TURKISH TRADITIONAL ARCHERY PART II
Part 2: Technique and Tackle
Murat Özveri, DDS, PhD
The tracks of Turkish traditional archery can be traced from the western coasts of Anatolia to the shadows of the Altai Mountains. The Turks have changed their land, religion, alphabet and lifestyle throughout their history, but their love and obsession for archery remained until the beginning of 20th century.
Turkish archery can be divided into three main stages of development, the best known is the pre-Islamic era. Osmanlı (Ottoman) archery from this era is especially well-documented with numerous treatises, tekke1 registration books, (a tekke was a kind of training school for Ottoman archers) and menzil stone monuments, as well as museum pieces and private collections.
The Turks adopted Islam in the early 8.-11th century. Seljuk Turks entered Anatolia by defeating the enormous Byzantine armies under the commandment of Roman Diagones IV. In Manzikert (Malazgirt), in 1071. The Turkish army probably included other ethnic groups, a result of the people's nomadic lifestyle and culture2. The weaponry, therefore, was probably not homogenous either. However, some reliefs and pictures indicate that Seljuks used “Eastern Turkestan type” bows.3 These bows followed a recurve design with rigid all-wooden tips, called “ears” and were similar in shape to Mongolian bows. As well as being shorter for ease use on horseback, this Asian invention4 also has several mechanical advantages. Firstly, the draw weight was higher than that of straight-limbed bows. This allowed for more stored energy in the same poundage and same draw length. Secondly, the leverage effect of these siyahs (rigid all-wood extremity of the limbs) avoided usual stacking problem caused by shorter limbs, and enabled a longer draw length. Like all the other Asian bows, these composite bows were made from wood, sinew and horn. These three materials were glued together using collagen-based glue derived from animal tissues.
It’s quite possible that Seljuks used other Asian style-bows too. There is an old picture of a Seljuk atabeg5 (high official), Bedreddin Lulu in Kitâbü’l-Agânî, written in 1218, holding a shorter bow with “siyahs”.6 But, unfortunately, there is no archaelogical evidence to support this. All other pictures from this time suggest that the rigid-tipped longer bows were more common. Artistic depictions of bows and other equipment are greatly influenced by the common artistic style of the time, as well as the individual approach and skill of the artist. But Osmanlı (Ottoman) bows are still widely accepted as the ultimate bow of the Asian school.
There are many bows, arrows and other archery equipment in museum collections, the richest one being the Topkapi Palace Museum. Türk Okçuluğu (Turkish Archery), a book by Dr. Ünsal Yücelthat is based on a detailed research on this collection is a masterpiece and includes many aspects of Turkish traditional archery. The Military Museum in Istanbul has an archery section, too, and boasts many impressive bows and arrows, as well as tools for bowyery and arrow making.
The Missing Link
Little is known of archery in the republic era (1923 onwards). Turkish researchers of this period are few, probably because of the lack of practitioners since the closing of tekye-i rumât (shooting schools) by law in 1925. A people whose ancestors carved out their history with bow and arrow has had the chain of its archery tradition broken.
Turkish traditional archery has enjoyed a renaissance in the last few years. Beside the new publications, new enthusiasts join every day to learn the ancient shooting technique. Thanks to the available written sources, authentic training and education methods are clear, and it will just take time to re-establish the ancient system. The traditional bowyery is also being slowly re-established: although there are only two amateur traditional bowyers today; their number is sure to grow in time. Nowadays trainees are equipped with very well-built Turkish bow replicas made in Hungary from synthetic materials.
Turkish archery represents the last phase in Asian archery tradition. The equipment and technique is similar, but may be a little bit more advanced.
Picture 1: A beautifully decorated bow grip or “qabza”. Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul
The Turkish bow is the shortest of all the Asian composite bows. Only the Korean bows are similar in length and design. Although the ears have become shorter within time, the differentiating cross-section of the limbs along their length and the recurved tips give all the common mechanical advantages of Asian style bows. It is the strong reflex that sets apart the Turkish bow from its cousins. This is caused by shrinkage of the sinew on the back of the bow, together with the initial recurvature of the core and horn. It is intentionally increased by the bowyer by binding the tips to the grip. The reflexed limbs increase the early draw weight dramatically.
Picture 2: Two unstrung bows in Topkapi Palace Museum.
Turkish bows are so short and tiny, it's hard to believe that they were made to enormous draw weights. Recent research by Mr. Adam Karpowicz shows the draw weights of some original bows were estimated to be over 130lb. With their shorter and lighter limbs, they are more efficient than the best selfbow of the same draw weight. Good selfbow are known for shooting long distances, and their efficiency gets higher with the increasing weight of the arrow. Conversely, Turkish bows show greatest efficiency with lighter arrows. It means they launch both heavy and light arrows very fast with an incredibly high percentage of energy transferred to the arrow8. So, with very little modification, these bows could shoot both heavy war arrows to pierce the enemy’s armor and light flight arrows to reach distances over 800m.
Picture 3: The cross-section of Turkish bow (courtesy of Dr. Mustafa Kaçar)
These “heavy” war arrows were relatively light compared with English war arrows, although the bows used are comparable in their draw weights. A Turkish composite bow is capable of piercing the best plate armor with super-fast projectiles from shorter distances. Physics dictates that lighter arrows fly fast, carrying a high amount of kinetic energy - but their speed decreases at a faster rate than for heavy arrows over longer distances. This feature fits perfectly with the needs of Asian-style warfare, since the composite bow was an amazing offensive weapon in the hands of the horseback archer. The “attack and retreat” strategy was accompanied and supported by the incredible skill of the nomadic horseback archers, who shot arrows in all directions at close range, and even backwards at close pursuers.
Turkish composite bows are little power-packs and require high skill of crafting and highest quality of materials. The wood core was mostly made of various maple species (Aceracae). For sinew backing, the leg tendons of oxen were preferred and the horn on the belly came from water buffalos.
The bow making process can be summarized as follows:
-Shaping the 3 (sometimes 5) pieces of maple that will become the wood core of the bow,
-Bending the tips to form the recurves: Ancient bowyers was boiling the wood for this purpose,
-Gluing the pieces to make the wood core: Mostly, the two limbs are glued to the grip.
-Gluing the horn laminates to the belly of the bow (wood core): Both surfaces are vertically grooved carefully with a special tool called “taş’in”(pronounced “tush-een”) so that the glue surface is increased,
-Sinew backing of the bow: It takes time to wait for drying of each sinew layer. The shrinkage of the sinew bends the bow gradually to a full circle and bending is aided by tightening ropes connecting the tips to the grip. The bow was being seasoned up to 1 year at this stage.
-Tillering of the bow is made by heating the limbs and binding them to special wooden forms called “tepelik”,
-Finishing the bow: The back is covered with birch bark, leather or only with varnish in some rare examples. The bows were sometimes decorated with gold paint and a lyric text. Verses from Qur’an or archery related sayings written by calligraphers9 were not rare. Nearly all of the bowyers signed their work too.
The bow were 90cm–134cm in length, and the unstrung profile differs slightly between various types. The surface finish was determined by the bow type as well. The flight bows were covered by birch bark, called toz, an abling the bow to be conditioned with heat prior to competitions. This process, called “timar vermek”, was accomplished by putting the bows into special conditioning boxes for up to four days. The boxes were left in rooms above ovens to release the humidity slowly. As a result of timar the physical weight of the limbs decreased and the stiffness of the material increased. Lighter limbs mean higher efficiency. With the increasing draw weight, the performance of the bow improved dramatically. The sinew backing of the "tirkesh bows" (war bows) was protected by a thin layer of horse leather, to maintain performance in poor weather. This very thin, flexible and tough leather came from the crupper of the horse and was protected with an oil-based mixture called “sandalos revgânı”.
The string was made from different materials by archaic Turks prior to the Ottoman Empire, wherea Osmanlı bowyers preferred raw silk. Special loops (tonç) were knotted to bind the string to the bow nocks.
The Turks used barreled wooden shafts with special profiles called “endâm” (pronounced “and-um”). There were three profiles and each was used for different purposes. War arrows were mostly in tarz-ı has shape, flight arrows were made in şem endâm (sham and-um) and target arrows in kiriş endâm (kee-resh and-um).
Picture 4: Profiles of Ottoman-Turkish arrow shafts: sem endam, tarz-i has, kiris endam
All metal arrow points are generally named “temren” and were inserted into the shaft. The neck of the shaft adjacent to the point was reinforced with either sinew or rings made of bone. War arrows were tipped with broad heads and some of the heads were narrowed and thickened like a bodkin to attack the armored enemy. Target points were made of metal and looked very similar to modern versions with their typical bullet shape. Inspiring from their similarity to olive in shape, they were called “zeytûnî temren”.
Picture 5: Flight arrows with ivory “soya” tips (Private collection of Prof. Dr. Metin Orhan-Photograph: Fuat Ozveri).
There were several types of flight arrows with different profiles, points, fletching and nock style. Most of the flight arrows were tipped with ivory or bone points, called “soya”. The connection of soya to the shaft was “glue on” type: The shaft end was tapered and the point was glued on it.
The Turks have used three types of nocks. Self nocks were rare, and only used on low quality war arrows. High quality flight and target arrows were finished with “başpâre” or “bakkam” gez. Başpâre was a one-piece nock made of horn or bone, and was very similar to today’s plastic nocks. Bakkam nocks, however, were made of a harder wood, shaped as two separate lips and glued to the tapered rear end of the arrow shaft10. Then they were wrapped with sinew that was soaked in hot fish glue. Anyway, the strike of the string was faced by the arrow shaft.
Like the arrows of other Asian and Middle Eastern schools, longer feathers with lower profiles were preferred as fletching, but there was an exception. One of the flight arrows, the “pishrev arrow,” had shorter fletching with a higher profile.
Turkish arrows are short, which indicates a shorter draw. The flight arrows are even shorter, but were mostly shot with an over-draw, called a “siper”. The siper is probably the first over-draw aid in history. It wrapped around the wrist of the bowhand, and helped create a longer draw for use with shorter arrows.
Turkish archery is an extension of the Asian school, and so is its shooting technique. It is similar other styles which use a thumb ring, except for the shorter draw. While many Asian schools, like the Korean and Mongolian, swear by longer draws, Turkish bows were probably drawn to 28-29 inch, which can be determined by the shorter arrows and from old pictures and rare photographs. Still it makes sense to believe that it was up to the decreasing length of the bows within the last few centuries. It’s known that some Turkish treatises11 and Busbecq12 reported the Turkish draw to be longer, reaching the ear. Turks in pre- and early Islam era might have used a longer draw.
Picture 6 a,b: Turks might have used longer draws (a) but the late Ottoman draw was certainly shorter (b), the anchor being somewhere at the corner of the mouth or a bit further.
Like most nations of Central Asian origin, The Turks shot with thumb releases. A thumb was mostly worn to protect the thumb and aid the draw. This release was named by Edward Morse as “Mongolian release”. Some experts believe this term to be irrelevant and a result of discriminative tendencies among European intellectuals in the early 20th century.13 Since this draw has been used by many other nations and tribes other than the Mongols, even by some African and North American natives, contemporary authors prefer a more convenient term like “thumb release”.
Drawing and releasing the string with the thumb causes a different “inner ballistic,” which supposedly gives the arrow more speed and flight stability. The archer’s paradox occurs towards the opposite direction, and that’s why the arrow is shot from the “opposite side” of the bow, with the arrow resting on the thumb of the bow hand. This may sound weird to archers who use a three-finger release but when examined in detail there are some additional advantages of this technique.
Picture 7 a: The arrow rests on the knuckle of the thumb and is shot off from the“opposite side” of the bow.
Picture 7 b: The “lock “ or “mun-dull” as applied by Ottoman archers (Photographs: Fuat Ozveri.
While the string is loose it “rolls” on the narrow edge of the thumb ring, and the arrow shaft doesn’t bend as much as it would when released with three fingers. The release is sharper and cleaner than 3-finger release. Although this feature does not completely eliminate the need for a proper spine size, thumb release shooters worry less about the perfectly matching spine. If thumb release is mastered, the bow compatible with a wider spectrum of spine shaft, the initial velocity of the arrow is higher.
This technique enables a faster end, too, since the archer nocks the first and the following arrows from the right side of the bow (for right-handed archers). A well-trained archer can shoot the first and the two following arrows very fast, especially when he holds the second and third arrows in his right hand.
Picture 8 a-f: Nocking the first three arrows from the right side of the bow and shooting with the thumb ring provide very fast shooting sequence and comfort, especially on horseback (Photographs: Fuat Ozveri)
The special locking of string hand mandal (pron. “mun-dull”) helps hold the arrow during the draw. The index finger should press the arrow shaft gently to the bow. This stabilizes the arrow and gives the archer flexibility, enabling him to shoot in any positions on horseback or on the ground.
Picture 9 a, b: The short overall length of the Turkish bow and thumb release give the archer great flexibility to be able to shoot to any direction and nearly in any position, even lying back (Photographs: Fuat Ozveri).
Thumb rings (zihgîr or şast14)
Although it’s known that leather rings were widely used in the army there is no surviving example around today. There are, however, several museum collections that prove that rings were also made of semi-precious stones, bone, ivory, horn and various metals. Osmanlı archers mostly preferred ivory, because this material was well polished and durable. Turkish rings have a thumb-pad that protects the thumb from slapping the string and, in some rare examples; the ring was richly decorated with engravings and inlays of precious stones.
Picture 10 a: Thumb rings made of modern materials. From left to right: phenolic resin, acrylic resin, plexiglass.
Picture 10 b: Thumb ring of Yilmaz Cebecioglu, a friend of author. It’s made of silver and semi-precious stones.
Many enthusiasts claim that the best way of shooting with a thumb release is without any ring, but it’s clear that drawing heavy bows without any aid would not be possible.
Picture 11: Sultan “The Blond” Selim (Selim III) shooting at hand-held puta. The artist captured the moment of follow-through with great success: The string hand with the thumb ring is still swinging in the air, the feathers in Sultan’s turban are waving and the concentration of the sultan can easily be seen in his face (Hünernâme, 16th century, Library of Topkapi Palace Museum).
Siper is probably the first over-draw in the history. Wrapped on the bow hand’s wrist and thumb this device provides a longer draw with shorter arrows. Despite the possibility that it was used for target shooting as well, its main purpose was drawing shorter flight arrows further. Shorter arrows were lighter in weight and higher in spine which means a higher initial speed and a longer distance. According to Yücel15siper must be accepted as a sign of degeneration in Turkish flight archery. His argument is that the record distances over 800m were reached in 16th century, a hundred years before siper came into use.
Pic 12: siper or bilek siperi
Turkish traditional archery is unique in its institutional aspect, and its equipment represents the peak of Asian school. After many years of disruption, this tradition has started to breathe again, and I hope that, in the future, there will be more and more people in Turkey and abroad who will be aware of the cultural and technical wealth behind Turkish traditional archery.
1 The place where systematic archery education was being given. Tekke was not too different than the modern sports clubs except the prominent mystic atmosphere and influence.
2 It’s a shame and mistake of historians to categories nomadic armies according to the tribal identity of their warlords. Even in Chengis Khan’s army there were thousands of non-Mongol groups, including Turks and even Chinese.
3 Ü. Yücel, Türk Okçuluğu, 1999.
4 Siyah tipped bows are widely spread in Asia: Hun, Magyar, Avar, Mongol and Seljuk bows, to mention a few.
5 Seljuk viziers were called “atabeg”.
6 Ü. Yücel, Türk Okuçuluğu, 1999.
7 Special thanks to Mr. Adam Karpowicz for sharing his knowledge about bow morphology and –making.
8 The efficiency is measured as the percentage of the energy transferred to the arrow. Heavy arrows are absorbing more energy so all bows, including Turkish bows are more efficient with heavier arrows.
9 Turkish calligraphy is another traditional art which fortunately survived. Because of the Islamic restrictions in drawing/painting most of the living creatures, “hüsn-i hatt” (beautiful writing) was highly developed and widely used for decoration purposes by Ottomans as well as the other Islamic countries.
10 Bakkam (Caesalpinia Sappan) is the name of the tree that the wood is originated.
11 K. Öztopçu, Kitab fi ilm’an nüşşab, 2002.
12 O.G. de Busbecq, Türk Mektupları, 2005.
13 Kay Koppedrayer, Kay’s Thumbring Book, 2002.
14 Zihgîr is pronounced as zeh-geer and şast as “shust”
15 Ü. Yücel, Türk Okçuluğu, 1999.