have to do is remove the surplus wood, free it, and let the bow come out and shoot for you.

Tie on your bowstring. You may have to stop and build up and twist together a lot of smaller twine or fishing line or whatever you have to get a thicker and stronger bowstring. (This assumes you are not carrying a readymade bowstring with you in the first place.) I use a timber hitch. It is easy to adjust. Tighten the string until you get something around five to seven inches between the string and the belly of the bow at the handle. If you want to get fancy, you can braid or twist a loop in the upper end of the string to facilitate stringing and unstringing, but it is not necessary.


And lo and behold, you have a bow! You made it. Twang it gentle and listen to it. Isn’t that a sweet, ancient, and exciting sound? It was the first stringed musical. And, properly used, it will kill for you.

As you draw your new and beautiful bow, look at it. If you find any stiff spots in the limbs, or if one limb bends more than the other, first unstring the bow, and then lightly and carefully cut—or better, scrape— those stiff, thicker unbending spots. Restring the bow and draw it part way again and watch it. Keep working at it until it “comes ‘round the tiller.” Overdraw it, and it will break.
And, do not feel that you have to create a monster. Many Indian bows were only 35 to 45 pounds. A 25-pound bow will kill birds and rabbits cleanly. Anything over 50 pounds will require a heavier string and special arrows. So keep it light. It will be easier to shoot more accurate, be less liable to break, and its arrows will be easier to make.
Keep in mind that even with the best modern archery equipment in the hands of an experienced bowhunter, and with all conditions in your favor, it is not easy to make meat in the woods. With a primitive bow, in the hands of a hungry, exhausted, and desperate novice, it is just about impossible. For the novice, the same amount of effort put into snares and deadfalls would be more productive in a survival situation.

Still, making a bow is simple. Next time we will make arrows. They are hard, but they are important. As Ishi said, “Any old stick do him for a bow. Arrows kill deer.”