Talk the Talk

The traditional Korean military bow is called a gakgung meaning horn bow

It measures one meter in height and can fire an arrow up to 145 meters.

Walk the Walk

Archery in Korea has traditionally had attached to it a set of ethical beliefs that are largely drawn from the teachings of Confucius. 

For example, the elite warriors of ancient Korea known as the Hwarang were trained in literary arts as well as military pursuits and were taught to live by five major precepts: 

Loyalty to the monarch 

Filial piety to parents 

Amicability among friends 

No retreat in war 

Aversion to unnecessary killing 

Ethical teachings within the discipline has lasted throughout the ages and even today, Korean archery has a strong emphasis on courtesy, etiquette and mental focus.

The History of Archery in Korea

Korea has a long history of the use of the bow and arrow stretching back virtually uninterrupted to prehistoric times. Tribal warlords are known to have been using mounted archers in their armies from at least the fifth century BCE and archery was an integral part of the Korean military right up to the nineteenth century. 

Ancient Archery in Korea 

Archers were instrumental in the conflicts during the Three Kingdom Period (57 BC to 668 AD), during which time the country went from having numerus tribal states to having three main kingdoms. By the end of this period the Silla Kingdom defeated the Baekje and Koguryo Kingdoms, bringing unification to the country for the first time. 

To do this they trained young men to become the ideal solders, called Hwarang (Flower Knights), they would often ride into battle on horseback firing their arrows as they rode (represented in the photo above). The Silla were able to defeat their rivals as they had help from the Chinese Tang army, however they soon wanted total independence rather than being a nation that paid tributes to China and by 735, they would use elite archery to help push the Chinese out of Korea. 

Making a Korean Bow 

For centuries, the traditional gakgung (horn bow) was the weapon of choice for Korean soldiers. Unusually, the bow was a reflex bow as opposed to the more common recurve model. This means that as with the recurve, the ends of the bow curve away from the archer when it is strung but when unstrung, the bow curves into a C shape increasing the power it can generate. 

The gakgung was a composite bow with a core made from sinew backed bamboo, the handle would be made of oak and water buffalo horn would be used on the belly. The outer ends of the limbs could be comprised of either mulberry or acacia and were v-splice onto the bamboo. The glue was made from fish air-bladder and over the sinew backing was a special birch bark that was imported from Northeast China and soaked in sea water for around a year. 

The body of the arrow was also made of bamboo, the point made of iron and the fletching came from pheasant’s feathers. The nock was made from bush clover and secured with sinew and along with the fletching, held on with fish air-bladder glue. 

In Korean archery, the Mongolian Draw is employed which means the archer draws the string using his thumb and index finger (as opposed to the Mediterranean Draw that uses the first three fingers). To hold the string, the arched would use a gahk jee, which was a teardrop-shaped thumb ring made from ox horn that prevents the thumb getting damaged upon release of the string. 

The Japanese Invasion 

In the sixteenth century, Japan invaded Korea and the archery skills of the military there would be vital. The war saw many lives lost on both sides but Korea eventually won through, largely as a result of employing archers to rain down lethal salvos of arrows on their opponents at long range. After this, civilian shooting ranges began to appear in the country as a way of training the population against potential future invasions and to further enhance the tradition of martial and ritual archery in Korea. 

The Decline of Archery in the Military 

During the nineteenth century, as was the case with other countries in East Asia, Korea wanted to stay isolated from the rest of the world but were under attack from countries in the West wishing to establish trade links with them. However, despite valiant efforts they would soon be forced into modernization and into trading with the West. 

This period saw the last major use of the bow within the Korean military as it was gradually replaced on the battle field by the firearm. By the twentieth century, the use of archery in the military forces of Korea had ended however archery remained important to their culture, though now more as an athletic event. 

Modern Archery in South Korea 

Today archery is still one of the most loved pastimes in South Korea and the county excel at the sport, boasting many of the top ranked competitors in world archery. Children start learning in primary school and can practice up to two hours a day. The best young archers then receive high quality coaching through high school and college, generating for the country a deep pool of talent that has led to South Korea being the best in the world at the sport in the latter half of the twentieth century and on into the twenty-first. 

John Stanley, a World Archery correspondent stated that this system has “been in place for decades with one ultimate goal in mind: bringing home Olympic medals.” The effectiveness of this emphasis of archery within the education system is indeed highlighted in their success in the Olympic Games; in the 2016 Rio Olympics, South Korea won gold medals in all four categories, men’s and women’s team and individual. They have taken gold in every women’s (recurve) event since women’s archery became a part of the Olympics in 1988 at Seoul and the men and women combined have taken thirty-nine Olympic medals, twenty-three of which are gold (up to and including the 2016 games). 

In order to achieve this dominance, the elite archers of South Korea train up to ten hours a day come rain or shine and can fire over two and a half thousand arrows in practice each week, as well as constantly striving to improve their mental strength and focus. The ancient tradition of archery lives on in South Korea through its application as a sport and the people there take great pride in being home to the best world archery has to offer.

Further Reading:

Duvernay, T. [Internet]. 2020. Korean Traditional Archery. atarn.org. Available from: http://www.atarn.org/korean/korean1.htm [Accessed 19/07/2020]. 

Duvernay, T. [Internet]. 1997. The Way of the Bow. atarn.org. Available from: http://www.atarn.org/korean/IA_kr_1.htm [Accessed 19/07/2020]. 

Johnson, T. [Internet]. 2016. 4 Reasons Korea Dominates Archery. archery360.com. Available from: https://www.archery360.com/2016/11/02/4-reasons-korea-dominates-archery [Accessed 19/07/2020]. 

Korean Bow. [Internet]. 2015. antiquealive.com. Korean Bow. Available from: http://www.antiquealive.com/Blogs/Korean_Bow.html [Accessed 19/07/2020].


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