First lesson. I turn up. Normal start time 7pm but we’re all here, us beginners, at 6.30pm so we can do some preparatory stuff. The professionals seem friendly but preoccupied. There’s not much in the way of introductions. We beginners stand around awkwardly as the officials fuss with things in lockers and bits of paper. They take a register. Eleven of twelve have turned up. People are playing badminton in the large sports hall and we wait for them to finish.
We get told about finding your dominant eye. Basically, one eye seems to send a stronger message to the brain than the other. You hold up your fingers to make a triangle to look through, and hold out the triangle at arm’s length. You then focus on a point on a wall and bring that triangle back to your eyes. It will come to your left or right eye. I was left eye dominant. But having spoken to my work colleague previously, I thought this was a problem. Left eye dominant means you want to hold the bow with your right hand and draw the string with your left. But I write with my right hand, and standing that way around would feel like trying to write with my left hand – totally awkward. I get advice from one coach to do it anyway. Another tells me to do what feels natural. I end up with a bow I hold in my left hand so I can draw with my right hand. This feels natural. This is what I would do if someone unleashed me with a bow and arrow in a forest and I was pretending to be Robin Hood.
We get a quiver, which I struggle to tie around my waist. I make a joke about it being set for a child, hence my need to lengthen it several times until it will fit. I get a bracer and think “good”, remembering the bruise I’d received during the National Trust event.
We get given tabs, which are things that go on the fingers to stop the string rubbing away at them and injuring them after repeated shooting. They’re fiddly to put on and use. I immediately decide I don’t like the tab. I get three arrows. I look down the length of them, pretending to know what I’m looking for. Why not? The other beginners look even more lost at sea than I am feeling. In fairness, I’m making sure its straight and structurally sound, like the books I’ve read say to do.
We’re still waiting for badminton to finish, so I introduce myself to a few of the other beginners and make light conversation. The badminton lot clear off. We’re then told to watch the coaches set up the hall for archery. We’re to help with this stuff next week.
We get a brief welcome from the coaches. We do a warm up. It’s feeble and short-lived compared to what I used to do in karate years ago, but it works a few aches and some stiffness out. I can see them waiting for me to fall over when we stand on one leg and rotate a hovering foot. I don’t.
I’m paired with a fourteen year old boy. I realise he’s not going to be the most conversationally-fulfilling of shooting partners. But it works out well, because he fires off all three arrows at speed each time we shoot. This means I get all the attention from the coach as I awkwardly set up each shot. The coach (one of several) has a host of gold medals and county titles and I say I want to shoot longbow and have obviously hooked his interest. Probably unlike most beginners, I have some inkling of what I want out of this. He’s a longbow champion. I get a lot of good coaching on day one and it’s great.
Let’s take a step back, though. The bows we have are recurves. Today is all about learning terminology and etiquette and the very basics. The recurve is a bow with two removable limbs. It has a ‘riser’ which is the bit you hold in the middle. The limbs (top and bottom of the bow, which each look like half a ski) are removable, not that we have any intention of doing this. The recurve, I’ve read, is a fast and accurate type of bow and can be used for barebow shooting (meaning not have a sight and other things attached to it). It’s called a recurve because the limbs curve back on themselves. This is apparently what makes them faster and more accurate than, say, a flatbow or longbow that doesn’t do this. They’re used in the Olympics, so I assume this is right.
The arrow has a shaft (or spine). This can be wood, or carbon, or various things. ‘Spine’ is also seems to be the term used to describe the stiffness of the arrow. This is all very important but I don’t really take all this in, because I’m just wanting to shoot something. The arrowhead is at one end (it’s just a point so you can pull it out the target easily, it would only be an ‘arrow shape’ if you wanted it to stick in an animal you were hunting) and the other end of the arrow has the nock, a plastic clip to attach the bow to the string. When you attach the arrow to the string, you ‘nock’ it, so the word is a noun and a verb, as far as I can tell. You clip the arrow under a little metal ring attached to the string, called the nocking point (although this also gets called a nock sometimes). There’s three feathers on an arrow, called the fletching. In reality, the ones we use are plastic and called vanes. One is a different colour to the other two, and this is called the index vane, or cockfeather in traditional archery, and you point this one towards yourself so the arrow sits correctly before being launched. See, lots of terminology on day one.
We shoot at the bosses. A boss is the name for the big round straw thing that the arrows go into. Later, paper archery targets will be pinned to it for scoring purposes, but not until lesson three. For now, we’re working on our form.
We stand side on, feet parallel to the target, but my longbow coach tells me I can open my stance so the forward foot points slightly toward the target. This feels more comfortable. There’s a blue line on the floor and when shooting you must always keep one foot behind the line. I suppose this is so you don’t edge into the shooting range and get hit by an errant arrow.
I’m told my elbow overextends. This explains the bruising I got when the string pinged my arm. I have to rotate the arm a bit so I don’t get the string twanging off it and giving me bruises (somehow the string missed the bracer and hits me above where it sits). I’m shown how to circle the bow with two fingers and curl the three other underneath, which is a good hand position but should also save my bicep from further torture.
We pull the string back with three fingers together under the arrow. This is going to be instinctive shooting. Anyway, there’s no particular aiming on my part.
I nock an arrow. I shoot. I hit the boss. I don’t miss the boss once all evening. Altogether, it is very satisfying and I am truly bitten with the bug. So much yet to learn though.
A little about etiquette and safety. On one whistle, you shoot. Three, it’s safe to go and collect your arrows. If someone shouts “Fast!” you put your arrows back in the quiver until you hear that first whistle again. This is a safety thing. When you go to take your arrows out of the boss, you walk up to the side of the boss. If you walk straight on and someone is using long arrows, you might lose an eye. When you pull them out the boss, look behind you so you don’t stab someone with it. If your partner missed the boss, then wait for them to collect their missing arrows before returning to the shooting line. Remove the arrows with one hand while placing the other flat on the boss to stop it falling over and crushing you, your partner, and snapping a load of expensive arrows. Don’t walk with your arrows, put them back in the quiver. It’s all common sense, but it’s good to take note and do it correctly so as not to piss anyone off.
I drive home feeling like I’ve really found my sport.