Types of Traditional Bows

This article describes the bows used today by practitioners of traditional archery. This will not be a history lesson on ancient bows, but a practical guide on different types of traditional bows for traditional archers.

What is valued most in traditional archery is simplicity. Even some seemingly modernism of some parts and mechanisms is acceptable as long as they are aesthetic and simple.  

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These are carved out of one piece of wood. No other material was used to make the bow itself.

The earliest self-bows were simple wooden staff bent and a string attached to the ends of the staff.

There are many styles of self-bows that came after that. There were many bows that were carved to have some reflex-deflex to it.

That means some sections of the limb were carved to bend towards the archer, and some towards the target. This gave power to bow while reducing the recoil or vibrations.

A self-bow does not mean they adhere to a particular shape, but method of construction.

That means, any kind of bow made of a single piece of material, either wood or fiberglass, is a self-bow.

They can be recurve, hybrid longbows, or traditional D-style, but they will be referred as a self-bow if they are made of a single material.

Self-bows also come in many styles. The most common being a straight wood strung with arrow.

Let’s look at the most common self-bow that ever existed throughout the history of mankind.

Read: Self bow

1. Yew self-bow OR English Longbow

Yew Self-bow

This self-bow is the most primitive type of bow that ever existed. It is made of one single piece of wood.

Yew wood is a classic self-bow wood. It was used in English longbows and many prehistoric style bows.

The first bows ever built by man were built from Yew.

Another sub-variant is D-style bow, or a Hill-style bow, named after Howard Hill.

The back of the bow is flat, while the belly is rounded. So, if you cut the bow anywhere, you can see the cross section making the shape ‘D’, hence the name D-style bows.

Belly and back of the bow

Belly of the bow: The backside of the bow that faces the archer
Back of the bow: The frontside of the bow that faces the target

They typically have a straight grip, you can get a bow that has some form of locator grip on them.

They have very short riser, and the limbs are long with a steady curve to them. The string does not touch the belly of the bow in anyway.

These bows are powerful, but they are long: 4 – 7 feet. Which, for many forms of archery is not very practical.

Their size and weight make it so that only strong people can use them. They were very hard to master because of the strength required to use them properly.

They are functionally very good bows. They pack a ton of power and have very good range. However, they are quite hard to handle and puts a lot of physical strain on the user.

Nowadays, self-bows with a rounded belly (the most traditional ones) are generally custom made. You can also find some on Amazon at times, and also at various archery stores.

LONGBOWS (laminated)

Laminated Longbows are made of layers of wood and fiberglass. There is a primary material, and a layer of secondary material is attached to either belly or the back of the bow. Thus, they are called laminated bows.

A longbow typically has a very narrow cross section limb. But it is thicker than a recurve limb. A recurve limb tends to be wider, but thinner. So, a longbow is thick, narrow, and longer than a recurve bow.

The real distinction between a longbow and recurve bow however is that long bows string does not touch the limbs. Any bow where the string comes in contact with the limbs only at the grooves (where it is tied) is a Longbow.

On a recurve bow the string is in contact with the limb for 1-5 inches from the string grove.

Read: Longbow

2. Classic longbow (Flat-bow)

They are flat style bows, as in, both the back and belly are flat.

Comfort and usage wise, they are better than self-bows because they have less feedback in comparison to them.

They are also long like self-bows, and some come with a very modern-ish look and feel. They also have a very pronounced grip to them.

These are the bows you will most often see if you buy off the shelf or online for a traditional longbow.

3. Modern longbow

Many modern longbows have a reflex-deflex profile.

Deflex is when the part of the limb is protruding away from the archer, reflex is when the part of the bow is curving back towards the archer.

<<have a custom image to show reflex and deflex of the bow>>

Modern longbows are not recurve bows (of course), but they have the similar kind of structure to it. There are many differences, but the primary difference where the string is making no contact with the limbs still holds true.

These bows have limb profiles that does not continuously curve or arc towards the tip. It starts to curve near the riser, but it than flattens out, and almost has a slight recurve going into the limb tip.

Limbs are quite a bit wider, and flatter, just like a recurve bow.

It typically has a longer handle section. And a little bit more articulated grip, like a recurve bow.

Difference between classic and modern longbow:

Longbows have hand shock. Narrow and thicker limbs tend to have some more vibrations left in it after the shot. And it can give you a really good recoil.

Some of these traditional longbows can really shake your hand. That’s why it’s called hand shock.

Modern longbows tend to reduce the hand shock. Because their limb is more like a recurve bow, flatter and wider, and shorter, they tend to have less hand shock than their traditional or classic counterparts.

Plus, they also are more powerful and shorter in comparison to classic longbows because of their bent limbs, that can store more energy into them.

Modern longbows come in takedown versions as well.


Recurves have more speed and shorter in comparison to the longbows. This is one of the reasons why many people prefer to start with recurve over a longbow. They are less demanding on your body.

While longbow gives a much more traditional and simplistic feel, recurve arguably gives much better performance and experience.

Handling recurves is relatively easier compared to longbows because of their size. It especially can be a concern for hunters, where there are lot of obstructions for a long equipment like longbow.

The two distinct performance differences recurve bows holds over longbows is:

  • They are faster because the curved limbs of recurve are able to store much more energy than the straight ones on longbow
  • They have much less feedback (vibrations). This is mostly because of the design of the limbs. Recurve have flatter and thinner limbs, and thus able to transfer and disperse the remaining energy much more efficiently. Even the modern longbows have thicker and narrower limbs compared to recurves.

Most recurves have some sort of locator style or pistol style grip.

Recurves come in various sizes, from 48 inches to 72+ inches or more.

Read: Recurve Bow

4. Classic recurve

Classic recurve or one piece recurve are being used by man for over 2000 years now.

Many civilizations, especially Asian, Eastern European, Arab/Persian, Romans, and Egyptians have been recorded using them as back as 4th-5th Century B.C.

Naturally there were lots of variations that popped up from different cultures.

Not all of them are used in the mainstream as of now. However, a traditional design that carries over is still very popular.

The single piece recurve is a laminated bow with thin and wide limbs.

Generally, all the recurve bows now-a-days come with a pistol grip. They have a bigger, and more massive riser than the longbows.

They are shorter, so much more practical to use than the longbows. However, they come in fixed size and weight.

They are powerful, precise, and with proper care, can last very long.

5. Modern recurve bow

Modern recurve bows have generally one type of shape only, however they are very versatile.

These bows are made of variety of material – wood, fiberglass, metal, and carbon among the most common materials used to manufacture them.

The most exciting feature many of the modern bows have is that they come in takedown versions (also called three-piece takedown bows).

The riser (the central part of the bow) and limbs can be separated, making it easy to carry and much more versatile.

So, three-piece means there is a riser and two bolts on limbs attached to that riser.

There are different mechanisms for fitting the limbs to the riser. There is traditional bolting of the limb via a screw. There are many proprietary methods from different companies for fitting limbs to the bow.

Then there is ILF. It stands for International Limbs Fitting, and it is a standard adopted by the industry for easily fitting limbs to riser.

The best feature of ILF is that you can mix and match riser from a different company and limbs from the other and they will work together just fine.

This means you can adjust the draw weight of the bow by replacing the limbs of your choice.

You can make a 50-pound bow to, say, a 60-pound bow by replacing limbs corresponding to that draw weight.

The ILF limb fitting system itself is a dynamic system. The limb bolts (also called tillers) are adjustable thus loading or unloading the limbs.

This increases or decreases the draw weight of the bow correspondingly. Draw weight can be tweaked by up to 10% by tiller itself.

It can also be balanced to accommodate different shooting styles like 3-fingers under, split finger style, string walking etc. See Archery finger release technique for more details on types of releases.

These mechanisms may look fancy and modern, and may not be of everyone’s taste. In some people’s eyes, modern technology dilutes the essence of archery.

It is perfectly understandable. But some people do enjoy the perks modern technology brings to the archery without compromising with the nature of game itself.

Thus, there are many traditional archers who use modern recurve bows – because they feel like traditional, and they shoot like traditional.

Read: Types Of Bows – Complete guide


There are lot of flavors, so to speak, when it comes to traditional bows.

There are styles to suit everyones taste and preference.

Those who want to live and relive the most basic roots, to those who don’t mind some form of modernization coming into the discipline, all have distinct places.

Predominantly the choice goes down to whether you want to shoot a longbow, or a recurve bow.

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