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Rural Missouri Magazine

'We sell adventure'
For more than 50 years, Black Widow Bows has crafted custom bows for traditional archery hunters and target shooters alike

by Jason Jenkins

Most of Black Widow Bow’s employees, including Vernon Blitch, are also archery hunters. Vernon has an elk hunt planned for this fall.

After months of constant ringing, the phones at Black Widow Bows now lay silent.

From across the United States and around the world, customers have called Black Widow’s bowyers to learn about their line of custom traditional bows. They’ve called in their orders — bows built just for them — tailored precisely to their tastes and specifications. They’ve called anxiously seeking more details about when their bows will be shipped.

But now, the phones are quiet. Archery season has arrived.

In the world of traditional archery, there are few names as well known as Black Widow. For more than 50 years, the Nixa-based company has produced its line of laminate recurve bows and longbows for hunters and target shooters alike.

Though the advent of the compound bow nearly silenced the phones of traditional bowyers for good, Black Widow’s commitment to quality and performance never wavered, creating a staunch following that has grown through the years.

John Wilson, an employee at Black Widow Bows in Nixa, sprays a thin layer of clearcoat on the limb of a recurve bow to protect it for years of use.

“Black Widow is fortunate in that it enjoys an almost cult following, not unlike Harley Davidson in the motorcycle industry,” says Ken Beck, past president and owner.

Black Widow’s storied past begins in Springfield with the Wilson Brothers, who founded the company. The brothers — Norman, Jack and Bob, along with nephew, Howard — were national champion individual and team target archers who shot bows they built themselves. In 1957, they began selling their first laminated recurve bows. As its name implies, a recurve bow, when strung, curves back against its natural bend, giving it greater power when an arrow is released.

“The story goes that they were building bows out of their garage and were looking for a name,” says Roger Fulton, current president of Black Widow, who along with partners Toby Essick and John Clayman, took over the company’s management nearly four years ago. “There was a nest of black widow spiders in the corner of the garage and, well, the Black Widow name was born.”

In those days, Missouri was a hotbed for bowyers. Names such as Earl Hoyt and York Archery joined Black Widow as recognized leaders in the industry.

“Then you had Holless Allen who started out in Independence and came down to Billings,” adds Ken. “And of course, Mr. Allen was the man behind the compound bow.”

Whereas recurve bows and longbows consist of a stick and a string, a compound bow uses pulleys, called cams, to create a mechanical advantage known as “let-off.” When a compound is pulled past its peak draw weight, the cams allow the bow to store most of that weight. This enables the archer to hold the bow fully drawn for longer periods of time without fatigue.

With their logos, serial numbers, lengths and draw weights recorded in hand-drawn letters, these one-piece recurve bows typify the custom craftsmanship that Black Widow builds into every bow.

In the 1960s, Holless Allen shopped his invention around to the major bow companies of the day, including Black Widow.

“Mr. Allen offered it to the Wilson Brothers, and they rejected it,” Ken says. “They didn’t like the looks of it, and as they say, the rest is history.”

Allen eventually licensed his patent, and the compound bow became a sensation in the archery industry. Seemily overnight, recurve bows and longbows were considered by many to be obsolete. In 1976, with sales declining drastically, the Wilson Brothers decided to sell their company to one of their employees.

For the next six years, the company struggled. In 1982, Ken Beck bought Black Widow. By then, business had dwindled to building some hunting bows for export to Australia and some target bows for Olympic shooters in the U.S., Canada and Europe.

Ken’s own introduction to archery had come later in life. His oldest son, Scott, had built bows in shop class at Kickapoo High School in Springfield, and Ken, Scott and younger brother, Dan, began hunting together. Tragically, Scott was killed in a dune buggy accident before the next bow season, but the fire of traditional archery had been sparked in Ken.

“For whatever psychological reasons, it became a driving force to me, buying Black Widow,” he says. “Only a fool would buy a belly-up traditional bow company in 1982.”

The handle of a recurve bow gets a rough sanding before being placed in a computer-controlled milling machine.

But about the time Ken bought Black Widow, traditional archery started making a comeback. Compound bows had become more and more advanced, incorporating sights, mechanical releases, arrow rests, stabilizers and other technological advancements. For some, it was too far of a departure from tradition.

“I think one of the biggest shots in the arm was when Bear Archery came out with a bow called the Delta-V,” Ken says. “It looked like a fiddle. It had more strings and cables on it than you can imagine; sounded like a .22-caliber rifle when people shot it; heavy as a hippopotamus. I remember people calling in and saying, ‘If that’s where archery is going, I don’t want to go that direction.’ There was a change of heart for a lot of people.”

Just as the compound bow had flourished in the 1970s, traditional archery enjoyed a renaissance in the 1980s that continues today. Compound bow hunters who have grown complacent with their weapons’ abilities look for new challenges. Instead of relying on technology, many seek to rely on their own instincts and strength. Black Widow and its 10 employees have helped many find what they were looking for.

Today, Black Widow offers five recurve bow models and one longbow model, each in four different limb lengths. These include one-piece models and “take-down” bows, which disassemble, allowing an archer to interchange limbs of varying draw weights.

Tim Hutcheson applies glue to strips of wood and fiberglass that will become one limb of a recurve bow.

All of the company’s models are laminate bows, built of thin, alternating strips of wood and fiberglass that, when glued together, are stronger and more flexible than solid wood. A handle alone can have as many as 37 glue lines. To this day, Black Widow’s bowyers follow the unique design the Wilson Brothers established.

“We’ve done a lot of tweaking trying to make it better, to get a little more performance,” Toby says. “We have what we think is maximum performance out of our bows.”

While the bows are basically of the same design as those produced years ago, the materials from which they are built are vastly improved, as is the bow-making process. Each bow is still handmade, but the company has used computer-controlled milling machines since 2003 to achieve an even higher level of precision and uniformity in its products.

In addition to its standard birch laminations, Black Widow offers a wide range of exotic hardwoods that make the bows as beautiful as they are functional. With choices such as ironwood, rosewood, zebrawood, bocote, cocobolo and bubinga, the number of looks continues to expand.

“You can’t have too many,” Toby says. “Everybody wants that one-of-a-kind special bow, something their buddies don’t have.”

You won’t find Black Widow Bows for sale at Bass Pro Shops or your local sporting goods store. All bows are sold direct from the factory to individual archers.

“Generally speaking, every bow we build is for somebody to their specifications,” Roger says. “We haven’t built stock bows for years.”

Ken Beck, right, ran Black Widow Bows for more than 20 years, but he handed the company’s reins to Roger Fulton, Toby Essick and John Clayman nearly four years ago.

Customers can visit the Nixa facility to get fitted for their new bow. For those who don’t live close by, Black Widow offers a demo program, which gives archers the opportunity to test fire a bow before they buy one.

Depending on the model, prices run from $800 to $1,200, not including individual customization options. The time from placing an order to bow delivery averages 10 to 12 weeks.

“It takes three to four weeks to build it,” Roger says. “Toby starts 30 bows a week through the shop, so most of that time is just waiting on the glue list to get started.”

For archers making the switch from compound bows to traditional bows, the biggest mistake is ordering a bow with too much draw weight.

“Shooting a recurve or a longbow uses a different set of muscles than shooting a compound,” Ken says. “People who shoot a 65-pound compound think they can shoot a 65-pound recurve, and that’s not the case. Whether you’re shooting paper or hide, where you place that arrow is a lot more important than how hard it hits. Accuracy is the key.”

Layers of laminated wood and fiberglass give Black Widow bows strength and beauty.

To help archers improve their skills, Black Widow hosts two instinctive shooting clinics each May. People come from all over the world to attend the three-day clinic, which features G. Fred Asbell, a guru of traditional archery. One clinic for 2009 is already full, and the other is more than half full.

After a brief respite, the phones at Black Widow soon will be ringing again as archery season ends and another crop of bow hunters decide that they need a new challenge. In addition to the models currently for sale, a new recurve bow is in development for 2010.

“People are always sending pictures in,” Toby says. “They brag on you and tell you how much they love your bow and what they did with it, it makes a guy feel pretty good.”

Adds Ken: “I’ve always said what we sell is adventure. What’s more adventurous than to go to the woods and climb a tree stand, watch the sun come up and hear the birds start singing and have the squirrels crawling over your feet and see a big buck come down that trail?

“We sell adventure.”

For more information about Black Widow Bows or its 2009 instinctive shooting clinic, call 417-725-3113 or visit www.blackwidowbows.com.

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