FIRST, WE MUST CONSIDER the draw.
This is the amount of weight an archer pulls when drawing a bow: 50 pounds is the average draw for the male Olympian; 20 pounds the average for the female. With a recurve (the Olympic bow of choice), weight increases as the bow is drawn, stopping at its peak weight: imagine, if you will, the strength required to draw, steady, then focus your arrow with 50 pounds of tension weighing on a single arm, all in the hopes of hitting a target at 70 meters in less than 40 seconds. Like many of the Olympics’ less visually spectacular sports (curling comes to mind, though the Norwegian team’s harlequin pants certainly made an impression), archery’s drama is internal; but for those who have ever practiced it, as I have, watching archery reminds us that, while a feat of both instinct and psychology, it is most importantly a sport of stamina. The draw never changes, but your ability to pull efficiently does, and the tendency of your arrow to wobble — a weakness inherent to every shot due to the arrow’s torque — will only increase as you fatigue, even with the aid of a stabilizer. Without training, the draw weight will exhaust you after a few shots. Your target focus will slide, your bowstring fingers callous like a guitar player’s. Most painfully, the tender inner forearm of the hand that grips your bow belly will burn with welts that the bowstring, having released the arrow at 150 miles per hour, raises at it snaps against your exposed flesh like a wet whipcord of Kevlar. Instinctively, you’ll flinch at each release, ruining your shot. You will have to learn to wear an arm and chest guard.
Meanwhile the arrow (carbon or aluminum-based) will be on its swift yet downward trajectory, hopefully about to slice into the ever-longed for bull’s eye at the target’s heart. For the morbid among us wondering about the effects of an arrow on a hapless bystander, a 50 pound draw is enough to kill an elk at 40 feet; it is certainly enough to take out the less impressive mule deer or pierce the heart of an unlucky man. After the hideous murders in Aurora, Colorado, I hesitate to remind us that archery is, according to its origins, a martial art, but that is part of its appeal. At least it was for me, learning to shoot over a decade ago when I was living in Wyoming: intoxicated to find myself in control of a power that was, in its most essential form, deadly.
Of course, there are those who’ve stripped away these bloodier aspects of the sport to hone in on its craft. I’m thinking of Zen archery, a practice which focuses the participant’s mind on two of the most notable “weapons” in an archer’s arsenal: the stance and the breath, both of which are essential to archery as art. The breath, with its rising and falling action, its ability to steady or speed up the heart, is harnessed in one balletic motion to the raising of the bow, then to the drawing and notching of the arrow, then to the steadying of the sight. So, too, is one’s stance elemental; turning, as it does, the body into something arrow-like itself: the face forward but chest angled, one foot placed firmly before the other so that nothing impedes the arrow’s trajectory when released, nothing increases that troublesome fish-tailing. Stance is so important that the ancient Greeks believed the Amazons, fearless female bow hunters from the East, sheared off a breast to keep from marring it. If your chest is squared, your stance boxy or ...read more