Steel Bows in India

By D. Elmy

This article was first published in the Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, volume 12, 1969.
Reproduced with permission. Please read the copyright notice.

Throughout the ages experiments with steel as a bow material have been made in various countries. The Indians were the first people, I believe, to have overcome the problems presented by steel and produced a weapon, which, while it may not have had the cast and range of its predecessor, the composite bow, was nevertheless a decidedly workable weapon.

India has always shown great inventiveness with weapons, especially during her early historic period (circa 269-237 B.C.), and many of the arms she produced were entirely of metal. (There was even an all-metal arrow called Naraca.) Thus it is not surprising that the bow should eventually be produced in this medium.

Why were they made? There was a well-organised army structure in India at a very early date and large, well-maintained armouries were kept by the various rulers. The steel bow would have made an ideal munition arm. Properly greased, it would have emerged better from storage than any other type of bow, and could have been used immediately. That is one reason which can be offered.

V. R. Dikshitar, in his book, says that "steel was the new invention and the old things were cast aside for the new". He is probably referring to the Mughal period, when the steel bow was widely used. J. S. Lee, in his article dealing with steel bows, observes that the composite bow went out of favour about Shah Jehan's time (A.D. 1650). The Mughal period began circa A.D. 1526, so that this period seems to be a transitional one from composite to steel.

However, looking further back into history, we read in the Visnudharmottara that bows are made of metal, horn and bamboo. The Agnipurana also mentions steel, horn and wood as bow materials and says of the steel bow that "It must have a small grip, and its middle portion is said to resemble the eyebrow of a lady. It is usually made in parts, or together, and inlaid with gold".

An approximate dating for the Puranas is during the first millennium A.D., but iron and steel were being made in India in the 4th century B.C. (although iron was a comparatively rare metal until Mauryan times 269-237 B.C.). SO it is reasonable to suppose that a steel bow existed in one form or another during this time. Confirmation of this would be difficult, however, since few, if any, specimens of these bows can be dated with any certainty earlier than the Mughal period .

There is a fair amount of evidence that they were extensively used in warfare. Indeed they would be of little use for anything else, not having the cast and range for the hunt or for sport. Several of the Mughal miniature paintings show mounted archers in battle scenes using this bow, and there is a long tapestry in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London which also shows it in use.

Whether the final form, with all its variations, was purely Indian will perhaps never be known. They are usually labelled Indo-Persian, and undoubtedly there could have been some influence from the Persian craftsmen and armourers who worked at the Mughal Court. The Persians are said to have used a straight steel bow for exercising and, if this were the case, the idea would not have been new to them. They themselves are not known to have used a steel bow for war.

To say that the steel bow was a close copy of the composite is true, yet certain original features can be observed immediately. The bow never had the extreme recurvature that the composite had in its original state, but rather takes the shape of a composite that has "opened out" to some extent. Also, the recurvature is mostly of a design which could not be reproduced in a wood/horn/sinew combination.