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The pleasures of being a self-sufficient bow hunter

Rean Steenkamp writes about the joys of making your own bow – of being a self-sufficient archer or bow hunter.

Traditional bows have developed much since their modern-time revival in the USA, when legends such as the Thompson brothers, Saxton Pope, Ishi, Art Young, Will Compton, Chester Stevenson, Howard Hill, Fred Bear and Ben Pearson resurrected the bow and arrow and roamed afield in search of game.

Today's bows shoot faster and more smoothly than the bows Howard Hill and Fred Bear used — in fact, they shoot better than the bows I started with myself just 13 years ago. Many designs are available, in both the longbow and recurve style, that weren't available only a decade ago. Today you have hybrid longbows, that are nearly as short as recurves, and recurves in Scythian, Assyrian, Mongolian and many other styles – all built using fibreglass, carbon fibre and other modern materials.

>> Henk du Plessis working on a bamboo-backed osage orange bow.

Modern traditional bows are resilient and if one takes good care of a bow, it will last many, many years. And although traditional bow design is constantly changing and improving, an old traditional bow is never out of fashion. In fact, the older the bow, the more it is coveted.

>> The author working on a all-wooden bow in Johnny Snyman's workshop in Sedgefield.

Despite the availability of modern materials, there are many traditionalists who prefer an all-wooden bow... or who want to build their own bow. There is something romantic about an all-wooden bow, although it needs more care than one made from synthetic materials. It has a different smell to it, a different feel — and you just have to shoot wooden arrows from it. No choice here! In traditional circles, shooting carbon from a self-made wooden bow is considered a sin. And making and shooting wooden arrows is a great occupation — especially if you crest them and add your own personal touch.

<< The author with a wildebeest he shot with Grietjie, a bamboo-backed osage orange bow he built with the help of master bowyer Henk du Plessis.

But apart from the all-wooden bow's romantic lure, it also has a practical side to it. Building your own wooden bow and making your own arrows saves you a lot of money. And once you have mastered the bowyer's art, you never have to buy a bow again. You are a self-sufficient archer and you need never be without arc et flèche — just as long as you are in an area where workable wood is available.

>> Another blue wildebeest bagged with the author's all-wooden bamboo-backed bow.

Would it not feel great to take an animal with gear you have made yourself — the bow, the arrow, the fletching, and even the broadhead at the tip of the arrow? Imagine that!

I have built a couple of bows myself. Some from ash and some from hickory. None were masterpieces and all had string-follow. But I liked them nonetheless, because I made them myself. One of these bows, a 70-pound hickory selfbow named Geelslang, has taken quite a few pieces of game. I gave it to a friend, Nelius Mostert, as a present. He has bagged impala, wildebeest and warthog with it. It feels great to know that something made by my hands is actually able to shoot accurately enough and hard enough to kill a blue wildebeest.

<<  Nelius Mostert and the blue wildebeest he shot with Geelslang, a bow built by the author.

But before you start emailing me your orders for bows, be assured I am not a master bowyer... not in the least. In the ranks of master bowyers such as Jaco Wessels, Johnny Snyman, Henk du Plessis, Japie Grobler or Anton de Wit, I am only in grade one. Most of these guys have built many bows from all kinds of wood and have taken many animals with them.

However, a couple of years ago I did build a great bamboo-backed osage orange bow under the guidance of my friend Henk du Plessis and I took a few blue wildebeest, a couple of impala and a warthog with it. It is hard to describe the feeling of accomplishment when you stand over your quarry, knowing you have taken the animal with a weapon made with your own hands. It does feel as if it somehow connects you with your ancestors, who once roamed the woods of Europe in search of food. The sense of accomplishment is not because you have killed an animal, but because you have done something in the same manner it has been done for millennia.

>> An impala ewe shot with Geelslang, a hickory selfbow built by the author.

Should you be interested in making your own bow, you might want to start with a bamboo-backed blank which has been partially finished – thus leaving you with the tillering and the final finish. Such blanks are available from Jaco Wessels from Timberpoint Archery. Take up the challenge – it might open a new world to you!

Updated: Tuesday, August 16, 2011 4:33 PM


About the Author

Rean Steenkamp

Rean Steenkamp

Rean Steenkamp, editor and owner of Africa’s Bowhunter magazine, is an enthusiastic traditional archer and bowhunter. He started hunting with a longbow in 1997 and has since bagged many African plains game with traditional bows, compound and black powder rifles. He also dabbled in bow building and published a bowhunting book titled “Let loose the arrow!”

Rean started his career in journalism in 1984 at a newspaper in Pretoria, South Africa. He interrupted his career at the end of 1991 when he joined the 37th weather team expedition to Gough Island, where he worked for 14 months as the communicator. The team consisted of only seven people living in isolation on the seven by 16 km island. Rean started the Africa’s Bowhunter magazine in 2000 while working as editor for the Game and Hunt magazine.


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