How Archery Conquered America

Pop culture breathed life into one of the world’s most noble sports.
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Pop culture breathed life into one of the world’s most noble sports.
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The bow and arrow are making a comeback.

While archery’s always enjoyed a comfortable place in the American consciousness thanks to the longevity and appeal of figures like Robin Hood, it’s far from America’s most popular sport. Ask a kid which sport they’d prefer to play, and you’ll likely get an earful about basketball, baseball, football, or soccer. So despite the fact that 18.9 million Americans aged 18 or older shot a bow and arrow in 2012, archery’s never garnered the same zeal, interest, and ease of a pick-up game on the neighborhood blacktop or tossing around the pigskin after a barbeque.

But the noble archer, equipped with little more than a bow and a keen sense of accuracy, has become a central figure in American pop culture in the past few years. Inspired by Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen in the mega-popular series The Hunger Games, more youngsters (girls especially) are flocking to local archery ranges to try their hand with a bow and arrow. Marvel’s Avengers trilogy, along with its explosive 2015 sequel Age of Ultron, have master marksman Hawkeye front and center in essential roles, while DC’s breakout series Arrow, a realistic take on the DC’s classic vigilante Green Arrow, has emerged as the CW’s highest-rated series in years. Even Legolas, Orlando Bloom’s elven archer of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, is one of the most adored and visible character across the epic high fantasy drama. If there’s one message to glean here, it’s simple: The bow and arrow is the weapon of choice for the world’s most honorable badasses.

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That message is translating into interest. According to data provided by USA Archery, the sport’s governing body in the U.S., total membership in the association has jumped 262% from 2011 to 2014, from 4,704 toxophilites (a lover of archery) to 17,038. As of July 2015, 18,620 Americans count themselves as members of USA Archery. Much of that increase has been centered on youth interest, with youth membership skyrocketing 366% from 874 to 4,535 from 2011 to 2014. The organization explicitly attributes this sudden increase in interest to the sudden prevalence of archers in mass media. The annual World Archery Championship, currently under way in Copenhagen, swelled to 623 top competitors from 96 nations, up from 441 from 69 nations in 2013, with a full team of 12 archers representing the U.S. Americans ranked highly in three of the four main categories (26-year-old Brady Ellison is a media favorite). These marksmen likely find their countrymen rooting them on at home: Starting with the post-Hunger Games 2012 Olympics, archery has exploded as one of the most-watched international competitive sports

“Thanks to movies like The Hunger Games and The Avengers, people have tried archery and found it to be a fun sport that they can enjoy throughout their lives,” said USA Archery CEO and 1988 Olympic bronze medalist Denise Parker in November 2014 ahead of the release of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I. “In the past twelve months especially, we’ve seen huge increases in female and youth participation, and we’re excited to see that trend continue.”

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So what does the return of archery look like? Gotham Archery in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill neighborhood, founded just over a year ago in the midst of the initial Hunger Games, has become a hotspot not just for aspiring archery pros looking to log hours on a local range, but amateurs looking for new hobbies—and often, a brand new passion.

“It’s a fantastic sport that teachers discipline and patience,” managing partner Ken Hsu told Maxim one Sunday in July in his makeshift office in the corner of Gotham’s cavernous range. “If you walk away smiling, you’re coming back.”

Hsu is something of a posterboy for the newfound archery craze. A former Goldman Sachs banker, he took up a new hobby every year as a challenge, an annual tradition aimed at expanding his horizons amid a crushing workload at the prestigious bank. Hsu and partner Jimmy Pang found themselves obsessed with the sport—“I wanted to reconnect with something primal,” Hsu says—and soon found themselves hankering for more. Hsu quit his job and opened Gotham Archery soon after to help others discover the unexpected joys of the bow and arrow that he had quickly come to embrace.

There are 1,300 archery ranges scattered across the country, with 608 official clubs, according to the Archery Trade Association, but ranges tend to come and go in major cities like New York: two have opened and closed in the city in the past few decades, and Queens Archery, one of the lasting ranges situated in an unassuming building in Flushing, is mostly frequented by pros, making it an intimidating spot for a curious passerby. But Gotham Archery’s cavernous range shows signs of longevity. The building is divided into two, with a smaller range for a smattering of die-hard toxophilites who pop in from time to time to launch volleys of arrows at the concentric circle targets pinned to corkboard 20 yards away; In the facility’s main range, a group of high-school aged teens, mostly couples, have arrived for intro classes. “Archery’s huge for dates,” laughs Hsu. “It’s an equal playing field, although women tend to perform better than their male counterparts.”

But the goal isn’t for one-off visits, but to build a deep interest in one of the world’s noblest sports. Hsu and his instructors, who range from college-aged competitive shooters to ex-military marksmen, have pared the traditional nine-step guide to shooting a bullseye down to an easily-digestible four steps. This simple but powerful move makes an arcane target sport more accessible for the drive-by toxophilite. “We’re doing archery differently,” explains Hsu. And the success seems to be paying off: Overwhelmed by interest and raking in cash from corporate events and birthday parties, Hsu and Pang have discussed expanding to a second New York-based range in the near future.

No archer better captures the potential of Hsu and Pang’s archery endeavor than Judy Zhou, a 19-year-old Columbia student and part-time instructor at Gotham Archery. Zhou, a California native, started shooting at 11 before competing in regional and national archery competitions five years ago; she was attracted to the sport like many current aspiring toxophilites, becoming fixated on the archers in the fantasy series Ranger’s Apprentice. Eventually, she was recruited by Columbia to join the university’s varsity women’s team.

Most weekends, Zhou finds herself mixing with both amateurs and experts, helping teens inch towards the bullseyes clustered 15 yards down range and improving her own skill set. With any luck—and if all goes according to Hsu’s plan—the passersby who walk into Gotham Archery for a few rounds of fire will turn into devotees like Zhou.

“Archers have always been seen as very powerful and very noble as far back as medieval times,” says Zhou. “It’s an amazing, caring community—and it’s still growing.”

Photos by Main Image: Getty; In Article: Murray Close/Lionsgate/Everett Collection,Gotham Archery