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The role of the traditional bow in the archery world
Anton de Wit disagrees with a writer who argues that the traditional longbow is 'history'.
A few weeks ago I stumbled upon an online article that raised my eyebrows to my hairline and my blood pressure to dangerous levels! The article was all about traditional bows and it started out by saying that wooden bows were where archery started all those thousands of years ago, but that these selfbows or "primitive bows" were now something of the past. The modern-day composites or recurves had replaced them as the new longbow. It's like telling a guy with an immaculate model T Ford that he should rather donate it to a museum and then go buy one of the latest models if he wanted to be part of the road...
At first I was a little angry and hurt that these magical creatures, as Johnny Snyman calls them, are now being waved away and sent to life's afterburners and a place in history. But then I thought about what they were saying and had to agree. The writer had a point – albeit a very small one.
I've been building selfbows and primitive bows for years now. I make a living creating them out of hickory, oak or any good bow wood I can lay my eager hands on. I either self, linen, fibre or bamboo-back them just for that extra peace of mind. However, this story is not about me – my aim is to demolish a few myths about traditional wooden bows.
There's no arguing the place that wooden bows hold in history. Arrowheads have been found that are over 40 000 years old, so a huge chunk of that history belongs to the primitive or longbow. At first the bows were used for hunting and if by chance whatever was being hunted got wounded and really angry, they were used for defence. Then man discovered a new and novel way to make war – you line up thousands of archers, give them each a 160-pound longbow and let them bombard the hapless enemy with armour-piercing arrows – arrows that could kill a knight in armour at quite a distance. At the famous battle of Agincourt, English arrows rained down on the French at a rate of about 1 200 per second, killing half of the 20 000 French soldiers within a few hours. Quite a feat considering that the tired and hungry English archers were outnumbered by five to one!
Even before the longbow era you had the feared Persians with their 160-pound horse bows, made from horn and sinew. These bows could fire an arrow accurately at almost 170 miles per hour. Even more amazing was the fact that the Persians could fire those arrows at almost one a second and at full gallop! I told a friend of mine the other day that if time machines existed, I would love to get in one, travel back to mediaeval times and arm wrestle an English or Persian archer. What a surefire way to to end up with a broken arm – or even lose an arm!
But let's get back to wooden bows versus modern society. A myth that I've heard more times than I care to remember is that modern fibreglass bows or recurves are more stable and accurate, and much faster, than their historical cousins. I've also heard that they (the cousins) were just boards with pieces of string tied to them. What rubbish! Top bowyers like Derek Nourse, Jaco Wessels, Pierre de Wet and Johnny Snyman, to name but a few, will tell you that a well-tillered wooden bow is just as awesome as any modern-day bow out there.
Don't let's deride modern technology – nothing in achery's rich history has made such an impact, in such a short space of time, as the modern compound bow. It is fast, accurate and deadly. But in hand and to the touch, it feels dead... to me, anyway! A wooden bow on the other hand has this aura about it – a warmth that only wood can exude. And if that weren't enough, wooden bows have this ability to inspire owners to want to name them, as though they were part of their family! Who can forget the awesome experience of shooting an English longbow and feeling the handle bend as you bring it to full draw, soaking up the power before you release the arrow? Well, let's just say there's nothing quite like it! I once asked a fellow longbow archer and good friend why he chose to shoot a wooden bow when he had such a variety of bows to choose from. He picked up his bow, ran his hand over it fondly, smiled and said: "Because it has a soul"! I never thought of it in that context, but he was right. They do indeed have souls!
One of my favourite bows is the American-style flatbow. I've hunted quite extensively with them. They are quick and accurate and as selfbows are truly in a class of their own. Ask any traditional archer who hunts and shoots a bamboo-backed osage bow or a selfbacked hickory flatbow, and they will agree that there's just nothing that compares to stalking game the way our forefathers did... in the open veld, with a primitive bow in hand. Now, that takes a little more than just skill!
The article that caused me to write this piece went on to say that times have changed in the modern archery world. I must agree with that. Yes, times have changed... but so have the prices of equipment, and that's where wooden bows play such a pivotal role. They are cheaper to make, which allows many more people to take up traditional archery – this noble sport we love so much!
I've come to the conclusion that the main reason there are so few of these bows out there is that they're handcrafted and not always readily available in archery shops around the country. I suppose that just makes them so much more mystical and special – a sabretooth tiger in a modern zoo.
I want to leave you with this thought: next time you go down to your local archery range with your state-of-the-art equipment and you see someone shooting a traditional wooden bow, don't smile and wave... rather ask him or her to let you shoot a few arrows. Who knows, it may just open a whole new world to you.
And remember, don't hunt to kill, kill because you are hunting.
Anton de Wit's bows can be seen at www.traditionalarchery.co.za – Ed.
Updated: Tuesday, August 16, 2011 4:19 PM