I don’t hear the word practice very often in conversation with traditional bow shooters. We talk about shooting instead. There is such pleasure in simply shooting traditional equipment, but there’s something about the word “practice” that conjures up visions of something regimented, work, necessity, and not specifically a pleasurable task. Conversationally we put them in different categories, even though I don’t think we are making a specific delineation between the two.
I have always loved shooting the bow, but I have also always wanted to be the best shot I could possibly be. So while shooting is fun, it’s also partly driven by my desire to be better. I don’t suppose I’m a lot different than you are on that count. We all want to be better shooters. We probably all understand that in order to be better you have to shoot arrows—practice. So whatever we call it, practice or just shooting, it needs to be often and with a plan to improve. I was very fortunate in that I lived near an archery range when field archery was at its zenith, and I met a fellow named Jim Van Ness at work who was an accomplished shooter (compared to me) and knew his way around the archery scene in Indiana.
I’d bought a second-hand bow, and he showed me how to make arrows and let me tag along when he shot the field course. I was young, single, and could think of nothing more exciting than to shoot arrows every spare moment I could find. My timing couldn’t have been better, in that no one knew very much about shooting the bow and how to go about teaching someone how to do it. There was not a lot of confusing and contradictory information out there about how to do it as there seems to be today.
Most everyone shot instinctively, which was what all shooting without a sight was called, whether you used the arrow in one way or another for sighting or simply looked at what you wanted to hit and cut it loose. It was all intended to be practice for bowhunting, and the thrust of the organizations and the shooting was pretty well focused in that direction for several years. I shot the range daily and settled on a shooting and aiming style. I began to see my accuracy improving as long as I stayed close and tried to do the same thing every shot. I read everything I could find on shooting the bow and arrow, committing to memory everything I considered good information.
Looking back at those times, I think of myself as fortunate to have gotten into this fantastic sport before the water became so muddied. Today, it seems there is so much information floating around out there about archery and bowhunting and how to do it that I sometimes wonder how a beginner can go about finding a way through it all. Nothing has stirred the mud like the appearance of the compound bow, bringing with it the concept of an easier way with reduced effort and changing so much of what the bow and arrow represented. Getting around that juggernaut has been a never-ending battle.
There are lots of ideas floating around these days about how to shoot traditional bows. Videos and articles tout sighting down the arrow, others say the gap system is best, and another suggests aligning the shaft front to back, three fingers under the nock with the anchor tight under the eye and the elbow cocked above the ear. Someone else says form is the most important thing and another person says to shoot like this or that famous archer. And, of course, I myself have written and made a video about what I call the instinctive method. Without question there are many ways to shoot arrows without using a sight. But there is only one way to develop regular, consistent accuracy, and that is with regular, consistent practice. Without that, the best aiming and shooting system isn’t going to do much for you.
Theoretically, just about any aiming system can be made to work if one practices it enough. I knew an old-time archer who drew the arrow to his chest, about nipple height, on every shot, which would seem a terribly inaccurate way to shoot. I wouldn’t say he was the best shot I’ve seen, but he’d shot that way for thirty years and filled his deer tag each year. Another bowhunter I know is six-feet, eight-inches tall but only pulls a 26-inch arrow because he anchors at the end of his nose. He’s a very serious bowhunter, and he too seems to have no trouble being successful. He claims he’s always shot that way. His secret is that he practices continually.
The fact is that very different shooting methods can be made to work if you practice regularly and aren’t changing your methods continuously. Failure to do so is a big snag I see an awful lot. Shooters may think of it as practice and call it practice, but it’s really a continuous state of change. We shouldn’t really call it practice if it isn’t repetitive. In my mind, it isn’t really functional, repetitive practice when you are continuously changing how you shoot. I know shooters who have been at it longer than I have but still can’t shoot worth a darn because every time they pick up their bow, they are trying something different. They are practicing, but never the same way twice.
There will always be a desire to try something different. It is natural that the shooter will be looking for a better way, a different approach, as he or she progresses through the years. But good judgement has to ask, “Will this work better? Can this method be an improvement for what I want to accomplish?” And most importantly for the bowhunter, “Will this work smoothly and naturally in the woods?”
I know archers who anchor and aim differently on a weekly basis, mostly because someone they know, read about, or heard about, is shooting that way and it’s the hot new method this season. I’ve been shooting a bow for over fifty years, and the same thing was going on when I started. Look things over, decide what you think will work for you, and then stay with it. Aiming methods and anchor points are huge methodology changes and will have you literally starting anew every time you buy into them. Try to figure out what will work for what you want to accomplish and stick with it.
Practice is based on the concept of improvement, but the shooter needs a direction for that improvement. Adding or changing technique with an eye toward improving a score on a range is questionable if bowhunting is your main interest, because the two seldom mesh. Improving your consistency and accuracy is always desirable, but should never be at the expense of your fluidity in the woods. By fluidity, I mean the ability to bring the bow into play smoothly, consistently, and without any loss of accuracy.
Building bow shooting strength is one of the best things about consistent practice. The act of drawing and shooting the bow will build strength quicker than will anything else, and few things will improve your shooting as quickly. The more I shoot, the better I shoot. Shooting traditional equipment definitely requires more strength than does modern equipment. The more you shoot in practice, the stronger you will become and the faster you’ll improve.
Shoot a few arrows out of a bow ten-pounds lighter than you currently shoot, and you’ll notice an improvement in the way the bow feels and the accuracy of your shooting. You need to be able to draw and aim your bow without conscious effort, which interrupts concentration on your target. The stronger you are and the easier it is to handle your bow, the better you will shoot.
One of the things Jim Van Ness taught me was to pay attention on every shot. Sloppy arrow slinging accomplishes nothing. In those days field archery was at its zenith. A round consisted of twenty-eight targets with four shots per target. The targets were placed from twenty-five feet to eighty yards with twenty points possible on each target. A perfect score was 560 points, an impossible feat attainable by only two or three shooters in the world. Beginning bowhunters like me generally scored 150 to 250 points.
“Do your practicing without a score card,” Jim said. “After finishing practice, you should be able to sit down and recall each target and what you scored on it.” I learned to do that. Of course the idea was to pay attention to each arrow. It sounds more difficult than it is. That was valuable advice. Try it. Whether you are stump shooting, shooting a 3-D range, or chunking arrows at a bale of straw, the idea is to pay attention to what you are doing on every shot, and your shooting will improve for it.
Slow down. I often see shooters trying to launch another arrow before the one they just shot has hit the target. I guarantee this will lead to bad shooting habits and very little, if any, improvement. When I’m hunting I may string up my bow and shoot several times each day, as opposed to practicing for one extended period. It seems to me that this better replicates hunting opportunities. I also typically take a practice shot at a leaf or clod before I leave my stand or hiding place, replicating what may happen the next time I’m in this spot. One arrow only.
I rarely shoot more than one arrow at a given distance or target. Shoot and move, shoot and move, changing targets continually, forcing the hand and eye to reevaluate on every shot. And never put a number on a target or a distance. Don’t say to yourself, “That’s fifteen yards, or that’s forty.” Always look and shoot without guessing a numeric distance. Numbers will lead you to a system.
Some shooters like company when they practice. Practicing with someone is fine, but I’ve always felt that I paid closer attention to what I was doing when I was alone. And, of course it’s much simpler to find a spare moment when you are practicing alone.
The avenue to shooting better is based on following basic shooting principles and practicing. There is no other way. There is no substitute for practicing. You can never shoot too well, so get out there and get with it.