Intuitive archery is a system of learning and practicing archery that doesn’t involve what we traditionally think of when we think of “aiming”. Rather than aiming from eye-level, the arrow is instead guided by the archer’s posture: the position of the feet, the height of the draw, and the archer’s own muscle memory are how the archer aims. Once an archer has developed these skills in body awareness, it is possible to hit a target that is behind you, to shoot while running, or even to shoot while blindfolded.
Image taken from the manual Wu Bei Yao Lue (武 备 要略, Ming Era, 1580 CE)
Although the premise is simple, the development of this body awareness and the sharpening of this new instinct takes time and practice, and can be frustrating for some new archers. However, this time quickly passes. Within just a few practice sessions, a new archer’s muscles, posture, and mind begin adapting to the technique. Within a few weeks, a student’s talent emerges, and this style of shooting becomes deeply ingrained into their muscle memory.
“When the archer misses the center of the target, they turn and seek for the cause of their failure within themselves.” – Confucius, 551 BCE – 479 BCE
Image showing the different heights the arrow can go (Source: https://sites.google.com/view/thebowhandanchor/home)
The technique of anchoring is when we reach the maximum point where we can draw an arrow with a given bow, and is a universal concept across all styles of archery; this is the position where we traditionally think of a bow as “drawn.” In most styles of western archery, including the Olympic style, we see archers draw to the height of the ears, the chin, or the eye. After an archer finds their ideal anchorage, they always draw in the same way in order to aim consistently.
A major difference in instinctive archery is that due to the development and influence of horseback archery and the emphasis on movement while practicing, it is not possible to aim down an arrow shaft in this way. As such, in many eastern traditions, the anchoring of the shot is done at other heights, such as the chest.
Within instinctive archery, a number of different draw heights are practiced, depending on the situation. For example, an archer who is on foot will draw differently than an archer on horseback, owing to the movement of the horse and extra need to ensure stability. In instinctive archery, the archer learns to rely on an awareness of the tension in the draw-string of the bow, and learns to trust their body awareness.
Another skill that archers develop is the ability to shoot with either hand, or ambidextrous shooting. This is a situation where traditional eastern bows have an advantage, as many modern western bows have a spot where an arrow rests easily on the bow, called a window. Like the curve of a hockey stick, these bow windows cause a bow to be either left-handed or right-handed.
Traditional archery practice doesn’t rely on the use of a window, and so an archer can learn to shoot from either side. According to expert Stephen Shelby in his book Chinese Archery (2000, pg 305), an archer developing this skill is essential for the development to develop before learning to shoot from horseback.
Shooting Moving Targets
Training with moving targets is one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of instinctive shooting. When shooting at a moving target, the archer must anticipate where the target will be when the arrow meets it, often with the arrow and target moving at similar speeds! This calculation needs to be done within a fraction of a second to achieve success.
Today, there are still several traditional competitions using moving targets, and mastery of instinctive shooting is essential in these competitions.
Instinctive Shot in History – Mounted Archery
As an extension of shooting a moving target, the archer and the target are now moving relative to each other, complicating the situation even further. It is almost impossible to aim using only the eyes while on top of a horse, while galloping at top speed. As such, instinctive shooting techniques are essential to mounted archery.
A rider must depend on their muscle memory, hand-eye coordination, and have a developed, instinctive ability to calculate for distance and speed to hit their target. With this technique, the archer can keep both eyes on the target throughout the process of firing, adjust for both the speed and the gait of their horse, and fire at a target anywhere around them, even behind their horse!
What Does Instinctive Archery Feel Like?
Below is a quote by Gao Ying Chinese author of the book “The way of archery” from 1637 CE that explains the sensation of instinctive shooting.
“As you draw the string back, you concentrate on the target. Pick the smallest point visible on the target. If it is a standing target, concentrate on a hole left by a previous shot: not on the whole yellow circle. If the target is an animal, concentrate on a single hair or feather, not on the breast.
Between the time when you feel your arms and shoulders are level, and before the arrowhead reaches the finger of the bow hand, maximize your concentration. But do not concentrate on the target: you already know where it is and your mind and limbs already know what you want to do. Concentrate instead on your shot. Concentrate on the feeling of the shot being right. Wait for the feeling of the arrowhead on the finger, and when it arrives, do not hesitate: relax and release. The release is not anticipated. It is like a dragonfly touching the surface of a pond or a ripe gourd falling off the vine.”The Way of Archery (射道), Gao Ying, 1637 CE
Instinctive Shooting and the Pa-Kua International League
Archery at Pa-Kua schools draw heavily from traditional practice and historical sources. From the first time a student picks up a bow at the school, instinctive shooting will be the focus. We don’t use any sighting equipment, and instead focus on posture and breathing techniques.
Through our practices, the student gains muscle memory, precision, and body awareness that allows the student to learn to shoot from a variety positions. Within three months of practice, many students can fire at targets behind them. From there, the student will learn to fire while sitting, laying down, walking, and even running and jumping.