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Build a Quick and Simple Montagnard Style Crossbow

December 18, 2014

Montagnard is a French term referring to several hill tribes in Southeast Asia. Many Montagnard tribesmen, with the help of U.S. Special Forces, joined in the fight against the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. Historically, the Montagnard people used crossbows for hunting and self defense. These crossbows are simple and no-frills, but they are very effective and can be very powerful.

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I have recently become interested in crossbows, and for my first project I decided to build a copy of a Hmong crossbow. Although there are tribal and individual variations in these crossbows, they all work pretty much the same. The major difference that I found in these bows is the trigger system. Some of the bows used a “T” shaped wooden trigger that drops down through a slot in the tiller (stock). Other bows use a little lever on the side of the tiller that lifts the string when you push down on it with your thumb. I used the “T” trigger on the first bow that I built, but I couldn’t get it to work reliably enough to suit me. I ditched the “T” trigger and tried out the lever system. This worked very reliably, but because the lever is mounted on the right side of the bow it tended to lift the right side of the string first and thus caused the bow to shoot to the left. I corrected this short-coming by putting a lever on both sides of the tiller with a dowell connecting the two levers. This lifts both sides of the string at the same time, and although it is probably not strictly traditional, it makes the bolt (arrow) fly much straighter.

Here is a quick tutorial on how I built my Hmong style crossbow. The tiller is built of scrap ¾” shelving lumber, and the 30” prod (bow) is made of hickory. I won’t go into making the prod in this post as there are already several posts on this blog about how to make a bow and bowstring. I will say that I have made one similar crossbow using 3/4” schedule 40 PVC pipe for the prod, and it worked very well. If you are leery of trying to make a wooden bow, you may want to go the PVC route.

First I drew out the outline of the tiller on a ¾” pine board.

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Then I used my band-saw to cut out the tiller. You could do this with a jig-saw or even a hand saw, but it’s quicker and easier if you have access to a band-saw. I used a wood rasp and sandpaper to round off the edges and clean the stock up.

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You need a shallow groove in the top for the bolt (arrow) to rest in. I made this by drawing a line down the center of the top then using my knife point to scratch a shallow groove along the line. With the groove to act as a guide, I rubbed back and forth with a round file to create a rounded groove about 1/8” deep. That’s as deep as you really need.

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Now it’s time to mount the prod in the tiller. I found the center of the prod and took a few measurements which I transferred to the side of the tiller. I drilled several holes through the tiller and then used a rattail file to complete the slot. I took my time on this with a lot of pauses to check the fit of the prod. It needs to be a snug fit. Don’t worry if you get the slot a little too large. You can use a small wedge or two to hold the prod in tightly. I have seen these wedges on several Montagnard crossbows.

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The trigger assembly consists of three parts; two levers and a short piece of ¼”dowel rod. I cut the levers out of some ½” scrap. I cut them in a little bit of a fancy shape, but this is not at all necessary. They could be simple rectangles.

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I drilled a hole in each lever, making sure that the holes lined up perfectly. The holes in the levers are a little smaller than the dowel so that the dowel can be trimmed down and wedged tightly into the levers.

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I positioned one of the levers where it will need to be on the tiller and marked the tiller where I could drill a hole through it for the dowel. I drilled this hole a little larger than the dowel so that the dowel will turn easily in it.

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I put a little wood glue on the dowel and inserted it into the right lever, then I stuck the dowel through the hole in the tiller. I held the other lever up to the dowel and marked the dowel so that I could cut it to the correct length. I removed the dowel from the tiller and trimmed down the other end until it would fit in the left hand lever, but I did not glue it. Repeat, DON’T GLUE ON THE SECOND LEVER YET.

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Now I paused in construction to give everything a nice coat of stain and took a break to make some arrows while it dried.

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Montagnard arrows are made of straight, round shoots or bamboo splits. They are split on one end, and a folded bamboo leaf is inserted for a fletching. The split in the shaft is then glued back together and wrapped with thread to reinforce it.

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I made a traditional arrow, but it didn’t perform very well and the bamboo leaf tore up after about three shots. I guess I need a Montagnard to show me how this should be done, because I obviously did something wrong. As an alternative I cut some 5/16” dowels about 14 inches long and fletched them with duct tape. They performed much better.

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When the stain had dried I inserted the trigger assembly and very carefully glued the other lever on. You want to make sure that you don’t get any glue on the inside of the lever or you may end up with it permanently, and immovable, glued to the side of the tiller. Also make sure that the two levers are dead even so they will both lift the string at the same time. Now I have to set it all aside until tomorrow so the glue can dry.

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OK, the glue is dry and it’s time for a little test firing.

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Using a pointed dowel and duct tape arrow I shot at a dense foam target from 30 feet. The arrow still shot a little to the left, but the penetration was about five inches. Not bad.

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I shot it for distance, and boy was I surprised. The arrow flew 82 yards which was about twice what I was expecting. The crazy thing is that the arrow hit a treated post in front of my shop at the end of its flight and the sharpened wooden point stuck 1/2 “ into the post.

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This is definitely not a toy. I believe that with a little practice you could easily hunt small game with this crossbow.

29 Comments
  1. billsmith1948 permalink

    This is a pretty good tutorial but you left out the most important building block of all – the length of the tiller! As you said, the trigger is not the traditional one but it does work. What I love about these crossbows is their simplicity. I’m still working on getting the traditional trigger to work consistently.

    • Bill,
      The overall length of the crossbow is 33 inches, the bow is 30 inches long, arrows are 14 inches long. Thanks for reading and sorry about the oversight.
      Hank

      • Russ permalink

        Hank, you mentioned you had made a similar crossbow with PVC. I was wondering, did you leave the PVC round or did you flatten it? I have bamboo available and I test it to be strong before mounting but often end up with it splitting somewhere after I finish the crossbow. I’m not sure wrapping it with hemp twine would help or not. Bamboo’s my preference in keeping with tradition but after awhile, I get tired of having this problem.

      • Russ,
        I left the PVC round in the middle then tapered it down to flat on the ends, I did this by heating over a propane camp stove and then pressing between two boards. Since then I have begun making a more modern type crossbow (the subject of a future post) so I bought an inexpensive heat gun which makes the job a lot easier. There is some good info on PVC bows on youtube. My go-to guy is backyardbowyer. Not sure about wrapping the bamboo with twine. I have noticed that the bigger my bamboo, and the flatter the finished bow, the less problems I have with splitting. Thanks for reading.
        Hank

      • Russ permalink

        Thanks, Hank. Yes, I’ve seen most of Nick’s videos. I’ve made quite a few PVC bows, both round and flattened, some recurved and some not. The consensus is that flattening makes the bow stronger, which is probably correct, but I still debate that a little. I keep experimenting.

  2. Fred permalink

    I have been seraching the web for DIY crossbow designs and these is one of the simplest ones I found. I also love the trigger design, although I would build it slightly different, with a single lever operating from a cut in the stock. I have one question: what is the draw weight of your prod (bow)? The trigger design seems to restrict its operation to moderatedly powerful prods only, am I correct?

    • Fred, Thanks for reading. I have not measured the draw-weight of this crossbow. The prod, which is made of hickory, is pretty strong, but due to the short draw length I would estimate that it is around 20 lbs. draw-weight. I am currently building a much stronger crossbow with a rotating nut and spring loaded trigger. The parts are made of aluminum but they could easily be made of hardwood. When I finish the bow I will be posting a build along about it.
      Hank

  3. jacob4357 permalink

    How far did the pvc crossbow shoot, is it less powerfully?

    • I have found the 3/4″ schedule 40 PVC to be very strong. I am actually making a more modern style crossbow and I chose to use PVC for the prod. So far I am very happy with the results.

  4. Ken mayer permalink

    I like the crossbow and would build one, but you do not show dimensions. Do you have blue prints or dimensions so I can build one.

    • Ken,
      I sent a drawing with dimensions to your e-mail. Thanks for reading.
      Hank

    • Doug permalink

      Ken , just getting started into bow, I to would really like a drawing of this wooden bow– it looks great.
      Thank you

      Doug

      • Doug,
        Sent drawing with measurements to your e-mail. Bow is 30 inches long, inch and a quarter at center and 3/4 inch at ends.
        Hank

  5. Ken Mayer permalink

    thank you Hank for the drawing
    Ken

  6. Paul Avery permalink

    Hank, really like the crossbow. One of my old neighbors had one that he brought back from the Vietnam War. Always wanted to build one, but I don’t live close enough to those folks anymore. I was wondering if you could send me the same drawing with the dimensions that you sent to the others?

  7. Ken Ramey permalink

    Hank, like others I enjoyed your article, however I need a copy of a drawing with dimensions also. If I moved the trigger assembly back would it increase the draw weight and would I have to make longer bolts?

    • Ken,
      Drawing sent to your e-mail. Increasing the distance between trigger and bow will increase draw weight. Bolt length should not have to be changed. Thanks for reading.
      Hank

  8. Glenn permalink

    I really liked this article. When I was younger my uncle brought one of these crossbows back from Vietnam. The crossbow even had the bamboo bolts as you described them. I thought it was just a decorative piece. Now I think the crossbow was for real. Just wondering what happened to it. I was wondering if I could get a copy of the dimensions. I got to make one of these.

    Thanks

  9. William Reinig permalink

    Hank,
    Liked your article, I am an SCA reenactor and researcher. I will be attending classes on making crossbows and their repair soon. Could I have a copy of your dimensional drawing of the bow, I’d like to compare it to the comparable sizes I’ve seen would also make for enjoyable bow talk around the medieval campfires! Thank you.

    Lord William Radulfus

    • William,
      Sent the drawing to your e-mail. Wow, who knew that there were crossbow making classes. Bet that will be fun. Thanks for reading.
      Hank

  10. DONALD L MORROW permalink

    I saw your article in May/June 2016 “Backwoodsman” magazine. I would really like to make this crossbow. But it seems like several dimensions are missing from your article and these blogs. Can you share a drawing with me .I would surely appreciate it. Don Morrow

  11. Walter permalink

    Would like dimensions of cross bow including pvc bow.

  12. Hi Hank,

    Could you send me the plans as well. I’d be much obliged.

    Monte

  13. ann colvin permalink

    Hi I would love to build this crossbow. I would love plans, but also could you explain the way you made the bow string and what you added midway to hit the arrow? I am a total novice but have always wanted one. I really enjoy your website info. Thank You

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