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Home > Books > The Witchery of Archery > Chapter 2: Outline sketch of the practice of archery in hunting
Chapter 2
Outline sketch of the practice of archery in hunting

"Cheerily blow the bugle horn
In the cool green woods of morn;
Loose the hounds and let them go,
Wax the cord and bend the bow."

SO long as the new moon returns in heaven a bent, beautiful bow, so long will the fascination of archery keep hold of the hearts of men. You have but to mention an archer or archery to your friend, and immediately his interest is aroused. He may scoff at the bow and sneer at the arrow; but he will inquire and show curiosity. Hang a long bow and a quiver of arrows conspicuously in your hall or library, and you will soon discover that no exquisite painting or bit of statuary will receive from guests more attention than will be accorded to these ancient weapons.

No doubt if one could procure a shell strung with gold and silver cords, after the fashion of the old-time instrument with which the gods made music, the same fascination would attach. Indeed, the lyre was suggested by the bow. Music and poetry sprang from our weapon. The bow is the old first lyre, the monochord, the initial rune of fine art, and is as inseparably connected with the history of culture as are the alphabets of the learned languages. The humanities grew out from archery as a flower from a seed. No sooner did the soft, sweet note of the bow-string charm the ear of genius than music was born, and from music came poetry and painting and sculpture.

What the fragments of Sapphic song and the Homeric epics are to the literature of to-day, the bow is to the weapons of to-clay. The Sapphic songs were the natural music of love; the Homeric epics were the natural outpourings of a great self-sufficient soul surcharged with the inspiration of heroism. So the bow was the natural weapon of the simple, perfect physical manhood represented in the idea of Apollo, who, with drawn bow, was the symbol of such manhood displayed in its highest powers and graces.

When a man shoots with a bow it is his own vigor of body that drives the arrow, and his own mind controls the missile's flight. When the archer hears his shaft hiss through the air with a force not to be equalled by those of his competitors, he feels justly proud of his superior manhood. His trained subjects no one to a charge of bad taste, whilst " Straight as a ramrod," " Swift as bird-shot," " The buck-shot of envy," or "The cartridges of malice " would be thought expressions or phrases of very questionable propriety in a grave essay, or in a brilliant poem. In fact, as I have said, the bow is one of the primitive humanities-one of the original elements of culture. It is a classic. On the other hand, however, it is curious to note how surely the how and arrows have found their way into the hands of all wild peoples whose mode of life has made physical culture a necessity with them, and it is equally interesting and significant to discover that, among these wild peoples, a chieftain is invariably chosen on account of his ability to draw a mighty bow.

We are nothing better than refined and enlightened savages. The fibre of our nature is not changed in substance; it is polished and oiled. The wild side of the prism of humanity still offers its pleasures to us, and it is healthful and essentially necessary to broad culture that we accept them in moderation.

Sport, by which is meant pleasant physical and mental exercise combined-play in the best sense -is a requirement of this wild element, this glossed-over heathen side of our being, and the bow is its natural implement.

One day, not long ago, my brother (the Will often mentioned hereafter) and I were practising at a target on a green lawn, when a miserably clad and hunger-pinched tramp approached us. Rags and dirt could not hide, nor could hunger and humiliation blunt the edge of a certain manliness of bearing as he touched his torn hat and paused near us. Could we give him a bite to eat or a few pence to buy him a cheap dinner? He was very hungry. The old story. We sent a lad who was scoring for us to my house to inquire if any cooked victuals were in the pantry, and then resumed our shooting. The tramp stood by watching us. Finally, as if impelled by an irresistible interest, he said:

"Archery is a noble sport."
We turned and looked at him in surprise. He waved his hand in a peculiarly graceful way, and in a sad voice said:
"On Brighton sands I have seen good shooting. I have shot there myself." "In England?" asked Will.
"Yes, "he replied;" I am a gentleman." Will smiled doubtingly.
"Would you let me shoot once?" he said. There was sincerity in his voice.
Will handed him his bow and arrow. He took them eagerly, almost snatching them. For a moment he stood as if irresolute, then quickly fixing the arrow on the string, drew and let fly. The movements were those of a trained archer. The distance was forty yards, and he hit the gold in its very centre.

Will and I looked at each other and at the tramp. We were overpowered. Will posted off to my house at once, and returned with a bottle of wine and a tray of biscuits and tongue, with which that archer tramp did most ravenously regale himself. I mention this to clinch my theory, viz.: That neither poverty, nor shame, nor hunger, nor dissipation, nor anything but death can ever quite destroy the merry, innocent, Arcadian, heathen part of our nature, that takes to a bow and arrows as naturally as a butterfly takes to a flower.

Taking wild game has nearly ceased to be reckoned among the means of gaining a livelihood, and has fallen, or risen, as one may view it, to the level of a sport or means of recreation from the exhaustion and depression consequent to the civilized methods of self-destruction called business. Formerly, table comforts of the most necessary sort had to be procured by the skill or luck of the huntsman, and as the game yearly grew more wary and difficult of approach, as well as more scarce, while the demand for it steadily increased, necessity invented firearms-that terrible source of slaughter which has at last reduced shooting to less than a sport. The limits of this chapter will not admit of even the most condensed statement of the combination of causes which has so revolutionized hunting with a gun, that, as it is the fashion to follow it now, it cannot be recommended as either healthful or pleasant. It is not sport to sling a handful, say from three hundred to seven hundred, pellets at a bird. The true sportsman finds his chief delight, not in the number of birds or other game brought to bag, but in the "brilliancy" of his shooting. As regards skill, no man ought to brag of knocking down two quails, left and right, under the ordinary circumstances of field-shooting. Let us look at the thing for a moment. Say you have four hundred pellets in each barrel of your gun, either of which barrels will, at forty yards, spread that number pretty evenly over nine square feet of space. Say at twenty-five yards, the ordinary limit of quail-shooting range, your gun will cover two feet square thickly with shot. See what a margin for successful inaccuracy. In one case you may aim eighteen inches, and in the other one foot off your bird and yet kill it! With a good choke-bored shot-gun you may hit a duck one hundred yards in the same way. A moment's reflection cannot fail to suggest to sportsmen the calamity which these absolutely murderous weapons are hastening forward.

The shot-gun will soon exterminate game. It already has exterminated it in many large regions. The very sound of a gun is terrible to all wild things. A few more years, and hunting will be a thing of the past, unless some change takes place in our methods of destroying game.

I would not be understood as decrying the shot-gun when it is kept to its place and used only for that sort of game which cannot, from the nature of its habits, be shot except when flying, as the wood-cock and marsh-hen, the snipe and most water-fowl, quails and grouse. It is the abuse of gun-shooting -the terrible slaughter committed by pot-hunters, that I deplore.

I was yet in my teens when I was taught the use of the long-bow by Thomas Williams, an old hermit of a fellow, whose cabin stood in the midst of a vast pine forest that bordered my father's plantation in the beautiful hill country of North Georgia. My brother Will and I had been practising archery, in a boyish way, for some years before Williams gave us lessons; but though we had of our own efforts become expert in the making and use of our weapons, we found, to our chagrin, that, before we could dare call ourselves bowmen, all we had learned must be thrown away and an art mastered whose difficulties seemed insurmountable. Williams was an incomparable archer, and delighted in practising with his favorite weapons; but a strange timidity so mastered him that no amount of pleading on our part could prevail on him to make any public exhibition of his skill. We never could get him to come forth boldly and join us in the delightful excursions we undertook to various shooting-grounds after his careful training had made accurate and enthusiastic bowmen of us. The wood-peckers, thrushes, and grossbeaks in the woods immediately surrounding his cabin were the only live marks he ever sought, excepting that occasionally he shot hares by moonlight in an open glade situated a half-mile deeper in the forest.

Of course, before you try to shoot game you must practise shooting at some kind of mark. For this purpose a target is not recommended, since one who is trained to aim at a large graduated disc, like that of a lawn target, either with gun or how, can rarely shoot well at birds or other small game. The reason is that in target-shooting at a fixed distance one gets used to a certain size, color, and condition of backgrounds, and when he gets into the woods and lifts his bow- to draw on a bird or a hare, his accustomed rings and gay background are not there. His vision is blurred consequently, and he draws waveringly and shoots indifferently.

A black rubber ball four inches in diameter, suspended in mid-air by a string fastened to a low bough of an apple-tree, makes a first-rate substitute for a bird, and a small bag of straw placed on the ground and shot at, at about twenty yards, gives good hare practice. You will soon discover the great advantage gained by not using the same distance all the time. For, after all, a bowman's skill is scarcely worthy of admiration if it is confined to one range. It is when you have learned to shoot well at all distances bet con ten and fifty yards, and betake yourself to the woods and fields, that archery becomes a truly royal sport; and not till then do you begin fairly to draw upon the varied resources compassed by the art.

Your first shooting at wild things should be care-fully done, choosing the tamest and least wary of birds, in order that your shots may be at very short range and their results accurately noted. See if you shoot too high or too low, too far to the left or the right, and try to cure the fault. You must not think of game till you have killed a number of woodpeckers, meadow-larks, and field-sparrows.

Three things are requisite to bird-shooting with the bow. First, you must know how, under all circumstances and over all kinds of ground surface, to quickly and accurately measure distance with the eye; secondly, you must be quick and noiseless as a cat in your movements; thirdly, you must draw uniformly, that is, put the same power on every shot, no matter how near or far the bird may be. In other words, draw to the head of your arrow every time you draw.

When, after considerable experience and success at mark-practice, you begin to shoot in the woods, you will discover that to be a good shot is not the half of what it takes to make you a tolerable bird-slayer. Some of the finest shots you will ever make will be misses, and some of the poorest will be centre hits. Such is luck. But in starting out you need not fear that woodpecker shooting will be poor sport. Some of my happiest bouts in the woods have owed all their charm to the excitement of chasing an ivory-bill, a red-head, or a "sap-sucker" from tree to tree, whacking away at him whenever he got still, watching the flight of my arrow as it whisked past him, or struck close to him with a ringing rap like the blow of a hammer, till at last I plumped him over, stringing him half way down my shaft. In a succeeding chapter we will shoot woodpeckers together.

To do regular, even shooting requires a great deal of preparatory practice at unequal distances and under a large variety of influences, with every difference of surroundings and in all sorts of weather. In fact, you will never be a good shot till all the operations of archery are performed as naturally and almost as involuntarily as your breathing. For instance: a meadow-lark shows his yellow breast in a hunch of clover blossoms, or in a tuft of timothy stubble, thirty yards distant from you-you halt instantly, throw up your bow quickly and gracefully, draw an arrow to the head and let it go sharply, all with as little effort and precisely with the same half-involuntary, half-mechanical accuracy with which you take so many steps in walking. Your arrow flies with a keen hiss straight to the mark and knocks the bird over and over amid a cloud of gold feathers and clover or grass leaves. When you can do this one time out of ten, at even twenty paces, you may begin to call yourself an archer; but do not grow discouraged if it takes a long while to get such ordinary proficiency. "There is no excellence" in archery "without great labor."

The pewter-headed arrows described in the Appendix to this book should be used for all kinds of small birds. For shooting hare and wild-fowl and large game the broad-headed and barbed shafts are necessary.

When you have reached a reasonable proficiency in the use of your weapons at a fixed mark, the next thing to think of is shooting "on the wing," as killing birds while they are flying is called. For this sort of practice make a spring-board controlled by a trigger so that when a string is pulled a ball of rubber, or, for that matter, any soft material, is thrown from it into the air, after the manner of glass balls from a Bogardus trap. You can begin shooting at a very large ball first, and decrease its size to three inches in diameter as you progress. You will be surprised to find how soon you will learn to hit a six-inch ball, at ten or fifteen paces, when thrown with considerable force into the air. This accomplished, you may begin shooting at tame pigeons let go from a trap, or at meadow-larks as they rise from the clover. Daily practice and great care will soon work wonders.* Two years of sincere, systematic attention to the tried rules of archery will render you an expert, ready to knock down a flying grouse or wood-duck, and able to pierce a deer through the shoulders at one hundred yards. You will then be found in the jungles of Florida, following the hounds after a deer, a bear, or a panther, and handling a ninety pound snakewood bow and three ounce broad-headed hunting shafts with all the ease and power of a Tartar chieftain. Or mayhap your tent will be beside some far northern brook, where the speckled trout leap out after the flies, and where the dappled fawns come out of the "bush" to wade in the cold water.

But first, before you can blow the bugle horn, or follow the hounds, you must be content to chase the woodpecker.

* For the "School of Shooting," see Appendix.

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