Crafting longbows for a living

CorrespondentOctober 23, 2013 

Mike Ballinger takes aim with his handcrafted longbow made of curly birch and bocate, an African wood. His quiver includes a fox hide with the tail attached. Arrows are cedar with domestic turkey feathers.

JIM LASLEY

Mike Ballenger, a Moore County resident, built his first longbow and arrow 46 years ago. Today, he makes a living crafting longbows for hunters and archers around the world.

“I grew up hunting and fishing right out the back door,” he said. “And nobody cared as long as we didn’t shoot the cow.”

Ballenger, 57, and his younger brother roamed the woods of Western Alamance County using BB guns and shotguns in pursuit of squirrels and rabbits.

“When I was 10 or 11, I decided to build my own bow,” he chuckled. “I stole my mother’s kitchen knife and picked out a nice hickory and carved off all that didn’t look like a bow. I was influenced by reading Robin Hood.”

That Christmas, the Ballenger brothers received store-bought bows and promptly lost all the arrows.

“We learned how to make arrows pretty quick so we could hunt small game,” he said. “Back then there was not enough deer to hunt. Now you can hardly go to the grocery store without hitting one.”

Ballenger’s interest in bows wavered when he discovered golf and went off to college. After graduating from Appalachian State, he spent 30 years as a counselor and business manager at a wilderness camp for troubled youngsters.

“It was a fantastic job,” he said. “During my career I built bows part time. When I retired it became full time.”

Now he spends much of his days in his garage-turned-workshop bending over a table saw, band saw and sanders gluing up hardwoods and fiberglass backing. The finished product fetches from $250 to $1,500.

“It’s really neat to build a bow,” Ballenger said. “It’s a hard-earned skill and experience. There was a time when I made bows with draw knives, chisels and axes. It takes a lot of knowledge and shop skill.”

Ballenger’s bows go to archers interested in target shooting and hunting. He estimates he has built 800 longbows during his career.

“Archery is very family oriented,” he said. “Quite a few parents want their children to have a good bow – one that will last. You don’t see kids playing with cell phones at an archery tournament. I’ve even built them for 90 year olds who want one more bow before they go, not for hunting but backyard shooting.”

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a longbow as “a hand-drawn wooden bow held vertically and used especially by medieval archers.”

Ballenger’s longbows fall within one of three classes: primitive (all wood), modern (hybrid combination of a straight limbed longbow and a recurve with sharply forward ends) and traditional (straight and long with a narrow limb).

Ballenger says one of the main differences between a longbow and a modern compound bow is the wheels or pulleys found on the ends of compound bows.

“The compound bow doesn’t look or feel much like a longbow,” he said. “The compound bow may be more accurate, but to me they don’t feel like you’re shooting a bow and arrow.”

Ballenger’s favorite is modeled after the longbow used by the late Howard Hill, once featured in documentary films about hunting animals in Africa with a bow.

“It’s straight-limbed without much reflex or deflex,” he said. “It’s more of a traditional bow.”

Ballenger uses American heartwoods such as curly maple and some exotic African woods in his bows. Most are laminated and finished with two parts varnish and catalyzed epoxy. Strings are usually nylon, Dacron or Orlon with beaver-fur silencers. Handmade arrows are crafted out of cedar with domestic turkey feathers.

All wood bows require extra care. They lose their power after being strung up for a long time,” he said. “Glass bows can be left strung up for years as long as they are not stored in a hot place like an attic.”

Ballenger says most anyone can shoot a longbow if it is tailored to height and strength.

“Start up close to the target and keep backing up a little when you hit it,” he said. “Before long it starts clicking in your mind. It’s a lot of hand-to-eye coordination.”

Today, Ballenger’s passion, in addition to archery, is bird hunting with a 100-year-old, side-by-side shot gun. He runs a German short-haired pointer after his favorite game – woodcock.

“I go a couple of times a week during the season right here in Moore County,” he said.

Ballenger also takes his longbow afield hunting wild turkey and squirrels. He gave up deer hunting five years ago when deer roaming into his backyard almost became pets.

“I’ve shot a number of quail,” he said. “I’ve hit them on the fly when they flew into the way of the arrow.”

Ballenger believes the interest in archery is growing in North Carolina.

“It’s become more of a hobby than just hunting a deer,” he said. “People go to tournaments to relax and have fun. You see more and more families enjoying the sport.”

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