Welcome to another in the walk with series and again we are doing a virtual walk due to the current COVID restrictions in the UK. In this article I will be talking to a well known bowmaker Iain “Pip” Bickerstaffe.
So over to you Iain or rather Pip to introduce himself.
In archery I am known as Pip, my parents call me by my middle name, Philip – which is shortened to Pip.
As I started shooting at 7 I have always been called Pip in the archery world but in “normal” life my first name is Iain and people assume that this is the name to use.
I don’t care what people call me but in archery Pip Bickerstaffe is the name people will associate with best.
Rob – I tend to only be called by Robert by my Mam and then it is usually because she believes I have done something wrong. Anyway lets get back to the interesting stuff.
Why did you first get into archery, was it solely through family involvement?
I have always been interested in the history of archery, all over the world and the different bow types and designs that different cultures have used.
The bow designs used depend on the climate in that part of the world and the materials available.
So, over the years I have made most bow types and learned a lot about what does and doesn’t work.
I actually started out making fibreglass bows, flatbows and recurve bows. I also made a few compound bows.
Rob – learning what does and doesn’t work is very important part of learning any skill. Sadly, I feel many people just want to know the quick answer these day. Anyway, back to your story of how you got into archery.
As a family we started in archery after my older brother and I clearly took to it with cheap bows from the Nottingham Goose Fair. We removed the rubber suckers and used a pencil sharpener to put points on the arrows. We made shields out of cardboard and shot arrows at each other.
My parents reckoned that this might not end well, it didn’t when I had an arrow in my cheek!
So, my father made us some bows out of garden canes and got us to both shooting in the same direction at a target – under supervision.
Rob – Ouch, but it clearly didn’t put you off.
My father went and learned how to shoot at Rolls Royce archery club in Derby, but because it was a company club he could not join the club. So, he approached the sports section of the railways in Derby, where he worked in the technical R and R section.
So, he set up a club there where we all learned and got into target archery. This would be late 1960’s.
Rob – I knew you had a been involved in archery for a long time. You must give you a huge understanding of the history of archery and founding of what we now know as the National Field Archery Society or NFAS, and of archery in UK as a whole. Would you mind sharing your memories.
We joined the BFAA British Field Archery Association as well as the GNAS and got into field archery. The BFAA was amalgamated with the EFAA who soon removed the traditional classes.
So, in 1973, along with a group of archers from Lancashire and the East Midlands we formed the NFAS which my father ran as secretary for the first 25 years or so retiring from them in 1997 though we continued to help with championships for a few more years.
Rob – that was a huge commitment on behalf of your father and yourself. Thank you, for all the work it involved. You are well known for producing longbows, so how did this start?
After having used most types of bows over the years I started to take an interest in Longbows and my father was shooting them pretty much all the time. So, I started making some and learning how to get the best out of them.
I decided to try to make a bow that was smoother and faster than the bows my father was shooting, made by well-known and experienced bowyers. I tried to make bows of the same draw weight and ended up with a couple of beautiful bows that were around 43 lbs – my father’s bows were 55 lbs.
So, we decided to shoot the same set of arrows from two of his bows and nicer of my 43 lb bows. So, we marked three sets of three arrows that my father shot for maximum distance from the three bows. When we went to collect them we both expected the first arrows to be from my bow. But no, they were from one of the 55 lb bows, the next set were from the other 55 lb bow and the third set were from my bow.
So, 12 lbs lighter bow shot 15 yards further than the first set from the 55 lb bow and 10 yards further than the other one. Clearly my design had some potential.
From there we drifted into doing more roving archery having spent over 25 years running the NFAS and numerous field shoots, working at every National Champs, we headed for a quieter and less stressed style of archery.
In 1994 I started making Longbows to sell. That was not a choice but I was made redundant when the firm I worked for went bankrupt. I needed to earn money with two young children, a disabled wife and a large mortgage. I have now made over 20,000 wooden bows plus some fibreglass bows and a number of different bow types.
Rob – wow, that is an amazing number of bows even over a 25 year period. Your workshop is based not far from Loughborough, isn’t it?
The workshop is in Kegworth which is technically in Leicestershire, through the back window we look into Nottinghamshire across the river and a little distance away is the motorway and Derbyshire. So yes, 3 miles from Loughborough, 1/2 mile from Nottinghamshire and about 2 miles from Derbyshire.
Rob – I’m sure others out there would be interested in knowing what you shoot, when you do get the opportunity to shoot round a course. So, can you talk us through your bow of choice?
When I was shooting a lot of field archery my first love was for a recurve bow with wooden arrows in hunting tackle. But I was always looking at various options and I was still shooting target from time to time so I did some barebow archery in field and then tried compound bow hunter.
I then got a job doing some stunt shooting at Nottingham Playhouse where they needed a professional archer to put arrows in the target whilst the actors mimed shooting. Equity could not cover the actors. I reckoned that if they were paying me money I could be professional and we made sure that I had insurance cover.
That earned me half the deposit for our first house!!
But whilst I had shot most bow types over the years and had an affinity for Hunting Tackle as a shooting class, I found that I was picking up a longbow more and more as the bow of choice.
Rob – I think that happens to everyone. I enjoy shooting hunting tackle too, but for me it was the challenge of shooting Flatbow that always draws me back.
Do you get out to many shoot?
These days I do quite a few shoots in Germany and bow making course all over the continent and in the UK.
Rob – Do you think there is an increased interest in learning to make bows? I know there seems to be more interest in traditional styles in recent years from the people I have spoken to or coached.
There is a rising number of people who want to get into bow making. Many are trying to make self bows from all kinds of woods. Sadly, nothing that grows in the UK make particularly good bows, never did, all down to climate and how the wood grows. But you can make a bow out of most woods, it will shoot small game and feed a family, an archery bow good for 100 yards target and 180 yards clout is a different thing.
Rob – I would be curious in knowing how do you find the European archery scene compare to the UK?
In Europe we find a different archery scene where the traditional archery side is more associated with the re-enactment world, but you also find that they are generally very good archers, that like to dress in medieval costumes. Here people like dressing up, but the standard of archery is — not so good.
Come on lads, don’t let the side down, if you want to be seen as a medieval archer, make the effort to shoot well, does not have to be a heavy bow.
In my experience a light bow will kill — if you hit what you are shooting at — if you shoot a heavy bow, and I know many who can, but I also know people who struggle to hit the right field.
Some could not hit a barn if they are in it. But I also see re-enactors who give many good archers a challenge — let’s have more of you guys and impress the public.
Rob – This year has been challenging for so many people within the archery community and beyond. How has it affected you?
At the moment business is slow and we are getting very little help from the Government – apparently, I don’t qualify for income support as a self-employed person – but my employee can have furlough.
Hey ho, such is life. We do have orders, not a lot, but hopefully as people can get back to shooting we can hope that there will be a return to demand for our bows.
Rob – If you could reach every newbie archer out there with one single piece of advice what would it be?
For people new to the sport and wanting to get the most out of it the first and best advice would be to look to experienced archers shooting in the traditional manner rather than the modern recurve target archery techniques.
The traditional V draw technique that I was taught in the 1960’s worked then and still works now.
Rob – I was referencing your book “Shooting the English longbow” the other week with a fellow club member. Specifically, the V draw technique you mentioned and describe in the book. That reminds me, he’s still got it, so I need to get it back.
I know you’ve written a couple of books over the years on longbow. What prompted you to do this?
Basically, I have learned an awful lot and a lot of what I learned is not well recorded in the available archery books so I set out to write down what I have learned in a bullshit free way. So, if it is useful and relevant I include it, if it is not necessary or important, why include it?
So, what I write is tried and tested and explained so that you can see for yourself that it works and you can check it out for yourself, there is enough information to do so.
My father was a physicist so I was taught to think logically and to work everything out from basic principles, in this way I have learned how to understand the important things in my field, how to select and grade wood based on how it grew, how to prepare effective gluing surfaces, what glues to use and how to use them, how to glue up a multi-laminated stave. Learning the properties of each wood and where it is best suited to be within the bow.
In the end I have developed a range of bows that are consistent and reliable and lase for many years.
My old faithful is 12 years old. It, still shoots like it did day one, if a little smoother, it has not lost any weight and will still shoot 210 meters, not bad for 50 lbs at 28″
In terms of coaching, the old method that I was taught to shoot target archery was the traditional V draw technique which is ideal for wooden bows — but is not taught these days. So, I thought that I had better write it down.
As regards the history of medieval bows all the answers are there if you know what you are looking at and you can fairly quickly assess the likely draw weights of the bows based on the size and materials used to make strings, the nock slots telling you how big they were. The weight of the arrows is another guide to the draw weight of the bows and the size of the bows themselves, when you recognise the wood quality and density that you are looking at.
You can — with an experienced eye — see the likely draw weight of the bows.
It is so easy to see a big lump of a bow and think it must be heavy, not necessarily, the biggest bow on the Mary Rose is big because the wood is not of the best quality and you need more of that wood to make the weight.
So, it is pretty much the same draw weight as the rest of the bows. And that is? Look at all of the evidence and work it out for yourself, after a bit you realise that the medieval bows were made to be as light as possible but capable of achieving what was required. That way it was possible to find enough people capable of shooting them to their full potential. The strings would last a reasonable time and the range and effectiveness of the arrows was as needed.
Huge thank you Pip for your giving me your time and sharing you experiences for this article. For those interested here is a link to Pips website. Bickerstaffe Bows https://bickerstaffebows.co.uk/
Stay safe, stay well and thanks for reading.
Very good to see pip in the public eye again. An excellent craftsman and a great teacher, and yes he does leave all the ‘bullshit’ aside. I feel I’ve become one of those have a go bow makers but that has only been possible through a chance meeting with pip. There’s an awful lot of rubbish out there but he will stear you in the right direction and if I’m being honest, all the things he said about my self bows was bump on. The Internet and people like myself need to see more of this guy. Good luck going forward pip.
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