Com­pet­ing with prim­i­tive bows

Alex Tyler tells us all

Bow International - - CONTENTS -

Watch­ing a re­peat on tele­vi­sion, you can of­ten tell how much time has passed since the pro­gramme was made by look­ing at the tech­nol­ogy used. See­ing the boxy cars of the six­ties, the mas­sive mo­bile phones of the eight­ies, and the clunky lap­tops of a decade or so ago re­minds us of tech­no­log­i­cal progress. Within field archery how­ever, there are bowyers and archers who cel­e­brate his­tor­i­cal bow de­signs. The Prim­i­tive cat­e­gory is for bows which repli­cate an­cient de­signs, and are made of en­tirely nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als (though for safety rea­sons, mod­ern glues and syn­thetic bow­strings are al­lowed).

The his­tory of archery goes back a long way, with the ear­li­est known ar­row­heads found in South Africa and es­ti­mated to be 60 – 70,000 years old. The tech­nol­ogy de­vel­oped in a num­ber of civil­i­sa­tions, used for war­fare and hunt­ing with equip­ment made from ma­te­ri­als which could be ob­tained lo­cally or through lo­cal trade.

The tomb of the Egyp­tian boy-pharaoh, Tu­tankhamen, con­tained a num­ber of bows, of two dis­tinct types. Some re­sem­bled long­bows with a sin­gle curve, oth­ers had re­curved tips to the limbs, which were made from lay­ers of ash, cherry and birch. Mov­ing for­ward to the Cop­per Age, Ötzi, a hunter whose body was found pre­served in an Aus­trian glacier in 1991, car­ried a yew long­bow stave, which had been par­tially tillered. Com­par­ing this to sim­i­lar staves found on the Mary Rose, it has been es­ti­mated this would have a draw weight of 160 pounds when fin­ished. In his doe­skin quiver were four­teen ar­rows made from the way­far­ing tree, of which two were fully fletched with feath­ers at­tached with birch tar glue and bound with net­tle fi­bres. The most re­cent re­search has dis­cov­ered Ötzi car­ried the ear­li­est known bow string, made of three twisted strands of an­i­mal sinews.

Sinew was also used to re­in­force bows and re­duce the like­li­hood of them break­ing when drawn. This was par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant when wood was in short sup­ply and the tech­nique

was used by the Inuit and en­abled them to make ef­fec­tive bows from drift­wood or antler. The bows de­vel­oped by a num­ber of Asi­atic cul­tures were de­signed to be shot from horses, so were short­ened, the power de­riv­ing from glued lay­ers of horn and flex­i­ble woods such as bam­boo.

By around 1900, there was even a pro­to­com­pound bow, the Penob­scot, named af­ter the in­dige­nous peo­ple of the east­ern wood­lands in what is now Maine. The bow con­sists of two joined sets of limbs, with a long stave backed by a smaller one. In ad­di­tion to the nor­mal bow string, the limbs of the smaller stave are joined by strings to the tips of the longer, so when the bow is drawn, both sets bend. This gives the bow both ad­di­tional power and re­sis­tance and al­lows draw length and weight to be ad­justed by al­ter­ing the strings.

This rich his­tory means that for an archer want­ing to shoot Prim­i­tive, there is a huge choice of styles avail­able. I spoke to Pat Mor­row, an NFAS archer about what en­cour­aged him to shoot prim­i­tive style and how he chose which bow to make.

"I’ve been shoot­ing about thir­teen years and in that time I’ve shot al­most all types of re­curve bow, with and with­out sights. I’ve even had a go with cross­bow. I much pre­fer prim­i­tive class, as I am more re­laxed and al­though I still enjoy com­pet­ing, win­ning a medal does not mat­ter as much as it did when I shot other styles, par­tic­u­larly bare­bow." he said.

Why is that? "There is some­thing that just feels right about be­ing out in the woods with a bow you have made your­self. Shoot­ing now is more about the ex­pe­ri­ence and the chal­lenge comes against my­self, get­ting a good score. There is also the point that you don’t know who you will be up against – you could be shoot­ing against some­one with a horse­bow or a Ja­panese bow. There is a lot of in­ter­est in see­ing what other archers have made and what tech­niques they used."

What changes have you had to make to your style? "When I started shoot­ing this bow, I found it hard­est to ad­just to the rel­a­tively slow speed and the time it took for the ar­row to straighten up. This can be a prob­lem when shoot­ing through ob­sta­cles close to the peg be­cause in NFAS, you of­ten have ob­structed shots."

"My style has also changed in that I'm a lot more in­stinc­tive in my shoot­ing and a lot more re­laxed. I needed to get some new equip­ment be­cause I now use a glove on my bow hand to pre­vent get­ting fletch­ings stuck through my fin­ger, and I al­ways wear a bracer."

Pat is cur­rently shoot­ing a lam­i­nated flat­bow, with­out shelf or rest, made of bam­boo, black wal­nut and rock maple. "I was drawn to the flat­bow be­cause of its ba­sic de­sign and it was easy to make. I have al­ways worked with wood and have ac­cess to the tools. The most com­pli­cated part was tiller­ing, mak­ing sure that the bow was bal­anced and needed to check the draw weight reg­u­larly, to make sure I hadn’t taken too much off. I’ve also tried shoot­ing with a Penob­scot bow and loved the smooth re­lease. That was one I’ve bought though – mak­ing one would be a real chal­lenge."

The NFAS recog­nised prim­i­tive bows as a dis­tinct class from April 2007, fol­low­ing a mem­ber­ship vote. To recog­nise the broad range of styles used by an­cient archers, any type of hand loose can be used, in­clud­ing a thumb ring. The class, while still small, has grown steadily since. If you want to try the Prim­i­tive class be­fore com­mit­ting, there are bowyers who sell bows which qual­ify for the class, al­though you should speak to them first to check these con­firm with NFAS guide­lines. For ex­am­ple, if a bow con­firms to long­bow guide­lines, then it must be shot in that class. No ar­row shelf is per­mit­ted and all ar­rows must be shot off the hand. If you are ready to make your own bow, ready-cut staves can be bought, to give an in­tro­duc­tion to tiller­ing be­fore mov­ing to de­sign­ing and mak­ing the equip­ment.

Also, your ar­rows must also be self-nocked, as plas­tic nocks are not per­mit­ted. (A brief aside: be­cause his ar­rows ap­peared to have plas­tic nocks, Le­go­las, the elf archer in the 'Lord Of The Rings' films would have been po­litely told he would have to shoot in Hunt­ing Tackle class.)

Which­ever way you choose to shoot, the ex­pe­ri­ence will be vastly dif­fer­ent from shoot­ing a mod­ern bow. A self-made Prim­i­tive bow, with all of the echoes of archery’s past and the as­so­ci­ated crafts­man­ship, is al­ways go­ing to pro­vide for a deeper ex­pe­ri­ence.


Three styles of prim­i­tive bows suit­able for NFAS class

Self-nocked ar­row Pat Mor­row, Prim­i­tive archer >

One of Pat's works in progress

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