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Archery the Old Way

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Published on: Feb. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

Dean Wilson sees nothing but the bullseye as he pulls back one of his handmade bows. But somewhere in the back of his mind, quite a historical gallery has shown up to watch the shot. The Centaur of ancient Greece - an archer that's half-man, half-horse - stamps the ground nearby. Crowded all around are the 5,000 English longbowmen whose skill defeated a much larger French army at the ancient battle of Agincourt. Robin Hood speaks with Howard Hill, who did the trick shooting for Errol Flynn's movie role as the Prince of Thieves.

Today at Wilson's backyard range, he is shooting an Osage orange bow with a leather grip that would have been the envy of many an Indian of the American plains. Using about 45 pounds of pressure, Wilson pulls back the string to 28 inches. Letting go will launch the arrow at about 150 feet per second. That's enough force to kill a deer at close range - 25 yards or so.

This one-piece bow's graceful lines are deceivingly simple. It took the 57 year-old decades of experience and dozens of attempts to produce such a lovely and accurate hunting tool.

Wilson's workshop is a few steps from his home of 33 years just north of Licking, where he lives on 40 wooded acres with his wife, Carolyn. The shop housed Wilson's taxidermy business and is still home to several fine buck trophies, as well as a mounted coyote and white-furred fox. He has laid out on a table bows in various stages of production from split log to finished weapons. Some include sinew backing and a copperhead snake skin covering.

"First thing, let's look at the wood," he says, picking up the 61-inch quarter-log of Osage orange. Bow makers, or bowyers, call this a stave. "This is the best bow wood there is," Wilson says.

Because it's tough, long-lived and widely available in nature, the French dubbed the Osage orange tree bois d'arc, or wood of the bow. A good Osage orange stave costs about $50. Another excellent bow wood costing about twice as much is yew, which comes mostly from Oregon and Washington. "Yew makes a sweet shooting bow. The English longbows were from it."

Other bow woods include black locust (tough, logs grow straight), and hickory (tough and springy but won't shoot as far as others). As a youngster, Wilson's first store-bought bow was of leamonwood. This strong wood of the degame tree comes only from Cuba.

Wilson points to the cut end of the Osage orange stave. The tree's history is here in crossection. Bark gives way to yellow sapwood that turns dark brown toward the heartwood's older growth rings. "About 10 rings per inch is ideal for bows. The wood should be seasoned to let moisture out for at least one or two years before making a bow. Some say 10 years." Rather than relying only on calendars, Wilson's hands help tell him when wood is ready. A seasoned stave is drier and warmer to the touch than a cool and clammy fresh one.

Next, he looks for a growth ring that will become the bow's back, which faces away from the archer when shooting. The sapwood is too weak, so he looks deeper into the heartwood. He spots his ring 13 layers down. Wilson sets the stave in a special bench-vise, picks up a draw knife and starts pulling off shavings.

Sapwood comes off quietly. But heartwood is harder and rasps as the knife travels across. This stave is fairly straight, which makes the job easier. But anywhere it may "snake," he will follow the path so that only the 13th layer is exposed. This work takes about 4 hours.

As he shaves off the annual rings, Wilson recalls one of his grade school teachers at Democrat Ridge School in Duke, Missouri. He claimed to be part Indian and liked that lore. He once showed us how to make a bow from an Osage orange tree that grew on the school grounds. Friday afternoons we'd read stories, such as Robin Hood.

Around that time, my best buddy and I got a book called Two Little Savages. The story was that a city boy stayed with his country cousin during the summer. These two found an old bachelor hermit, who taught them how to make bows, arrows and tepees. There were diagrams about making a bow that we tried out.

"I've been a hunter since I was 12," Wilson says. "Back then it was squirrels and rabbits. We often had them for supper. My parents had jobs, but we hunted to supplement our diet."

After demonstrating the drawknife's work, Wilson walks on softly crunching shavings to the table and starts the next phase. He picks up a second stave whose back he has already exposed. Otherwise, it still looks like the split log that it is.

Penciled on it is the shape of a bow. Wilson has several books on the bowyer's art that offer dimensions and many other instructions for shaping a stave into a bow. He uses a special hatchet to hew to the lines he has drawn. The tool's blade, instead of being V-shaped, has one flat edge like a broad axe. By the end of this work, a bow is really taking shape.

Tillering, the fine tuning of a bow's shape, comes next. The trick here is to shave off only small curls of wood at a time. "You've got to be careful. You can take it off, but you can't put it back on," Wilson says.

A wrong move could weaken the bow so that it breaks when pulled back. For example, knots in the wood are weak spots requiring special care. Wilson leaves a few extra layers of growth rings mounded around knots for extra support.

Wilson once made a bow with a knot touching the edge of the back. He only did that once. When he pulled back to shoot, it cracked, ruining weeks of work. Now any knots stay away from the edge.

A favorite tillering tool is the spoke knife, which looks like a miniature draw knife sporting a half-moon blade. Wilson says it was invented to shape wooden spokes for wagon wheels and the like. Good tillering carves the bow so that it curves evenly when pulled back. To check his progress, Wilson pulls the bowstring and sights along its "limbs" for places that don't bend enough. A few more whiskers come off those spots. He checks again. For especially fine work, Wilson cuts glass to use as a scraper.

With some bows, the work is essentially done here. But this bow will get two layers of sinew and hide glue on its back to make it more powerful and durable. Wilson fishes out from a tackle box a couple of 4-inch bunches of white tendon that came from a deer's hind leg. He hammers the tendon lightly on an anvil to begin splintering its fibers, which he then picks apart like stiff, leathery shoelaces.

Steaming hide glue is waiting in a coffee can as he takes the bow into an adjoining room. He clamps the flat weapon in a vise and checks the glue with his finger. "Too hot," he says, adjusting the flame. "It should be about 120 degrees, which makes it about as thick as syrup. If the glue is too hot, the sinew will cook and be ruined."

The temperature is finally right, and Wilson begins dipping strands of sinew in the glue. Starting at the bow's center, he lays a few of the dripping strands longways to cover the handle. He works all the way up one limb and then the other.

After a second layer, he'll let the mixture dry for two or three weeks. Sinew and glue will shrink as they dry, pulling up the limbs' ends in a slight warp. The curve, or reflex, combined with the springiness of sinew, helps make the bow about 30 percent more powerful.

Finally he picks up a finished piece and heads to his backyard range for some target practice. The great shooters start showing up in Wilson's head. He says Howard Hill could hit the side hole of a rolling barrel, and he was the first white archer to kill an elephant without a poison arrowhead. Wilson has a few fine moments of his own to report - like the two times he hit running rabbits and the time he nailed a ground hog at 45 yards.

Both Wilson's and Hill's shots were made without mechanical sights. "It's like throwing a baseball," he says. "You just concentrate on the place you want the arrow to go." Standing with his left side facing the target, he nocks an arrow. "You want to become part of the bow." Right elbow high, bow slightly tilted, Wilson draws the string back to the same spot - hand touching his cheek - on each shot. He aims and fires in a single motion.

Thwap! His arrow smacks the target.

"I've spent a lot of time over the years making and shooting bows and arrows when I could have been making money," Wilson says. "But money isn't everything. I'd still like to get one good buck with a bow like this one before I'm too old to hunt. And I've never gotten a turkey."

He lifts the bow again. By the time he aims, the arrow is off.

Brace Yourself

Know anyone named Stringer? How about Fletcher? Hundreds of years ago, arrow makers were known as fletchers. We still have lots of words and phrases first used long ago to talk about archery:

  • In the 1200s a quarrel was a crossbow's arrow. Later it came to mean a complaint or argument.
  • The phrase brace yourself comes from bracing a bow, which means to put the string on and get ready for action.
  • Someone who is always braced for action might be considered high strung.
  • If an arrow was bolt upright, that meant it was true enough to fly straight.
  • Archery targets used to be called butts, so to be the butt of a joke is to be the target of ridicule.

Good Bow Books

Dean Wilson and others recommend these books on primitive archery:

Cherokee Bows and Arrows, by Al Herrin, White Bear Publications, 1989, Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

Bows and Arrows of the Native Americans, by Jim Hamm, Bois d'Arc Press, 1989, Azle, Texas.

The Bowyer's Craft, by Jay Massey, Bearpaw Publications, 1987, Girdwood, Alaska.

The Book of Primitive Archery, by Jay Massey, Bearpaw Publications, 1989, Girdwood, Alaska.

Native American Bows, by T.M. Hamilton, Missouri Archaeological Society, 1982, Columbia, Missouri.

The Traditional Bowyer's Bible, Volumes One and Two, Bois d'Arc Press, 1992 and 1993, Azle, Texas.

Archers Celebrate 50 Years of Deer Hunting

Throughout 1996, the Conservation Department, other conservation groups and archers statewide will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of archery deer hunting in Missouri.

In the 1920s, whitetail deer were practically extinct in Missouri. Concerned citizens and scientific management by the then-new Conservation Department restored their numbers sufficiently to allow the first archery deer season in 1946. Only 73 archers participated in the first archery season, a three-day, bucks-only season in Crawford County.

Today, however, over 90,000 archers hunt deer in Missouri. They enjoy a 96-day statewide season and harvest over 15,000 deer. Join the golden anniversary of archery deer hunting by sending your archery hunting stories to: Archery Deer Hunting, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102.

 

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