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Wilson Family Archery

Wilson Family Archery

The Wilson Boys in 1946

The Wilson Boys at the 1946 National Archery Championships.
Left to right: Howard, Bob, Norman, and Jack.

Black Widow Bows advertisement

A 1968 advertisement for Black Widow Bows

The "Wilson Boys" of rural Springfield, Missouri, were among the most distinguished archers and bowyers of the 20th century. Consisting of brothers Norman, Jack, and Bob, and their nephew Howard, they were talented archers who won many awards at regional and national tournaments during the 1930s–1950s. The style and efficiency of Bob’s self-made bows attracted the attention of other archers and he began to make and sell bows on a custom basis. The Wilson Brothers Manufacturing Company was founded in Springfield in 1946 and started production of the now well-known Black Widow brand of bows and accessories in 1957. Although the company was sold in the 1970s, the Black Widow line is still in production and retains its worldwide popularity.

In 2005, Cristine Wilson (Bob's widow and a champion archer in her own right) and Howard Wilson donated many of the family's remaining archery materials to the Museum of Anthropology's Grayson Archery Collection. Many thanks go to Dr. James A. Neely, another champion archer and Museum donor who is also Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, for arranging the Wilson donation on behalf of the Museum of Anthropology.

The Wilson donation includes fine examples of the famed Black Widow bows as well as earlier, handmade self-bows. Also included is memorabilia relating to the family’s archery business and their exploits in competitive archery. The collection offers an array of materials that exemplify 20th century developments in archery technology; it also provides a slice of Missouri history, documenting the rural pastimes and commercial activities of the mid-20th century. This online exhibit presents select items from the Museum’s Wilson Family archery collection.

 

Early Bows

Howard Wilson recalls that, "with a drawknife in hand and a stave we had split from an Osage Orange fence post, he [Bob] fashioned a bow. That was the beginning of the Wilson Boys' archery adventures." The first bows Bob and the other Wilson Boy’s made were completely handcrafted, and they experimented with many different bow designs and materials to determine which was most efficient. These early bows reflect the craftsmanship and experimentation Howard and Bob exercised as beginning bowyers.

Black Widow Bows

During a 1939 archery tournament in Sedalia, Missouri, Howard and Bob Wilson encountered a participant who wanted to showcase his newest bow that he had made of red cedar. Howard remarked at the beauty of the bow, but wondered at its durability because red cedar is a brittle wood. The man drew his gleaming bow, intending for everyone around to hear the bow’s "zing." Unfortunately, as Howard reports: "Well, that bow literally exploded and its fragments rained all over the immediate area" and the man was left stunned and holding only the handle. Through experiences like this one and through their own trials with different woods, the Wilson Boys became experts at crafting bows from durable and high quality materials that also made a beautiful finished product. Although their later bows incorporated modern designs and man-made materials, they continued to custom-make their recurves and longbows by hand. 

Memorabilia

The Wilsons competed in archery tournaments not "just for the fun and glory of it all," but also as a strategy for marketing their bows and accessories. All of the Wilson Boys, and many members of their families, were talented archers and were continually successful in archery competitions.

References and Related Links

Wilson, H. 2004 "The Wilson Boys: Norman, Jack, Bob and Howard." The U.S. and International Archer. (Nov-Dec).

Howard Wilson’s tournament story

Black Widow Bows

Text prepared by April Bass and Mary French, winter 2006.
Artifact photos by April Bass.

Early Bows
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Memorabilia
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Black Widow Bows
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