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Part III: The art and practice of archery
Part 1 of 6

All arts are more properly the subjects of imitation than of description, particularly in respect to manual operation, and corporal attitudes.

Since the days of Ascham, archers have looked up to him as their polar-star, for almost all matter relating to their art. Ascham, however, seems to have found a difficulty in conveying a clear and satisfactory explanation of those minutiae, necessary for the perfection of an archer. He observes, speaking of the nicety of action, "that it is more pleasant to behold, than easy to be taught; not so difficult to be followed in practice, as to be described" And speaking of shooting well, he says, " I can teach you to shoote faire, even as Socrates taught a man, once to know God ; for when he asked him what was God, nay, sayth he, I can tell you better what God is not!—God is not evil, &c. &c. This sort of reversed instruction, for some points of the matter under contemplation, may be better than the ordinary mode of teaching, and many little niceties necessary for the archers' attention, may sooner be understood by this method.

The bow appears to be so simple an instrument, that one might be apt to imagine, it does not require any study; yet without a theoretical knowledge of it, the practical part can never be properly attained. The first thing necessary for the young archers' attention, is, to recollect that the flat part of the bow is the back, and the round part, the belly, which is always to be bent inwards[85] An attempt made to bend a bow the reverse way, will cause it to fly instantly.


In stringing, the handle of the bow, which is the centre of action, should be firmly grasped with the right hand, taking care that the string be not twisted, and that the back, or flat part, be towards the body, and the wrist of the right hand close against the side or hip. The lower limb of the bow, which has always the shortest horn, is to be placed on the ground, against the inside of the right foot, to prevent the bow from slipping. Let the left leg be about three quarters of a yard apart from the right, and rather forward, and the knee kept quite straight. The right knee may be bent at convenience; Having thus secured a firm position with the bow, put that part of the left hand, which is close to the wrist, on the upper limb of the bow, letting the thumb lightly embrace the outer part, and the forefinger, i.e. about the first joint, the inner part of the eye of the string. Then pull the bow up sharply with the right hand, and at the same time, press the upper limb of it down with the left hand, sliding the eye of the string firmly up, and well into the nock; in doing which, the greatest care must be taken to keep the other three fingers of the left hand away from the string, to avoid the danger of getting them most severely pinched. See plate 4. It requires a great deal of practice to be able to string a bow with ease. The young archer, in his endeavour to overcome this first grand point of archery, should always bear in mind, the necessity of never allowing himself to be prompted to pursue any means to effect his purpose, contrary to the rule here offered. Should an archer find himself unable to string his bow, without great exertion, assistance may be given him by another person drawing down the upper horn. After the bow has been strung, the string apparently should run on the bow quite straight from nock to nock. Should the string not appear straight, it may be rectified, by first slackening it, which is effected by pulling the bow up a little with the right hand, and pressing down the upper limb with the left, as in the act of unstringing; and then by twisting the noose with the fore finger and thumb, to the right, or to the left, as may be required.

Plate 4
Plate 4


To unstring a bow. First, grasp it firmly by the handle with the right hand, in the same manner as has been directed for stringing, then place the left wrist so close to the top of the upper horn, that the fore finger may reach round it with ease. Place the tip of the fore finger of the left hand in contact with the eye of the string, then pull up the bow sharply with the right hand, and at the same time, press the upper limb down with the wrist of the left hand. The string being thus loosened, it must instantly be disengaged from the nock, and the thing is done. Regard must be had also to the bend of the bow ; therefore, in stringing, experience has taught, that the distance of six inches should be found between the string (that is, from the point of nocking the arrow) and the handle of the bow, perpendicularly, or at right angles from the string, for a bow of from five feet six inches, to five feet ten inches in length; but for a Lady's bow, or for a bow not longer than from five feet to five feet two inches, a distance of five inches between the string and the inner part of the handle of the bow will be sufficient. The proper bending of a bow as above recommended, for one of about five feet eight inches or five feet ten inches in length, from nock to nock, may be tolerably well ascertained, by placing the fist within the string perpendicularly to the handle. If the thumb when extended, can just touch the handle, the bow may be deemed to be well and properly braced. Should a bow be cast on one side, which will easily be discovered by looking along it when braced, the string should be so regulated, as to lie most on the convex side, which will tend to bring the bow-in a single straight line. Indeed, occasional attention should be paid to the string by the archer, during the time of shooting, to guard against the possibility of its getting awry, to the great detriment, and, ultimately, perhaps, to the danger of his bow.


Nothing in archery is more liable to cause the fracture of a bow, than a bad string; and because an inexperienced archer may easily be deceived in the choice of strings, it is much to be recommended, thai the best reputed bowyers be relied on in this particular. When the string begins to wear, "trust it not," says Ascham, "but away with it, for it is an yll saved halfpeny that costes a man a crowne." Many a good bow has been broken through the failure of a string. It has long been thought, that Italian, or Flemish hemp, makes the best strings. The Italian hemp is stronger in texture, and has longer threads than any other. The strings are made of the longest threads twisted tightly, and secured with a sort of water glue[86] to guard them against the effects of wet. The eye, or that part of the string, which occupies the upper horn of the bow, is made with the string, and is much thicker than the other part. The other end of the string, is generally loose, in order that the archer may regulate the formation of the noose for the lower horn, according to the length of his bow. The reader is referred to plate. 4, for a representation of the manner of making the noose for the lower horn. The choice of the string will naturally be, in some degree regulated by the strength of the bow. A thick string will, undoubtedly, be safer for a strong or a backed bow, than a thin one, but it will not allow so quick a cast as the latter. A thick string has the advantage over a thin one, in a greater certainty of shot; but the thin one will cast farther. Upon the whole, it appears that a gentleman's bow of about 60lb. power, should not be strung with a very thin string, particularly if the bow be a backed one, and much reflexed.


Bow-strings should always be whipped either with silk, or fine twine, at the nocking point, and also about the breadth of the fingers used in drawing, both above and below this point. The whipping, as well as the string, should be well waxed, with bees' wax, and thus it will answer the purposes, of securing the bow-string from fret, and of filling the nock of the arrow which should always sit rather tight on the string, than otherwise.

It is the practice of some archers to whip the eye also, and the noose of the string, and a little below each. This is certainly to be recommended, particularly when a string, after two or three day's shooting, has proved itself worthy. The noose, it should be remembered, is much more likely to wear or fret, than the eye of the string; principally from the peculiar mode of its construction.


As it has been shewn, that the safety of the bow, depends much upon the security of the string, so it is of importance, that the horns be made smooth, and in such a manner, that the string may pass freely, without danger of being fretted. Roundness and evenness in that part of the horn where the string rests, are indespensably necessary. The centre of both nocks of the horns, is made precisely in the centre of the back of both horns, and each nock brought equally round towards the belly of the bow. Thus, the string upon a straight bow, will run directly, from nock to nock, upon the belly of the instrument. The upper horn is not only larger than the lower, but is often ornamented, a custom that is very ancient.


The handle of the bow, should be made nearly round, but rather fuller in its shape, on the outer or back part, as well as on the inner or belly part of the instrument, so as to fill the hand comfortably in the grasp. A covering of shag or worsted lace, answers the double purpose of a firm hold, and an ornament.—The position of the handle, is of much importance.—It has been thought, that the upper part of the handle should be placed about half an inch or an inch above the exact centre of the bow. Thus, the lower limb is made so much longer than the upper one; and the reason is, that both limbs should act equally. If the handle were placed so that the upper part of it should be the exact centre of the bow, presuming that the two limbs drew equally, the pressure, when three fingers should be used in drawing, would naturally be most on the lower limb. To obviate this objection, it has been deemed advisable, to adopt the mode of placing the handle about half an inch at least above the centre.

Some Bowyers, however, have insisted, that the arrow is best cast from the exact centre of the bow,—and to meet the difficulty of unequalness of pressure, when drawing with three fingers, they have made their bows rather stronger in the lower limbs. The preference must undoubtedly be given to that mode which regulates an equal cast in both limbs, which all the argument or philosophy that can be brought forward on the occasion, can never contradict.


The bracer, or arm guard, is for the purpose of protecting the interior of the bow-arm, from the strokes of the string, and is there-fore generally made of stout leather, of from six to eight inches in length, with two straps and buckles to attach it to the arm. See Plate 1. The external part of this implement of archery, should be quite smooth, or polished, in order to allow the string to pass over it freely. A rough surface would not only tend to weaken the shoot, by the string lighting on such an impediment, but might soon put the bow in jeopardy from inevitable fretting, and probably the ultimate breaking of the string. It is therefore advisable that an archer supply himself with a new bracer, as soon as the old one begins to wear, or to get the surface of it repolished.


An archer would not be able to bear the sharp loose of the bowstring, when pulled with great strength, without the necessary protection of the shooting glove. The following are the inventions generally used for guarding the fingers from the ill effects of the string; viz. 1st. The shooting glove, which consists of fingerstalls fastened to strips of thin leather, and which, passing over the knuckles, are attached to a band that buttons round the wrist These fingerstalls are sometimes sewed to a common glove. 2nd. The tab, a piece of stout flat leather, through which the fingers are let, and which lies on the inside of them, just covering the tips. The best leather for these guards, is cow hide, cut down suitably, dressed and polished on that side which is used outwardly.


The revival of archery, since the days of Ascham, has introduced to the attention of the bow-maker, several sorts of foreign wood, "which," says Roberts, " have been found to make bows that rival, and even excel those of the long-famed yew." This may be true in a certain degree, particularly when applied to the novel and excellent invention and late improvement of the backed bow ; but most of these woods are of too brittle a nature to be manufactured into self bows—"The long-famed yew," however, must not be given up; it can never yield its natural superiority. It has indeed one defect, but that one is common to all other bow woods, namely, an inclination to follow the string. Notwithstanding this, it may fearlessly be asserted, that foreign yew,[87] if free from knots or pins, stands unrivalled. A yew bow is lighter in hand[88] than any other, and the wood possesses a toughness and quickness of cast, the combination of which qualities, is not easily to be surpassed.

To an experienced archer, the drawing and loosing of a well made self yew bow, supposing the wood to run perfectly free, and such as had a seasoning of at least two years, is quite delightful. If a comparison may be allowed, between a self foreign, or indeed a good English yew bow, and another, not of yew, imagine the first to be like the handling of silk, whilst the latter is the pulling of the common rough hemp. After having said thus much in favour of a self yew bow, it is to be observed, that amongst the many foreign woods which have lately attracted the attention of the bowyer, the "dark ruby" stands pre-eminent. It is a native of the East, difficult to be obtained, and much prized by bow makers. The "Tulip wood" and "Cocoa wood" the "Thorn Acacia" the "Purple wood," and the "Rose wood,"when backed with fine white hiccory, or hornbeam, make excellent bows. The Laburnam, when well selected, is beautiful to the eye. In its grain, it resembles the feathers of the partridge, from which circumstance, it is sometimes called "Partridge wood". This with an intervening slip of quick casting wood, and backed with hiccory, will make as good, and as handsome a bow, as an archer need possess. Few backed bows, however, can prove more serviceable, than those manufactured with well seasoned lancewood,[89] backed with white hiccory. The shape and length, &c. of bows, are regulated according to the nature of the wood, and other circumstances, of which the bowyer must be the best judge.

Some make their bows bend equally throughout, or in a perfect curve, others leave them rather larger proportionably at the handle, so as to cause the draft or bending of the bow to be from either side of it, gradually to the extremities. This last method is doubtless the best, as it not only produces a quicker cast, but prevents that unpleasant jar in the loosing, invariably to be found in bows with thin handles. This should be particularly attended to, in the formation of a self bow.

In forming bows, the staves should always be cut, and not claved, (as Ascham directs) and that from the bole or trunk of the tree, by reason of its full growth. The greatest nicety and the best judgment are required in this first operation of bow-making, in the course of which the necessity of leaving a little of the sap for the back part of a self bow, should not be forgotten. It may here be observed, that the self-bows are generally made more round, than the backed ones; and this roundness, it is said, makes up in some degree, for a deficiency of quickness of cast. Bow-staves, however, should not be cut very thin, or made into bows, until they have been well seasoned ; and the best seasoning is length of time, in a moderately warm place. The bow-stave having been cut into the required form, the necessary paring or scraping, is proceeded in by the help of an instrument called a tiller, in order to equalise its draught. For a representation of the "tiller," see plate 4, in which, figure 2, the bow is seen placed within the top groove, and drawn to the first notch in the stock, say about 18 or 20 inches. Any inequality in the bending, may thus easily be discovered. When the proper bending of the bow shall have been effected, it may be proved and finished. The length of a gentleman's bow, is usually from 5 feet 8 inches to 5 feet 10 inches, but a lady's bow, is from 5 feet to 5 feet 6 inches, the former varying in power from forty-five pounds to seventy pounds and upwards, the latter seldom exceeding thirty-three pounds or thirty-four pounds.


By "proving" a bow, is meant, the putting of it to the test, before we trust to it; and this is easily done, while in an unfinished state, by shooting in it a short time with heavy arrows, nearly double the weight of those proper for the bow when completed; and afterwards carefully noticing where, if it gives at all, it gives most, and, according to Ascham, " providing for that place betimes, lest it pinch, and so fret." When the bow has been thus tried, and it appears to contain good shooting wood, it should be taken to a trusty and skilful workman to be finished, lest, perchance, a fine stave in an ignorant hand, should be totally ruined.


After a bow has been proved, it should be weighed, and finished off, and polished. The process of weighing a bow, is best effected by means of a steelyard, see plate 5, which will give its weight, or that power which is required to draw it up to the length of the arrow.

Plate 5
Plate 5


A, A fixed upright on which the steelyard B is hooked, with its weight C,. which should hang freely. D, an iron stay, or loop fixed to the wall, to keep the end of the steelyard level, and to prevent it rising too high, when the bow is drawn. The bow being placed in the lower hook of the steelyard, a strong cord which runs through the leading block E, near the floor, is hooked on the string at the nocking points; the other extremity having a short stick fixed to it at F, is then pulled till the bow is drawn to the proper distance for its destined arrow, which is indicated either by a scale of inches marked on the upright, or on a tape, one end of which is attached to the bow-string, and the other part at the length required, to the handle of the bow. The weight C is moved backwards or forwards until the end of the steelyard will just rise from its support, when the bow is drawn up sufficiently for the full length of its destined arrow. The notch of the steelyard in which the weight rests, will then indicate the exact power of the instrument. It is usual to mark the weight or power of the bow on its back, close by the handle.