If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably watched arrows arc silently through thin air in amazement. You’ve waited in anticipation to see if they hit the mark. When a shot flies true, the thrill of the bull’s-eye is tangible even to the observer. Something ancient trails in an arrow’s wake as it glides through space. You may have pondered all the generations of people who’ve used bows, beginning with Stone Age hunters — a scene that’s played out millions of times over the ages with few changes of clothing. The romance of traditional archery grows out of this combination of thrill and history.
Unfortunately, all this romantic imagery can lead archers, young and old, to believe they have to be mystics to shoot a traditional bow. The reality is that success in shooting is generally born out of hard work and perseverance, not raw talent. History backs up this idea. There were even English laws that made archery practice mandatory. In his book, The History of Archery, Theodore R. Whitman explains, “It was the difficulty in using the longbow that led various monarchs of England to issue instructions encouraging their ownership and practice.”
Many kingdoms depended on archery, and none could afford poor archers. Unlike what Hollywood would have you believe, medieval England wasn’t chock-full of master archers, like Robin Hood, who could instinctively hit a flea off a dog’s back. It was full of people who needed to practice.
Some things never change. Today, a few natural archers can accomplish incredible feats with a bow. But if the rest of us want to be effective archers, we need lots and lots of practice. Try the following three methods of aiming a traditional bow; each offers unique advantages that might suit your shooting style.
Shoot in the Gap
Gap shooting, which uses the point of the arrow as a reference point, is probably one of the more popular aiming methods. This method is consistent, requires just a little math, and can become instinctive once you’re proficient. Gap shooting requires you to focus on two things: the spot you want to hit and the point of the arrow, which becomes the “sight” of the bow. To begin, focus about 80 percent on the target, and 20 percent on the tip of the arrow. Once you do so, you can practice finding your gap — that is, the adjustments you’ll need to make in where you aim when standing at different distances from the target.
How an arrow arcs during its flight path depends on your bow, the type of arrow, your bowstring, and other variables. Gap shooting allows you to calculate those variables and compensate for them. Here’s how it works: Imagine standing directly in front of your target with your bow drawn, looking down the arrow shaft to the head, which is touching the target. Most of your focus should be on the point you want to hit, but you’re still aware of the tip of the arrowhead. If you want to strike the target’s center, of course, you’ll hover the tip over the bull’s-eye. This position is called “point on,” since you aim your point at the place you want to hit.
As you move back from the target, you’ll need to hold the tip of the arrow progressively lower if you want to hit the center. If you continue to move away from the target, you’ll eventually need to raise the point of the arrow again, until you end up at another yardage where you’re point on. The changing position of your arrow tip as you move away from the target forms a reverse arc from point on at 0 yards to point on at a farther distance. With my longbow, the second point-on distance is 34 yards. Establishing your point-on distance is the first chore when gap shooting.
Next, you’ll need to establish your “maximum gap.” Do this by moving to the halfway spot between your target and the point-on distance; this will be the place at which the point of your arrow must be held lowest to hit the target. For my longbow, this is 17 yards (34 yards ÷ 2 = 17). Take a shot from this distance while aiming the arrow tip at the bull’s-eye. When you release the string, the arrow will strike far above your aiming point. The distance between the bull’s-eye and where the arrow strikes matches your maximum gap.
To learn where to aim the tip at every yardage, divide the inches your arrow struck above the target by the yardage at which you were standing when you shot the arrow. The result is the aiming adjustment you must make per yard you move from your “maximum gap location.” This will tell you how low to hold your arrow point at every yardage up to your point-on location. Let’s take a look at a real life example to make sense of this.
Imagine I’m point on at 28 yards, my maximum gap occurs at 14 yards from the target, and the gap itself is 24 inches. That means if I were to aim point on at 14 yards from the target, my arrow would strike 24 inches above the target’s center. To hit the bull’s-eye, I need to adjust my aim 24 inches below center.
To determine my per-yard adjustment as I move from my maximum gap location, I’d divide 24 (inches) by 14 (yards) to get 1.7 inches of point adjustment per yard. That means every yard I move away from my maximum gap location — whether closer to or farther from the target — I’ll need to raise the tip of my arrow 1.7 inches from my 24-inch maximum gap. At 13 and 15 yards, I’d aim 22.7 inches below the target (24 minus 1.7 inches, or 1 yard’s adjustment). At 7 and 21 yards, I’d aim 12.1 inches below the target (24 minus 11.9 inches, or 7 yards’ adjustment).
Remember that beyond your point-on location (beyond 28 yards, using the example above), you’ll need to aim progressively higher to strike your target. Although the arrow arcs upward right after it’s released, gravity controls the flight pattern at great distances.
Walk the Line
String walking also uses the point of the arrowhead for reference, but entails grabbing the string at a different spot for each distance. This technique allows you to shoot point-on at all times. In gap shooting, you grab the string at the same spot every time; string walkers draw to the same anchor point on their faces, but move their hands below the nocking point on the string to adjust for distance. Like gap shooting, string walking requires some math. It’s also important to note that all string walkers grab the bowstring with three fingers under the nock.
As with gap shooting, string walkers must determine their maximum gap. However, a string walker adjusts the distance they’ll hold the bowstring below the arrow nock. A little experimentation will determine where to hold the bowstring for each shooting distance. Most string walkers I’ve met write their yardage adjustments on their shooting tab; with enough reference points, they can determine where to hold the string for any distance.
Imagine a string walker who hits the bull’s-eye at 36 yards by grabbing the string directly below the arrow nock and holding point-on. Their maximum gap would be at 18 yards (half the distance to their first point-on yardage with their hand immediately below the nock). Remember that string walkers always aim point-on, but move their hands to different points below the nock.
For this example, our imaginary string walker can strike the bull’s-eye at 18 yards by grabbing the string 2.5 inches below the nock: 2.5 inches is their adjustment. A string walker would want to write that distance on their shooting tab so they can easily remember where to grab the string. They would make a mark 2.5 inches down from the top of their tab. Before they shot, they’d butt the tab against the nock, locate 2.5 inches on their tab, mark the point with their thumb, slide their tab down to that point, and draw the bow. As they move either direction from their maximum gap location, they’ll need to grab the string closer to the nock, and they’ll want to have several reference points marked for greater accuracy at a variety of distances, whether closer to or farther from the maximum gap location.
The biggest advantage to string walking is the ability to hold point-on for every shot. However, in situations that call for speed, you may not be able to adjust quickly enough to hit a moving target.
Go With Your Gut
Instinctive aiming isn’t really an aiming technique; rather, it’s an approach to shooting in which you don’t consciously aim. This technique is ideal for those who want the least amount of math involved in their archery. Archers who aim instinctively push everything out of their focus except the spot they wish to hit. Over time, they simply learn where to aim. Most instinctive archers compare this skill to throwing a baseball. When a shortstop fields a ball and fires it to first base, they don’t have time to calculate the trajectory of the ball; they just look at the first baseman’s mitt and throw the ball. Instinctive archers do the same thing: They just look at the target and shoot.
The biggest advantage to instinctive shooting is its adaptability. A skilled instinctive archer can make incredible running shots, hit flying targets, and execute other near-impossible shots. On the downside, the trick to mastering this aiming technique is extensive practice and dedication.
No matter what aiming style you use, traditional archery has one consistent rule, and that’s to perfect your form. You must always anchor in the same spot, hold the bow the same way, and have a clean release on every shot. Your success depends on practice, practice, practice. After a while, your shooting might look and feel like magic, but it all starts with a blue-collar approach.
Cody Assmann is a lifelong outdoorsman. He’s most passionate about archery, passing on traditional outdoor skills, and exploring history. He lives in Nebraska with his family and runs a living history and outdoor business. You can see his curriculum on the Frontier Life website.