By Daniel Allred
Archery is seeing a revitalization in pop culture, but considering humanity’s entire timeline, it’s easy to see that it never really went out of style. Let’s take brief look back to see how bowhunting evolved from humble beginnings to its current place in modern America.
Archeologists think that humans started bowhunting between 10,000 and 9,000 BCE. That’s at least 6,000 years before we even acquired written language. Some archeologists even suggest that arrows were made as far back as 70,000 years ago, but it’s unclear if these were thrown like small spears or fired from a bow.
Unfortunately, it seems we will probably never know exactly when bows were invented because how quickly wood deteriorates, but we do know that they were a trusty weapon for our ancestors for a very long time.
Perhaps we still have a fascination with archery and hunting because it rekindles that ancient feeling of being one with nature. It wasn’t even long ago when an unsuccessful hunt could have been the difference between life and death. Today, it reminds us where we came from. It exhilarates us and calms us all at once.
Evidence suggests that bows and arrows were created on every continent but Australia and Antarctica. Certain cultures valued archery more than others, but it was still highly developed around the globe for both hunting and warfare.
Bowhunting is ingrained in a lot of cultural influences as well. For example, the bible mentions archery multiple times. One passage in particular is rather bold and direct. In Genesis 27:3 it says, “Now then, take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field and hunt game for me.” Another prime example is the significance of Odysseus’ bow in the Odyssey.
Archery has been integral to humans across the globe, but it’s also interesting to note that other aspects of modern bowhunting also have deep roots. Conservation, for example, has been hand in hand with hunting a lot longer than most would assume. Understanding the relationship between reproductive-age adults and healthy game populations, Genghis Khan outlawed hunting during the breeding season in the 1300s.
Archery also did a lot to shape history because of its effective application in warfare. The English longbow was in many ways the key tool to medieval England’s victory over France in the 100 Years’ War.
The battle of Crécy in 1346 was a perfect example of how longbows, in conjunction with superior tactics and positioning, could help a smaller army lay waste to a much larger one.
At the time, most battles between large European forces were decided by cavalry as well as heavily armored and well-trained knights. France outnumbered England in cavalry, knights, spearmen and crossbow-wielding archers. The English had an estimated 7000 longbowmen on a fortified uphill position. The massive longbow force caused utter chaos as the French charged up the hill. They outgunned the superior number of French crossbowmen, at a time when crossbows were considered the best ranged weapon for warfare. And although the English arrows didn’t consistently puncture the French knight’s heavy plate mail, it killed their lightly armored horses, causing chaos in the ranks.
By the end of the 1300s guns were beginning to surface in Europe. It didn’t take long for them to become the weapon of choice over bows. They had a longer range, more kinetic energy, and it was easier to train a soldier to use a gun effectively. England, however, still valued archery. While nations were beginning to modernize their armies with guns and cannons, the king of England, Edward III, still encouraged his people to hold archery close to their heart. At one point he even banned other sports, effectively forcing his people to continue practicing.
Archery held a revered place in English society, and we can see evidence of that in the way archers were often the heroes in English literature, with Robin Hood being the most notable example.
As centuries passed and technology continued to advance, archery remained a cultural pastime of England. Eventually it lost all practical use for military purposes, but it was taken up by rich aristocrats as a fashionable sporting event in the late 1700s. This was essentially the birth of modern competition archery. The nobility gathered for lavish archery tournaments, using them as a venue to meet as well as impress the other local elite. Women were also invited to compete, turning the lavish archery clubs into great forums for romance and flirtation.
These archery tournaments for the rich became more and more popular in England, but it is interesting to consider how the English planted the seed of archery in the United States. The English settlers in the 13 colonies had the cultural memory of archery and then witnessed Native Americans that were still actively using bows and arrows for hunting and warfare.
Naturally, this meant that the United States began with an innate interest in archery, and this interest was first manifested in the form of The United Bowmen of Philadelphia in 1828. Still heavily influenced by England’s archery tournaments, The United Bowmen of Philadelphia were still using archery as a competition in the form of target shooting. Each archer was given six arrows and shot at a 5-color target from 80 yards away. They used the Imperial scoring system of 9 points for a bullseye followed by 7, 5, 3 and 1 for the outer circles.
While many European immigrants in America were celebrating archery, the opposite seemed to occur in Native American populations. Enamored by guns, many Native American tribes began to take up rifles for hunting and warfare just as Europeans did.
But in such a massive country, certain small, remote tribes remained isolated from Europeans much longer than others. Such was the case with the Yahi tribe in California, who remained undiscovered until the late 1800s. After a series of violent clashes with European settlers the remaining few members of the Yahi retreated into the remote wilderness where they remained until their last surviving member, known as Ishi, emerged from the woods in 1911. Having spent his entire life hiding deep in the Sierra Mountains, Ishi was completely uninfluenced by European culture and still practiced the bowhunting techniques that had been passed down to him by generations of his ancestors. His doctor, Saxton Pope, took a great interest in Ishi and his traditional hunting techniques and the two became great friends.
Pope and Ishi’s friendship bridged the gap between Europe and America’s love for archery and began what we know now as modern bowhunting. In Pope’s book, Hunting with the Bow & Arrow, he describes his relationship with Ishi and all of the fascinating knowledge that was imparted to him from the last member of a lost tribe.
It’s actually quite surprising how many essential bowhunting tactics were imparted to us through Ishi, and perhaps we have even more to learn from his techniques. Here are some interesting excerpts from Hunting with the Bow & Arrow:
- Scent control: “(Ishi) would eat no fish the day before the hunt, and smoke no tobacco, for these odors are detected a great way off. He rose early, bathed in the creek, rubbed himself with the aromatic leaves of yerba buena, washed out his mouth, drank water, but ate no food.”
- Calls: “He made great use of the game call. We all know of duck and turkey calls, but when he told me that he lured rabbits, tree squirrels, wildcats, coyote, and bear to him, I thought he was romancing. Going along the trail, he would stop and say, “Ineja teway–bjum–metchi bi wi,” or “This is good rabbit ground.” Then crouching behind a suitable bush as a blind, he would place the fingers of his right hand against his lips and, going through the act of kissing, he produced a plaintive squeak similar to that given by a rabbit caught by a hawk or in mortal distress. This he repeated with heartrending appeals until suddenly one or two or sometimes three rabbits appeared in the opening. They came from distances of a hundred yards or more, hopped forward, stopped and listened, hopped again, listened, and ultimately came within ten or fifteen yards while Ishi dragged out his squeak in a most pathetic manner. Then he would shoot.”
- Decoys: “He also enticed deer by means of a stuffed buck’s head which he wore as a cap, and bobbing up and down behind bushes excited their curiosity until they approached within bow-shot.”
- Ground Blinds: “When a number of people hunted together, Ishi would hide behind a blind at the side of a deer trail and let the others run the deer past. In his country we saw old piles of rock covered with lichen and moss that were less than twenty yards from well-marked deer trails. For numberless years Indians had used these as blinds to secure camp meat.”
- Silencers: “The sound of a bowstring is that of a sharp twang accompanied by a muffled crack. To avoid this and make a silent shot, the Indian bound his bow at the nocks with weasel fur; this effectually damped the vibration of the string, while the passage of the arrow across the bow, which gives the slight crack, is abolished by a heavy padding of buckskin at this point.”
- Scouting and wind direction: “He studied the country for its formation of hills, ridges, valleys, canyons, brush and timber. He observed the direction of the prevailing winds, the position of the sun at daybreak and evening. He noted the water holes, game trails, “buck look-outs,” deer beds, the nature of the feeding grounds, the stage of the moon, the presence of salt licks, and many other features of importance. If possible, he located the hiding-place of the old bucks in daytime, all of which every careful hunter does. Next, he observed the habits of game, and the presence or absence of predatory beasts that kill deer.”
Sounds like some familiar concepts, huh? Almost everything we know about modern bowhunting was perfected centuries ago; the only thing that’s really changed is technology. Most Europeans lost touch with the subtle techniques of bowhunting, but after learning from his companion Ishi, Saxon Pope and his friend Arthur Young went on to popularize this ancient knowledge, adding another event to the long list of events that have made bowhunting what we know today. Their legendary exploits went on to directly inspire another pioneer in the archery world, Fred Bear.
Fred Bear tried hunting with a rifle, but never found it very enticing. To put it in his own words, Fred Bear said this in a 1985 interview:
“I grew up a gun hunter, my dad was a hunter, shot a deer in 1933 up in the Upper Peninsula that dressed 285 pounds, the biggest deer I ever saw. And it was so easy. That opening morning I walked up the draw and there he was looking at me and I was looking at him and I shot him and went down and that’s when the work began. So, I thought (bowhunting) would be a little bit better.”
Fred Bear’s fascination with archery began in 1927 when he saw Arthur Young’s film “Alaskan Adventure”. Later that year he even had the chance to meet Arthur Young, and this fueled his interest in bowhunting even further. Soon after, he began making his own bows and pursuing game with them in the wilderness.
Fred Bear was an advertiser by trade and worked in the automotive industry in Michigan. First he was hit hard by the Great Depression that began in 1929. Then the plant he worked for caught fire. Archery remained his passion and he continued to make bows in his spare time as he eked his way through the hard times with his advertising expertise. The bows he made went to a group of friends that greatly admired his craftsmanship, and as the years passed, that following grew.
In 1939 Bear combined his passion for archery with his incredible business sense and Bear Archery was born. Fred Bear not only implemented new technology and resources to make cutting-edge bows, but also zealously promoted the sport of archery. He figured out an excellent way to get exposure through bowhunting skill. He describes this in an interview he gave in 1982, saying, ““I had to not only make a product, but create a market for it. So, I got into the promotional business and I soon found that the newspapers weren’t interested in the scores of the tournaments, but if you could run down there with a deer or a bear you shot with a bow, you might make the front page.”
As the years passed Fred Bear continued to pioneer the archery industry and revolutionize the way bows were made. Other pioneers like Doug Easton also helped create the industry’s foundation. Without them we certainly wouldn’t have the innovations that we enjoy today, nor the wide base of avid bowhunters. But let us not forget all of the other factors that ultimately led to the events of the last century. Bowhunting shall always invoke the majesty of the past within us, and we are fortunate that it wasn’t lost to us in the aging tomes of history. Archery is truly an amazing thing, and I think that Saxon Pope summarized it perfectly when he said this:
“Here we have a weapon of beauty and romance. He who shoots with a bow, puts his life’s energy into it. The force behind the flying shaft must be placed there by the archer. At the moment of greatest strain he must draw every sinew to the utmost; his hand must be steady; his nerves under absolute control; his eye keen and clear. In the hunt he pits his well-trained skill against the instinctive cunning of his quarry. By the most adroit cleverness, he must approach within striking distance, and when he speeds his low whispering shaft and strikes his game, he has won by the strength of arm and nerve. It is a noble sport.”
To read Saxon Pope’s entire Hunting with the Bow and Arrow for free, click here.