Friday, July 30, 2010

The Night Gallery

I have the disease. Archery. Beware, because it might be catching. I'll probably talk about it if we meet on the street. I'll wax poetical, maybe. I'll try to infect you, so you'll have a real physical need to hurl arrows downrange on a daily basis.

I blame my cousin, Bob, who gave me a fantastic, very expensive gift: a Bowtech Black Knight 2. I talked about this bow in my previous post. It's dead silent, super accurate, and hits with all the power of a locomotive. You'll need a very dense backstop. One thing it isn't: easy. The Black Knight doesn't adapt to you. You adapt to it. Lucky I'm adaptable, huh? And that I like to bend nails and rebar. That old oafish might helps.

Anyway, the Black Knight is a compound bow, which means that it is a complex machine. A technological marvel. It has cams and string silencers and harmonic dampeners and fiber optic sights. It's a laser gun, except for the laser part. It's shooting so well right now that I actually knocked one of the fletchings off with another arrow last session. Fletchings, or vanes, are the "feather" parts that keep the arrows stable in flight. Some impart spin, like a rifle bullet (mine do). The fletchings on most compound bows are rubbery material, rather than synthetic feathers. Bob's taught me how to repair or re-fletch arrows, so it's no big deal. Just be aware that, to knock a vane off of one of your arrows, you have to be about 1/16th of an inch away from the shaft that's already in the target. That's pretty close. My last session with the Black Knight, I put a group of eight arrows in approximately 2 1/2 inches. Now, this is from only around 18 yards away, but I'd be happy to do that with any of my pistols. There's no such thing as a benchrest shot for a bow. You're there, holding the riser, doing your part. There's more to it than a trigger finger and breath control.

All that preliminary blather leads me to my deepening gyre of archery obsession. Pleased and fascinated with my early success with a compound bow, I decided that I wanted to try shooting a recurve. No sights, no counterweights, no vapor deposited turbonium ocular mass accelerators of universal spin cancellation. Just a bent stick and an arrow. Just to, you know, keep it real.

I happened to be at the Sportsman's Warehouse last Saturday, idling around the archery counter as I once did over in their firearms section. A dark, lithe shape caught my eye. I examined more closely. The dark, lithe shape was some sort of extruded composite (plastic to the unenlightened) recurve bow. Hmmm. It was sort of pretty. It was pretty inexpensive. Hmmm.

My mind fabricating all manner of complex justifications for my newest possible purchase, I asked, "can I take a look...with my hands, I mean?" The guy at the counter nodded and then became interested in something back in the shop. I was left alone with the dark, lithe shape. I saw it with my hands. I strung it and drew back the string. And it was good. And I said that it was good. And I immediately knew that it had to be mine. It was only forty bucks, and so my possible buyer's remorse could only be so bad. Thus, I became the owner of a PSE Snake recurve bow.

The friendly staff at Sportsman's acted as if I'd actually approached them with an item of some value. They had me draw the bow with a measuring arrow to see my draw length (distance you pull back the arrow--mine turned out to be 32 inches with this type of bow), they mounted a nock point and an arrow rest, and they helped me pick out arrows that would be suitable for my purchase. Now, some of this may have been enlightened self interest on their part, since the arrows (Gold Tip Pro Hunter Carbons, which they cut to length and prepped for me) were of the same approximate value as the bow itself. That, and they may have had some inkling that this little, cheapo bow would be as addictive as crack cocaine to someone of my particular temperament.

The PSE Snake is listed as a "Youth Bow" in the literature. It's only got a draw weight of 22 pounds at the average draw length for kids and small folks. It absolutely no frills. It's not camouflaged, so you'll be able to see it if you drop it in the woods. You just draw it back, look down the arrow shaft, and let it go. Yeah, like Robin Hood or Legolas, had plastic been invented in their time/space continuum.

Because of my long draw length, I'm told that I probably gain somewhere around 8-12 extra pounds of draw weight. That's somewhat counterbalanced by the necessary use of really long, heavier arrows (so that they don't just fall out on the ground when I pull them beyond the bow shelf). All this adds up to the fact that when I shoot the bow, it has somewhat more pop than the 22 pound draw might lead you to imagine. I'm fairly certain that, if some living organism were to serve as a backstop to one of my arrows, they would be injured to an extent that could be beyond the scope of a pocket sized first aid kit. Not that I'm planning any such incidents. On the contrary.

Let me cut to the issue at hand. Traditional archery. That's what they call it when you don't have all the gadgets and Batman toys to help you. First: it's great fun. Second: it's a little humbling at first. Third: with practice, and I mean lots of meaningful practice wherein you learn the basics, isolate flaws in your form, and shoot hundreds, nay, thousands of arrows, you can get surprisingly good.

The first day, I was just happy to hit the target bag from about eight yards away. I shot and shot and shot. The light draw weight makes this possible without any injury or soreness. I stayed out so long I got sunburned.

In the following days, I took the opportunity to read about archery form, devouring first the Basic Essentials--Archery book, then Archery--Steps to Success. There were a lot of great pointers in there, and I put them into practice. A lot of practice. I've been shooting up to three times during the day, often getting near or even surpassing 200 shots between those sessions. I started getting good. I wasn't just hitting the bag. I was actually hitting the CENTER of the bag. You know. The bull's eye. Not all the time, certainly, but usually once per "end" of six arrows.

Instinctive shooting is as slippery as a fish, though. Just when you think you've had that "ah ha!" moment, you find that it's slipped through your fingers, and your arrows are wandering out to the far reaches of the target again. It's a process, and there are so many things to think of, that you can easily be foiled by that one element of your form that you forgot.

Then, it happened. There I was, in the backyard, with my full ten yard course and my bow and arrow set, my fancy cinder block arrow stand next to me. I happened to have a mostly-finished can of Orange Crush on a nearby patio table. In between bouts of shooting, I had the can in my hand, and an evil idea occurred to me. Could I shoot the can with an arrow? Dare I try? How could it safely be done?

I hit on the idea of simply putting it in front of the target bag, which is what I was shooting at anyway. If I shot too low, it would just aerate the lawn. If I shot high, the bag and backstop would suffice to stop the arrow safely. So, like I'd done so often with rifles and pistols in my younger years, I found myself shooting at a can. On about the third shot, I jostled the can and knocked it down. On the sixth, I put an arrow through it. I could, it turns out, hit a can from ten yards with my "Youth Bow", sighting only by instinct. My cousin, Bob, revolutionized the can shooting by finding an old bungee cord and hanging the can on the face of the target bag by its pop-top tab. Hilarity ensued. The can was perforated several more times, until the stuff cooking on the grill was done, and we were forced to call a halt to the hostilities.

Then it got dark. The sprinklers came on. It got darker still. I wanted to do it again. I'd already established that, by turning on a battery-powered lantern and setting it near the target bag but outside the line of fire, I could shoot my bow at night. Now, I would have to go a step further. Could I realistically hit a black can with an arrow in the dimness of my back yard? Yes. I could. Sometimes two or three times in six arrows.

It's not Olympic archery, but I'm actually mightily impressed that it's possible, with a little effort and a lot of (super fun) practice, you can do this sort of thing with a rig that runs about 85 bucks at the local store. Now, there may be a varying rate of learning for each archer, but I'm not the most coordinated person on the planet. I'm too clumsy to play most sports than don't feature knocking other people down. I'm a pretty good shot with pistols and rifles, but the vast majority of my firearms are more accurate than I am. What I'm saying here is that, though your mileage may vary, it's certainly possible for you to get the results I did. It might take a few days, it might take a few months, but believe me when I tell you that a bow can be a precision instrument, if you do your part.

For people wanting to try archery, I can wholeheartedly recommend the PSE Snake. Don't let the desire to be macho or have the bigger, heavier draw bows get the best of you. Nothing will allow you to practice so much and so painlessly as one of these little bows. Everything that you learn on these is applicable as you grow and perhaps purchase a heavier bow. For eighty-odd dollars, I know that I've already gotten my money's worth out of it. I know that I'll continue to do so until I can put six out of six in the bull from my little firing line divot in the back yard grass. Then I'll go five paces back and do it again...

For someone already into archery, but who hasn't tried a traditional bow, this is the gateway drug, right here. Cheaper than a fall-away rest or three-pin sight for your compound bow, this little rig will remind you of how much fun you can have with a bent stick. Plus, all the refinement of your stance, draw, anchor point, and release will stand you in good stead with your fancy compound rig. I saw an immediate, dramatic difference with the Black Knight, which couldn't be more different from the Snake and still be a bow. My groups tightened, my draw smoothed out, and my shoulder twinged less under the admittedly brutal assault of the BK2. At the cost, there is literally no training aid that will help you more. It's like a .22, except for bow shooters. Cheap, fun, and probably what we should all start on.

Finally, if you have a local library around (I happen to work in one!), do yourself a favor and check out a few books on target archery. Though you think you're doing great, and you shoot the stingers off of hornets at fifty paces, there are things about your form that you may have never considered, changes that might improve your results even more. Especially if you've learned to shoot your bow primarily by yourself or from a friend, there will be things that you can improve upon about your technique. In just a few weeks, I'm seeing real progress, and there has been no pain or anguish. I've just studied, engaged in meaningful, well-examined practice, and immersed myself in the zeitgeist of the sport.

There. Another massive post. Hope you're all well, and that you're enjoying my strange adventures.


Christopher said...

That's it!!!!!!!!!!!! I'm going to sportsmans tomorrow and whatever I buy, It's your fault!! Seriously tho, I'm glad you have this newfound passion! It's awesome to see you so intense about it!

Theron Wood said...

Yeah. Good points well written. Been looking at this PSE Snake after screwing up my left shoulder (bow arm) while using bad bow holding form with my 45# Bear Montana. Its a nice long bow with some recurve. Good to see more love for the more "toyish" priced training and shoulder recovering bows.