Aiming with a Longbow

British Library – Royal 10 E IV f.59v

The other day I was shooting next to a compound archer – for those not in the know a compound bow is the one with the wheels, triggers and fancy sights. After I’d let fly a few arrows we had a little conversation that went a long the lines of…..

Mr Compound: Wow, Jester you’re such a crack shot!* How do you aim with the longbow?

Jester: I use my eyes.

Mr Compound: I know that but what do you aim with?

Jester: My hand.

*The conversation may not have opened like this but the rest is accurate.

Now I may have been a little sarcastic in my response to his question but in essence this is how I aim and when I tell the recurve and compound archers this I tend to get a raised eyebrow or a shake of the head.

This standard response got me thinking, is the longbow that different to any other bow to aim? Now I’ve only been shooting since March this year and like all knew archers I was given a recurve bow to complete the beginners course with and learn the basics. Out of two groups of beginners I was the only person to abandoned the recurve for the longbow. Now I think it’s down to how some of the basics are taught that is leading to the raised eyebrows I’m receiving now. Let me explain.

When you first pick up a bow you do a test to find out which eye is your dominant eye. After that you shoot a few arrows at a target and a sight is then fitted to your bow (the adding of a sight, I noticed, seems to be the first step in the archery arms race to add as much stuff to your bow as you can in as short a space as possible). When a sight is fitted to your bow it becomes difficult to look through a small sight at your target with both eyes open so you’re told to try closing your weaker eye to help. At the start I tried to close my weaker eye but I found that it just made me tense and when I switch to the longbow it felt more natural to aim with both eyes open.

Using both eyes is an important aspect in how we’ve evolved to judge distance and depth. The science behind it, I believe, is that we have two eyes which is known as binocular vision. Each eye is offset so views the world at slightly different angle. These images are then sent to the brain where the pictures are melded together and width, height and depth of the world around us is worked out. This now allows our brain to know how far to move our muscles in relation to what we want to interact with in the world around us. Now that’s not to say that if you close an eye you can’t judge depth or distance it just makes it a little harder for the brain to do the working out especially if you have both eyes open during every other event you do apart from archery. This won’t be an issue if you’re shooting through a sight as the sight becomes your aid to judge distance. The way I shoot however, is to do the aiming before my draw begins. Once the draw starts I try to draw back in one fluid motion, get to full draw and then release, having both eyes open seems to give me more consistent results than closing my weaker eye.

Because I don’t have a sight my bow hand now has two functions. The first, not surprisingly, is to hold the bow and the second is that my fist now becomes something that I point at what I want the arrow to hit. It’s all very neanderthal but again it works for me. This technique tends to get me in the right area of the target and the rest, I believe, is all down to instinct and muscle memory. I’ve heard golfers mention this and it’s the same with longbow archery in that you know you’ve made a good shot immediately after you’ve hit the ball or released the arrow, it just feels right.

So if you want to know how to aim with a longbow my advice, for what it’s worth, is this

  • Keep both eyes open
  • Feel the shot
  • Know you’re going to hit the target
  • Use your fist as a guide but don’t concentrate on it
  • As soon as you’re at full draw, release

Making þorn

I’ve spent the last four days – 15th – 18th October 2015 – making my own self yew longbow at þe Longbow Shop under the tutelage of, Canadian Bowyer, Jamie MacDonald of Ravenbeak Natureworks. I’ve been shooting since March this year with the club’s longbow and its lasted me the whole of the summer season but I was getting to the point where I needed my own bow. I think it’s fair to say that the desire to own a self yew bow is the dream of every archer who shoots the longbow, it’s light, it’s powerful, it’s steeped in history and a self yew bow also looks stunning. I wanted one, I need one!

Before the course was announced I’d spent a couple of weeks lusting over the yew longbows on Ravenbeak Natureworks website. The link is here, go and have a look now….. Welcome back, I told you they where stunning. After looking at Jamie’s bows for a few weeks it got to the point where I nearly broke and ordered one direct from him. The longbows direct from Jamie are around $800 Canadian dollars which equates to just over £400, this is an absolute steal. My card was in my hand but then I had a “Bilbo” moment and fate stayed my hand. I started to think of shipping costs and the duty involded in getting a bow from Canada to the UK. So for once I did the sensible thing and decided to have a cooling off period so that I could stop my heart from controlling my head.

The cooling off period lasted pretty much 24hrs as þe Longbow Shop sent me an email that sang to me like the sirens sang to Odysseus. To paraphrase the email it said “give þe Longbow Shop your money and we will provide you with access to Jamie MacDonald. Jamie will impart upon you the secrets of bow making and after four days you will have created a beautiful bow and be a lot lighter in the pocket area due to the close proximity of the shop and all it’s longbow goodies, such as arrows, medieval arrow bags and a bow bag that is covered in teddy bears”. This at least was the gist of the email as I understood it. This time I gave into the longbow sirens, I couldn’t miss the opportunity of meeting the yew bow messiah in person and receiving the gift of his knowledge.

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I won’t go into the details of everything that happened on the course but it short it involved a lot of filing. It was also a really fantastic experience as you got to learn the basic skills of bow making as you created and learnt the character of your own bow. I can honestly say that I feel a real link with my bow now that I’ve made it, I know the surface of the wood, the bumps and blemishes, it is something I’ve created and I’m really proud of it. The reason my bow turned out to be a success, and not a total failure, is down to both the skill, knowledge and character of Jamie MacDonald. Like all good teachers he was kind, approachable and very patient, he is a really great bloke and it was an absolute pleasure to spend four days in his company.

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If you’re a long-bowman then as far as I see it you have two options to get the bow of your dreams. Option one: get on one of Jamie’s courses, he runs them in Canada. Option 2: pray to the god of archery – who I believe is Robert Hardy – that Jamie comes back to the UK for another set of courses. Option three: order one of Jamie’s bows. Either way you need one, they draw and shoot so smoothly with little, if any, hand shock. They’re something very special and I’m a very lucky boy to have one.

For those interested the bow I made – named þorn (thorn for those who are unaware of the medieval symbol for th is þ and is also called thorn) – is 55# at 27“.