Sam Fadala is an outdoor writer specializing in hunting, fishing, conservation and natural history.
Tucked away in a mountain valley is the small town of Hamilton, Montana. The area holds promise for the archer in the form of big whitetail bucks that sneak the beautiful Bitterroot River bottom, and the elk, moose, mule deer and black bear that frequent the hills all around. Hamilton is also important to the bow and arrow enthusiast for another reason: It is the home of the Howard Hill Archery Company and Long Bow Manufacturing, producers of the famous Hill-style longbow and accouterments.
Ted Ekin runs the shop. John Schulz builds the bows. Friends and students of Howard Hill, both men are today continuing the tradition established by the world’s greatest archer by the manufacture and sale of the bows and equipment he used, and in perpetuating the Hill method of shooting the bow. I spent five hours in Ekin’s shop and Schulz’s little factory handling the merchandise, watching bows go together one at a time, listening to both men tell of Hill and his feats, witnessing Schulz shoot wooden discs out of the air and trying the longbow for myself.
As a youth I had many a lemonwood straight-stick bow. It seems that youngsters almost invent the bow all over again each generation, and the first models are bent bamboo poles or –in my case –an oleander limb with string. So I had experience with straight bows, but had never tried the handmade split-bamboo laminated creations fostered by Hill and his followers –until the trip to Hamilton.
I not only had the chance to try the bows, but I also hefted the arrow that Howard shot his big bull elephant with back in 1950. And I saw the shafts Hill used to shoot at the Sheriff of Nottingham’s men in the film “Robin Hood.” I had always wondered how they managed the famous split-arrow shot when Robin won the big tournament in Merry Olde England. Not trick photography at all, Hill performed that feat in real life, with actors, extras, and cameras looking on to verify it.
Ted Ekin met Howard Hill in California. Ted was an enthusiastic archer and tournament shooter at the time and, in 1960, he coupled his love for archery with Hill’s in a business venture. Archery was not yet enjoying widespread interest and sales were slow. Later on, Ekin got tired of the big city and decided to move to less populated climes. He found himself in Hamilton, Montana, along with the love for the longbow that followed him wherever he went. He had to try again, and he did in Hamilton. Of course, he needed someone to build the bows to Hill’s specs because they were going to be fully endorsed by the famous archer. Looking for the right man was easy. Hill had known John Schulz since Schulz was a boy, and he had taught him patiently how to craft the longbow just right. Ekin got ahold of Schulz, told him what he had in mind and Schulz moved to Hamilton. The bowyer set up the longbow company making the Hill bow exclusively for Ted Ekin.
John Schulz gluing a bow together. After it is glued, it will be put into an oven for a specified amount of time.
I knew a few moments after meeting Schulz that he was used to dealing with people who didn’t know much about longbows. He handed me an eighty-four pound model and I almost pitched it right over my head. It only weighed nineteen ounces!
“That feels like a bow, doesn’t it,” Schulz stated, no question intended. I had to admit it did. I expected an eighty-four pounder to have some physical weight to go with it.
“The true longbow,’ Schulz instructed me, “is not wide limbed, but thin, instead, and deep cored -thick, in other words, this makes ’em shoot right. In a word, they are stable.Several straight bows are being made today, but they are not the Hill-type of longbow that Howard Hill insisted on.”
The other types, I learned were flat-limbed straight bows, and having seen them I could tell a difference between the longbow and the straight-bow types, as Schulz made the distinction.
Today, the company builds several models: The Big Five and Tembo – Top of the line models with split-bamboo laminations – followed by the Mountain Man, Halfbreed and Redman – all handmade. None of the hill bows come off a press, and that is why you must have a bowyer, a craftsman, someone who puts them together one at a time.
Another bow in the line is the Howard Hill Commemorative, only seventy-five of them made – one for each year of Hill’s life. These sell for around $500, but the top of the line Big Five goes for about $140, with the Mountain Man running around $90. Aside from bows, there are the Hill style armguards and shooting gloves, as well as a fine back quiver made of tanned leather. I especially liked the quiver. Hill designed it and he must have done so after years of trial and error because it feels just right on the back and is easy to draw from.
Schulz looked me straight in the eye, grabbed up the eighty-four pound bow I had been admiring and twisted the string hard, right next to the bow nock. “That would unstring a recurve bow,” he said. “But it won’t bother this one because of that same word I mentioned earlier – stability. Hill told me he didn’t believe he could have performed his feats with the bow if he had had to use a more sensitive type.
“These bows are not sensitive,” Schulz went on, ” and you don’t shoot them the way you do a compound or a recurve.” I had a feeling I was in for a lesson, and I was right. Ekin and Schulz walked over to the ever-present shooting bales by the shop and Schulz shot while Ekin talked.
“You should have seen Howard shoot,” Ekin said. “He was fluid. He was smooth. He said you had to keep the right momentum. If you drew rapidly, you shot fast. If you drew slowly, you shot slower. It was a rhythm that you didn’t break.”
Hill did not shoot straight up, head high. He leaned into his shot as a good shotgunner does. In fact, the best comparison I can think of to explain his way of handling the bow is a comparison of rifle and shotgum shooting. The rifleman stands tall and relaxed – but not loose. He aims deliberately and usually has a device to help him aim. He squeezes off carefully. Most of us shoot a bow this way, maybe because we are, basically a nation of riflemen. The good shotgunner is loose and natural in his swing, leaning a bit forward perhaps, relaxed, not choking down on his gun, maintaining a smooth balance and flow. That was Hill. And that was why he could hit moving targets. He passed this style of shooting on to his young partner, John Schulz, almost twenty years ago and Schulz went on to give exhibitions of his own, most recently at the Pennsylvania Bowhunter’s Festival where Schulz’s shooting and talking earned him an invitation to next year’s meet.
Watching a longbow shooter at work, one would think he does not actually sight his bow. He does, but not with a device. He sights his bow by knowing several things almost intuitively: the range, the arc of the arrow to get to that range, the size of the target and the relationship of all the variables. All of us have some facility at this kind of aiming. If we toss a rock at a tin can forty feet away we will be close most of the time, even though the rock pitched is ill-shaped and uneven, varying in weight from other stones we might pitch right after it.
We don’t have any sights on that rock but know fairly well how to launch it because we have a feeling for how much power it will take to reach the target, how much arc, how large the target is and the relationship of all these things. Longbows don’t normally wear sights because this instinctive type of shooting style is employed with them.
They say Hill looked at the point of his arrow and the gap it made with the target, above or below it. This may be, and I have no way of knowing how true it is, but I would bet a dollar to a gumdrop that Hill felt his way to the target using the instinctive principles we all have facility for when we practice.
Purists that they are, Ekin and Schulz have studied the bow type they like so well and compared it with the more elaborate fashions on the market today. Their witnessed findings interested me, as I think they will the reader. First, actual performance of the Hill-type laminated bamboo fiberglass bow is up with other types of instruments.
“When we get bow orders, the customer always seems to ask for something ten pounds heavier than his present recurve ‘so it will shoot with it'” say’s Schulz “I don’t know why. Usually I will write back and suggest that he buy a bow of the same weight because the longbow shoots right with the other types.”
Schulz is especially upset when people tell him that compounds will shoot fifty percent faster than his stick bows. At one meet, a bow company had a chronograph set up and Schulz shot his personal longbow against a compound. The compound won, by three foot-seconds of speed.
“Now, that is hardly fifty percent,” Schulz chuckled. Both bows were about the same weight and the same arrows were shot. Of course, a compound can use light spined arrows in many cases and then it will gain in the velocity domain, but even then a full fifty percent will seldom be the case.
On hunts or wherever archers gather, Schulz and Ekin are willing to put their Hill bows up against the recurves and compounds that are present, and so far they have not been embarrassed by the performance of the so-called old-fashioned longbow. Shooting for cast distance, they outranged many a modern factory recurve in the presence of other archers. Difference of opinion makes not only the horse race, but also the existence of different styles and types of equipment, of course. But I did learn that thinking of the longbow of today as that lemonwood stick of yesteryear is a mistake.
Schulz went on to explain that the biggest problem he had in bow orders was the tendency for archers to overtax themselves in bow pull. Par of this, he felt, was the old wives’ tale about the longbow having to weigh more to perform well. I suspect, too, that when we order a Hill bow we have an image of the master in our minds and we are somewhat ashamed to say “Send me a fifty-five pounder” when Howard used an eighty-five in his backyard for practice.
Hill reasoned that he could gain speed, thus having to worry less about arrows varying widely from his line of sight,and also gain penetration by learning to draw heavy pulls. He was, of course, right. He also worked his way up to those big bows of one hundred and more pounds. He did not start with them. Hill was a powerful man. With several onlookers he strung a one hundred-pound bow while sitting in a chair. He was about 60 years old at the time.
As archers, we have to first of all be honest with ourselves when it comes to bow weight, and we have to acknowledge the fact that we are not sissies just because our bows don’t pull ninety pounds. But I’m guilty. Having made it to seventy pounds I figured I would go one step further and try the thrill of whistling arrows out of an eighty. I was whistling alright, but not arrows. The whistle was a “whew!” as I strained back on the string. After using up two full tubes of liniment on my sore muscles, I dropped back to the seventy.
There is a current trend to return to traditional archery and the equipment that goes with it, while at the same time compound bow sales soar and new models appear, it seems, weekly. I like the trend. It makes sense to me. We should have the choice of equipment, and we should be able to expand our tackle so that we have several kinds if we want to. I have a good rifle, but it doesn’t mean that I am going to throw my shotgun away. They compliment each other and serve at different capacities.
Besides, the argument of longbow versus recurve versus compound is mostly academic in the first place and is something akin to comparing bananas and apples which are both fruit, but that is where the comparison ends – shape, texture and constitution being vastly different. The same holds true for the bow types, and Howard Hill knew it. Sure, the longbow was for him. He loved the simplicity and the high performing stability, but he also said, “No matter what kind of bow you shoot, no matter whether you shoot freestyle or barebow, if you are shooting with a bow and arrow I am with you.”
As for the scientific arguments that underrate the longbow and take two reams of graph paper, a calculator and twenty formulae to decipher, well, remember that scientifically the bumblebee cannot in any way manage to fly. His mass is too great for the wing surface and his muscle structure too limited. Please, though, don’t tell the bee. He doesn’t know he can’t fly and it might prove a hell of a disappointment for him to find out.
Schulz and his son John clamp a bow that has been glued. The laminations are bamboo and glass
The longbow is a worthy addition to the tackle of the modern archer. In a world of supersonic flight and computerized living, it is refreshing to handle a tool basic and simple, and that is the longbow. It’s somewhat refined today with modern cements bonding split bamboo to risers of bubinga and rosewood, but traditional in form all the same.
While a spaceship scoops a cup of Martian soil with its metallic hand, depositing the dust into a scientific chamber for analyses, some of us are taking a few moments out of a busy schedule to propel feathered shafts from a bent stick the way our forbears did in times past, and maybe that is what recreation is all about <—–<<