The next time you pick up your bow—whether for archery season or for practice—it may be fitting to take a moment to think back on all the great bowmen, competitors, and inventors that made archery what it is today. Of course, with a sport that stretches back to the very beginning of human civilization, that can be a hard task. So here we have listed the seven greatest archers to ever contribute to the bow and arrow, and the sport’s resurgence in not only hunting, but also the competitive field.
1883 – 1935
Often called a true sportsmen and consummate bowhunter, Arthur H. Young was known for his adventures and love of the wild. A pioneer of modern bowhunting, Young strove to prove that the longbow was not just meant for small game, but also animals such as deer and even bear.
“At first we archers hunted squirrels and rabbits, and the doubters told us we could not kill deer. We killed deer, and they raised the ante to bear. Right straight through the list we went until we had killed every species of American game fairly, including the grizzly bear of our Rockies and the brown grizzly of Alaska,” he was quoted by Cliff Huntington.
Always up for a challenge, Young ventured into the wilds of places like Alaska and Greenland armed with just his bow. An explorer as well as a hunter, Young is credited with raising the prestige of bowhunting.
Later in life, Young met fellow bowhunter Saxton Pope and Ishi, the last member of the Yahi tribe.
1902 – 1988
Arguably one of the most famous archery pioneers remembered today, it is notable that Fred Bear didn’t really get into archery until he was 29. Despite his late start, Bear left a vast legacy behind as a bow hunter, designer, author, and manufacturer. At the age of 21, Bear left his family farm in Waynesboro, Pennsyvania to pursue a career in Detroit’s bustling auto industry. While producing advertising materials for car makers, a young Fred Bear tinkered with making his own archery equipment. Learning from Art Young himself, Bear crafted his own bows, strings, arrows and whatever else he needed.
In 1929, Bear first started hunting with his bows, including one carved from an $8 Osage range stave. What had started off as a hobby quickly grew into a business that demanded his full attention, and in the mid-1930s, Bear started the archery company that bore his name.
Today, Fred Bear is known best for his bow designs and the part he played in the resurgence of big game bow hunting. He remained an active archer and hunter until his death in 1988. With good reason, Bear is often considered to be the “Father of Modern Bowhunting.”
1875 – 1926
If anybody is likely to take the title of “Father of Modern Bowhunting” away from Bear, it is likely Saxton Pope. A doctor, hunter, and outdoorsman, Pope grew up in military camps and small towns bordering America’s great unexplored wilderness. Pope was also known for his close friendship with Ishi, the “last wild Indian” in America. It was in fact Ishi who taught Pope how to make bows and arrows in the Yahi fashion, as well has how to hunt with them. The style of this kind of hunting was previously almost unknown to most Americans, but Pope made sure to document it in his book Hunting with the Bow and Arrow.
Alongside with Art Young, Pope is remembered today by the bowhunting organization that bears their names, the Pope and Young Club.
1860 – 1916
The last of the Yahi, Ishi was first discovered by the outside world in 1911, when he was found near Oroville, California. Conflicts with settlers, cattlemen and miners had greatly dwindled the Yahi tribe in the 19th century, and a series of massacres eventually left Ishi and his family as the sole survivors. By 1908, only Ishi was left.
Starving and with nowhere to turn, Ishi finally stumbled into the outside world at the age of 50. He was a marvel for many researchers, and for years he was studied closely to piece together the last days of the Yahi. Eventually, he moved to San Francisco and got a job as a janitor at the University of California, Berkley. It was here that he would meet Saxton Pope. Despite hailing from vastly different worlds, the two men became fast friends. Ishi taught Pope all he knew about the Yahi way of bow making and hunting, which along with his skill as a flintknapper, is regarded as his greatest legacy.
In 1916, Ishi died of tuberculosis. He was buried with one of his bows, five arrows, and some obsidian flakes.
1899 – 1975
Howard Hill is the only person to ever win 196 archery field tournaments in succession, earning him the unofficial title of the “World’s Greatest Archer.” A consummate athlete who dabbled in baseball, basketball, football, and golf, Howard was introduced to professional archery after reading The Witchery of Archery by Maurice Thompson. Like many other bowman, Hill elected to craft his own gear. In addition to competition shooting, Hill was known to make outlandish trick shots and sported a passion for hunting. It is estimated that Hill took roughly 2,000 game animals during his lifetime and he is believed to be one of the first Americans to ever kill an elephant with a bow and arrow.
Fame eventually took Hill into Hollywood, where he worked as a writer and technical adviser. Notably, Hill appears in the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Holless Wilbur Allen
1909 – 1979
Want to see how modern compound bows are made? This is part of Allen’s legacy.
Many know Holless Wilbur Allen as the inventor of the compound bow, an invention that many archers have called the greatest leap for bow making in centuries. Allen started off with building a long-handled bow with short recurved limbs in an attempt to make a bow better suited for hunting deer. Eventually, Allen came upon the idea for compound bows while playing around with pulleys. His first prototype was a crude amalgamation of wood, fiberglass laminate, pine boards and even oak flooring—all barely held together by glue and nails. Yet miraculously, it worked. Capitalizing on the popularity of bowhunting in the 1960s, Allen amazed his fellow bowhunters with the power and effectiveness of the compound bow as compared to a traditional recurve.
It is telling that in as little as ten years after the compound bow was invented, it had already dominated the market.
1898 – 1971
Noted archer, bow maker and fletcher, Ben Pearson founded the first company in the US to make bows on a massive scale. Pearson taught himself how to craft bows and other equipment by reading old Boy Scout articles. The method seemed to have payed off, since Pearson soon launched into competitive archery.
Today, Pearson is best known for getting many young men and women into archery with his company’s inexpensive products. By 1963, Pearson was selling 3,000 bows and roughly the same amount of arrows every day.