THE EARLY DAYS IN CROSSBOW FLIGHT

by George Alavekiu
c.1970
Transcribed by George - 25 September 1990

PART I

It all started one day in '65 when Paul Goldberg, an occasional patron of Golden Gate Park's archery range, showed up with a WHAMO Powermaster crossbow.

The velocity of those crude bolts, equipped with oversize feathers, simply amazed me. Paul asked if replacing the aluminum limbs with limbs of maple and Gordon's glass would improve the velocity. After doing the replacement and noting the performance I found myself contemplating the possibilities of crossbow FLIGHT.

Fight BowI had been associated with target archery since 1930 and with hand-bow flight since 1947. For the past 3 years, Harry Drake and I had been meeting on the dry lake beds of Nevada and California, experimenting with different ideas in flight. Harry was into footbow flight as well and had achieved 1100 yards in competition. He was also well acquainted with the construction of these bows, which pulled up to about 200 pounds. My efforts were limited to handbow flight but I was unable to stay any closer than 150 yards to Harry. I also tried a few ideas of my own, only one of which turned out to have much merit. This was the placement of a separate grip on the far side of the bow, which improved stability and allowed clearance for the bow string. Today, it is used universally in flight shooting.

I had no idea as to the design of the limbs for my first flight crossbow. For the stock, there was already a set of plans for the Bailey, obtained from Fred Isles a few years before. After many abortive attempts I came up with a pair of limbs pulling about 80# at 14" of string movement. For arrows I put together a few 10-inch shafts of Rosewood and Snakewood, 3/16" in diameter, with vanes of mylar extending another 3/16". A friend and I tried out this combination in Golden Gate Park, but though we searched high and low, we never found one bolt.

Alavekiu at Ivanpah By the time of my next field shoot, at Ivanpah Dry Lake near Las Vegas, I had switched to solid glass shafts of the same diameter, and varying in length between 6 and 10 inches. Using the same bow, which had a string drag of approximately 1/8" on the track, I was able to clear the 700 yard marker with about 15% of my shots. This was disappointing to me as I had expected somewhat more. I remember offering to let Harry Drake try his hand at it, but in brotherly fashion he placed his arm around my shoulder saying, "While hand flight and the footbow is my province, crossbow flight is your show". Later, however, I prevailed on him to give it a try and he seemed delighted with the ease and simplicity of making each shot, as contrasted to the difficulties experienced in foot and handbow flight.

On the next trip, in the Spring of '67, I had a fairly well designed bow of 36" length, pulling about 135# at 14" of string movement. It was also completely centershot. The bolts were similar but heavier, weighing approximately 150- grains. (The previous bolts averaged 100 grains or less, depending on their length). We were holed up one or two days because of a dust storm. When the weather returned to normal I found the new arrows disappointing and switched back to the lighter, older shafts.

Immediately the distance improved and my best shot was about 950 yards.

At this point, I should like to bring attention to the prediction made by Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey in his book, "The Crossbow" (p.30). He said that, with a properly designed arrow, a half mile should be possible.

It was during this shoot that Harry Drake encouraged me to enter the flight event with my crossbow in the California State shoot in June.

For this event I constructed a longer bow, also a little heavier, and incorporated a longer riser section with the capabilities of a longer draw. I had no idea where the stress limits were, my assumption at that time was that I was already pushing the limits. In this I turned out to be quite wrong, it was probably closer to 50% of the absolute limit. The arrows for this event were also solid glass fiber, but they were unique in that they used thin, steel vanes (from Gillette blades), which were more rigid than plastic and thus less apt to flutter. After this event, everyone adopted them for flight.

Three of my six arrows allowed were over 1,000 yards, the best of which reached 1,148. This was the furthest mark achieved with an arrow in competition up to that time. In this shoot I also won the footbow event with a distance of over 1,000 yards. A week later, I received a congratulatory letter from Fred Isles. Earl Rozar, our flight secretary, had written immediately to him to check on the previous record in crossbow flight, and it seems that Colonel Franklin Pierce had the title until then with a shot of 668 yards.

The next flight tournament was the Nationals, also at Ivanpah, slated for October 1967. Because of occupational priorities, I was unable to make it to any field trips for testing that summer. The round-trip distance of 1,200 miles made weekend trips out of the question. I went ahead, however, with the construction of new and better arrows with hopes of attaining 3/4 of a mile. As far as I knew, I had no competition in crossbow flight and so my efforts were aimed solely at improving the previous distance. During the early summer, I was dismayed when I received no correspondence from Harry Drake for over a month.

The first person I saw when I stepped out of my camper at Ivanpah was Harry Drake. His head was down and he was shuffling his feet. He said, "George, I made a crossbow stock and 3 or 4 bows for it. I came here a month ago and shot 3/4 of a mile. I then went home and made one more bow, a hundred pounds heavier". I asked him why he didn't tell me he was going to compete with a crossbow. "I didn't want to discourage you, George" he answered.

During the event Harry shot an arrow 1,359 yards and a second reached 1,313. My best was also 1,313, seven yards short of the 1,320 goal I had set.

A few days after my return to San Francisco, there was a letter from Harry. He told me that he stayed over and, on the next day (Monday) he shot an arrow 1,431 yards. I was devastated.

PART II

It was the fall of 1967 and I had been defeated in crossbow flight shooting at the National shoot at Ivanpah Dry Lake by Harry Drake, an unexpected contender and erstwhile best friend. A considerable amount of credit for his success was due to his research in the field, including a close duplication of my own equipment. A few days after my return, I received a letter from Harry informing me that the day after the tournament he sent an arrow out to 1431 yards!

So it was back to the drawing board, and a resolve that, in the future, I would best be served by keeping things closer to my vest. To this end, I established correspondence with George Gurik, the national target crossbow champion for a good number of years, and in him I found a very helpful mentor and a good friend who spared no effort in advising me of the state of the art in his field of crossbow shooting. I hoped to learn something from him that I could carry over into the field of flight.

One day, to show my appreciation, I sent George a fiberglass arrow equipped with steel vanes typical of the kind I used in crossbow flight. Several weeks later, the same mailing tube I had used to send that arrow was back at my doorstep. This time it had inclosed another arrow, also with steel vanes, but this one was made of gleaming aluminum and was much slimmer than mine. George enclosed a note explaining that he had made this arrow with high tensile strength aluminum given to him by a relative who worked in a nail making plant, and that he could furnish me with a small amount if I so wished. He also told me that it came in coils, and that the straightening of it was a real problem. This I was really to find out for myself.

On Washington's Birthday, I was back at Ivanpah with four aluminum shafts. That was all that I could straighten in a month, despite working on them every night before going to bed. You got one end straightened only to find this had somehow put a crook in the other half. I was reluctant to use the Ivanpah range for fear that a lost arrow could give away my secret, but I had not as yet located an alternate shooting field.

At Ivanpah, the relatively thick fiberglass arrows (11- inches long) sink in the lake bed a considerable depth. Because of the increased sectional density of the aluminum shafts, they could be expected to almost disappear below the surface, and this is nearly what happened. However, because of the highly reflective surface of the metal, what little did remain in view could generally be spotted easily from quite a distance.

The aluminum shafts showed their "metal" and I had little trouble exceeding my previous best distances with fiberglass arrows, as was to be expected. Towards the end of the day, however, I had not exceeded 1,366 yards, still far short of Harry Drake's unofficial shot of 1431. The crossbow stock was designed so it could be adjusted for draw length. So, for the last shot of the day, I increased the draw by one full inch, taking my chances on the bow breaking. I found the arrow at 1,538 yards. I was on my way again.

After Harry's 1431 shot back in October, he mentioned in his letter that he now visualized reaching a distance of one mile. This now became my goal, as well.

By the middle of April I was back at Ivanpah. I brought along some tiny arrows made from 1/8" steel tubing, with 0.022 wall thickness. This was an off-the-shelf item and somewhat heavy. Later on I had tubing drawn to my own specifications. For one reason or another, no outstanding distances were achieved with these newest arrows and my best was again made with 5/32" aluminum. This arrow, however, had a foreshaft of 5/32" steel tubing, to bring the balance forward and reduce the overall length. The arrow weighed 112 grains and was 8.75" in length. The distance - 1447 yards.

On May 4th I returned once again, this time with a friend. Using an almost identical arrow as on the previous occasion, my best shot set a record for me of 1585 yards.

Alavekiu at Smith CreekIn September, I drove east from San Francisco to north central Nevada and located a large dry lake bed in the midst of a beautiful mountain range, 22 miles west of Austin, an old silver mining town. This was one of the stops for the Pony Express, and was called Smith Creek. The elevation was 6,150 feet, and the clay bottom was extremely hard and so clean you could spot a bee at 30 feet. This would come in handy for spotting the small arrows. On this occasion, the steel arrows began to show real promise, with averages close to 1500 yards. At Smith Creek, I had no fear that any competitors would chance on my little arrows, should I lose one of them.

In a few more weeks, I was back again, and the weather was still comfortable. I would like to point out the enormous amount of work that goes into preparing for each field trip. So many things have to be repaired, for one thing, and many new strings have to be made. (A string is broken in every shot and a considerable amount of time is taken up in replacing strings on these heavy bows.) The time between shots can take up to an hour because of the many details that have to be attended to. The arrows have to bemeasured and weighed so they can be identified as to which bow they were shot from; a record kept for each shot, involving every detail - wind speed and direction; fistmele; angle of shot; draw length. On my return home, I transfer all of this to a tally sheet so that I can detect any interesting trends, as well as it serving for future records.

On this field trip my best arrow reached 1615 yards. It weighed 112 grains and was 8-17/32" in length. It, too, was steel tubing. Here are the distances for the other arrows shot on this, the 12th day of October, 1968: 1302, 1475, 1506, 1554, 1445, 1590, 1562, 1175 and 1520 yards. It took two days to shoot these. I see from my record book that I returned once more, on November 10th. This is hard to understand because the weather normally would far too cold by then. Only 8 arrows were shot on this trip, the best 1590 yards. I believe four arrows were lost, as well.

Then I came back once more before much time had elapsed, but this time it was too cold for the safety of the bows. Instead of shooting, I looked for my lost arrows and found them in a short time, because they showed up well against a background of an inch or so of snow. Winter had set in.

Illustrations (not available):

  1. October 14-15, 1967. George Alavekiu shoots 1313 yards with crossbow at the N.A.A. Flight Shoot, Ivanpah Dry Lake, California (near Nevada border). Bow pulls 175 pounds, and arrow weighed 120 grains.
  2. George Alavekiu also participated in flight using a footbow, sometimes called a "Fanny Bow", for obvious reason.
  3. A machine that Mr. Alavekiu made and took with him on field trips to study the shooting process. It involved a small winch and thus eliminated the human factor. He says quite frankly he did not gain much from it.
  4. FIRST ARROW TO TRAVEL OVER ONE MILE. The background for this picture is a tile floor with squares that are 9" x 9", so you can determine from it the approximate size of the arrows shown in this picture. Top to bottom: Regular archery arrow, about 30" long; a crossbow target arrow 15" or maybe 16"; a crossbow flight arrow, vintage 1950-ish, as used by Col. Pierce to establish his long standing record; which was broken, but good, by the next needle-like, 11" flight arrow that holds the official NAA crossbow flight record of over 1,300 yards; and then a 6" stainless steel crossbow flight arrow that travelled more than 1,800 yards, well over one mile. It was shot by George Alavekiu of San Francisco back in 1967. The bottom two arrows are fletched with Gillette razor blades.
  5. Tallyho! George took several snapshots of this arrow and in each case it looked as though the arrow was draped in some sort of sock. He could not account for this.

PART III

This is the last of three installments that deals with my experiences in crossbow flight on the dry lake beds of California and Nevada.

On October 12, 1968, I had established the longest distance for an arrow at Smith Creek Dry Lake in Central Nevada. This distance had been achieved as a result of considerable time and effort invested in all facets of the game.

The next weather window would be open in May the following year. In the meantime I would apply every spare moment to improving as well as adding to my equipment.

So it was that I returned once again on the Memorial Day weekend of May 31, 1969. Throughout 1968, the arrows had been getting shorter and my distances correspondingly longer. They now averaged around 8.75" in length and 111 grains in weight.

In the next two days only 8 arrows were launched. This was probably due to the fact that the first day was taken up with the surveying and laying out the stakes marking every 100 yards. Even so, a great deal of time is used up between shots. For example, recording all the data for the next shot, such as weather, wind, angle of inclination, weight, and length of arrow for later identification, and the bow to be used. (I bring along at least 12 pair of limbs and sometimes break several. On top of this only a small portion of the day can be utilized because of wind, heat and cold).

On this occasion, only four arrows were launched from a bow designated #2. I then switched to bow #18. This bow, extremely heavy, was designed especially for a shooting device where the weight would be no problem. It seemed much too heavy to handle on a crossbow stock, but I was intrigued with the possibility nevertheless. Further interchangeability offered no problem, so, insulating my hands from the string with rubber strips, I found that it could be drawn after all.

The results were somewhat disappointing. Of the four arrows from #2 bow the first was a misfire, the second and third was found at 1355 and 1348 yards, and the fourth was never located. With the #18 bow, the first two reached 1200 and 1320, while I looked in vain for 3 and 4. As you shall see, I should have looked for them at longer distances.

It wasn't until Friday afternoon the 8th of August 1969, that I again set foot upon the hard clean surface of Smith Creek Dry Lake. The first thing I generally do is get out of the car and gauge the hardness of the soil by jabbing it with an ice pick. If I judge it too soft, I turn around and drive right back home. (I have only had to do this a couple of times at Smith Creek). There is little point in shooting arrows that completely disappear into the soil. On this occasion, I quickly set about unloading my equipment of a thousand and one items that had been carefully packed in every nook and cranny of the VW, all of whose seats, but the driver's, had been removed. After that, I replaced any missing stakes on the surveyed line and still had sufficient time to get off three arrows. These flew out to 1350, 1300 , and 1685, the latter a new record. With three arrows recovered, I drove on east to Austin another 22 miles for dinner and a motel.

The next morning using the same bow (#3), I made two more shots which were located at 1290 and 1640 yards. (Here I would like to explain why two almost identical shafts, drawn equally in the same bow and shot at identical angles, should vary so far in distance. One would expect them to roughly group, so to speak. What actually happens is that the tremendous shock of the heavy bow blasts the point of the tiny arrow from its position on the track at the moment of launch so it hits the airstream sideways. The distance the arrow travels is then roughly proportional to the angle it veers. Positioning a magnet in the track beneath the point of the arrow somewhat allays this problem, but not much.)

I then switch to that heavy #18 bow and let fly two more shafts. One of these was found later that day at 1350 yards. During the heat of the day I refrained from shooting (probably spent the time searching for arrows) but later on, when the temperature came down to 75 degrees, I made two more shots.

The following morning on returning from Austin, I began searching for the missing arrows. Driving out to stake #17 (1700 yards), I stepped out of the beetle and looked out ahead. Almost immediately, I saw what appeared to be the reflection from a piece of glass some distance ahead. I walked in that direction with considerable skepticism but, when I approached within 20 yards, I broke into a run. It was an arrow to be sure-- but buried almost to the vanes. I ran back to the car for my notes and my camera. I then took a few snapshots and measured the angle, as well as the distance the arrow protruded from the soil-- 60 degrees and 1 1/8"-- before I dug out the arrow and drove a stake to mark the spot.

Checking the length carefully and the weight on an Ohaus grain scale, I identified it as the first arrow shot from the super heavy bow, the bow I first tested on Memorial Day, #18. The length was a hair under 8" and the weight 107.1 grains. I then brought out the surveyor's chain and established the exact distance at 1847 yards, or 87 yards over a mile.

There were still two more arrows out there and, before long, I located one ten yards past the mile, 1770 yards. Quite sometime later I located the other shaft at roughly 1100 yards. (The difference between my best and my worst was close to 750 yards).

Dark storm clouds were boiling to the west and a few drops of rain began to splatter down. I hurried to get my equipment put away, leaving only a crossbow and a carefully chosen arrow which I got off immediately. Then I began the seemingly insurmountable task of finding that tiny missile over a range that extended over a mile and more than 100 yards on either side of the centerline. Using turtle-like tactics and covering nearly every square yard, I had the unusually good fortune of coming upon the arrow in less than two hours. It landed almost an equal distance but on the opposite side of the stakeline as the 1847 yard shot. The actual distance proved to be 1851 yards.

In just two days the distance had been raised from 1615 yards to 1851 - an increase of 236 yards. I reflected that my opponent Harry Drake's best shot stood at 1431. A difference of 420 yards - almost a quarter of a mile. The #18 was indeed a great bow for it had propelled three of the last five arrows past a mile. I couldn't help but wonder in months to come if perhaps my first arrow past a mile may have taken place on Memorial Day.

Now it began to rain in earnest--- as if the storm had stood off all this time to accommodate my efforts. I began the long drive home slowly on the slippery surface of Smith Creek Dry Lake. ––– end –––



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