Handicapping the Odds

©Dean Torges/The Bowyer's Edge™

In 1994, while publishing a series of articles in Traditional Bowhunter that later became Hunting the Osage Bow, I remarked that the well-made selfbow was no handicap to the serious hunting archer. Classical archery was comprised primarily of fiberglass then, so most people who read my statement probably dismissed it as wishful and unfounded.

Only a handful of hunters and primitive skills enthusiasts across this country had maintained an interest in the wooden bow when Jay Massey published The Bowyer's Craft in 1987. You can't attend a rendezvous now without bumping into selfbows or bamboo-backed bows left and right. Times have changed. Or have they? I'm willing to bet that in their heart of hearts serious hunters still consider themselves more restricted with a wooden bow than a fiberglassed one, and that the challenge of construction overrules the perception of diminished performance.

Sixty years ago, we viewed the fiberglass phenomenon through a wooden bow mindset. It's flip-flopped. Today the fiberglass mindset determines the aperture for viewing all wooden bows. For the most part, it's a lens that gives a free pass to the substance of fiberglassed bows. We focus our critical eye instead on the finish, the tip overlays, the exotic wood color combinations and the "brand name" rather than the fadeouts, the glue lines, or, heaven forbid, faults in the tiller. When was the last time you asked someone to draw a fiberglassed bow so you could examine where and how the limbs unfold? If the arrow speed is there, we presuppose the durability of the fiberglassed bow, and if the bow "name" is there, we even presuppose the arrow speed.

On the other hand, we concede the frailty of wooden bows while seeking better cast, so that our fiberglassed cousins won't outclass us completely. It's a symptom of long-suffering fiberglass envy nurtured by a classic case of comparing apples and oranges. Sad business, because our attempt to milk the wooden bow for speed is often the contributing factor to its mortality.

I started some time ago to write an article cataloguing the desirable qualities of a wooden hunting bow. I wanted to explore the interactions between these qualities, how they impacted the bow and, in the process, affected one another. Next, I wanted to prioritize them, and then to explain how to bend bows in the direction of a priority list that each bowyer could weight and manipulate to his personal needs. The job became tangled beyond relief, requiring so many definitions of concepts and terms that I abandoned it in favor of shooting more arrows and making more bows.

The motive for such an article was to offer perspective on the popular preoccupation with arrow speed in wooden bowbuilding. Though we might deny such a preoccupation, it appears nonetheless in such disguised forms as: the temptation to obsess about demon moisture in the air and in our bows; the misinformed facility with which we grade bows by their unstrung profile, or think of string follow as an advertisement of bowyer inadequacy; or, the eagerness to reflex staves without considering the consequences to accuracy, stability, noise, sweetness, durability and dependability. Truth is, there's no resisting these temptations for some of us, even as they lead us to inferior hunting bows. It's a rite of passage toward a more complete understanding of the bow and arrow, and nobody should warn anyone off the fun of exploring possibilities, even the ones destined for failure.

Every serious bowyer eventually arrives at a level of sophistication where he can identify the qualities he wants in a bow, see their interactions as tradeoffs, prioritize them, and make the compromises and adjustments in his work required to get him where he wants to be. Quietness, durability and dependability head the list of qualities I try to feature in my bows, and cast or arrow speed becomes the residue of getting everything else right first. I believe these three qualities would be near the top of any hunting archer's list. Other qualities, such as stability, shootability and sweetness, add dimension and value to these three, but it's sufficient to our purpose to focus on them. Let's consider each individually.

Except when compared to its fiberglassed equivalent in the American style straight-end longbow, most everyone concedes the superiority of selfbows for noiselessness. Even most poorly made selfbows, deficient in cast and accompanied by hand shock and stacking limbs, prevail in this category over recurves and reflex/deflex longbows. Not until we turn to the important considerations of durability and dependability do fiberglassed bows distinguish themselves. Or so common wisdom would have us believe.

Part of the reason is that for many of us the varnish barely dries before we're building another bow, and the bow that's "still alive" after 6 years maybe saw only one season of active shooting. We don't shoot a particular bow long enough to develop a reasonable idea of its durability. The rest of the reason is that we don't know what to do if a bow begins failing beyond making a wall ornament of it, or shooting it 'til it blows. We've locked onto the faith that fiberglassed bows rule in the departments of durability and dependability.

Fiberglass envy affects our treatment of bows and shapes our concepts of durability and dependability. I believe you can't overcome this complex and still keep company with moisture meters, hygrometers, and dehumidifiers, or thermostats in Aschams and dessicants in bow tubes. But that's a proposition for another time.

I'm restricting my comments henceforth to well-made bows, bows that show an understanding of craftsmanship, design and construction, bows with balanced limbs of orthodox design that distribute stress evenly along their length. Though not always, such bows usually come from bowyers who've been through the fire—made mistakes and profited from them. Such a wooden bow begins life meeting the requirements laid down in Hunting the Osage Bow. Whittled from a clean stave, the well-made bow has had around 500-1000 arrows through it and kept its fingerprint intact, showing no sign of deterioration or deviation anywhere from its traced measurements. It is, as defined by HOB, dry wood expertly tillered.

For further clarification, let me offer brief working definitions of terms as I use them. Durable and dependable are not interchangeable. Durable goes to a bow's ability to absorb the punishment that accrues from rugged field use. Dependable means predictable. It means that a bow braced all day should shoot pretty much to the same spot in the evening that it did in the morning. By quiet I refer to a bow's ability to cast a noiseless heavy hunting arrow. In other words, I mean a bow that does not trip a deer's lightning-quick autonomic nervous system.

I've watched an arrow from such a bow find the heart's blood of an apprehensive whitetail buck as it sneaked back away from my stand. I've fallen with such a bow, tumbled down mountainsides using it to slow my descent, and come up with more dings than the bow received. I've held such a bow after a hard week of hunting through rain and shine when it centered a spot on my quarry at the eleventh hour. These are the field definitions of quiet, durable, dependable, the reasons why these three qualities are ascendant.

So, ten years after my first statement, I'm willing to make a bolder claim. Based upon fifty years' experiences hunting with all sorts of bows and arrows, I don't believe a better close-quarter bow sooner meets the hunting archer's priority list of requirements, regardless of its construction components, than a selfbow. Make it right, and it contains no surprises.

Tom Mussatto has an unadorned, straightforward osage selfbow named "Sisyphus", built in 1997. Consider its vita carefully. Sixty inches nock to nock, and 69 pounds at 28 inches (his actual draw length), it was built from a straight-limbed stave, showing neither reflex nor deflex, and it acquired two inches of string-follow during shoot-in, so that the relaxed tips stay two inches behind the handle.

Alarms to common wisdom define this bow. It is too short for such a draw length, too heavy in weight for its limb mass, and shows too much string follow. Right? Surely, these shortcomings conspired to shorten its life.

So, how did it fare for durability and dependability? Tom writes of this bow, which he received with a year's wear on it, "I shot it every day for a few years and shoot it still 3 or 4 times a week. Being very, very conservative, 300 arrows per week from '98 through '02, and probably 100 arrows per week since then. You do the math. If I wasn't getting so old, or if the bow had dropped more weight, I would be shooting it more now than I do."

Tom's "conservative" count comes to over 100,000 arrows by my math. During an age when we seem to collect bows more than shoot them, I wonder how many of us own laminated bows that we've given as much use as this bow.

I'm not out to make stirring claims. Sisyphus is a good bow, but not my model for a wooden hunting bow. It's described here so that we will not underestimate the staying power of a wooden bow, as witnessed by one built on the edge of destruction. However, fiberglassed bows delaminate and blow apart just as certainly as wooden bows deteriorate or reveal flaws, even good ones, one no less than the other. Nevertheless, the integrity (meaning, literally, "oneness" or "indivisibility") and the simplicity of the wooden bow warrant it as probably the most trouble free of all bows. Once it's on its way, what's to go wrong? Typically, a good selfbow holds up well for several hundred thousand shots, and thereafter degrades on a slow, even, predictable spiral.

But consider the worst-case scenario. The selfbow or even the bamboo-backed bow distinguishes itself as a hunting weapon because in almost every instance a flaw, if one appears, will signal its duress with advance warning. Moreover, there is no threat to its integrity that cannot be intercepted effectively in the field if the archer heeds these advance warnings and takes the proper remedy. Ironically, then, the selfbow's most important attribute goes hand in glove with its occasional vulnerabilities. Yes, bad things sometimes happen to selfbows and bamboo backed bows, but they can be fixed in almost every instance, and fixed easily.

We carry repair kits for our arrows, don't we, to include fletching cement, hot melt, extra nocks, judos and broadheads? Why not a repair kit for our bows? The Howard Hill style back quiver with a pouch for carrying string wax and an extra linen bowstring is not what I have in mind. Modern bowstring material has rendered it obsolete. I do indeed carry a repair kit and wouldn't go into camp without it. Its contents are simple: a bottle of cyanoacrylate, a swatch of silk material and a few square inches of osage veneer. This, in league with my hunting knife, will allow about any serviceable repair to my bow that it might likely require, from a lifted sliver of wood or bamboo off the back to a pin knot cluster that's begun steadily separating, from a riser handle coming loose at the fade, to a compression fatigue anywhere along the limb's belly.

The complete bow and arrow field repair kit.

Self-bows require vigilance even though most flaws develop at a leisurely pace. Take a few inspection seconds while you tend to your broadheads at the end of each day. If you discover a problem arising with the back or the belly, the kit contains everything you need to make quick repairs in camp and keep you hunting.

Three-layer silk repair over bamboo sliver. Notice that the cyanoacrylate turned the silk opalescent, revealing the dye colors beneath. Use of pinking shears helped keep the ends from unraveling during glue-down.

Suppose a length of bamboo lifts between the nodes, or a sliver breaks loose at a pin knot. Zap some cyanoacrylate under the separation and press the repair down thirty seconds until it dries in place. Cut a section of silk material large enough to fold into three layers and still cover the break from all directions. Scrape the area smooth of glue and free of finish, lay the silk over it and dribble some cyanoacrylate onto it, then quickly place a piece of waxed paper, cellophane or plastic baggie over the silk while smoothing it down flat until it lays in place. Come back and saturate the silk. If bubbles or gaps result between the silk and the back, scrape through them with your hunting knife and reapply silk.

This is an effective and permanent patch, the only one I know that works well on bamboo. If you do it at home, you can do a very neat job of it, ironing the moisture-dampened silk folds flat to make the application easier. I've made other patches to bamboo with sinew and glue that have not held. This one works and is almost instant.

The temporary belly patch that I'd suggest to you works on the same principle as the patch process I described in "Patching Bow Limbs" (Primitive Archer, Fall 2003), and I recommend that once you return home, you use solvent to dissolve the field patch and proceed with a patch according to the directions there supplied.

If a place develops chrysalling sufficient to change the tiller of your bow, of if a belly defect begins hinging a limb during a hunt, cut a length of veneer to cover the faulty area, cover the whole of it with an overlap of silk around the limb, and, while squeezing the veneer down tight to the belly with the silk bandage, impregnate the silk over the veneer until it is saturated. Trim off any excess silk once the glue sets and you are ready for the field once more.

I suppose the most famous instance illustrating effective field repairs happened during a journey into the bush by Chet Stevenson. His wagon of goods overturned along a rough trail and snapped the ends from his yew longbows. Not to be discouraged, he refashioned his bows, cut in new nocks, retillered the limbs, and hunted with shortened bows that he grew fond of and came to prefer over his longbows. Try something like that with a fiberglassed bow.

In summary, a selfbow is quieter than this generation of high performance bows without conceding anything to durability or dependability. Indeed, the limb stresses placed upon the selfbow's city cousins by design make them undependable companions. When they blow, they often blow without warning.

We all know of such stories, and the one I reflect upon with amusement concerns a friend of mine who finished up an African hunt with a selfbow I'd given him. He'd brought it along as a curiosity, but turned to it successfully when his fiberglassed bow unexpectedly delaminated in the handle. Somewhat the optimist when it comes to the hunt, he told me he might have done even better had his range not been reduced by an unfamiliar weapon. Somewhat the cynic when it comes to people, I wonder now if he would have scored at all had his radical r/d longbow, festooned with telltale rubber string silencers, stayed intact.

So, upon what basis does the hunting archer decide the superiority of one kind of bow over another according to the criteria of the bush? If the nod doesn't go to the quietest bow (which it should, most all else being equal), then it's a personal choice between these two options: Are you comfortable with something that is not supposed to break, or do you want something you can always fix?

Which reminds me of a recent event. During a hunt in Newfoundland, my buddy Lew McClain asked if I had any cyanoacrylate. "I have a place on my bow turning white where the fiberglass is coming apart. Need some if you got it."

"Sure enough," I replied. "Wouldn't leave home without it."

"I shouldn't either. I'd still have my Rocky Mountain recurve. I saw where the tip was delaminating, but I hunted with it anyway. Danged limb blew apart. I loved that bow."

Sources of Supply

Martha Pullen Company is a complete source for quality silk. For a catalogue, write to: Martha Pullen Co., 149 Old Big Cove Rd., Brownsboro, AL 35741, or call 800/547-4176, extension 2 (for orders and information). http://www.marthapullen.com/

There are many hobby grade super glues readily available. Avoid them in favor of a quality industrial product. The best CA I have found for strength of bond and price is available from Stewart/MacDonald. You can order it in several viscosities, colors, package combinations, and with an accelerator and remover as well. Call 800/848-2273, or got to http://www.stewmac.com/shop/Glues,_adhesives.html. Another quality brand is USA Gold, available through Woodcraft Supply Company. You can order it by calling 800/225-1153, or you can go to http://www.woodcraft.com/ and type 124845 into their search box.

Osage veneers in thicknesses from .030 through to .150 for a patch kit are available from Jim Reynolds of Thunder Stick Archery, 445 North Stine Rd., Charlotte, Michigan, 48813, or call 517/543-8167.