Coach, Coach, Can I Shoot My Bow?

by The AER Staff

If this question hasn’t been directed your way yet, it will be soon. Your student, youth or adult, is looking to you for a good answer here. The scary thing, though, is that you have no idea where this bow has come from. Maybe they just bought it . . .  or maybe it has been in Aunt Delia’s attic for the last 40 years. So, what do you do?

There are two parts to an answer to this question: #1 Is it safe for anyone to shoot this bow? and #2 Is it suitable for this particular student? We’ll look at both of these in some detail and give you some tools to work with.

Is it Safe for Anyone to Shoot this Bow? If the bow was just purchased, the odds the bow isn’t safe are very low. And, yes, this does happen, students show up to class with brand new bows and they didn’t ask you anything about what is involved in buying one. And we don’t have time during Class #1 to include the message “Please don’t go out and buy a bow just yet, we will give you information about that later.” Just last year we had two boys come to their second class with bows their parents had just purchased for them. So, if this is the case, that is you have new bows to deal with, you can just skip down to the next section.

If the bow is clearly not new, then there is a greater concern as to whether the bow is shootable. Of course, you want to ask about the bow: “How did you get it?” “How old is it?” “Where has it been stored?” and while you are getting the story, do a visual inspection of the bow. If the bow has wooden parts, are there any cracks or splits in the wood? If there are metal parts, do you see any corrosion or other damage. Check all cables and strings for fraying and broken strands. Check the limbs for stress cracks (small cracks parallel to the edge of the limb) and delaminations (separations of the layers of a limb). Small stress cracks are usually not a problem but delaminations make the bow into a “wall hanger,” that is suitable to be used as a decoration only.

What you are looking for does depend on the kind of bow. Compound bows have cables and slides and cams that are all moving parts. Recurve bows and longbows have very few moving parts. Most serious damage is hard to pick up by eye: this is because if the bow were obviously damaged, most people wouldn’t even ask you to check it.

Now the bow has to be tested in action. Under no circumstances are you to try to pull a suspect bow using normal archery form! Instead, if the bow is a recurve bow, it is time to try to brace it. If they brought it in already braced, ask them how long it has been braced. If it has been braced a long time, it is far likelier to have suffered some damage than if not. The bracing itself is not a problem if the limbs include fiberglass laminations; it is just that if the bow has been subjected to extreme temperatures and/or humidity’s while braced, it is more likely to have suffered damage.

Use a bowstringer and slowly and careful see of you can get the bow braced. Listen to the bow as it is bent. If you hear any creaks or cracking noises, stop, back up . . . and tell the bow’s owner that you don’t think the bow is safe to shoot. They might want to get another opinion from a bow mechanic or other expert.

If you can brace the bow, then you can do a draw test. On a rug, or folded towel, place the bow (back down) on the padded surface. Place your foot on the grip area where your bow hand would normally go. Then draw . . . slowly, slowly . . . the bowstring straight up (see the photo). Again, you are listening for creaks or cracking noises. If you hear any, tell the bow’s owner that you don’t think the bow is safe to shoot, but they might want to get another opinion from a bow mechanic or other expert. This is done this way so that if the bow does break catastrophically, the pieces will be flung into the floor/ground rather into you. So, It is a good idea to keep spectators back 5-6 feet for safety.

If the bow is a compound bow, the test is the same, again you listen carefully, and you need to look to see if all of the moving parts are moving and moving freely. If anything looks at all suspicious (parts sticking, creaking or cracking noises, etc.), err on the side of caution and tell the bow’s owner that you can’t tell if the bow is safe to shoot, and they will have to get a good bow mechanic or other expert to examine it and clear it for use. (Tell them they will be charged for that service including charges for any replacement parts needed.)

While this took quite a while to describe, it only takes a few minutes or so to check out a bow.

At all times, you must be aware of your own limitations. If you have little experience with compound bows or older wooden recurve bows, whatever the case, it is best to deflect the question to a skilled bow mechanic at a good archery shop. If there is no such shop nearby, maybe somebody at a local club can help them out. I say “them” as this is not “your” issue. If you take such tasks onto yourself, remember that people will hold you accountable for any mishaps in the process (and probably won’t pay you for your time and effort, either).

To Check An Older Bow for Safety

1. Do a visual inspection.

2. If a recurve brace the bow (listen).

3. Do a draw test (listen).

4. Err on the side of caution.

Now that the scary part is over (having a bow disintegrate at full draw is very dangerous and should never happen during a class you are running) let’s look at the other part of the question’s answer.

Is the Bow Suitable for This Particular Student? This is potentially a tougher question to answer. Remember that you are provided program equipment where everything was predetermined to work together for students like yours. When somebody brings their own equipment, you have no idea if it is so matched, so it must be checked. Let’s look at each particular concern and how you can go about checking to see if things work for your student.

Is the bow too heavy?
If the bow is too heavy for the student, it can’t be shot with good form, so it is a detriment to learning archery. To test whether the bow is light enough to hold up at arm’s length, we recommend the Is the Bow Too Heavy? Test.

Is the Bow Too Heavy Test
Have the student lift the bow straight out to their side with one arm (where it would be if they were shooting) and then count to five . . . slowly. If they can’t hold the bow up for that length of time then the bow is too heavy. If they can get to five . . . slowly . . . then the bow is okay.

Be aware that a very enthusiastic student who fails this test will say, “Let me try again, I know I can do it.” If it were easy (as it should be) they would have done it the first time. Trying to wield a bow that is too heavy or has too much draw weight, or too much of anything is very unwise.

Encourage the student, if younger, that he can try again . . . in six months. “You are just going to have to grow into it.” Practice this sentence, you will say it more than a few times.

Is the bow too big or too small?
With recurve bows and longbows, the height of the bow is a factor in its ability to be shot well. The test is to put the tip of the strung bow on the student’s shoe top and then see how far up the other tip is on his/her body. The other tip should be somewhere between chin and nose. It can be lower or higher, but if much lower (5-6 inches or more) the bow is being overstressed by a too long draw and there is the possibility of the string coming off of the limb tips at full draw; if much higher (5-6 inches or more) then the bow’s limbs are not working effectively (getting less energy out of the bow while the archer is doing more work than necessary). It is not dangerous to shoot a bow that is too long, it just doesn’t work as well as a better fitting bow. In this case, we try to talk the student into continuing to use the program bows until they had grown some, but if they insisted there is no harm in shooting the bow.

Does the bow have too much draw weight?
Having too much draw weight kills archery form. It is as simple as that. Ask the archer to draw the bow using their best form (remind them of the danger of dry fires first) a couple of times. If they seem to be straining at all with the draw, you can do a more formal test. Here is a test to tell if the bow they want to use has too little, too much, or just the right amount of draw weight. This test was developed by Coach Kim, H.T. of Korea:

The Draw Weight Test
Draw your bow to anchor, hold for seven seconds comfortably, then let down to predraw position (3-4 inches of draw) for two seconds. If you can do this eight times in succession without strain, your draw weight is correct. If you can only do this 3-4 times, it will be difficult to learn to shoot well. If you can do this ten times, your draw weight can be increased.

Note that at no time during the test does the student get to rest or even get back to brace height. This test was developed for archers who already had good form so you don’t have to be too strict in its interpretation. Five or six reps using good form is probably a passing performance.

If you have a compound bow, this test doesn’t work, so simply ask the student to draw the bow on the level using their best form and then do a let down back to brace, rest for two seconds and then redraw. The same numbers of repetitions should be good indicators of whether the bow is easy enough to draw.

To Check Bows for Fit

1. Do a “Is the bow too heavy?” test.

2. Check for adequate length of recurves and longbows.

3. Do a draw weight test.

4. Err on the side of caution.

Are the student’s arrows the right size and in shooting condition? Your student may also present some arrows for you to examine. If they are willing to continue to use our arrows, all you have to check is whether there is good nock fit (see below) (Generally we are more comfortable with the student using our arrows, but it may be important to the student to use his/hers.) If they absolutely want to use their own arrows do a visual inspection of the arrows that came with the bow. Look for bends (aluminum), cracks (carbon, fiberglass), and broken nocks, loose points, and missing vanes (all). After being found fit to be used, the two most critical aspects of the arrows are length (for safety) and nock fit.

Are the arrows of a safe length? Just do the same arrow fitting routine you were taught in your Beginner Course class (see photo and your Instructor Training Manual).

Is the nock fit okay? To test if the nocks fit on the bowstring acceptably, do the Nock Fit Test:

The Nock Fit Test
To test for nock fit, snap an arrow onto the bowstring and allow it to hang straight down. If you slap the string right next to the arrow with a couple of fingers, the arrow should fall off. If the arrow won’t hang at all, the nock is too loose. If it won’t come off when the string is struck in the test, it is too tight.

If the nocks are too loose, the string can be replaced with one of more strands, or re-served with thicker serving thread. If too tight, larger grooved nocks can be used, or the string can be replaced with one of fewer strands, or re-served with thinner serving thread. The book Simple Maintenance for Archery has an easy procedure for adjusting the diameter of a bowstring upward (the most common fix needed) that only uses some dental floss and which can save time and effort.

If the arrows are unbroken, long enough, and have adequate nock fit, they can be used.

To Check Older Arrows for Safety/Fit

1. Do a visual inspection.

2. Check for adequate length.

3. Do a nock fit test.

4. Err on the side of caution.

Your ability to answer the “Hey, Coach, Can I Use My Bow?” question is always limited by your experience and knowledge. We recommend you err on the side of caution and if you have a good local archery shop, it doesn’t hurt to drop by or call them up and ask them whether they will perform this service. If they do so for a reasonable fee, it is strongly recommended you defer to their expertise. If there is no such shop available, it may be up to you and as long as you are cautious, you will serve your customers well by following the practices outlined above.

If you want to coach the intermediate AER Curriculum, the one in which all of the students eventually must get their own bows and arrows, you need to take the Intermediate Instructor training course. We will have an article on that training soon.

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