Aiming methods for traditional archery

by Jeff Kavanagh | October 21, 2022
Holding A Bow

I may have to start carrying my camera with me so I can capture the confused, blank looks I see on customers’ faces when they come into the bow shop to buy their first traditional bow, and I ask them what type of shooting they wish to do.

Unlike other shooting sports, traditional archery is unique. There are so many different archery styles and methods to aim, which the average person just getting started might not even realize exists. They all have their advantages and disadvantages, and hopefully, the following explanation will help.

Shooting with sights

Using bow sights on a traditionally styled bow is generally reserved for target archery. The Olympics would likely be the best-known event in which this takes place, but archers use sights on their bows at many other indoor and outdoor venues and competitions all around the world. If you presently shoot or have shot a compound bow, you’ll already have experience using a bow sight, and the principle is the same.

You always place your pin or dot in the aperture on the centre of the target you wish to hit. You adjust your sights for various distances and windage. I’ve always thought that if you are making the transition from a compound to a recurve, that’s probably the best way to start, as it maintains familiarity while you learn how to shoot with a different bow. There’s no reason at all why using sights with recurve bow wouldn’t work just as it does with a compound bow while hunting.

Sights & Points Of Aim

Point of aiming

So how do you aim when you don’t have any sights on a bow? You use the tip of the arrow as your sight pin. Every archer with any bow will have a specific “point of aim” when they shoot. That’s the distance away from the target from the archer’s perspective when they sight their arrow at full draw. They can see the point of the arrow pointing right on the bull’s eye. If they execute the shot well, they will hit the bull’s eye from that distance. The tricky part about archery is that all arrows will fly with an arced trajectory, so that point of aim will only be good for a specific distance, say 30 yards or 35 yards. Finding your point of aim distance is the first step in learning how to aim.

Gap shooting

You can adjust a bow sight for different distances, but what if you prefer a bare bow? To compensate, you must change the point on the target you place the tip of your arrow on. For example, if your point of aim is 35 yards and you are 20 yards from the target when you put your point on, you may shoot eight inches above the bull’s eye. The shorter distance means a flatter trajectory for the arrow.

For 20 yards, you need to aim the tip of your arrow eight inches lower to hit the bull’s eye with your shot. That eight-inch distance between the tip of your arrow and the bull’s eye then becomes your “gap” at 20 yards. At 15 yards, your “gap” will be even lower, perhaps 11 inches. At distances past your point of aim, you’ll have to aim higher than the bull’s eye. For example, at 45 yards, your aiming point might be nine inches high, etc. Record these gaps at five-yard increments to reference them for future use.

Split vision

Eventually, with practice, the measurements you calculate and use gap shooting will become ingrained in your memory, and your shooting will start to become more of a subconscious endeavour instead of a laboured calculation. The process turns into something called split-vision shooting, when the archer can reference both the target and the tip of his arrow naturally at the same time.

The great Howard Hill was a self-proclaimed split-vision shot.

String walking

String walking is opposite from gap shooting in that you make your trajectory adjustments on the nock end of the arrow, not the point. Like with “point of aim,” you always keep the tip of your arrow on the bull’s eye and your sight window the same. You move or “crawl” your release hand down the string from the nock to various positions for set distances from the target and use the same place as always to anchor at full draw.

The closer the shot, the further down the string your release hand will crawl away from the nock, changing the angle and trajectory of the arrow upon release. Again you have to figure out your natural point of aim just as you would with gap shooting. You can count the string wraps on the serving below the nock to know precisely where to place the shooting tab, or even tie a nock in place on the serving as a marker for a specific distance you wish to shoot. This method is know as “fixed crawl” because it provides a permanent place to reference your shooting tab.

String Walking

String walking keeps your arrow tip on the target. You adjust your string hand for placing your arrow higher or lower.

Instinctive shooting

No other shooting style will raise more controversy in the archery world than the topic of instinctive aiming. That’s because there is no aiming. The human brain is a wondrous thing and can make immense calculations instantly if we don’t let too much thought get in the way. I’m an instinctive shot myself. I’m also left-eye dominant and shoot right-handed, which means I can’t use the other shooting methods described above unless I close my left eye, but then I lose all depth perception.

In instinctive shooting, I only see what I want to hit. I don’t see or reference the arrow at all. It’s a style that isn’t for everyone and takes plenty of practice and focus. You won’t see many instinctive shooters winning tournaments, standing at a line shooting 60 arrows in a row. However, for certain hunting situations it can’t be beat. We’ll cover this shooting style in a more in-depth column in a future issue.

In the end, archery becomes what you want. It’s a very personal event that can be moulded to your liking. That’s part of its beauty because there is no one right or wrong way to do it. There is something for everyone.

Originally published in the Fall 2021 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS Magazine.

Jeff is best known for his incredible skill with a recurve bow and for his encyclopedic knowledge of traditional archery. He is also passionate about gun dogs, upland game, turkey, deer, and waterfowl hunting.

Reach him at mail@oodmag.comInstagram:@jeff.kavanagh.9

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