Talk about traditional bowyers and it conjures up all sorts of images: men in sheds in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by trees and very much out in the wilds. So, it might come as some surprise that when it comes to one of the biggest names in the UK you can find them in very unfamiliar surroundings, right in the big smoke of London. The story of the Sagittarius flatbow has two strong roots: one is Rex Oakes himself, surrounded by the ethnographic collection of his uncle James Hooper, a man fascinated by all manner of weapons that had been acquired via various methods, hoovering up all sorts of collectables.
There was so much in the collection that there wasn’t enough room to show it all in the modest Totems Museum in Arundel in Sussex that James Hooper had created to display it, and so Rex had access to the surplus: boomerangs, spears, throwing axes and, with no surprise, bows. Meanwhile, the other root is several thousand miles away in the US: Howard Hill was demonstrating the excellent shooting characteristics of the American Semi Longbow; in fact so famous was he for shooting one, it became known as a Howard Hill bow. Rex experimented with many bow styles as a shooter and then as a bowyer, but it is the ASL that he became famous for and still makes to this day.
So what exactly is an ASL? Well, it is the very definition of flat – many bows that call themselves American Flat Bows tend to have some level of reflex and deflex when unstrung, once strung the level of this flex becomes reduced to a level that they appear flat, however the ASL is absolutely straight when unstrung. This results in a bow that shoots in a very particular style, the limbs when released move in one single direction. Now I have said that the limbs are straight, and on this particular bow and many of the Sagittarius bows this is the case, however there are a few variants of ASL bows: backset, string follow and various reverse risers, but they all still conform to a bow which has a lack of reflex/deflex.
This example is a beautiful Osage Orange, a great bow material and one used for many generations by native Americans where the tree, Maclura Pomifera is indigenous. Osage, like many woods will over time darken and this one is no exception, a deep rich brown. The wood has been used for both the active part of the limb, in two laminations and then as a separate block for the riser. The limbs are finished in a brown fibreglass which adds a layer of strength and stability to them; however, this bow is very much a traditional bow with the wood doing the bulk of the work. The riser as mentioned is Osage, and is about as low as you can get. It fits exceptionally well in the hand with a very minor ridge to allow you to locate the web of your hand accurately but the pressure, as it should be for a low grip, is right on the thenar of your hand extending in line with your thumb. The grip is finished in a nice brown leather, matching the overall aesthetic of the bow and giving a nice positive grip with no smooth surface to cause a slip.
The bow has a small arrow shelf, cut to just before centre and the additional of a piece of leather as an arrow pass means it’s slightly less than to centre when shot. There is no window to speak of – barely enough space for an arrow to fit, but more on that in a moment. The limbs taper consistently throughout the full length of the bow, from around an inch at the handle to just over a quarter of an inch at the tips. This makes for a very thin limb tip, so care needs to be taken when stringing the bow and you would need to take care of the tips and not be too rough when out and about.
One of the great things about the bow, and it’s an issue with lots of bows, is that this bow contains all the information you will ever need right on the bow itself. The length of the bow is of course there, but so is the suggested string length, in addition to the recommended bracing height – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that actually written on a bow before and it’s a great idea. The only other thing to mention is the Sagittarius logo, it’s simple, sleek and really sets the bow off well.
With all that said and done it’s on to the shooting. I’ve shot this bow a number of times, at shoots, for practice and as a training bow, but I really wanted to get a feel for the bow without any external influence. I took the bow to the woods and spent a good hour trying to get the best out of the bow. Initially I’d set it at the lower point of the bracing height, it worked well enough but there was just a hint of zing in the shot, a couple of winds of the string and that settled down. The grip needs to be well seated in the hand, this is a bow you want to grip rather than have a small amount of contact and so there is a fair amount of feedback from the bow. The lack of reflex/deflex makes for a really nice feeling, the bow is very forgiving. I mentioned the lack of window earlier; it’s not an issue because this bow is one that works best when canted. Canting a bow feels very natural and it’s no exception with this bow. I’ve not yet mentioned the weight, but this bow is nice and light which only adds to the natural feel and unlike many modern bows you do really feel as if you and the bow are joined as one.
In terms of performance this bow will not be the fastest bow on the block; it’s using natural materials and so should be judged as such. While it was flinging the arrows out well enough, they did tend to die a little quicker than you might find with a carbon based bow – still, that’s the nature of the materials and really not something to mark the bow down on. I was shooting arrows that may well have been a little stiffer than I should have been and equally a little heavier, but regardless the bow performed really well.
The great thing about this bow is that it knows exactly what it wants to be, no compromises. It’s unashamedly a Hill style bow and doesn’t try to be anything else and it’s all the better for it. Hill style bows have an avid following but, certainly in the UK, there are very few bowyers making them and there can be no doubt that the Sagittarius is the best of the bunch.
Features & Design
Classic hill style flatbow, short of features but packed full of style and character
The materials don’t scream mental speeds, but it’s more than fast enough.
Value for Money
It’s pure craftmanship, worth every penny if you can find a nice example.
This keeps the spirit of Howard Hill well and truely alive. It’s a classic design with performance that might be slightly less than a super modern bow with all the bells and whistles. But it’s an absolute joy to shoot.