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April 4, 2017 > On target Ð Archery past and present

On target Ð Archery past and present

By Victor Carvellas

For a Stone Age hunter, a spear was the best choice for bringing home the bacon. Until, that is, about 10,000 years ago, when ancient ingenuity produced the bow and arrow. Modifications and improvements refined the technology over the millennia, but the bow and arrow encountered no superior until the invention of firearms in the 1400s.

As societies adopted firearms, bow use declined. Still, dedicated archers maintained the tradition. The Company of Finsbury Archers, for instance, practiced the longbow outside Londons North Wall in the 1540s. Other archery societies sprang up in late seventeenth century England as a nostalgic retelling of the nations history. The Scottish Kilwinning Archers, originally established in 1483 and reorganized in 1688, still compete by shooting down a wooden bird from the top of local Kilwinning Abbey tower. Over time, these clubs embellished their activities with great pomp and pageantry, requiring outlandish costumes, flags, and music. As might be expected, expensive shows, as became the fashion, restricted membership to the elite.

By the 1840s, the British had turned archery into a modern sport with rules, targets and competitions. In the United States, interest in archery grew after Ishi, a Yahi native, surfaced in northern California. Ishis doctor, Saxton Pope, spent three years documenting Ishis skills, including his use of the bow. Yahi Archery appeared in 1918.

In the Introduction to his volume, Pope gives a short history of the bow, noting that it was a vigorous competitor with the flintlock in warfare, and that Benjamin Franklin had seriously considered the possibility of arming the American troops with the longbow, as a cheaper and more effective weapon than the flintlock musket.

The growth of archery as a sport has been steady, but as champion archer Roger Brown of NewarkÕs Archery Only observes, Òawareness of archery has recently grown tremendously.Ó He notes that in the last few years, movies such as the ÒHunger GamesÓ series and the Marvel ÒAvengersÓ movies featuring bow-wielding Hawkeye, as well as 2017Õs ÒThe Great WallÓ have all raised the profile of archery. Redwood Bowmen club president Neal Rubin remarked, Òthe day after the ÔHunger GamesÕ movie opened, we were swamped with twelve-year-old girls wanting to learn archery.Ó

Local clubs have had a presence in the East Bay for decades and include the Diablo Bowmen (established 1954), Redwood Bowmen (1939), and the Briones Archers (1969). The major statewide organization for California is the California Bow Hunters and State Archery Association (CBH/SAA). They all host a variety of competitions, club shoots and fundraisers for various causes.

Club shoots are part sporting event and part social event. Archers trek from station to station golf-course style and take turns shooting a variety of targets. The Briones Archers, for instance, meet the second Sunday of every month, and participants typically shoot 28 targets, with lunch halfway through. The Redwood Bowmen have an annual event called the Western Roundup. According to lore, a circus train once derailed in Oakland. Scared and dangerous animals stalked the neighborhoods; the circus and law enforcement needed experienced marksmen and stalkers to Òround upÓ the animals. Among those called were the Redwood Bowmen. That event and the clubÕs contribution to public safety is remembered each year; the annual June shoot was renamed the ÒWestern Roundup.Ó

Even though modern engineering and material science have brought about highly precise, lightweight, and durable bows and arrows, the skill of the bowyer (bow maker) is still alive.

Bill Helsel is an East Bay bowyer with dozens of finely made bows to his credit. His backyard workshop houses a rack full of aging staves (blanks for bow making), some of which are ten years old or more. Aged wood has settled and is less prone to changing its characteristics when made into a bow.

Using simple, but specialized hand tools, Helsel fashions bows in a traditional style. In contrast to bows made from laminated woods, HelselÕs are a single piece, from about four to nearly six feet in length, lightweight and stronger than their thin profiles would suggest. His favorite is a bow of Oregon yew with an astonishing 45 pounds of pull at 27 inches. Many of his bows retain the remains of knots in the wood. They provide a rustic touch, reminding the user of the bowÕs organic origins, but more importantly, retaining these structures preserves the integrity of the wood and keeps the surface from delaminating under intense stress.

There are different philosophies about the proper bow for beginners. The compound bow has cams at the tips of the bow that multiply the archerÕs force and lessen the apparent pull force when the bow is fully drawn. As a result, the fully extended bow is easy to hold drawn while targeting, a plus for new archers. Nico Gallegos, of Ohlone Archery in San Leandro, on the other hand, starts all his archers on a more traditional recurve bow with interchangeable limbs that can be changed as the archerÕs strength and experience increase.

A minimum beginning kit consists of a bow, a half-dozen target arrows, a quiver (if walking courses), and a case to store it all. There are of course many accessories and customizing options. Gallegos offers good recurve bows starting at Òabout $130.Ó A compound bow can start below $200, with kidsÕ models (8 years and up) starting around $100. Ranges charge hourly fees and offer prepaid options, sometimes at a discount. Contact individual clubs for membership rules, fees, and course use.

There are a great number of archery resources in the East Bay. Get out, meet the archers, and discover the fun and satisfaction of archery.

Archery Only
37300 Cedar Blvd, Newark
(510) 795-0460

Ohlone Archery
2301 Verna Ct, San Leandro (range)

Briones Archers
Briones Regional Park, Martinez

Diablo Bowmen
Oak Hill Ln, Clayton

Redwood Bowmen
10900 Skyline Blvd, Oakland

Bill Helsel

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