Elements of Style: Shooting Barebow

©Dean Torges/The Bowyer's Edge™

The archer who wishes to hunt with traditional tackle should work toward mastering three elements. They form the foundation of shooting barebow, either for the instinctive or the gap style.

The first two elements are about technique and form.

Element One, The Rock Arm. Your bow arm shall remain rock steady, unwavering, pointing to your target, even after the loose.

Element Two, The Faithful Release. Your release hand is likewise unmoving, abiding in the place of its duty. You should never pluck this hand off the string upon the loose; it should not fly away as though to chase an insect from the ear.

These are practical principals: the bow arm is your front sight, the release hand is your back sight. If they wobble about in the act of shooting, then the missile lacks guidance. Simple. Essential.

Element Three, The Hair Over the Heart. The third element is more subtle. It holds your eye solidly against your thought. It glues your inner eye to your target. In this respect, it is a principle of form as certainly as the first two elements. You can state it most simply as "picking a spot." Picking a spot means seeing nothing but that spot and then bearing down on it. Not the animal or the target, not the incidentals to either side of the arrow's path, not even the arrow itself when you shoot instinctively. Just the spot.

This element of barebow shooting is so important and, often, so elusive that I want to pursue it to some conclusion. Especially as it affects the two styles of shooting barebow: the one that is aware of the arrow (gap shooting) and the one that is not (instinctive).

Let's begin on familiar ground common to both styles.

If you shoot at a bucket, you will likely land an arrow at its edge. If you shoot at a baseball, you will likely hit beside it, too. But if you shoot at a spot on the bucket, you will likely land beside the spot and hit the bucket. If you shoot at a stitching hole on the baseball's seam, you will probably hit the baseball. This dynamic requires not only that you concentrate upon a mark, but that you focus on the smallest part of it that you can see.

It's the same with throwing a ball: throw it to a person and it lands in his vicinity; throw it to his belly button and it stays within his frame. John Schultz likes to say that when shooting rabbits, he always aims for their eye. Sometimes he misses and hits them in the head.

Add rhythm to it—do your shooting by the numbers—and these three elements will blend to one fluid purpose. You shoot, and at each station, you say to yourself: Pick a spot, lift the bow, pull it back and ... thwunk! let it go. Pick, lift, pull, go. The first station requires mental preparation. You cannot go blank through the process, losing focus and desire, and rely upon mechanics or muscle memory as you lift, pull and loose to get you there. If focus and desire become unglued from the "spot" as you add the next three stations, you cannot hope to hit the mark. Rather, focus and desire should intensify as you proceed through the stations.

If you shoot at a deer, you will miss. You must shoot for the hair over its heart.

When you walk down the road or drive along the street, you see things through the eyes of everyday life. You see a blob, and your eye goes to the outline surrounding it because this is the way you quickly recognize something—by its shape. You see a cab, a pickup truck, an SUV, a patrol car, and you feel out its shape with your eyes. Certain shapes give you quick clues to danger or safe passage. A deer looks at outlines for these same reasons. Identities are determined by shapes.

A hunter must look through different eyes. He must look beyond shapes and identities to search out the life within the outline—and at the moment of truth bear down upon it. If his vision reverts to old habits, if he goes back to everyday eyes or loses heart, the arrow flies to the shape he sees and he shoots to its outline, missing by a hair. Hone your form of thought so that the outline blurs and only the hair over the heart comes into focus. I know a few hunters even who look through this hair to an exit spot on the far side of the animal when they loose.

The hunter who shoots barebow instinctively does not require much more information about shooting styles than an appreciation of these three elements. All the subtleties and nuances of shooting form derive from them. If he factors more than these three elements into his hunting, he may find some opportunities at his game, but he will lose some chances. He will lose his advantage over the hunter who shoots by the gap. The gap shooter requires further instruction. He must process more information, so he works slower, more methodically.

If you allow yourself to sight down your arrow, even to become aware in your peripheral vision of where that arrow stands in relation to the target, you will be shooting thoughtfully. When your instinctive shooting style goes south, and it will at intervals, the temptation will be great to use a method which involves at least partial thoughtful awareness of the arrow. Arrow awareness will help you group your practice arrows in the target bale in tighter clusters and do it more consistently because it offers guidelines, tunnels for you to shoot through. Known in its various styles as Gap Shooting, Gun Barreling or Split Vision, it can make you an outstanding barebow target archer if you practice it long and hard. Because of the excellence in shooting form that it cultivates, it will even allow you to come unglued from your focus now and then and still hit close enough to your mark to count.

But if you want to make the most of your chances at game in the field, you will leave that style mostly to the butts. Or for those opportunities when a groundhog sits stock still upon his mound and promises not to move until after you have loosed. For those opportunities when both your quarry and you have too much time before your next moves. Such situations will teach the difference between finding opportunities at your quarry and getting chances at it.

Sometimes you will group arrows and shoot straighter than at other times because sometimes you feel stronger or braver or surer or burn with greater desire than at other times. No matter how good you get with a bow and arrow, this human reality will sometimes scatter your practice arrows, and at other times bunch them up tightly. Shooting instinctively exaggerates the good and the bad. Its purpose in practice is to make the three elements of style thoughtless. The purpose of practicing gap shooting, on the other hand, is to make thoughtfulness comfortable. Proficiency with the instinctive style requires experience and familiarity with your tackle, such as a gap shooter gets through repetitive practice.

Left to my instincts, I'm an optimistic person. I think this attitude is essential if one hopes to shoot bows by the strength of his muscle, the force of his will and the purity of his desire. It's an essential premise, this optimistic, self-reliant faith upon which we loose an arrow while expecting it to hit the mark.

There are a peck of dangers in dividing the world into two camps. Liberal and conservative, hunter/gatherer and farmer, male and female, up and down, black and white, etcetera, and so on. Still, it serves a purpose, so I will risk it: Insofar as the world divides into optimists and pessimists, those with the dark view which focuses upon our inadequacies become mechanists. Their suspicions require them to seek out compensations for human shortcomings, inventing contrivances and devices that fill in where Man falls short physically or emotionally. Their solutions to the problems of human experience find technological expressions that smooth us out.

Nowhere in my life is this war of attitudes more apparent than in archery, which diverges like a fork in the road into traditionalists and mechanists. Plucking the string and getting erratic arrow flight when you loose an arrow? Is practice, to achieve a smooth loose, the answer? Or is the invention of a mechanical string release the solution? Upon such simple choices attitudes are firmed up, and from such attitudes a webwork grows and a coherent cosmos gets built. You end up with a stick and a string and a firm resolve, or a titanium/graphite riser for lightness and strength to compensate for a 3 pound stabilizer which absorbs the shock of cam actuated cables which allow for heavier drawing weights with limbs which, in turn, require ... because you didn't believe that you contained satisfactory solutions to shooting problems within yourself.

The purely mechanistic way must necessarily erode the spirit and the soul. No escaping it, is there? Its fundamental pessimism rests upon an assumption about inadequacy that corrodes the ethic of aspiration. It may place the risks for failure and the responsibilities that attach to them outside ourselves, but at the cost of depriving us of personal successes and the causes for celebrating triumphs, too. The mechanistic world becomes the construct of a resourceful brain that parts us off from our heart and muscle. We become divided and diminished in such a world, unlit puppeteers tugging at grandiose schemes which dance about in an increasingly complicated and rickety universe.

Instinctive archery is all about possibilities. Mechanist archery is all about alternatives.

Of course the world does not divvy up into such neat camps. No one of us is a technocrat in all matters, nor equally a primitive, either. Most of the time we select and balance, dealing in commingled shades of gray. Not everyone who shoots compounds has them tricked out. Not everyone who shoots sticks and strings barebow shoots instinctively. Gap shooting blends a little from both worlds. It shoots barebow, but it sights the arrow. To do it well, you must become the arrow. Byron Ferguson wrote a book about it.

Ishi by all accounts was woeful at the burlap butts. I don't think he knew how to become the arrow. By these same accounts he was a focused and successful hunter. I think you get this way by knowing just where the hair lays over the heart. And having a faith so optimistic it bridges gaps your mind may reason cannot be bridged by you alone. Faith so profound that when you recognize the spot, that is where you are. Not where you are looking, not even where you are going, but where you are. Inside it. All of you. Ishi did not become the arrow, I suspect. The arrow became Ishi.

The remedy for the frustration that attends scattering instinctive arrows on the burlap sometimes and grouping them tightly at other times? Work to strengthen your faith with each practice arrow you loose. Be happy for it. And stay optimistic.