Let’s clear the air first. I’m not a professional archer or survival bow hunter. I’ve never published an article in BowHunter or Archery magazine, nor have I ever competed in the Olympics in any venue, let alone archery. (Regardless what you may have heard to the contrary.) Nor have I ever traveled out-of-state to hunt any animal with a bow (and only did it once with a rifle, so am no expert there, either). Nor have I any formal education beyond what a college phy-ed class attempted to teach me after I’d been shooting and studying archery for twenty years. When push comes to shove, I am a ‘purist’ but I don’t let that stop me from using modern materials or style of bow.
At 64 years of age, what I have is more than fifty years experience shooting, hunting, ‘kind of’ studying archery from the bowhunting and zen aspects, and shooting since I was eleven because Mom didn’t think kids should have guns before they could walk. So my career with archery began as many do: parents don’t equate bows and arrows with their ability to kill. And, as any child of a parent knows, they’re wrong. A 45 pound draw hunting bow has the killing ability of a 30-06 rifle. Actually, in expert hands and in the right circumstances, even a 25 pound draw weight bow will have the killing ability of a 30-06, or any other shoulder fired weapon you want to stack against it.
Please note: I did not mention anything other than killing ability. I did not say “at 800 yards” or “point-blank range” or “with a 220 grain JHP” or any other round. I said “ability”. There isn’t an animal on earth that has been killed with a rifle before it was killed with a bow. We won’t get into how the first bow was accidentally made by a caveman when he discovered his fire drill bow would shoot sticks across the fire faster than he could throw it, or how Nimrod was the first Mighty Hunter with a bow.
But how does a bow have the same killing capacity as a 30-06?
Because of much the same reason a bullet does: blood-letting. A bullet has ‘shock’ value as well, yet an arrow will bleed even more quickly than a bullet because of it’s cutting edges. And when hunting or speaking of hunting, the arrowhead is equally as important, if not more so, than the bow or arrow. Let’s look at this from the beginning, getting to the arrowhead in a few minutes.
When it comes to surviving in a true wilderness setting, a bow, In My Opinion, is the absolute best weapon you can have. Better than a rifle or pistol for several reasons.
First: a bow can be made from almost any hardwood material, especially the maples, yew, ash, and best of all, the Osage orange. Birch, some pines, and aspen can be used as well, with brittle oak being a fairly down-the-line choice. There are exotics that can be used, but we’re talking survival in North America so will limit our choices to anything growing around us.
Second: an arrow can easily be made from reeds (think cattail for one) or whittled from other woods, Port Orford Cedar being the most commonly used (until the Spotted Owl terminated the harvesting of it, and over harvesting as well, to be totally honest). Cedars make the best wood arrows because they don’t warp as readily as most other woods, have a more stable grain pattern and can be reaved most easily into sheaves for arrow stock, and can be compressed most readily.
Arrowheads can be chipped from flint, or other stones, even panes of glass, any bone, or just the fire-hardened tip of the arrow itself. If you’re industrious, you can file steel down to a very serviceable point. But, we’re talking survival and what’cha got with you, not what you’d like to have.
Bowstrings can be spun quickly from the inner bark of many commonly available plants- milkweed being a common material or cut from any animal hide or, in a survival situation, from the cords of one’s jeans. (Just don’t tear away your groin cloth, Tarzan!) Now: name one bullet you can do this with. ‘Nuffa that. Now let’s get to the bow.
Regardless where you live, any archery shop now is going to convince you that “you must absolutely gotta have the very bestest top of the line got more speed than light double helix hyper snappy wheel compound that we happen to sell right here” bow. I won’t say BS on that, but I will tell you this: a salesman’s job is to sell. Not necessarily what you want or need, but to sell.
Here I’m going to state my opinions, not some scientific hyperbole an engineer came up with or what a catalogue will say. What kind of bow you get- be it traditional longbow, recurve, or compound- is up to your preferences. I’m going to tell you mine.
I shoot them all. I love them all. All are very serviceable and sturdy. The newest bow I have, a Fred Bear compound, is darn close to 30 years old and shoots as well today as it did the day I bought it- only more accurately ‘cuz now it’s got ‘sperience. It’s also the only bow I have sights on. The oldest I have is 53 and my son learned to shoot with it as I did: one arrow at a time. My second oldest- 39- is the original Fred Bear takedown with two sets of limbs (one target, one hunting) on a B riser (it came with choice of A,B, or C- diferentiated by length of the riser, which also was the deciding factor of draw weight). There are others in my collection- a Ben Pearson takedown (TD) a year younger than the Bear, a Paul Bunyan fiberglass longbow, and a very antique pure aluminum bow made by ParX of Jackson, Michigan. (I should google them to see if they still make bows.) Sorry- thinking out loud again, and digressing. Some odds and ends complete the collection.
My point is, it won’t matter what style of bow you choose, just be sure it’s the one you want and dream about. If your imagination is filled with Robin Hood or Fred Bear or Ben Pearson or Howard Hill, you would probably feel more comfortable with a longbow or recurve. Either will be a fine choice.
Longbows have a tendency to ‘stack’, which means they get harder to draw as you draw them. If it’s a very short bow, it will stack more than a longer bow. Recurves stack less than longbows due to the curve. Too, the length of your personal draw will also cause it to stack more or less.
Draw length is measured the old-fashioned way: Hold your arms out in front of you, fingers extended, to make an arrowhead. The distance from your fingertips to your chin is your arrow length, your draw length is from your wrist to your chin. Bowyers have simplified this for us, however, and make their bows with an ‘average’ draw length of 28 inches. The reason for the arrow length? So you don’t cut your fingers with the sharp broadhead, it extends beyond your hand. Arrows can be cut to length as required, even simply at home with a sharp knife.
If your dreams extend to the modern mystique of wheels and pulleys, cams and short, snappy- and very fast arrows- then you may be dreaming of a compound. Other than Bear, I won’t comment on who makes the best, but there are many out there. Some very good bows are made by some very unknown people, and a good way to learn about some is pick up a copy of a Bowhunter magazine. (No plug, just reference.)
Compounds do send arrows down range faster than other bows and use very light arrows. (Do not use a wood arrow on a compound bow- ever. Nothing may happen, but then again, you may end up with an arrow shaft in your forearm, or worse. That’s experience talking, and manufacturer’s direction.) If TSHTF, my choice will be the recurve or longbow because of the simplicity of their design, maintenance, and ease of repair. I just don’t have the shop to rebuild steel/aluminum/magnesium pulleys and steel cable strings.
Not to mention, compounds are much heavier than stick bows. I’d rather carry more arrows than more bow.
Arrows for longbows and recurves run from cedar to esoteric compunds like graphite. In short, any arrow can be shot from a stick bow. Wood and aluminum have been around for… well, ever, almost. OK- when Alcoa came out with their first aluminum arrows, I was skeptical. Still am, but dang, they shoot nice. Almost as tough as wood. Almost. In some instances, tougher: and they can be reasonably straightened of mild bends. (Wood can as well- use steam and pressure to do that, though.) Fiberglass and graphite… well, you ain’t gonna straighten those breaks. Some have told me graphite is tougher than wood, but my opinion is still out- and will be until I test some, which I don’t intend doing.
Compund bows shoot aluminum, ‘glass and graphite with equal aplomb, but never wood. (Don’t ask.) With today’s compounds, the biggest ‘thing’ is the speed factor. Everyone’s trying to get their bow to shoot as fast a 30-06 bullet. Or so it seems. I’ve heard excuses (ok, reasons) from things such as “the deer don’t jump the string” (which I laugh at), to “the lighter arrows need the speed” (which I agree with). To gain this speed of arrow, they use the lighter carbon or graphite arrow, which usually weighs less than the broadhead on the end. And speed creates penetration- which the lighter arrows need. Badly.
So my opinion of light arrows is still out. In “the old days”, we used to ‘spike’ our aluminum arrows with a wood arrow to increase the weight so they’d get better penetration. We didn’t need speed- we had power. Arrows are ‘fletched’ with feathers- real turkey feather is best and be sure they come from the same wing- or plastic vanes. The debate rages as to which is best. I’ve used both, have some mighty old arrows with turkey feathers. And some mighty old vanes as well.
The biggest problem I’ve had with vanes is cold temps. They seem to stiffen and don’t stabilize the arrow as quickly. But that may just be my imagination. Some say feathers aren’t as waterproof as vanes, but I don’t see that. I sprayed mine with Camp Dry once and forgot it. No problems. Water runs off like a duck’s back.
Some people also claim wet bowstrings stretch and make the bow lose power due to less ‘fist’ in the bow. To which I say nonsense: I’ve never lost ‘fist’ with a string or cable. (‘Fist’ is your hand-made to a fist, thumb extended upward, and from the riser to the string is the height of the string from the riser.) I will admit that a vegetable fiber string will most likely stretch, as will leather. Soak them in tallow before use.
What does make a bow lose power can be on the string, though. Silencers. Attachments that quiet the string vibration after the shot- which vibration is also what the animal hears and causes it to ‘jump’ the string- and evade the arrow. Silencers can be as simple as a feather tied to the string, both ends of the bow, or as complicated as gobs of rubber bands woven into the string layers. Here, less is more. Go as simple as you can get away with. Some people don’t use silencers at all.
Arrowheads (told’ja we’d get here) are what does the killing with an arrow. Where I live, there are several rules to follow with arrowheads used for hunting. (Note: in a survival situation, there is only one rule: survive. So forget about ‘nice’ and ‘laws’ and ‘fair chase’.) MN requires arrowheads “be of barbless design with at least two blades and a circumference of two inches for three or more blades and weigh 125 grains”. Which just means, go to your local sport shop and buy what they sell cuz they’ll most likely not be selling illegal products.
If they are, call the local game warden and let him know and your butt is covered when you go to court. Other states probably have similar rules, so check yours if you’re interested in being ‘legal’. Fred Bear makes the Bear Razorhead, which was an original design two-blade with a third and fourth blade insert, and which has probably killed every animal on the planet. They’re extremely difficult to find these days. Now hunters are using all kinds of jury rigged designs, some utilizing real jenyouwine razor blades as cutting edges.
Complicated monsters that cut quickly and cleanly, to be sure, but no where near as hardy as the old Razorhead. The closest I’ve seen to the Razorhead is the Magnus two-blade, and they’re great. Not to mention, take a very fine edge. Oh, yes- I sharpen all my broadheads. Not something you’ll do with the more modern designs- all you need with them is more razorblades. And a few hundred bucks. Dang- those heads are very spendy now!
Between a two blade and three, or four, blade the biggest difference is cutting power. Or cutting ability. An arrow kills by bleeding the animal out- so expect it to run and have to track it- like cutting its throat. The more blades, the more damage to arteries and muscle and veins and… you get the idea, and the more easily traqcked. The more damage, the faster it bleeds out. Too, shot placement may be a bit more precise with an arrow than with a gun because arrows do not go through bone. Hitting the critter in its vitals is, well- vital.
So practice-practice-practice! Side note on broadheads: round over the tip so it passes by bone rather than trying to penetrate it and getting stuck. You don’t need a pointy point, you need something that slides past the bone. Also, an arrow wound to a non-vital spot with a rifle can wel cause an animal to bleed out, so there are more areas to aim at with a bow.
Also, MN does not allow crossbows unless one is handicapped and proven by a doctor’s permission slip. I’ve shot crossbows, don’t own one, and have little to say about them. I have considered getting one just ‘because’ and no other reason. A friend uses one, loves it, and has lots of fun with it- but he’s not a hunter. Some compounds will draw hundreds of pounds and shoot a bolt (arrow) fast as… ummm… litning… but they lose speed, therefore power, quickly. Maybe others have more experience with them and can comment. Some states do allow hunting with crossbows, so they can’t be all that bad.
When it comes to shooting, a crossbow is probably the easiest to learn quickly since it’s so much like a rifle. Compounds are easy to learn and be accurate with when loaded with sights- and some with stabilizers, levels and flucks (or whatever they’re called)- but have their limitations in those condiditons. (More on that in a minute.) Most difficult- but certainly not hard- to learn is the recurve and longbow using instinctive shooting techniques (my fave method).
Shooting a bow is relatively simple. Nock and arrow on the string, push-pull the bow and string apart, bring the hand to your cheek, look at the target as you point the arrow at it, and let the string go. All bows are shot in that manner. The hardest part is doing the same thing over and over again and never varying that technique.
Let’s examine the shooting aspect a moment.
‘Instinctive’ shooting is how archers first shot. By looking at the target, pointing their arrow at it, and releasing. No sights, no levels, no floofloos. Use a push-the-bow-pull-the-nocked arrow method as you raise the bow to point the arrow at the target. The string hand anchors someplace on your face- usually the corner of the mouth- prior to releasing the shot. The bow arm is extended almost straight out, with just a slight curve, the uper body leans forward slightly and the head is ‘cocked’ over the arrow.
Focus on the target- a small patch of hair (in hunting)- and not on the arrow. Let your eye aim the shot just as you would by pointing your finger at it. Release smoothly- release smoothly- release smoothly- by extending the shooting fingertips. Right: don’t go past the first joint on your finger to pull the string-arrow. Just open your fingers and let the arrow go. Once released, hold the bow in place- don’t drop it or let it fly into orbit. And don’t let your release hand fly off into space, either.
Instinctive shooting can be done with any bow in any position. If you’re laying on your back, you can shoot with this technique holding the bow level with the ground, no need to bring it to a vertical position. If you’re leaning forward ducking under a branch, the bow can be shot without lifting it to a vertical position. If you’re hanging by your hair or the skin of your teeth, a bow can be shot without having to bring it to a vertical position.
Now let’s talk about sights and levels and stabilizers and… all those modern contrivances that require a bow be held vertically and level before it can be shot. Which usually includes all the compound bows being sold today because they ‘just gotta have all this stuff to make them work’. BS. IMO. Sights are wonderful on bows, just as on rifles and handguns. But they do limit a bow a lot more than a rifle- kind of.
When useing sighted bows, the weapon must be held in a vertical position for the sight to be any use. In short, you can’t ’tilt’ your bow and expect the sight to be ‘on’, ‘cuz it won’t be. Any deviation off the axis the bow was sighted in at will negate the sight. And in the bush, you’ll have a lot of fun trying to find a vertical position 100% of the time. For sure, it’s not the most difficult from a stand- though some shots from a stand with a sight are nearly impossible and only uncomfortable with instinctive shooting.
I enjoy the sights on my compound for tournaments and field shooting at the club, but for hunting I feel they’re pretty ‘iffy’ if I’m stalking. As to having a sight level… I ain’t building a house, I’m shooting a bow, probably at a deer or pesky wabbit or partridge… I don’t need no stinkin’ levels.
Two additional items you’ll need- again, don’t ask why, just trust me on this- are some sort of finger protection such as a glove or tab. Mechanical releases are very good, make the release butter smooth, but again, use the KISS principle. Unless you absolutely positively gotta have the latest gizmo… I prefer the glove because ‘it’s on my hand and no fiddling involved’ when I want to use it. Not the best for some, but for me it removes a lot of other dilemmas.
An arm guard is mandatory, especially if you’re shooting with a jacket or ghillie suit or long sleeves- anything the string can whack on its way to resting. And it’s doubly mandatory if you’re shooting sleeveless. You don’t need broken blood vessels in your arm swelling to the size of a birthday party baloon. Trust me on this- I know. (Don’t ask!)
If you’re going to hunt with a bow, be sure to spend time honing your tracking skills as well. Nearly any animal shot with a bow is going to move out of the area before it bleeds out and you don’t need to waste a life or food. After all, that food may save your life, or that of someone you love.
I know a lot of people have spent gazillions on their armories and think they have all the bases covered, but until they have a bow, they’ve only got to third base. Home plate is a long way off- about 90 feet, which is farther than the average deer shot with a bow. So might I suggest getting a bow and half-dozen or more arrows, a finger glove or tab, an arm guard, and a few hours practice to really round out your survival preps?
Who knows- the opportunity may arise you want a silent shot… and we haven’t even gone fishing or bird hunting yet.