Robin Hood—Distance and Accuracy of the Shooting of his time—Did he shoot in a Modern Hat?—Social Character of Archery—Concluding Observations to the Young Archer; also to the Old One—A Short Address to the Fair Sex—A Farewell.
It was my intention, upon setting out, to devote a chapter to a brief sketch of the life and feats (more particularly where the latter were connected with Archery) of that renowned outlaw, bold Robin Hood. Having, however, after considerable trouble and research, been unable to discover a single fact or legend, probable or improbable, concerning him and his "merrie men," that had not already been written upon usque ad nauseam, I finally concluded it would serve no useful purpose were I to add another to the already long list of publications on the subject. As regards his life generally, works of all sorts abound; every age has been suited, every taste, whether for the truthful or the marvellous, accurately fitted. The subject, in short, has been entirely exhausted. As regards his feats with the bow, all those that rest on a shadow of foundation (and none have any better than some old song or legend, written some centuries after his death) have been thoroughly sifted and brought to the light of reason and common sense in Mr. Roberts's work, so often alluded to. In respect of his distance shooting, for instance, he proves, satisfactorily enough, that Robin could not shoot a mile—a feat some legends give both him and Little John the credit of being able to perform! and, considering it would lake at least three of the strongest men in the world put together to pull and loose a bow of sufficient power to do it, my readers will be very much disposed to agree with him. In respect of the accuracy of his shooting, splitting willow wands and nocks of arrows (at any rate, if we are to believe novelists) appears to have been his average! That he could do the first tolerably often is likely enough—many Archers of the present day could do the same; but to say that he could do it to a certainty, is a trifle beyond even the most vivid imaginative power of belief. As for the nock-splitting, it is only necessary to say that beyond fifteen or twenty yards the nock would not be visible. I will not, therefore, insult my readers by arguing the possibility or otherwise of Robin's being able to split it at four or five times that distance whenever he chose!
Whilst, however, withholding credence from such impossible fictions as those above alluded to, it may very well be a question, whether Archery had not, in Hood's time, attained a greater development in respect of skill than is the case at the present day—regarding its greater force there can be no dispute. The bow was then universally practised, now it is but partially so; therefore we may very well suppose that, as the number of Archers at that time was so much greater, a proportionately larger number of first-rate shots would be produced, and that out of this latter class, consequently, a greater chance would exist of the issuing of the pre-eminent shot of all. But whilst the full benefit of this argument is given to Robin Hood, it must not be forgotten that in his day force was the great desideratum, and that very strong shooting, so far as our experience goes, is anything but likely to be the most accurate. Does any Archer of the present day, where the prizes are awarded for accuracy, venture to use a bow fully up to the power of his pull? Has not almost every shooter, on the contrary, ten, twenty, or even more pounds, of actual power in him, than he finds it good policy to use? And he does not use it, because experience has taught him that when his muscles are strained beyond a certain point, uncertainty and inaccuracy are sure to follow. In former days, however, the thing was different—force was everything in the shooter, accuracy being but a secondary consideration; for, as the long-bow was essentially a weapon of war, it mattered little whether the Archer hit the man he aimed at or the one next him, provided the arrow had sufficient power to penetrate the finely tempered armour then in use—shooting at a body of men, however few they might be, to miss all was an exceeding improbability.
Moreover, it may very well be disputed, whether the weapons themselves had the same excellent workmanship then as now; and upon this great certainty of hitting very much depends. The fore going pages have been written to very little purpose indeed, if I have failed to shew how the slightest inequality or imperfection in the tackle, be it bow, arrow or string, may mar the perfection of the shot. If then, the bowyers of the present day exceed those of the former period in the excelling of their weapons, it is more than probable that a corresponding improvement results to the accuracy of the shooting. But do they? This cannot be decided, so few specimens of the old weapons remaining in existence at the present day, by which to form a comparison.
Each will probably form his opinion as to the skill attained in the first ages of the English long-bow, as compared with that of the present day, according as his taste lies in the direction of the probable or the marvellous; and there the matter must be left.
There is one thing, however, connected with Robin, that I do feel quite confident about, and that is, that he did not wear an ordinary modern black or white hat. He was by far too sensible a fellow, depend upon it, to use a head-covering, at all times sufficiently tight and uncomfortable, but especially so when the wearer is more than usually exposed to heat and sun, as the Archer is. Fancy this bold outlaw in a white four-and-nine! Alexander the Great in an umbrella, Socrates in Hessian boots, might be parallel cases!
Besides, Robin knew too well, that anything likely to impede the correct action of the string—as the brim of a modern hat very often does—would effectually prevent the indulgence of his willow-wand and nock-splitting propensities. Therefore, he doubtless avoided anything of the kind. I commend these reflections to one or two of the societies of the present day.
Robin must have been a social fellow— all accounts of him prove this. Indeed it is one of the great advantages of this noble pastime of Archery, that it induces this very quality. There is nothing more productive of kindly feeling and hospitality in a neighbourhood, especially in the country, than a prevailing taste for this pursuit. The freemasonry amongst Archers is proverbial. It has, moreover, one peculiarly bright feature, and this is, that its practice is allowable to both sexes. Hardly any other amusement admits of this. Cricket, tennis, billiards, hunting, &c., are all most excellent, but are confined to the sterner sex, or should be. They have all this failing, that they lack the humanising presence of the fairer portion of humanity. I do not mean as spectators, but as sharers in the exercise. I hope to see the day, when no town or neighbourhood of any extent is without its Archery Club. Each will be the better in many respects for it, without doubt.
And now, before bringing these pages to a conclusion, I must remind my renders of the statement with which they were commenced, namely, that the result of my own practical experience alone would be given. This has been done throughout; and where I have differed most from commonly received rules and practice, e.g., the shape of the bow, the line of pull, the point of aim, &c, I have done so, not from a love of novelty or from a desire to be thought wiser than my fellows, but from positive conviction of the incorrectness of those rules—such conviction being the result, not only of much thought, but of long and patient experiment. I can only say to every brother Archer, with all truth, and a mind open to conviction—
Candidus imperti, si non his utere mecum.
My observations, however, have professed to be addressed more particularly to the young Archer; and to the few words of practical advice Ventured upon in my introductory paper, I would now additionally impress upon him the absolute necessity of perseverance and a command of temper. Without these essentials he will never become eminent as an Archer—neither the idle nor the irritable need hope for success here. This observation, indeed, applies to all pursuits, but is particularly mentioned in connection with Archery, because many (I know several), whilst acknowledging its truth as regards everything else, seem to think that this particular pursuit of Archery should form an exception to the rule, and look upon themselves as positive martyrs because they cannot attain the highest position in a very short time, and without the trouble of working hard for it. This is a great mistake. To obtain a thorough command of the bow is no easy matter; on the contrary, it is a most difficult one; and pre-eminence here requires the exercise of the same qualities as pre-eminence in anything else. So let the young Archer look to it.
One other thing is also particularly desirable for him, though not so absolutely essential, and that is good teaching. The persevering Archer may, and probably will, work his way without it, but only at the cost of an infinity of trouble and disappointment, that otherwise might well be spared him. Faults are more easily fallen into than got rid of afterwards; and this remark is the more applicable to Archery, inasmuch as success in it depends upon the accurate mastery of a number of small difficulties—a failure in any one of them in all probability spoiling the shot. By all means, then, let the beginner, whenever he has the chance, avail himself of superior knowledge and experience. The road to the bull's-eye he will find all the easier by having a finger-post to direct him in the track. He will also find it a good plan to attend a meeting of the Grand National Archery Society as a spectator, and, by carefully noting the style, apparatus, and leading points of the best Archers, will be the better able to rectify and guide his own private practice afterwards. Perfection, to imitate, he will find in no single shooter; but, in marking the faults he sees, so as to avoid them, and the excellencies, so as to imitate them, he will find the surest means of approaching it. In short, he who will use his eyes and brains, as well as his hands—who will persevere in the face of failure and disappointment, and not be above taking the best advice, if he chanced to have it offered him, will, in the end, be sure of a very high position.
Having paid so much attention to the beginner, I feel called upon to take one shot at that Archer of long-standing who is very probably giving a sigh of relief as he comes to the concluding chapter of this "tiresome" treatise. Well, Sir, you have practised with the bow, I perceive, some fifteen or twenty years or more, and think, in consequence, you must know all about it. You have hitherto differed from me upon most of the essential points treated of in the foregoing pages, and, having since read them, you do so still. You will have none of these new-fangled ideas; you shoot as your great-great-grandpapa did before you (or was supposed to do —'tis the same thing, of course), and you mean to continue in the same all the days of your life. Even supposing—ridiculous idea!— that the theories propounded and rules laid down are better than your own, still, you say, they will not do for you (at least many of your style of thinking do say so)—you will have none of them, though those who act upon them prove by results how far they are beyond anything you know on the subject. You can generally put in one out of three of your arrows at 100 yards, and now and then (twice, perhaps, in three years,) actually accomplish the half of them! You can, besides, shoot the other distances in proportion, and you are content. Anything beyond these stupendous attainments must be owing to luck, or some peculiar gift of nature; for have not you been practising a great number of years earnestly and energetically, and been unable to accomplish more? Since, at any rate, your own ideas must be best, so far as you yourself are concerned, a different system, whatever it may do for others, cannot by any possibility, you think, do anything for you.
Now, my very self-opinionated friend, I will venture to reply to you, that no system radically wrong and unscientific in theory, opposed to the plain rules of practical sense, and unsuccessful in its results, can be made right either by its having antiquity pleaded in its favour (supposing you can justly do this, which I very much doubt), nor by any special peculiarities of a particular individual. You may have some physical incapability that may prevent your ever becoming a good shot: but if you can use your limbs and muscles like other men, there can be nothing that can render a bad system better for you to act upon than a good one. If you cannot succeed with the latter, you are still less likely to do so with the former. You will by no means get over your unavoidable difficulties the easier by persisting in a mode of shooting that only increases them. I do not presume to say that the system advocated in the foregoing articles is the best that can be discovered; but I say that, so long as it accomplishes in myself and others what the wildest flights of your imagination never dream of as possible to be accomplished by yourself, with your own, it is to be preferred to yours. You may say you have tried it, but find you only shoot the worse. This is likely enough, because no man can change from one mode of doing a thing to another, though it be from a bad to a good one, and not for the time experience an increase of difficulty. The habits of years are not to be so easily overcome. A little perseverance, however, would soon put a different face upon the matter. Of this at any rate be sure, that if you wish to arrive at the top of the tree in any pursuit, you must adopt that mode of action that is indisputably proved to be the only, or the best, means of carrying you there.
It would be ungallant, indeed, were I to come to a conclusion without a few words of direct address to the fairer portion of humanity. To you, then, fair Marians, and to you who, though not as yet enrolled in that band, may still, it is hoped, some day be so, let me observe that Archery is a boon indeed. Your sex have few out-door exercises at all—none, with the exception, perhaps, of riding (which is accessible but to few), that at all brings the muscles generally into healthy action. You cannot say that mere walking or shop-lounging does this; still less that the heated atmosphere of a ball-room allows of it. But Archery does. How many consumptions, contracted chests, and the like, think you, might have been spared, had its practice been more universal amongst you? It is an exercise admirably suited to meet your requirements— general and equal, without being violent—calling the faculties, both of mind and body, into gentle and healthy play, yet oppressing none—bringing roses to your checks, and occupation to your mind, —withal most elegant and graceful. I never took up an Archery book yet, without finding a quotation from one Madame Bola, a celebrated opera dancer, declaring the attitude of the shooter the most graceful in the world: without inflicting the full quotation upon you, suffice it to say that I, in common with every brother Archer, most cordially agree with that most respected female. A "duck" of a bonnet, or of a moiré, has no chance in its killing powers against a "duck" of a shot. Cupid, like Paul Pry, "drops in" as he pleases, anywhere and everywhere; but I think he is particularly fond of a social Archery gathering. Small blame to him for the same! Need I say more to recommend this pastime to you? I think not;—every consideration should induce you to adopt it.
And now, gentle reader, my task is done. To me it has been a labour of love, and to you I trust not altogether useless nor uninteresting. I have, as I proposed, laid before you faithfully and unreservedly, the result of my own experience, and though I have not the vanity to suppose that I have pleased all, I hope that I have offended none. If I have spoken strongly against some errors of opinion or practice, it has been against the error itself, and not against the, perhaps thoughtless, holder of that error.
Ense recidendum est, ne pars sincera trahatur."
My only aim has been to benefit you; the result is with yourself. Farewell and—shoot well.