Just look hard at your target and shoot?
By Mike Strandlund
After 10 years of hunting with compounds, here I was, learning
how to shoot a bow.
The slender longbow felt feather-light in my hand, yet
mule-stubborn as I strained back the string. And as I gazed through
the void normally occupied by sight pins, I had not a clue how to
guide the arrow into the vicinity of the target.
“Just look hard at your target and shoot,” the old longbow
shooter had told me.
“But how do I aim?” I’d responded, trying to pry from him the
mysterious secret of successful instinctive shooting.
“Just look hard at your target and shoot.”
I pulled back, looked hard, and shot. The arrow glanced off the
sidewalk 2 feet in front of the target, ricocheted off my garage
door, and smashed into a block wall. “Just as I thought,” I
Undaunted, I moved the target to a place where my archery
education might prove less costly. I kept shooting. After a few
weeks, I found I could hit the target quite consistently. It was
interesting, and I kept shooting.
Eventually I found I could hit the target almost at will, with
only the occasional mental-lapse miss that kept it challenging.
This was fascinating.
But the most satisfying part was the productive hunting I
enjoyed in the following years, taking whitetails, mule deer,
antelope, bears and caribou with only a stick bow, some arrows, and
It’s a wondrous thing, this instinctive bow shooting. I’d like
to share what I’ve learned with you.
The first step is to understand that the term “instinctive
shooting” is a misnomer. We have the capacity to shoot a bow quite
accurately without the aid of devices, but it does not come from
instinct. It is achieved through highly trained hand/eye
coordination and concentration learned from hours of practicing the
mechanics of good form.
Some people can’t believe this method of shooting a bow is
practical, or even feasible. “Instinctive shooting can never be as
precise as shooting with sights, so a bowhunter who shoots that way
is always at a disadvantage,” they say. But they’re wrong.
We’re talking bowhunting, not some high-level archery
tournament. A bowhunter is not required to hit a spot the size of a
quarter to be successful. He needs to hit something the size of a
dinner plate-the vital zone of an animal. Precision beyond that is
purely academic. At normal bowhunting ranges of 0 to 25 yards, a
well-practiced traditional shooter should be able to kill deer just
as consistently as an average archer with all the gadgets. And in
cases where he must shoot very quickly, the target is moving, the
shooting position is difficult, the weather is horrendous or
shooting light is minimal all quite common conditions in bowhunting
he should be able to do it better. And of course, he will never
miss due to a loose sight pin, a faulty launcher, or plugged peep
all of which, by the way, have cost me animals.
Beyond that, there are instinctive shooters who are so accurate
they can pick off rabbits, squirrels, even flying gamebirds
Mastering the art of instinctive shooting to that degree
requires mental concentration and well-practiced fundamentals of
shooting form. But mostly it takes being connected to that
mysterious energy that allows you to just think about hitting a
target with an arrow, and then making it happen.
It’s that last part that baffles most people. How, exactly, do
you achieve that “instinctive” accuracy?
The way instinctive shooting always seems to be described is
picking a spot, concentrating on it, and releasing. I have never
found that description sufficient to do my shooting any good. I
groped, experimented, and struggled with barebow shooting.
But I think I’ve found, and can describe, the secret. Yes, it
does involve concentrating on a spot, but it is much more than
that. It is not just looking at a spot, but looking at it in a way
that your eyesight is, in a way, projected into it. In preparing to
shoot, imagine your eyesight as the sun’s rays through a magnifying
glass that you could burn a hole in the target if your sight is
focused and intense enough.
There is a second part to this equation, which is that you must
project with your entire body. You feel (don’t peek!) how your
arrow is pointed, and put everything into a straight line by
drawing with your back muscles, not your arms. You burn a tiny hole
in the precise spot you want to hit, while being subliminally
conscious of how your muscles are directing the arrow, with it all
connected and working in synch. That is the simple secret.
There are several ways to screw this up. It is quite possible to
look at the spot you want to hit without doing it in a way that
promotes accuracy without really focusing on it. Again, you have to
project your sight.
You may project your sight, yet not have the feel in your
muscles. That happens occasionally even to the most accomplished
instinctive archers. When it does, you know it. It feels confusing
and you become conscious that there is little likelihood of making
the shot. Do not even dream of consciously looking at your arrow,
bow hand, or the gap between your arrow tip and the target. To do
that is to destroy the process, and if you do hit the target after
peeking at how your arrow is pointed, it will be largely by
What all this amounts to and why it works isn’t really magic.
It’s focus. It just feels like magic.
Of course, no degree of perfection in “aiming” is going to help
unless you have a good release and follow-through. It really
doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do it consistently. We
just use an “on-target” draw, a solid anchor point, back tension,
finger-slip release, and keeping the bow in place during
follow-through for the simple and effective reason that all these
things are much easier to do consistently than their
Beyond that, the instinctive release and follow-through should
be an extension of “pointing with your muscles.” It should be
almost unconscious, with no last-moment movement of either hand and
not even a blink.
When you get the technique down, it is truly amazing. In certain
cases it is more accurate for bowhunting than mechanical sighting
devices. When you’re in the groove, you just can’t miss. You can
feel that acutely and it feels great.
Describing the perfect instinctive bow shot and how to achieve
it is probably the most difficult concept I’ve ever tried to put on
paper. I’d like to go further and describe it as a flow of energy
from the eyes to the target back to the hands, a circuit of
something like electricity that, provided your form is right, will
send an arrow as true as a laser beam. I’d like to say it comes
from the heart, or the soul, or maybe our genes that still carry
DNA from the thousands of generations of our ancestors who depended
on bows and arrows every day to stay alive. Something spiritual
wells up through your hands, arms, brain and eyes, and when
everything is right, there’s a spark in the mind that knows with
ultimate certainty, the instant of your release, that the arrow
will slam into the center of whatever is in your “sights.”
Sometimes you know it before you even draw the bow, which is one
of the highest highs in bowhunting.
But people who have yet to discover and understand the beauty of
true instinctive shooting might scoff at all this as some kind of
quasi-Zen weirdness. So I just tell them to look hard at your
target and shoot.
Mike Strandlund is editor of Bowhunting World magazine,
published by Ehlert Publishing Group in Maple Grove. Strandlund was
inducted into the National Bowhunters Hall of Fame earlier this