Back to basics: The storied longbow has loyal champions in this skilled pair

September 12, 2010 12:12:00 AM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Dr. Gerry Jeffcoat and Bobby Cooper are pretty sure they were born a century or so too late.  


The retired cardiothorasic surgeon and the former cattleman share a severe case of toxophily -- a love of archery -- and have a passionate interest in making longbows. That powerful, slender instrument of warfare and survival, as tall as some men, shaped cultures and history. And it occasionally causes Jeffcoat, of Columbus, and Cooper, of Ackerman, to long for an earlier time. 


"I think we would have done well 100 years ago, or even 200 years ago," said Jeffcoat, a skilled archer at home in the outdoors. "We could have made a living." 


The kinship is apparent as the two friends chat at a kitchen table in Cooper''s restful Choctaw County home he shares with his wife of 58 years, Mary Lou, and Molly, the family''s taupe-colored Chesapeake Bay retriever. Jeffcoat, 65, grew up nearby. He''d known Cooper, but in the past few years, their bond has deepened. Cooper, 80, is a veteran bowyer, a maker of bows, an archery champion many times over and a Mississippi State University alumnus. He''s also a master craftsman willing to pass on his skills 


"I''ve been making bows ever since I was a boy, about 8 or 10 or so, as soon as my daddy would let me have a butcher knife and hatchet ... I used to shoot golden rod stems," says the bow-maker, his voice mellow and measured. "All boys were fascinated with bows and arrows; it''s probably in our genes," he says with a spreading smile. 


Jeffcoat said later, "He''s amazing, just a real treasure. I had an interest in it all before, but Bobby''s been the guiding force as far as any degree of expertise I have. Anything I''ve achieved is due to him, both in making bows and shooting them." 






"The longbow is the reason we don''t speak French today," states a knowledgeable Jeffcoat. He cites the advantage it gave the outnumbered English against France in the Hundred Years'' War -- in critical battles at Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415). "The French were just sitting ducks; they had no answer for the longbow.". 


Most longbows, at 64 to 68 inches long, are designed to exert about 50 pounds of pressure on the archer''s fingers at a full draw (the distance the string is pulled back before release). War bows were usually much more powerful. The English longbow, at 72 inches and longer, could pull 120 pounds or more and was capable of shooting up to 300 yards. Skeletons of medieval archers have been studied, Jeffcoat noted, revealing spur-like projections on the bones where their over-developed muscles pulled. 


Cooper and Jeffcoat revere, too, the bow''s role in Native American cultures. Resourceful tribes adapted to their environment, using wood, horn, leather and sinew for bow-making, and traded for woods when necessary. 


"We (man) wouldn''t have survived if it hadn''t been for two things -- fire and bows," Cooper believes. "It''s been called a gift from God, because it came to many (scattered) civilizations about the same time." 




Authentic experience 


Turning away from the "cables, pulleys, sights and range finders" on many modern bows, both men find it more fulfilling to use longbows they''ve made with their own hands and determination. 


"I think we''ve lost what hunting is about," Cooper says. "Most people seem to want something that''s easy. I think some hunters want a deer tied to a tree. But for us, if we don''t get another deer for 20 years, we''ve enjoyed being out there." 


They speak almost reverently of woods -- hickory, cedar, osage (bois d''arc), purpleheart, bamboo, black locust, sassafras. They know the properties of each, the resiliency, the tolerance for compression 


They know which are more suited to the shorter recurve bow and which will best resist taking a "set" (permanent curve) after the string''s tension is removed. 


Finding the right tree can be like looking for a needle in a haystack, Jeffcoat shares. "When you find the right tree, you quarter it. You work with one of those quarters, and somewhere in there is your bow."  


While the doctor''s bow-making extends to making primitive (all natural) bows and bamboo-backed bows, Cooper''s vast experience and workshop filled with tools he''s designed -- including a lamination grinder, custom bow form and drying oven -- allows him to turn out composite bows laminated with fiberglass and intricately layered with contrasting woods.  


"Bobby''s finished product is beautiful; mine is functional," Jeffcoat states, with self-deprecating humor. "He''s working sometimes with wood so thin you can almost see through it, working in thousandths of an inch." 


Cooper keeps meticulous records of each bow he makes, logging the woods used, measurements, laminations and process. "Gerry''s my field tester ... problem is, the bows he takes home to test, I never get back," he jokes indulgently, as both head to an open area to shoot. Each archer send arrows flying neatly into the small target with regularity.  




The appeal 


Some might think Cooper and Jeffcoat unlikely candidates to be diehard toxophilites. The first is an accomplished watercolorist, with expressive, story-telling paintings throughout his home. The doc is known as a mean fiddler who can put on a toe-tapping show. But these are two kindred spirits.  


"We''re both romantics at heart," says Jeffcoat, trying to express the palpable connection to the past they get from traditional archery. "It''s an imagery that we feel, a kinship that we feel ... you know, at a point in time, we were all primitive people." 


Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.