First steps in archery

11100“Don’t look at your arrow point,” says Nev. “Just look at what you want the arrow to hit. If you do it right, it’ll go there.”

That is almost the entirety of Nev’s advice on how to aim. This is not to say it’s simple. This is instinctive aiming – in effect, you aim by not aiming at all. Mostly this is about what you do not do. You don’t use a sight. You don’t position your arrow point over your target. And you definitely do not “barrel” your arrow – drawing to your eye and squinting the length of the shaft like a rifle barrel.

It’s my first archery session – not on a target range, but stalking around the woods not far from where I live on a bright, cold, sunny day in April. This is field archery, which replicates hunting with a bow (no animals are harmed – we just use 3D targets dotted about the forest, which here include deer, several zombies and a velociraptor). For my purposes, it also evokes the medieval archery experience, which is a huge bonus. Getting the feel of medieval longbow archery was my main reason for doing this. The woods near us may not quite be Sherwood, but when I went looking for an archery club and found one five minutes cycle from my house, which had several members who shot longbow and also met in woodland, I could hardly believe my luck.

Nev is a 77-year-old northerner whose advice is as blunt as you’d expect. But for all that, he is a true Obi Wan. “It’s like when you’re a kid, and you throw a stone at something,’ he says. ‘You don’t aim the stone. You don’t measure the distance. You just feel the weight, look at your target, and throw.’ His approach is all about acquiring such a level of familiarity with it that you can forget the thinking part altogether. Very zen.

But back to the matter in hand, and the (artificial) boar in my (nonexistent) sights…

Being instinctive sounds easy enough. But becoming instinctive – making the unfamiliar action of drawing a bow natural enough that you don’t have to think about it, whilst unlearning the lifetime of habits that your brain puts in the way – that’s hard.

With the 20lb recurve that I have been using – a low-power bow for beginners, and the first bow I have shot in maybe 30 years – I occasionally get it right. And you know when you have. With the 40lb bow that he has just let me try, it’s something else again. A 40lb bow is easily powerful enough for hunting game, and is lethal. Drawing it puts a strain on all manner of undiscovered muscles, and with this kind of resistance, technique goes out of the window. I rush it, and am barely aware of the release. The arrow is noticeably faster and hits the target with a satisfying “thunk”, but I know it’s as much by luck as judgement. I know Nev knows it too. There’s no pretending here. The top three fingers of my right hand throb from the poor release. We go back to the 20lb-er after that, which now seems a breeze by comparison – though we’ll return to the 40lb-er later. I try to remind myself that medieval longbowmen regularly drew bows of around 90lbs.

He gets me shooting, moving, and shooting again, twigs and pine cones crunching underfoot. This is how field archery works – no standing stock still at a set distance from a round target. The angle, the distance, the light conditions and the terrain are all constantly changing.

I first shot an arrow from a real bow when I was about 12. A week or so before, I’d managed to snap its predecessor – really no more than a toy – clean in half. Even though this had obviously been done in a fit of pique, the result of my childish frustration with what I obviously felt was an inadequate weapon, I didn’t get a finger-wagging speech from my parents. Instead, my dad went out and bought a five foot flatbow, half a dozen arrows and a straw bale. It had no frills – nothing in the way of sights, counterweights or – God forbid – pulleys. It was just a stick and a string.

I was thrilled. This wasn’t childish play any more. It was the real thing. I could barely draw it, but nonetheless spent hours loosing arrows into the straw bale, happily oblivious to the fact that beyond it was nothing more than a hedge, and beyond that, a main road.

Nev didn’t seem too impressed when I first divulged this. This is one environment where you don’t snigger about health and safety issues. What you have in your hand is a lethal weapon, after all. Later, he admits that somewhere on YouTube is video of him accidentally walking in front of a target during a shoot.

After a while, he hands me the 40lb bow again. At the start he swore he’d only let me shoot one arrow with it on my first try – “I don’t want to confuse you,” he said – but I can see he can’t resist giving me another go. I hope it’s because he can see I have potential. Natural, raw talent. That I’m the new Robin Hood, ready to split my opponent’s arrow. Or at least that I’m not actually an idiot who might get skewer some innocent bystander.

I go through the list in my head. Get the posture right. Relax. Raise the bow. Keep the arm straight. Focus on where I want the arrow to go. Grip the string – without knocking the arrow off the rest. Draw – without moving my head, or my arm, or anything but the drawing arm. Anchor at the corner of the mouth… Then release. And don’t forget the follow through with the right hand.

There’s so much to think about, and to try to not think about. Sometimes I take too long and things go awry. Sometimes I’m too hasty –“snap shooting” as Nev calls it. Then it’s mostly luck if it flies true. But one or two shots go right. I find can actually hit what I’m aiming at. And it feels good. All the more satisfying is the knowledge that this bow is about the same draw weight as the longbow I’ll eventually buy. But I need to learn basics before I move on to that. Nev says so, and despite a natural impatience I now understand why. That longbow has to be earned.

At the end of the session, as I lift my bike over the gate and cycle away, my mind feels wonderfully clear. It feels like it’s actually working differently – as if someone has pushed the reset button, and cleared out all the accumulated mental crap.

And I know I’m hooked.

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2 thoughts on “First steps in archery

  1. Interesting, the s are principal goes for making bows. It’s what I teach when I’m crafting in the Viking Longhouse in Northern Norway. Have you ever made a traditional bow yourself ?

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  2. No, never have – but it would be nice… It may yet happen – I find as I get into this and other medieval things that I am making more and more myself. Good to meet a fellow enthusiast of Nordic culture, by the way. My first novel was set among Vikings. I consider them friends.

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