How to Choose a Bow, and How to Use and Preserve it when Chosen
Popular Errors in the Choice—Most Accomplished Shots—Causes of Success and Failure—Principles Guiding the Selection of a Bow—Its Preservation and Repair—Unstringing.
The next point to be considered with reference to the bow is the strength to be chosen; and, respecting this, the first thing to be observed is that it must be completely tinder the shooter's command —within it, but not much below it. One of the greatest mistakes young Archers commit (and many old ones too) is that they will use bows too strong for them. (How many of us, by-the-bye, are there to whom, at one period or other of our Archery existence, this remark has not applied?) The natural desire to be considered strong and muscular appears to be one of the moving agents to this curious hallucination, as if a man did not expose his weakness more by straining at a bow evidently beyond his strength (and thereby calling attention to his weakness) than by using a lighter one with grace and case, which always gives the idea of force, vigour, and power. Another incentive to strong bows is the passion for "sending down the arrows sharp and low," and the consequent using of powerful bows to accomplish it; the which is, perhaps, a greater mistake than the other, for it is not so much the strength of the bow as the perfect command of it that enables the Archer to obtain this desideratum. The question is not so much as to what a man can pull as to what he can loose; and he will without doubt obtain a lower flight of arrow by a lighter power of bow, under his command, than he will by a stronger one beyond his proper management. How many a promising Archer has this mania for strong bows destroyed (in an Archery sense of the term). I call to mind one at this moment—one of the best, and most beautiful shots of his day; a winner, too, of the second and first prizes at the Grand National Meeting two successive years—whose accuracy was at one time completely leaving him, and dwindling beneath mediocrity, owing, as I firmly believe, to his infatuation upon this point. Another I had a slight acquaintance with brought himself to death's door, by a violent illness of nearly a year's duration, by injury to his physical powers, brought on by the same thing, only carried to a much greater excess. And, after all, the thing desired is not always obtained.
Let me transport my reader, in mind, to any field where the Annual Grand National Archery Meeting is held. Observe, there are from eighty to a hundred picked shots of the country standing at the targets, contending with all their might for the prize of honour and skill. Whose arrows, think you, fly down the sharpest, the steadiest, the keenest? Are they those of the sixty and seventy pounders? Not a bit of it: observe that Archer from an eastern county just stepping so unpretendingly forward to deliver his shafts. Sec with what grace and case the whole thing is done—no straining and "contortioning" here. Mark the flight of his arrow! how keen and low, and to the mark! None fly sharper, few so sharp; and what, think you, is the strength of that beautiful self-yew he holds in his hand? Why, 50lbs. only! and yet the pace of his shaft is unsurpassed by any, and it is nigh upon five shillings in weight too. Here is another; mark his strength and muscular power—60, 70, or even 80lbs. Are probably within his pull, yet he knows better than to use such bows where the prizes are awarded for skill, not brute force. The one he shoots with is but 48lbs., yet how steady and true flies the arrow! how charming in its flight! And so on, all through the field, you will find it is not the strong bows, but those that are under the perfect command of their owners, that do their work the best.
Inasmuch, then, as the proper flight of the arrow from any bow depends almost entirely upon the way in which it is loosed, the strength of the bow must not be regulated by the mere muscular powers of the individual Archer: for he may be able to draw a 29-inch arrow to the head in a bow of 70 or 80lbs. without being able, after all, to loose steadily during a match more than 56 or 60lbs., if as much. Not the power of drawing, but of loosing steadily, must, therefore, be the guide here. Let the bow be within this power, but well up to it; for it is almost as bad to be under as over bowed. The evils attendant on being over-bowed are various; the left arm, the fingers of the right hand, and the wrist are strained and rendered unsteady; the pull becomes uncertain and wavering, and never twice alike; and the whole system is overworked and wearied, and the mind depressed by ill success—the entire result being disappointment and failure. On the other hand, care must be taken not to fall into the opposite extreme of being under-bowed, as in this case, also, the loose becomes difficult, and generally unsteady and unequal. The weight of bows now in use varies generally from 48 to 56lbs., the weaker or stronger ones forming the exception, and this weight is ample for the distances usually shot, which very rarely exceed 100 yards. Let each, therefore, find out what he can draw with ease and loose with steadiness during a day's shooting, and choose accordingly. If a beginner, probably 50lbs. is the outside weight he should commence with; a pound or two less in most cases would, in all likelihood, be even better. This is, however, a matter that alone the individual Archer can determine for himself.
It is best always to use the same weight of bow and length of arrow; and, therefore, every Archer, if he shoot much, should possess two or three bows as much alike as possible, and use them alternately. This will prove economy in the end, as each will have time to recover its elasticity, and will last a much longer time.
To choose a bow, let each go to the maker he likes best, name the price he can afford, and the sort and weight he prefers. He will then see what choice he has. If there appears to be one likely to suit him, let him (after examining the wood, and seeing that it is free from flaws, string it,) and, placing the lower end on the ground in such a position that the string shall be under his eye and uppermost, notice whether it be perfectly straight; if so, the string, when brought to bear on the middle of the handle, will divide the bow from horn to horn into two equal parts. Should there appear to be more on one side than the other in either limb, the bow is not straight, and should be rejected. As a general rule, the lightest wood is the quickest, the heavy the most lasting—but not always. The next step is to have the bow pulled up, so as to see if it bends evenly, and gives no sign of weakness in any particular portion. The upper limb, as before stated, being the longest, should bend a trifle the most. If there be no ready-made bow to suit, the purchaser may select a stave, and have it made to his own pattern; but, on the whole, the first plan is the best, as no one can tell how a stave will make up.
Bows are broken from several causes—by neglected chrysals, or damages to the wood, by a jerking and uneven style of drawing, by dwelling too long at the point of the arrow after it is pulled up, by the breaking of the string, by damp, and oftentimes by thoughtlessness or carelessness. Whenever a chrysal appears, it should be watched, and, if found to increase, should then be firmly lapped with hemp or string, well glued; when dry, this should be rubbed smooth, painted with oil colour to the taste of the owner, and varnished. This will keep the glue dry, and look less unsightly. Care should be taken not to make holes in the wood with the point of the arrow, nor scratch it with the buckles of bracers, or buttons of gloves, or any of the ornaments with which the Archer may adorn his person. The less of these hard substances about the shooter the better. Breakages from a bad style of drawing, and dwelling too long on the aim, can only be avoided by adopting a better and more rational method; those caused by the fracture of the string, only by being careful never to use one that is unsafe, or too much worn. A good deal depends, in this latter case, upon the moment when the string breaks. If it goes when the arrow is fully drawn, there is little hope for the bow, as there is nothing to check or break the recoil; but if it breaks when the recoil has taken place, which is generally the case, a self or backed bow that follows the string will usually escape without damage. Breakage from damp applies to backed bows only, and great indeed is the mortality amongst them from this cause. Commonly it is the lower limb that goes, as that is most exposed to damp, arising from the ground when shooting, or the floor when put away. If the weather be moist when the bow is used, let the shooter continually rub it, and when put away especially do so, with a piece of waxed cloth or flannel. A waterproof case, and an Ascham, with the bottom raised a few inches from the floor, in a dry room, are the best preservatives I know of. It is a good thing, also, to lap the bow for about an inch close to each horn, as when this is done, though the glue come undone, the wood will often escape damage, and can be made all right again by being re-glued. Lastly, carelessness and thoughtlessness break many bows, and particularly that most silly of silly habits of bending the bow the wrong way, when unstrung, in order to "get it back to its proper shape!" If it be broken from the latter cause, any jury of sensible Archers would infallibly return the celebrated verdict of "serve him right."
A yew bow that is so much damaged by chrysals, or by accident to the wood, as to be beyond being made safe by lapping, may often be mended by adding a belly or back, as the case may require. A weak bow may be strengthened in the same way, or, if either limb be broken or irretrievably damaged, and the remaining one be sound and worth the expense, another limb may he grafted on to the old one. If possible, let this be an old limb also, as the combination of new and old wood is not always satisfactory; the former, being more yielding, is apt, after a little use, to lose its relative strength, and so to spoil the proper bend of the bow. A bow that is weak in the centre, and not sufficiently strong to allow of the ends being reduced, may be brought to the required shape and strengthened by the addition of a short belly.
With regard to unstringing the bow during shooting—say a National round of 144 arrows at the three distances—a good bow will not need it if the shooting be moderately quick, excepting at the end of each of the three distances. If there be many shooters, or very slow ones, then it may be unstrung after every three or four double ends; but I am decidedly averse to unstringing after every three shots, as many do, as the constant jerk back of the wood upon its own grain must throw an increased strain upon it, besides unnecessarily taxing the muscles of the shooter.
All that has been said respecting men's bows, with the exception of the strength and length, applies equally to those used by ladies. The ordinary strength of the latter is from 24lbs. up to 30lbs., a medium between the two being about the average weight. The length of the bow is usually about 5ft. 1in. between the nocks.
It is too common a practice amongst Archers of all sorts to throw the consequences of their own faults upon the bow-makers, accusing the weapon instead of their own carelessness or want of skill; but, before this can be justly done, let each be quite certain that he has chosen his bow with care, used it with care, and kept it with care; if otherwise, any accidents occurring are ten to one more likely to be the result of his own fault than that of the bow-maker.