Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Art of Archery

You steel your back and hold your left arm rock steady, as you draw back the powerful bow string. It has a 70 lb draw weight, so it is exactly like lifting 70 lbs with one arm. Sideways. For accuracy, you are using a wrist release, which is a strap-on wrist band with a metal pinch caliper to hold the string itself. As you bring the string further back, the resistance builds until finally the cam shifts, rolls over, and you get it past the high tension point and into the furthest draw position.
You relax, and settle into your stance. The first knuckle of your right hand nestles into the open space of your right ear as your head looks along your outstretched left arm. You open the fingers of your left hand and let the bow handle pivot on the joint between your thumb and palm, so that your closed fist does not alter the bow at that critical moment when you finally release the arrow. You peer through the tiny circular ring tied to the string which, when pulled back, is finally tilted into position to allow you to see through the little hole through to the sight.
You align the bulls-eye of the target directly in the center of the crosshairs built into the sight attached to the bow. Your main focus is on the target, but in your foreground peripheral vision you are aligning the glowing red fibre-optic dot with it. You are looking through a magnifier to bring the target bulls-eye up close and see it in enough detail.

Your left arm is a little tired from holding the tension of the incredibly taut bowstring. As you watch intently, the crosshair swims around a little. It’s impossible to hold it exactly on target when it’s such a tiny little spot the size of a quarter in the middle of a target bag 90 feet away.

You think about how you have calibrated the sight in. Is it accurate? It was calibrated for 60 feet. But is this a logical extension for 90 ft? This is not downhill or uphill, so gravity will not distort the trajectory. There is a slight breeze from the left that wasn’t there earlier when you adjusted for windage, so you move your bow to slide the crosshairs slightly to the left, but how much? How strong is the breeze, and how far will it blow an ultralight carbon arrow to the right over the course of a trajectory 100 feet long over 90 feet of ground distance? What if the breeze you are feeling is not consistent the entire distance between you and the target? You quickly calculate. You know it will be traveling at 320 feet per second, and it has to travel about 100 feet. That means it will be airborne and exposed to lateral forces for less than 1/3rd of a second. Maybe about 2 inches? 3 inches? Is that enough to allow for a 1/3rd of a second drift with this breeze? You decide about 2 inches, so in your mind's eye, you imagine the target is two bulls-eye widths to the left, and settle on that mental image.

Your arm is getting more tired and starting to burn, but still you try to hold steady. Think of becoming steady as a rock. Rigid like steel. You are a steel beam lodged firmly and deeply into the ground. You remember to keep on breathing regularly so that, because of held breath, your heartbeat doesn’t move your arm that tiny pulse that is enough to throw you off. Breathing slowly, but steadily, accepting the burn of your muscles, accepting the distance, the temperature of the air.
Then the breeze, the other people, the sounds - they all suddenly disappear. You enter a twilight zone of silence. You extend your feelings and senses out into the space around you and your senses suddenly click with the universe. THIS is the moment. You feel it, and you respond. You are one with the universe, as, with the flick of your index finger on the small trigger, the caliper pincher releases the string, and the arrow is let loose on it’s mission. It swiftly, smoothly, silently rushes at impossible speed, spinning as it drills through the air, seemingly passing between the oxygen molecules. The thin black carbon missile is unleashed and committed to it's path. It is beyond recalling now. Your part of this is done, and you did all you could do. In the blink of an eye, it has suddenly crossed the distance and the silence of the moment is broken with the satisfying thud as it punctures the target block. It’s a bulls-eye. A direct hit. All your precision and your strength, and your skill, and calculations paid off. Life is good. The moment completes, sounds return, and the day breathes again.

That, to me, is archery in a nutshell. It’s all about precision. It’s all about skill, and strength and control. It’s about that moment where there is a silence in the universe and everything is paused waiting to see where the arrow lands. The satisfaction of the successful shot.

How did I get started in this sport?

My daughter is a Girl Scout. She has been since she was six years old. One day, she came home from a Girl Scout week-long camping trip and told me excitedly about all the fun she had that week. She talked about the other girls and the campfire stories, and the little crafty tokens (called “Swaps”) that they make and trade with each other and wear pinned to their hats. When she talked about the activities, she mentioned three specific things that she really had fun with.

1) Horse riding
2) Astronomy-stargazing
3) Archery.

Horse riding remains her biggest passion to this day, and she plans to continue on to make horses her vocation. She is planning to become a veterinarian specializing in equestrian physical therapy.

Since we live in the city, there was nothing I could do to help her more with her horse riding except take her to the special horse riding camps for Girl Scouts which she is still attending now, 10 years later. For the other two activities, I took my next bonus and went out and bought a decent telescope, and some bows and arrows, thinking that I could make these some fun family outdoor activities we could all do together.

I have written about telescopes in a lot more detail earlier in this blog, but I will add here that I bought a beautiful Celestron 8” diameter Schmidt Cassegrain-style telescope with right ascension motor to track and compensate for the movement of the Earth as it rotates. However, after the initial excitement of seeing Saturn’s rings, Jupiter and it’s moons, a couple of nebula, and the mountains on our own moon, the novelty had worn off, and we rarely looked through it again. It is heavy to carry outside and it takes about an hour to set up for a session, and then it’s difficult to get it exactly right, plus all objects seen through a telescope by the naked eye are always just white – color only comes across in photos where the camera is set to long exposures. The human eye doesn’t work that way. After you’ve seen a few dozen objects and they are all just white dots, well, the novelty and excitement begins to fade, and the effort of carrying it outside and setting it up in the dark, is less appealing.

Then there was archery. I bought a kid’s longbow for my daughter, and a beautifully-made elegant wooden recurve bow for my wife, and I bought a second-hand, but high-quality compound bow for myself. They lacked the strength to draw a compound bow like mine and so wanted the recurve bow, and longbow. The bow I bought for myself was formerly owned by a well-known hunter, affectionately referred to as ‘Doc”. A retired physician who has traveled the world, including African Safaris, Australia, the Canadian Arctic, etc., and he has hunted 22 different species with his bows. I am completely uninterested in hunting, however, I do enjoy the target shooting.

That bow was a PSE Mach 6 (shown above). A fairly expensive bow. Where average bows are perhaps $300 to $500, this bow, as it was optioned, was worth about $900 brand new, and I think I paid about $400 for it. This was like the Rolls-Royce of bows. Well-built, but extremely heavy. Doc had two like this, and he only needed one, so he kept one, and traded the other in for a different style and that’s the one I bought.

I bought some aluminum arrows and a target bag, and started practicing in my backyard. I tried to get my wife and daughter to practice with me, but there was no interest after the first session. I even joined us up to a family archery club, but we only went to one session as a family, and they tried it and I think had fun, but probably not enough fun to want to bother coming back. The drive there took over an hour each way. I even bought them both compound bows that were adjusted to very light draw weights, so they could shoot them easily. Still no luck. They just didn't seem interested.

But I continued to practice as my own interest grew. I became fascinated by the concepts of precision involved in archery. Shooting a gun is very simple, by comparison. You simply aim the gun at the target, hold it steady, and squeeze the trigger. That’s about it. The bullet is small and light and very fast and it travels straight to wherever you were pointing the gun when you pulled the trigger.

But archery is very different. First, you do not simply aim the arrow at the target because the arrow is a long heavy item that travels much slower than a bullet, and so it does not travel exactly straight through the air. Instead, it arcs through the air with a graceful trajectory. It lifts up at first, and then descends down on the second half of it’s flight. This arc is called the ‘drop’. Also, it is very susceptible to winds and windshifts and sudden gusts.

So you must know how to compensate for distance, and for winds blowing from the side. Also, the arrows have different weights, and some fly differently. For example, I started making my own carbon arrows, and when I would glue the fletches (feathers/vanes) onto the shaft, I used a special jig that gave them a 3 degree twist so that the arrow would spin in midair. This counteracts the flight-effects of any warps or bends in the arrow, since it evenly distributes the effect in all directions. The arrow essentially screws itself through the air – very fast.

As for how high to lift it, you must calibrate the sight on the bow for different distances, taking into account the draw weight of the bow itself, and the weight of the arrow, etc.. For a longer distance, you must aim higher, so that it will arc far enough to reach the target. For shorter distances, you aim lower for less of a ‘drop’ over the distance.

I began to get deeper into the art of archery, and so I bought every book I could find on the subject and read them all. Then I read every article on the web that I could find. Then I went back and bought all the instructional videos I could find. I learned more and more, and found myself practicing perhaps 2 hours per day most days. I became very accurate.

But it wasn’t long before I found that I wanted a better bow. Doc’s hunting bow was a solid bow and could easily survive falling out of a tree. Or being hit by a truck…, but I needed something lighter. Something more suitable for shooting several dozen arrows in a single session. Hunting bows only need to be shot once, so weight is not as much of a factor. But try holding a 14 lb weight at arm’s length for any extended period of time, and at the same time, pull a 60 or 70 lbs draw weight pressure against it. It’s very tiring! That will wear your arm out pretty quick! Once your arms get tired, your accuracy suffers, because you can’t hold it still. You are pulling with all your strength and trying to hold it still, but the targeting pin or crosshair is swimming around.

So I ordered a custom-made bow from Mathews – the top manufacturer. They make some fairly exotic, very high quality bows, often for Olympic competitors, etc. I ordered a custom made Mathews MQ1 in a red anodized finish directly from the factory. I didn’t care for the camouflage finish of my Mach 6, since I would never be taking it hunting. But I liked the metallic red finish of this competition bow. See this inset picture. Then I set about making a sight for it myself. I looked far and wide and all over the planet to different suppliers, and bought a number of pieces that I cobbled together into an excellent sight. You can see it in the inset phote here. It is the black thing that looks like a D-shaped magnifying glass mounted to the red frame of the bow on a long black metal arm.I started with an excellent, high-precision, all metal machined superstructure, with very precise adjustments for height (distance) and for horizontal (for windage). Then I bought and made an attachment to hold the visual aids themselves. I used a D-shaped unit that bolts together in ways that allowed me to mount other items to it, and to customize it. I found two magnifying lenses that fit that D-shaped mounting frame. One is a 2X, the other is a 3X – giving me a 6X magnification of my target. No one had ever heard of doing that before. Usually, any lens that gives more than 3X is too dark to see the target with the precision needed. But by using two lenses of lower magnification with daylight between them, it stayed bright enough AND gave me the magnification I wanted. Then, I also added a crosshair into the casing. You can buy the fine wire used for that. Then I also made a fiber optic center dot. I bought some fiber optic filament, and cut it, bent one end using a match, and then melted the end into a flat circle. This captures the ambient light and gives a nice lit red dot right in the middle of the crosshairs. That, combined with the crosshairs, and the two optical lenses, together with the very precise vertical and horizontal adjustments on the mechanism, gives me a fairly precise sight for this bow.

I added a few other options to the bow as well, like a 36 inch competition Olympic-class stabilizer by Doinker. And a very high-end arrow rest. This is the unit that the arrow actually sits on at the bow. There is a semi-circular carriage, with two thin metal prongs and the arrow rests on those prongs. I put some limb-savers on it, to absorb some of the shock on the bow when the string is released. The bowstring has tremendous power, and can shake a bow to pieces. This is why you should NEVER dry-fire a bow. If you fire a bow without an arrow, then there is no resistance, and the full force of the string is transferred into the limbs of the bow and can crack them. The total cost of this bow was about $1600 when all was done. That's roughly four times what you would pay for a decent normal hunting bow. This is like the “Ferrari” of bows.

However, with this bow, and after all that I had learned through reading, studying training videos, and hours and hours of practice, on a 60 ft distance, if I stuck a Styrofoam coffee cup anywhere on the target bag, I could usually get 8 or more out of a dozen tightly packed arrows in the cup. And the others would be fairly close by as well. I was able to produce tight groupings of high accuracy – at least at 60 to 90 feet. But I needed a larger place to practice longer distances.

The person I ordered the custom Mathews bow through, and the man who gave me advice and got me started was Fay Frigon, the Texas Archery State Champion. He was the expert in the archery store that I bought my supplies in. He is a very nice guy, extremely skilled, and extremely knowledgeable about the subject. We became friends as I used to go to the shop most Saturdays for a year and look at more archery equipment, swap stories, and talk shop. One day, he invited me out to a 3-D competition.

It is like a cross between mock hunting, and golf.

Imagine a golf course with 30 holes instead of 18. And for each hole, you have a childrens’ tee position, a men’s tee position, and a professional tee position. Now imagine that instead of wide open grass lawn, you have bushes and hills and a path connecting them. Now imagine that instead of holes, you have full-size replicas of various animals such as deer, bears, turkey, wild boar, etc.. but these animals are not real, they are made of a densely packed foam, shaped and painted to look like the real thing. Oh – and the have targets etched into the surface for scoring. Also, like golf, where you only have one ball per hole – here you only have one arrow – BUT also, you only get one shot!

This is the MAC club (Mesquite Archery Club) and Fay is the resident pro – just like being a resident golf pro at a golf course. He teaches lessons for individuals, groups, etc.

I felt honored that Fay took me along with him, and as I was passing by a group of veterans of the club, one leaned in close and said, “You’re playing a round with Fay? That’s amazing – he hardly ever has anyone with him! That’s like being invited to play a round of golf with Tiger Williams! I hope you appreciate that!” I smiled and said, “I do! But I’ll try not to make it too easy for him to beat me…” We both laughed. The scoring is not for each group, but rather the scores of everyone in the competition are put on the big white board back at the snack bar so everyone can see how they did.

I learned a few lessons from Fay just walking around and shooting each target, and chatting about the decisions you make, the wind compensation, shooting uphill, downhill, through trees, etc. You have to be careful not to lose any arrows. They are so fast that no one can see them traveling, and if you miss the target, it may shoot off through the trees and across a field to who knows where. At a cost of about $10 each, you don’t want to lose too many!

At the end of the competition, I checked the board and Fay had shot a perfect score of 300. No one was surprised. He is “The Tiger Woods of Archery” after all.

There was one man at 290, and most of the contestants were in the 190 to 230 range. I looked for my name in that pack but it wasn’t there. I searched further up the board and then there I was. A score of 288. Wow! These men had been doing this for years and were veterans. And this was only my first competition. In fact I had only started in archery in the last year before that.

I felt like I could almost go into the Olympics for archery! I was very happy and very proud. I felt like I had learned much, studied hard, and frankly, I felt I had mastered it. At least for the compound bow competitions in this range sizes. Some of these targets are 55 yards, which is 165 feet away.

In the months and years following this though, we moved to a house with lakefront property and no opportunity to practice in the back yard. And the MAC club is at least a two hour drive away. Too far away for the time I have, so I haven’t brought my bows and arrows out in 2 years now. I do enjoy it. But like with so many other things – I wish there was more time!


At 4/23/2006 9:29 AM, Blogger Ptelea said...


I really like the description of your experience of shooting an arrow. I especially like how you reach a point where you tune out the rest of the world, 'twilight zone of silence'. This art sounds like it would be fun as well as a challenge. I hope you find the time to get back into it someday.

At 4/24/2006 3:47 PM, Blogger Val Serrie said...

Thanks, Ptelea.
I hope I can, too. My problem is that archery ranges are too distant to be convenient, and my backyard has a walkway and a rod-iron fence across the back of it, so people can see everything going on there. I need privacy for this kind of thing.
I planted some bushes, but it's going to take a few years before I get the level of privacy I need.

And even then - it's the time that it takes. I like doing it, but I've already given up TV. There's nothing else I can sacrifice.
I'll just have to squeeze it in on the occasional session.


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