“Walk softly and carry a big stick.  Stalk softly and carry a bent stick”

Why? you might ask, do I call this a ‘how to make a jungle survival bow’ and not simply ‘how to make a bow’?

penobscot_bowI think of this as a jungle bow because it needs bamboo and as a survival bow because it is simple and quick to make.  Another reason to refer to it as a survival bow is because you could make a bow that is much better, more powerful and faster….you could, but it would take much longer and require much more skill and the end product, like any bow, could simply snap if there’s a flaw in your set up.

The bow in the video pulls 25 lbs at a 28 inch draw – this is relatively weak compared to commercial hunting bows (usually around 45lbs and up) but is fine for bow fishing (usually 30lb draw) and would also be suitable for small game.  It is possible to increase the draw strength simply by adding more slats of bamboo to the bow but this both increases the weight and bulkiness of the bow and seems to decrease the speed of the bow.

bow_nock_and_stringBut 25 lbs is enough for the survivalist who is going to be on the look out for opportunistic shots at small game or for bow fishing.  Bow hunting for big game in a survival situation is probably not the best option (without broad heads and power the animal is not going to die fast and you’d need to track it until it does) and using snares or spear traps would be a better way to go.

So, if you can quickly put together a light bow that you can carry with you, opportunistic small game hunting becomes a possibility, as does bow fishing, and the bow in the video takes less than a hour to make.  However, as you will see in the video I am using throw line for the back cables and for the bow string – without that strong, synthetic cordage (the one I used is rated to 90 kg) the process is going to take much longer as you would need to make some cordage that is strong enough…rattan and bamboo skin are the way to go here but it is a time consuming process.


So, the lesson here is, however good you are at making natural cordage, having some strong synthetic cordage with you is always a good idea.  Paracord style bracelets are a popular option and, if you are using thinner throw line instead of paracord, very light and compact.

rattan_bow_bindingSimilarly good duct tape is going to save you time – to bind the bow slats together I use three wraps of duct tape – each wrap only goes around the bow once so, in total the bow needs only a couple of feet or so of duct tape.  Of course you don’t want to carry in a whole roll of duct tape, simply wrap what you need around a square piece of plastic and add that to your PSK instead.

Bamboo, of course, loves to split – it’s what makes it so easy to shape – and knowing how to take advantage of the nodes (which act as stoppers to a split) is key to making a bow that will work.  Put your notch on one side of the node and it will be fine, put it on the other and it will split off.

The other important factor is to select bamboo that is in the right condition (the type of bamboo I’m using is the most common one here).  You don’t want to use green/living bamboo as it will ‘set’ when you flex the bow (i.e. it will start to take on a permanent bowed shape and lose its spring).  So, you want dead bamboo that is, preferably, sun dried and hasn’t been eaten away at by bugs.  This is pretty easy to spot as the bamboo surface will have a yellow and shiny appearance and feel light and dry.

bow_tipThe other thing I have noticed is that bamboo taken from the very base of the stem (where it is thickest) seems to have a less compressed grain (which is not what we’re looking for) whereas further up the stem the grain compresses more.  This makes some sort of intuitive sense as the walls of bamboo taper in (thinning) along its length, but the number of individual strands stays the same.  The best pieces for a bow seem to be about midway along the stem (about three or four nodes up from the base).

I was surprised that the bow I made in the video compared so favourably with the earlier bow I made in terms of draw strength (only a difference of <10lbs) – there are two factors here that came into play: 1) the width of the slats in the new bow were slightly wider and 2) the length of the new bow was about 6 inches shorter. A short bow will be more powerful than a longer bow at the same draw length (all other things being equal), however, a shorter bow is being put under a lot more stress and is more likely to snap.  As the length of the bow is determined by the node spacings, this is going to vary with the particular stem of bamboo (and its node spacings) that you select.

As you will see in the video, the first attempt at the bow ended with the main stave snapping.  I wanted to show this as 1) it can happen! and 2) it’s not a huge problem simply because it is so quick to make up a replacement stave and fit that into place.

Shaping a bow from a single piece of wood (or rattan) is, by comparison, a real art.  You have to carefully shave away wood so that the bow tapers to the tip and the bow bends uniformally along its length.  There are people who are very skilled at this but it is just that, a skill, and one you don’t want to try learning from scratch when in a survival situation!  Working with bamboo requires far less skill; only a bit of knowledge about how to do the notches and attach the cables and you get a bow that fires an arrow quietly and fast…

and that can be all you need to put dinner on the table.