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Gary Davis; Michigan's Selfbow Guru


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Gary Davis and the whitetail doe he harvested with the hatchet bow.

May 01, 2010
Gary Davis has been making, shooting and hunting with selfbows for over 25 years now. Selfbows are bows made of a single piece of wood without laminations or backing for strength. They are the heart of "primitive" archery. Selfbows are literally a "stick and string." They are simple, but make no mistake, a well made selfbow is reliable and as deadly as ever.

Up until about 1950, when fiberglass became widely available for use as bow backing, most all bows were made entirely of wood. Wooden bows were old even before recorded history began. Back when it was "make meat or die" with a wooden bow, Native Americans learned how to fashion serviceable bows from locally available woods. Perhaps the premier bow wood was Osage, named after the Osage Indians who lived in the natural range of the Osage Orange tree in parts of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas. Osage bow staves were coveted trade items among Native Americans for hundreds of years before Europeans appeared on this continent.

Today, Osage grows throughout the mid-west states and in many other areas where the thorny, brushy trees were planted for hedges and livestock fences. Osage is still the wood of choice for many selfbow bowyers. Master Bowyer, Gary Davis, uses Osage almost exclusively for his bows.

Gary has instructed hundreds of people in the art of making and enjoying selfbows, even traveling to Europe and Africa to teach classes on bow making. He has also shared information and experiences by publishing articles in archery magazines as well as opening up his shop, for many years, to anyone who wanted to learn how to make their own selfbow.

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Gary was featured in the popular DVD series, Masters Of The Barebow, where he shared his love of natural archery, his knowledge of self bows and his philosophy on shooting and hunting with them. Watching Gary shoot on the video will give you a new appreciation for the power and accuracy of a simple wooden bow and what a capable archer can accomplish using them.

Gary explained, "You cannot buy the simple satisfaction of making your own bow. When you step into the woods, it's like stepping back in time. We're here today because our ancestors made these bows." Gary went on to say, "They're called self bows, not because you make them yourself, but because they're not dependent on anything but themselves. They're a single stave of wood. Don't underestimate them though, self bows work just fine. They are the bows that the modern laminated bows are patterned after. A 60 pound, straight standing self bow shoots the same as a 60 pound straight standing fiberglass laminated longbow."

"Most selfbows are good for 5 to 10 years, depending on how much they are used and how long they are left strung," Gary informed me. "Then, a bow develops more and more string follow and loses its cast. That's how they wear out, they don't usually break. The strength at brace height is where a bow gets its power, or cast. As it wears out and the limbs begin to bend toward the string more, it loses that brace height tautness and its strength. Therefore, I never leave my bow strung overnight. Even while hunting, I usually unstring my bow at every opportunity, to rest it, because a strung bow is working. If you don't believe that, just touch a knife to the string and watch the action."

A quiet, humble man, Gary does not openly display the many archery awards he has won shooting his bows, nor has he filled a "trophy room" with mounts of big game animals. He hunts more for the experience of hunting than for the trophies to impress others.

I asked Gary about a set of moose horns I spotted laying in a corner. "Yeah, I got that moose with a selfbow and a cedar arrow," Gary admitted. "The nice thing about that hunt was that I used a very special Osage bow backed with sinew from an Alaskan moose. Jay Massey, a well known primitive archer, had killed that Alaskan moose with his Osage bow. When Jay became very sick, the Michigan Longbow Association asked me to make a replica of Jay's moose bow to be auctioned off to raise money for his hospital bills. I killed my moose with that reproduction bow. As you know, Jay passed away. I treasured that bow, it had magic, but it was stolen from me…along with the TV set that it was hanging above."

Gary enjoys hunting way back in the swamps of northern Michigan, where his camp is just as simple as the bow he carries. A home made canvas lean-to protects his sleeping bag and gives him a place to cook his meals over a small fire.

One fall Gary entered the swamp without a bow. "My intent was to go to the swamp with a hatchet, some string and deer fat, cut a stave, make a green wood bow and kill a deer with it, right there," Gary wrote of the experience.

Choosing a 4 inch red oak sapling, he cut it down with the hatchet and split it using wooden wedges. Then he did a "hatchet job" of roughing out a bow blank. By heating the stave over his campfire and twisting it between two trees, he was able to align the bow limbs. Then he tied the green wood bow tightly to a straight tree to let it dry out as much as possible. Fall weather in Michigan is not very dry. After heat straightening again, the bow seemed capable of "making meat," although only at a very close range. Gary started hunting with the bow. However, the wet, November weather was hard on his new bow, which was protected only by a vigorous rubbing of deer fat. He struggled to keep the bow in working condition. Only then did he realize how tough life must have been for Native People who relied on their bow and arrows.

Although Gary failed to take a deer with the hatchet bow that fall, he did succeed the next fall…just before the bow broke from dry rot.

Gary wrote, "On the second morning of rifle season, at 10:45 a.m, a doe at seven yards and an arrow from my hatchet bow met. With no doubt about the kill, I yelled BANG as loud as I could. I thought the rifle hunters should know that there was an archer in the woods."

Gary Davis has a business, Rattlestick Bows, which supplies beautiful Osage bow blanks to people interested in making their own selfbows. This is a great source of excellently prepared blanks for anyone who wants to tiller, shape the handle and finish their own bow.

The "Rattle" part of Rattlestick Bows pertains to the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake skins that Gary provides for customers. Gary takes part in the Rattlesnake Roundup, held each year in Texas, to collect the skins. "Snakeskin backing is really only for looks," he explained. "It adds no strength to the bow, but you can't beat it for beauty and natural camouflage."

Upon entering Gary's shop, a visitor is greeted by the sight of piles of rough split Osage logs, mountains of bright yellow Osage shavings and an enormous amount of "gold dust", the coarse saw dust made by hand rasping bows from staves. Gary is a natural teacher. When I stopped in to interview him for this article, I was immediately considered a student. "Pick out a stave and step up to the bandsaw," Gary commanded. "We need to get you shooting a self bow. You can't really learn until you do it yourself."

Next month, in this column, I'll tell you how, with the help of Gary Davis, I was able build my own Osage selfbow.

Gary Davis can be contacted at, Rattlestick Bows, 19059 Amman Rd., Chesaning, Michigan 48616. Phone 989-845-7740. Gary Davis is featured in Vol. 2 of the Masters Of The Barebow DVD series. Available from 3Rivers Archery, Toll free 866-732-8783, or visit riversarchery.com

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