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Hunting with the Bow
by Will H. Thompson
Forest and Stream, 20 November, 1879.
Article courtesy of Joel Gudknecht

Having been for several years a careful and much interested reader of the contributions of Mr. Van Dyke, upon the theory and practice of hunting with the rifle, it was no small gratification to me to read his article in the FOREST AND STREAM of October 16th, upon "Archery Marksmanship." For many years my brother, Maurice Thompson, and myself hunted with the bow, when we two were the only archers in the United States, and before either of us had ever seen an archer’s target. We did not, of course adopt the bow as a weapon superior, or equal in destructive powers, to the cheapest and poorest guns, but solely for the greater pleasure of its use in pursuit of game.

To me it has always seemed a greater feat to stalk a fox to his ruin, as I once knew Captain H. H. Talbot to do, killing him at the seventh shot, two miles from the point where we first found him, following him through the heavy woods of the Wabash bottoms, than to have killed fifty quails without a miss as they whirred up in the weed fields, by pouring an ounce and a quarter of No. 9 shot out of a big No. 10 gun which destroyed the peace of the world, and racked the brain with its intolerable thunder. Now, Captain Talbot could easily have killed the fox the first shot, at the moment we started it from its bed in the bushes, had he been armed with a good shot gun loaded with a charge of BB shot, and thus have saved the two miles of cunning and toilsome trailing through the thick woods; but the dead fox was not valuable, and we were out for the pleasure of the chase, and not for the purpose of obtaining a supply of meat for use or pelts for sale.

What gentlemen will admit that he abandons his business for a week, dons the rough garb of the hunt, toils over hills, wades through foul sloughs, defies the clinging tortures of thorns and burrs, bears the expense of a three hundred dollar breech-loader and its expensive ammunition, for the reason that he must have a few quail, or a dozen ducks, upon which to regale himself? Of course, all will admit that the tyro, who only kills one quail out of ten shots, sees the same beauties of field and wood as his more skilled friend who brings down the hurrying grouse with almost unerring certainty. What then is the chief pleasure of the hunt? Is it the joy of securing a huge bag of dead birds? Surely not. If that were the principle moving the hunter, he would seek his cowering and huddled flocks on the ground and pour the volleyed murder from both barrels into their midst. But it is not the mass of dead birds he seeks, but the exciting pleasures of the chase.

This being admitted, how easy it is to understand the feeling of the true sportsman like Mr. Van Dyke, when he passes by the little spotted fawn that tamely stares at him from the open glade, and sends his bullet far flying after the great antlered fellow who goes smashing through the tangle of the mountain side! This is the true spirit of the hunter; and though such may be the exception to the rule, yet such are growing in number; and the time will come when the men who boast of one hundred ducks killed in a single day, will be scorned of all good sportsmen and true. For such reasons I have loved the bow as a weapon of the chase more than any other. I have spent many a long day in pursuit of game with bow and arrow, and returned without "fur, fin, or feather" as a trophy, and yet have intensely enjoyed the day’s sport, for many a close shot at long range had thrilled me with that indescribable flush of exaltation that intoxicates like rich old wine.

There is something about the shooting of game with a bow that produces a feeling of personal pride in the performance, which does not come with the same result when the killing is done with a gun. I can only account for this by attributing it to the fact that a gun is more of a machine than a bow. When the gun is loaded, all that is necessary to do to send its deadly messenger forth, is to simply press the trigger. There is no great muscular effort, no strong arraying of the forces of the man against the game, but only the mechanical training of the long tube upon the game, and the loosening of the imprisoned energy within the shell. With the bow you do not say, "Now that duck is swimming this way, and if it reaches yon clump of sedge it will be within fifty yards, and my gun is sure of it;" but the excitement of the shot is wonderfully enhanced from the fact that you cannot surely depend upon killing it at any given distance.

One great feature in hunting with the bow is denied the votary of the gun, which to me has been productive of more intense excitement that any other event of hunting experience, and that is in the habit of birds and rabbits squatting close to the ground at the sound of the first passing arrow, and there remaining until a dozen arrows have hissed about them, and cut up the turf and weeds so close as to almost dislodge them forcibly. These are moments of exhilaration to the archer.

I remember one instance, when I found a woodcock near my house, and went to the house for my bow and arrows. Returning, I found him by careful search squatted by a tuft of sedge, and from a distance of thirty yards I discharged seven arrows at him--the wildest shot not missing him five inches. He sat perfectly still, with the arrows ringed round him deeply driven into the soft earth. Having no more arrows, I could do nothing, except walk up and flush him, which I did. He flew a short distance and alighted, and I procured my arrows and followed. After a half hour’s search I found him again, and the same exciting piece of sport was repeated, till at the forth shot I knocked him over. It is safe to say, that I obtained more real hunter’s joy out of the bout after that one woodcock than does the sportsman who kills a dozen as fine birds in an afternoon with his shot gun.

I do not deny the pleasure of wing-shooting with the shot gun, and I have myself taken a selfish pride in some fine bags of birds killed over a fine old setter, but I do maintain that the greater pleasure is to be obtained by the less noisy and less destructive bow. So far as the question of losing arrow is concerned, the expense of keeping a supply is not nearly so great as that of satisfying the ravenous maw of a breech-loader. One does not loose so many arrows as might be expected. I remember one notable instance, when, in the spring of the year 1877, Captain H. H. Talbot and the writer went upon a ten days’ hunt down the Rock River armed only with bows and arrows, and during the expedition neither lost a single arrow. Of course, this was better fortune than generally befalls; but the loss of arrows is never a serious matter.

Another advantage the archer possesses, is in the fact that everything is game for him. He follows the rabbit with the same joy that the gunner pursues the deer; to him the meadow lark is as fine game as the grouse to the man with the Greener, and the little wood duck as big game as the canvasback or wild goose to the fellow with the Currituck cannon. Now that the love of target archery is possessing the American lovers of out-door pastimes, it will not be long before there will be many archers with bows in hand haunting the sedge fields beloved of the rabbit, and following the ways of the little streams where the thick grasses, the overshadowing willows, and the ripple of the hidden water allure to the domain of the heron.

There is no thrill of joy which the chase provokes so subtly fine and intense, as the tip-toe approach, the soft parting of the impeding willows, the eager peering for the wary game, the startled flocking of the blood from the heart as it is discovered close—so close as almost to shock the sight—and then the gently raising of the bow hand, the strong drawing of the taut cord, the sudden settling of the nerves and muscles into utter rigidity, the ringing of the loosed string, and the low whisper of the flying arrow, and the dull thud of the bow. No tiger hunter in the jungle ever glared with more excitement into the eyes of his fierce game, than thus the archer upon his less dangerous prey.

—Will H. Thompson