You’ve decided to take the plunge and get your first bow. Well done! But what do you need to buy?
If you’re buying a traditional style bow, this is an easy question. Traditional bows are basically sticks with a piece of string attached, so really that’s where most of your money will go; anything left over will go on arrows and a bag and maybe some peripherals such as a quiver, finger tab (or glove), and an arm bracer.
For a modern recurve, the answer is more involved. Modern recurves are modular, so there are choices to make around each part of the bow. Some of this is based on your physique and skill (how big should the bow be? How powerful?), but much of it will be around personal preference and what type of shooting you enjoy.
When you feel that the time has come to buy your own bow, you have a decision to make that goes beyond your income and the distance to the nearest archery shop: traditional or modern?
2020 Archery teaches using a modern style – recurve training bows – and you can stick with the club bows (with no charge!) for as long as you need. But you’ll have seen club members using the full gamut of styles: longbows, flatbows (AKA the “American longbow”), horsebows, Olympic recurves, and the occasional compound bow. Broadly speaking, the former three cover the most popular styles of traditional archery, and the latter two are considered modern.
So what unseen force pushes the novice archer to follow one path over the other?
There was an economic aspect to my decision to go traditional: my first bow, a Buck Trail flatbow, cost around £130. That figure aligned far better with my bank balance than the £200-plus that a recurve could have set me back, even before all the accessories used with freestyle – long rod, V-bars, sights and what have you – were factored in. But even if I’d been feeling more flush, I think I’d still have gone trad. That’s partly because shooting a stick-and-string makes me feel closer to the historical archers I like to learn about, and partly down to a (somewhat masochistic) desire to find out just how far I can go with the uncompensated mechanics of my own body.
I don’t think traditional is in any way superior: it’s a very personal preference. But I was interested in what makes people, as a general rule, choose one school over the other. I was also curious as to how far people grow into their preferred style – how important is your shooting choice to your identity as an archer? Are you an archer who happens to prefer traditional, or are you firmly a Traditional Archer?
“I don’t differentiate between the two”, said Erin. “I’m currently shooting a recurve, but I definitely plan to buy a traditional bow in future.” Erin sees the positives of both: “With my modern bow I’m at the point where I’m confident my arrows will hit the target where I want them to, which is obviously a nice feeling. But I like the idea of trying out a bow that doesn’t have the sights and other accessories, to develop my style.”
Kat shoots a longbow, a style of archery that she’s been drawn to since a child. Her bow is made in the Victorian style – something I’d previously been unaware of, but Kat described a photograph, currently hanging in her hallway, of Victorian ladies shooting similar bows at Crystal Place. Whilst feeling a deep connection to the longbow, Kat has a good practical reason for her choice. “I’m dyspraxic, and the relative simplicity of the longbow suits me for that reason.”
I have oversimplified by defining the choice as simply Traditional versus Modern, of course. There is, at least some kind of, meeting point between the two in the form of recurve barebow and traditional barebow. The former is a good option for those who prefer to shoot a modern recurve, but without sights, stabilisers or draw check indicators. It’s not unusual to see a club member who usually shoots freestyle remove their sights and stabilisers, just to mix things up a bit. On such occasions, their fellow archers may be treated to said archer’s musings on how their “release feels different when I shoot it bare”, which certainly livens up the session. Recurve barebow is recognised by Archery GB in their national rankings, alongside freestyle recurve, compound and longbow.
Recurve traditional is similar to recurve barebow, but requires the use of wooden arrows, alongside a couple of other stipulations.
We also have a few compound shooters in our club. These bows are fast, accurate and comparatively easier to hold at full draw (although, remember that you DO have to pull it through the peak draw weight so you need to be able to control the full weight of the bow). Like recurves, compounds can be shot with or without stabilisers and sights. You can read Archery GB’s detailed explanation of the various bow styles in the Rules of Shooting.
So is tribalism in archery a big thing? Not in our club, it seems. Even those firmly attached to their preferred style have chosen it for personal or practical, not ideological, reasons, and everybody I spoke to expressed an interest in learning about the choices of others. Archers, it seems, are curious folk. In a good way.
But since this is my blog post and I’m a traditionalist, I’m going to end with YouTube archer NUSensei’s fine demonstration of the difference between freestyle and traditional shooting. The defence rests (on the arrow shelf).
Your hands are one of the most important elements in archery. They are the crucial connection between archer and bow. Correct hand positioning can be the difference between hitting the golden ten… or the neighbouring target. Your hands and fingers as an archer are arguably your most important asset (and indeed in life!). It is therefore essential that one wears protection to prevent any blisters, numbness and nerve damage, whilst also aiding your string release and performance as far as possible. Therefore every archer, whether Olympic gold medallist or novice, will need to work out some finger protection. But how do you choose from the multitude of styles available?
One of the deciding factors which will help with this decision, is determining the style of archery you wish to pursue. When shooting a traditional style bow, gloves are inherently more advantageous. They provide superb protection through reinforced fingertips (particularly helpful for bows with a heavy draw weight) and as gloves tend to be made out of thick leather, they therefore provide product longevity. For practicality purposes, gloves give the archer the ability to be “hands-free” to do other things, such as, retrieve arrows (or rearrange their Robin Hood hats). Many traditional archers not only feel that it synchronizes with their style of going “old school”, but that there is a more intuitive, natural release when shooting with a glove.
That said, the most common finger protection among archers is the finger tab. Modern Olympic-style shooters will find the tab the most universal piece of equipment. A basic finger tab is simply a piece of leather with a retaining loop or holes to keep the tab in position. More upgraded versions might have a platform, plate and/or a spacer. Although from the perspective of protecting your fingers tabs may be thinner than gloves, this does give the archer more sensitivity allowing them to innately fine tune and reflect on their release. Importantly, tabs provide a smoother release by having a lower friction surface, ensuring the least interference with your arrows. Many tab designs, such as the shelf tab, will further ensure this by stopping the archer from pinching the arrow (which is what makes for that frustrating arrow swing whilst drawing back). Many archers also find that their shooting becomes more accurate when using a shelf tab as it allows them to anchor the string better with their fingers.
All in all, gloves and fingers tabs basically do the same thing, with subtle differences. Gloves and tab products have a range of price points, they aren’t an expensive investment and they are usually one of the first pieces of equipment a beginner archer will buy. Although the style of archery tends to inform the style of finger protection, there is no reason why an archer cannot shoot a traditional bow with a tab or an Olympic-style recurve with a glove. Archery is very personal and therefore it is important that you ask yourself, which elements resonate with you. Consider the following criteria when choosing: protection, sensitivity, smoothness of release and practicality.
And finally as with everything else in archery we tend to teach what works best for the majority of people. There’s a reason that no-one has ever won an Olympic gold medal shooting a freestyle recurve with a lovely tooled leather glove. Conversely if you shoot a hunting style American flatbow you’re going to pick up somewhat strange looks if you’re rocking a Cavalier Elite Cordovan top of the range shelf tab while trying to master your instinctive ‘at one with the arrow’ shooting style.