COLUMBIA — Recurve bows are ancient history. For nearly 10,000 years, people have used them as hunting implements and weapons. The art of creating an effective and precise bow was perfected by peoples from the Mongol hordes of Central Asia to the Native American tribes of the Great Plains.
And then came Holless Wilbur Allen, and the world of bow hunting was changed forever.
Allen, who hails from north-central Missouri, and was recently inducted into the Archery Hall of Fame, applied the physics of pulleys to bows to make them able to shoot farther and faster while requiring less effort from the shooter. The first compound bow was patented in 1966, and from there it revolutionized the world of bow hunting and the sport of archery as a whole.
“When the compound bow came out, it took less than 10 years for them to completely dominate,” said Darren Haverstick, 48, president of the United Bowhunters of Missouri, a group whose membership is made of 99 percent recurve bow hunters.
Though compound bows remain popular, many hunters have shown resurgent interest in recurve bows in recent years. While the reasons for this return to traditional bows vary, advances in modern technology and increasing interest in archery as a whole have made it easier than ever to take up a “stick and string” bow.
Roger Fulton, the president of Black Widow Custom Bows in Nixa south of Springfield, has worked as a bowyer there for more than 25 years and has seen first-hand the changes in the recurve bow’s rising popularity. The number of custom-made recurve bows sold each year by his company ranges from 1,000 to 1,200, with each bow taking between six to eight weeks to complete.
“The number of bows that we sell runs in trends, but over the last 20 years or so we have definitely seen an increase in sales and interest.”
Black Widow Custom Bows' increased sales reflect a national trend in recurve bow sales, though their production remains confined mostly to independent makers and pro shops. National retail franchises, including Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, carry recurve bows that aren't custom made, increasing the exposure and availability of traditional bows for interested buyers.
The Internet has helped drive this increasing availability of recurve bows from makers, which has allowed a wider audience to have access to handmade, high quality recurve bows without the difficulties of finding a local bowyer.
“A mom-and-pop store that makes bows can sell them, which has certainly made the product more available,” Haverstick said. “More people know that they are not limited to what they can find within a few miles."
The materials used in compound bows and the design allow it to be produced on a larger scale than recurve bows, contributing significantly to their popularity. Recent advents in bow making technology, however, have made it easier to bring this same consistency and accuracy to the creation of recurve bows, and many bowyers use modern materials to make them stronger and more durable.
“We use wood and fiberglass to build our custom bows,” Fulton said, along with computerized numerical control machines "to aid in the process of making them more precise and consistent from bow to bow.”
Although compound bows originally made leaps and bounds in development, few fundamental changes have been made recently. Most of the current technological advances concern compound bow accessories or material upgrades.
“Compound bows have come a long way since the 1980s,” said Jeffery Blystone, the large and small game chairman and conservation committee chairman for the Missouri Bowhunters Association. “They have a little bit of a technology upgrade every year, especially since the 2000s, but it’s never anything major.”
“It is my belief that unless there is something completely revolutionary that changes the world of bows, I think that compound bows are maxed out,” said Guy Robert, a member of the Columbia Area Archers. “They have reached the maximum of where they are going to get speed wise and how much weight you can take off. … I think they are at that point now.”
This stagnation has left the door open for recurve bows to emerge as a competitor with compound bows in terms of the challenge presented to hunters, the availability and quality of the bow itself, and the price. Recurve bows have become easier to make, and increasing consistency between bows has allowed the market to expand.
Recurve bow hunting has a loyal following, and those who use them are committed to their craft. For most, it isn't always just about the kill.
The general consensus among recurve bow hunters is that hunting with traditional bows provides a test of their skills in a way that compound bows don’t.
“A compound is more forgiving, you can get away with more, you can have more imperfections in your form and your shooting stance, because you have a lot of mechanical tools,” Haverstick said. “With traditional archery, you have a string, you have your fingers, you have your arrow, and you have your bow, and you have to figure out how to make all of those work together at the same time, every time.”
Fulton has noticed this inclination in his customers. Many of those who visit Black Widow Custom Bows are experienced hunters looking to put the challenge back into bow hunting.
“Many shooters that have mastered the compound bow get so good with it that it’s no longer satisfying,” he said. “ Recurves are simpler and there is less that can go wrong, but it's more challenging than a compound bow.”
Recurve bows are often not the type of bow that hunters begin on, but it often becomes the bow they end up on. Those that use recurve bows argue there is more of a personal connection to their equipment: many of the pieces, including arrows, are handmade by the shooter, so there is an increased sense of involvement.
Charlie Langreder, who has been bow hunting for more than 60 years and works as an archery technician at Bass Pro, owns a total of 57 compound and recurve bows. Of those, two of his personal favorites are recurves: a Sky Rogue and a Black Widow. These two bows represent for him the reasons he loves using recurve bows: the challenge, the design and the personal connection.
There are various reasons why people make the transition, but it comes as no surprise to bow hunters currently using traditional bows — they know exactly why they prefer to hunt with one.
“It just gives you the feeling of being more involved in the whole process,” Haverstick said. “It’s not like you just bought something off a shelf and went out and killed an animal and now I’m done: I’m using equipment that I made, to go out and kill something that I’m going to eat and use to feed my family…I think more people are embracing that idea.”
The number of registered bow hunters in Missouri in 2011 numbered 161,527, and that number only includes purchased permits. Free permits issued to landowners brings the total to 377,825. The number of hunting permits in Boone County reflects state trends, with 2,531 purchased permits and 1,374 landowner permits in 2011.
With archery continuing to gain a presence in society through pop culture and educational programs, the number of hunters using bows is expected to continue to increase in the coming years.
“It’s a lifetime sport: you can do it forever, and it’s always challenging, whether you’re shooting paper targets or deer,” Blystone said. “You make your choices in how you want to spend your time, and in my mind archery is a great way to spend it.”
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