No one can read Dr. Pope's book without an appreciation of the romance and charm of the long bow and the broad-head arrow. And no one can doubt that the little group of which he writes has proved that the thing can be done. Its members have brought to bag quantities of small game, unnumbered deer, mountain goat, big horn sheep, moose, caribou, thirteen black bears, six grizzlies, and one monster Kadiak bear. That point it proved beyond doubt. But, each will ask; how about it for me? These men are experts. It all looks very fascinating; but what chance have I?
That, I believe, is the first reaction of the average man after he has savored the real literary charm of this book and begins to consider the practical side of the question. It was my own reaction. Fortunately, I live within commuting distance of Dr. Pope, so I have been able to resolve my doubts--slowly. My purpose is here to summarize what I found out.
In the first place, the utter beginner has in his hands a weapon that is adequate and humane. A bad rifle shot or a bad shotgun shot can and does "slobber" his game by hitting it in the wrong places or with the outer fringe of his pattern. But if an arrow can be landed anywhere in the body it is certain and prompt death. This is not only true of the chest cavity, but of the belly; and every rifleman knows that a bullet in the latter is ineffective and cruel, and a beast so wounded is capable of long distances before it dies. The arrow's deadliness depends not on its shocking power, which of course is low, but upon internal hemorrhage and the very peculiar fact that the admission of air in quantity into any part of the body cavity collapses the lungs. Furthermore, again unlike the bullet, the broad arrow seems to be as effective at the limit of its longest flight as at the nearer ranges. So the amateur bowman, suitably armed, may lay this much of comfort to his soul: if by the grace of Robin Hood and the little capricious gods of luck he does manage to stray a shaft into a beast, it is going to do the trick for him. And of course if he keeps on shooting arrows in the general direction of game, the doctrine of chances will land him sooner or later!
In the meantime--and here is the second point--he is going to have an enormous amount of enjoyment from his "close misses." With firearms a miss is a miss, and catastrophic. You have failed, and that is all there is to it; and you have no earthly means of knowing whether your miss was by the scant quarter inch that fairly ruffled the beast's crest, or by the disgraceful yards of buck ague or the jerking forefinger or the blinking dodging eye. But the beautiful clean flight of the arrow can be followed. And when it passes between the neck and the bend of wing of wild goose; or it buries its head in the damp earth only just below the body line of the unstartled deer, the bowman experiences quite as keen a thrill of satisfaction as follows a good center with gun or rifle,--even though the game is as scathless as though he had missed it by miles. In this type of hunting a miss is emphatically not as good as a mile! And the chances are he can try again, and yet again, provided nothing else has occurred to affright his quarry. To most animals the flight of an arrow is little more than the winging past of some strange swift bird.
Thus the joy is not primarily in the size of the bag, nor even in the certainty of the bag, but in the woodcraft and the outguessing, and the world of little things one must notice to get near enough for his shot, and the birds and the breezes and the small matters along the way; which is as it should be: and the satisfaction is not wholly centered in merely a shot well placed and a trophy quickly come by. Indeed, the latter is become almost an incidental; a very welcome and inspiriting incidental; a wonderful culmination; but a culmination that is necessary only occasionally as a guerdon of emprise rather than an invariably indispensability, lacking which the whole expedition must be classed as a failure.
At first the seasoned marksman will doubt this. I can only recommend a fair trial. One of the most successful experiences of my sporting life was one of these "close misses." A very noble buck, broadside on, was trotting head up across my front and down a mountain slope nearly a hundred and fifty yards away,--out of reasonable range as archers count distances. I made my calculations as well as I could and loosed a shaft, more in honor of his wide branching antlers than in any sure hope. While the arrow was in the air the deer stopped short and looked at me. The shaft swept down its long curve and shattered its point against a rock at just the right height and about six feet in front of the beast. If he had continued his trot, it would have pierced his heart. Nothing was the worse for that adventure except the broad-head, which was gladly offered to the kindly gods who had so gratifyingly watched for me its straight true flight. And I had just as much satisfaction from the episode as though I had actually slain the deer,--and had had to cut it up and carry it into camp. This would not have been true with a rifle. At any range of the bullet's effectiveness I should have expected of myself a hit, and a miss would have hugely disappointed me with myself and ruined temporarily my otherwise sweet disposition.
But even acknowledging all this, the fact indubitably remains that one must occasionally get results, one must occasionally expect to get results, in order to retain interest. Even though one goes forth boldly to slay the bounding roebuck and brings back but the lowly jackrabbit, he must once in a blue moon be assured of the jackrabbit. And he must get the jackrabbit, not merely through the personal interposition of the little gods who preside at roulette tables, but because his bow arm held true and his release sweet and the shaft true sped.
All this is perfectly possible. Any man can within a reasonable time become a reasonably good shot if he has the persistence to practice, and the patience to live through the first discouragements, and the ability to get some fun along the way. The game in its essentials seems to me a good deal like golf. It has a definite technique of a number of definite elements which must coordinate. When that technique is working smoothly results are certain. Like golf a man knows just what he is to do; only he cannot make himself do it! As the idea gets grooved in his brain, the swing--or the release and the hold,--become more and more automatic. But always there will be "on" days when he will shoot a par: and "off" days when both ball and shaft fly on the wings of contrariness.
Of all the qualities above mentioned, I think for the beginner the most important is to cherish confident hope through the early discouragements. For a long time there seems to be no improvement whatever. And there is not improvement as far as score-results go. But the man who studies to perfect the elements of his technique, and is not merely shooting arrows promiscuously, is actually improving for all that. He must strive to remember that not only is each and every point important in itself, but that all must coordinate, must be working well together. No matter how crisp the release, it avails not an [sic] the bow arm falter or the back muscles relax. Again like golf, one day one thing will be working well, and another day another; but it is only when they are all working well that the ball screams down the fairway or the arrow consistently finds its mark. Thus the beginner, practise as thoughtfully as he may, will for a time, perhaps a month or so, find little or no encouragement in the accuracy of his shaft's flight. This is the period when most men, who have started out enthusiastically enough, give up in disgust. Then all at once the persistent ones will begin to pick up. It is a good deal like dropping stones in a pool. One can drop in a great many stones without altering the surface of the water; but there comes a time when the addition of a single pebble shows results.
In his chapter on Shooting the Bow, Dr. Pope has most adequately outlined the technique. If the beginner will do what the doctor there tells him to do, he will shoot correctly. Nevertheless he will find it necessary to find out for himself just how he is going to do these things. It is largely a matter of getting the proper mental picture, and finding out how one feels when he is doing the right thing. Each probably gets an entirely individual mental image. Nevertheless a few hints from the beginner's standpoint may come gracefully from one who only yesterday was a beginner, and who today has struggled but little beyond the first marker post of progress.
The target game and the hunting game differ somewhat, but the actual technique of releasing the arrow is the same in both. I strongly advise the use of a regulation target at regulation distances for at least half of one's practice. There is an inexorable quality about the painted rings. One cannot jolly oneself into a belief of a "pretty good one!" as one does when the roving arrow comes close to the little bush. Those rings are spaced in very definite inches! Even when one has graduated into a fairly hopeful hunting field, one returns every once in a while to the target to check himself up, to find out what he is doing wrong. And in the target, too, one can find the interest along that valley of preliminary discouragement. One should keep all one's scores, no matter how bad they may be. Even if a lowly seventy is the best one has been able to accomplish, there is a certain satisfaction in going after a not-so-slowly seventy-one. Every ten scores or so average up, and see what you have. Thus one can chart a sort of glacial movement upwards otherwise imperceptible to one's sardonic estimate of himself as the World's Champion Dub.
Begin with a light bow; but work up into the heavier weights as rapidly as possible. The first bow I used at target weighed forty pounds. The first hunting bow, made for me by Dr. Pope, weighs sixty-five. I could draw it to the full, but only with difficulty; and it was not in any proper control. I seriously begged the doctor to reduce it for me, alleging that never would I be able to handle it. He very properly laughed at me. Within the year I had worked up to the point where seventy-five pounds seemed about right; and at the present writing I have one of eighty-two pounds that handles for me much easier than Dr. Pope's gift did at first. So begin light, but work up as fast as possible. Do not linger with a weak bow simply because it is easier to draw and because you can with it, and a light target, make a better target score.
Beware of shooting too much just at first. If you strain the muscles of your drawing fingers you will have to lay off just when you are most eager. They strengthen very rapidly if you give them a chance. Once they are hardened to the work you will have no more trouble and can, as far as they are concerned, pop away as long as your bow arm holds out; but if once you get them tender and sore you will be forced to quit until they recover. It's as bad as a sprain.
Start at forty yards. Stand upright, feet about a foot apart, facing a point at right angles to the target. Turn the head sharply to the left and look at the bull's-eye. Do not thereafter move it by the fraction of an inch. Bring your right arm across your chest. Pause and visualize the shot, collecting your powers. Now promptly raise your bow in direct line with the target. Draw the arrow to the head as it comes up. All your muscles are, up to this point, alert but tensed only to the extent necessary to draw the shaft. At the exact moment of release, however, they stiffen to the utmost. It is like a little spurt of energy released to speed the arrow on its way. That, I think, is what Dr. Pope means when he says one should "put his heart in the bow." It helps to imagine yourself trying to drive the arrow right through the target. Pay especial attention to the muscles of the small of the back. The least relaxation there means an ill-sped shaft. The bow arm must be on the point of aim, and held there. The release must be sharply backward, and vigorous. Personally I find that my mental image is of contracting the latissimus dorsi--the muscles of the broad of the back by the shoulder blades--and thereby expanding the shoulders, forcing the hands apart, but still in direct line with the bull's-eye. And after the arrow has left the bow, hold the pose! Carry through! Imagine yourself as a statue of an archer, and stay just in that position until you hear the arrow strike.
Just in the beginning, at forty yards, with thirty arrows, you may be satisfied if you hit the target between sixteen and twenty-one times out of the thirty shots and make a score of from sixty to eighty points. Your ambition will be, as in golf, to "break" a hundred. By the time you have done that your muscles will be in shape and you can begin on the American Round. At first you will probably make a total of about two hundred for the three distances. Progress will show in your averages. They will creep up a few points at a time. It will be a proud day when you "break" three hundred. Eventually you will shoot consistently in the four hundreds; and that is about as far as you will go unless you devote yourself to the target game, and confine yourself to its lighter tackle and the super refinements of its delicate technique.
The bow you will finally use for practice at the target will not be a hunting bow. It will be longer and more whip-ended and not so sturdy. But if you are to get the best results for the hunting field, I believe it should approximate in weight the hunting weapon. It should not be quite as heavy, for one shoots it more continuously. The one I use weighs sixty pounds. With a lighter bow one would probably make a somewhat better score; but that is a different game. Do not get the idea, however, that mere weight is the whole thing. Nothing is worse than to be over-bowed; and many a deer has been slain with a fifty or fifty-five pound weapon. Only, there is a weight that is adapted to you at your best; that "holds you together"; that keeps you on the mark; that calls your concentration; and that is like to be on the heavier rather than the lighter side as judged by beginner's experience.
In conclusion, let me urge you eventually to make your own tackle. Personally, I am not dexterous when it comes to matters of finer handicraft; and when I became interested in this game I made up my mind that the construction of a bow or the building of a decent arrow was outside my line, and that I would not attempt it. After a while Pope persuaded me I ought to try arrows, at least. Under protest I attempted the job. The Doctor says it takes about an hour to make a good arrow. I can add that it takes about four hours to make a bad one. Still, when completed it did look surprisingly like an arrow, and it flew point first. Pope looked it all over and handed it back with the single comment that I certainly had got the shaft straight. But that arrow was very valuable. It proved to me that I could at least follow out the process and produce some result. It also convinced me that Ashan Vitu--who was a heathen god of archers--possessed a magic that could make one drop of glue on the shaft become at least one quart on the fingers; and that turkeys are obsessed with small contrary devils who pass at the bird's death into the first six feathers of its wings and there lurk to the confusion of amateur archers. But I wanted to make another arrow; and I did; and it was a better arrow and took less time. I have that first arrow yet. It is a good idea to number the output; and to preserve a sample out of every three dozen or so, just to show not only your progress but also the advance of your ideas as to what constitutes a good arrow. And some you will probably find valuable for especial emergencies. Number Three of my own product is just such a one. It starts straight enough for the point at which it was aimed. When about thirty yards out it begins to entertain its first distrust of its master, and to proceed according to its own ideas. It makes up its mind that it has been held too high, and immediately goes into a nose dive to rectify the fault. Instantly it realizes that it has overdone the matter, and makes a desperate effort to straighten back on its course. A partial success darts it to the right. Number Three becomes ashamed and flustered. Its course from there on is a series of erratic dives and swoops. I should be very sorry to lose Number Three, for I am quite confident that I could never make another such. When my most painstaking shooting has resulted in a series of misses, I launch Number Three. There is no particular good in aiming it, though it can be done if found amusing. But it is surprising how often it will at the last moment pull off one of its erratic swoops--right into the mark! As a compensating device for rotten shooting it is unexcelled. It is a pity to laugh at it as much as we do; for I am convinced it is a conscientious arrow doing its best under natural handicap; like a prima donna with a cleft palate, for instance.
In a manner not dissimilar to my beginning of the fletching art, I took up bow making. It can be done. The only thing is to go at it without any particular hope. Then you will be surprised and pleased that you have achieved any result at all, and will at once see where you could do better again. To make a very fine bow is a real art and requires much experience and many trials. But to make a serviceable bow that will shoot and will hold up for a time is not very difficult. And it is great fun! The first occasion on which you go afield with bow, bowstring, arrow, quiver, bracer, and finger tips all of your own composition, and loose the shaft and the thing not only flies well but straight and far, you will taste a wonder and a satisfaction new to your experience. It will probably take you some time to convince yourself that somehow the whole outfit is not a base imitation.
From that moment you are a true archer, and you will actually look with tolerance on anything so stiff and metallic and mechanical as a gun. Your wife will accustom herself to shavings and scraps of feathers on the rugs. Inspirations will come to you anent better methods, which you will urge enthusiastically on the old timers; and the old timers will smile upon you sweetly and sadly. They had those same inspirations themselves in their green and salad days. Then no longer will you need a Chapter of Encouragement. [Footnote: Stewart Edward White, the author and big game hunter, has so entered into the spirit of archery, that he has become an expert shot with the bow after a year's practice. The use of fire-arms no longer appeals to him because it is a foregone conclusion just what will happen when he aims at an animal. He was considered by Col. Roosevelt to be the best shot that ever entered the African game field with a gun.
In the use of the bow he has revived his interest in hunting, and admits that it is a more sporting proposition. At this present writing Stewart Edward White, Arthur Young, and I, are on our way to Tanganyika Colony, Africa, to carry the legends of the English long bow into the tropics. What is written on the scroll of Fate is not visible; but with a sturdy bow, a true shaft, and a stout heart, we journey forth in search of adventure.