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"The Great Plains Man"

BILL FORMAN

Bowyer and Craftsman
by Art Dwyer

Bill & Linda FormanElecting to name his bow manufacturing firm "Great Plains Traditional Bow Company" proved to be an excellent choice for Bill Forman. Located in the eastern Texas Panhandle, Pampa, Bill's home town, lies on the great plains of the central United States. The region surrounding Pampa was once roamed by the Comanche, the Kiowa and the Kiowa-Apache. During the 1870's historical battles were fought at Adobe Walls to the northwest, Buffalo Wallow to the east, and along the North Fork of the Red River to the southeast. To the southwest lies the vast Staked Plains, the famed Llano Estacado. Yes, this is a proud land, rich in history, with a long standing tradition of hard work. That same pride, that same tradition, continues today with the craftsmanship clearly visible in the traditional bows of Bill Forman.

For some twenty years Bill' chosen occupation was that of a custom cabinet maker. There he developed a "hands on" knowledge and skill in working with wood. His experience, couples with an appreciation for the beauty and fine line of the recurve proved to be very promising combination, indeed. As the interest in traditional archery began to grow nationally, so too did the idea of becoming a full time bowyer. Knowing that it would not happen overnight, Bill began to make careful pans to make the dream a reality. By Bill's own admission, "A lot of time, hard work, patience, money, and a good banker were all necessary in the transition to custom bow manufacturing. So was the support Linda, my wife of twenty-five years."

From these humble beginnings was born Great Plains Traditional Bow Company. Initially, there was just Bill. "Great Plains now employs one full-time and one part-time employee to assist in the manufacturing process. Working with us on a part-time basis is a gentleman by the name of Reese Field. He's a confirmed longbow man with 20 some years of building experience. Reese is a fanatic when he sets to a task and provided excellent advice in our early days. He was also instrumental in the design of our original longbow. Reese Field and his efforts are sincerely appreciated!" Bill related.

Bill Forman"Since we've been in business, Great Plains bows have been sold not only in the United States, but internationally as well. We've sold bows in Canada, South Africa, Great Britain, and various European countries including, German, Italy, Belgium, and Switzerland," Bill continued. Great Plains now employs a very definite marketing strategy. "We have geared our program to supply handcrafted bows to various Pro Archery Dealers, many that specialize in traditional archery gear and supplies. We encourage our customers to utilize these dealerships whenever possible. Many of the dealers keep great Plains bows in stock or can place custom orders for the individual," Mr. Forman continues. Bill realizes the great potential of these business relationships, the benefits to be derived by both parties, and value them greatly. During one of my visits to the Great Plains shop, Bill told me, in so many words, "I had to turn down a very lucrative offer because I felt it was detrimental to the programs I have established with my dealer. It wouldn't be doing them right." Enough said!

To the greatest extent possible, Bill believes he must promote Great Plains Traditional Bow Company and his bows personally. "We regularly attend dealer and national archery manufacturing trade shows in an effort to expand the markets and the sales of Great Plains bows. We also set up displays and participate in traditional jamborees," Bill said, "and, in fact, we attended one just recently. There were archers attending from everywhere. It doesn't seem to matter where they come from, they share the same interest in traditional archery and bowhunting. Whether they're from Colorado, Indiana, or Texas, they talk the same lingo. We sure enjoy those gatherings."

Competing in many regional 3-D type tournaments allows Bill to constantly test and evaluate his products. This exposure provides valuable feedback and insight into the product expectations and demands of the bow shooting sportsman and hunter. And to be perfectly honest, Bill loves to shoot the bow and arrow!

The Great Plains shop is a very interesting place indeed. Not ornate or lavish by any means, Bill's office is the main entrance, the reception area, the mail room, and the shipping/receiving department. Among the only furnishings are a drafting table, desk and chair. On the rear wall above the desk are overhead oak storage cabinets which were crafted, quite naturally, by Bill himself, then fitted with antler handles. On two other walls and over the rear door, which leads into the shop itself, are racks Bill made to display finished bows awaiting shipment, his personal "users," and those of his collection.

Bill FormanEntering the very spacious work area itself, one might be greeted with the smells of saw dust, the unique odor of epoxy finish just sprayed on a bow, or the high-pitched buzz of a hand sander as it smoothes a freshly cut riser. There are not sophisticated machines of mass production. To be found are many hand tools and wood working machines converted from a previous occupation and "set free" to pursue another honorable and worthy craft. While there are racks of bows and bow parts in various stages of production throughout the work area, Great Plains Bows are essentially crafted one at a time with a labor of love.

With the many demands of building bows, marketing, and meeting deadlines, things can get pretty hectic around the Great Plains shop at times. I do know, however, that Bill does truly like to talk about archery and the bows he builds. Half jokingly, I asked him if "walk-ins" were welcome? After a short laugh, Bill responded by saying, "Oh yes! We do like people to come in. Of course, local archers and friends occasionally visit the shop. We also have people from this vicinity stop by who have become interested in traditional archery and are surprised to find a builder in this area. I've had other builders come in. Quite often vacationers drive up from Interstate 40. We've definitely met some very nice and interesting people here at the shop." (Interstate 40, the replacement for the historic "Route 66" transverses the Texas Panhandle a mere thirty miles south of Pampa).

Designed for top performance, Great Plains bows are indeed beautiful. Top of the line takedown recurve and one piece models, some named after rivers and various tributaries in the area, include the Red River, Woodland Hunter, Wolf Creek, Kiowa, Rio Bravo, and the Palo Duro. Risers are of maple actionwood, coco bolo, Osage, walnut, tulipwood, rosewood, zebrawood, red elm, and shedua laminated and accented, as appropriate to the individual model, with bubinga and various colors of fiberglass. Limb laminations are available in actionwood and many of the same domestic and exotic hardwoods as the risers are crafted from. Placing these laminations under clear glass then reinforcing the limb tips with laminations of matching riser wood and micarta yields a very pleasing result which is completely ready for Fast Flight.

The longbow, aptly name Great Plainsman, is of deflex/reflex design and is available in many of the riser woods and limb laminations as described above. Its limbs are also Fast Flight ready with micarta reinforced tips. Leather grips are laced on by hand. "We are in the process of designing and developing a new takedown longbow. Currently, we are working on the #1 prototype. It will be a three-piece deflex/reflex design, and from all indications will be fast. Some changes are anticipated in the riser shape, so we haven't finalized which of our rise woods it will be available in," Bill allowed. "Of course, it will use a Fast Flight string and will be sleek, slim, and light weight."

 

Bill FormanWhat made you decide to give up a successful career of some twenty years and essentially risk it all to found Great Plains Traditional Bow Company when you could have enjoyed archery just as a hobby?
Right! I don't know . . . To be totally honest, there were several factors. Basically, it was an economic decision. I had accomplished about everything I wanted to in the cabinet and construction business. I felt it was time for a change. I had been building bows part time for bowhunting for several years. Then, we began to see traditional archery making a big come back. This was very timely for me. I needed a new challenge, a new adventure, and some new opportunities. It's taken some time, but it has been a good thing for me. I'd hate to go through it again, but it's been good.

As a manufacturer of custom traditional bows, what does the future hold for traditional archery?
We anticipate a continued upward trend in traditional archery. We see people switching to traditional gear every day. They say they're having more fun and see that this traditional equipment works! Many people new to the sport of archery are actually starting with traditional gear, not with compounds first then switching. People are very enthused about traditional archery.

What, in your opinion, separates a mass production recurve or longbow from the handcrafted?
The biggest difference is the amount of "hands on" work that is done on each and every bow. Here at Great Plains, takedown bow components are drilled using jigs designed to hold extremely tight tolerances to insure proper limb alignment. Limbs are then hand fitted and checked for twist. Our riser shelves and sight windows are radiused for proper clearance. Bows are hand tillered and tuned. Each bow is finished and buffed by hand. Of course, we shoot each and every bow before it's shipped. As with any handcrafted bow, each will feel slightly different in your hand and may shoot just a little different from an identical model made from the same materials and using the same building techniques. This difference, however, is insignificant.

Some years ago one of your bows was the subject of a magazine bow test and article that was somewhat unusual. Please share that with us.
We received an Italian archery magazine. I thought that was very interesting and started looking through it. There it was! A picture of one of our bows! It was part of an article and bow test on a Great Plains recurve. The only problem was, being from Italy, the text was printed in Italian. I can't read Italian! We asked everyone we could think of locally and followed several leads, but weren't able to locate anyone who could read the article for us. I finally carried the magazine to a bowhunting trade show. An Italian dealer was there who agreed to read it for us, but his English wasn't too good, and I guess the translation was difficult. As he read, I asked him several times what it said? He just kept saying, in an Italian accent, "Is good, Bill! Is good!" I never did find out everything that article said.

Bill FormanYou've indicated that many tend to order too much draw weight in a custom bow. As a hunter who has harvested both deer and elk with traditional equipment, what draw weight would you recommend for these game animals?
Many deer have been taken with bows of 45 pounds and up. Bows with draw weights of 55 pounds should be adequate for anything on the North American continent. For moose and big bears, bows of at least 60 pounds and up should be used. We must remember that we now have better material to construct bows from, better strings, and our bow designs are better. With proper tuning, the lighter draw weight bows of today can shoot like heavier bows of yesteryear, within reason of course. Heavier draw weight bows are naturally harder to pull and this sometimes tends to limit the ability of the archer to shoot an arrow accurately.

Some of the subjects of debate in the traditional world include: light arrows versus heavy arrows; Dacron versus Fast Flight; straight fletch versus helical fletch; wood arrows versus aluminum arrows. Care to comment?
Sure. . . You can argue about this stuff all day long. Truth is, it all works! Personally, I like a medium weight arrow. I believe it gives a good balance between speed and retained kinetic energy. I like Fast Flight. It simply performs better. Our bows are built for Fast Flight strings. Fast flight can be noisier, but it's nothing that can't be fixed. Of course, Dacron is quieter. I prefer helical fletch, especially with a broadhead. That arrow needs to spin to keep it from planing. Imagine, if you will, a two blade broadhead flying through the air without spinning. it's likely to take off on you if the blades catch the air just right. Wood arrows and aluminum arrows. . . I like them both. They have their place. Some archers are shooting carbon arrows off our bows. They say that's what you need to shoot to be competitive at the big tournaments.

We've seen a return from high-tech to traditional and with some, a return from traditional to primitive archery. Do you have any plans to craft all wood bows?
I think wood bows are real neat. Some of them look very good and they shoot good too! Building them is a time consuming process. We just don't have the time to devote to it. At some point in the future we may play with them, but not right now.

I know this question is asked often, Bill, but what are your thoughts on the real threats to the sports of archery and hunting with the bow and arrow?
We must not split ourselves. Too much controversy exists between the various factions of archery, especially the traditional versus compound. We don't need these divisions and the infighting that's going on now. If a person wants to shoot a compound, more power to him! Each must get what he needs from the sport. To help preserve hunting we must observe our game laws and conduct ourselves in an ethical manner. There is a tremendous amount of misinformation being spread about hunting. Many animal activists and certain organizations are out to destroy bowhunting for reasons I simply do not agree with. They must not go unchallenged! Many outdoor publications are doing an excellent job at countering this misinformation and portraying hunting in a manner I believe to be proper. I strongly support this effort.

Linda FormanI understand you have three children and three grandchildren. Are there any "Little Bowyers" in training?
Not yet! maybe in the future. I have one "possible," but at age two it's a little too early to tell. I will have to admit that I do have his bows and some hunting adventures planned, though.

Would you like to make any closing comments?
Archery has grown into a year around sport with the competitions we have available. Equipment is getting better and better as more and more people enter the sport and the industry. It's a very enjoyable sport. People do like to watch those arrows fly! I do love to bowhunt. It sure gets "in your blood." In fact, I rarely hunt big game with a firearm anymore. Many of the guys I know and hunt with have basically gotten away from gun hunting also. I don't believe a person can fully understand the feeling a bowhunter has until he himself has actually been eye to eye with a big game animal. I know I can't describe it. Once you've experienced it, though, you can't wait to get back to bowhunting!

Thank you, Bill.

In this day and time, while so many look to each day as just another day of toil, secretly wishing they were doing something else, Bill Forman daily lives his dream building traditional bows. In addition to his obvious skill, I've always appreciated the confidence he has in his bows and his ability to construct them. Largely due to Bill's own efforts and a fierce determination to succeed, Great Plains Traditional Bow Company will soon be celebrating its 5th birthday since "going national." With some 20 years in the field of wood working, Bill Forman, at age 46, looks forward to a long and rewarding career at the bowyers' craft. One can only imagine the many fine bows yet to come from his shop as he continues to develop his skill and ability in an attempt to build that ever elusive "Perfect bow." I have no doubt that Bill Forman and Great Plains bows will be casting arrows far into the 21st century!

Bill Forman and Great Plains Traditional Bow Company can be contacted at 314 W. Foster, Pampa, Texas 79065. Phone 806-665-5463.

 

This article appeared in "Traditional Bowhunter Magazine" Dec/Jan 1997. Reprinted with permission.

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