Written by Mark Penninger, For the Observer Reprinted with Permission
To trust everything you hear or read about archery equipment these days is to be led astray.
Many modern archery equipment manufacturers want us to believe that the only way to be a successful bow hunter is to spend a fortune on the latest and fastest compound bow, complete with fiber-optic sight, drop away arrow rest, vibration silencers, mechanical release aid, the lightest and skinniest carbon arrows, and broadheads that have catchy names and cost more than $12 apiece.
The investment in gadgets to accompany the new bow would not be complete without a laser range finder, global positioning system, electronic game-finding device, two-way radio, scent absorbing camouflage clothing, and of course an all-terrain vehicle to get you into and out of the woods.
To acquire this collection of technological aids would set a person back some serious change. More than likely this gear would be accumulated over a series of months or years to spread out the financial pain.
A Viable Alternative
If all of this technology leaves you feeling hollow and unfulfilled, there is a viable alternative. Welcome to the challenging and history rich world of traditional archery. The term “traditional” refers to the way things were in the early days of archery and bow hunting. The tool of choice is a simple wooden longbow or recurve bow.
The traditional mindset that accompanies these bows is one of appreciation for nature, respect for the challenge of the hunt and a return to woodsmanship as the tool of choice for hunting.
The traditional archer seeks to maintain the integrity of the bow as a close range hunting tool while sharpening his or her skills as a hunter.
I hunted with a compound bow for several years before a friend suggested that I take on the added challenge of a recurve. The switch was not an easy one, and it took nearly five years to accept the wooden bow as my primary hunting tool. The mental anguish and sore muscles vanished the first time I buried a cedar arrow tight behind the shoulder of an elk.
Some traditionalists take their pastime to the extreme and whittle their bows from a single piece of wood. These bows are called selfbows and represent the most primitive in the traditional arsenal. Primitive archers often fashion their arrows from wood they collect, and knap or chip their arrow points from various types of stone in the same manner used by American Indians.
If all of this sounds a little intimidating, there is a middle ground. Most longbows and recurves made today incorporate fiberglass into their designs to enhance performance and prevent splintering of the wooden laminations that comprise the working limbs. This may sound modern compared to selfbows, but fiberglass has been used in recurves and longbows for more than 60 years, so it would not be unreasonable to refer to these designs as “traditional.”
As for arrows and hunting points, personal preference usually dictates the choice.
Carbon and aluminum arrow shafts can perform well from traditional bows, but many archers prefer wood for its beauty, heavier weight and nostalgic qualities.
Wood arrow shafts can be purchased in raw form or made with common woodworking tools. Either way, wood shafts can be stained, crested and fletched to reflect the archer’s personal touch.
The most commonly used arrow points for traditional bow hunting are simple, two-edged points that the archer sharpens himself. Even this minor detail of sharpening a hunting point is a serious matter among traditional archers. Modern equipment aficionados are accustomed to removing razor-sharp hunting points from a package without a casual thought. For the traditional archer, sharpening broadheads in preparation for an upcoming hunt is an integral and necessary step in the total hunting experience.
Advantages and Disadvantages
It would only be fair to highlight some advantages and disadvantages of modern and traditional bows.
The modern compound has what is termed “let-off,” which means the operator holds only a fraction of the draw weight when at full draw. This is a definitive advantage when a game animal is walking toward the hunter and the bow can be drawn and held for several minutes without great effort. This eliminates the potential game-spooking movement necessary to draw the bow when an animal is very close.
The traditional bow must be drawn and released relatively quickly since the archer holds the entire draw weight when at full draw. This requires the hunter to be a keen observer of an animal’s body language and only attempt to draw the bow when the animal is unlikely to detect the movement.
When well tuned and faithfully practiced, a compound bow may have the advantage of pinpoint accuracy and extended range. The improved accuracy of compounds is largely due to the use of sights, whereas traditional bows are typically shot instinctively, meaning without the aid of a sighting mechanism. Shooting instinctively is a matter of hand-to-eye coordination, the same principle used to throw a baseball or to shoot a basketball. The majority of traditional archers limit their range on game to less than 30 yards, although some are proficient to greater distances.
Any ethical bowhunter will decide what his or her maximum effective hunting range is, based on their level of competence and proficiency during practice.
Regardless of your choice of equipment, the risk of wounding an animal increases dramatically beyond about 40 yards.
The simplicity of traditional bows is an appealing attribute. Compound bows have many moving parts that need adjusting and tuning, and can fail or break. A mechanical malfunction can mean an abrupt end to a hunt. In contrast, a traditional bow has only a string and the bow itself. A spare string and some wax for conditioning the string is all that is needed in your repair kit.
Compounds can be noisy and require multiple vibration dampening devices to absorb the excess energy that is not transferred to the arrow upon release.
Without addressing this excess energy the compound will be plagued with loosened screws and noise that rattles the ear.
A longbow is quiet by design, and the noise of a recurve can easily be tamed with a set of string silencers and some moleskin where the string touches the bow limbs.
A potentially frustrating aspect of modern compounds is that many manufacturers are in continual pursuit of the fastest and most advanced arrow-launching device. So the customer is faced each year with whether to stick with last year’s model or upgrade to the latest high performer. This scenario also makes getting parts for older models a challenge.
The traditional archer tends to form an attachment, in some cases a sentimental bond with the old bow that has proven itself on prior hunts. There are many bows made in the 1950s and 1960s that were handed down from father to child and still take game with dependable regularity.
One of the most obvious differences between compounds and traditional bows is their overall length. Most compounds are very short and the bow limbs move very little during the shot. This means they can be drawn in tight quarters without much worry about limb clearance.
Conversely, longbows and recurves are generally much longer and all their energy is stored in the limbs at full draw. Upon release the limbs of traditional bows snap forward and can strike obstacles in their path, resulting in errant arrow flight. So the traditional archer must choose a shooting position that allows for the longer bow length and limb clearance.
Back to Basics
The comparisons between bow styles could run on for volumes. But the important message is for all bowhunters to remember why they took up the bow in the first place. Getting close to the prey and using a primitive tool that gives your quarry a reasonable chance of escape is the essence of hunting with a bow.
We impose the short-range limitations of the bow on ourselves in exchange for a four-week general deer and elk season that overlaps much of the elk rut. We can hunt the majority of the state and have additional opportunities for black-tailed deer and cow elk in Western Oregon late in the year. These are incredible opportunities that our predecessors lobbied for back when the bow was considered ineffective as a hunting tool.
When packing for this upcoming bow season, ask “What can I do without?” rather than “How much can I squeeze into my pack?”
When all the advertising hype and TV hunting show ballyhoo is cleared away, all you really need is a bow, some arrows, a knife, a hunting license, a good pair of boots and maybe a bottle of water. The rest is just “stuff” to get in your way of becoming a woodsman. After all, the animals we pursue have the same senses and abilities they have had for thousands of years. Only humans feel they need to supplement their God-given abilities to achieve an advantage over their prey.
Mark Penninger, former president of Eagle Cap Traditional Archers, lives in La Grande and enjoys hunting all types of game in all types of places.