Tag Archives: Longbows

Hugh D.H. Soar (1926–2022)

I just got notified that Hugh Soar has died, which was not unexpected as he was closer to being 100 than 90, but still sad. While one could declare that Hugh was a big fish in a small pond, he was the pre-eminent archery historian of the Western Tradition in the world, in my opinion.

He wrote a slew of books on archery history, all written  in what I call a charming, somewhat archaic, style. I had the honor of editing his last book, The Young at Archery. Other titles included:

Straight and True: A Select History of the Arrow

The Crooked Stick: A History of the Longbow

The Romance of Archery: A Social History of the Longbow

Secrets of the English War Bow

How to Shoot the Longbow: A Guide from Historical and Applied Sources

Of Bowmen and Battles

Hugh was sought out for his expertise by television shows and other media, and his collection of more than 240 bows and other artifacts is among the finest in the world.

Hugh was a member of the Mary Rose Trust Committee. The Trust’s primary aims are to preserve, display and spread knowledge about the 16th century warship, Mary Rose, which sank in the Solent on 19 July 1545 and was salvaged by the Trust in October 1982. The sixteenth century in England was right in Hugh’s wheelhouse, and the ship contained many, many bow staves and bows and arrow shafts, broadheads, etc.

He received a number of honors in his life and he was a member of quite a few historical archery companies, such as the British Longbow Society, the Royal Toxophilite Society, of which he was General Secretary for eleven years, and he founded the Craft Guild of Traditional Bowyers and Fletchers.

He is survived by his wife, Veronica-Mae, whose writings also graced the pages of Archery Focus magazine, and several children and grandchildren.

I am honored to have gotten to work with him.


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Should Coaches Necessarily Be Good Archers, Too?

I was watching a golf instruction video and the coach giving the lesson demonstrated what he was talking about by hitting the shots as described. All of these coaches, even when quite old, still play very good golf. When the PGA certifies its coaches, there is a score requirement, that is coaches need to be able to shoot a very good score on a course whose difficulty has been determined (no cherry picking of a really easy course to set your mark, the easier the course, the lower the score required!).

“If you are a coach what should be expected as to level of your expertise with bow and arrow?”

In contrast to that requirement, in all of my coach certifications, and there are a good half dozen of those, I have never been asked to demonstrate my skill as an archer (or as a coach for that matter). I have only been asked to demonstrate my knowledge by passing a paper and pencil test.

And even further extreme is the professed belief of many compound archers that if a coach is not a current or former champion, they have nothing to teach them.

So, if you are a coach what should be expected as to level of your expertise with bow and arrow?

In golf, there are specialists who deal with the equipment: fitters, club makers, technicians. In archery, not so much, so coaches need to know enough about their equipment, its repair and replacement, set up, etc., to be able to help their students. Archery coaches also need to know about form and execution, competition preparation and strategies, and a lot more (training, nutrition, the mental game, etc.).

And, archery is a sport in which “feel” is important, so experience is necessary. An archery coach who has never shot a bow and arrow is at a distinct disadvantage in being able to communicate regarding how a shot feels. So, my opinion is coaches need to be able to shoot, or needed to have shot enough in their lives to address all of these issues. Further, if you want to coach, say, traditional archers, you need to have some experience shooting traditional longbows and recurves in traditional manners. Do you need to have tried every technique you might want to communicate to a student? Well, in a word, yes. Tried certainly, mastered, no. Mastery only comes from years of practice. Most coaches have a major discipline (recurve, Barebow, compound-release, traditional, etc.) and in that discipline they need to have developed a fairly high level of skill. Do, they need to be “championship level?” I do not know what that means, or rather, it means something different to different people. I have taken medals in tournaments with the word “championships” in their name, but I was hardly an elite archer, ever.

Some times the best coaches come from the cadre of those who were “less successful” but tried everything to become more successful and, hence, are more knowledgeable. I consider myself one of those.

Nobody “knows it all.” So, if you find yourself in the position I found myself, where there were many students seeking help in a discipline that was not your forté, then take some lessons in that discipline, acquire (borrow, buy, rent, whatever) the required equipment and give it a try. Sign up for a tournament in your new style to put some pressure on the pace of your learning. My specialty is compound but I have had more fun competing in recurve and longbow events (possibly because there was no pressure to try to win) and I certainly learned a great deal from those experiences. I got such a baptism, from a bloke who was encouraging me to learn traditional styles by him getting me to sign up to participate in USA Archer’s Traditional Nationals. He even made me a longbow to compete with. I was not in good physical shooting shape at the time and it was a long two days (York, American, and Clout Rounds) so I got very tired, but I had a blast … and I learned a great deal.

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Fingers Pressing on the Arrow?

QandA logoSo many questions about arrows; are you all Spring cleaning?

“When I emailed you about my erratic bare shaft test results you mentioned that a possible source of the inconsistent results might be fingers pressing on the nocks. Interesting. That could explain how on a couple of ends where I was able to get a bare shaft above the fletched group, and one below. Almost the same amount above / below.

So, that brings me to the topic of tab finger spacers. I know we’ve spoken about the variety of sized ones out there: non-existent to golf ball-sized. Is the role of the finger spacer to truly keep your fingers apart enough that you don’t touch the arrow? I think I remember reading in The Heretic Archer that there is some finger contact with the arrow … light contact, so as to have that feeling as another point of reference.

“Finger pressure on the arrow does seem like a real possibility for some of the shots I saw on Friday. I do know at times I kind of cant the draw hand over. The top of my hand leans to the left (from archer’s point of view). That may or may not have something to do with different pressure on the arrow. I will focus a little more next time on how my hand is and whether I can feel my fingers pressing the arrow at all.

* * *cavalier elite_tab

There are discussions ongoing about touching and not touching (see The Competitive Archer and its excellent section on finger tabs) and I don’t see a definitive position yet. Clearly though, if there is touching, it has to be consistent. I suspect that if there is touching lighter has to be better than heavier in that a 10% variation is something small is a smaller source of overall variation than a 10% variation in something big.

The finger spacer is there, IMHO, to help your hand and fingers to relax. If the finger spacer is “right-sized” then gentle pressure on both sides of it (and I mean gentle!) should help keep the tab in the same position on the string fingers (a desirable condition). If the tab is so constructed to fit around the arrow nock in just one way, then the combination of these two results in a consistent string grip, no?

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Barebow: How to Aim?

QandA logoI got an email from Mr Benedick Visser (from Africa?), to wit:

“Thank you for sending me information on Archery. It is so helpful. I used to shoot Compound bows, but I love shooting bare bow. More challenging and fun. But I struggle to aim correctly. Please can you help me with it?”


Hooboy! A controversial question! (I am trying to be funny.) There are some strong feelings about how to aim without using a bow sight in the U.S. Some archers are very traditional and insist that aiming be only done “instinctively.” Others are thoroughly modern and use every part of the bow itself to aim with. I assume you just want to get started.

When I teach beginners, the first question they ask is: “How do I aim?” Our response is “Just look at and focus on the spot you want to hit.” This is a form of “instinctive” aiming. The word “instinctive,” though is a misnomer. We are not talking about an instinct for aiming. This is a thoroughly learned process, learned through the process called “trial and error” or “trial and test.” It is fascinating to those beginners that the desire they have to hit the center of the target will result in them hitting the center of the target if … and it is a big IF … if they are willing to follow instructions and not try to aim. Trying to aim is taking over a process which is subconscious and replacing it with one that is conscious, one you really have no idea how to do, consciously that is. (Almost all beginners try looking down the shaft of the arrow, a technique that works out to maybe five meters or so, but then is defeated by gravity.)

Just wanting your arrows to hit what you are looking at does work, although it takes a great deal of practice over a long period of time. It has the advantage that you can change arrows and even bows and still shoot well. It has the disadvantage of not being the most precise way to shoot a great many arrows from the same position. Anyway, this is Option #1.

If you want to have a system for aiming, most people progress to “shooting off of the point.” The problem of archery is to execute shots consistently with the bow held in a position such that when arrows are loosed, they hit the desired target. Bows need to be held higher for farther targets and lower for near ones. Bows need to be held “off line” to adjust for wind and other factors. The question of aiming is “where do I hold the bow?” The answer (at least in the Western Tradition) was found by a British gentleman of the name Horace Ford in the mid 1800’s. His scores immediately rocketed past anyone else’s and, I am sure, he was accused by some of cheating. He solved the task of where to put the bow in space by lining up a part of the bow (he was shooting English longbows) with some fixed part of the background. It turned out to be very effective to use the arrow point for this purpose (there not being as many parts as our modern bows). So, an archer would watch his arrow point and when a shot hit the gold, he would note where his arrow point was vis-à-vis the background. On his next shot, he would again place his arrow point on that “point of aim” to ensure consistency and success. (Another name for this approach is “Point of Aim” archery.) There are many variations and extensions of this approach but this is the starting point.

Longbow archers were used to looking at their arrow points as a gauge of whether they had fully drawn their bows (the arrow point sitting on the top of the bow hand made a particular shape when drawn “full compass”), so this was not at all a huge departure for some. And, immediately people devised ways to make this more productive. They introduced artificial points of aim. When their POA was not on the target face, they placed an object on the ground to aim with. If their POA was on the target face, they invented the target clock to identify POAs (e.g. 10 O’clock in the Blue).

This technique has been used by target archers from then until now. If you want to know more about the extensions of this technique, key terms for an Internet search are “string walking” and “face walking.”

To get started, shoot comfortably at a large target face up quite close to you (8-10 meters). When you are hitting the center comfortably, notice where your arrow point is with relation to the background (by starting up close, we are trying to make sure it is on the target face). On subsequent shots, line up your arrow point with the point you identified and shoot several arrows. Did your group get smaller (indicating you were more consistent)? Also, if your arrows are still not where you want them (and your POA is on the target), you need only move your POA the same direction and distance you want your arrows to be. So, if your arrows are four cm too far to the right, move your POA four cm to the left and your arrows will also move four cm to the left. This should get you started and learning.

PS You can shoot compound bows Barebow, I still compete this way.


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Q&A Do You Want a Heavy Bow or a Light One?

QandA logoI got this question from one of my University of Chicago archers: “I have often heard a heated debate over whether one should shoot a heavy bow vs. a light one. Today, I was reminded of that debate today when I was using my somewhat heavy compound bow. Camp A says that people should always use lighter bows, because with lighter bows, it’s easier to be stable due to the lack of significant strain on the muscles used to hold up the bow. Camp B says that people should always use heavier bows, because with heavier bows, it stabilizes your shot since more weight equals more inertia. Are both sides correct, and is it just personal preference?” Vincent Chen

The answer to the question has to do with time. With a recurve bow or longbow, you experience peak draw force at full draw, which means whatever you are going to do at full draw, you want to be quick about it. Because of the letoff of a compound bow, you experience a great deal less draw force at full draw (considerably less than half of the maximum or “peak” draw weight), so you have quite a bit more time available.

Dennis T near Full Draw

If you have to make positional changes in the bow at full draw, to get your sight’s aperture or arrow point on your point of aim, and you have little time, you want the bow to have less mass (= less inertia, meaning it is easier to move), so it can be moved while still having time to settle down from that movement. ( I use the metaphor of cartoon characters that run and then stop abruptly, vibrating to a stop, which isn’t quite correct, but it does take a little time after a gross movement for “stillness” to occur, plus you need to assure yourself that stillness has been achieved and you can only do that through observation over time.) If you have more time at full draw, you can afford the extra mass (which would slow such repositionings down). That extra mass really comes into play when the arrow is loosed in that the bow is barely being held when the string is loosed, so how much it moves is dependent upon inertia and the forces acting on the bow. Since the bow acts on the arrow and vice-versa, the only big other player is gravity.

Make sense? Olympic Recurve archers want lighter bows, compound archers want heavier bows.

This Italian barebow riser is massive and that's before the weights that fit into the two round holes are installed!

This Italian barebow riser is massive and that’s before the weights that fit into the two round holes are installed!

Now, recurve barebow archers, they are different. Since they are forbidden to take small amounts of mass and spread them out in space via stabilizers, like Olympic Recurve archers, they are forced to maximize what they have, which is the bow’s mass. Recurve bows made specifically for barebow tend to be quite heavy indeed as there is no other stabilization allowed. This then requires some extra time at full draw when shooting, unavoidably so. For example, I bought the riser of a bow shot by a world championship bronze medalist barebow archer. He had the grip taken off and then made into a mold to cast a replacement . . . in brass. I didn’t measure the weight difference between a large plastic grip piece and one of the same shape in brass but it was more than a pound. It made the bow heavier yet didn’t stick out far enough to fall prey to the “no stabilizer” rules.

A secondary question is whether the archers have enough strength in their deltoid muscle (on their upper bow arm) to hold up that much weight. Most beginning archers do not, especially youths and beginners with little upper body development, so I recommend that these folks “keep it light.” Over time those muscles will get stronger and adding weight to must bows then is relatively easy.

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Still Thinking Trad

In a recent post I wrote about getting into traditional archery, typically with either a longbow or a one piece recurve bow. Today I had a student on my team struggling a little with his bow setup. When you shoot “off the point,” you line your arrow point up with something in your field of view that gets your bow in position to shoot your arrow into target center. I had made the point over and over that: if you have a “good tune” your “point of aim” will be on a 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock line through the center of the target. Unfortunately my student’s POA was to the right of that line. This means that, since he is right-handed (and everything else was okay), that his arrows were a bit too stiff. Either the arrows needed to be made weaker or the bow had to be made stronger. Since he was shooting a compound bow, we put one more turn on each limb bolt (thus making the bow’s draw weight 1-2 pounds higher) and, voila, problem solved.

This is one of the advantages of compound bows, that they have a draw weight that is adjustable typically over a range that is 25-33% of the maximum peak weight. (They are now making ultra-adjustable bows that have mammoth draw weight ranges, like 5-70#!) But then I thought “You can’t do this with a trad bow, so how do you tune up a trad bow?”

Good question: how do you tune a traditional bow?

To change the draw weight of a traditional bow is no small task, although at one time it was common practice. Back when most longbows were “self bows” that is made of a single thickness of wood or possibly with a backing made of linen or leather or a different wood, bows were often shot a while and if the bow started to take a “set,” that is go from being straight when unstrung to being curved (also called “following the string”) they were often reconfigured. Since the bow taking a curved shape when unstrung lowers its draw weight, it needed a draw weight boost and the way this was done was to cut an inch or two off of each limb tip and have new nock grooves filed in. A little filing and sanding and voila, a new bow, shorter by 2-4˝ and more powerful. (The shorter a piece of wood, the harder it is to bend.)

This is almost impossible to do with a recurve as it messes up the shapes of the curves of the limbs.

Another thing that was done was the limbs could be scraped or sanded to make them slimmer which would result in a bow with a lower draw weight (permanently). You can’t do this with a laminated longbow (or recurve), as it will reduce just the outside laminations only, so they sanded the dges only, creating a limb with less material and thus weaker.

So, let me just say that changing the draw weight of a traditional bow is not a first option and sometimes not even an option at all.

So, how does one tune a traditional bow?

You can adjust two things: the bowstring itself and/or the length of the bowstring.

Tuning with Your Bowstring
In general you can change the length of the string you have and it will change the power of the bow. This is how it works. By adding twists to the string (10, 20, 30, more) you can make it shorter. Placing it back on the bow you will see that the bow is now more bent at brace than it was before and that the string is farther from the handle (the “brace height” is greater). What this means is that when the arrow is shot, the string will stop more quickly and the arrow will come off the string sooner. Since the longer the arrow is on the string, the more energy it absorbs from the bow, so:

shortening the string, raises the brace height and makes the bow weaker
lengthen the string, lowers the brace height and makes the bow stronger.

The effects are not huge but they are significant.

The other thing you can do is switch to a different string of the same length but of different composition. A string can be made heavier (making the bow weaker) or lighter (making the bow stronger) by changing the number of strands. An 18-strand string is 50% heavier than a 12-strand string of the same length and materials. The bow’s energy gets wasted moving the heavier string rather than moving the arrow, so a heavier string makes the bow appear weaker, etc.

And string material changes can make substantial (but not huge) differences. Most older bows use Dacron strings. Dacron, as a bowstring material, is quite “springy” and some of the bow’s energy goes into stretching it rather than into the arrow. The stretchiness also protects the bow when the limbs are slammed to a stop when the string stops them at the end of a shot. More modern bowstring materials have very little stretch in them and transmit almost all of that shock to the bow and the archer. Modern bows have been designed to handle this, older bows not so much. (Do not put a modern material bowstring on an older trad bow, you could break the bow. The new materials are also more abrasive and have been known to cut into unreinforced limb tip notches.)

So, if you have a modern bow with a Dacron string, you can make it slightly stronger by putting in a bowstring made of a modern material, such as Fast Flight (a polyethylene material).

Tuning with Your Arrows
Most of bow tuning is really done my adjusting the weight, inherent stiffness, and length of your arrows. This is true for all bows and is the major source of tuning adjustments for traditional bows.

Once you have bought the bow, fiddling with the bowstring only buys you a little variability. The majority of making a good bow-arrow-archer system is going to be made with adjustments to the arrows. So, be very careful about the bow you buy. I have been known to buy bows with specifications that suit the arrow I want to shoot, not the other way around. Your arrows are more important than your bow to you or the students you coach becoming consistently accurate.

If you are interested I will address the processes used to tune a trad bow. Let me know.


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Q&A To Cant or Not to Cant, That is the Question

QandA logo Coach Kim Hannah of Chicago, IL writes in with a question one of her students came in with: “In my abundant free time (kidding) I have tracked down some DVDs on instinctive shooting. I have noticed that when explicitly or implicitly they all shoot with a slight cant of about 15 – 20 degrees or so . . . not the straight statuesque position of Olympic archers. What do you make of this?

I like inquisitive students and this is a good question! The answer depends on whether your audience is comprised of target shooters or bowhunters. Bowhunters tilt their bows, typically top limb to the right if right-handed for a couple of reasons. This technique, called “canting the bow” allows the archer to see more clearly the bowhunter’s prey, basically because the bow is no longer in the way. Most importantly, it allows both eyes to clearly see the target, providing the binocular vision required for accurate distance estimation.

Now traditional bowhunters, hunting this way (it is not really “instinctive” rather learned through repetition), are not estimating distance using formulas or schemes involving conscious thought but are doing it subconsciously. No matter how it is done, without binocular vision, aka both eyes wide open and able to focus on the target, our ability to estimate distance is very poor.

Now, the reason target archers do not do this is this: when you cant the bow, the bow is rotating in your hand. If your bow has a typical recurve style grip section, it is rotating around the “pivot point,” or the deepest point of the grip. This means that the arrow swings in a quite tiny arc during the cant because it is very close to the pivot point. But if you are using a bow sight, the bow sight’s aperture is swinging in a much larger arc (because it is farther from the pivot point) and you have now messed up both the windage (left-right) and elevation (up-down) connection between the arrow and sight. In other words, the sight only works correctly at the exact cant that you sighted in with. Any other cant introduces error. Since all techniques are subject to “normal variation” (sometimes the cant is more, sometimes less), we have introduced another source of variation into our shooting which makes our groups larger, not smaller.

Consequently target archers are taught to not cant their bows. Placing our bows straight up and down is a direction we can find with some accuracy and variations from it cause small errors. The more we cant the bow, the bigger the error we are talking about.

Traditional bowhunters can get away with a sizeable cant (as much as 90 degrees!), because they are not using a sight and the benefits far outweigh the tiny error introduced. This is further an acceptable technique in that bowhunters are shooting at relatively short distances compared to target archers. Back in the longbow era, typical target distances were 60, 80, and 100 yards. Most deer are taken, for example, well short of 25 yards. Shorter distances means larger errors produce smaller effects in that, once an arrow is off line, the longer it flies the farther off line it gets.

As far as instruction goes, we teach all beginners to shoot with their bows upright as we are teaching target archery. Should the student want to try traditional bowhunting, it is not so hard to learn to cant their bow.

Hope this helps!


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Going Trad

I have decided to post here more frequently. I was hoping those of you following would send in your questions but that hasn’t taken off yet, so I will plow on using my own compass as a guide.

Modern Longbow

A Modern Longbow

Lately I have been thinking a lot about training traditional archers. I have one student on my college team who got so excited when I let him try a longbow that he ran out and bought one. Happy archer, that; he found his bliss!

Generally, traditional archers shoot longbows or one-piece recurves but may shoot “takedown” bows as they are often used by hunters. (Takedown bows break down into two or three parts.)

Trad Recurve

A One-Piece Recurve Bow

Recurve or Longbow?
This is a matter of taste. Recurve bows shoot a little more smoothly and have less “hand shock” (vibration transferred from the bow into the bow hand). Some longbows come with a shelf (see photos) others require you to “shoot off your knuckle,” that is use your hand as an arrow rest. Almost all traditional recurves have an arrow shelf. If the shelf is rounded, it is designed to be shot with the arrow resting on it (usually a soft piece of leather or fur provides the resting place). If the shelf is flat, some kind of arrow rest is needed (often these are just plastic stick-on rests).

How Long?
Both types of bows come in various lengths. The shorter versions are generally used by hunters (less likely to catch on brush or tree branches or bang against a stand) and longer versions for target archers (less pinch of the draw fingers by the bowstring, smoother draw), In general, target archers prefer longbows to be about as tall as they are, while recurve people think a strung recurve bow, stood on one’s shoe top, should have it’s top limb tip reach between the chin and nose.

Longbow Shelf

This longbow has an arrow shelf, note the leather pad installed.

How Stout?  
Archers who have been shooting compound bows often make the mistake of getting a traditional bow of the same draw weight as their compound bow, e.g. “If I can handle a 40# compound, I should get a 40# longbow.” Ahhhn, wrong! A #40 compound bow with 65% letoff has a draw weight at full draw of 14#. The longbow has a draw weight of 40# at full draw (assuming a 28˝ draw length)! (This is the definition of heavy lifting!) Also realize that recurves and longbows get harder to pull the farther back you pull them (from brace!). The listed draw weight of a recurve or longbow is the weight or pull force at 28˝ of draw (for adults, typically 24˝ of draw for youth bows, and many traditional bowyers list their draw weights at the design draw length (as they are often made to order) such as 42#@26˝ of draw). If your draw length is different from this, the actual draw weight will be different. Typically 1-2# of draw is lost for every 1˝ short of 28˝ the bow is drawn and 1-2# of draw is gained for every 1˝ past 28˝ the bow is drawn (this is the rule of thumb for the relatively light drawing bows used by beginners; heavier bows can go up/down 3# per inch, for example).

As a general rule, a compound archer should look at a longbow that is 10-15# lighter than his/her compound. Recurve archers can get traditional recurves or longbows anywhere near their normal draw weight and they will be fine.

Realize that if you buy a longbow or one piece recurve, if you get the wrong draw weight, you will have to buy another bow, a whole new one! There are no limb swaps or limb bolts to crank up or down. So, be cautious when you buy and, if possible, always “try before you buy.”

Arrows: Wood or. . . ?
Many traditional archers use wood arrows. Beginners should not. The reason is that they break easily. I recommend that you start with inexpensive aluminum arrows and after you gain control of your new bow, then try wood arrows. (They are fun to make from parts, by the way.)

Wooden arrows . . . you may need a lot of them as they do break easily.

Wooden arrows . . . you may need a lot of them as they do break easily.

The markings regarding the stiffness of wood arrows is different from aluminum and carbon arrows. With aluminum and carbon arrows, the arrow’s “spine” is usually listed (a number like 720 or 480). This number is simply the number of thousandths of an inch an arrow shaft sags when a two pound weight is hung on its middle. A “spine” of 520 means the shaft sagged 0.520˝ when it was supported at both ends horizontally with a two pound weight hung in the middle.

Wood arrows are more likely to list the spine as something like 35-40# which is a reference to the draw weight range the arrows were designed for. This is tricky though, as you can’t just match your bow’s draw weight to the wood arrow’s rating. The reason is that when the arrow’s are cut, they become stiffer. If you have a very short or very long draw length, you have to adjust things. My longbow is 30# @ 28˝ but I buy 35-40# arrow shafts because my draw length is 31˝ which means I don’t cut the arrows at all! There are charts to help you with this process. Send me an email if you can’t find one.


There are even traditional bows designed to be shot from horseback! (Yes, a galloping horse!)


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