I used to shoot NFAA and IFAA Field so when I read this story I enjoyed it immensely.
The story is about the Legendary recurve built by Glenn St. Charles and is still being crafted today by his son Jay St. Charles. www.selfbow.com
I asked Jay if I can share the story with our TAS membership and he agreed. If you enjoyed the story leave a message for Jay.
A History of the St. Charles Thunderbird Recurve
The St. Charles Thunderbird Recurve was developed during the early “hay days” of the National Field Archery Association. GI’s were now raising families and were looking for active outdoor family recreation. They found Field Archery in its woodland, social setting was an excellent choice. To quote a local organizer “we can’t build ranges fast enough to keep up with the demand”.
Besides ranges, what was needed was readily available archery tackle and particularly bows that would hold up under the stress of shooting lots of arrows. In the early ‘50s it was a common event to shoot a 56 target field course in a single day. That’s 224 arrows, plus prior practice and maybe another 14 target Animal round thrown in too.
Modern fiberglass, developed during the war, was helping make high durability possible. Also possible were new and efficient shapes for bows and limbs. A new, recreation driven archery technology was in the making and our father Glenn St. Charles, with already 20 years of bow making under his belt, was riding the crest of this activity and the introduction of the fully working recurve bow limb.
With a local proving ground of hundreds of active and competitive Field archers and newly budding bowhunters, bow development progressed rapidly. Thunderbird prototypes were in use in Fall ‘52 and by ‘53 a new dedicated bow crafting shop had been built near our already established family archery business, the Northwest Archery Company in Normandy Park WA.
Demand was great for this new working recurve bow, with its handle riser longer relative to earlier bow designs. And with constant feedback from the many local Field Club Archers, it evolved. Of the original 300 plus Thunderbirds ultimately produced, although they are all of a pattern, there are no two that were ever made exactly the same.
The Thunderbird was a very successful project for my father. They all sold, most before completion, with a list of waiting archers. In 1953 there was simply nothing else like it. And as subsequent history has shown, it was years ahead in design and function.
But the Thunderbird also asked and answered some hard questions for my father.
It had given him a glimpse of what a life producing large numbers of a product might be like. Worries about supplies, marketing, future employees and everything attendant to a larger manufacturing effort were there in front of him. It became clear to him that this was a project that would literally tie him down.
My father had long had another goal, a commitment really, and that was to secure a future for another related activity that he had come to love. That activity was called bowhunting.
An early personal experience in the 1930’s, a frustrating effort to secure and maintain the simple privilege to hunt with a bow and arrow had left an indelible mark. It left him with a commitment and a vision to do what he could to bring this activity, hunting with a bow and arrow, to the forefront of hunting. He could see a long uphill battle to establish bowhunting as a mainstream activity and for him, that was the goal of his future.
His experience with the Thunderbird had created a turning point. Be tied down to a manufacturing plant or pursue the bigger broader goal. It was time.
In talks held with his friend Fred Bear at the 1953 National Field Archery Championships in Wisconsin, a picture began to form. He would go on the road, selling Bear Archery products to sporting goods dealers through out the Northwest and Alaska. Dad insisted it be a commission only arrangement because he wanted his time to be his own.
Our family Northwest Archery Company had long sold Bear Archery products and in 1954 we became their West Coast warehouse.
This all fit my father’s goal, being charged with and being free to travel the West, talking with dealers, archery club and other bowhunters. This was the pathway towards his vision of a secure mainstream future for bowhunting.
A History of the St. Charles Thunderbird Recurve
Part 2, About the Bows
Thunderbirds in Action ‘52-‘54
A group picture of the Cascade Archers, Angle Lake WA from 1954 (below) shows Thunderbirds as the only identifiable bows.
Competitive archers adopted the new working recurve bows and won with them. Images from the 1954 Washington State Field Archery Championships show both 66”/67” and 63” Thunderbirds in most competitors hands.
And they were hunted with as well. As was true throughout the country, Field Archers were some of the most active bowhunters of the time.
Draw weights ran the full gamut from 20#ers to a least one 70#, that was used heavily (no pun!) on the field rounds by Cascade Archers member Herb Marsh.
It’s a guess, but I believe all of the originals were built between late ‘52 and sometime in 1954, most in a surplus Quonset Hut at about 246th and Highway 99 in what is now Kent WA.
My father told me about an old claw foot bathtub where early experiments and rejects were tossed, “It was full”.
Although they are all “of a pattern” in their shape and finish detail, there are almost no two that are exactly the same and there are some obvious evolutions that took place in comparing early numbers and later ones. The Thunderbirds were built in two lengths on two different forms, a 63” and a 66”-67”. Besides being different lengths the takeoff angle from the riser is different from the 63” to the 66”-67” as well. Some bows may be found marked other lengths.
The handle risers were all roughly 23”, fadeout to fadeout and variously of walnut, mahogany and eastern maple. Most were from a single piece of wood, although some were laminated in various and distinct ways. Limbs were two to three of laminations eastern maple, both tapered and parallel. The bow backings were a woven fiberglass of brown, black, green and gray. I’m not certain what the common belly/face material is, my father didn’t remember, but it appears to be a phenolic, most in white with some in green, brown and black. Woven glass belly/facing was used as well. Viewing the bows closely it becomes clear that much hand fitting took place during assembly and glue up. In conversation with my father he was unsure of the exact adhesive used, but thought is was a form of resorcinol, common to boat building.
The first Thunderbird that I built using the original 63” form I closely approximated the laminations of an example 44# Original Thunderbird. The resulting bow was over 80#!
Clearly the energy storing ability of the old materials was not the same as modern Gordon Botuff! Sure enough, I had to reduce my lam thickness dimensions of the original 44# over 30% to reach that draw weight using modern fiberglass.
Tip detail was a simple single overlay (phenolic?) throughout. The face material, in its thickness, allowed for an elaborate and deep string grove detail. This is clear in images of the tips, offered earlier. Throughout all examples is shown an effort to keep the tips and upper limbs light in weight. It’s clear that these bows were made with performance in mind.
There were separate individual forms for both the 63” and 66”/67” bows. These are a part of my collection and are of cast and machined aluminum, beautifully made. In the early 1950’s many, if not most, local archers worked for the Boeing Aircraft Company. And I know some of them worked in the Boeing Model Shop. It’s been my guess that these bow forms were products of that skilled shop.
Glue ups utilized rubber bands from truck and car inner tubes.
Each bow was individually numbered and marked with draw weight and bow length. A black, clear backed Thunderbird decal was placed usually on the bow limb face, sometimes on the bottom, sometimes on the top. If the limb face happened to be black the decal was placed on the handle riser. Numbering of bow started at #101. Total production was somewhere around 360+ . If anyone happens to know of any higher numbered than #450 (actual #350) I’d thank you to let me know.
After Thunderbird production shut down, sometime in 1954, the original Thunderbird forms, along with other parts and jigs went into a large 12’x20’ unpainted wooden shed behind our family archery shop, the Northwest Archery Company, west of SeaTac Airport.
Also stored there were disused artifacts from other archery and bow crafting shops. It was a time capsule of old bow shops, including leavings from Kore Duryee’s 1920’s-‘40’s efforts and from my father’s early 1940’s shop along Airport Way in South Seattle.
There everything, Thunderbird forms included, sat through five decades, the ‘50’s, ‘60’s, 70’s, ‘80s and ‘90’s.
Archers and bowhunters were happy with the modern factory production recurves of the day. They were also happy with the various new compound bows that had almost totally replaced recurves by the late ‘70s.
And then things slowly began to change again. Some archers and bowhunters began to want their bows back, their “real bows”. A brand new phrase was coined, “traditional archery”.