There are a number of craftspeople in the world who make handmade wooden bows for archery and hunting. But just a handful make Asiatic composite horn bows like those used thousands of years ago by nomadic warriors on horseback on the steppes of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Jason Wayne Beever, a High Falls-based bowyer, is one of them.
The reason so few bow-makers take on the challenge of making composite bows is in part because they’re difficult to make, he says, but it’s also problematic to source the materials needed. A composite horn bow is made of all natural materials — wood, animal sinew and ethically-sourced horn — that can’t exactly be stocked up on easily.
The wood he harvests himself; beginning the process by felling trees of hickory or ash, making pie wedges, debarking the wood and then shaping it with steam. The laminated horn that reinforces the wood is another story: it can be purchased online from individual sellers, Beever says, but you don’t know where it came from. It took some time and connections online from the few other makers of composite horn bows to find his current source, a missionary from Minnesota, who visits Thailand several times a year and purchases water buffalo horn from villagers there who eat the animal and would otherwise discard the horns.
And then there’s the glue. Beever makes his from fish air bladder, which essentially is pure collagen, he notes. The elaborate glue-making process involves cooking the material for 24 hours to reduce and thicken it into a gelatinous substance, then cooling it like Jell-O to create a sticky glue. The animal sinew he obtains from local deer-meat processors.
Beever varies his fabrication techniques utilizing those of diverse cultures, inspired by different eras and global locations. Each of the composite horn bows he crafts by hand is unique. Using only traditional hand tools and methods, he is a self-taught artisan. There’s not much literature out there to learn from, he says, so most of his techniques were acquired through extensive research and trial and error. “I invested a lot of time and money into just learning at the beginning. But it’s so worth it; I love doing this.”
It’s more cost-effective for an archer or hunter today to purchase a factory-fabricated plastic or fiberglass bow, but most of the archery enthusiasts and hunters who commission bows from Beever are interested in historical accuracy and the roots of the bow culture. “They buy mine because I stick to very strict replica measurements based off those in museums. I’ve taken all the measurements myself and base all my forms for bending the wood to replicate old bows.”
His clientele is about equally divided between archers and hunters, Beever says. And in addition to creating those functional, historically accurate composite bows, he also creates replica bows for museums.
Because ancient bows were often discarded when broken and the ones that remain are not found intact — they’re in fragmented form due to use and decay from burial with the warriors who used them — museums often display replica bows made to historical measurements alongside the real thing, to give viewers the sense of what the bow fragments looked like before they went through the ravages of time. When the British Museum recently mounted an exhibit on the Scythian warriors of ancient Siberia, Beever’s work was utilized, and he recently finished a bow for the Republic of Georgia that had never before been replicated.
The research process that goes into replicating an ancient bow involves every possible source that can be found, Beever says. “We recreate them by trying to understand how and why they made them the way they did. We look at frescoes and paintings to see the shapes, and consider the height people were in a certain time period, to get the proportions right.”
The bow and arrow is one of the oldest projectile weapons in history, dating back tens of thousands of years. An all-wood English longbow could be used against an enemy at a great distance, but the advantage of the more compact, composite horn bows was that they were constructed for warfare on horseback at close range, with an extreme amount of power behind it, Beever explains. The smaller bow needs reinforcement with horn, because the force of that intense a use would break apart a bow made only of wood.
Purchasing a composite bow from Beever is a unique process, in which his clientele is kept apprised with photos and even video of the progress made on their bow over the 12- to-16-month period of time it takes to make a bow. (He usually has 30 or so bows in different stages of construction during that time).
Beever himself is neither hunter nor archer, approaching his craft with more of an engineering mindset, he says. “I do enjoy shooting the bows I make when they’re finished, but only for about half an hour… then I’m ready to go back to the shop and make a new one.”
He grew up in the San Diego area, relocating to the Hudson Valley about five years ago with a friend originally from Poughkeepsie. Long interested in Native American history, Beever began researching the culture when he found himself living in this region, a part of the country so rich in that heritage. After a trip to the Iroquois Indian Museum near Howe Caverns, where he connected with an educator and weapons expert, Beever became inspired to take his initial efforts making Native American weaponry further.
“It actually started off with making arrowheads. And then I got into making arrows, way before making bows. I started with the Eastern Woodland bows that natives from this area would have made, and then got into other tribes before beginning to make Asiatic composite bows.”
Beever has made hundreds of all-wood bows since he began, but these days concentrates almost entirely on the composite bows. He spends so much time with each bow over the construction process that he says he literally builds a relationship with it. “In the beginning, it was hard to let some of them go,” he says. He has a workshop close to home for doing the “dirty work” of the initial stages, then finishes the bows at home where he can control the temperature and humidity so important in the finishing stages.
Beever also teaches bow-making in workshops, saying he’d welcome the opportunity to do more of it. “I love teaching. I did a workshop recently through Wild Earth [High Falls-based organization offering nature-based experiences for kids] and it was great. All the kids were so good, and so excited to go home with a bow. It’s the best feeling to watch them turn a log of wood into a working object that can project another object; the expression on their faces after they shoot that first arrow is priceless.”
Other projects on the horizon include researching more bow designs and writing a book. “There are only a few more designs I have to do and then I’ve done them all,” he says. When he gets to that point, Beever plans to put together a comprehensive encyclopedia of modern horn bow reproductions with volumes in time sequence that show the evolution of composite bows. Beever emphasizes that the bows he makes are his interpretation of historic bows based on research, but another maker could adapt the techniques to their own style.
Beever got the bug for writing after co-authoring an article with a Serbian colleague for EXARC, an affiliated organization to the International Council of Museums that represents experimental archaeology in international museum circles.
He wants to continue teaching and writing in order to provide that resource for the person who wants to attempt to make a bow for themselves; a resource that was unavailable to him when he began. “I do see other people with an interest in making bows, who are hungry for a new challenge. Ultimately I feel like this is a lost art. We all came from hunters and gatherers, and this is our ancestral knowledge, but so few know anything about it. And when I do events, where people come and see what I do, they’re fascinated. They have this primal reaction to it. I see them drawn to it and they want to touch everything. It’s like it’s familiar to them… their reactions are really interesting. With technology today we have everything at our fingertips, but we once had to work really hard just to feed and clothe ourselves and make shelter, and when you go back to what we came from, it feels very grounding.” ++
For more information, visit https://www.jwbbows.com/about.html.