STEVE KNIGHT/ firstname.lastname@example.org
JACKSONVILLE – When thinking of the Mount Rushmore of modern traditional archery bows, whether it is target archery or hunting, three names quickly come to mind, Fred Bear of Bear Archery, Ben Pearson of Pearson Archery and Earl Hoyt of Hoyt Archery.
But Mount Rushmore has four faces, and in the archery world it can be easily argued that the fourth should be reserved for a Texan, Bob Lee.
Without a catchy name like Bear, too modest to be a self-promoter or even naming the company after himself Lee is not as well know as some of his contemporaries who were competitors, but also friends and hunting companions. Within the inner circles of traditional bows and bowhunting the quality and design of Lee’s bows are renowned. Because of that he is among an elite group that has been inducted into both the National Bowhunters Hall of Fame and the Archery Hall of Fame.
At 89 Lee still comes to work daily to the shop west of Jacksonville even if his son Rob has to run him off at noon. The company, Bob Lee Archery, is actually the Lees second venture into making recurve bows and longbows. The company is just a shadow of what Lee had created starting in the 1950s working first out of his Houston-area home and then a local warehouse before moving to Jacksonville in 1965. Then the company was known as Wing Archery. Its reputation was as good as any and its innovations better than most. At its height more than 100 employees were working around the clock cranking out 300 bows by hand a day.
Like Fred Bear Archery, Wing was started when a hobby turned into a business.
“It started in 1951 in Houston and I did it because I loved archery. I loved it all my life since a little child. I would make toy bows and so on,” Lee recalled.
As a young man it appeared he would follow his brothers into the family’s excavating business. He was actually working there when he joined the Buffalo Field Archery Club, a club founded in 1948 in Houston and still in existence today. At the club he met Fred Herd, a pilot for then-Humble Oil, and that friendship became the first building block of what was to become Wing.
“We got together building our own arrows in his garage and then started selling them. We did that for two or three years. I wanted to go into it full-time, but Fred didn’t. So I moved the company over and added on to the back of my house to the garage and took it all in,” Lee said.
The company took its name from the wing of an airplane that Herd said resembled an arrow. As that enterprise grew Lee decided he wanted to become a bowyer, a builder of long bows and recurves.
“I didn’t have any idea how to build a laminated bow. I started out and experimented, and I have it up here on the wall, the first laminated bow I ever built. Guess the good Lord was with me because I put knocks in it and strung it up and it was straight and in tiller. I thought heck there is nothing to this. I lost the next three bows, broke them in trying to build them. But I kept on and was learning the whole time,” he said.
Lee was shaping and sanding the wooden handles and pressing and forming the fiberglass limbs by hand resulting in the production of about a bow a week. Along with his arrows, he was traveling the state selling them out of the back of his car. But the business took off and before long he constructed a larger warehouse, using one side for production and renting the other. Within a year the company had taken over the entire building.
Like the design for his first bow, Lee continued to dream up new ideas and concepts without the aid of an engineer. Everything was trial and error.
“Everything I have done is out of my mind. Some of it worked and some of it didn’t,” he said.
Lee said when he first started his bows had fairly straight limbs with a slight recurve. That led to the development of the Duoflex, which had both a reflex and deflex design.
“The de and re gives speed plus smoothness of the draw,” Lee noted.
In comparison to modern compound bows that shoot arrows at about 300 feet per second, traditional recurves and longbows are rated at about 200 feet per second. Beyond appearance, probably the biggest difference is that because of its design an archer using a 65-pound draw weight compound bow will be dealing with about 20 pounds at full draw while the traditional bow user will be holding 65 pounds.
Without pin sights, traditional bows also have a longer learning curve to become proficient at distances.
“To me the thing about traditional archery is the challenge and satisfaction that you get by using your instincts to learn. When you shoot an arrow you aren’t realizing you are doing it but you are visualizing the flight of that arrow and the arch. Man has the instinctive ability. If you point your finger at something when you stop you are on it. That is what you use when you shoot instinctive archery.
“It is something you are not going to learn the first day. I can get you 20 feet in front of the target and get you were you start hitting then back you up. It takes a while for a person to start feeling confident when releasing the arrow,” Lee said. Using only a recurve bow he has hunting throughout the United States and even into Mexico where he once took a jaguar when they were still legal to hunt. He has always found white-tailed deer the most challenging, but the most exciting might have been the alligators in the bayous around Houston that he hunted regularly when there was an open season on them.
Wing’s biggest all-time seller was its Red Wing Hunter, a bow that sold for about $50. Lee’s biggest innovation, however, was the Presentation II, the first that allowed hunters to break down a bow into three pieces for travel.
“I was going on a hunt to Colorado and I was going on a plane. I was worried about my bow being in luggage, that they would twist it throwing a bunch of luggage on it, tear it up. And it just came to me if that was in three pieces, two limbs and a handle, it would be under my seat right now. I couldn’t wait to get back home and start working on it,” Lee said.
The trick was to develop the right limb strength that could be held on by two bolts and would not break when drawn.
“I built a torture machine. I built a handle and built the limbs and bolted it on and strung it up. It would pull the bow up to full draw and release it. Bam. Bam. What I wanted to do was make sure the joint would stand up to it. It was unbelievable to me. It was better than I ever dreamed of. Then we went on and designed our first takedown bow and put it on the market,” he said.
That evolved into the system the company uses today in which the limbs just slide into a locking device instead of having to be bolted on.
In 1965 Lee sought to move his family and the company out of Houston. He landed in East Texas where he constructed a 20,000 square foot shop that quickly grew to 60,000. However, that move corresponded with a major upheaval in the archery industry. The first compound bow was designed in 1966 by Wilbur Allen, and Jennings Archery began mass production the next year.
“We were building 300 a day when the compound bow came in. When that happened I couldn’t accept it. I was a died-in-the-wool traditional bow shooter and I decided to go ahead and sell the company,” said Lee, who admits to having never shot a compound bow.
Lee opted to sell to Head Skis because he felt the two companies had similar philosophies when it came to protection of the brand and product. Shortly after Head got into financial problems and its owners were forced to sell their ski and archery operations to AMF, a company best known for owning bowling alleys and at one time Harley-Davidson, but having also purchased companies making everything from bicycles, athletic balls and nuclear reactors. That was the beginning of a quick end to Wing first in quality and then production.
Lee stayed on with the company for five years, but seeing where it was headed under AMF he resigned in 1972.
“They scuttled the company. It was six or eight months after I left that they closed it,” he said.
The Lees abandoned archery for other business ventures until 1989 when at the urging of his Rob Lee they returned to their roots and formed Bob Lee Archery. Lee agreed to the business venture with the caveat that they only do custom bows and not go back into mass production. Instead of hundreds a day, the little shop now averages a bow a day. Customers around the world buy the company’s bows that are already built or have them built to order.
Today Rob Lee is the bowyer. He is assisted by his stepson, Jonathon Jackson, who has been learning the trade for seven years and is bringing in modernization through the use of computer-operated machinery. Their bows range in price from about $900 for stock bows upwards for custom designs.
Some things, however, have not changed. Bob Lee Archery is still sourcing its fiberglass materials from the same company Wing did in the early years.
As well as promoting archery through his bows Texas bowhunters unknowingly owe Lee a debt. In 1958 he was among a group that approached Texas legislators about creating an archery season in the state. At the time most county wildlife regulations were under county rule and required a state law allowing local county commissioners to set a season and limits.
“I probably gave away 50 bows to senators and representatives, talking it up and if they were interested at all in archery I would give them a Red Wing Hunter. We were instrumental pushing that into getting a season,” Lee said.
In 1959 a number of Texas counties opted in with an archery-only season.
Lee also worked alongside Bear, Hoyt, Pearson, Glenn St. Charles and others to form the Pope and Young Club in 1961.
Hanging on a wall inside the front door of the company’s plant is that first bow Lee built. It hangs in a place of honor, having never been shot. It is surrounded by the evolution of bows starting with Wing and going to today’s Bob Lee Archery and served
Of all the big names in traditional archery, Bear, Pearson, Hoyt, Black Widow, Wing is the only name not still in business today. However, while their founders are gone Lee is still coming to work and his designs and innovations live on with him.
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