The Way of the Archer

Mastering the bo takes the right techniques and a lot of practice.

David Barnett practices at The Blue Mountain Archers outdoor range east of Walla Walla recently.

David Barnett practices at The Blue Mountain Archers outdoor range east of Walla Walla recently. Photo by Greg Lehman.

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Few weapons are older than the bow and arrow. The list includes the spear, atlatl, large rocks and the pointed insult.

Despite its ancient origins, archery still manages to captivate the modern psyche like few weapons can, evidenced by the bow’s continued presence in film and fiction.

It isn’t hard to name movies with a major archery component — “Killing Season,” “The Avengers,” “Hunger Games,” “Rambo,” “Avatar” and a quiver full of others, including myriad incarnations of Robin Hood.

As a young boy, Robin Hood was one of my heroes. I spent countless hours imagining sending perfectly aimed arrows down range to thwart the forces of oppression. This was much preferable to sending real arrows down range because the things never landed where I was aiming.

My interest in archery has never waned, though it did lay dormant until I noticed friends had bought bows this year to hunt for deer. As an excuse to gloat, they invited me to target practice with them.

It didn’t take long to realize that A.) buying a compound bow and all the accouterments was out of the question, and B.) even if I did I would still be a lousy shot. That left me with one option: Take up traditional archery and get some lessons.

My first stop was Steve Hamilton at Steve’s Archery and Fishing Shop. He directed me to Steve Lee and David Barnett, who both have expertise in traditional archery.

Lee, a chemistry professor at Walla Walla University, began messing around with bows in his youth, then gave it up for water skiing.

“I moved here and it was a long way to go for the water sports,” Lee said. “I picked up archery again.”

His preferred discipline is Olympic-style target shooting, though he doesn’t compete or hunt with a bow.

Barnett is a local archer and bowyer. He also picked up archery as a young man and started hunting primarily with a compound bow, but has transitioned to traditional archery for the simplicity and the challenge it offers.

“You get tired of chasing the gadgets,” Barnett said. “Traditional archery is more satisfying, more gratifying.”

Lee said that “with traditional, you’ll really have to test your skills as a hunter or archer, period.”

Lee and Barnett agreed to meet with me at the Blue Mountain Archers range for a lesson. As both men unloaded their equipment I realized that traditional gear might not be as simple as I had hoped.

Lee’s target bow sported a 2-foot stabilizer protruding from the front, an adjustable pin sight, and an arrow rest that included a spring loaded clicker for timing the release.

Barnett’s equipment included a take-down recurve bow and a longbow made of Osage wood that was little more than a glorified stick. Barnett also brought a reflex-deflex longbow he made using eastern red cedar and fiberglass laminations.

The two explained that the bow is only half the equation. Without properly tuned arrows, a bow is just a lousy, one-string guitar.

“You want identical arrows,” Lee said. “Most of us end up building our own.”

In addition to being identical in weight and fletching, arrows also must be match to a particular bow. An arrow that flexes to much or too little — measured as the “spine” of the arrow — will not fly true.

After Barnett and Lee demonstrated their equipment by shooting at 20- and 30-yard targets, Barnett handed me a bow.

“Let’s see how you shoot,” he said.

I sprayed a few arrows toward the closest target. Barnett suggested I hold my draw a bit longer and not pluck the string on the release. He also explained several aiming techniques, including gap shooting, string walking and pure instinctive shooting.

For me, gap shooting and “gun barreling” proved the most effective and easiest to understand.

To “gun barrel” the arrow, Barnett explained the draw hand should anchor high on the face and the archer looks down the shaft of the arrow, much like pointing a rifle. After a few shots my arrow grouping reduced from barn-door size down to a paper plate. But the anchor point at my cheekbone was uncomfortable, and it felt slow and cumbersome.

With gap shooting, the archer uses the tip of the arrow as a reference for each shot and anchors the draw hand lower by the jaw line. For closer shots, the tip of the arrow will appear to be below the target, leaving a gap. As the target gets farther away, the arrow tip will close the gap, eventually reaching “point-on.”

With the equipment I was shooting, point-on was about 30 yards. Beyond that I would have needed to elevate the arrow tip above the target. After a bit of practice my groups again began to shrink at 20-yards, and the anchor point and release felt much more comfortable.

Barnett and Lee said gap shooting is a fairly common for traditional archers.

“If you’re going to change from bow to bow, it gives you a similar sight picture,” Lee said.

Lee showed me his target bow with the adjustable sight, demonstrating how putting the sight pin on the target put the arrow tip at a similar gap as I had used with Barnett’s bow. Lee handed me a target arrow and showed me how to use the release clicker and tab-style release.

My first shot careened into the bushes. Lee then pointed out most target archers anchor the draw hand beneath the jaw instead of on the cheek, with the bow string touching their nose at full draw.

My second shot was closer but still high, so Lee adjusted the pin sight. After a few more shots and tweaks my arrow grouping shrunk to around a soup-bowl size at 20 yards. That’s when Lee explained that the target distance for Olympic-style competition was much, much farther.

“Olympic recurve is 70 meters with a sight,” Lee said, adding that archers shoot 144 arrows and compete in head-to-head elimination rounds.

Lee showed me a paper target that had a bull’s-eye about the same diameter as a coffee mug.

Distances for bow hunting are much shorter Lee and Barnett said, indicating typical traditional bowhunters will shoot at game at distances less than 20 yards.

“My max range (for hunting) is 30 yards,” Barnett said. “Normally it’s going to be 20 yards and in.”

After the lesson, and in a fit of overconfidence, I goaded photographer Greg Lehman into an impromptu shooting competition. He won, despite my efforts to trash talk him.

“It takes lots of practice,” Barnett said.

Luke Hegdal can be reached at lukehegdal@wwub.com or 526-8326..

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