Somewhere amongst my random studies concerning archery, I came across the phrase used here as the title. I cant remember who wrote it or even where I found it, but perhaps a reader will know. Anyway, the phrase has rattled around in my head for some time now popping up for notice every now and then. I walked to my shop one morning with no clear purpose in mind and it popped up again. Thats the sort of thing that can happen when you act without having a clear purpose in mind, so be warned. Having read about certain northwestern tribes who used half-sized bows, it occurred to me that it would be really neat to see what such a bow might be capable of. The "survival" aspects might prove intriguing as well. Small project, big fun, I went for it!
I could have used cherry, oak, red cedar, or bamboo. In fact, I have made numerous micro bows of these materials down to about 10 inches, beginning when I was still a mischievous little boy. This bow, however, was to be special, made to order just for this project. I didnt have any yew, which I supposed to be the original wood of choice, but I did have a wretched, gnarly, and degenerate stick of Osage, which would be suitable for nothing else if not this project. After starting work on it I soon discovered that it was truly depraved, at least as bad as I expected. Even the borers had given up on it and they were only half finished. I decided then and there not to worry about all those silly inviolate rules of bow making. If this experiment was to be as "edgy" as I suspected it would be, why not take it over the top? Some of my friends already count me mad anyway, why shouldnt everyone? "Celebrate the madness," I always say.
I violated knots and growth rings with fiendish abandon often peeking over my shoulder lest the "Osage-Police" slip up and cuff me for my shameless malefaction. A vision of stern-faced, uniformed, and jack-booted celebrity bowyers loomed into my mind. It was truly surreal and disturbing, almost bringing me to my senses for a moment, but the mania was stronger. I pressed on. I could always plead insanity and convincingly so. Rawhide will fix anything.
The resulting 301Ú2-inch bow could have been produced under survival conditions with only a pocketknife in less than two hours. Its average thickness was about 1Ú4 inch before backing, its greatest width around 3Ú4 inch. Goliath could have used it as a tongue depressor. Fully backed with robust rawhide, it weighs 31Ú2 ounces and draws maybe 13 pounds at 11 inches. It looks like a toy or perhaps a hunting bow for a primitive wood elf. In spite of appearances, it demonstrates that marvelous enthusiastic springiness that Osage is revered for. Adding a string of triple thickness artificial sinew transformed it into a functioning bow. I counted the string as "primitive" because after only minimal usage it appeared to have been ground between the molars of a Homo Stupidicus. This is the reason we dont use it more often, isnt it?
Now, the moment of truthwill it shoot? "Hmmmm? Ill need an arrow to test that, wont I, and a small one too. Guess Ill need to make one." I fumbled across a long, skinny twig shaft woven into the fabric of highly unusual items snarled on my workbench. Somehow I retrieved it intact, receiving only minor injuries to myself in the process. At least I got the shaft. I cut it to 20 inches, sheared a trade point from a pallet strap, cut feathers, slotted it, nocked, it and put it together with deer sinew and yellow glue. Wow! A nifty little arrow! Actually it is far bigger in proportion to the bow than normal. Something on the order of how a 40-inch by 1Ú2 inch shaft, weighing about 5 ounces, would be on a normal sized bow. The sexy little arrow did, however, appear competent and capable of lethal consequences on small game.
First I would shoot it for distance. If the name "Ozarks" has any significant associations in your mind you might realize that true distances are difficult to establish here without a laser. My range is about one hundred yards of stony grass that meanders uphill with a variance of 3 to 4 feet. For here, thats level, but arrows would doubtless travel farther if the land was truly level. Having an extra 3 feet of drop to play with should yield several extra yards in cast. My exaggerated strides, the legacy of a long career as a .22 rim fire hunter religiously pacing off his kills, are very close to a yard. My first shot paced out to 65 yards. Not bad for a toy, but I knew it could do a lot better. The curved fletching had imparted a tremendous spin to the tiny arrow, very stabilizing, but costly in terms of cast, much like a flu-flu. The fletching was obviously tall so I scalped it about 1Ú2 inch with scissors and tried it again. This time I drew with more confidence for the bow had given no hint of failing. The plucky little missile sailed to almost 80 yards. A straight feathered, proportionately sized arrow might do 100 yards?! I hurriedly made such a dart from a heavy gauge bamboo kabob (say that three times fast). It did come off the string with the sensation of a whip cracking but it slowed more quickly than the larger arrow and was shaded by about 4 yards. Go with the heavy arrows. The larger arrow eventually reached a cast of 87 yards. Incidentally, 80 yards seems like a very long way when shooting such tiny projectiles. The shafts morphed into rapidly vanishing dots against the clear blue sky flashing into view again in a high angle descent that mystically caught the late afternoon sun. Pure magic.
Now for the penetration tests. I was impressed by the cast, but how would it do on organic tissue? Not having a steady supply of cottontails to skewer since we wound up with all those cats, I looked around for what I did have. "Hmmmm? Too many lazy cats and a pumpkin? Hmmmm? Too many lazy cats and a pumpkin?!" (Just kidding.) I set it on a flat-topped post (the cat wouldnt stay put) took a couple of steps back and released the shaft with cold determination. It landed with a pleasing "ploch" not even budging this fugitive from a carving knife. It was no marshmallow, it was an aged, hard-shelled pumpkin with about 11Ú2 inches of tough flesh to penetrate. A quick glance into its recently opened interior revealed about six inches of arrow protruding through the inside wall. It was not hard to imagine similar penetration relative to the rib cages of certain small animals. While attempting to take even a very small whitetail would be out of the question in my mind, elephants have been harvested with bows having an even greater disparity between bow size and body mass. Interesting to contemplate with regard to a survival scenario.
The handling qualities of this glorified splinter suggest that small bows are better drawn horizontally with a floating anchor. It is nearly impossible to fully sight down the arrow because your big hand is in the way, but even so, I had little problem keeping the arrows fairly well on line with the target (a large diameter oak) at 100 yards. They simply fell short. My accuracy on real targets at short ranges is still well below what I can do with a long bow. I am not yet well practiced, and there are some new skills to be learned here. Body aiming seems to be the ticket, but I may eventually try some sort of primitive device as a release in order to obtain a better sight picture. Ah, a virtual crossbow!
I did learn a trick new to me that Id like to share. The irregular, semi-crowned back of this little bow was giving me fits when I tried to apply the rawhide. The bubbles and gaps just got worse when I string-wrapped it. Then a light came on in the deep caverns of my skull (scared the bats into a real frenzy too, that was wild!). I unwrapped the string, rinsed any stray glue from the surface and then with the backing still in place positioned it backside down on a sizeable piece of 1-inch pile carpet that covers part of my bench. Weighted down with a 25-pound bag of lead shot and a small anvil, the bow was pushed into the carpets pile forcing the rawhide into full, uniform contact with the back thus eliminating all bubbles and voids. Voila! A perfect job without a lot of adjustment or hassle. The backing should be a little wider than the bow to start with, trimming the edges when dry is a cinch. Flat bows obviously work better in this scenario than a recurve.
This whole project was uncommonly enlightening and genuinely fun, a real change of pace. Tillering small bows is an excellent way of gaining experience with new designs or a feel for unfamiliar types of wood without risking a full-sized stave or expending a lot of effort for a disappointing result. You will become fond of these bratty little bows, too. It is hard not to admire something so small that has such spunk. I feel that this type of equipment has much potential for taking small game, particularly in bushy-twiggy habitats where ranges will be short. There seems to be no shortage of killing power if you can connect. A blowgun using broad-headed darts will take surprisingly large prey, and these little bows have a lot more power than any blowgun. Shooting small game with full-sized arrows has always seemed like "overkill" to me. Perhaps the aesthetics of the hunt would be better served in such cases by using smaller equipment. Rabbits and grouse (fool-hens) might be in real trouble considering the weapons low-visibility profile when used in a disinterested saunter type of stalk. It is amazing how close game will sometimes allow you to approach if they do not perceive a weapon in your hand. If tiny, ruthlessly sharp obsidian points were employed, even human-sized adversaries could be in extreme danger. This type of tackle also has great potential if you are a shameless jokester and want to make a weird impression at archery events. (Impersonating a giant pygmy with a clip-on plastic nose bone should be particularly effective. Even strange people will stare at you.) At any rate, I finally understand the phrase "wicked little Indian bows." Maybe now it will stop rattling around in my head.
P.S. About two weeks after writing the above, it appeared to me that an update was in order. I didnt want to re-write the article as it would destroy the flow of process and discovery that I went through so I elected to simply add new material as a post-script. I eventually managed to lodge a 16-inch oak-shafted arrow into my target tree unexpectedly striking it at 88 yards. The arrow remains imbedded there, 14 feet above the ground! Its angle of descent reveals that it would have impacted the ground at well over 100 yards. I thought it could. I also made a primitive "trigger" from a scrap of oak trim (see photo) and was surprised by how well it worked. I dont know if the design is new or if I just re-invented it but it is in public domain now.
Incidentally, I found a way to make artificial sinew last longer with less frizz. Simply gather the multiple strands together, pour several drops of contact cement on the top of your left thumb and forefinger and pull the strands through it with your right hand thoroughly coating and hopefully saturating them. You may want to wear some sort of hand protection for this operation. Fasten one end to a vertical nail and spin the strands in one direction wiping off excess glue. Put the loops in the right places and youre done. You can clean the wax from the strands with acetone before you start if you want but it seems to work well without it so far. I also used some of the stuff with yellow glue to set arrow points, first cleaning it well with acetone for this application. So far it seems to work pretty well, but I will always prefer real sinew. My stock of it just happens to be low at the present time.
I also recently discovered, by much trial and error, what is probably the best method to shoot tiny bows. I was using an even smaller but very stiff 24-inch Osage Orange bow at the time. Simply extend your grip hand about 18 inches in front of your chest, palm toward you, fingers extended upward at a natural angle. Place the grip area of the bow on the outside of your thumb where it joins your hand, spread your index and middle finger apart. Place the other end of the grip area between them, centering the arrow platform. Only the index finger should be in front of the bow. Grip only tightly enough to hold the bow in place. I know this seems a bit weird even after reading this article, but it works well. So well in fact that now, at 15 yards, what few cottontails remain in my area are advised to have their life insurance in effect. A two-fingered Mediterranean release, fingertips up, is so far the best I have found. This method yields a much improved sight picture. I also used a thumb-pinch release on Cherokee-fletch arrows to good effect by gripping a full 1-inch of shaft ahead of the nock. This feels more natural on the wrist. Experiment to determine which works best for you.
Dont fail to give tiny bows a try. It will broaden
you as an archer and give your creative juices a good stirring. Most of
all it is truly fun. To me, thats what primitive archery is all
© by Robert H. Miller (White Arrow) 9-25-2006
Copyright ©2017 Primitive Archer Magazine
All rights reserved.