1400 And All That

Deer hunters who dress in buckskin and arm themselves with muzzleloading rifles think that they're the last word in traditionalism. But they don't hold a candle to this Georgia nimrod! (July 2007)

The author took his interest in antiquarian hunting to a new level at Allen Creek WMA last season.
Photo by Priscilla Smith.

So how did my 2006 archery season at Hall County's Allen Creek Wildlife Management Area go, you ask? Something like this:

It is a poor place in which to hunt, this wood, lying as it does close to the habitations of men. The forest's deer -- they knowing that the craftiest of creatures thinks himself lord here, and that death at his hands, through stratagem or main force, ofttimes catches them out unawares -- are spied but rarely, save when in rut. Then, male and female alike so forget themselves as to advantage the huntsman favored by Fortune.

Howsoever that may be, my lot is to roam but this one space of ground in the solitary chase that is my delight. And so I thank God for it, and will speed me as best I may.

I sit at the foot of an ancient tree -- ad fustem, as clerks who can recite the neck-verse will say, or, as is written in the beautiful handbooks of venery that the great consult, à l'affut -- and, my crossbow spanned and at the ready, the edges of its bolt's barbed broadhead honed keen, my rondel dagger likewise sharpened for the field-dressing (should I prosper), I wait.

And wait.

And wait. Yet more.

Yeah -- that's me! I've got digital video to prove it! (A big thank-you to my son Malcolm.) And while the language may be archaic, it paints a pretty accurate picture of what I was doing on that particular day's sally: hunkering down behind some brush fronting a big oak on the path to a watering area that I suspected was resorted to by late-season whitetails. This while armed with a medieval hunter's version of a weapon that at the beginning of the 15th century would already have been in use for 18 centuries and more. And kitted out with clothing of the era and gear to match.

Your next question: Why? It's like this.

* * *

In the spring of 2006, I abruptly conceived the notion of trying my hand at deer hunting by means of archery tackle. I never take the interstate highway when a bumpy two-lane blacktop beckons, however. Among my interests is music, and when not banging away on electric guitars and the associated electronics, I like to struggle with instruments made the old-fashioned way -- and I mean the really old-fashioned way, like they did it when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock: Renaissance lutes, little skinny guitars and whatnot, strung and fretted with sheepgut and tuned in weird ways. They're a pain, but I love them.

So I resolved to equip myself with the weapon that had intrigued me since I was a bookish 8-year-old: the crossbow as it was in the high Middle Ages.

A "DEATHLY AND HATEFUL" WEAPON

First appearing in China around 350 B.C., the crossbow turned up in Rome about the time of Constantine the Great, built at scales ranging from small personal weapons to war engines the size of a small catapult. In 1066, William the Conqueror and his invading Normans brought them into England in a big way.

In the Middle Ages, feelings about the crossbow were mixed. In April 1139, at the second Lateran council, Pope Innocent II tried to ban Christian-on-Christian crossbow use, pronouncing anathema on those who dared wield a device that the pontiff condemned as "deathly and hateful to God and unfit to be used among Christians." His proscription was widely disregarded, as was the similar outlawing of the crossbow in England that was written into Magna Carta.

On the other hand, companies of citizen crossbowmen were tokens of a rising desire for popular self-determination in the emerging Swiss federation -- witness the probably fanciful account of national icon Wilhelm Tell. Crossbows were also valued in the republican city-states of north Italy, two of whose successors, Gubbio and Sansepolcro, compete to this day in an annual target shoot with what in Italian are called balestri.

How They Work: Then And Now

In some senses, the bows of the two periods aren't so different from one another. In both, the bowstave is set horizontal with respect to the stock to which it's attached, and drawn to be latched into a trigger-actuated mechanical release.

The modern compound crossbow is fitted with limbs composed of synthetic materials. Its cams and pulleys amplify the draw force such that a 150-pound draw weight at 10 inches of draw translates to kinetic energy of 80 foot-pounds.

With the crossbow of the Middle Ages, the bowstave (called in medieval times a "prod") was made of spring steel. Prior to the mid-14th century, all bows featured prods constructed by laminating wood, sinew, and leather, but most revivalists opt for the reliable, unfussy steel version. Lacking force-multiplying cams and pulleys, the medieval bow imparts substantially less kinetic energy to the bolt than does its 21st-century counterpart.

My late-medieval bow has a draw weight of 125 pounds at an overall draw of 11 1/2 inches -- the sum of a brace height of 3 1/2 inches and an actual draw distance of 8 inches -- which by my calculations comes out to roughly 41.6 foot-pounds. Therefore, a bow whose steel prod requires a draw force of around 83 percent of the average compound crossbow develops kinetic energy only slightly less than half of the modern version. High-tech rules as usual!

What implications for killing power does all this have? Metrics are hard to come by. My 125-pound bow exceeds the minimum power threshold for deer hunting set by some wildlife agencies by 5 pounds -- but those ratings come with no guidance as to the effective kill range of so low-powered a bow.

And, yes -- my bow is, I've concluded, worryingly low-powered. Had I investigated the issue more thoroughly before acquiring my bow, I would have specified a 150-pound draw weight. Others are even more conservative in their assessments of the power requisite for getting the job done. In an e-mail replying to a number of queries I posed him, revivalist armorer and bowyer Kurt Suleski allowed as how he'd only be comfortable from an ethical standpoint with a 200-pound steel-prod medieval bow. For a considerable number of bowhunters (me among them) such a weapon would involve toting into the field either a "goat's foot" lever or a cranequin (basically a windlass) to cock it.

I did some informal experimentation wit

h inserts for full-body 3-D targets designed to mimic at least serviceably the density of a deer's vital region (the GlenDel vitals replacement insert and the McKenzie Carbon Buck replacement midsection, specifically). Firing a bolt tipped with a chunky medieval-style broadhead -- 1 7/8 inches at its widest point and at a full ounce, three times heavier than the weightiest of modern broadheads -- satisfied me that a crossbow like mine will deliver a kill shot at a maximum range of 20 yards. That's a very close shot, certainly, but arguably one that, as in muzzleloader hunting and conventional bowhunting, will pay off handsomely for the hunter whose goal is as intimate an encounter with the quarry as is possible.

Pictorial evidence appears to corroborate my research. Many illustrations in late-medieval manuscripts portray the light crossbow as functioning, when it came to deer, as a very short-range weapon for drive hunts. In these, beaters or dogs (usually both, as it was an aristocratic enterprise) would stampede the animals directly onto the shooters' positions. So the up-close-and-personal shot being taken by the crossbowman in the accompanying detail from the Comte de Foix's circa 1400 hunting treatise is in all likelihood not an example of artistic license.

Be advised: The learning curve that leads to hitting that mortal zone consistently can prove a steep one. The medieval crossbow is just as cranky in the matter of sighting-in as it is in practically every other department. At 20 yards, its design causes it to shoot roughly 2 feet high from the aiming point, although, according to Kurt Suleski, the trajectory flattens out at 40 yards such that it's almost "point-and-click." With practice, my groups at that range tightened up -- but the thing takes some getting used to.

HUNTING METHODS, 1400: SERIOUSLY OLD-SCHOOL

Outside of the South, hunters in the U.S. today have little or no experience of dog hunting for deer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this increasingly rare form of the chase was the norm in the Middle Ages.

Noble hunting was a highly ritualized communal activity. Everything from assembling the party at the hunt breakfast to dressing out the deer and rewarding the dogs had a prescribed form. The aristocrats and their gentle-born underlings employed a little army of professional hunters, rangers, parkers, trappers, dog men charged with the deployment of dedicated types of canine, and lots of hands in general service. Even the deer hunting done -- legally or illegally -- by men of humble origins was invariably a group affair, albeit a comparatively muted, often surreptitious one.

While solo scouting (mostly on behalf of a party that would enter the area later) was certainly widely engaged in, still-hunting as we modern individualists understand it was not practiced at all when the medieval's quarry was deer.

In 1400, the lone hunter was apt to be a scofflaw to some degree or another, if not a poacher outright, and almost always out just for meat and hides. Even nobles valued antlers little, and then only as markers in an arcane hierarchy of signs distinguishing a beast suitable to be slain by a peer of the realm.

A harvest technician, plain and simple, the solitary woodsman would do what it took to fill the larder. Snares, nets, and all manner of like gear that we don't even remotely associate with deer hunting would have been preferred, as they could be expected to yield the most reliable outcomes.

So is it even remotely possible for us in 21st-century North America to hunt as they did in 1400s Europe? The short answer: no -- at least, not in most details. A lot of the phenomenon simply can't be replicated, because the Western world is far too different, socially and politically, from the Europe of a century before Columbus. Not that any of that cold-reality stuff was going to stop me.

MY MODERN MEDIEVAL BOWHUNTS

My first ground rule: Hunt the area nearest my home -- just as virtually any hunter in 1400 would have done, regardless of class or circumstance. As noted above, that turned out to be Allen Creek WMA, just outside of Gainesville. Lucky me: Success rates are perennially low at this archery-only area. (In fact, as the Wildlife Resources Division's Kevin Lowery informed me in a post-season e-mail, preliminary data indicate that the WMA's 2006 season saw bowhunters scoring a wan 2.75 percent.)

Here's where my project went a little off the rails. Some smokepolers don't merely hunt, but also reenact the era in which their rifles were the last word in technology, dressing up like Dan'l Boone as they give their flintlocks a workout during the primitive-weapons season. Like them, I took it into my head that I was going to go the whole nine yards into the 15th-century thing by attiring myself for the field like a middlingly prosperous yeoman of the epoch.

While the effect is at least arresting, I suspect that I might have been better advised to go a little more with the modern program in this regard. But of that more later.

Thus costumed, I managed to get in a couple of long afternoons during the last week of the season, which at this particular WMA runs Sept. 15-Dec. 31. A day of scouting back in August had revealed a good bit of sign (tracks mostly, some sparse droppings) on a woods road running through a forb-rich site between a creek and a small lake, and I had identified three or four plausible hides along the route.

My first outing was on a sunny, windy Tuesday that was appreciably cooler than had thus far been the case in December; my second took place within a foggy window that opened up late in the day on a soggy, warm New Year's Eve. The Tuesday I spent as described at the beginning of this story: shrouded by brush, my back against the oak. That vigil came to nothing, as did the Sunday expedition, which I passed wedged into a wild tangle of branches and other vegetative debris piled on the fringe of a burned-over area. On both days, as far as I could tell, I had Allen Creek all to myself.

A pair of WRD conservation rangers whom I encountered on my way out of the WMA on Sunday told me that bucks sniffing out unbred does had been sighted moving through the area. Needless to say, they were more than a little interested in both my weapon and my outfit.

No whitetails of either sex passed my station on either day. I suspect that my lack of scent control -- the wool and leather that encased me transmitted not only my aroma but their own as well -- may have contributed substantially to my failure even to glimpse an animal.

So in 2007, my crossbow will still be of ancient design. But I'm pretty sure that if I'm going to have any chance of having even a rut-crazed buck wander by at the close range necessary for my antique-pattern weapon, I'll need to lose the natural materials and don some space-age plastic!

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

If you decide to have a medieval crossbow made for you, choose your bowyer with care, as some are appreciably more adept at their craft than at doing business, and selecting an established builder with good references will render the whole process a lot less nerve-wracking. The most celebrated fabricator of medieval-style crossbows in the U.S. is Da

vid Watson, whose company, New World Arbalest, handcrafts a wide array of models, each bow customized to your specs. His Web site's URL is www.crossbows.net.

If you're the handy type, you can go the do-it-yourself route and build a bow. Start with Kurt Suleski's impressively informative Knight's Armoury Web site, http//:198.144.2. 125/ (scroll down and click on "Medieval Crossbows"). There, all the steps in the process from the forge up are outlined in superb detail.

If you'd like to skip the blacksmithing part (I'm guessing you'd sooner pass on that), all the hardware you need is available from James Koch at Alchem Incorporated, www.alcheminc.com online (click on "Crossbow Components"). Easy-to-follow plans for a couple of different configurations of bow are provided at no cost on the site, and a woodworker of average skill can put a very acceptable weapon together with comparatively little difficulty.

Find more about Georgia fishing and hunting at: GeorgiaSportsmanMag.com

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