I did not mind killing anything, any animal, if I killed it cleanly. They all had to die and my interference with the nightly and seasonal killing that went on all the time was very minute and I had no guilty feeling at all.
– From Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
Shoulder to the wheel
Like my diminishing ability to drink and enjoy single malt whiskey, my ability to draw and shoot a bow has declined over the years. As a fellow hunter has observed, “Shooting is a perishable skill.”
Drawing and shooting a bow requires much cooperative work of various anatomical groups, a collaborative effort that the labor force of my aging body is no longer willing to perform – especially that renegade Union of Muscle Mechanics and Synapse Transmitters in my right shoulder. They seldom speak to one another these days, after the bitter split caused by two rotator cuff tears.
Rehabilitation is not necessarily reconciliation in the world of chiropractics.
A bow hunter’s shoulder injury woes are exacerbated through the years by the natural decline in muscle mass and strength associated with aging. This is not so evident standing on the archery range on a warm summer afternoon, shooting a dozen arrows into a six-inch circle target at twenty-five yards and pretending you still have the skill of a thirty-year-old. But on a late fall evening, with the temperature below freezing, your body twisted in odd angles in a tree stand, there will be no smooth draw-lock-release sequence to your shot.
There may not even be a draw. My old Browning bow has been adjusted down, down, down in draw weight from 65 to 60 to 55 to 50 pounds over the past decade. Even at 50 pounds I cannot reliably bring my release hand to my anchor point (knuckle of right thumb on the hinge of the jawbone). Sometimes it requires significant upper body torque to pull back the bowstring, motion that alarms any deer in range and sends it running to find safer trails in the woods.
Three years ago I risked a shot at a doe that was alerted by my draw movement. I released quickly, and the arrow hit too high and too far back. After a twenty-minute wait I tracked her two hours in the dark, finding the arrow at once but trailing more and more slowly as I found ever-smaller drops of blood in the glare of the headlamp. The next morning I picked up the trail and followed it another two hours, helped by my wife who is a far better tracker than me.
We never found the doe. She probably survived, I tell myself. The arrow wound had ceased to bleed a quarter mile before we gave up. But it was the worst wounded animal experience of my hunting life.
Although I have long accepted that killing is part of hunting, I have not been able to fully adopt Hemingway’s philosophy that in nature killing is incessant and remorseless and my part of it is insignificant. When I become dispassionate about killing a deer, or nonchalant about wounding a deer, I will stop bow hunting.
The following summer I faced a choice: give up bow hunting or apply for a special permit that would allow me to hunt with a crossbow because of my incapacitated shoulder. After much mental wrangling on ethics, I chose the latter.
The archery salesman at the sporting goods store assured me that I would love hunting with a crossbow and that it would be as enjoyable as hunting with my old compound bow. I have not found this to be true. If I had my way, I would greatly prefer to go back to the compound bow. This has more to do with the aesthetic of bow hunting than the ethical issues.
One of the joys of bow hunting is that it is minimalist: you and a three-pound bow and a quiver with a few arrows make for a quiet and inconspicuous time in a tree stand in the woodlands. The crossbow, in comparison, is heavy and cumbersome and demands constant handling. It bumps into things and is noisy. Cocking it requires a separate cord. Carrying it requires a sling.
Shooting a compound bow (or a recurve bow or long bow) is a graceful athletic feat. Shooting a crossbow is a mechanical skill, much like shooting a rifle.
Subjectively, I think a crossbow has a crude appearance while a recurve bow, longbow, or even a compound bow has artistry and beauty in its form. I compare it to the difference between a helicopter and an airplane. Or in the case of recurve or long bows, an aerobatic glider or sailplane. Yes, helicopters are functional, perhaps more functional than gliders, but they are such ugly machines.
Nevertheless, here we are. To date, I have taken four deer with a crossbow, and the venison has been just as tasty and nourishing as that from previous deer. A friend suggested I would be able to shoot deer at much longer range with a crossbow than with a compound, but that is a non-issue on my heavily wooded hunting grounds. The deer killed with the crossbow have been shot at nine yards, eleven yards, fourteen yards, and seven yards, pacing from the tree stand to the place where the crossbow bolt was found jutting out of the ground after penetrating through the deer. Those are the same distances at which I typically took deer with my old compound bow.
Humanely, I have not found the crossbow to be any more nor any less lethal than the compound bow. However I am much more confident of placing my shot in a vital spot with the crossbow. And that is why I use it.
The hunt itself – well, if you are a bow hunter you know it has rewards and enjoyments that no other form of hunting offers. If you are not a bow hunter, you are missing out on a wonderful and spiritual outdoor experience, and you should try it. This fall.