The [Reflex] bow had been the most important weapon in Korean wars with Chinese dynasties and nomadic peoples, recorded from the 1st century BCE.1 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. Park Hyeokgeose, the first king of the Silla, was also said to be a skilled archer. Rumors of archers in Goguryeo and Silla presumably reached China; the ancient Chinese gave the people of the north east, Siberia, Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula, the name of Dongyi (東夷), the latter character (夷) being a combination of the two characters for "large" (大) and "bow" (弓).2
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 outsiders. By that time, DongYi refers to Korean, as in Outsiders from the East.
Until the Imjin wars, archery was the main long-range weapon system. In that war, the tactical superiority of the matchlockmusket became apparent, despite its slow rate of fire and susceptibility to wet weather.3 Under King Hyojong's military reforms, an attempt was made to revive horse archery as a significant element of the military. This came to nothing after his sudden death in 1659, and there are no definite accounts of later military use of archery. Nevertheless, until the military reforms of 1894, archery was an essential part of the military examination. It was also practiced for pleasure and for health, and many young males and a some many females - including the king - would spend their free time practicing it.
Revival as leisure activity
Standard gungdo target
In 1899, the visiting Prince Heinrich of Prussia expressed his astonishment to Emperor Gojong at a traditional archery demonstration. The emperor, impressed, decreed "let people enjoy archery to develop their physical strength" and established an archery club building. In the subsequent revival 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).
Construction and competition
Master Heon Kim
The traditional Korean bow is a highly reflexed version of the classic Eurasian composite bow. The core is bamboo, which is sinew backed, with oak at the handle. On the belly is water buffalo horn. 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.4
The sukgung, a kind of crossbow, and the Hwal are a small but very powerful bow. A sukgung can shoot up to 400 meters while a Hwal can shoot up to 350 meters.