The Art of the Course Layer

By Steve
Home > Articles > The Art of the Course Layer

We haven't been everywhere, that would be a silly thing to say, however we do get about. During those travels in search of ultimate archery madness we have stumbled across some great shoots and some terrible ones. One place however never fails to disappoint and when these guys announce a shoot it will be booked out in days.

That's because to lay a course which challenges but also offers the opportunity to strut your stuff and more importantly the chance to have some fun is more than just stringing 40 targets together around a wood, it is in fact an art. Like most art the best practitioners have "the eye". At Fleet Ibex it seems they are blessed with 5 course layers that posses "the eye".

We often hear from folks wishing to start laying course at their own club but have little idea where to start. The whole experience can be daunting. For some while we have been intending to catch up with the guys at Fleet and try to find out a little more regarding the black art of course laying. After the recent shoot there which was probably the best laid, most attractive and the most devious I have ever experienced, we cornered Keith Stay and bombarded him with a list of questions as long as your bow and asked him to tell us, in his own words, a little of what goes into a shoot. First though, a little background......

 ............................I started Field archery 11 years ago now and its the best sport/ pastime you could wish for in my opinion , meeting great people , being out in the elements in all weathers and doing the odd competition along the way. I started with a Longbow and had great times with it until I injured myself quite badly, so the only way I could see to continue in the pastime that I love, I decided to buy a recurve bow which was of lighter poundage , and gradually like most NFAS archers one thing led to another and I now own about 7 bows including AFB’s as well which I have done a few comps with ( unsuccessfully , I should add ) 
What got me into the helping / running of my club ...... well , one day I saw a man staggering down one of the fire breaks with a butt and tools ( this man was Terry , who has become a very good friend , and is now our club sec ) and without thinking , I said the words “ DO YOU NEED A HAND ? “ and that was it , about 9 years on , the work at our club never stops .!! From general upkeep of our permanent courses , to cabin-making , butt-making course laying and too many others to list here. Many hours of hard work by some in our club , has turned it into a great place to be and many new friendships have developed over these years.   

Talking of course laying, what makes a good course layer ?
A good start is , before you ever think of getting involved in course laying , go to as many Open shoots at various clubs and see what others do . Look , take note , talk and listen , much can be learnt by doing this , as some of these courses are laid by archers who have been in this sport a lot longer than you . I’m not saying that all they do is right , and you have to copy them , but it does give you an insight as to how a course layers mind works .  So to move on............ 
We are in the very fortunate position in our club , of having 5 main course layers who set out the course’s for our NFAS Open Shoots. Two of which normally set about 14 or 15 targets and the other three (myself included) the rest, to make up the 40 target course.    

The first thing we decide , is which part of the woods are allocated to which group , and this immediately decides that no over shoots will come into the other groups section. We then decide which way we will go around the woods and normally we lay 3 separate loops , so as archers will have at least a couple of stops ( if wanted/needed ) at a tea tent. At this point , I would like to add that this is normally done , far in advance of the shoot day , normally 4 – 5 weeks before , and upon deciding the rough routes , this is walked a few times , and gradually the shots are worked out with utmost care about safety ie overshoots , deflections etc etc . At this point some coloured tape is attached to various trees, bushes, to denote target positions and shooting positions. These are replaced later with the appropriate target numbers and directional arrows , which are very important to get right , and notes taken where any targets that will require a backstop net , shooting instructions signs if needed and areas to be taped off to avoid archers from walking into a dangerous part of the course ( with the actual taping off done the day before the shoot ) , it is important that these notes are written down as on the day or day before , there are so many other things to do , that some bits may be forgotten.........  Some of the shots/ targets can be decided upon very quickly, but some others seem to come a lot slower , but gradually the course starts to take shape. 

Also, I think that variation is a good thing when laying courses , so no archers are faced with, lets say  3 or 4 long shots and then 3 or 4 short ones or 3 turkeys one after the other which would be boring. No targets at any of our shoots are measured out , and that no target has to always be set at the same distance every time you lay a course , as this will again become boring  , sometimes a larger 3D set closer than normal ( in the right/ different location ) can be just as difficult .  

Another element  that can come into course laying is the use of light and dark areas of woodland , as I feel shooting out of dark areas into open light areas can in some cases make an archers slightly misjudge distance , especially if some kind of sights are relied upon. Also another element that can alter shots completely is the weather ,  some targets that where set out the day before, using overhanging branches , and where just how you wanted them, can be completely unshootable the following day , when rain has fallen , making the branches come down and stop any chance of making the shot . The reverse can happen, as we found out at one of our recent shoots, bracken was cut and manicured the day before , to give a what I thought was just the right gaps/heights etc to make the shot perfect . But as the day was wet , what we didn’t bargain for was that on shoot day , it was very warm and with a slight wind blowing all day , the shot that was great looking at 10.30am was virtually unshootable later in the afternoon , as the bracken had dried and lifted so much that many had trouble even seeing the target.  So, there is no magic formula to courselaying as even the elements, can catch you out ....!!  You never stop learning......   

With peg placement , in general the first peg is almost always the most testing , but this does not mean that the 2nd or 3rd shooting pegs should be just moved forward and made easy , far from it , a hit from these other pegs can also be missed if concentration is lacking .     At this stage, when placing pegs , it is important that not only the arrow flight route to the target is checked ( to check that weaker poundage bows can get to the target safely ) also look around you and also look upwards to make sure the longer bows do not get impeded by overhanging foliage or branches , and also not too close to trees / stumps etc that could catch the lower limbs of any type of bow on release.

I have found that one topic seems to be talked about many times, and that is whether backstops should be used, ie; butts.      In my opinion, if butts are used they should be hidden as much as possible as not to ruin the look of the shot, also if netting is used, it should be placed in such a position that it is still the target that is noticed more than the netting, so a net should be further back behind bushes and natural features if possible so why not leave some trees etc between the target before the netting to break up the outline.
At this point , it must be stressed , never rely on backstop netting as a failsafe way of stopping arrows, yes it will stop certain wooden arrows , ( not all ) and almost certainly not arrows from the more powerful compound bows used today.         
In my opinion the shot always looks better with natural backstops , ie mounds or banks  , so when an archer comes across a target, it looks as it would in the wild, far more pleasing to the eye than when it has a manufactured backstop behind . I know many would dispute this, and is probably better left to another discussion and as for an apology for not having a butt behind a target, I’m afraid one would not come from me.              
Another thing when setting a course is whether to have any one arrow shots, or predator-prey shots or multi-shots. Again personally I don’t think any of these variations are a bad thing , but too many can cause problems , especially multi-shots , as you can get build ups of groups at these , and before you realise it there is major problems with groups finishing at one time and others finishing very much later ,so I don’t think that more than one of these kind of shots should be included in a course .  One shots? again I think that one or two are OK , but no more , as an inexperienced archer could go away from your shoot with a lot of blanks and feel very disappointed , where as a few 4 pointers doesn’t feel like a disaster on the day .  

At our club we are in a position of being able to lay a complete course of 40 x 3D targets , and at some clubs , all the targets are positioned as you see them in the catalogues , side on and completely visible , why ? ................  Is this how you would chance upon them in their natural environment?..Answer = no , not always , so another good way of presenting the targets to the archers is to quarter them  , angle them , call it what you like , and also to have them coming out from behind trees / bushes etc to make them look as natural as possible , but it is important that the animal can still be identified and hittable . I think that the aesthetics of the shot is very very important .
Trust me, archers do remember when they come to their next target and the first thing that is said , is , wow , yes I like that..!!     As all archers are different , have different views , bows , styles , it is very difficult to get every thing exactly right for every archer at every target , believe me , this is impossible ,  you will not achieve this , but try to vary the shots as much as possible , a straight long shot maybe easier for a compound archer than a Longbow , but try a short shot of , say , 3 yrds down a steep  bank , and the longbows will find this easier than the compound archers , ( don’t think some of the sighted archers have 3 yrd pins )  .  As long as the target is achievable with any type of archer and bow, I think you will get a well laid course.

On a final note , I have been asked ,  “ Are you looking ( as a courselayer ) to catch out the archer , and do you lay shots with the intent of fooling them “ .......I must answer this honestly I suppose , and yes of course we do ....!!!  That is why when an archer stands on a target , thinks , Oh yes its one of them at 25 yrds  and then misses and only to then find out about the dead ground or other optical element he / she didn’t notice , that’s mission accomplished ..!! 

Always listen to any body who has had a problem with any course , as you can learn from this , I don’t think any courselayer minds constructive criticism , it can help for next time.... and at the end of the day , 1 archer coming up to you and saying thanks , had a great day , makes all the effort worthwhile....    
          Happy shooting to all , and don’t let the courselayers catch you out....................
                 Keith Stay ...........................  Chairman, Fleet Ibex Field Archers

Steve and Andy

Steve Nicholson and Andy Gilfrin, are real archers interested in the best archery suppliers have to offer. In our search for the very best bow, arrows and equipment we have shot, used and worn pretty much everything on offer.

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