In writing upon such a subject as this it is, perhaps, well to remark at starting that the ground which must be travelled over has already been most carefully surveyed by the late Mr. Horace Ford in his 'Theory and Practice of Archery.' Mr. W. Butt, in bringing out a new edition of this work, enlarged it by adding much valuable matter, gathered from a long practical experience as a skilful bowman, keen observation, and a thorough love o the sport. In giving any practical hints on archery, it naturally becomes a necessity to revert from time to time to much which has already been written on the subject, because we are bound to follow where practical experience has marked out the way.
Archery, in the majority of cases, is picked up from some friend or neighbour, who may, or may not, know something about it. If the former is the case it is well . for not only will the beginner start right, but will obtain some inkling of the theory which will come well to hand at those periods at which all archers suffer, viz. periods of 'breakdown.'
Like other misfortunes in this world, a breakdown affects different people in different ways. Some set to work at once to try to find out what is amiss with themselves ; others attribute the collapse to the favourite bows having 'lost their cast' others change the length or weight of their arrows, but many remain in statu, and never seem able to rally at all.
To the uninitiated it appears ridiculous that a man who, perhaps, early in the season has shown most creditable attainments should suddenly disappear from the front rank for, to them, no apparent reason; but it is no matter for surprise to an archer who knows the extreme sensitiveness of his weapon, and the numerous delicate operations which must be accurately performed before a satisfactory result can be achieved.
In order to shoot with any prospect of success, and to retain the art when once the first difficulties are surmounted, it is necessary that certain principles upon which to work should be fixed in the mind. These principles admit of considerable variation in the carrying out, but as principles upon which to build up archery they remain.
In order to be impressed with the necessity of working by definite rules, it may be well to glance briefly at the weapon to be used, and the machine which is to ply it. The longbow and its attendant arrow is a compound weapon of great simplicity in itself; a simplicity which partakes of rudeness, and stamps it as having its origin in primitive times.
Simple and innocent, however, as it appears, and capable as it is of being a trusty friend and ally, a bow is at the same time a watchful enemy, ready to take advantage of the smallest slight.
'If it is possible' --as the late Mr. Euclid used to say-- imagine a horse that is a desperate puller with a very, light mouth; a man with hands would probably declare 'he was never so well carried in his life'; but the man with 'no hands' would promptly be a candidate for splints or elm boards. Now, a bow is like that sort of horse--charming if properly used, but if otherwise, a compendium of concentrated cussedness capable of challenging Creation with certainty of success.
With regard to the machine which is to supply all that is wanting in the bow, in order to reduce it from its crude state to a weapon of some sort of precision. This machine is one of most delicate organisation, being, of course, the human body; but quot homines tot differentiae, which, being interpreted, 'few people being constituted alike,' renders a hard-and-fast rule on many points in archery impossible. Muscular power, or the want of it, may be met by the proportionate strength of the bow; but unequal power of sight in the two eyes, height, breadth, length of arms, difference in length of the first and third fingers of the loosing hand, are all matters which can only be adapted to as close proximity to the ideal as circumstances permit. Being right or left handed matters little, as the position and action in either case are only the reversal of the other. And then there are those nerves! How much depends on them, and how unreliable they are, is known to every archer who has 'toed the scratch' at sixty yards on the second day's shooting at the Grand National Meeting. There are many things which we can get through fairly well without showing our nervousness; but when it comes to the firm yet delicate manipulation of a bow, it is just one of those things which cannot be concealed; the unsteady flight of the arrow discovers it directly.
Steadiness of position will do more than anything else to restore waning confidence; and some knowledge of the theory of archery, and so of one's own weak points, will, prevent the horrible sensation, under which so many go down at a pinch, that you must cry out with dear old pusillanimous Balbus that 'it is all over with the army!'
The bracing or stringing of the bow, though it has not actually much to do with the shooting, is an essential preliminary, and attention to certain details when it has been accomplished is needed to insure the true cast of the bow.
The good old method of our boyhood, viz. sticking one end in the ground, placing the knee about the middle of the bow, and pulling the other end towards you, while you slipped the eye into the nock, or more usually tied the loose end of the string round a notch, is not held in favour amongst archers, though occasionally beginners may be seen trying to carry out the plan, struggling round and round like a rider endeavouring to mount an unwilling horse. The proper method is simplicity itself. Usually someone shows the beginner how it is done, which makes it easier to learn, but for the sake of completeness it shall be set down here.
Place the bow back uppermost (the flat side) with the lower horn against the right foot, or in the hollow of the instep, so that it will not slip; grasp the handle with the right hand, and place the lower part of the left hand on the upper limb of the bow at such a distance from the nock that when the fingers are extended they can easily reach it; keep the first and second fingers bent at first, the tips resting against the eye of the string. Stand perfectly upright so as to have full power, pull the bow towards you with the right hand, pressing the upper limb down and extending the fingers of the left hand at the same time, till the eye of the string slips into the nock.
Some archers prefer to reverse the hands and use the left foot as a fulcrum, but it makes no material difference. To unstring a bow the position is the same, and the action similar, sufficient pressure being put on to allow of the eye being slipped out of the nock, this pressure being gradually reduced after the object has been attained, in order to avoid pinching the fingers with the released string; most beginners make acquaintance with this result, but not often.
Roger Ascham in 1545 was apparently exercised by the eccentricities of his fellow-archers, and so put pen to paper on the subject. We always quote him about now, because he divided his subject into 'five heads,' and these are called the 'five points of archery.' These are his words: 'Fayre shootynge comes of these thynges: of standynge, nockynge, drawynge, howlding and lowsyng'; and these five points have usually been considered by writers on the subject in the order in which they are laid down.
It must not, however, be supposed that these are five separate and distinct actions independent of one another, but rather that they are distinguished for the purpose of description.
Standing and nocking are closely allied, and nocking and drawing are related to one another, though only distantly; While drawing, aiming, holding and loosing all work with complete reference to one another. There is much to be thankful for in the fact that the author of the 'five points' was either ignorant of 'aiming,' or 'gave it up' as a conundrum too deep for him. Many people consider it a hard subject to master when scientifically described in the vernacular, and it certainly would not have been improved by a reckless waste of y's and w's. There is little doubt that the success of a shot depends, far more than is commonly supposed, on the standing or position --as it is usually called-- of the archer. If this is faulty, it becomes impossible to carry out correctly the delicate manipulations which follow. It was the place to stand upon, and consequently erect his machinery, which presented the insuperable obstacle to Archimedes' experiment of moving the earth; at least, so we are told.
The 'place to stand upon' is usually provided for the archer at the best regulated meetings of the faculty; but it does not always follow that it is a good place, and if any argument were required to prove the necessity of a good position in order to produce a 'good arrow,' it would be found in the disconcerting effect on a good archer of a 'nobbly' or uneven footing. The muscular power of the arms has to be exerted in a way to which the beginner is entirely unused, and to secure the co-operation of the rest of the body it is necessary that the position should be such as will afford the greatest amount of assistance under adverse circumstances. A weight of, say, fifty pounds has to be moved, and briefly sustained, with the arm extended, and the left hand, right hand, and right elbow in a line almost horizontal; the first finger of the right hand just touching the jawbone close to the chin, directly beneath the right eye. Anyone placing the hands and arms in that position for a moment, and remembering that the strain will come on the first three fingers of the right hand, will acknowledge at once that the attitude is not one which would be adopted naturally, if the object was only that of moving and sustaining the weight. The level of the hip-joint would be about the height at which the effort would be made, with the body thrown back to assist the muscles. To illustrate this, it is only necessary to hand a bow to a muscular man ignorant of its use: the result of his endeavours to draw it up is something marvellous. Guided by the light of nature, he pulls to the centre of his chest, but having no assistance from position, his shoulders attain to the level of his cars, his body bends in the direction of the point of the arrow, and he usually takes one or two short steps forward in order to sustain his equilibrium.
That the arrow may be brought in proximity to the eye within certain (or uncertain in some cases) limits, the unaccustomed attitude has to be assumed and it is on account of this that the necessity arises for taking up such a position as will counteract the natural tendencies. The standing or position is, therefore, of the greatest importance. It has been well laid down 'that an archer's general position may be a good one it must possess three qualities--firmness, elasticity and grace. Firmness, to resist the strain and the recoil of the bow, for if there be any, wavering or unsteadiness the shot probably prove a failure; elasticity, to give free play to the muscles, and the needful command over them, which cannot be the case should the position be rigid or stiff; and grace, to render the archer and his performance agreeable, and not ludicrous, to the spectator.' It may be a question, however, whether the latter term grace, quite meets the case, when we recollect that all sorts and conditions of men and women are included in the category of archers. Grace, in the ordinary acceptance of the term, conjures visions of sylph-like forms and taper waists; but it seems to fit in badly, with fifteen stone and upwards, and surely disappears when the tailor removes his tape from amongst the lower waistcoat buttons, and with a voice like a leadsman in a fog records the soundings to his assistant as 'forty and a 'alf.' Ease is the better word, for it can be and is attained by very many to whom the more poetic attribute is denied; therefore let us say -firmness, elasticity and ease.
The standing, footing, or position of the archer is practically divided into two parts, viz.
The position taken upon the shooting-mark when the bow is grasped, the arrow nocked, and the fingers placed upon the string.
The slight alteration in the upper part of the body which necessarily attends the process, of drawing, in order to distribute the weight in such a manner as to counteract the opposing force of the bow.
For the sake of clearness it may be well to consider the latter under the head of drawing, merely remarking here that, after the stand has been taken up, the feet should not be moved, by which it may be understood that placing the feet in the right position should be the first care of the amber, so that the position of the body may follow as a natural consequence. Everything from this point must be done with reference to the object aimed at; at least as far as position goes. In the ideal footing a line from the object --for practical purposes the centre of the target-- should pass through the centre of the heels, which should be neither too close together, nor yet too far apart, a space of six or eight inches intervening between them. An angle of from forty-five to sixty degrees has been recommended for the position of the feet (fig. 171); but this must depend very much on the angle at which each individual would place the feet naturally --the heels being located as above directed-- in order to take a firm and comfortable stand in, say, a sudden gust of wind. The body should be erect, but without rigidity; the legs at the knees straight, without being braced back and the weight, for the time, evenly distributed on both feet.
An identical similarity of position amongst archers is difficult to find, probably from physical reasons, Some good archers advance the left foot a few inches beyond the imaginary line through the heels (fig. 172), and others the right foot (fig. 173); the object being, in the one case, to assist in keeping the right shoulder and elbow back, and in the other to clear the chest with the string - if there is any tendency to draw the string against it - or to overcome the difficulty which some archers have of turning the head sufficiently round. It will be seen from the diagram that in fig. 171 the shoulders at A and B are in a direct line with the object aimed at; consequently, if the left arm is extended, and the left hand brought in a line between the right eye and the mark or object, that hand, the right hand beneath the eye and the right forearm to the elbow, will form another line nearly parallel with the shoulders. This is the ideal; but, as everyone is not 'built that way,' the modification of the position of the feet in figs. 172 and 173 should be made after careful consideration as to which of the two is better calculated to overcome the difficulty which the individual archer meets in endeavouring to attain the ideal. It frequently occurs that an archer develops a tendency to send down apparently good arrows to one particular side of the target on a still day. The fault generally arises from some slight alteration of the position of the body which prevents the arrow being brought up in a true line, or causes loss of firmness in the loose. lf the deviation of the arrow is to the left, the slight advance of the left foot (fig. 172) will sometimes effect a cure; if, on the other hand, the arrow flies to the right, the advance of the right foot may be the remedy; the alteration in the position of the body from the change of position of the feet rectifying the error. As the line of the shoulders follows the line of the heels, the same result may be obtained by raising the toes and turning on the heels slightly to the front or rear, as the case may be. These changes would only meet with success when there was no other apparent reason for diverging arrows; still, if in a match or on any important occasion, the archer is unfortunate enough to have to seek for the reason for shortcomings, it is well to try the experiment; if it does no good, it will probably do no harm, and it has often been found to rectify the unknown fault, and enable the archer to take up the normal position later on. Before proceeding further it may be well to notice that, in taking up a position with reference to a direct line to the object aimed at, it frequently occurs that, owing to a strong side wind, it is necessary to aim a target's width or more to one side of the target. When such is the case, it should be remembered that the position should be taken u with reference to the point aimed at, and not the target. Many archers are especially 'bothered by the wind' from neglect of this. They stand with reference to the target, and not the point of aim; consequently, at the last moment of the loose, the body, which has been slightly turned to make the windage allowance, comes round to its position for the target; and the arrow, instead of starting on the point of aim, and gradually drifting to the target, starts on its course direct for that obnoxious composition, and falls to leeward. It is a very small alteration in the position which takes place, but archery is made up of little things. The footing having been taken with due regard to the object to be shot at, and also to firmness, elasticity, and ease, the next item which requires attention is the proper method of grasping the bow in the hand. It is not a matter of necessity that the bow should be settled in the hand after the footing is taken; but that time is as good as any other: the more methodical an archer is the more deliberate he will become; anything like hurry or bustle in archery should be avoided if possible. As a matter of fact, many archers settle the bow in the hand either before they go to the shooting-mark or while moving up.
If, however, the habit is formed --and it is a very good one-- of never shifting the left hand on the bow till after the third arrow is shot, it is well- not to tire the muscles more than absolutely necessary. There is no need for grasping the bow tightly till the draw is commenced, but practically there is more tension of the fingers around the bow than the archer is aware of. The habit of not shifting the hand on the bow, just mentioned, is, of course, subject to the absence of any accidental twisting of the bow in the hand during shooting. Some archers endeavour to obviate this by the use of powdered resin on the handle of the bow and palm of the hand, but it is a nasty, sticky business in hot weather, and is better avoided.