On these fall days bow hunters are cautiously moving along the forest trails, slipping silently into fields, standing motionless behind rock ledges. It takes a sharp eye to spot them. They dress in camouflage clothes, sometimes darkening their faces for further disguise, blending into the multihued foliage. They are a determined breed who deliberately shun the advantages of modern weaponry for the challenges of the primitive.
Until just after World War II, when the fiber-glass laminated bow with its improved accuracy and durability was developed, archers were a minuscule percentage of the country's hunters. Today they number close to three million. There are special bow hunting seasons, which in most cases take place before regular shooting seasons, and often they are as long, or longer.
Neither gun hunters nor game commissions have lost much sleep worrying about the game supply after bow hunting seasons; with their low success ratio, archers have little effect on game populations. Their slow, cumbersome, short-range weapons give game more than a sporting chance. This, in fact, has been a basic lure of bow hunting: the pitting of man against animal on elementary and demanding terms. Only the most optimistic bow hunter expects to return from a day in the field with meat for the freezer. Indeed, for every bow hunter who does, upward of 30 do not, which is why game commissions can afford to be liberal in setting archery seasons.
Or can they? That question is being asked this year in more than one state game department and, disconcertingly, the answer is not as clear-cut as it should be. The reason is the arrival on the scene in the last few years of a contraption known as the compound bow, which has revolutionized the sport of archery.
The compound bow has actually been around for almost a dozen years—it was invented in 1966 by a Missourian, Holless W. Allen—but in its early form it was crude in design and construction, and illegal for hunting in most states. It was not until the 1970s, when several archery manufacturers began experimenting with it, that the compound finally interested hunters. The largest bow manufacturer, Bear Archery, which produces 30% of all the archery equipment sold in the world, was one of the last to get into compounds. When it did in 1974, after several years of research and testing, compound sales took off. Today Bear produces seven different models ranging in price from $65 to $269.95.
"The compound is here to stay," says Fred Bear. "Since it has been made legal for hunting, it has taken over. There is still a place for the conventional bow, and a lot of folks like me will go on shooting them, but the trend is definitely toward the mechanical bow."
The key word here is mechanical, and it is at the root of most of the objections to the use of the compound in hunting. Like the longbow, the compound is hand held, hand drawn and hand released, but otherwise there is little resemblance between it and the longbow. The compound looks like a Rube Goldberg contraption. Its bowstring is connected to what seems to be enough steel cable to winch a truck, which in turn is threaded through a series of eccentric pulleys that make the bow look like a lopsided cat's cradle. It has wheels and arms and gears and bolts and is, in short, a hodgepodge of wood, fiber glass, metal and plastic. There is only one word to describe the compound: ugly.
The advantage of the compound is the ease with which it can be drawn. A regular bow heavy enough for hunting requires considerable strength to bring to full draw. Few hunters can hold a 60- or 70-pound bow at full draw for more than eight or ten seconds. With the compound, it is possible to hold, and hold, and hold.
In oversimplified terms, the compound works like a block and tackle. Through the first half or so of the draw, a compound feels the same and requires the same strength as a conventional bow. But then suddenly the strain lessens by as much as 50% when the pulley with an off-center axle takes over. The string seems to stretch effortlessly, like a rubber band, to full draw position. More important, particularly for hunters, who make up 80% of all archers, the arrow can be held at full draw long enough and steadily enough to take precise aim. The compound also is more accurate. A compound bow sighted for 35 yards will probably be accurate at 30 yards as well as at 40, a margin unattainable with conventional bows, and improved accuracy means less crippled game.
Why then, with so much to recommend it, are some people nervous about the compound? The answer is probably more philosophical than practical. There is a sense of cheating, of doing something better with less (although in this case, considering all those wires and wheels, less is actually more) that tweaks the Puritan spirit.