Native American Bows vs. European Bows – Which Are Better?

In this article, we will compare Native American bows with European bows. You will see how they were built, which materials were used, and which ones were better bows. You will also see a weird trick the Native Americans in Alaska used to make their bows stronger.

Now, for a short summary of what we will be discussing here. So, how do Native American bows compare to European bows?

3 key differences between European and Native American Bows:

  • European bows are bigger than Native American Bows
  • European bows are more powerful compared to Native American Bows
  • Native American Bows have a smaller range compared to European Bows

Or to put it into more words:

Native American bows differ from European bows in size and strength. This was due to their designated purpose. While European bows were used to try and pierce the armor of enemy soldiers which involved high draw weights and heavy arrows, the bows of Native Americans were mainly used to hunt wild animals, which meant they had lower draw weights and smaller ranges.

Now, let’s take a look at each specific characteristic of the best European bow versus all the versions of Native American bows.

Starting with the difference in how Native American bows were shot versus European bows.

How Did The Native Americans Draw Their Bow Vs. The Europeans

The European bows were shot using the standard Mediterranian draw. While the Natives used a version of the thumb draw. Here is how that looked.

Video showing the common draw used in North America

As you can see, it is quite different than the standard three-fingered draw below.

The Mediterranean draw

Now, let us proceed to the next important question. Which bows were more powerful? The European bows or Native American bows? Let’s see which ones had a better range. Let’s examine the range of an average European bow.

Range Of Native American Bows Versus The European Bows

European bows had a longer effective range than the bows of Native Americans. The English Longbow had an effective range of between 140 meters and 300 meters, depending on the bow’s draw weight.

What about Native American bows, how powerful and effective were they, and what was their range?

Native American bow had an effective range of up to 70 meters. It was an extremely effective weapon for hunting, which was its primary purpose.

Why Did European Bows Have More Range?

It comes down to purpose. While the Native Americans were using the bow to hunt animals and occasionally engage in warfare between themselves, the European bows had one primary purpose.


The European way of waging war involved armies standing across each other, sometimes in plated armor, and firing arrows at the opposing side. This meant the bows had to send arrows across vast distances and be able to do some damage.

Which translates into draw weights of 80 lbs (on the light side) and upward. While the European bows had huge draw weights the Native American Bows had much smaller draw weights of between 40 lbs and 50 lbs.


European bows were much more powerful than Native American bows. They were much more powerful with higher draw-weights able to send arrows up to 300 meters (as was the case with heavy English Longbows).

The Irony Behind This

The heavy draw weight of European Bows contributed to the spread of crossbows in the European continent. And the downfall of bows. High draw weights of bows meant it took years of regular practice to be an effective archer.

Whilst a crossbow can be used after a week of training.

You can see what made crossbows easier to use in the “History of Crossbows” article here.

Now, you will see the difference in how they were built. European bows versus the Native American bows. You will see the clever trick used by Native Americans when building their bows, coming up.

How They Were Made – European Bows Versus Native American Bows

European bows were self-bows. This means they were one piece of wood, most often yew wood. For the bowstring hemp or flax was used. The fact that they were self-bows means they had to be large to be able to achieve great distances.

Native American bows were largely self-bows. The main exception is the bows of the Native Americans in modern-day Alaska.

A Cool Trick To Make Stronger Bows

The lack of adequate wood in the frozen environments of North America meant that the Natives had to get clever with what they got. And they did. They used sinew from wild animals to add elasticity to the wood and increase the amount of energy that is stored.

Sinew-backed bows

This addition of sinew meant that the bows could be smaller, yet still achieve good performance. Smaller bows meant less wood was needed to build a bow. This was a benefit for the tribes in the North that had to do with small amounts of wood.

These Alaskan bows were up to 55 inches (4 feet 7 inches) at most. The tribes further up North had even smaller bows.

Bows In Central America

The bows from the Natives in Central America on the other hand were self-bows. Up to five and a half feet, as you can see with the Sudbury bow from the 16th century.

An exception to these ranges were the Comanche bows. These were used by the members of the Comanche tribe to shoot arrows from horseback. And these bows were just 3 and a half feet tall. Making them the smallest bows used by the Native Americans.

Much smaller than any European bow.

If you want to see why archers on horseback, such as the Commanche, were so effective throughout history then take the time to read this.

What About European Bows?

European bows were up to six feet tall and were sometimes even taller than the average height of the time. The largest of these European bows was the English longbow. The huge size of the bows was necessary to achieve great distances given that they were self-bows and not composite in nature.

What Were The Bows Made From?

The European bows were made from yew wood. The bowstring was made out of flax or hemp. While the arrows were made using ash wood, with steel or iron arrowheads. Fletchings were made using goose or swan feathers that were glued to the arrow shafts using string, tar, or wax.

Now, let’s proceed to Native American bows.

According to records, Native American bows were made using ash, hickory, or osage orange wood. The bow was sometimes reinforced with animal sinew, mostly in the Northern tribes. In every case, the bowstrings were made with animal sinew.

The fletchings were made using hawk or turkey feathers. These were attached to the arrow shaft using animal sinew.

As you can see, the Natives used animal sinew extensively in the bow-making process. This came partially out of necessity (given the lack of better materials).


As you can see the Native Americans were proficient in their use of the bow. Environment dictated the design of their bows in much the same way as the Europeans.

In both cases, the bows did what they were meant to do. With the Europeans, it was to inflict damage to an enemy soldier who was likely armored. With the Natives, it was to pierce the flesh of wild animals such as the buffalo.

Reading Recommendation

To see a guide on how the Japanese Yumi bow compares to the Longbow I suggest this article.

If you wish you can continue these types of comparisons by checking out an article comparing bows to crossbows and see the advantages and disadvantages of each one. Just go here.

Take care

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