The Classic Longbow
October 28, 2010
Its History Is Riddled With Noble Colors And Its Present Punch Is Just As Deadly
Before video games, 24-hour television and boom boxes, many youngsters would spend their time reinventing the longbow. Filled with romantic notions of hunting the hard way, each boy, and a few girls, too, cut a supple limb from a tree or bush, tying the ends together with a cord.
My first bow began as a section of my grandfather's favorite oleander bush. We bought arrows for just a dime to a quarter each, or with personal enterprise, made our own, often with reeds cut to length, notched on one end for a nock, tipped with nothing at all, or perhaps a piece of broken glass to simulate a broadhead. Now and again, glass-tipped arrows were successful. Hunting hard, I finally got a jackrabbit with my lowly stick and string, and was very proud of it.
History of the Longbow
Longbows fell into disuse when firearms took over, but they regained favor in the late 1800s. The great grandfathers of longbow rebirth were Will and Maurice Thompson. They took up archery in earnest after the American Civil War, but were introduced to the sport much earlier.
Maurice said in Scribner's Monthly magazine, July 1877, "I was yet in my teens when I was taught the use of the longbow by Thomas Williams, a sort of hermit whose cabin stood in the midst of a vast pine forest that bordered father's plantation in the beautiful Cherokee country of North Georgia." Maurice Thompson was an excellent writer. His articles and book, The Witchery of Archery, first printed in 1878, brought many newcomers to the bow. (Maurice's book is in reprint today and worth reading.)
Bows were generally "six feet from tip to tip'¦unstrung, and made of lemon-wood or yew." One of Maurice's favorites had nocks (tips) of horn. "It was made by Philip Highfield, of London," explained Maurice in the Scribner's articles. Highfield arrows sold for $9.00 a dozen in the late 19th century. They were built of hickory, 28-inches long, and footed (fitted with extra hardwood spliced up front). The Thompson bow was not unlike Robin Hood's, whether you believe in the green-clad figure of Sherwood Forest or not, for bows of Robin's era were longbows made of a single material.
The same longbow came into the 20th century championed by Pope & Young. Pope had a chance to study English longbows at a museum. He compared them with American Native bows and announced the English model superior. But Dr. Pope also knew about the Turkish composite bow, crediting it with abilities "far beyond the possibilities of the yew longbow."
The 20th century dawned bright and clear, following the first of two world wars, as well as a multitude of startling inventions, from electric light bulbs and radio to workable automobiles, and even airplanes. The classic longbow was there to greet the new century, still made of a single material, with design very much like bows of Merry Old England.
Sam Fadala with a gobbler and a classic style longbow built by John Schulz, protÅ½gÅ½ of Howard Hill. Don't let the reverse, or forward set, handle fool. Hill, and other longbowmen, considered this grip perfectly acceptable.
Pope and Young went forth to slay grizzly bears and African lions with their longbows. Pope was already interested in archery when the "last wild Indian," as the wise and wonderful Ishi was first called, came forth from the California Mountains. Pope taught Ishi about steam locomotives and flying machines. Ishi tutored Dr. Pope in bowhunting. Pope and Young continued what Will and Maurice started, an interest in archery and bowhunting in modern America.
Pope's first bows may well have been those he fashioned after staves taken from the Mary Rose, a vessel that sank off the coast of Albion in 1535, and was raised again in 1841. Two bow staves were salvaged, both six-feet and 43?4-inches long. Pope copied these original English bows. His yew bows were "an exact duplicate" based on recorded measurements of the originals. They drew about 65 pounds and shot 28-inch arrows about 225 yards maximum, roughly half as far as Ingo Simon shot a Turkish bow in France in 1913. Pope and Young made their own bows, as well as arrows and accessories. Pope felt "every field archer should make his own tackle: so he would understand its repair." When the great Howard Hill came to archery, he was greeted once again by the same English style selfbow.
Howard Hill began his fantastic career at the age of four, with no more than stick and string. Howard handmade many bows in the 1920s and by 1933, he'd taken a bull bison from horseback at full gallop with one of his creations. Howard's first models were selfbows, and when his book, Hunting the Hard Way, appeared in 1953, he recommended that newcomers build their first bow of a single material. Hill's best longbows were composites, however, constructed of wood and fiberglass laminations. They were still cut from the classic design, a style that not only hangs on today, but also continues to do well for itself. Many companies and individual bowyers build the old-style longbow, including Jerry Hill Longbow Company of Wilsonville, Alabama, and Howard Hill Archery of Hamilton, Montana.
Longbows can be shot "straight up," and some shooters, such as Bill Fadala, do quite well using that form.
Today, many bowyers known for their modern-style longbows also offer a classic model for those who want one. For example, Herb Meland of Pronghorn Custom Bows, recognized for his high-performance recurves and excellent Three Piece Takedown Pronghorn longbow makes a Night Hawk with slight reflex/deflex design, but basically the classic longbow. Moreover, selfbows are back on the market with fine workmanship. Legendary Longbows of New Berlin, Wisconsin, sells bows that range from the Neolithic era to the present in style, including longbows. D.M. Kissinger of Berwick, Pennsylvania, handcrafts English-style longbows from various woods, including yew. Quality North West Bow Woods offers many different types of materials for those who want to try their hand at making their own selfbow.
The standard English, or if you will, classic style, longbow stays alive partly because of tradition. After all, Will and Maurice Thompson, Pope and Young, Howard Hill and quite a number of other greats shot longbows. "Yes, but maybe that's all they had to shoot," you say, and the answer is "no"; it wasn't all they had available to them to shoot.
Even Will and Maurice had various bow desig
ns available to them. They chose the longbow because it made sense to them. It was clean and simple, more like a canoe than a motorboat, and it shot well with a great deal of reliability. Dr. Pope did have a leaning toward the Anglo-Saxon culture: nonetheless, he acknowledged that other bow designs were better performers than the longbow, but he stayed with the longbow anyway.
The "classic" longbow continues to be built and shot on the range and in the hunting field because of nostalgia, and because some hunters feel the style represents the kind of challenge they wish to take on as a bowhunter. I do believe that standard longbow shooters can get so good your eyes will bug out when you see them shoot. So I'm not so sure I entirely buy the handicap reason for shooting a classic longbow. Good longbowmen don't seem to be handicapped. If longbows were truly unmanageable, nostalgia alone could never keep them alive on the threshold of the 21st century.
Dale Storey leans into the shot with his Jerry Hill longbow. Dale anchors at the corner of his mouth. He is a fluid longbow shooter who can whip an arrow out of his back quiver and have it launched on target in seconds. Note Dale's grip on the bow. Not a choke hold, but not loose, either.
While today's traditional bowhunter may not want to shoot an English-type longbow exclusively, having one in the bow rack is never a bad idea. Part of the fun is in learning how to get the most from that bow. First, there's shooting style. It's entirely possible to shoot old-style bow "straight up." Howard didn't do it that way, but others did and still do. One of my sons can shoot a longbow straight up. His arrows have no problem with the archer's paradox (warping around the riser of the bow, then back on track). Shafts fly straight and true, although my son shoots the bow with limbs vertical to the earth.
The usual stance for longbow mastery is relaxed, bent into it, knees unhinged, bow canted off to make a V-shaped shelf that launches an arrow cleanly toward the target. Instead of standing tall, the bowman crouches a little. Rather than the bow arm out straight, the arm is cocked a little at the elbow. Anchor point is normally at or near the corner of the mouth, which is not the way Will and Maurice did it, or for that matter Pope or Young, but it was Howard Hill's style.
Hill picked a tooth to touch with a finger each time to ensure a constant anchor point. Others used an ear, which would badly overdraw my bows. Multiple anchor points are also possible. I switch to a higher anchor point for extra-close shots, which works for me when a cottontail is five yards away, or even closer.
Arrows are shot off the shelf. A stick-on rug or leather arrow rest is coupled with a strike plate, which may also be of various materials. Some longbow shelves are narrow, in which case one stick-on rug or piece of leather folds into the corner and serves as combined rest and strike plate. Keep it simple. That's the longbow rule, although anyone who wants to mount an arrow rest on a longbow is free to do so. It works.
The longbow shooter generally goes with glove or tab. A glove is more visually appealing I suppose, but in recent years I've switched to a tab. Shooting is instinctive. If that term bothers you, let's just say the archer shoots his longbow without sights. Exactly how he directs his arrow to the target is open to question. There are many theories.
Sights have been mounted on longbows successfully, but I feel that a sight on a longbow takes away from the natural flow of things. How nice it is to direct an arrow wherever your eye is looking, without thinking about it. In fact, when I think about it, I tend to miss. Stay on autopilot--that's the way to handle a longbow. Let your brain do the work at the unconscious level. Of course, my friends and I tried sights. It was part of the evolution we had to go through while shooting a bow. We used a straight pin with a tiny plastic ball on the end, the pin taped to the riser of the bow. The sight was zeroed for 30 yards, as I recall. It was also off at every other range. I got rid of mine as fast as I could, going back to burning a hole in the target with my eyes, drawing, anchoring and releasing cleanly, without dropping the bow arm in the process.
Dale Storey demonstrates good hand placement on this Jerry Hill longbow. The fingers of the glove hand are curled just enough around the string to hold it; the bow hand takes a full grip, but without choking the handle.
Pros And Cons
As with everything else on the planet, longbows have their good and bad points. First the good point. The man who masters a longbow can shoot from just about any position, even lying on his stomach. The bow can be canted a little bit, or severely; the arrow still flies to the mark. Longbows can be very quiet. I use spider legs to get the hum out of the bowstring, cutting each rubber section in half so there are four shorter silencers rather than two longer ones. All four are run through the center of the bowstring, stretched out, then tied into place with nylon serving thread, plus a drop of Super Glue to secure the knot. I've also run a longbow without silencers, quite successfully. In short, longbows are quiet, efficient bows. And one more thing--they are light. You aren't carrying a chunk of telephone pole into the woods when you pack a longbow.
Now the negative side: The traditional longbow, as mentioned earlier, demands getting used to; at least for most of us. I'm sure there are archers who pick one up and feel that they were born shooting it, but most bowmen have to gain a feel for the straightened bow and how it casts an arrow. Also, there may be hand shock.
If you think hand shock causes inaccuracy, watch a great archer shoot an old-time longbow. Don't be surprised if he can whack coins out of the air with it. Finally, newer longbow designs definitely shoot a faster arrow than Robin Hood's bow of lore. Just don't tell anybody that the big buck you got was harvested with an arrow that had maxed-out at only 170 feet per second and everything will be fine.
One look at the riser of this longbow tells you that the bow is not of the old school. It is Herb Meland's Three Piece Takedown Pronghorn, this one belonging to the author. It has a maple riser impregnated with an epoxy substance under high pressure for added strength, and little additional ballast in the hand. Note leather strike plate and rug rest.
Now we come to arrows. Longbows shoot anything spined to suit the draw weight of the bow. Those great aluminum shafts from Easton shoot extremely well in longbows. So do wood arrows of different types. An excellent wood shaft I tried recently is slow-growth pine fr
om Blue Mountain Arrow Shafts, Ltd. of Vanderhood, British Columbia. These shafts proved tough and resilient. Of course, tapered cedars from Wapiti Archery in Lakewood, Colorado, are always good, too. A big surprise came my way when I tried a recent graphite arrow. Fast and true. That's how graphite arrows release from my longbows. It if offends an archer's sense of history to shoot carbon or aluminum arrows from a bow designed before knights were bold, then wooden shafts are the way to go.
That is a glance at the classic longbow, different from modern longbow designs by quite a margin, but historical, interesting, and in the hands of an archer willing to practice, still a formidable hunting instrument.