Attila's horse bow not just for Huns
AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Bow maker Attila Keresztes of Saylorsburg assembles materials he will use to make a Hungarian recurved horse bow. Materials include bamboo, red elm, fiberglass, cow tendon and water buffalo horn.
Attila may not, like his namesake, be a Hun. But he is Hungarian, and when it comes to archery, Hungary is ground zero.
Attila Keresztes makes traditional Hungarian, and Mongolian-style recurved bows, the so-called horse bows, in his Saylorsburg workshop.
Keresztes explained that his first name, Attila, is a popular name in Hungary, a country that takes pride in a heritage that, during the rule of Attila the Hun from 434 to 453, controlled a vast swatch of Eurasian known as the Hunnic Empire. Their warriors, the legendary mounted archers, depended upon the small but powerful recurved bow. Thus, the recurved bow became known as the horse bow.
Because of its design and construction, wherein the bow is bent backwards, the bow is smaller and more powerful than a comparable long bow. Being smaller makes it more maneuverable for a mounted archer, and the greater power allows the archer greater accuracy and distance.
According to Keresztes, the design of the horse bow, of the style of the Huns and the later Mongols, had been lost to history until relatively intact, recurved bows were found buried in graves in 1930s Hungary.
"They found two or three graves from the eighth century. Measurements were taken of the bows from the graves and a professor recreated a recurved bow from these measurements," Keresztes said. "But then, Hungary was under Communism and nothing was available."
Although he was raised outside Hungary's principal city of Budapest, Keresztes was unaware of the rediscovery of the recurved bow. He and a friend enjoyed making and shooting bows. His friend would go on to become twice world champion in the compound bow shooting competition.
Keresztes studied woodworking and cabinetmaking. He loved working with wood, but in the 1980s, he found himself working for the Hungarian State Police. In 1989, as the Soviet system was beginning to loosen, he was allowed to travel to the United States.
"I applied for immigration and went through the process. Since 1995, I'm a legal citizen of the U.S," he said.
After learning about the recurved bow, Keresztes set about finding materials including woods, impregnated fiberglass, glues and horn that would be suitable for bow construction. After gaining access to the Internet, he was able to locate sources, and in 2003, he purchased the materials, and began constructing his first recurved bow.
Keresztes believes he is the only person in the United States making Hungarian- and Mongolian-style horse bows. He's made about 700 over the last five years.
"I made one for The Amazing Race television show," he said. "It was at the finish line of the Mongolian race to shoot a flaming arrow."
Because of the tremendous amount of energy stored in the recurved bow, its design, materials and quality of construction is exacting. The secrets of the ancient bows involved the use of layers of wood laminated together, using fish glue reinforced with sinew with a layer of horn for extra stiffness.
Although the fish glue had great strength, it was not water resistant, so traditional bows were covered with leather to protect them from the rain. Today, waterproof epoxy glue has replaced fish glue.
"In a recurve bow, the end is rigid. That makes the bows faster than long bows," Keresztes explained. "When you pull a long bow, the bow bends along its whole length. The recurved bow only works in the area between the middle and the top."
That makes for more energy in a smaller area, leading to faster acceleration of the arrow.
Keresztes makes his bows from scratch, often milling the wood from trees cut from his property, although he has used many imported woods, often because of their beauty.
For structural properties, he is using an increasing amount of bamboo. He found that bamboo grain is straight, without the warps or twists that are natural to wood from a larger species.
Keresztes begins his bow construction by laminating the wood together under pressure in a fixture. When the laminate is fused, he forms the shape with power tools, before hand finishing to bring out the natural wood grain. He offers bows both sealed or unsealed, which he calls - You Finish.
Keresztes makes his own strings out of a special Dacron. He doesn't make arrows. He feels that is a different specialty.
"Most people like carbon arrows," he noted. "Wood arrows require more hand work, they split, and are less predictable."
Keresztes said that his customers use his bows for target practice and for hunting. His recurved bows are about 54 inches long as compared to a comparable long bow of 72 inches.
"The recurved bow is easier to maneuver in the bushes," he noted.
It takes Keresztes three days to make a bow, and he tests every bow by shooting at least 30 arrows, 50 arrows if he really likes the bow.
"I test every time I make a bow," he said. "I check for material failure. I choose the best wood possible, but wood is a natural material. My eye is not an x-ray machine and I can't notice a flaw until I string the bow."
Asked how he feels about bow making, Keresztes replied, "It's never boring. No two are alike. Even though the bow is the same structurally, every time I'm working with a different wood, it gives a different experience."