GRAND RAPIDS - Bow by bow, Lukas Novotny is unlocking the secrets of Asia's archery past and turning them into everything from fine hunting and target-shooting tools to works of art.
Novotny, a native Czech and for years a successful glass artist, now devotes all his time to making and perfecting various styles of traditional bows. Some Asian designs are fashioned the truly authentic way - from animal horn, sinew, and wood.
One of just a handful of bowyers in the country even familiar with the power and grace of Asiatic-style bows, Novotny quickly is becoming recognized for the pieces he turns out.
He has been invited, for example, to display and demonstrate his work (including shooting from horseback, another of his interests) at Europe's prestigious continental hunting and fishing show. The show this year has bowhunting as its theme and is to be held in June at Castle Chambord in the Loire Valley in France.
Novotny's bows are a pleasure to shoot. They are smooth, powerful, and very fast. But they also are lightweight and deceivingly simple to behold.
If you cannot, or do not want to, shoot a “bare bow” - that is, one devoid of sights and a slug of other attached accessories - don't bother with these.
Which does not mean that traditional bows cannot be shot with deadly accurate effect. One only need recall the legendary hunting deeds of bare-bow hunters like Fred Bear, who made recurve-style bows popular, or longbowmen like Howard Hill or the team of Saxton Pope and Arthur Young.
“It just takes practice, is all,” Novotny says.
The bowyer notes that a Chinese-style bow with a draw-weight of 65 pounds will shoot an 850 to 1,000-grain arrow at 175 feet per second. “It will ruin a rhino's day,” he said. A 64-pound Turkish bow he built, using 450-grain arrows, will reach a velocity of 232 feet per second, which is in the range of modern compound bows.
Novotny also makes his strings and forges his hunting arrowheads of steel on a Viking style. Each arrowhead is carefully honed to a hair-shaving edge. But he buys wooden arrows, explaining that the arrowsmith's work is an art in itself.
A student of history, especially ancient European and Asian military history, Novotny is fascinated by the great eastern conquerors, from Genghis Khan to Tamerlane, and how these warriors from the East conquered vast lands with horses and bows. “The (Nazi) blitzkrieg came from Genghis Khan.”
Uncovering the bowmaking secrets has led Novotny on a merry research chase. Ancient bowyers, he notes, jealously protected their craft. Knowledge was passed down father to son or kept tightly bound within bowyer guilds.
“Nothing was written down. I've been to every museum from here to Istanbul, taking measurements and looking at cross-sections.” He means that literally, referring to a research trip to a military museum in Turkey.
Even the name of Novotny's three-year-old business - Saluki Bow Company - has historic roots. The saluki is an ancient breed of slender, swift hunting dog that originated in the Middle East and North Africa.
“When I came to the States in 1983 (from the Czech Republic), I was interested in Indians and Indian culture, particularly the Plains Indians.” Which naturally led to horses and hunting and archery. Then he saw and handled a custom, handmade longbow - “and I just went nuts.”
He tried to make a few self bows - those made of one piece of wood. Eventually he met and befriended Dean Torges, a master bowyer from Ostrander, Ohio. “He's the best, the authority on the self bow. Period.”
It took Novotny about 10 years to learn how to proceed, his unflagging, passionate interest aside. “That's basically how I learned - and by trial and error. A pile of broken wood later, I finally started cranking out some bows. Several years ago nobody knew anything about these (Asiatic) bows. I still don't know half the truth about them.”
Along the way Novotny credits Jeff Schmidt, a mathematics and physics professor at the University of Wisconsin, for helping to work out the technical side of Asiatic bows, and Tony Horvath, a mechanical engineer and himself a bowyer from Temperance, Mich. “I would have had difficulty in the beginning without Tony in starting up the business.”
But give Novotny credit for tons of patience and persistence. “Development of bows takes time. You have to field-test them. ... You've just got to have an inquiring mind and try things.”
He even traveled to Thailand to acquire a large stock of Asian water buffalo horn for his authentic bows. “I made a special trip to get it.”
A carefully cut and smoothed strip of horn forms a bow's “belly,” or the side of the limbs that face the archer. Elk and deer sinew is used for the bow's “back,” the opposite side. These are glued to a core of maple, osage orange, or mulberry wood.
The bowyer said he had to develop a special taper to the limbs to relieve pressure from the handle area. And he has experimented extensively with different glues.
The customer ordering a horn bow must be as patient as Novotny. It takes at least 18 months to build a horn bow, because the pieces must season and mature in stages.
Such bows do not come cheaply. A simple horn bow costs $1,800, and a fancy one coated in silk and hand-painted, will run $3,000. But Novotny also has started making replica Asiatic-style bows from fiberglass and wood, which is another story of trial and error. Those can be built much more quickly for about $500.
For his horn bows, Novotny has settled on three Asiatic styles - Turkish, Crimea-Tatar or “Crim-Tatar,” and Chinese. He also makes American flatbows or longbows, and recurve bows from bamboo using ancient Japanese lamination techniques.
“There's nothing new under the sun. These techniques go back to 3000 B.C. - to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. We're just reinventing what's already there.” But the ancient finished products were marvels, as good as if lives depended on them. Which precisely was the case.
“If these bows were unreliable, they wouldn't have used them on the battlefield.”
Steve Pollick is The Blade's outdoor writer. E-mail him at email@example.com.