The Beginner’s Guide to Traditional Archery

The Beginner’s Guide to Traditional Archery

Why shoot traditional?
Why would you choose a simple stick bow over today’s shiny, technologically advanced compound monsters? While it is true that modern advances have made archery more beginner friendly, the traditional longbow remains potent, lighting fast, and great fun.

Modern advances have reduced the need for archers to have perfect form and complete control over their body. This translates to a sport which is more accessible and immediately fulfilling compared to the time-honed training of the past. Nonetheless, the foundations of good archery remain unchanged regardless of the make and model that you hold in your hands. Possessing the skill to shoot well with traditional bows directly translates to the ability to shoot well with modern bows. The opposite is not true; those who have relied entirely on modern gadgets to shoot often have to start fresh when using a traditional bow.

The simple longbow was the foundation of entire empires. That being said, shooting a traditional bow generates a strong sense of nostalgia for those with an interest in history. Furthermore, the traditional bow does not suffer from the “next best thing” syndrome. You do not have to spend money on new accessories to improve, making traditional shooting an economical decision. Finally, you get bragging rights. Traditional shooting is regarded as more difficult than modern archery and can garner respect from others on the line. This is especially true if you are out-shooting modern equipment with your simple stick bow. Also, traditional bows are uncommon at most ranges and will likely get you several looks from curious archers.

If you follow the recommendations in this guide you can expect several outcomes from shooting traditional archery. First, you can expect a noticeable learning curve, even if you have shot modern equipment in the past. You will have to train your body to repeat the same motions repeatedly and you will need to get used to aiming your shots with the tip of your arrow. Next, you can expect sore fingers, even with finger protection, if you need to build up your calluses. You can expect to shoot faster than most modern archers; traditional longbows can loose as many as fifteen accurate arrows in a minute if you have honed your skills. Finally, you can expect a great sense of accomplishment as your arrows begin to move closer and closer to that bull’s eye and you know that you did not rely on any superfluous technology.

What you will need
Bow (required)
The most basic traditional bow is the longbow, also known as the stick bow. It does not have a pronounced viewing window or arrow rest protruding off of the body and is usually good for both right- and left-eye dominant shooters. These bows are typically taller than other types to increase their maximum power. You can also get a recurve bow which uses a more complicated limb design to increase release velocity without making the bow larger.

Large bow manufacturers often make recurve bows out of modern materials and these are perfectly fine to get started. You do not need to buy a hand-crafted wood bow if you do not want to. While pretty, wood does require substantially more care than composite carbon and other modern implements. If possible, ask to try the bows of some people or organizations you know to see if you prefer one style over the other. You do not need to spend a fortune on a bow when you first start out. It will be a long time before your form is good enough that your equipment becomes the limiting factor of your accuracy.

There are other, more specialized types of bows, like the Japanese longbow which requires a unique draw style and the traditional Turkish bow which uses a special thumb release. These are not covered in the scope of this article, but if they interest you please do pursue them. There are many resources available online.

Arrows (required)
Arrows are the projectile used by the bow. When you purchase the bow you can speak with the sale’s staff or the supplier about good arrow choices. You will need to discuss your draw length (determines arrow length), the poundage of your bow (determines arrow grain), shooting distances you are likely to encounter (determines vein length and tip weight), and what you intend to shoot (determines tip type: target or broad-head). As for material, the most common arrows are carbon fiber, aluminum, and wood. Traditional shooters prefer wood arrows as a generality. Note that arrows break. It is okay. Just make sure you check them before shooting them.

Finger tabs or gloves (highly, highly recommended)
Finger tabs/gloves protect your fingers from the whipping bowstring. Make sure they fit comfortably so that you can wear them for long periods and so excess materials are not interfering with your release. Bulky finger tabs can severely affect accuracy if excess material catches when the arrow is released.

Arm protection (recommended)
Many archers were a protective layer of leather or artificial materials on the inside of their bow arm to prevent the string from biting them when they release an arrow. If you use an arm guard, make sure it fits snugly and that there is not a gap between the guard and the skin near the inside of the elbow where the bow-string can get caught during a release. Proper form will minimize or remove any risk of hitting your forearm during a shoot.

Quiver/arrow stand (useful)
A dedicated place to store your arrows keeps them out of the dirt and makes you less inclined to tuck the arrows into your pocket or belt loop on the range. This keeps the arrows from either snapping/cracking or from stabbing you when you move around, so a quiver or arrow stand is beneficial.

Some targets are specifically designed to handle broad-head arrows. These arrows have sharp blades on the tip which are used for hunting game. In order to withstand broad-head arrows these targets are extremely tough. They also make fetching target heads a nuisance because they grab the arrow so tightly. On the other end of the spectrum, some targets are so sturdy that low poundage bows will bounce arrows off of the target instead of driving them in to stick. This is dangerous and also bad for your arrows. Targets designed for target heads will be shredded almost immediately by broad-heads. Make a point of checking if a target or bail will work well with your setup.

You do not need a fancy paper target. If the range allows you to use your own targets, print out your own. Additionally, you can take a plain piece of paper (the scrap of an old target works) and draw a circle or “X” on it with your pen. You only need somewhere to aim, it is not necessary to spend extra money if you do not want to.

Wear a hat or apply sunscreen if you are out in the sun to protect yourself from burns and over-heating. Always bring and drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration and exhaustion. If you have a take-down bow, use a bow-stringer. It is less stressful on your limbs than bending the bow between your legs to remove the bow string. If you are having difficulty removing your arrows from targets (especially foam targets), bring a bar of non-scented, non-lotion bar soap to rub on your arrows between each round. This helps lubricate the arrow and will make taking the arrow from the target easier. Do not soap arrows that are not your property without owner consent.

Never, ever and always:
Never, ever pull back your bowstring and release it without an arrow knocked. You can shatter your bow limbs and send splinters flying at your face. Those are two expensive consequences for something that you never need to do.
Never, ever aim at people, pets, public property, etc. A bow is a weapon, and even if an arrow is not knocked you can make a lot of people angry. It is hard to practice your form if you go to jail, so try not to do anything regrettable.
Never, ever shoot a broken arrow. Even shooting with a missing vein can cause an arrow to do some weird acrobatics mid flight. Do not shoot with a missing tip, a missing knock, a cracked shaft, etc. It is not going to fly the way you want it to and it can be a danger to yourself and others. Make a habit of checking over your arrows every time you fetch them from the target.
Never, ever drink alcohol or consume other chemicals that inhibit your judgment/reaction time before or during a shoot or practice.
Never, ever try to remove an arrow from the target by holding it near the fletching and wiggling it back and forth or around in a circle. This can break or warp your arrow quickly.
Always follow the rules at any range you visit. Listen closely to whoever is calling the line. Safety is paramount and you do not want to be branded as a hazard.
Always verify that the line between you and your target, and especially the line that extends past your target, are clear. If someone or something that really shouldn’t have an arrow sticking out of it is on the range, it is your responsibility to call a hold if people are about to fire. Yes, this includes wildlife unless the animal is in season, you are licensed for the game, the range is located in a legal hunting area, and the range owners have given you explicit permission.
Always store your arrows tip-down in your quiver/arrow holder. Always hold the tips pointed downward when you are walking back to the line with your arrows. You do not need to stab yourself or someone else because you tripped or were not paying attention.
Always make sure your string is in good condition before you shoot – not frayed, properly waxed, etc.
Always make sure your bow limbs are in good condition before you shoot – not cracked, split, loose, or otherwise less than ideal. These limbs have to take a lot of abuse when you shoot and if they are compromised they can become a huge danger to you and those around you.
Always remove an arrow from the target by grasping the shaft as close to the target face as you can and pulling it straight out without tugging up, down, or to either side.
Always remember that archery is fun. If you are having a terrible time, you may as well go do something else and come back when you are in a better mood.

Which eye is dominant?
Unlike other sports which differentiate between a dominant and non-dominant hand, archery is most concerned with your dominant eye. Your dominant eye has no relation to your dominant hand. If you are right handed you can be left eye dominant, and the reverse is also true. In order to check your eye dominance, use this simple test:

Hold up the tip of a pen or other small object on which you can focus your vision. Staring intently at the object, bring it slowly toward your face, making sure that it always stays in the center of your vision. Do not break your gaze from the object and continue bringing it closer until it almost touches your eye. Congratulations, the item is now in front of your dominant eye. If you hit the center of your nose you are not focusing on the object.

If the object moved to your right eye you are “right eye dominant” and are in the main stream. Most archers are right eye dominant. You will hold the bow with your left hand and draw the string back with your right hand. If the object moved to your left eye you are “left eye dominant” and will hold the bow with your right and draw back the string with your left. Left-eye dominance is not as common so you may have difficulty begging the use of someone’s bow to try it out, but left-handed and/or universal bows are not difficult to purchase.

The archery form – turning the body into a machine
The key to good shooting is consistency. You will not make consistent shots if you do not have a consistent form. This can be likened to turning your body into a machine. Countless repetitions of your proper form are required to build sufficient muscle memory to have a consistent release. Remember, archery can boil down nicely into a simple ballistics exercise. If you cannot control where you are shooting your accuracy will be only moderately better than coincidental.

Begin by lining the tips of your toes up with an imaginary line that extends perpendicularly from the center of the target. Stand up straight and breathe, you should not be tense. Make sure that your feet are shoulder-width apart and that you are straddling the shooting line with one foot on either side. This gives you a stable stance and keeps you nicely in line with your target.

Place your fingers on the string such that you stabilize the arrow, either with your index finger above the arrow and your middle and ring fingers below, or with all three fingers below the arrow (the knock keeps the arrow in place on the other side). See the comparison between split-finger and three-under shooting at the end of the article. Using your chosen style, hook the string between the first and second joint of your fingers. Make sure that your fingers are curled enough so the string cannot slip out from your grasp as you draw back.

Align the handle of the bow with the base of your thumb and let your knuckles remain at a 45 degree angle to the bow. You may touch your forefinger and thumb together if you wish, but your hand should be relaxed. The pressure generated when pulling back on the string should hold the bow to your hand. If you clench the bow you can ruin your accuracy.

Once your hands are in position, raise your bow hand so it is level with your shoulder. Twist your bow arm so that the elbow is pointed away from the bow. This forces a bend in your arm and keeps you from getting string bites: when the string hits your arm when you release. Pull horizontally with your string hand so that it follows your bow arm and continue to your anchor point. As you draw back the string, use your back muscles. This involves bringing your shoulder blades together as you pull. The use of back muscles, not your arm, is what helps you generate a straight force that will send your arrow where you are aiming. Try to keep your shoulders as low as possible when drawing back the bow.

Anchor points vary from person to person, but typically you should ensure that the arrow lines up with your dominant eye. This allows you to aim down the arrow as a sight. One suggestion is to anchor your index finger below your chin and let the string rest against your nose. If you keep your teeth together this is a consistent anchor. Three-under shooters will have to adjust this position slightly. Try out different positions until you find one that is consistent and comfortable for you to return to repeatedly.

When aiming you generally close your non-dominant eye. This allows you to look straight down the arrow without distraction. You can use the tip of your arrow as a means of sighting your shot. At the start you should try to point directly at the bull’s eye and eventually make adjustments. Adjusting your aim is straightforward; whatever direction your arrow point moves is the direction the impact site will shift.

While you should make a conscious note of your form at the beginning, eventually you should only be focusing on where you are aiming. Everything else should become muscle memory after enough practice. When you are aiming at your target, continue to pull the string back with your back muscles and then refuse to hold the string. If you are focusing only on aiming this release should be a surprise. A proper release will cause your string hand to pull backward toward your ear and the bow to fall forward in your bow hand.

Finally, continue to aim at the center of your target until the arrow lands. This promotes good follow-through and prevents you from falling out of your form before the arrow has cleared the bow.

Looking at your own form
Consider asking a friend to record you while you shoot arrows. You can identify your own problems this way. You can also use these videos as a demonstration of what you are doing off of the range and may be useful for someone trying to help you improve.

When shooting you should be focusing on aiming, but eventually you will know when your shot “feels” right or “feels” wrong. If it feels wrong, slowly let down your draw and try again. There is no reason to take a bad shot. If you are in a timed round, you will have to rely on your experience to tell you if it is quicker for you to draw down and re-attempt the shot or to lose the arrow and quickly reload.
Always check to see if you were surprised by the arrow release. If you said “now” in your head, you were not aiming. If your string hand did not snap backward, you were not aiming. Specifically, if you release the arrow and your hand does not move from its anchor, you had a “dead release” which really changes your arrow’s flight. Be surprised! It’s good for you and your form!

Precision precedes accuracy – how to hit the bull’s eye.
What is precision? What is accuracy?
Precision is the ability to hit the target in the same location over and over again. If you fire thirty arrows and every single one lands in a three inch circle on the lower right of the target face, you may have a terrible score but you also have great precision. Although often understated, precision is the key to successful shooting. If you do not know where your arrow is going to land then you cannot know how to make a proper correction. Thus, precision must precede accuracy. If you miss the center ring all day but your arrows have punched a hole out of the side of the target, you have had a successful shoot.

Accuracy is the ability to shoot at a specific target. If you aim at the center of the target and hit it, you are very accurate. However, if you shoot ten arrows and one hits the center of the target, you are lucky. True accuracy requires a strong foundation of precision. Once your form has developed enough to strike the same area of the target, it is comparatively little effort to move that group onto the center of the bail. Accuracy is the shiny trophy you get for a lot of hard training.

Becoming precisely accurate.
Always aim at the same spot on your target. Always. Even if you think you are shooting too low or off to the right, always aim at that same spot. If you aim at the same spot and your arrows are not landing consistently (they are scattered on the target), moving your aiming spot is not going to help you at all.

Once your arrows begin landing in a tight “group” you can make one adjustment: either up/down or left/right. Depending on your patience, a “reasonable” group would be about a 3 inch radius at your maximum shooting range (more on that later). Shoot using this new aiming spot and make sure your entire group has moved accordingly but has not become more spread out. Once you are 100% sure where all of your arrows are landing, make one more adjustment up/down or left/right. Continue until your group falls across the center of the bull’s eye. This takes a lot of time, a lot of patience, and a lot of resolve, but it has a huge payoff.

Shoot as far as you can as often as you can.
Do not ignore your short distance shooting, but when trying to become more precise and accurate try to shoot at least 10 yards/meters past the maximum distance you expect to shoot. If your tournaments never push past 40 yards/meters, practice at 50+ yards/meters.

As distance between you and the target increases the more dramatic small imperfections in your form will become. A three-inch group at 20 yards can become a 12-inch group at 50 yards. This is partly due to the increased contribution of small angles at longer distances, so seemingly minor shifts in one direction at 20 yards are magnified at 50 yards. There are also environmental factors affecting the arrow but that is more difficult to predict/control. If you can shoot a three inch group at 50 yards/meters you will find yourself hitting your own arrows at 20 yards/meters because your muscle memory is more fine-tuned from the training.

Stop while you are ahead
If you are tired, stop shooting. There is no reason to develop bad habits during exhaustion that will take multiple shooting sessions to shake off. Avoid bad habits and just put the bow down. Your strength and endurance training happens off of the range where you cannot damage your form. More discussion on this training is discussed later in the article.

Never adjust your aim until you are shooting consistent, tight groups. Remember, shooting a tight group is the hard part. Making a fine-tuned adjustment to hit the center is easy. Do not complicate matters by feverishly adjusting your aim each time you fire an arrow. A good group is worth more than hitting the center of the target. Do not fall into the trap of trying to compete with someone next to you on the range (unless it is a tournament). Just keep working on your own form and the points will come pouring in.

Improving your shot off of the range
There are numerous training plans available to improve your upper body and shooting muscles. Pushups are great for your upper body and I highly recommend them. Check out “100 pushups” in your search bar for a great personal plan. Pull-ups are also pretty amazing for your upper body; the 100 pushups website also has a link to a pullup plan. Furthermore, many archery training tools are available, either as finished products or as a “make your own” instructional guide. Consider these items instead of possibly damaging your bow. Finally, general fitness and cardiovascular health is always good. Jogging, swimming, and other cross-training keeps you in shape and mixes it up a bit. Remember to please consult a physician before beginning any new diet or workout.

Improving your release.
Practice picking up a closed paint bucket by the handle with your fingers. Pretend you are drawing back an arrow. Now practice refusing to hold the bucket. The handle should slip out of your fingers cleanly, without catching on anything. Continue to work with the bucket when you are not on the range to develop a clean release. Your release can be a huge source of inconsistency when you shoot so this is a great way to get in some extra practice without the range fees.

Split fingers or three under?
Split finger shooting is the more common and “natural” position of your fingers on the bowstring. You position your index finger on top of the knock and your middle and ring fingers beneath the arrow. This is the preferred finger arrangement for a number of archers and is touted as the better choice for long distance (80+ yards) and trick shooting. The reasoning is that you have slightly more control over your arrow, and your arrow naturally has more of an upward angle which increases travel distance. Basically, because your fingers are positioned above and around the arrow, the arrow actually has a higher degree of separation from “true horizontal” compared to three-under shooting. The big disadvantage of shooting split finger comes from the fact that your index finger is separated from your middle and ring fingers. When separated your fingers are harder to control as a group, meaning you may release your string with your bottom two fingers but “pluck” the string with your index finger, or vice versa. The learning curve to correct this issue can be steep for some shooters. Additionally, because you are “pinching” the arrow between your fingers, you have a higher likelihood of catching the arrow with your fingers or with your finger protection when you release, which can also change your arrow’s flight.

Three under shooting is the placement of your index, middle, and ring fingers beneath the arrow. The top of the arrow is supported by the knock attached to your bowstring. This is a less common approach to shooting but offers a different shooting experience. Some may find this finger position to be unnatural, but this is not always the case. Some experience little or no learning curve using this method and you handily avoid the problems of pinching the arrow or plucking the string, which you must deal with if you use the split-finger approach. You do lose out on range: all of your fingers are below the arrow so if you used the same anchor as a split-finger style your arrow would have less of an angle. This does not affect flight directly, but it does affect “shooting the gap” at long distances because you will have to raise your bow higher than a split-finger shooter to reach the same target. For those shooting short to medium ranges, the difference is fairly minimal. You mainly have to concern yourself with making sure that you are distributing pressure equally on the bowstring when drawing back, i.e. not pulling the string mainly with your ring finger, which causes an unequal load on the bow limbs and may harm your equipment/accuracy.

Try the two styles out and see which one works for you. You can become proficient and even excel using either method. The split finger arrangement is the more traditional choice.

What should I look for in an archery range?
There are many factors that can affect your taste in an archery range. You can ask some questions to see if a range is good for you.

Does the range attract only hunters, target shooters, or both? Does it have indoor and/or outdoor ranges for various distances? Are the bails appropriate for what I want to shoot? Does the range have a store/workshop or is it only targets? Does the range have knowledgeable staff? Do they know about traditional archery? Do they know about modern archery? Is the shop equipped to handle repairs that may apply specifically to your bow/arrows? Is the shop able to order special items for you if requested? Are classes held at the range? How crowded is the range during various hunting seasons? Are the range fees affordable?

Can I make my own archery range?
This depends on your local laws and regulations. Firing weapons inside of city limits is globally a bad ideal and this includes bows. You should check your local laws before attempting to set up a target in your own backyard. In general you will need a large plot of private land with a back-stop to prevent arrows from leaving the designated “range area”. Local regulations will provide the specifics. If you live in a highly populated area like a city you will likely have no luck getting a range approved. If you have empty acreage with no visitors, it is more likely to be an option.