The Beginner's Guide to Traditional Archery

trad_arch_fLet's be honest, archery should be simple. Modern bowhunting, what with its fiber-optic sights, drop-away rests, mechanical broadheads, release aids, and accoutrements — any one of which will cancel your hunt immediately if forgotten — have made this once-simple sport more complicated than a tax return.

To combat this sometimes-unnecessary evolution, plenty of mainstream bow companies, such as PSE, Hoyt, Bear, and Martin, produce traditional bows. But there are also smaller, mom-and-pop-type bowyers that turn out handmade works of art: Black Widow, Great Plains, and many others. Last winter at the Great American Outdoor Show in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I visited an Ohio bowyer aptly named Striker Bows. Since 1966 they have handmade lithe longbows and recurves at modest prices. Striker proprietor Rick Ellis offered his insight for getting started in traditional archery.

Picking a Trad Bow

"Longbows are known for their accuracy and forgiveness because the whole limb works when the bow is shot," Ellis told me during our chat.

Even so, longbows represent the most basic of archery technology. Recurves, so named for their limbs that each contain two curvatures for increased spring and energy, originated in Asia around 2,000 BC.

Often these bows are built from laminated woods and resins. Your choice boils down to personal preference. Many traditional bows are available in "takedown" designs, consisting of three main pieces including two limbs and the riser. They can be disassembled easily for transport or storage.

"Three-piece bows also allow the archer to buy a set of heavier limbs for certain hunting scenarios or lighter limbs for target shooting or small game hunting," Ellis said. "Shooters can switch between recurve and longbow limbs."

If you don't plan to travel much with your bow or alter your draw weight for any reason, a takedown-style bow may not be worth the extra money. One-piece bows are generally trimmer and therefore more pleasurable to carry. Plus, there's something satisfying about the look of a bow carved into a seamless piece of wood.

Bow Fit

As with compounds, bow fit is determined by the shooter's draw weight and draw length. Generally, length is measured from the web between the thumb and forefinger of the bow (handle) hand and the shooter's anchor point, which is normally the corner of the mouth.

Shoot as many bows as you can until one feels right.

"All of our bows are weighted at a 28-inch draw length and typically pull three pounds per inch more up to 30 inches in draw length," Ellis said. "A 45-pound bow at 28 inches is typically a great starting point for most men."

Most shooters find a draw weight of 15-20 pounds less than their compound bow's draw weight is ideal.  Ellis warns against going too heavy, as beginning archers often do.

"If your form is better and your shooting is accurate and consistent at a lower poundage, you'll be better off," he said.

Bow Tuning

Although it's less complicated than with compound bows, traditional bows still require tuning. Brace height is extremely important.

Brace height, the distance between the grip where it's narrowest and the string, is adjusted by twisting or untwisting the string, which lengthens the brace height or shortens it respectively.

"Tune it until you find a sweet spot that feels right for you," Ellis said. "The nock height should be about 5⁄8 inch above center. Playing with this height will also help with your arrow flight."

Several factors contribute to correct arrow setup, including draw weight and length, nock location, arrow spine weight, arrow length, and broadhead weight.

"We shoot carbon arrows like Beman's CenterShot Traditonal arrow and Easton's Axis Traditional arrow that are offered with feather fletching," Ellis continued. "Consult those companies' charts for the correct shaft size for your draw length and draw weight. We also recommend that you keep your shafts as close to full length as possible. Cutting them down can sometimes hurt more than help if all else is not set up correctly."

He adds that his bows generally shoot best with the cock vane to the inside of the arrow shelf, rather than outside.

Shooting Techniques

"Some shooters stand tall while others like to crouch," said Ellis. "We recommend putting some cant [lean] in your bow. Find an anchor point on the side of your lip and draw to exactly the same spot each time."

Concerning the draw, Ellis recommends new shooters use three fingers below the string because it more closely aligns the arrow with the eye.

As for aiming, there are two basic techniques. There's the purely instinctive technique, where the archer simply focuses on the target and, through thousands of practice repetitions, instinctively knows where to hold and when to release. Second, there's the "gap shooting" technique, where shooters focus on the tip of the arrow and use it for a reference for where to hold on the target. Most masters tend to use the instinctive technique, but either method can be deadly with practice.


Unlike with your compound bow, don't expect to walk outside with your new stick bow and nail the bullseye at 40 paces after a few tries. Rather, set a modest goal of keeping all arrows in a 6-inch pie plate at 20-25 yards. If you can do this, you may be ready to hunt at this range.

Because traditional bows don't have nearly the kinetic energy of compound bows, penetration can be an issue, so your keep shots very close and your broadheads shaving-sharp.

Most traditionalist hunters prefer the two blade, cut-on-contact broadheads like Zwickey or the new 150-grain two-blade traditional point from Wasp Archery. Of course, modern three-blade heads like Muzzy will work fine if you do your part. Most experts advise against mechanicals and heads with huge cutting diameters, as both can rob energy otherwise used for penetration. Always opt for high-percentage broadside shots.

For some bowhunters, going to the basics can reinvigorate an interest in archery and return the fun in going outside to shoot. Certainly, it re-ups the challenge of hunting, because taking a mature whitetail with a traditional bow will forever be one of hunting's greatest feats.

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