Monday, September 27, 2010

I Am In Love, and Other Observations


My first one had wheels. Cams, really. The Bowtech Black Knight 2, a compound bow featuring a formidable 80# draw weight, IBO rating of 353 feet per second, and an exacting nature that has been illuminated in some of my earlier posts. Compound bows are fantastical devices of great efficiency and power. I would, without reservation, recommend them to hunters and sharpshooters who want to diversify into something beyond rifles and pistols. You'll find that, once well set up, a compound bow will probably out shoot any pistol you have, as well as offering terminal performance that exceeds all but the ultra-magnums, which are in no way easy to shoot in their own right.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Black Knight 2, while admittedly applying just about as much energy on target as is available, features fearsome levels of penetration. A 1250 page phone book was fully pierced by an arrow at 20 yards, with sufficient additional energy to push 6 to 8 inches into the target bag behind the book. That's plenty of power to take down anything on the continent, if you're a hunting enthusiast. Moose and bear included. If you put the arrow where it needs to be, something that a compound bow does not make unduly difficult, the animal will quickly succumb to its wounds. Think in terms of pistol ranges, however, with a 40 or 50 yard shot being at the edges of most people's ability to safely attempt. This is not to say the bows cannot shoot further, this is a limitation of the archer and his ability to practice at extended range. Professional archers routinely shoot at 90 or more yards with great precision. For most of us, though, we tend to find it hard to get a safe location where we can attempt such distances.

The following question comes to mind: Why would anyone want to shoot any type of bow outside a compound? For many, those I might term "functional archers", they may find their alpha and omega in the compound bow. They are the most powerful, quietest, most accurate bows (for the layman) in existence. For many people who have shot firearms, especially long guns, they may find that the learning curve is fairly painless. If you can take a good stance, draw the bow to its stop, aim and hold steady, it's likely that your shot will hit very nearly where you're aiming. Compound bows are built in such a way as to make good accuracy an expectation, rather than a hard-won goal.

That, perhaps, is very much the answer to the question referred to above. The skill required to shoot adequately to the purposes of deer season can be honed, at least by the shooter with some aptitude, over the course of a few months of consistent shooting. Of course, this isn't the end of the road, as there are always greater levels of marksmanship and consistency to be reached, but the ability to hit the vitals of a large mammal at 15 to 40 yards is often fruit that hangs low on the vine with a good compound bow.

This last statement cannot, in most cases, be proven true with bows that lack the technical aids of sights, release aids, stabilizers, and sophisticated arrow rests. Traditional bows, as they are frequently called. It would be a foolish and unsupportable argument to make, were I to attempt to convince you that traditional bows, essentially bent sticks of wood or some elastic material, were superior in technical terms to a compound bow. They are not. They cannot store as much energy, or transfer it to the arrow as efficiently. They are far more reliant upon the flawed perceptions and spacial relationships of the human eye. They are in no way as simple to learn (to shoot--maintenance and tuning of a compound can be quite complex).

However, when we thought of bows as children, when we read of the great exploits of archers in the days of yore, or when we envisioned bold heroes shooting down their enemies in our favorite fantasy novels, we did not picture the sophisticated machinery of a compound bow, did we? We pictured the graceful line of a "D" shaped longbow, or the sinuous outline of a recurve. We imagined the hard-won skill of an archer being the work of years, attributable to thousands of arrows shot and the keen honing of her abilities to account for distance, arc, windage, and angle of the terrain.

For some of us, this greater level of difficulty and involvement are in no way a deterrent. They are very much an element we rejoice in, for the road is longer and more fraught with obstacles along the way. We can be more involved with the success or failure of each shot. When we hit the gold center of the target, it means more. We can trace a line back down thousands of years of human experience, knowing that the gentle thrum of the bow, followed by the almost inaudible whisper of the arrow and then the solid thunk of the impact on target are a point of commonality between us and our ancient forebears. We are participating in and extending the allure and wonder of archery.

I've found, over the course of my admittedly short history of bow shooting, that I tend more toward traditional bows than compounds. If asked today to do some functional task with a bow, I would fall back to the compound, but for the joy of shooting, I just feel more of an affinity to the simpler mechanism of a traditional bow. While I rarely shoot more than 30 to 40 times with the Black Knight, I have been known to shoot literally hundreds of times through a day with my traditional bows. Some of that, perhaps, is attributable to the stern draw of the BK2, but that's not the whole story. There is something else at play that keeps me out there, shooting and retrieving arrows after I should probably have gone in.

Okay, that's enough rhapsodizing for now. Let's get down to the news I wanted to convey for this week.

Love, Loss, and the Whole Affair:

I am, after some false starts and difficulties, the proud owner of a longbow. That last requires explanation, I suppose, so I'll start from the beginning and take you through the whole affair.

After having experienced the unalloyed joy of the PSE Snake recurve, then the beauty and surprising authority of the PSE Blackhawk wooden recurve, I took stock of my experiences thus far. I had a compound. I had two recurves, which a large percentage of "traditional" bows resemble. I did not, however, have a longbow of any sort. Advice given to me by a sage archer indicated that a bow that was longer would be more forgiving, and produce less string pinch on the fingers than its shorter counterpart. This launched me into a fact-finding frenzy wherein I scoured the 'Net to see what was out there, how people liked the offerings, and what I'd have to spend to get something of my own. I'd unwittingly built my brickwork in such a way as to trap myself into a mode of thinking that would result in my purchasing a longbow. I should fight against these unseen stratagems, but they are, in their early stages, well, unseen. Drats. Onward, then.

I was knocking around at Cabela's outfitters several weeks ago, and I happened to go by the "Bargain Cave" area of the store, where they have a variety of close-outs, factory seconds, returns, and other marked-down products. There, leaning against the wall behind another bow rack filled with interesting but not immediately purchase-worthy bows, was a PSE Sequoia longbow, 55# at 68". It was long, it was tall, it was gorgeous. It was also marked down about $40. The danger part was in the "as is, no return" mark on the price tag. That, and the lack of string or arrow pass protective "bear hair" stick on material.

I was throw into mental turmoil by this discovery. It was one of the leading candidates on my list of possibilities for purchase. Early competition came from the Fred Bear Montana Longbow, but I was underwhelmed with its appearance in person, as well as wondering if a paltry increase of 4 inches in length above my recurves would provide the requisite difference in "feel".

So, the Sequoia. I agonized for several minutes, looking it over as thoroughly as I could under the circumstances. It seemed sound. I purchased a string to fit the bow, and had the techs set up a knocking point for me. Using the indoor range, any reservations I may have had were erased, as I was able to put every arrow suitable to the purpose of longbow shooting into their bull's eye. I was smitten, and utterly lost, it seemed.

I arrived at home and faced the understandable consternation that comes from witnessing a person in the grips of bow madness. I strung the bow to show how prettily it made the "D" shape. I was making inroads into explaining myself. I then pulled the bow back to anchor, just as a demonstration. I noticed a bit of a creaking noise. Brow furrowed, I pulled once more, of course letting the bow down easily, as one must. More crackling. I examined the bow, finding that there was a tiny sliver of fiberglass sticking up. "Well," I thought. "Perhaps that's nothign fatal. I could just dab a bit of epoxy on that spot. We'll just..."

I pulled the bow once more. This time, the crackling came with rather more volume. My heart plummeted as I saw that nearly a half an inch of fiberglass had begun to lift on the lower limb of the bow.

After a frenzied call and much worry and consternation, I brought the bow back the next day. To their great credit, Cabela's allowed me to return it and gave me a full refund. I was warned, however, that Bargain Cave items don't guarantee any of that. I imagine there may be a "fool me twice" clause in their records. I resolved at that moment to buy only things that couldn't harbor unseen flaws from that area in the future.

So, that evening, I sat at home, the proud owner of a bow stringer, a Flemish twist string, and a bow slip case for a bow I no longer possessed. Not, as you can imagine, an ideal turn of events. Accouterments are fine things, of course, but they are nothing without their primary implement.

Approximately a week of agonizing followed. At last, I decided to give PSE and the Sequoia another chance. After all, I didn't know what had happened to that other bow before I'd taken possession of it. It could have been abused, dry-fired, or otherwise compromised. That production run could have been plagued with issues. Who knows? I elected to buy the next bow directly from PSE, however, as I didn't have any desire to get a middle man involved. If the bow blew up immediately, I was going to be able to talk directly with the manufacturer.

Search as I might, there were no Sequoias available above 50# anywhere, so I went with that weight. My rationale for going with a higher weight than my recurve was that longbows are rarely quite as efficient in producing cast versus weight, and that they tend to need slightly less spine stiffness in their arrows. Thus, a higher draw longbow would probably work with the arrows that its lighter recurve compatriot prefers. In theory.

The Sequoia took its darned sweet time coming. Holy moley. Weeks. I pined away and continued to have quiet bouts of fear that the second bow would be afflicted with the same problems as the first. I had time to second and third-guess myself.

The bow came, however, and theories were then exposed to the observable facts. First, all of the positive things I'd observed about the first bow were still in evidence. It was light, pointable, and could be made to hit the target without massive difficulties. Honestly, the difference in feel between 55# and 50# were not terribly obvious to me. Both of them, despite their modest draw weight, threw an arrow with obvious power, depositing them in the target with a satisfying thud.

My first impressions were that the bow was very quiet upon loose, and responded best to a smooth, deliberate approach. The speed I employed to draw to anchor generally slowed, compared to the recurve, which seemed happy enough with coming back to anchor as quickly as I chose. The 50# in the longbow feels more than five pounds more than the Blackhawk recurve's 45#, having a decidedly "man's bow" aura about it. This extends, to some degree, to the grip and hand shock qualitatives.

With the arrows I'd been using for the Blackhawk (GT Pro Hunter 55/75s at full length with a 100 grain tip), there was a bit of extra handshock, and the bow shot somewhat to the left, indicating an excess of spine. With the Cabela's Stalker Extremes and 125 grain tips, the handshock decreased and the bow shot straighter.

I initially tried split fingers, but quickly settled upon the three-fingers-under method as being more suitable to the bow. (As a note, I've gone back to three fingers with everything but the Snake as of now.) The handgrip initially came with a buckskin-type wrap of black leather. While this was pretty enough, the wrap wrinkled under my palm and caused me to get a blister on my first day out. I removed the wrap, only to find that very tenacious glue had been used to hold it on. I had quite a time getting it off, but it has, at last, been vanquished.

As for commentary in terms of hand shock, with an arrow that runs somewhat over 400 grains, the quality is, to me, pleasing. It should be mentioned that I have quite rugged hands and wrists, and have been known to be somewhat recoil-insensitive. The best way for me to describe the handshock of the Sequoia is to say it is like a big cam lobe turning and allowing a heavy pushrod to come to its rest. To me, it feels very reassuring in the hand. I don't know of any earthly reason for a wrapped handle, as there is a slim arrow shelf on this bow. The tapered handle, with differing hand placements, should be fine, just being wood. This should particularly be the case, if you're able to hold the bow with the webbing between your thumb and forefinger, as has often been recommended.

I installed some string dampeners that are humorously dubbed "Beaver Balls". All kidding aside, they're small bits of beaver pelt that one wraps around the string and secures by sliding them between filaments therein. They only further dampen the bow, allowing it to be even quieter. The Sequoia makes no more than a low mutter as it propels the arrow, provided that I don't twist or otherwise interfere with the string with a clumsy release.

Power-wise, arrows from the Blackhawk and Sequoia seem to penetrate a broadhead target (with broadheads) about the same distance. I would say that their energy may be roughly commensurate. With a heavier arrow, it is possible that the Sequoia may be able to confer slightly more, but I believe that the Blackhawk may have the edge in efficiency. With that, the sound of the arrow arriving at the target is decidedly different with the Sequoia. It seems, for lack of a better description, to just have a more powerful, authoritative sound.

Accuracy is, and will always be, something that is produced by the synergy of the archer and the bow. Generalizations are difficult to make, I think. That said, I will attempt to confer some useful information. With the Sequioa, it is easier to hit the dead center of the target, whether it be a gold area on the paper, or the middle of a milk jug. That said, it is also easier to have a lapse in form and have the arrow go significantly astray. The Sequoia is harder on my draw hand, and I've had mildly sore fingers after some extended shoots. I already mentioned the blister on my bow hand, though it has now become a callous.

I have been shooting the Sequoia nearly every day now, and though I have also interspersed shooting with my other bows, it has become the one I use the most. I am in no way less enthused about the Blackhawk or the Snake than I was, but the Sequoia...there's something about it.

I should, before I close up this long rumination, say a few things about the Sequoia and how it compares to other longbows. In today's market, longbows can come in a variety of sizes and shapes. The "modern longbow" is often, in fact, a flatbow, with the limbs being flat on the face and belly, exhibiting a rectangular structure.

Another term you may see is "American Longbow", which indicates a cross-pollination between standard English Longbows and the flat bow, which many Native American tribes used in antiquity. In addition, the modern or American longbow will usually have a slim arrow rest. They can also have "reflexed" limbs or a "deflexed" grip that does not flex in the hand. Reflexed limbs, when unstrung, flex slightly away from the handle. Not so much as to be recurved, but perhaps a total of several degrees of reflex between the two limbs. The Sequoia does this, by the way. Deflexed handles are somewhat forward of the limbs, and are said to reduce hand shock somewhat. Most modern longbows are flat, have an arrow shelf, and are built with some moderate reflex/deflex. Sequoia is, by all these terms, a modern longbow. That said, it still produces the classic "D" shape when braced, and has many of the classic advantages of a longbow. With its bamboo and fiberglass-backed limbs, though, it produces more power at its draw weight than a classic longbow would do.

Talking in Definitions:

What, then, is a classic longbow? The most essential answer to that would be a single piece of wood, most frequently yew, in which the back of the bow would be flat, and made from the outer ring of "sap wood", while the belly of the bow would be round in profile, using the heart wood. The bow would be straight as a pole or slightly curved toward the string's curvature (referred to as "following the string" or "taking set"), and would feature no arrow shelf, allowing either right or left-handed people to shoot the same bow, by shooting off of their bow hand knuckle. At most, a handle of wrapped cord, fabric, or rawhide would be provided. The handle would be essentially round. In the most archaic versions of a longbow, it would "work through the grip", which means that the grip itself would flex slightly as one drew back the string. Later versions strengthened the grip area sufficiently to prevent this flex.

Classic longbows could be made from laminations, if good yew wood were not available, though. Woods that were frequently used included lancewood, hickory, and several others. The very heavy longbows that were used in warfare were mostly made with laminations of yew, often from the Spanish or Italian mountains. These conformed to the longbow shape, but were generally referred to as War Bows. As testament to the rigors that humans are willing to embark upon when called to defend their country, these war bows featured very high draw weights, sometimes upward of 150#. While but few of us today, with our video game fingers and noodle like arms, could manage to draw such mighty bows, the little folk of years gone by twisted, contorted, and sometimes literally altered their frames to do so. It's said that the muscle and joint structures of an archer from the 15th century are clearly marked by the difficulties of his trade.

In today's age, if you want to get a bow that conforms to a classic longbow's ideals, you'll want to look at bows marked "English Longbow", or perhaps one of the sort marked "Primitive Bows". I have yet to go that far back into history, but that doesn't mean that I won't. If I do, you'll surely hear about it on Wolf Hawkwind. After this intolerably long blog, then, I'll just leave you with this. Longbows, modern or not, have a certain magic. I've felt that magic, and I am in love.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow! What fun! I thoroughly enjoyed your tale of "The Sequoia Adventures" as well as the quality of information about archery in general. I am and always shall be a devotee of the compound bow because of its inherent efficiency but you've managed to imbue the traditional form of the art with a degree of romance that is very alluring. Like I said, "What fun!" Bobby-T