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When I hear people talking about archery or I read something about it, there is often a "recurve bow" mentioned. Altough I know how it's shaped etc. I wanted to know what exactly makes a bow to a recurved one?

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A bow whose string touches a section of the limb ...

Yeah, all these different bows may confuse a beginner. However, it's generally really easy like in this case. A recurve is simply defined as "a bow of which the string touches a section of the limb when it is strung".

To further explain this definition refer to this image:

Recurve bow

  • The string: as you might have guessed it's the straight, drilled cord
  • The limb: the bent wood

As you can see the string "touches" the wooden limb for about 3" on the top. As soon as this happens, the bow is a recurve bow.

But what about the shape?!

Ah, a nice topic. One might guess that a recurve is shaped in a particular way and that's why it's a recurve. That's (surprisingly) wrong!

Note: Before you read further. There are a few more details which make a "horseman bow" different from a "recurve" but that's another topic.

Let's examine a so called "horseman bow":

Horseman bow

And now a recurve bow:

Recurve bow

Okay, besides the "waves" in the limbs pretty much the same, eh? But have you mentioned the tips?

Horseman bow string doesn't touch the limb:

No touch

Whereas a recurve's cuddles:

Recurve bow

Conclusion

A recurve bow has tips that curve away from the archer when the bow is unstrung. By definition, the difference between recurve and other bows is that the string touches a section of the limb when the bow is strung. A recurve bow stores more energy and delivers energy more efficiently than an equivalent straight-limbed bow, giving a greater amount of energy and speed to the arrow. A recurve will permit a shorter bow than the simple straight limb bow for a given arrow energy and this form was often preferred by archers in environments where long weapons could be cumbersome, such as in brush and forest terrain, or while on horseback.

From Wikipedia - Bow shapes

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