Our Archery Heritage

Ben Brown

By Ben Brown

Although almost every country and culture has used the bow and arrow, our heritage traces directly back to England.

After their defeat at the Battle of Hastings (1066) by the Normans under William the Conqueror, the English (Saxons) were prohibited from possessing weapons—except the bow and arrow. In the following centuries the English (the merged Saxons and Normans) became a nation of archers. In the Hundred Year War against France, the English longbowmen made England a military power. At Crecy (1346) and Agincourt (1415) the English archers, against overwhelming odds, defeated the best of the French knights.  It is reported by one reliable source that King Henry V had about 6,000 men at Agincourt (primarily archers) against 60,000 French and their allies. The English had been told that the French would cut off the string fingers of any captured archers. And you think you get nervous before a match? In Shakespeare as play King Henry V he has Henry deliver one of the most famous speeches in the English language:

“From this day to the ending of the world, but we in it shall be remembered; We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.” Up to that time the mounted noble was the supreme warrior in western Europe. It must have been hard for the nobility to accept the fact that the most powerful knight could be brought down by the lowest freeman with his bow and clothyard shaft.

Archery was already on the wane in England when Roger Ascham wrote the first great book in English on archery — Toxophilus (1545). When you read this book, you realize that the fundamentals are unchanged. If you think you have discovered a new way of shooting incorrectly, you soon discover that Ascham saw it all 450 years ago.

Although the longbow was vastly superior to the crossbow and early firearms in the hands of an experienced archer, it required dedication and practice from an early age. It required years to produce a longbowman and only months to train a man to handle a crossbow or firearm. Archery gradually lost its importance as a military weapon and became strictly a target sport of the gentry. This era produced an archer in England who was without doubt one of the greatest archers in history. Horace Ford pushed the records so high that most were not broken until well into this century. His single York record stood until 1943! Mr. Ford’s book, Archery, its Theory and Practice (1856) became the archery “Bible”.

The United Bowmen of Philadelphia was formed as a club in 1828, but there was generally little interest in archery in this country until after the civil war. As Confederate veterans, the brothers Maurice and Will Thompson were prohibited from owning firearms and naturally turned to their early love of archery. In the following years they became accomplished archers and described their hunting trips throughout the south (primarily in areas familiar to us — St. Johns River, Lake Okeechobee, and the Everglades) in a number of magazine articles and in the book, The Witchery of Archery, written by Maurice. The opening lines in that book are familiar to all archers — or should be. “As long as the new moon returns in heaven a bent bow, so long shall the fascination of archery keep hold of the hearts of men”.

The book and articles generated a huge interest in archery and clubs sprang up all over the country. In 1879 the NAA (National Archery Association) was formed with Maurice Thompson as its first president. At the first national championship that same year, his brother Will became our first national champion.

America in the late 1800s was sports mad. Archery benefited from this craze at first but then came the bicycle, tennis, baseball, football, basketball, and volleyball. Archery slid into a period of dormancy until an event occurred that was so unlikely, and so fortunate, that it almost defies belief.

In 1911 a lone Indian walked into a northern California logging camp. He was the sole surviving member of a tribe, the Yana, which was believed to be extinct. Ishi was the last true stone age man in America. He was taken to the University of California where the great anthropologist Hans Kroeber befriended and studied him. At this time a surgeon on the University staff, Saxton Pope, became his friend and doctor (this is all starting to come together, right?). Ishi was an excellent archery hunter and sparked the interest in archery for Saxton Pope. At the University Museum of Natural History, the finest collection of bows in the country was made available to Dr. Pope for study and evaluation. After testing bows from all over the world Dr. Pope said that “the English yew longbow is the highest type of artillery in the world.” Dr. Pope was soon joined by Will Compton (already and accomplished archer) and his friend, Arthur Young. These three archers hunted with and learned from Ishi until his death from tuberculosis in 1916. These archers hunted and killed all manner of big game on this continent (and later in Africa) and their adventures were documented by Saxton Pope in magazine articles and in the book, Hunting with the Bow and Arrow (1923). This book sparked the interest in bow hunting for big game. Joe St. Charles calls it, ”The cornerstone of bowhunting literature.”

During this revival of archery several scientists examined the mechanics of the bow and arrows using high speed photography, a mechanical shooting device, and mathematical equations. In a series of articles, (and a book, Archery, by Dr. Robert Elmer), Dr. Clarence Hickman, Dr. Paul Klopsteg, and Dr. Forrest Nagler examined the bending of the arrow on release (archers’ paradox); effect of the center of gravity on the arrow; accuracy potential of the bow and arrow; etc. Perhaps their most important finding was that the shape of the English longbow was completely wrong. The deep D shaped limb (in cross section) stressed the belly so much in compression that a very long bow was required in order to avoid compression fracture. The flatter, wider, and slightly shorter bow, (now called the American Semi-longbow) which resulted from this research is remains the traditional longbow of today.

The greatest hunting and exhibition archer of all time arrived on the scene at this time. Howard Hill was featured in a number of shorts that were seen by millions of moviegoers in the 1930s and 1940s. His stage exhibitions have never been equaled. During one exhibition he hit eleven thrown dimes, in a row! His books, Hunting the Hard Way (1953), and Wild Adventure (1954) were best sellers, and his full-length movie Tembo stirred the imagination of additional millions.

The NFAA (National Field Archery Association) was formed in 1939 by a group of archers who wanted to duplicate “roving” but in a manner that would allow true competition and comparison of scores. The timing of this beginning was not very good, and the first National was not held until after World War II. At the first National (1946) there were 476 archers. Field archery went through several changes in the early years. The standard 14 target layout was standard from the beginning, but the distances were unmarked at first. The first field archers were instinctive or barebow and the first Free Style class was not held at the Nationals until 1950. The scores of the Free Style champions, both men and women, were actually lower than those of the Instinctive champions that year, but in following years the Free Style scores improved rapidly. One of the great feats of archery occurred in 1957, when Jay Peake won the Instinctive class with a higher score than all Free Style shooters. Field archery exploded in numbers during the following years. At one time it was expected that the 1960 National Championship would be the last open Nationals. The numbers were approaching 2,000 and few clubs could host one.

By the late 1950’s archery was considered the fastest growing sport in the world. The technological and manufacturing innovations, by such men as Doug Easton, Fred Bear, and Earl Hoyt, made high quality equipment available to everyone. At one time commercial indoor ranges were opening all over the country. Just as target archery reached this peak a decline started, just as it had at the turn of the century. Major league sports were spreading into all major population centers and television now made it possible to follow the teams like never before. At the same time archery was in competition with a revival of other sports, (bicycling, tennis, backpacking, running, etc.)

The relative lack of interest in archery worldwide had caused archery to be dropped from the Olympic Games in 1920. FITA was organized as the international governing body of target archery in 1931, and world championships started that year. A number of different rounds were used in the early championships. What we now know as the FITA Round was not used in the championship until 1957, the same year that bow sights were allowed. As we have already noted the Americans were already using bow sights and were at an initial advantage.

Many changes started in the 1960’s: professional archery; the use of the clicker; three fingers under; string walking; the stabilizer; and shortly thereafter the big daddy of changes — the compound bow, followed by the near death of traditional archery and its huge rebirth in the mid-1980’s. This history from about 1960 on deserves an article of its own and by someone better qualified than me. I started in archery as the instructor at a YMCA camp in 1954 but was one of those who dropped out in the mid-1960’s to 1970 era and came back with the rebirth of traditional archery in the mid-1980’s.

Writing this article has made me realize how much we owe to the pioneers of our sport and to our national organizations. The NAA is the second oldest national sports governing body in the United States. There have been many ups and downs in target archery in this country, but the NAA has “kept the faith”. I truly believe that target archery will grow again—it is simply too beautiful a sport not to. And for those of us who like to shoot a lot of arrows at different distances it just doesn’t get any better than NFAA field archery. The NFAA has something for everyone: Field; Hunting; 3-D; Indoor. Of course, when you join either or both of these great organizations, through the Florida Archery Association, you receive their magazine (Archery Focus with NAA membership and Archery with NFAA membership) along with the state magazine, The Release, which lists all of the shoots in the state. 

Next to membership in our Lee County Archers club, it is the best value in sports.