A Korean Bow (각궁, Gak-gung) that has not been strung
Korean name
Hangul 각궁
Hanja 角弓
Revised Romanization Gakgung
McCune–Reischauer Kakgung
Korean archery
Hangul 궁술
Hanja 弓術
Revised Romanization Gungsul
McCune–Reischauer Kungsul

The Korean Bow (Korean: 각궁, Gak-gung hanja: , or horn bow) is a water buffalo horn-based composite reflex bow, standardized about 1900 CE from a variety of similar weapons in earlier use. Due to its long use by Koreans, it is also known as Guk Gung (Korean: 국궁 hanja: , or national bow). The Korean bow utilizes a thumb draw and therefore employing the use of a thumb ring is quite common. The Korean thumb ring is somewhat different from the Manchu, Mongol, or the Turkish Thumb Ring, as it comes in two styles, male and female. Male thumb rings are shaped with a small protrusion that sticks out that the bowstring hooks behind (similar to a release aid), while the female thumb ring simply covers the front joint of the thumb as protection from getting blisters (pulling heavy bows repetitively with only the thumb can easily cause blisters to form on the pad of the thumb).[1] Also, the arrow is laid on the right side of the bow, unlike the western bow, where the arrow is laid on the left side of the bow.

Gungsul, Korean: 궁술, hanja: , sometimes also romanized as goong sool, literally means "techniques of the bow" or "skill with the bow." It is also referred to as Korean traditional archery. Gungdo, Korean: 궁도, hanja: , is another epithet for traditional Korean archery, as used by Koreans.

History of Military Origin and Usage

Korean Horse Back Archery in 5th-century
Oracle bone script version of the yi character

The reflex bow had been the most important weapon in Korean wars with Chinese dynasties and nomadic peoples, recorded from the 1st century BC.[2] Legend says the first king and founder of the Goguryeo, Go Jumong, was a master of archery, able to catch 5 flies with one arrow. Bak Hyeokgeose, the first king of the Silla, was also said to be a skilled archer. The ancient Chinese gave the people of the north east, Siberia, Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula, the name of Dongyi (東夷) (Eastern part of the Siyi (Four Barbarians) (四夷)), the latter character () being a combination of the two characters for "large" () and "bow" ().

However, the word 夷 was first used in Chinese history referring to the people South of Yellow River over 5,000 years ago. Later, when Yi 夷 people joined the tribes of Hua Xia [華夏] Chinese, 夷 meant outsider (in foreigner meanings) or exterminate. By that time, DongYi refers to Manchurian, Tunguistic tribes in Manchuria or Korean Peninsula, Korean and Japanese as in Outsiders from the East.[3]

Yi Seonggye, the founding king of Joseon was known to have been a master archer. In a battle against Japanese pirates, Seonggye, assisted by Yi Bangsil, killed the young samurai commander "Agibaldo" with two successive arrows, one arrow knocking out his helmet, with the second arrow entering his mouth. In his letter to General Choi Young, Seonggye lists as one of five reasons not to invade Ming China as during the monsoon season, glue holding together the composite bow weakens, reducing the effectiveness of the bow.

The founding of Joseon dynasty saw the retention of the composite bow as the mainstay of the Joseon military. Archery was the main martial event tested during the military portion of the national service exam held annually from 1392 to 1894. Under Joseon, archery reached its zenith, resulting in the invention of pyeonjeon, which saw great service against the Japanese in 1592 and against the Manchus in early 1600s.

Until the Imjin wars, archery was the main long-range weapon system. During those wars, the tactical superiority of the matchlock arquebus became apparent, despite its slow rate of fire and susceptibility to wet weather.[4] However, it was the gakgung, referred to as the "half bow" by the Japanese, that halted the Japanese at the Battle of Haengju as well as at the Battle of Ulsan. Although Joseon adopted the arquebus during the Imjin War, the gakgung retained its position of importance in the military until the reforms of 1894. Under King Hyojong's military reforms, an attempt was made to revive horse archery as a significant element of the military. It was also practiced for pleasure and for health, and many young males - including the king - and a some many females would spend their free time practicing it.

Transition to Recreational Sport

Standard gungdo target

In 1899, the visiting Prince Heinrich of Prussia expressed his astonishment to Emperor Gojong at a traditional archery demonstration. The Prince, hailing from a militarized Prussian culture, sought out demonstrations of Korean martial arts, and Archery was the most impressive among the arts demonstrated. He was familiar with Turkish and Hungarian Archery of Europe, which were similar to Korean Archery. Prince Heinrich suggested making the art into a national sport. The emperor, convinced by the Prince, decreed "let people enjoy archery to develop their physical strength" and established an archery club. In the subsequent standardization of Korean archery, the nature of the bow and the arrow was standardized, as was the range of the targets. Korean traditional archery now uses one specific type of composite bow, bamboo arrows, and a standard target at a standard distance of 120 bo (about 145 meters). Korean Archery as a sport developed under the Japanese Occupation, its textbook, "Joseon eui Goongdo" being published in 1920.

Construction and competition

Master Heon Kim

The Gakgung is a highly reflexed version of the classic Eurasian composite bow. The core is bamboo with sinew backed to prevent the bow breaking and to add a pulling strength to the limbs, with oak at the handle. On the belly is water buffalo horn which significantly increases the power by pushing the limbs. This combination of horn which pushes from the belly and sinew that pulls from the back is the defining strength of the bow. The siyahs, the stiffened outer ends of the limbs, are made of either mulberry or black locust spliced (v-splice) onto the bamboo. The glue is made from isinglass. Over the sinew backing is a special birch bark that is imported from Northeast China. It is soaked in sea water (possibly for one year). It is applied to the back using diluted rubber cement (using benzene as the solvent). No sights or other modern attachments are used.

The draw weights vary, but most are above twenty kilograms. The cost for this type of bow is in the US$800 range. For a similar modern version made of laminated fiberglass, the cost is US$200–300. For most competitions, either bow may be used, with carbon-fiber arrows, but for national competitions, only the composite bow and bamboo arrows may be used. Korean archers have also been very successful in Olympic and other competitions with more modern types of bow.[5]

The sukgung, a kind of crossbow, and the Gak-gung are a small but very powerful bow. A sukgung can shoot up to 400 meters while a Gak-gung can shoot up to 350 meters.

The art of constructing traditional Korean bows was designated an Important Intangible Cultural Property in 1971.[6]

See also


  2. Korean Traditional Archery
  3. Chinese Wikisource has original text related to this article:
    (Chinese) Records of the Three Kingdoms on the Chinese Text Project page
  4. Korean Traditional Archery. Duvernay TA, Duvernay NY. Handong Global University, 2007
  5. "South sweep". Sports Illustrated. 2000-09-28. Retrieved 2008-03-16.
  6. "Gungsi". UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Centre. Retrieved 8 April 2013.

Further reading

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