For the past month I’ve been exploring the mysteries of the heavy longbow. I’ve avoided owning anything over 56# since accidentally overbowing myself my rookie year. I’d also seen too many archers with ruined shoulders and didn’t want to end up in the same situation a decade down the road. An old wrestling injury with years of competitive football added on had already weakened the joint anyway. Making it worse seemed foolish.
Besides, I knew a thing or two about 50# longbows – they’d kill anything on the continent with the right arrow and a sharp broadhead. At least, that is what everyone kept telling me. They’d certainly done a number on the deer I’d killed and that was all the proof my ego needed. That being said, I’d like to issue the following disclaimer:
THIS POST IS NOT ABOUT ARROW PENETRATION, THE RESEARCH CONDUCTED BY DR. ASHBY, FOC, EFOC, SINGLE BEVEL VS DOUBLE BEVEL BROADHEADS, OR PUTTING ARROWS THROUGH A CAR DOOR AT 20 YARDS.
This post is about the misconceptions surrounding heavy bows and the folks that shoot them. And I’m an expert on the topic, as I’ve been ribbing heavy bow shooters for years. They were, “a bunch of wannabe macho men trying to appear tough by shooting a bow they couldn’t handle.” That was my perception and you couldn’t convince me otherwise. It was innocently formed I suppose. I didn’t think I could shoot anything over 60# as my shoulder would hang up and click when attempting to draw anything that heavy. My fingers also couldn’t handle the tension. They are long, thin, not very strong, and have always struggled holding the string of a heavy bow.
And then there was the target panic. I owned a particularly beautiful Hollenbeck longbow for a short time. At 60″ and 58# it was my heaviest and also my shortest, which wasn’t the best combination in the world, but I shot it for an entire season and even hunted with it. I missed a deer with that bow before realizing I was releasing prematurely. By the end of the season, I was hardly ever coming to anchor and my shoulder was popping, clicking, and hurting more than ever.
Now a logical man would have blamed the bow’s length. I have a 30″ draw and usually shot bows between 62-68″. The Hollenebeck was better suited for a 28″ draw and was stacking on me. The increased string angle was also pinching my fingers at full draw, causing unneeded stress and preventing me from reaching my anchor consistently. But instead of stepping back and examining all of these factors, I blamed the bow’s draw weight instead and immediately sold it for a lighter/longer model. All the while developing a bitter attitude toward archers favoring heavy bows.
The effects of the switch weren’t as I expected. The length relieved my fingers, but the weight didn’t fix the clicking in my shoulder. It plagued me off and on for a year regardless of the bow. I blamed poundage once again and had an even lighter bow made, but the clicking continued and my shooting suffered. I began hunching over and shooting with an extreme cant to fix the problem, but I was only shortening my draw and hurting my accuracy. I still managed to kill a deer this way, but not well. It required three arrows to do the job properly, as I missed the first and spined her on the second. My situation seemed fairly hopeless and I was beginning to accept it for the lack of knowing what to do.
Fortunately, a friend came to my rescue before things got too bleak.
I met Steve Angell online via Twitter and we became friends quickly. Steve was a subscriber and wanted to get his own blog (www.simplytraditional.net) up and running and asked for advice. I was happy to lend and we haven’t stopped communicating since.
Steve loves a heavy bow. I found this out first thing. He is quite the connoisseur and owns some tremendous examples, most of them being Northern Mists. He also owned several Howard Hills at the time and a “Trophy Hunter” made by John Schulz – his very first longbow.
At 30 I was a whole lot younger than Steve, bigger too, yet he was drawing bows that made mine look like toothpicks with dental floss. One day, after telling me he was ordering another 83# Mist, I asked how he could shoot such a heavy bow without injury or erratic grouping.
“Simple…” he said. “I draw and release with my back. Too many people draw with their arms, which wears on your shoulders. There is no reason you couldn’t shoot the same poundage as me if you drew with your back and worked out on occasion to keep your muscles in shape and prevent injury.”
It made sense, but I still didn’t believe him. Of course I was drawing with my back! Then again…maybe I wasn’t. Our heavy bow conversations continued and culminated in his mentioning he was going to pass on his Trophy Hunter, which at 59#@27″ was his lightest bow. He’d just inherited another heavy longbow from a friend and wanted to extend the same gesture t0 someone else, but not just anyone. Someone who would appreciate the bow and give it a good home. As you may have guessed, I jumped at the opportunity. Steve had convinced me to try a heavier bow, and I knew I would cherish this one more than most because it was coming from him.
The bow arrived a week later and immediately began re-educating me. It scared the hell out of me at first. I could hardly string it without flinching, even with a stringer. It was very intimidating and those first couple arrows were absolutely brutal mentally and physically. I felt like a newbie again: torquing the arrow off the rest, throwing my bow arm, and hardly ever reaching my anchor. My teeth hurt and my shoulder was killing me after only 20 arrows. I hung the bow up in disgust and went to bed; my only comforting thought being the decision to send it back to Steve the following weekend.
Then something funny happened. I passed the bow on the rack repeatedly the following evening and began to feel ashamed for giving it up so quickly. It wasn’t in my nature to let something whoop me so badly, and I decided to give it another go for my pride’s sake. I grabbed it off the rack, carefully strung it, pulled a cedar the size of a small spear from my quiver, and drew – this time making sure my back was doing the work by focusing on the expansion of the muscles and the opening of my chest.
To my surprise, my fingers reached my anchor effortlessly and with absolutely no shoulder pain. I then pinched my back and let the string pull the arrow from my glove as Steve instructed, making sure to keep my bow arm steady. The arrow streaked across my basement and slammed into the center of my foam block target to the fletching. I was stunned. I’d never shot a bow so powerful, and I did so with such little effort. “So this is what drawing and releasing with your back actually feels like!” I laughed aloud. I’d been doing it incorrectly all along.
I spent the next hour shooting quivers of arrows at the pitiful foam block – each with the same devastating result. I’d never shot that well or that long without the annoying shoulder click and this bow was far heavier than anything I owned, pulling around 66# at my 29″ draw. I didn’t have any finger pain either, which was due in part to the bow’s 68″ length and the thick-stalled Crossover gloves I began using the previous year. I felt great and I knew it wasn’t a fluke. Something was definitely different.
I’ve been shooting it religiously ever since and the results haven’t changed. I’ve taken it with me on several stump shooting adventures and even shot an entire round of 3Ds with it at the Michigan Traditional Bowhunter’s Jamboree without ill-effect and I was damn near exhausted at that point. Still, I had no trouble handling the bow and shot my best round of the weekend with it.
My shooting has improved across the board, even with my lighter bows. I attribute this to the form improvements shooting a heavier bow has forced. I have never felt this efficient with a longbow and am excited for the future.
Thank you Steve for showing me what I never would have seen on my own.
NOTE: Shooting heavy bows isn’t for everyone. I cannot insure you’ll have the same results as me, nor am I implying that heavy poundage will fix your shooting problems. There were certain building blocks already in place that allowed me to make the transition: 1) I was already working out regularly, my back in particular; 2) I have always been a snap shooter and do not hold anchor very long; 3) I was already shooting a glove created for heavy bows due to my poor finger strength; 4) I have always gripped the string with a deep hook, meaning there is a great deal of finger behind the string rather than just the tips. The latter helps to distribute string tension evenly between fingers and keeps my elbow aligned properly while drawing.