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Home > Books > Book of archery > Section IX: Of the Power of Modern Bows
Section IX
Of the Power of Modern Bows

Still then stoode that prowde potter,
    Thus then sayde he,
An I had a bowe, then by the wade,
    One shot should you see.

Thou shalt have a bowe, sayde the sheriffe,
    The beste that thou wilt choose of three;
Thou seems't a stalward and a stronge,
    Assayed shalt thou be.

The sheriffe commanded a yeoman thereby
    Straight some bowes to lounge,
The best bowe that the yeoman brought,
    Robin set on a stringe.

Now shall I knowe if thou be good,
    And poul it uppe to the ear,
So God me help, sayde the prowde potter,
    This is righte weak gear.
Old Ballad.

MOST of my brethren are aware of the existence of an act of parliament[1], forbidding any man under the age of twenty-four years, "to shoot at standing pricks, except they be rovers[2], whereat he shall change at every shoot his mark, upon pain to forfeit for every shoot doing the contrary, four-pence. And that no person above the said age of twenty-four years, shall shoot at any mark of eleven score yards or under, with any prick shaft or flight, under the pain to forfeit for every shoot, six shillings and eight-pence."

The object of this enactment is probably not quite apparent to all my readers. The archers of the sixteenth century, degenerating from the vigour of their predecessors, showed an inclination to discontinue the ancient long distances at which the military archers had been accustomed to "bend the yew," adopting weaker bows and a lighter arrow, which was the first symptom of the decline of archery; eleven and twelve score yards being once no uncommon range for the heaviest, and twenty score, or four hundred yards, for the lightest, shaft. Thus the archers were not only interdicted from practicing at short lengths, but the six-and-eight-penny fine compelled them to shoot with a bow strong enough to cast either description of arrow at these respective distances.

This law, certainly a good one, remains still unrepealed. Verbum sat sapienti. May some patriotic informer take advantage of the hint. Reader, conceive the panic a paragraph like what follows, running the round of the newspapers, would create among all and every the bow-meetings of Great Britain.

"INFORMATION EXTRAORDINARY--CAUTION TO ARCHERS --MARYLEBONE OFFICE. Yesterday morning a considerable degree of curiosity was excited in this neighbourhood, by the appearance at the office of the whole Company of Royal T--ilites, whose elegant shooting grounds form one of the most distinguished ornaments of the metropolis. The appearance of the archers in our streets reminded us of descriptions we have frequently met with in some of the olden writers, touching the 'splendid shows and shootings,' common to days of chivalry and romance. They were gallantly attired in the full costume of their society; viz., black hat and feather, with doublet of the Lincoln green; and had marched through Portland Place, on their way to this office, with 'drums beating, colours flying, trumpets sounding,' as the old military phraseology has it, though not with 'matches lighted at both ends, and bullets in their mouths[3],' for it is sufficiently well known their peculiar weapons require none of these. Each archer, on the contrary, came bow in hand, and wore his bracer, shooting-glove, and belt, within which appeared the gallant grey goose wing. Summonses had been issued against them severally. The charges were founded upon an ancient, but unrepealed, statute, which, as far as we understand it, for we don't pretend to be very deep in the pages of Roger Ascham, prohibits the practising at any marks placed within a certain distance, with what are termed flight, or very light arrows. On referring to the act in question, it appeared the shortest length allowed was two hundred and twenty yards. The informer swore, and his evidence was corroborated by the oaths of two witnesses, that he had repeatedly observed defendants' targets fixed on earthen butts, between which not half that space intervened, and the archers, being unable to refute this part of the charge, were severally mulcted by the worthy magistrate in the sum of 4d. each. To prove the infringement of the second clause, the informer produced a very beautiful arrow, which he stated he had picked up. On its being submitted to the examination of a celebrated bowyer, then present, he reluctantly pronounced it to be a mere butt shaft, precisely the sort of arrow prohibited by the act in question. The informer here underwent a very severe examination by the defendants' solicitor, as to how he was enabled to swear the arrow then produced came from the defendants' shooting ground. It appeared that, for a long period, he had despaired of being able to substantiate this part of the accusation, as, during the two hours he was engaged in watching their proceedings, not one shaft in twenty failed of the butt. Towards sunset, however, and after the party returned from the refreshment of a few glasses of champagne, a stout, good-looking, middle-aged gentleman, whose dexterity had been eminently conspicuous during the day, prepared to lead the game. Perhaps he mistook the broad disk of a summer's sun for the target's golden centre: perhaps he merely raised his bow-hand a little higher than ordinary; however this be, instead of alighting in its accustomed place, the arrow went " soughing through the sky," until it ploughed up the gravel at witness's feet.

   Magistrate. Sou--sou--soughing,--what's that, what's that?
   Witness. It means a whistling, or whizzing, your Worship.
   Magistrate. What countryman are you?
   Witness. Please your Worship, I'm a Scotchman.

The worthy magistrate then declared the charge to be completely established, and adjudged each of the defendants to pay an additional fine of 6s. 8d. intimating at the same time his fixed determination of rigorously enforcing the existing: laws relative to archery, in all cases brought under his future cognisance."

But, jocosè hæc; for England still boasts within its merry woodlands more than one corps of archers, whose practice in both respects is in strict accordance with the ordinances of their ancestors.

Every man is not profoundly versed in the theory of projectiles, and I am probably not the only one who, whilst shooting in public, has amused himself by exciting the wonder of the uninitiated after the following most approved fashion. Set up your targets only eighty or one hundred yards apart, and not one of the spectators but fancies every arrow which drives into the turf beneath, or a few yards beyond the mark, has reached its goal, in other words, that your bow will shoot only between mark and mark. As they thus stand watching the sport, exert yourself to place a single arrow in the centre of the target, just to inspire them with a becoming respect for the archer's skill. Pass a second exactly over its upper edge, so that it may lodge in the ground about half a dozen yards beyond. Then, drawing the third from your belt, fix your eyes steadfastly upon the first vagrant rook which

Wings his way unto the rocky wood,

across the bottom of the target ground, and in my country, half a score might be espied in about as many seconds;--elevate your bow hand to an angle of 45, and launch the arrow at the bird, already distant thrice the space betwixt target and target. Reader, if blest with a taste for falconry, an ancient and a kindred sport, thou art not oblivious of that mad and desperate lurch, by which a heron seeks to evade the fell and simultaneous swoop of a cast of falcons' seregrine wheeling within three paces of her neck, with eyes of fire, and talons distended, in the hope of blood. Even so the rook. Among the astutest of the feathered tribes, he likes not the aspect of the grey ringed messenger which flies to meet him, and dashes off at a tangent also. And though nought, except, indeed, one of the demon shafts, for which those who tampered with the art "men may not name[4]" are said to have sometimes bartered their immortal part, could reach a flying mark full three hundred paces off, yet in the eyes of the spectators it appears so to do. As regards them, therefore, the triumph of archery will be complete. The noble attitude necessarily assumed by the shooter; an attitude which even the most awkward can but little degrade; the extraordinary flight of the arrow; the all but apparent death stroke to the bird; these will excite the spectators' mind to admiration for a weapon, of whose powers they had previously formed a very inadequate idea.

Shooting in public, at distances of sixty yards and under, is certainly injudicious, since it tends to disparage the noble exercise of archery in vulgar eyes; indeed, all bow meetings should be held in the most sequestered situations, until the majority have attained a certain degree of proficiency. On witnessing the abortive efforts of some weak-armed, inexpert, slovenly bowman, to lay his arrow in a mark within range of dust shot from a paltry fowling-piece, our sensations are nearly allied to contempt for the shooter and his amusement. Bow, arrows, belt, bracer, and shooting glove, originally the best of their kind, in his hands, too, have become wretchedly dilapidated; for a certain gaucherie and bad taste appears to be the birthright of some persons. Mark now, on the other hand, how the loiterer's admiring eye is rivetted upon him who next steps in front of the target. His air and demeanour are alone sufficient to proclaim him a master of the game. A plume snatched from the eagle's wing, decorates his dark velvet bonnet, and the rest of his neat and appropriate costume is green as the grass he treads on. His stout and polished yew bow, glistening like a mirror, o'ertops its master's height full half a cubit. The well waxed string, unfrayed even in a single fibre, is carefully whipped at the centre, with silk of black and crimson; at its eye and noose, with the finest chamois leather. Buckled beneath a richly worked belt of russet-coloured buffalo's hide are his burnished shafts. The painted pattern of some elegant riband serves to distinguish them from those of his associates; and their snowy feathers, still pure and unruffled as in the hour they fell from the wild bird's wing, reveal to the archer's eye, that their place is oftener in the target than beneath it. Confident of skill, the reward of unremitted practice, he stands prepared to challenge even the distant rifle to a trial of superiority. His arrow is already in the string; the mark reclines its broad circlets of crimson and gold, nothing short of two hundred paces off, on yonder green hill-side. Firmly setting his feet upon the turf, he grasps his trusty bow with the strength and steadiness of a vice. His eyes, lost to every thing besides, are immoveably fixed on the object of his distant aim, whilst he draws manfully, until the thumb of his shaft hand grazing his right ear, warns him of the precise moment when to loose.

             The string let fly,
Sounds shrill and sharp, like the swift swallow's cry.

As the glancing meteor or falcon's flight, the arrow whistles through the sky, for no human ken can mark its trackless course. Thus., like the statue of Apollo Belvedere, our gallant archer remains rivetted to the spot, with look of pride, and arm still extended. But the pause is momentary; the music-of that short sharp sound,

So familiar to his ear,

announces the arrow's entrance into the target, and justifies the expectations to which his gallant bearing had given rise.

In thus advocating strong bows and distant shooting, let it not be understood that the archer is to injure himself by overstraining his muscles, or mar his success at the target by using bows beyond his management. The degree of power proper for ladies' and youths' bows I have already explained; but no man, having reached his full strength, and not an invalid, can run the slightest risk from beginning with one of fifty pounds. At the same time let me observe, that every archer risks an imputation on his manhood, who finally settles down to any thing short of a seventy-five, which commands all lengths within four hundred yards. The strength of the drawing arm rapidly accommodates itself to the increased power of the bow, for nothing tends more to fortify and invigorate the muscles of that, and indeed every other portion of the human frame, than archery. We have all seen a bow somewhat above the shooter's strength during his first season, entirely under command by the ensuing summer, if in constant use. Ten pounds additional weight should be added to every new bow. Let the archer, however, "wrestle with his gear," as Ascham terms it, and achieve these conquests in private; for no bow should be taken to a shooting match, which the owner cannot use with perfect facility, since the struggle consequent on an attempt to draw up the arrow, when a man is over-bowed, will so disorder his aim, that by chance only can he hope, under such disadvantages, to meet with the target. "It makes some men," writes the author just quoted, "to overshoot the mark, some to shoot far wide, and perchance to hurt a by-stander." "I had my bows," says Bishop Latimer in one of his sermons, "bought for me according to my age and strength, and as I increased in them, so my bows were made heavier and stronger."

Let the bow of every archer be proportioned to his strength, that is, not above, but rather beneath the power of the shooter, says Leo in his tactics; and the observation proves him to have been well acquainted with the subject on which he wrote.

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