The Legendary Longbow

Published on: Sep. 18, 2013

In an age of high-tech gadgets, the simple longbow seems a throwback to an antiquated time. After all, it’s just a stick and string. Yet a growing fan base continues to be drawn to its history, simplicity, stealth, and performance.

Most importantly, longbows are just plain fun. Fun to shoot and fun to build — using nothing but an oversized stick, some simple tools, and an extra helping of patience and perseverance. With a good piece of wood, the right tools, some instruction, and several days of steady work, you’ll be rewarded for a lifetime.

Want to make your own? This article will show you how

The Lure of the Longbow

“There’s a certain lure of traditional archery that is sometimes difficult to express either verbally or in writing,” writes author Jay Massey in the Traditional Bowyer’s Bible. “It must be experienced. But when a hand-made arrow from your first homemade bow slams into a rotten stump with a satisfying thunk, you’ll know it. When you kneel down and reverently place your homemade bow beside the form of that hard-earned deer, you’ll feel it. At such moments there’ll be no question why you chose the traditional archery path.”

Some devotees are surprised by the pull of primitive archery. “My first bow was a gift from my parents,” says A.J. Hendershott, traditional archery enthusiast and Conservation Department outreach and education regional supervisor. “It was a fiberglass recurve just like we used to shoot at Boy Scout summer camp. I am certain my interest in primitive archery started there with the archery and Indian lore merit badges. My parents and Scouts sparked an interest that smoldered until I took a longbow-making course. The bow-making flames have been raging ever since.”

Primitive archery appeals to Hendershott, as it does to many other Missourians, for the challenges it presents. Does he have what it takes to hunt with just a simple stick and string, and how can he get close enough to his intended game? Can he find the raw materials and coax a bow out of a chunk of wood?

“Each bow is different,” Hendershott says. “The different types of wood force me to learn their strengths and weaknesses. Even trees of the same species can have differences influenced by their environment. Bow designs vary as well, but when you combine all of those variables, no two bows will ever be the same. I could make bows for the next 30 years and still be exposed to something new and exciting.”

Hendershott says that longbows are not less efficient, just less complicated. “When I shoot a compound bow I feel part of a mechanical sys tem. When I shoot a longbow I feel connected to a simpler way. I have to rely more on skills and practice. This is just another way to enjoy and connect with nature.”

Longbows in Missouri

The longbow was an integral part of Native Americans’ lives for hundreds of years. The Osage bow style highlighted in this article was the main hunting tool for Missouri’s Osage tribe. Today, archery continues to increase in popularity in Missouri and is promoted by many Conservation Department programs.

Today we think of archery and deer season as going hand in hand, but it was not always so. By the 1930s, white-tailed deer were practically extinct in Missouri. Concerned citizens and scientific management by the 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. Since then, generations of Missourians have worked to make archery as mainstream as hunting with firearms. Sharing their passion paid off.

Today, more than 183,000 archers hunt in Missouri. They enjoy a 124-day statewide season. Conservation and science-based management have made archery hunting accessible to Missourians in all corners of the state.

“Archery hunting for deer continues to grow in popularity,” says Resource Scientist Jason Sumners, the Department’s deer specialist. “It’s such a long season, so it keeps you out in the field longer, plus I think many hunters like the additional challenges you face when hunting with a bow.”

Only a few people actively hunt for turkeys with archery equipment, and those who do hunt primarily in the fall. Most turkeys that are harvested with bows during the archery season are taken opportunistically as hunters wait for deer.

“Missouri has a large wild turkey population, and for those folks who choose to take advantage of the archery season, it provides a considerable amount of opportunity,” says Resource Scientist Jason Isabelle, the Department’s turkey specialist.

“Archery hunting is a challenging pursuit, especially with an animal as wary as a wild turkey. Harvesting a wild turkey with bow and arrow is quite an accomplishment given the incredible eyesight and extreme wariness that this animal possesses,” says Isabelle.

“Not only do hunters have to make an accurate shot on an animal with a relatively small vital zone, but just coming to full draw on a wild turkey without alerting it to your presence can be a feat in its own right.”

For some archery enthusiasts, the hunt never ends. Once hunting season is over, the hunt changes to different aspects of the sport, like hunting for the right tree to become the next bow. For Hendershott, another important aspect of the sport is getting friends and family involved in archery, and ultimately conservation, too.

“Shooting a longbow that I crafted is a solid connection to the land,” Hendershott says. “I had to use resources from the wild to make the bow and then I get to hunt animal resources with that bow. It just doesn’t get more satisfying than that.”

Making Your Own Longbow

Follow these steps to create a longbow-style self-bow similar to those used by the Osage tribe. A self-bow is a bow made from a single piece of wood with no backing. A longbow refers to its length, which is generally 60 to 70 inches long (shorter for children).

Before suggesting woods to consider for your first bow, Hendershott acknowledges that Osage orange wood, also known as hedge apple or hedge for short, has a stellar reputation in the world of archery. It is strong in tension, takes compression well, is very dense, and yields a beautiful final product. Unfortunately, Osage orange is not a wood recommended for beginning bow makers.

“First, it requires bow makers to ‘chase a growth ring,’ where all of the wood above that growth ring must be carefully removed to reveal the back of the bow,” Hendershott says. The process can take several hours and is tedious. In addition to ring chasing, hedge mandates crafters follow the grain exactly when roughing out a bow, which requires a seasoned eye with attention to detail. Any deviations to the ring or the grain will result in failure.

Beginners should look instead at other common Missouri woods, such as hickory, hackberry, ash, or even elm, for their maiden voyage into bow making, “These woods, sometimes called ‘white woods,’ are abundant, tend to grow straight, and produce good bow blanks, often called staves,” Hendershott says. “They share many of the qualities that make hedge a good bow, but do not require chasing a growth ring, and their grain can be violated in minor ways that Osage orange will never forgive.”

White woods require a little wider limb design than hedge but make wonderful, hard-hitting bows that compete with any bow wood. Beginners can graduate to hedge after learning the basics of bow making on wood that is simpler to work with.

Longbow How-To Resources

A book that will prove useful in making your own longbow is Bows and Arrows of the Native Americans: A Complete Step-by-Step Guide to Wooden Bows, Sinew-backed Bows, Composite Bows, Strings, Arrows and Quivers by Jim Hamm. Two reputable and helpful websites that have forums and instructional information are tradgang.com and primitivearcher.com.

If you are not able to obtain wood for making your own bow, the United Bowhunters of Missouri offer free downloadable plans to make your own bow out of plastic PVC pipe readily available at most hardware stores. These instructions offer another inexpensive way to get into the sport. With a draw weight of only 15 pounds, it is ideally suited for a child’s first bow. Visit unitedbowhunters.com and scroll over to the “About Us” page.

The Ozarks Selfbow Jamboree, held each summer, is a great place to shoot longbows, meet others interested in the sport, learn from the best, and get advice on making your longbow. Learn more at marshallbowhunters.org.

Build a Wooden Bow with A.J. Hendershott, traditional archery enthusiast and Conservation Department outreach and education regional supervisor

Step 1 — Wood Selection

Selecting a proper piece of wood is one of the most important steps to successfully completing a useful bow. Harvest trees that are 8–12 inches in diameter, straight, and free of limbs, knots, and dead wood. Split the log into quarters and paint the ends with paint, glue, varnish, or some sealing agent, to ensure the log dries out slowly, and to reduce checking and splitting. Remove bark to speed drying time. Wait for the staves to dry before working them. Many traditional archery supply houses sell properly cured and selected rough blanks. Consider purchasing one to ensure a successful first bow project.

Step 2 — Trace Pattern

Lay out the bow by examining the grain. Ideally the bow should have the tips line up straight down the longitudinal grain. You can sometimes incorporate knots or defects into the handle (where the bow doesn’t bend) and have success, just by being thoughtful with layout. Trace pattern on stave.

Step 3 — Rough Out Shape

Rough cut out stave shape (3a). A band saw or hatchet work equally well but care must be taken with either to ensure you don’t get too close to your layout lines. A quarter-inch gap between your layout marks and your cut line is appropriate for the rough-out stage (3b).

Step 4 — Fast Wood Removal

Use a shaving horse (or workbench vise) and a drawknife to continue fast wood removal. A shaving horse is a comfortable tool for holding the stave in place, but a bench vise is useful too. Use leather to protect the wood from the vise jaws. Drawknives should be sharp, and work better on low humidity days.

Tip: If your bow has a wide-limb design (1.5–2 inches), don’t drawknife the full surface of the belly. Take a third off the right side then take a third off the left side. Finally take the resulting ridge down the center. It is three times the passes but it reduces the effort for each pass.

Step 5 — Slow Wood Removal

Using a shaving horse and finer scrapers, such as a spoke shave, rasp, and cabinet scraper, continue to slowly remove wood closer to your longbow outline. Use a cabinet scraper and sandpaper to finish. Steps 2–4 can take two to four hours. Step 5 can take an additional four hours.

“Patience is a top priority here. It will take as long as it takes, and rushing is a mistake,” says Hendershott. “If you get to feeling impatient or hurried, it is better to take a break and come back to the project when you are feeling more relaxed. Taking 1/32 of an inch too much off the belly of your bow can turn your hunting bow into a youth bow, by significantly reducing the bow’s draw weight and strength.”

Step 6 — Test Draw and Fine Tune

Archery shops and vendors who deal in traditional archery gear can supply strings or string-making materials. The next step is to add the bow string and check the initial draw weight based on your draw length. Tillering is the critical step that makes a bow more balanced and a better performer. A tillering tree or tillering stick holds your bow in the drawn position at various distances and allows you to see how the limbs are bending and where there are still stiff spots. Remove the bow from the tillering tree and continue to fine-tune the bow by removing fine layers of wood as needed until your desired draw length is achieved. Step 7 — Finish Once your preferred draw weight and draw length are reached, stain the longbow as desired, then seal it with gunstock oil, spar varnish, or polyurethane.

Step 8 —Shoot and enjoy!

Making Your Longbow — Do’s and Don’ts

DO:

  • Find an experienced bow maker, to guide you through the process.• Attend local bow-making events to learn all you can before you begin.
  • Choose a blank, or stave, that is straight and free of knots, checks, or splits. • Learn how to care for your tools.
  • Bend wood that is properly dried
  • Store your bow flat or hanging.

Don’t

  • Bend green wood. This will rob the
  • Work on your bow when you are feeling rushed or fatigued.
  • Leave the bow strung when not in
  • Store the bow leaning against a wall.
  • Pull the bow past the intended draw weight at any stage.
  • Choose dead wood.

Get Started With Archery

BOWHUNTER EDUCATION

Missouri’s bowhunter-education program is for everyone who enjoys the outdoors and has an interest in conservation. The course can be an excellent refresher for veteran bowhunters. While it is not required in Missouri, many cities that allow archery hunting inside their city limits require the bowhunter to be bowhunter-education certified to take part. Learn more about the Department’s Bowhunter Education at mdc.mo.gov/node/9723.

HUNTING AND SHOOTING SKILLS CLASSES

Sign up for a Department-led course near you to learn basic and advanced archery, and other hands-on classes that build on the foundation of hunter education to increase your hunting and shooting skills in the field. Check the online calendar for workshops and courses. Learn more at mdc.mo.gov/node/8506.

ARCHERY RANGES

The Conservation Department has 32 conservation areas with unstaffed archery range facilities, plus an additional two ranges with third-party cooperators. All of the Department’s staffed shooting ranges also have archery ranges and programs. Look for one near you at mdc.mo.gov/node/4460.

ARCHERY IN THE SCHOOLS PROGRAM

The Conservation Department supports international-style target archery in 4th- through 12th-grade physical education classes. Close to 300 schools and more than 80,000 Missouri students now take part in the program. Learn more at mdc.mo.gov/node/3813.

ARCHERY HUNTING PERMITS

Learn more about fall archery deer, turkey, and small game hunting regulations at mdc.mo.gov/node/3917.

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