The Whacky Penobscot Bow

The Penobscot bow, invented by Chief Big Thunder (aka Frank Loring) around 1900, is also known as the Father & Son bow and the Wabanaki bow.

The final design by the Mi’kmaq people who were native tribes of the South Eastern Woodlands of Canada and responsible for the original design, was the one and only Penobscot war bow.

There’s an old tale that centers around a Penobscot chief armed with one of these bows and using a Viking chieftain for target practice, from over 200 yards away.  

As you do!

The distance may or may not be over stated, my guess is that it is, but we’ll never actually know. The legend however is intriguing and very interesting in the context of these bows.

In my mind however, think the most captivating facet of the bow is its evolution. There is no less than a dozen different styles of this bow and six cool, unique designs.   

This bow was a response to the European smooth bore musket which had a range of less than 200 yards and was only accurate up to around 50 yards.    

And… it took too much time to load!

An early settler armed with a musket would find himself in serious trouble if he stumbled upon a couple of Mi’kmaq natives carrying Penobscot bows.   

An interesting aspect of these bows was their progress and evolution into what they are today, any Penobscot bow review you would care to read I think would confirm this.

Natives focussing on survival only would not have developed a bow such as this one, they would have leaned towards a more basic tool designed for one thing only.

A complicated weapon such as the Penobscot bow clearly indicates that these people had an abundance of time to consider, create and develop such devices and the book ‘Penobscot Man’ seems to confirm it.

The Cable-Backed Bow

The native Inuit people of the Arctic originally made these types of bows from whale bones, horn, antler and driftwood. Though the current cable-backed bow doesn’t make use of  the same raw materials and is significantly bigger, its construction remains true to the original bows. 

What is a Penobscot Bow?

The old Cable-Back design means the bow is robust and less inclined to break which provides greater draw weight than the sum of its individual parts.

I remains a tricky hunting bow and its success is largely based on accurate arrow placement.

The cable-backed bow is more successful over distances of up to 40 yards, beyond that it starts to lose power quickly. 

The cable is constructed out of vegetable, animal or synthetic fibers which are very taught so as to strengthen the bow. These cables are fixed to the bow at a number of positions along the limbs with half-hitches then tightened by imbedding a toggle in the bundle of strings then giving it a twist or two.

Tension stress from the back of the bow is relieved through the raising of its neutral plane, ie the area dividing the back of the bow that stretches and the bow’s belly that’s compressed when bent. 

As a result, an efficient cable-backed bow can be crafted from lesser quality wood of a weaker tension. 

The construction and specifications plus the stress level of the cable is responsible for relieving tension from the wooden section of the bow and increases the energy of the shot. 

The Penobscot bow could be constructed as a reflex, deflex, decurve or straight bow style.

Penobscot Bow History for Your Reading Pleasure

The Canadian native people who created the Penobscot bow had a sixth sense about archery, and more to the point, archery bows. They just seemed to have a strong grasp on how bows should be made and what they should be capable of.

They also had an uncanny knowledge of what to do in order to make a bow that shoots better. One obvious and simple option for achieving this is to increase draw weight.

No chocolates for answering this!   

This is the primary option that the English chose with the mighty longbow by achieving draw weights of up to around 150 pounds.    

Option number 2 was to make the archer work harder during the initial and mid draw with the final draw weight unchanged.    

This is the philosophy that spurned the modern compound bow and it’s become apparent that associates of the Wabanaki confederacy were aware of this long before we were, around 1000 years ago.

Whilst drawing a correctly designed Penobscot bow the archer will discover the draw weight rising quite quickly until just past half draw, after that the weight increase slows right down until full draw is reached.    

Take my reflex deflex bow for example, from 20″ right up to a full draw of 28″ the increase is just two pounds for each inch.    

The Penobscot bow is quite unique, it’s super smooth when drawing and has almost zero hand shock. It gains a poultry 3 pounds per inch to a full draw weight of 65 pounds.    

This bow relishes 750 to 800 grain arrows made from split shaft blanks of maple or ash and I’ve discovered that the arrows used in these bows were traditionally the length of an arm.

A Penobscot bow creates a wonderful buzz of interest at something like a 3D shoot, people are naturally drawn to it and you’ll spend most of the time talking about this very cool bow and where it came from than anything else.

Penobscot Indian Bow

As previously mentioned in this article, the Penobscot Indian bow was named in honour of the very clever Penobscot Indians of the eastern woodlands. 

It’s generally accepted that they were the ones who invented the Penobscot bow.

This awe-inspiring creation is considered one of the most functional bows ever made and could more-than-likely be the original compound design. 

Adjustable and beautifully balanced, this bow is very stable and can be easily adjusted up to a higher draw weight with the tightening of the back strings. 

The rear bow and its strings assist in reducing string-follow which results in more overall speed. Less hand shock and improved accuracy are other valuable benefits.

The Elliptical front bow also helps to increase speed, it truly is a wonderful bow and sports a super sweet draw!

The draw weight can be easily adjusted on the bench by setting each tip on a block of wood about one inch thick. 

By clamping down the handle to the bench and bending the limbs marginally backwards will help to relieve pressure on the string. 

Remove the old string and give it a 2 or 3 turn twist so its tighter. Loosen the bow and swap out the 1 inch block with a 2 inch block. Now reclamp down the and swap out the string. The result will be a lift in draw weight. Consider using a block up to a 4 inches, the tighter the back strings are the higher the draw weight. 

Easy peasy!

Who Was Chief Big Thunder?

Chief Big Thunder, aka Frank Loring, was born in 1827 and died in 1906, he lived a very interesting life. 

For starters, he was not a Penobscot Indian, he was a normal white guy who spent his life travelling around, working as an entertainer in and around circuses and peddling his concocted knowledge of the Penobscot people.

By creating his alias Indian name Chief Big Thunder he considered himself a Penobscot Native. Life wasn’t all that easy on him with many white folk describing him as an imposter, a scoundrel, liar, a story teller and someone who cannot be trusted.

However he did achieve a level of credibility and respect within the Penobscot native people and, to some degree, the white people as well.

 Big Chief Thunder’s life story lands us into a momentous period of time in America’a past when the Penobscot and other Indian groups ended up being in State control and it wasn’t possible for them to continue on with their traditional culture. 

As a result, their society could not continue with trapping, hunting and fishing so they tried farming, making and selling baskets and seasonal employment

Others sought new and different opportunities such as taking on developing cultural niches. By midway through the 19th century, many Indian ‘doctors,’ ‘chiefs’ and ‘princesses’ travelled around the the North East of the country entertaining folks and selling whatever they could including ‘medicines’.  

Traveling to established white settlements by whatever means they had, these wandering healers and entertainers discovered that they could earn good money and gain notoriety and some fame as well.

Some of the more extrovert Indians travelled with circuses to far off destinations, among this cohort, Big Chief Thunder was most well known and successful.

 In 1827, the Penobscot people numbered about 350 individuals only and they lived on an island around 15 miles or so to the North of Bangor.

Groups with less numbers were scattered over a collection of islands upriver. 

Through hunting they had access to meat, grease, fish, hides and fur. They also picked berries, nuts and fiddleheads to balance their diet. 

The Penobscot people are highly killed trappers so they were able to sell of swap furs for ~

  • Molasses
  • Tea
  • Sugar
  • Tobacco
  • Candles
  • Soap
  • Fabric
  • Gunpowder and shot

Traditionally, these people also farmed corn, squash and beans in their village, with some groups increasing their farm size to grow potatoes, oats and some wheat. 

The go-getters plowed their fields using a teams of oxen, while others increased their earnings by peddling off crafts and medicines.  

Upon gaining statehood in 1820, Maine inherited the obligations towards the Penobscots by way of the Massachusetts 1786 treaty. 

Although the Penobscots were officially wards of the state, they remained in control of their internal affairs. They were responsible for voting on their own laws and electing their leaders. 

The state was responsible for appointing an Indian Agent and, each year, the agent distributed annuities to the Penobscots in order to buy food and other staples.

Penobscot Double Bow

The Penobscot double bow could be described as the next generation of a cable-backed bow only with quite unique mechanics. It’s performance varies from the bows that are constructed with wider or thicker limbs or even additional limbs.

Mechanical engineers understand that many things can be thought of as a spring, a solid block of steel is actually a spring as well. If we place it under force it will either be compressed or it will elongate. 

Most of the changes that result from this exercise are so minuscule they are invisible to us, but they do actually happen.

A bow is also a spring, the harder you pull the more power it generates, it stores energy during this process, this energy is then used to release the arrow.

The level of force that’s needed to draw the arrow back by 1 more centimetre is based on how far drawn it already is. A bow will not compress or elongate, however the bow’s shape will under more power.

An ideally designed bow would release the arrow at the same speed each time regardless of how far it’s drawn.

If the force is too much, the archer may not be able to draw and hold the bow at all and, if it’s too weak, the arrow will travel too slow.

Either of these scenarios would bu unacceptable to any archer.

This cannot be done with a single spring; you need a set of springs (or a more complicated design such as the recurve or composite bows) to approximate this ideal.

In essence, a double bow is a 2 spring device. 

The smaller front bow on a double bow was never designed to act as a bow stiffener. Its job is to modify the curve of the spring and as a result the draw becomes harder at first therefore the arrow flies quicker.

Consensus from double bow archers is that it does this in an advantageous way when it’s up against a self bow of equivalent technology. 

Better performance is achieved from such a bow with the equivalent 28″ draw ‘weight’ than with an equivalent non-double technology self bow.

And that is the very reason why folks who make double bows with the front bow nearly as long as the primary bow either just don’t understand what the design accomplishes or are simply striving to manufacture a bow with lesser quality wood.

A correctly designed and manufactured double bow will have a short front bow that will be fully drawn early in the drawing process.