Traditional Bowhunter
August/September 1996
Pages 88-92



By Phillip Foss

Artist, hunter, and technician. These are, perhaps, the qualities comprising the ideal bowyer.

That the bowyer must be an able technician is perhaps the most obvious, but like any other occupation in the world, not all its practitioners are created equal. Ostensibly, a bow is a very simple mechanical device, but the dynamics which determine consistent and excellent performance are not simple. Consequently, the archer wants to find the bowyer with the best technical skills possible.

That the bowyer should also be a hunter is probably a quality that is disputable. Stalking and shooting a bull elk at 12 yards is not, however, the same act as whacking a paper plate in the backyard. It seems only logical that a bowyer who hunts will have access to experiences which allow the construction of a better hunting bow.

And beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but bows should be works of art. This is, in part, purely aesthetics: the hunter doesn't want the deer and elk to see him lugging around an ugly bow. But a bow is also a creature of speed. And most creatures of speed-be it a falcon or an antelope-possess certain consistent qualities: grace, lightness, agility, elegance. We want these same qualities in a bow.

One could say of Keith Chastain of Wapiti Bows that he does not merely possess these qualities, but that he lives them. He said, "All I do is build bows and hunt!

And hunt he does! "I get in 15 weeks of hunting every year; the bow oven is easy to turn off. And yes, I had a good year in '94, taking a 250 pound whitetail and a Pope and Young class antelope. I got the antelope from a pit blind on a waterhole. My last one was from a windmill. That's the way to go when possible; a hint: keep the windmill shaking.

"1993, however, wasn't so good, only one turkey. But 1992 was super: a whitetail, mule deer, antelope, javelina, and elk.

"I average a bit over one animal a year, but have gotten nine in the last three." In all, Chastain has taken 22 big game animals, including, caribou, mountain lion, and bear. Of these, five are of Pope and Young class.

And his list of small game includes coyote, quail, pheasant, grouse, badger, and marmot-not to mention numerous gourmet rabbits.

But this success didn't come easy. Chastain did not take a big game animal until 1972-a black bear while hunting in Canada-after hunting for 19 years; he didn't take his first deer until hunting for 24 years; and his first Pope & Young class animal-a mountain lion- until he had hunted for 29 years.

"As you can tell, I hunted a long time before taking a big game animal," he said. "There are some explanations, however; many years were spent from the age of 13 until I actually hunted big game and then it was deer in Michigan and Indiana. The success rate was only 2% then in Indiana and not much more in Michigan. I did take a lot of rabbits and groundhogs, however."

Chastain's earlier phrase, "All I do is build bows and hunt," sounds deceptively easy. Perhaps building bows is easy for him, but then his training and experience as a technician are a little frightening.

For starters, Chastain has a Bachelor's degree in Engineering. Good enough. And then he has a Master's in Physics! Add to this a decade's-long career as an engineer and 35 years as a bowyer and you have, obviously, a pretty strong technical base.

And Chastain applies this technical ability to even minute details in the construction of a bow. "I do a lot of small things in making bows that most other bowyers don't know about, most of which you can't even see, and which I won't divulge. Each alone seems insignificant, but all put together make a much better product," he said.

(ABOVE-A selection of Wapiti bows.)

(Keith Chastain with a Colorado whitetail buck taken with one of his carbon glass longbows.)

The products that make up the Wapiti line include both recurves and longbows. The recurves are developed around three basic designs: a one-piece bow, a three-piece takedown, and a slide-lock takedown. Likewise, the longbow is offered in a traditional one-piece version, two and three piece takedowns, and the new Spike, which incorporates several innovative design features.

This list is deceptive, however, because the number of options available on Wapiti bows multiplies the basic list almost endlessly. For the purposes of this article, however, the focus will be on the three-piece takedown recurve and the Spike longbow-favorite Wapiti bows.

Of these bows, Chastain said, "The recurve and Spike have unique designs that allow smoother draws and more speed. It is easy to make a fast bow by merely using a short limb, and it is easy to make a smooth bow, by using a long limb. But to make a fast and smooth bow is much more difficult."

The limb is, of course, the "soul" of any bow, the device which is responsible for actually propelling the arrow. And the limbs on Wapiti recurves are very distinctive, both visually and dynamically. Visually, the limbs feature an extreme "fish-hook" recurve which, when unstrung, reflexes over 90 degrees.

Chastain described the function of this radical limb design: "My limb is the shortest working limb on the market, but is much, much smoother than others. The reason is the overall limb design with the sharp, small-radius recurve. That makes the recurve open up late in the draw. Actually, it just starts to open up when other bows have already opened and are into a longbow mode.

"The limb is very difficult to make, and even I wouldn't try to make it in production. If I tried to do that, so few bows would be good that none would get out the door."

In the three-piece takedown, these: limbs are attached to the riser with the strongest system available: two bolts per limb. Chastain believes that the two bolt per limb system is the safest: "The single bolt and pin systems are simple in design and easy to manufacture. However, they have the disadvantage of major potential damage to the bow limbs when a string breaks or is accidentally cut. All the bow energy must go somewhere and a string failure usually results in the limbs going forward with such force as to damage the limbs at the mounting bolt.

"The two-bolt system per limb is the oldest and still the most dependable of all takedown designs. While being a bit slower to assemble, it gives perfect alignment, and is the most rigid, noiseless, trouble-free and low-maintenance system available."

But Chastain doesn't stop there; instead he beefs-up the two bolt system. "I install custom brass bolt bushings from the rear of the riser. This makes it impossible for the bushings to pull out like those installed from the front of the riser. Also, the limb mounting surfaces are fiberglass reinforced, so the riser can't crack. Finally, I use cork neoprene limb-cushion gaskets. This reduces vibration and noise."

These limbs can be as fancy or work-horse as you like. Chastain offers black, brown, and clear glass, with carbon glass available on the longbows. The latter two glasses can be laid over maple, red elm, bamboo, or Osage to create a very woodsy-looking limb.

Comparable attention to detail is given to the riser. It is designed so that, in profile, it flows smoothly into the limbs, thereby eliminating any "blocky" appearance. "The riser design on the present recurves was developed over 17 years," Chastain said. "It is a slimline profile and relieved 3-dimensionally to get reduced weight. With the 2-bolt per limb design, it is very rugged and dependable while being about as light as you can get."

The arrow window is cut to the bow's centerline, to reduce archer's paradox and provide excellent arrow flight. Chastain said, "Cutting the arrow window too much past the center is a very dangerous thing to do in a wood riser." The arrow rest itself is high and crowned rather than flat. This reduces arrow friction. The shelf is cut to, and immediately above, the shooter's hand. This aids considerably in instinctive shooting.

Grips on the recurves come in high, medium, and low pistol, with specials as an option. "The grip is a very form fitting pistol," he said, "with a palm swell that most shooters really like." The medium pistol grip is ideal; without altering the natural position of the shooter's hand, wrist, or arm, the bow comes onto target perfectly.

Finally, the bow is coated with five layers of Wapiti noglare satin finish, which basically is impervious and requires no care. Because of its no-glare characteristic, the bow does not have a shiny appearance-an important quality when one is avoiding detection by game.

While riser woods are available in a full range-from walnut to ebony to zebrawood-Chastain features his "Kamo" series. Essentially, this constitutes a series of risers laminated out of 1/16 inch layers of complementary-colored woods-be these browns, green, reds, etc. This accomplishes a couple of things. First, the laminated riser is incredibly strong. Secondly, the resulting striped appearance is very fluid and graceful, plus providing a natural camouflage.

Chastain has recently introduced a series of multi-wood risers with contrasting waves and crescents. Not only are these exceptionally handsome, but the characteristics of the woods are very pronounced. So those of you who grew up lusting after fiddle-backed walnut, this is the way to go.

As far as "fluid and graceful" goes, it's pretty hard to beat the Wapiti Spike longbow. Reminiscent of a classical stringed instrument, the Spike is the newest addition to Chastain's line of bows. Superficially resembling most traditional longbows, the Spike incorporates a number of design innovations.

Perhaps most crucial of these innovations to the performance of the Spike is its limb design, which Chastain describes as "deflex-rebend." Chastain commented: "I coined the term `deflex-rebend' to correctly describe the limb design of the Spike. This design is what many people are calling `Reflex-deflex', but that is technically an incorrect term."

And while many bowyers will void their warranties if Fast-Flight strings are used, Fast-Flight is standard on the Spike and it carries a lifetime warranty. "The longbows are showing no failures with the Fast-Flight strings," he said. "The tips are reinforced with micarta and fiberglass. The recurves can be made to take Fast-Flight, but I'm sure in the long run more failures will follow when it is used.

"There is no way to ensure bows don't break," he concluded.

(The Wapiti "Spike" longbow with offset riser.)

"They do. The bowyer must take every step to ensure the failures will be as low as possible. This is where the `experience' of the bowyer is paramount. That is why a lot of the `new' bowyers are not around long. Prospective buyers should consider no one with less than 10 years experience, and more if possible. And be sure that the bowyer will stand behind their work with a decent warranty-mine is a lifetime warranty on all my bows."

Another very functional design feature which is offered as an option on the Spike is a center-shot riser. The riser "bends" away from the arrow shelf. This allows a riser as strong as the standard version, but also creates a centershot window. "This is a super idea," Chastain said. "It seriously reduces archer's paradox and creates a sight window so the shooter can aim directly at the target, rather than having to peer around the riser."

In test shooting a Spike with this feature, it worked beautifully. The bow could be maintained in a perfectly vertical position without experiencing any arrow deflection off the riser. To the a uthor's knowledge, Chastain is the only bowyer offering such an option.

Another option on the Spike is a two-piece takedown model with a metal tube connecting the two segments at the grip. Assembled, the takedown quality of the bow is invisible, making it indistinguishable from a one-piece longbow. Because there are no bolts, assembly is very rapid, and you don't have a 68" longbow bouncing around inside the truck cab.

As with his recurves, Chastain offers a full range of wood risers, limb woods, and glass with his longbows. One example has black glass over Actionwood limbs, with a purpleheart riser and an accenting black leather grip. In all this makes a very attractive, classical bow.

Chastain also has other "unadvertised" options in his Wapitis. Among these are a Dual-weight longbow. Of this design he said, "The Dual-weight longbow is a bow with two string grooves, one inch apart. Using a longer, or shorter, string in the appropriate groove will result in eight pounds, more or less, draw weight. This is primarily a matter of flexibility; an archer who wishes to practice his or her form can shoot at 52 pounds and still be capable of moving up to 60 pounds for hunting, but use the same bow."

Hunting with either one of his longbows or recurves, Chastain is equally specific about his other hunting equipment. On broadheads: "Two or three blade? For most animals, three blade. For heavy ribbed or very large animals go to a narrow two blade. Otherwise cut a hole. For North American hunting, I will only consider three blades."

On bow poundage: "The bowhunter should use all the bow poundage they can adequately handle, but no less than 50 pounds at 28 inches. I use a 60 pound bow at 28 inches, but pull it 29 inches. I can shoot 65 pounds, but not good, so I stay at 60. You shouldn't shoot a bow weight which you can't shoot consistently. Besides, 60 pounds will give passthrough penetration on elk with a three blade broadheadand that should be enough!"

On arrows: "I only use wood arrows. I stopped shooting aluminum in 1960 because they were unanodized and very noisy. The last still applies. I prefer 5/16 compressed wood shafts of both Port Orford and ramin wood. Good ramin wood shafts are as good as cedar. I have found no advantage for me in using tapered shafts on 11/32 or 23/64 diameter arrows (although I know a lot of shooters who do), and it is not necessary to taper the 5/16th shaft. And I prefer a heavy helix with 5 1/2" feathers and a 125 grain point."

While hunting and bow building are Chastain's passions, he nevertheless realizes the need to be active in supporting archery and hunting organizations. Thus, it makes sense that he is a lifetime member of the NRA and the Colorado Bowhunter's Association, and a Senior member of the Pope & Young Club. But he is also a member of the Wyoming Bowhunters, Arizona Traditional Archers, Colorado Traditional Archers, Archers Who Care, and United Bowhunters of New Mexico.

Even though Wapiti Bows is a lone wolf business, Chastain obviously enjoys the company of others involved in the sport. Returning from an unsuccessful javelins hunting trip in Texas he said, "I saw around a hundred pigs at 30-100 yards, but couldn't get a shot at 20 yards or less. About 15 javelins in all were taken, and just being on a traditional hunt with 40 bowbenders from all over the country was fantastic!

"Yes, I put as much technical skill and innovation into my bows as possible, and I continually work at making them as handsome and graceful as possible, but being in the field and bending that bow is finally what it is all about!"

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Copyright 2001 J.K. Chastain
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