Man is by nature a warrior and a hunter. Fighting and hunting have been objective realities since the earliest human societies organized into warring and hunting parties, largely for the purposes of survival. Both attributes are likely wired into our DNA, and they have always been reflected in mankind’s quest for the perfect weapon — one that is the easiest to carry and wield and is most effective against foe or food.
The first weapons of prehistory were, of course, sticks and stones. Slings soon followed. Then man discovered that if he had a hard yet pliable piece of wood, he could string it with animal sinew, strips of hide, or even corded plant fiber and load it with a long-shafted, thin, wooden and stone-or-bone-tipped missile (the arrow). As the early hunters learned eventually to draw back onto the string, aiming the missile at their target and releasing the stringed arrow with tremendous effect, bowhunting was born, forever revolutionizing war fighting and hunting.
When and where did archery begin? Archery seems to have emerged from unrelated and wholly disconnected cultures and societies stretching back at least to the Paleolithic Period, literally tens of thousands of years ago. But unlike sticks (which advanced to spears and pilums), stones, and slings, the bow never became obsolete. It was only perfected. Granted, as a weapon of war, the bow has largely been replaced by weapons too horrible to contemplate in terms of lethality – but only relatively recently.
For many traditional hunters who embrace the purest elements of traditional or primitive hunting, the bow has always been the weapon of choice. For Tom Jeffery of Jeffery Archery in Columbia, the reasoning is simple. “The traditional bow — anything that is pre-compound bow, whether it be a longbow or a recurve bow — has evolved into a work of art over thousands of years,” says Tom, who together with his father, Owen Jeffery, founded Jeffery Archery in 1976. “Making traditional bows or even perfecting the skill of shooting bows is quite literally an art form. And art factors into all of archery and traditional bows.”
Traditional bows include both longbows and recurve bows. The longbow is the more basic bow, often considered to be the more primitive bow in terms of design simplicity. Slightly more challenging to shoot than a recurve bow, the longbow was made famous in the Battle of Crecy between the English and French armies in 1346 when English archers proved decisive against the French.
Recurve bows, on the other hand, are considered to be the slighter, faster, easier-to-handle of the two traditional bows; a version of the recurve bow was made famous by the Parthians, the Persians, and particularly the much-feared 13th century Mongol horsemen, who perfected the art of bow shooting at the gallop with fearsome accuracy.
“The recurve bows of today are a bit different,” says Tom, who years ago served on the U.S. Army Archery Team. “Though like their ancestors, the modern recurve bow is still recognized as being more maneuverable, shorter, and generally easier and faster to shoot.”
The far more sophisticated 20th and 21st century compound bow features a system of cables, wheels, and pulleys to eliminate much of the brute-strength pulling effort required in traditional bowhunting. The compound bow also includes other modern bow sight amenities. “Compounds create a leverage advantage for the archer,” explains Tom. “The mechanics of it store a little more energy, so it shoots a little faster. It’s shorter. Some might say it’s not very attractive when compared to traditional bows, but it sure can cook!”
Traditional bows can shoot about 15 to 20 yards in terms of maximum effective range for hunting. However, a compound bow in the hands of a skilled archer may be able to shoot fatally across 50 yards. Nevertheless, a rebirth has occurred over the past few decades in the popularity of traditional bows; the renewed interest stems largely from a desire for tradition, aesthetics, and sheer bow shooting challenge.
Columbia surgeon Dr. Sid Morrison, a lifelong bowhunter who prefers a recurve bow to any other hunting weapon, has recently switched, at least temporarily, to an easier-to-pull compound bow because of his rotator cuff issues.
“I started shooting an old longbow as a kid,” Sid says. “I fell in love with bows. I never made my own bows like many bowhunters have, but I did make my own arrows. The thing about traditional archery is the beauty of having something in your hand that you are excited about. Traditional archery equipment is simple, but it has a component of natural beauty to it, like looking at a beautiful piece of art.”
Sid adds that there is also “an art and a splendor” in the development of the skills required to hunt with a bow.
“Instinctive shooting with traditional archery means that because the arrow is slower, you can literally see the arc of the arrow, which presents itself in a rainbow kind of a configuration,” he says. “It’s like if you are throwing a rock or a baseball, you can see the drop in the trajectory. Same with the arrow, and then you instinctively adjust for that after you get to know the velocity. Your brain makes an intuitive adjustment, so you have to practice shoot a lot so that your brain will easily adjust in the field to the various ranges.”
Modern traditional bows like those at Jeffery Archery are handmade works of art, meticulously crafted from the finest woods fashioned into the bow’s unique shape, reinforced with fiberglass, and tested through intensive labor for flexibility and strength. Primitive bows, also art pieces, begin with a single seasoned stave, which is the foundational bow piece. The wooden stave is often dried or seasoned for more than a year.
Marty Daughtry has always made his own arrows from scratch, has bowhunted big-game animals and searched for old American Indian arrowheads since he was about 9 years old. “It’s all a passion for me. I love it. And though practice is key for any bowhunter, for me it’s not so much that I feel a need to be out practicing every day to be good with a bow; it’s more that it’s such a pleasurable pursuit, it’s so much fun, and it’s simply hard to put it down.”
Marty prefers his own handmade wooden arrows to the aluminum arrows he has sometimes purchased.
“A wooden arrow released and coming off a bow not only feels differently, it’s much quieter,” says Marty. “There’s also something special for me in that I made the arrow myself. It all seems much more natural. I even love the smell of the different types of woods, such as cedar and northern pine, that I use to make the arrows.”
For broad head types, Marty uses fixed blade, steel head, or stone; for fletching: “Some are prefab store bought and I also use turkey feathers.”
Bowhunting and competition archery are extremely challenging sports. Bowhunting can also be dangerous, considering the type of game the bowhunter is pursuing and how close the hunter needs to be to the animal for a clean shot.
Columbia anesthesiologist Dr. Ken Grosslight has hunted and taken multiple big game trophies from around the world, and all with a traditional bow.
“Traditional bowhunting is tough,” says Ken. “But it’s the only hunting I’ve ever done. This is the way primitive man hunted, and if I’m going to eat meat, I’m going to take responsibility for it.” His fascination with traditional bows stems from the history and tradition of bowhunting.
“It is a huge challenge with a recurve or a longbow,” he adds. “In fact, most of the hunting trips I go on, I come back empty-handed. If I had a rifle, it would be a different story. Most people don’t realize that with a traditional bow you have to get about 20 yards from the animal to take a shot. You miss a lot, and every animal you harvest is a trophy. Therein lies the sport.”
Ken, who frequently travels to remote areas for the most elusive or dangerous game, says he is always honing his bow shooting skills. Nearly every day, he shoots 20 or so arrows to keep his edge.
Ken’s thoughts on a compound bow are clear: “I consider a compound bow to be a string gun. It’s got sights. It’s got pulleys. It’s got a trigger. And you can pick it right up after a year of letting it sit and still drill the target. Hunting with a compound bow is bowhunting, but it’s a different animal.”
Sid agrees. “Compound bows are great fun, much easier than a traditional bow. I can take a person who has never shot a bow and arrow before, set them up with a compound bow, and in one afternoon have them hitting a paper plate at 25 yards every time. With a recurve or a longbow, that’s not going to happen.”
Ultimately, compound bows and traditional bows are almost as different as rifles and all bows. They are worlds apart, but all are still great sporting weapons. According to archery aficionados like Tom, Sid, Marty, and Ken, the art of bow and arrow making is for the bows and the arrows to become works of art — near-transcendental connections to a very distant past.
And then there’s the thrill of the hunt.
“In the final analysis, nothing gets me more excited than to have a big game animal get to within 15 or 20 yards from me,” says Marty. “That’s what it’s all about. There is nothing like the patience required and the feeling you get when you let a 1,700-pound bull moose or a 2,000-pound buffalo get to within 20 or so yards from you. Your adrenaline is surging. Even with an extremely elusive South Carolina white-tailed deer, it’s the same. That’s the allure of bowhunting. There is nothing else like it.”
As the experts will attest, the biggest difference between bowhunting and hunting with a rifle is that when the rifle-armed hunter spots his or her pursued game, the hunt is essentially over. When the bowhunter spots his or her prey, the true hunt and real fun is only just beginning.