Fred Bear and the History of Modern Archery

By Jason D. Mills

Fred Bear bowfishing

Today is March 5, which also happens to be Fred Bear’s birthday.

Born in Waynesboro, Penn. on March 5, 1902, Bear was an American author, video host, bow maker, and traditional bow hunter. Bear left his home, a small farm, when he was only 21 years old to pursue opportunities in Detroit’s growing auto industry.

Although Bear grew up in a hunting family, he did not start bow hunting until 1929. In fact, Bear said that after hunting with a rifle he was not all that interested in the sport – as there was not enough challenge in it.

“I grew up a gun hunter, my dad was a hunter,” Bear explained in a 1985 interview with Mike Avery. “I shot a deer in 1933 up in the Upper Peninsula [in Michigan] that dressed 285 pounds, the biggest deer I ever saw. And it was so easy. That opening morning I walked up the draw and there he was looking at me and I was looking at him and I shot him and went down and that’s when the work began. So, I thought this [traditional bow hunting] would be a little bit better.”

Bear first had his interest in traditional archery piqued in 1927, when he visited the Adams Theatre in Detroit, where he watched “Alaskan Adventure,” a film featuring a Californian bowhunter named Arthur Young. In that same year, 1927, Bear met Young and he soon began craft his own bows, arrows, and bow strings under the tutelage of Young himself. If Bear had never watched Young’s film or if he had not met Young it could easily be said that archery, as it is known today, would have never existed.

However, Bear did not begin hunting with a bow until 1929, when he ventured into the woods with a bow carved from an $8 Osage orange stave. It took Bear six years before he finally connected with his first whitetail deer with a bow.

Bear Products Company, which made advertising materials for the automotive industry, was founded in 1933 by Fred Bear and Charles Piper after the plant where the men were working burnt down. The business was started with a $600 loan from Piper’s mother and used $600 in Bear’s personal equipment to function.

“I was running a plant for a fellow in Detroit, during the depression, terrible depress of ’29-33 and [the plant owner] wasn’t doing so well and the place caught fire, the insurance company owned it and I was out of a job,” Bear explained. “So, he had a nephew in there, been there about a year. Fresh out of Dartmouth, who came in with the selling capacity and he made friends with Chrysler. We were doing automotive work, in the beginning no one could live off the archery thing. We were making advertising materials, the same business where I was running the plant. So, I got ahold of him and I said, ‘Chuck, you can get the orders for this stuff and I know how to make it, why don’t we form a partnership and get back in business.’ And that was in ’33. Well, he didn’t have any money, and I didn’t either, really; we took inventory of the equipment I had in my basement and it came to $600, and he borrowed $600 from his mother and that was the beginning of this whole thing.”

It was only during his off hours that Bear crafted archery equipment, usually only for his circle of friends. However, the demand for Bear’s products steadily grew and in 1937 he patented his first bow glove and hired Nels Grumley, a master bowyer, to begin making bows under the name “Bear Products by Grumley” fulltime.

In 1939 the side business of archery demanded so much of Bear’s time, he decided to devote himself to it; and in 1940 Bear Products split into two companies, where Piper retained control of the automotive business and Bear retained the archery business. This is when the Bear Archery Company was officially born.

This was no accident, and Bear’s business didn’t grow organically. Bear tenaciously promoted the sport of archery.

“I had to not only make a product, but create a market for it,” he said. “So, I got into the promotional business and I soon found that the newspapers weren’t interested in the scores of the tournament, but if you could run down there with a deer or a bear you shot with a bow, you might make the front page.”

Further, Bear’s clout as a target archery champion helped him champion Michigan’s first bowhunting season in 1937, which prompted many other states to do the same. This, likely, was no small part to Bears success in the archery business.

“In 1937, four years later, we had our first archery season with 193 hunters; 193 bow hunting licenses were sold,” he said. “And it got to a point where I could some days; maybe eat three meals a day. And then I kept on promoting and as the business grew we did better and I found myself in the position where I could go hunting anyplace in the world, I could, you know, take some pictures, write a story, or make a film and I could expense it out tax wise and I could pay myself for doing it. Well, I’ve been doing that for 30-something years now and having a ball. So, I’ve shot a lot of animals and had a great time. I’m still having a great time.”

Fred Bear 50th Anniversary Takedown Recurve Bows

Shortly thereafter, in 1942, Bear produced his first hunting movie as a move to further promote the sport of archery. The next year Bear began experimenting with what would later become his favorite and most popular bow model – the take-down.

“On a trip I made to Alaska with a conventional longbow that I had to check as baggage along with my other gear; I took a flight nonstop, Chicago to Anchorage, and I got off the plane, but my archery equipment didn’t,” Bear said. “The stop in Anchorage was for fuel, and my hunt was a fly-in hunt and I’m being left handed, there were no other left handers in the party and I found those moose pretty hard to kill with rocks. So, I determined that I would make a bow that could be taken apart and put in a small enough case to go under my seat in the airplane.”

It took Bear years of trial and error before finally perfecting the design to his takedown bow in 1970, but his efforts were not in vain. It is not only a bow style that is still sold today, but Bear said “this is the bow that is the ultimate … this is my personal hunting bow. I’ve been hunting with this bow since 1965; I still shoot this bow.”

Four years later, in 1946, Bear patented the first bow quiver and the next year he moved the Bear Archery company from Detroit to Grayling, MI.

However, this growth did not sit well with Grumley, the bowyer Bear hired in 1937. Grumley knew that this move would mean mass producing bows by machines instead of individually crafting every bow by hand and, despite Bear’s attempt at retaining him, Grumley left Bear in 1948. After Grumley’s departure, Bear began using the famous “Running Bear” decal.

The next year, in 1949, Bear began mass producing the Polar, Grizzly, and Kodiak bows. It was also in 1949 that Bear championed the use of fiberglass in bows.

“A salesman for Corning Glass Company … dropped in – he was an archer, bowhunter – dropped into our shop in the very early ‘40s,” Bear explained. “And he had a piece of fiberglass cloth and I had never seen or heard of it and I was very surprised that glass would be flexible like it was … but I had not any great interest in it until he mentioned that it was elastic. He said that it was elastic and very strong and it would stretch or compress and unlike any other material it would always return to its original position until it was overstressed and then it would break. Well, that interested me because if it’s elastic maybe it’s a material we needed for the back of our bows.”

At the same time, Bear was doing some work with Chrysler and he knew their head chemist. Bear knew that Chrysler had developed a glue for bonding rubber to metal, which was called cycle-weld cement. So, Bear took the fiberglass cloth to the chemist at Chrysler and asked if he would put three or four layers of it on the back and belly of one of his bows with the cycle-weld cement. He found that the fiberglass, currently in a crisscross pattern, worked great on the back of the bow, but did not work well on the belly. This prompted Bear to begin manufacturing bows with fiberglass laminated backs and aluminum bellies. Interestingly, the aluminum was scrapped from B-17 bomber airplanes of WWII.

However, Bear found that the aluminum caused too much handshock when shot and there were also a large number of bows returned because of delaminating, which was caused by the large amount of shock. This warranty problem caused a substantial strain on the company’s finances; nonetheless, Bear insisted that all bows be replaced if returned broken.

This prompted Bear to begin developing a unidirectional fiberglass and, in 1951, the aluminum belly bows were discontinued entirely.

Two years later, in 1953, Bear patented the working recurve limb, which is the design that almost all modern recurves use today. The next year Bear began marketing their new fiberglass working recurve – the Kodiak II (see all Kodiak models still in production). Then, in 1965, Bear began marketing his, now famous, Bear Razorhead broadhead for the first time.

Despite his successes, Bear sold his company to Victor Comptometer in 1968 in an effort to grow the company even more. After the sale, Bear stayed on as President and remained active in the design and promotion of products, even after Kidde Corporation took over Victor Comptometer in 1977.

Shortly thereafter, in 1978, a strike at the Grayling plant forced the new owners to move operations to Gainesville, Fla., where the company remains today.

Notwithstanding the turbulence, Bear was an active part of his company until his death on April 27, 1988, at the age of 86.

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