The Tokyo 2020 Olympics have just concluded, and Korea has once again swept the gold medals for archery. South Korea has acquired the most medals for the sport, with the South Korean women’s team having won every gold medal since the event was introduced in 1988 at the Seoul Olympics. This incredible feat is no surprise, however, as archery has actually been practiced in Korea for thousands of years!
The first mention of archery in relation to Korea originated over five thousand years ago, with their unique horn bow enabling them to defend themselves from invasions and raids. This bow is known as gakgung (각궁) and helped Koreans defend their mountain fortresses by maximizing efficiency and range.
Though gakgung is similar in construction to other Eurasian composite bows such as the Mongolian and Turkish bows, the Korean bow is unique in its geometry. When strung, it appears small, but the bow is known for its raw power. The Korean bow nearly forms a circle with the tips of the siyahs (the recurved tips of the bow) nearly touching, making it extremely flexible. Due to this reflex, the gakgung has a long draw, helping archers shoot efficiently over long distances. The usefulness of the Korean bow made it a mainstay in the Korean military, particularly during the Joseon era.
Beginning in the 1900s, Korean archery transitioned from a central part of Korean military strategy to a recreational practice. Korean archery became standardized, with one specific type of composite bow and bamboo arrows used. The targets for traditional Korean archery are at a distance of 145 meters or greater. This is a much farther distance than today’s Olympic distances, which range from only 30 to 90 meters.
Modern Korean archery is a product of thousands of years of practice throughout history. Many children spend two hours per day practicing archery in elementary school; and champion archers will practice up to 10 hours a day, using over 2,500 arrows every week. With over twenty-five gold medals in archery to the country’s name, it’s no wonder that archery is considered a national sport. South Korean archers have actually won 27 out of 39 gold medals in events since the year 1984!