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Sticks, strings and shooting aerial targets

Johnny Snyman writes about the joys, advantages and limitations of shooting a traditional bow.

One of the many positive attributes of traditional archery is the endless fun that traditional archers can create for themselves.

To the novice, shooting and hitting moving and aerial targets with a traditional bow may seem like an almost impossible feat to accomplish – something that probably requires years of diligent practice. On the contrary, once one understands the technique behind shooting and hitting aerial targets, getting down to it with a little practice, miracles can be performed.

Traditional archery has a very rich heritage. The sport as we know it today has many of its roots firmly planted in the United States. One of the legendary pioneers of traditional archery was Ben Pearson, a renowned trick shooter whose accomplishments in hunting birds on the wing, and shooting at aerial targets with the recurved bow was awe-inspiring. Ben Pearson could shoot an arrow through a wedding band tossed into the air.

Howard Hill is known as the most legendary archer of all time. With the longbow he was a magician at trick shooting. At frequent exhibitions, one of his feats was to consistently shoot and hit a silver dollar, then a quarter, and as a grand finale he would shoot dimes, all tossed into the air. In 1950 he also became the first European who successfully hunted an elephant with the longbow.

Byron Ferguson, a well-known American longbow shooter of our current times is known for splitting playing cards and hitting mini-aspirins thrown into the air.

But how is it done? How on earth does one hit a table tennis ball, coin or aerial disc target with an arrow? It requires know­ledge of your equipment, along with speed, concentration, consistent form and a sound shooting system. Speed is required because time and the laws of physics work hand in hand, limiting the shooters reaction time. Concentration is of the essence, for once the target is airborne, the archer needs to focus intensely on the moving target while the bow is drawn and the arrow loosed in one fluent motion.

The shooting system
One of the widely used shooting systems with traditional archery is the Instinctive Shooting style. To explain how instinctive shooting works, let’s first go back to our childhood years when one of the most devastating weapons in any youngster’s armoury was the simple catapult, or “kettie” as we commonly know it here in South Africa. Without an inkling of doubt, every boy in the neighborhood who owned a kettie considered himself the undisputed ultimate marksman. No beer bottle or tin can was left unscathed, and woe betide the turtle dove that happened to drop its guard being in the right place at the wrong time…

How did you aim with your kettie? Did you line up the target in the centre of the “Y” while slowly taking aim? Sure thing you didn’t! You merely looked at what you were going to shoot at, pulled the rubbers to a point somewhere next to your face, let go and you were right on target.

In principle, shooting the bow instinctively works very much in the same manner. Instinctive shooting requires a mechanical and mental process in order to work fluently and in total harmony. The mechanical process requires the arms, hands and fingers to initiate the first actions. As soon as the bow is drawn, the back muscles in turn take up the full load of the strain. The bow hand pushes the bow in a forward motion while the drawing hand pulls the string backwards. One of the laws of physics tells us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, so, with all other things being equal and perfect form is maintained, the fingers of the shooting hand relax, the arrow is loosed and when the aforementioned laws of physics are applied correctly, the drawing hand can only flick in one direction: backwards.

The key element of the mental process is concentration. Before the bow is drawn, the eyes fix onto one single spot of the target. Every ounce of concentration is funnelled and burned into that spot you have selected. Whilst the bow is drawn and shot, the only elements that matter are you, the bow and arrow, and the spot you have isolated on your target. The rest of your surroundings become a distant blur.
Medical research on Olympic athletes has shown that a given technique is permanently stored into the brain after being consistently repeated approximately 5000 times. In turn, the body’s muscular structure also “memorises” these techniques. Shooting the bow instinctively requires hours of practice for our movements to become automatic reflexes portraying absolute fluency. To the uninformed, an instinctive archer’s shooting style may appear a little haphazard. This may be true for a shooter who isn’t in full control of his bow, but the true instinctive archer will handle his bow as if it’s an extension of his arm.

Instinctive shooting employed in bow hunting is as old as the bow itself; it is one of the best shooting methods to hunt with. The bow can be canted to any degree, even totally horizontally. A good instinctive archer can lie on his back or on his stomach and shoot the bow with unwavering accuracy. Instinctive shooting is a fast and dynamic shooting style; there are few other shooting systems that can equal instinctive shooting under the same conditions.

Sure thing, there are the bad days that seemingly crawl out from nowhere when everything seems to go out the back door, but the evil doer of this is mostly bad shooting form, insufficient concentration, or a lack of practice.

But instinctive shooting also has its limitations. To the average archer the “range limit” of instinctive shooting is around 25 yards. The reason is that beyond the 25-yard mark, the brain registers the target as a silhouette even though the eyes send to the brain the message of seeing and picking a single spot. With instinctive shooting, as soon as the entire target or silhouette is shot at, the chances of missing it is guaranteed. Using instinctive shooting at paper targets on a shooting range is also extremely difficult, as the intense level of concentration required can have the archer border on a mental burnout.

Getting started
Possibly the greatest attribute to becoming successful in hitting aerial targets using the instinctive method, is getting to know your bow and arrow set-up on such a level that the need not to look at the arrow or bowstring between and during shots becomes second nature. It helps a great deal to train yourself to go through the entire shooting sequence, all executed only by sense of touch. Once mastered, there is one less thing to focus on while shooting at aerial targets, enabling the archer to concentrate with ease on nothing other than hitting the target.

Equipment needed
Standard fletched arrows can be used if there’s a decent backstop. For the beginner brightly coloured flu-flu fletched arrows help a great deal. Spiral-feathered flu-flu arrows work best. These flu-flu arrows lose their speed over a very short distance in case of a missed aerial target, making retrieval of your arrows easier. Six flu-flu arrows are more than enough to get you started. Either the longbow or recurved bow can be used; I prefer the longbow for shooting at aerial and moving targets. This bow’s long narrow limbs almost act as built-in stabilisers, making the longbow a very stable, accurate and forgiving weapon.

Tricks of the trade
Armed with a good deal of instinctive shooting practice, the only way to fail hitting those aerial targets is never to start. When shooting at a target moving in an arc, leading ahead of the target is required, much like when clay-pigeon shooting with a rifle.
Targets being thrown straight up into the air are the easiest to score hits on. There is a momentary pause when the target reaches its apex, just before gravity claims it back to mother earth and it is at this point when the bow is quickly drawn and the arrow loosed. Speed is of the essence, as it is here when the advantages of the instinctive shooting style and equipment knowledge come into play.

Aerial discs have the advantage that they can either be tossed into the air or rolled across a lawn or down a slope.
An interesting and challenging range of aerial discs can be purchased directly from Composite Art at (044) 850-1951, or email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
Traditional Archery is about embracing the freedom of having fun with our simple sticks and strings. Which I guess after all is what sets us apart from the rest of the crowd.

Updated: Friday, May 20, 2011 10:32 AM


About the Author

Johny Snyman

Johny Snyman

Johnny Snyman from Heartwood Bows is a well-known bowyer, traditional archer and bowhunter, who has been building fine longbows and recurves for more than a decade. Johnny has a vast knowledge of bow building, archery, bushcraft and survival skills. He has written many articles for African Archer as well as for Africa’s Bowhunter magazine. His bows are shot by many South Africans and by many archers in countries all over the world. Johnny has made bows for quite a few Hollywood productions such as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, 10 000 BC, Doomsday, Scorpion King – Rise of the Akkadian, and Crusoe (NBC Mini Series – 2008). Established in 1997, Heartwood bows is based in the coastal town of Sedgefield in the Western Cape, South Africa.


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