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Shopping for a Traditional Bow

Note - So years ago I wrote this article for "The Canadian Daily", an online magazine which has since disappeared. Since it is no more I realized I should republish the article here instead. Thus while the information here may be a little redundant when compared to some of my other articles, it is not wholly redundant. There are some useful parts in here that are not mentioned elsewhere on my website. Also I have updated part of the article.





I have been doing archery since 1989 and have over 10 bows. I am not even sure exactly how many I have now. I would have to count them all.

Truth be told I am already shopping for another bow. I collect bows of all shapes and sizes, and I have a fondness for older antique bows. Thus writing this article about shopping for traditional bows just comes really naturally for me. I guess I am a true toxophilite (someone who is obsessed with archery) and enjoy passing on such information.

Whether you are jumping on the archery bandwagon or if you’ve always wanted to get into archery – or if you are a compound bowhunter who wants to try bowhunting using a traditional bow – well then this is an article you will likely enjoy immensely.

Regardless of your motivation you have lots of options available. There are longbows, shortbows, horsebows, traditional recurves, pyramid bows, hybrid longbows, hybrid pyramid bows, double limbed recurves (which is not traditional, but definitely unusual) and scorpion bows (which is just plain weird) – and many of these bows have variants that come from a variety of cultural backgrounds. eg. A yumi bow is a Japanese longbow typically used during kyudo ceremonies.

For hunters using what is known as a “bare bow” (a bow without any gadgets on it) is the ultimate challenge. Hunting with a compound bow feels like you are cheating, whereas hunting with a bare bow means that you have to be a truly skilled archer and know what you are doing. Hunting with a bare bow may seem primitive and even intimidating in comparison to modern recurves, but it is hunting in one of its most ancient forms and once you get the hang of it you wonder why you ever bothered with a compound bow.

Finding the right bow for a beginner can be a challenge. To get started you need to know which is your dominant eye for archery. Once you know whether you are right or left eye dominant then you need to figure out how much you can actually pull – and how much you can hold steady.

To put this in perspective I can tell you that many men and women out there can pull a 40 lb recurve bow – and that the vast majority of them have difficulty holding it steady. Some of them won’t even be able to pull it, let alone hold it steady. They would be better off starting off with a bow that is in the 24 to 30 lb range, learning proper archery form, how to aim, etc, and after they have learned all that and built up additional muscle then go out and buy a more powerful bow if they so wish to.

This would be important for people who wish to do bowhunting. Ontario law requires the use of a 39.7 lb or better bow for hunting deer, and a 48.5 lb or better bow for hunting elk, moose or black bear. Those of you who are already familiar with compound hunting should already know these laws, but for those of you who are new to archery this is good information to know.

Most companies list their bows’ draw weight at a draw distance of 28 inches. Pay attention to that as sometimes it will be a different number. eg. If it is 30 lbs at 30 inches then it is probably only about 28 lbs at 28 inches. This will not make much difference depending on your arm length however. If you are shorter your draw length might be only 26 inches, or if you are taller it might be 30 or 32 inches. As long as you can pull the bow and hold it steady that will be the biggest deciding factor as to whether that is a good bow for you.

Now you might wonder “Why bother with a heavier poundage bow? Can’t I just use a really light poundage?” Yes, you could. But you wouldn’t get much range or accuracy out of it. The stronger the bow is the more speed, range and accuracy the arrows will have coming out of it – but you need to be strong enough to pull that bow in the first place.

For beginners stick to a lighter bow and get really good at it before switching up to a more challenging bow. For compound bowhunters get a traditional bow that fulfills your needs so you can hunt legally with your new bow, but pay attention to the advice section further below.

TYPES OF BOWS

Traditional Recurve Bows

Recurves offer more power and speed with respect to entry level bows. Because the bow limbs curve backwards and then forwards it creates extra forward tension on the bowstring and gives more power into every shot – this results in faster arrows leaving the bow and more accuracy over longer distances. Recurve bows typically come in the range of 14 lbs to 70 lbs. It is possible to get recurve bows more powerful than that, but they are more likely to snap, break, twist.

Recurves are faster “pound for pound” compared to longbows, but as you will see below longbows can pack more punch.

Expect to pay $130 for a basic wooden recurve or $300 to $900 for a high quality traditional recurve bow.

Above on the right you will see a photo of myself out for some winter archery practice at the Toronto Public Archery Range. The bow I am using is a Bear “Grizzly” traditional recurve with black sheepskin dampeners on the bowstring (it makes the bow quieter, an useful thing for bowhunters). I like that bow so much I gave it a name – “Seahawk”.

Longbows

Longbows may seem very primitive and simple, but they are also very powerful. While each shot loses some of its power to the limbs, it benefits from no real limit on how powerful a longbow can be. English warbows (a type of longbow) often packed between 80 and 120 lbs of force. Indeed some of the centuries old warbows that were recovered from the sunken Mary Rose warship were so powerful that after being restored they packed an impressive 150 to 160 lbs of force at full draw. Lastly one of the greatest archers of the last century, Howard Hill, once took down an elephant while hunting using a 183 lb longbow. It took him 4 arrows to accomplish the feat.

At higher poundages longbows become the bow of choice for most archers. The arrows get faster and faster too, so while a recurve can shoot faster arrows at lower poundages, at a higher poundage the longbow wins because the recurve bow would snap (“catastrophic limb failure”) under the stress.

Now you might think that longbows are less accurate. This is wholly untrue. They are more difficult to learn how to shoot, because the stance is different and more difficult, but they are no less accurate than a recurve bow in the hands of an archer experienced at shooting longbows. Indeed the three greatest archers of the last century (Howard Hill, Byron Ferguson, and Awa Kenzo) all used some kind of longbow.

Most longbows don’t have an arrowrest on them, but you can also get hybrid longbows which do have an arrowrest. Personal preference, I like mine to have a proper arrowrest.

Expect to pay $150 for a basic longbow or $200 to $900 for a much nicer longbow.

Shortbows and Horsebows

They’re basically the same thing. Shortbows are designed for shooting on horseback and there are a variety of countries known for their traditional horsebows – including Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Japan, Korea, Mongolia and numerous other countries. I don’t want to leave any out, but suffice to say shortbows were found in many cultures all over the globe. In North America it only took a few generations after horses arrived for Native Americans to transition to making horsebows so that they could more easily shoot from horseback. The necessity of being able to do horseback archery drove their ingenuity to design the new horsebows.

The great thing about shortbows is their speed and versatility. They are a lot of fun to shoot and some archers have become amazingly fast with them. One such archer is modern speed shooter Lars Anderson – who can shoot 10 arrows in 4.9 seconds, and can shoot 11 arrows in the air before the first one hits the ground (long distance of course).

Expect to pay $200 for a basic shortbow or over $1,000 for a really nice traditional Korean shortbow.

In the video below you see a local Toronto archer using a horsebow to practice clout shooting (shooting extreme distances at a flag to see how close you get).



Unusual Bows

This is where you get into your pyramid bows, double limbed recurves or even the really weird scorpion bows. When it comes to these bows there are really nothing wrong with them, they’re just really unusual. I don’t recommend people buy an unusual bow for their first bow, but it would be a fun 2nd or 3rd bow if you start collecting them.

Pyramid bows are similar to longbows but the limbs taper differently and the handle is designed with inverted triangles above and below the handle. I have one myself and I have discovered they are really quiet – which is a boon if you are a hunter. For myself I have a custom made hybrid pyramid bow that has an arrowrest built into the handle. My pyramid bow was custom made by local Toronto bowyer Mike Meusel and cost me $250.

Double limbed recurves look weird, but they are more powerful. In theory a custom bowyer could make a double limbed recurve that has up to maybe 160 lbs of power at full draw. Anything more than that and I am confident it would break. However I have only ever seen photographs of double limbed recurves. I have never seen them in real life. It would be a real challenge to find someone willing to custom make one, or an even bigger challenge to try and build one yourself.

Scorpion bows are spring loaded instead of using the limb tension to fire the arrow. In this respect they are similar to a spring loaded ballista (a type of very large crossbow), but smaller and there is no locking mechanism. Instead you pull it back like you would with a normal bow and release it – the springs do the rest of the work. Like the double limbed recurves the scorpion bows are extremely rare. There is probably less than a dozen of them on the whole planet.

Where to Buy and How Much to Spend

There are a variety of places within Toronto and near Toronto where you can buy traditional bows. You can see a list of available archery equipment shops in Toronto by visiting ArcheryToronto.ca.

If you are just starting out my advice would be to get a basic wooden recurve first, but if your heart is set upon a longbow, shortbow, something more unusual or even something really expensive then my recommendation is that you shop around and KNOW what you are buying first. Ask the shop owner to string the bow for you so you can try pulling it back and holding it steady. If you cannot hold that bow steady then you need a lighter poundage.

Budget wise expect to pay about $350 for a basic wooden recurve bow, 10 arrows, finger gloves, quiver, bracer and arrowheads. If you opt for something more expensive you will need to budget within the $500 to $1,000 range. The prices go much higher (diamond encrusted composite longbows made from Italian yew and Brazilian rainforest hardwood, etc), but I don’t recommend getting ridiculous with the first bow you buy.

You could also try to buy an used bow – which is riskier as you may not get the poundage you are looking for. Or worse, if you don’t pay attention you might buy a right hand draw bow when you are left eye dominant. Using the wrong eye to shoot with will make all your arrows go off to the side. Finding an used bow will take longer and you will need to scour craigslist, kijiji or my favourite, auction websites that have estate sales. I am on the lookout for antique bows and estate auction sales are sometimes a great way to find archery equipment that is really old and in good condition.

It is possible to get some real steals if you manage to find a high quality bow and buy it off someone who doesn’t know what it is worth. Thus it is possible to get a really nice bow for $100 or even less. But don’t expect that to be the norm. Most people selling them will have an inkling of what they are worth. However if you don’t like their price you can always make them an offer for 70 or 80% of their asking price and see if they are willing to sell it anyway.

When buying an used bow always check for cracks in the wood – and then determine whether you think you can fix it. Last summer I purchased an old shortbow for $10 because I pointed out two cracks in the wood and the guy dropped his price to half his original asking price of $20. I took the shortbow home, fixed the cracks with superglue and it has shot perfectly ever since. It came with no string so I made my own string using jute and it is hanging on my wall right now as a decoration.

Making Your Own Bow

It is possible to make your own longbow or even a pyramid bow. I recommend starting with a longbow because other types of bows are very tricky to make and it would be better to start with something simple before you try something that is going to be much harder to build.

I myself made a homemade crossbow earlier this month for fun. I am already planning to make a 2nd larger crossbow and using my earlier attempt as a prototype.

If you do decide to try and make your own traditional bow I recommend buying the book “The Traditional Bowyer’s Bible”, written by Jim Hamm. It is an amazing book and a must have for anyone into bow-making or arrow-making. Another good book on this topic is “The Traditional Bowyers Encyclopedia” by Dan Bertalan, which is available to read at the Toronto Reference Library.

Advice for Compound Bowhunters

If you are making the switch from compound bows and have never really used traditional bows before the biggest thing you are going to have to get used to is the lack of let off when you pull back a traditional bow and try to hold it steady. The other thing you are not used to is shooting without gadgets. So my advice for you is as follows:

#1. Try weightlifting 30 to 45 minutes every 2 days, focus on building both strength and endurance. Eat more protein. The extra strength and endurance will help you to hold the bow steadier for longer periods of time. Don’t stop doing this after awhile, keeping weightlifting every 2 days to continue building up your strength and maintain it. Being a lazy slob and quitting after 2 weeks will cause the muscle gain you did get to disappear over time. Having extra muscles won’t hurt you.

#2. Learn to shoot faster and more accurately. This means lots of practice. Get to the point where you barely need any time to aim and hit where you were aiming.

#3. Learn to shoot at different ranges, including uphill and downhill. If you are shooting without gadgets you have to learn to gauge the distance with your eyes, aim accordingly and make a well executed shot. Again this is something that can be remedied through lots of practice on 3D ranges where you don’t know the distance you are shooting.

#4. Don’t get a bow you can barely hold steady. Find what poundage you can pull, and then get a bow 10 or 15 lbs lighter than that so you can hold it really steady while you aim. You will still want it to fulfill the minimum legal requirements, but you don’t need to get a ridiculously powerful bow if you are only hunting deer. When hunting deer most bowhunters use a 45 lb bow (13% above the legal requirement in Ontario). For hunting moose or elk most bowhunters use a 55 to 60 lb bow. For hunting black bear many bowhunters like to use a bow in the 60 to 80 lbs range. You could go higher, but it unnecessary and overkill.

Equipment Maintenance

If you are using a wooden bow try to avoid getting your equipment wet. Wrap it up, avoid mildew, clean your equipment regularly. Remember to wax the bowstring regularly – like once every time you practice, or every 2nd time you practice.

Once in awhile you should make an effort to try out new equipment and see if there is anything you want to try using. eg. Try Dacron bowstrings vs Dynaflight 97 bowstrings. See which one you like better.

Keeping your archery equipment in good shape will maintain a lot of its resale value if you ever sell it at a later date.

If you decide to sell your current equipment and get newer equipment, get the new equipment first before selling the old. That way if you don’t like the new bow as much you can always change your mind, sell the new bow and keep the old one.

Still Need More Help?

In the past some of my archery students have asked for my aid while shopping for archery equipment, having me go with them and “hold their hand” so to speak while they shop for archery equipment that is suitable for them so they get the most out of their equipment. I am always happy to help in that respect, even people who are not my students. (Although I do require you bribe me with food, because I am a busy guy. eg. One of my favourite archery stores has an all you can eat Korean buffet nearby.)

So if you absolutely need more help finding archery equipment in Toronto you can email me (cardiotrek@gmail.com). Otherwise I recommend browsing the different shops listed on ArcheryToronto.ca.

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