In competitions, some people play the odds by availing themselves of all the possibilities that come their way. That’s why most archers who make their way to the annual Flight Archery Tournament held on the Bonneville Salt Flats near Wendover, Utah, shoot six arrows each allotted round. Why shoot only one if there’s a possibility that the second, or the third, or the fourth, or fifth, or even the sixth going further? Yes, most people think that way. Most everyone lets fly six arrows each round.

And then there are others who see things a little differently. They figure why go to all the fuss if there’s a sure possibility that one shot is all that is needed–so long as everything that needs to be in place is in place. They’ll gamble on one shot when they know it is the right shot. When everything is just right, there’s no reason to doubt or second-guess one’s prospects. Why shoot more arrows when one is enough? All you need is one shot longer than any before to break an old record and set a new one. One arrow, that’s all you need.

But would you drive over 1400 miles for just one arrow? I’m not sure I would, though I’m happy to know someone who did. Indeed, I’m happy to have been there to have seen it with my own eyes. It happened at this year’s flight archery competition. The individual in question is Larry Hatfield, who himself is a legend in archery circles for all kinds of reasons and not only his decades of work as bow designer and general manager of Martin Archery’s Howatt traditional bow operation in Yakima, Washington.

The US national flight archery competition is held annually, usually over the Labor Day weekend. The rules of engagement seem deceptively simple: you draw your bow, arcing it up to a 43.5% angle for optimum distance, and release your arrow, hoping that it will go farther than any ever before. But as is always the case with what seems simple at first glance, the art of flight archery entails much more.

First off, your alignment is important; you want to ensure the path of your arrow follows an imaginary line set exactly at a right angle to the shooting line. Because the distance covered by the arrow’s flight is calculated by a straight line, measured at 90° (a right angle) from where the arrow touches down to its point of intersection with the shooting line, you have to be mindful of your stance and its alignment with the shooting line. Any lateral deviation from a crisp straight shot will knock feet off your distance no matter how far you cast your arrow.

Indeed, there will be no error when that distance is measured. For accuracy in official competitions, the Flight Committee relies on precision tools, here the state-of-the-art Total Station® used by surveyors and mining companies for the reckoning of distance. With its reflective prism and electronic measuring device, the Total Station® integrates the function of a theodolite (or transit) for measuring angles, computing distance down to tenths of an inch with automatic correction for any deviation from the shooting line.

When an archer deviates too far to the left or to the right when releasing the arrow, the obliqueness of the shot compromises the distance. Likewise, any little distraction as you draw the bow and release can cost you distance. Thoughts crowding into your mind divert the flow of energy from your draw. A moment hesitation, a little collapse, and poof, you’ve just surrendered ten feet or more. A little adjustment of the angle of your bow and now your release is less powerful. You want everything seamless, but that only comes with practice--and knowing your equipment, for just as the archer’s stance matters, so does the equipment. Whether shooting a self-bow or a flight bow, you want your bow to be perfectly tuned, with tiller, alignment, proportions, weight, efficiency, and the like in such good balance that all of its power is transmitted to the arrow exactly at the moment of release. No friction, no drag, no waste of energy, just a perfect release with a perfect bow and a perfect arrow. If only the real world was like that. There is an art to this as well as science. The arrow has to have enough mass to serve as a vector for the energy it has been given, but be light enough to fly long and true. Too light, the energy the arrow should be carrying dissipates too quickly and it wobbles and falls. Too much mass as in girth, the friction of the air slows it down. Too long, too sort, too stiff, too weak, any of these flaws will hinder the arrow’s flight.

The bow, the arrows, the archer, even the bowstring material all matter, as do other considerations. Official competitions regulate the classes so bows of similar type, composition, and weight are pitted against each other. In theory a 50# bow should outshoot a 35# bow, a recurve should out-shoot a longbow, and so on. That does not always happen, but to create a level playing field, bows are qualified and weighed in according to their type–field bow, flight bow, American longbow, self-bow, primitive simple composite, and so on. On the flight archery web site (see photo below for the URL) you’ll find the descriptions as well as the rules and regulations that govern each category.

Within each of these divisions are the various weight classes–35#, 50#, 70#, and so on. Unlimited means any weight; in any of the other classes the weight of the bow has to be verified by being weighed-in using a certified scale. Here, the calibration of the bow’s strength is in direct relationship with the length of the longest arrow the flight archer intends to shoot. We all know that a longer draw typically increases the poundage of a bow. More pull, more pressure, more thrust. In the arid climate of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah even another inch in an arrow’s length can tip a bow’s weight from one class to another. The 35# class includes bow weights up to 35# and not more. Add one extra inch draw and the bow can now weigh in at 37# or 38#, or right at the floor of the 50# class. You don’t want that to happen, because your 37# bow is at a disadvantage in the 50# class.

Conversely, use a shorter arrow and you decrease the bow weight. An arrow a couple of inches shorter and your bow will be right in the allowable top of its weight class. That’s why flight archers often bring several sets of arrows. At the official weigh-in they can decide which arrows they will shoot and in which bow class. But, after the official weighing-in, there can be no more changes. Once the bow and arrows are registered, the bow is marked according to its class and the arrows are put into quarantine, not to be touched until the field captain of the flight committee gives them to the archer is at the shooting line.

It is a strict competition, and you’d expect flight archers to be very particular with their equipment. They are, but they are also generous in spirit. It is very common to see competitors helping each other out by making strings, fixing fletches, and even lending out what they know to be top-quality equipment. In this spirit, some of the best craftspeople in the world of traditional archery today will compete with a bow or arrows made by another flight archer. Today the competitive spirit of flight archer is very friendly. In that vein, that is how Larry Hatfield came about shattering his old world’s record with just one arrow. It wasn’t even his arrow.

It happened on Friday, August 31st, the first day of the tournament. With a heavy stillness in the air, conditions were not great for shooting. Weather reports predicting thunderstorms and heavy rains come evening didn’t bode well for any new records. Biding his time Larry sat out the morning round. As for the next round, he and other seasoned members of the flight committee recommended waiting until mid-afternoon for the next round. They thought the wind might pick up and sure enough it did. The time was ripe for action. Time to act. Someone was itching to set a new record.

The way Larry puts it, what he had was the 50# bow with a string. Of course, it wasn’t just any bow. It was one he designed himself, the 66" Martin-Hatfield Vision, an American Longbow with reflex-deflex limb design and three bamboo laminations. It is a great shooting bow under any conditions. What Larry did next is the stuff of dreams. It is what has made the sport of flight archery so compelling. You take the principles of archery and with a little ingenuity–a stroke of genius you might say–you think through them to come up with the optimal combination of forces. In this case, what Larry did was have his bow recalibrated to become a 35# bow.

So how do you do that? Simple. You figure out when to stop drawing it so it does not exceed 35#. That’s what Larry did. He had the official who was verifying the weight of the bows put his 66" American Longbow on the electronic weigh scale and draw it to where the forge gauge read exactly 35#. At that weight, Larry could shoot an arrow no longer than 21? inches. Larry could have scrounged around for an arrow, but it wasn’t just any old arrow he was looking for. He turned to Alan Case, an engineer and flight archer aficionado out of Beaverton, Oregon, for help.

Alan’s arrows are legendary in flightarchery circles. Masterpieces in both art and technology they are made from multiple laminations of bamboo. For some he builds them up out of split bamboo. More recently he has been experimenting by splitting good quality bamboo into strips, removing the pulp wood while preserving the skin and power fibers. He then applies these strips like a skin to barrel-tapered core made from stiff hardwood. The work is time-consuming, but
worth every minute as the results are arrows like nothing you’ve ever seen. Each is a powerhouse in itself.

Knowing the potential of Alan’s arrows, Larry turned to him for short arrows, and Alan obliged. He just happened to have an arrow under 22 inches in length that fit Larry’s needs. Weighing 108 grains, with a Turkish-style nock reinforced with silk wrap, duck fletches, and a small brass point, the arrow’s maximum diameter is 0.196" about a third of the way down from the nock. In other words, it’s like a needle. Its construction is six piece split cane made from heat treated Tonkin Cane, with barrel tapering done by hand. According to Alan, that arrow sat in a discard pile for 7 years because it was too short to meet the primitive class rules for which he originally intended to use it. The length, however, is perfectly acceptable according to the American Longbow rules and he was glad to see someone put it to use it after all.

He had only one short arrow, but one was enough. Larry had the bow weighed in with that one arrow, had a strip of velcro applied at the critical point on the shelf–at 21? inches draw--to ensure no extra advantage of overdraw. He then registered the bow and arrow and the rest is history. One arrow, one shot and a new world’s record. Larry drove over fourteen hundred miles for that one shot, but it was worth it at 340 yards, 0 feet, 8 inches, a good couple of yards past his 2009 record of 337 yards, 2 feet, 5 inches. He didn’t need to do another, and just as well, as there wasn’t another chance.

Conditions were good that Friday afternoon. Three other archers set new world records that round: with a shot measuring 228 yards, 2 feet, 6 inches Jewell White bested her best friend’s record in the 50# Primitive Self Bow class, a record that her friend, Jordan Case, had had for years. Using another of Larry’s designs, the 66" Viper, my sweetie, Jaap Koppedrayer blew away England’s Mike Willrich’s 2010 record in the 70# American Longbow class. At a distance of 442 yards, 1 foot, 3 inches, his shot was over 21 yards longer than Willrich’s record. And last, but not least, at 227 yards, 1 foot, 9 inches, I managed to best by over 8 yards my previous year’s record in the 50# Primitive Simple Composite class.

As for Larry, the record he set is hardly his first and likely won’t be his last. Still, his new world record is mighty impressive. He disavows anything special, claiming that his one arrow, one shot had nothing to do with confidence. In his words, it was just “a matter of getting an arrow shot.” Because of the weather he tried to make sure he didn’t waste the opportunity. He was right about the weather. The next day was a wash-out. The rains that were predicted came and came with a vengeance. The salt flats that are ordinarilybone dry saw water pooling up to 8 inches in places. We sat Saturday out waiting for the water to drain. We did manage to salvage the broadhead round on Sunday as well as a make-up round. Nothing else, however, compared to that Friday round and Larry’s one arrow.

I’m not sure that I’d drive over 1400 miles for one arrow, but then again I don’t have the kinds of stories that Larry has. For a really good story you sometimes have to do something different.

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