The traditional longbow – how good is it really?

A traditional bow can break more easily than a commercial bow, but if it is well built and drawn only to the draw length it was made for, it should last many years.
Over the years he has been fortunate to successfully hunt a good many animals with longbows, says the author. Shooting them, and hunting with them, on foot, the hard, very hard way.
Johannes Schabort reflects on the merits of the traditional bow vs the compound bow, and concludes that one should approach the matter with an outlook of “to each his own”.

Nowadays all non-compound bows, either longbows or recurves, are called “traditional”. This broad description has probably come to stay. However, it is something of a misnomer. A traditional bow really is a longbow or recurve bow made from natural materials only – wood, bamboo, cane, palm branches, horn, and so on, or of a combination of such materials. No laminations or synthetic materials like fibreglass or graphite. The glue, if any is used, as well as the string may be of synthetic materials, since it is a lot more difficult and time-consuming to make it from natural materials. Such a bow may or may not be backed with some kind of natural material like wood, bamboo, rawhide, etc. as a protection against breakage, and it has no sight. Call it a selfbow, if you like.

How fast?
Such a bow is slow, compared to compound bows and modern recurves. Slow, compared even to modern hybrid reflex-deflex longbows. A straight-end longbow is in fact the type of bow that casts the same weight of arrow at the slowest speed, compared to other types of bows of the same draw weight. This is primarily because of the technology built into the compound bow: the stronger synthetic materials it is made of, and the much lighter, stiffer, and thinner-diameter arrows that are mostly used nowadays. All these factors make for a much faster bow. Even a good, modern longbow, made of laminations with a glass or carbon backing and belly, can never be quite as fast as a compound bow or even a good recurve of the same weight, with the same weight of arrow. A traditional bow will most probably be even quite a bit slower still, due to the wood becoming compressed and the bow developing some permanent set or “string follow”.
Whereas arrow speeds of 300 fps and more from compounds are often heard of and bragged about, a good traditional longbow will cast a ten-grain-per-pound-of-bow arrow (the old standard) at about 150 fps – no more.

What does this mean in practical terms? A slower arrow means a shorter range, a higher trajectory, and a greater chance of missing the target, even with a steady “aim” and clean release of the string. The lack of a sight makes it even more difficult to hit consistently. When hunting, it becomes yet more difficult to hit consistently. When hunting, it is easy to miss not only the kill zone, but the entire animal, because of several factors: distance is unknown, a tension builds up in the archer himself with a consequent lack of concentration, a sloppy, plucking release, the target suddenly moving, and so on. The farther away your target is, the more things can go wrong. Wind can blow away your arrow, or the animal can hear it coming and jump away.

However, bowhunting is essentially a close-range activity – very, very close, compared to rifle hunting. Forty yards is a long shot, no matter what kind of bow you use or how fast it is. At practical, responsible ranges (and those are shorter than we would like to believe) the difference in the flight time of the arrow and the consequent reaction time the animal needs to avoid it, is not all that much. Perhaps the greatest challenge for traditional longbow hunters (at least for me) is to refrain from taking shots with which they are not absolutely comfortable.

How accurate is such a bow? The other day I read somewhere that “longbows are not very accurate”. This perception is probably widespread, but the true answer is: it is inherently as accurate as any bow. If you would clamp a longbow in a device and pull the string exactly to the same distance by means of some kind of machine, and release the string cleanly, the arrow would probably hit more or less in the same spot every time. In practice however, the answer is: it is as accurate as you can shoot it. The presumed “inaccuracy” of the traditional longbow sometimes has to do with the wrong spine and weight of the arrows often used, but almost entirely with the human factor. Even a good longbow archer can probably never shoot the same scores as an archer using a bow with a sight.
But do not despair! There is a way out – and it is not to rather get or stay with a compound bow. This “long way to freedom” is not easy, but you can and will get there if you are dedicated and prepared to practise methodically, and practise a lot.

But how effective is such a bow? From time to time I hear some bowhunters referring to longbows, especially traditional longbows, as daardie kwesstokke (“those wounding sticks”). Sometimes a compound archer orders a traditional longbow “just to play around with”. They mostly order one of 50 to 55 pounds. To play with… Obviously they regard such a bow as not a suitable weapon for hunting, presumably because it lacks the killing power and effectiveness for anything bigger than birds or rabbits.

Longbows and recurve bows, all “traditional” of course, have been used for a few thousand years to provide food for families. The old-timers who started hunting big game with bow and arrow in the first decades of the previous century (long after the introduction of black powder) successfully hunted almost everything that walks the Americas, using real traditional bows in the 50 to 55-pounds class. It is always a good policy to hunt with the heaviest bow you can shoot accurately, because you do not know what kind of shot you may get. Nevertheless, you do not need a very heavy bow (say 70 to 80 pounds) to hunt and kill game animals responsibly and quickly – within limits, of course. A well-tuned arrow with a strong, sharp, well-designed broadhead exerts all or most of its energy literally on a knife point. Penetration in game is remarkable and usually quite sufficient even from relatively light bows. The late, great Howard Hill was convinced that a fifty-pound longbow with 450-grain arrows would be sufficient not only for white-tail deer, but for elk and moose also. How much penetration on the rib cage behind the shoulder of say an impala do you need to hit and destroy the vital organs, like the lungs or heart, in any case? Do it, and you have the bacon.

How durable is such a bow? A good question. A broken bow means a broken heart. I think it is only realistic to accept that a traditional bow can break more easily than a commercial bow, which is reinforced with synthetic materials. But if it is well built and drawn only to the draw length it was made for, it should last many years. I have in my possession a few bows I built about eight years ago. I shoot them regularly, and they are still as good as new, and fast.

Why go traditional? You may very well ask this question. If a modern bow shoots much faster, it is a lot easier to shoot accurately, and the chances of wounding are thereby reduced. However impolite it is, I would like to answer this question with a question: why do we hunt at all, whether with bow or rifle, if we can buy beautiful meat at the butcher shop around the corner at much, much lower cost? It is because we modern men want to experience something which primitive people knew as part of daily living. We have (almost) lost it, but the hunter-gatherer instinct is still there, deep down. Why do we hunt with bows, when hunting with a rifle, scope-equipped or with open sights, is so much easier and will kill a lot quicker? Also forget this nonsense of “less meat damage”. If that is your concern, get yourself a flat-shooting rifle with a good scope and use it only for head and high neck shots. From a bipod or tripod stand, to make sure. From an ambush position, if you cannot get close enough on foot. It is because we want to do it “the hard way” (Howard Hill) for a bigger challenge. If you are intrigued with modern technology, but still want to hunt the hard way (nothing is easy in bowhunting), go for the fastest compound bow with the best sights you can afford. But why is it that so many compound enthusiasts often remark: “I still want to try it one day…”, and many hunters have in fact made this big switch? If bowhunting is because of a greater challenge, why not go full circle?

The answer is: to each his own. Although I have not owned a compound bow for many years, I never cease to be impressed with its performance. It’s just that I have become fascinated with real (oops… traditional) bows, especially traditional longbows. Shooting them, and hunting with them, on foot, the hard, very hard way. Over the years I have been fortunate to successfully hunt a good many animals with longbows. If I do not succeed in getting close enough to get a shot, or I miss, and come home empty-handed (almost) every time, so be it. I am happy with it. To each his own.

Updated: Monday, March 15, 2010 1:44 PM