"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
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Copyright © 2007 by Bill Scifres
January 2007--The Sling’s The Thing

It was a beautiful October day, but it was fast ending, and I did not have a single wood duck or squirrel to make the pot smell good at home.

That would change soon, though, because I was sneaking through corn stubble en route to a big bend of the old riverbed near my old hometown northwest of Crothersville in Southern Indiana. The sun was well below the line of trees on the old bed’s banks--legal shooting time was running out--but I was only 100 yards shy of 25 or 30 wood ducks I had just watched as they pitched into the bend, undoubtedly to roost. Another five or 10 minutes would put me on the high bank overlooking the favored bend. From there I would only have to squeeze the trigger of my little 20-gauge Superposed to bring down my limit of two ducks. 

“Soon,” I whispered to myself half aloud, “I would be hot-footing it back to my antiquated Jeep, and would be on my way home.” But there the scenario took an abrupt turn, 

Cue a fat fox squirrel, towing a corn nubbin and head-scratching time enters the picture. There would be enough time to fashion an encounter with both the squirrel and those Woodrows, I told myself. But if I bagged the squirrel with one boom of the 20 gauge the ducks would change their address fast with me out of range, even with three-inch maggies in the tubes. Likewise, if I tried for the little squealers, the squirrel would vanish into thin air.

“Some dilemma,” I thought, but not for long. My slingshot hung loosely around my neck. It was the answer to my problem. I would slowly place my shotgun between the dry rows of earth between the rows of corn stubble, maneuver the sling into shooting position, fish out a steel wheel-bearing ball from my pocket, and find the squirrel easy pickin' when it was eight or ten feet away. Then I could finish my stalk of the wood ducks.

It all unfolded as I had planned. There was one small hitch. Somehow somebody had washed my hunting trousers, and the steel bearings that always graced the trousers were . . . at home. There were no stones available. My best bet laid in what I could find in my pocket. Namely, that included my car keys (out of it), my $25.00 Buck knife (probably $35 now). One 75 cent Revlon nail clipper (probably $1.25 now, and a quarter (still the same value, I guess).

To make a long story shorter, I opted for the quarter. If I could get I going just right, it would split the air, and follow a flat, true trajectory to the squirrel’s head. I could smell the pot of squirrel dumplings.

In the meantime, the squirrel started up a sapling covered with a ’possum grapevine adorned by a huge nest of dry leaves. That was his destination, one of two times in my life when I have seen squirrels put food any place besides in the earth.

Anyhow, when the squirrel stopped halfway up the sapling, I turned that quarter loose with enough G’s to make Sir Isaac look like a pre-school kid. Just as planned, the quarter sliced the cool fall air straight and true at the squirrel’s head. But “as the best laid plans of mice and men” can go awry, the quarter started turning, and buzzed past the squirrel’s head as it disappeared through the grape vines and apparently into the cyber space.

That erased my vision of squirrel dumplings, but it didn’t spook the Woodrows. I put the sling back in its resting spot, picked up my shotgun, which was no worse for having spent some time in the shucks, and potted two ducks on the rise at the bend. All was well, even if I had both missed and hit . . . in that order. But I was having barrels of fun. After all, missing is commonplace with slingshots.

 The thing to remember is that a slingshot is more than a toy. They should be used with caution, never against anything you do not intend to maim or, worse yet, kill.

What the scenario says, I think, is as this title suggests: “the slings the thing” (with a capital S), and it is easy to build and use. More over, it is a lot less expensive to shoot than shotgun shells at 25 or 30 cents each, or whatever one pays for rifle ammo.

I guess I was lucky in two great respects . . . maybe more. You see, I grew up in Crothersville, IN, on the trailing edge of The Great Depression, and in those days it was pretty commonplace for men and boys to have some pretty good bouts with Mr. Barleycorn. The empty bottles were strewn about the downtown alleys.

Anyhow, our group of younger boys would meet downtown on Sunday mornings (after an active Saturday nights), and pick up huge burlap bags (gunny sacks) of the discards. Then we would head for our range (with slingshots dangling around our necks). That is a good way to carry a slingshot, but the propelling rubber bands may be wrapped around the fork and the pouch slipped around a tine. It then can be slipped into a pocket, if one has a permit to carry a concealed weapon (not really, on the permit). 

Our range was situated between a stretch of elevated tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad line between Indianapolis and Louisvlle and the Indiana Railway (better known as the inter-urban which had a nasty habit of sneaking up on rail bed walkers from behind. It was powered by quiet electricity The beds of the two rail lines paralleled each other, usually about 40 yards, and the valley between (nice and level though filled with brush) was some 20 yards wide). 

Our little aggregation consisted of two kinds of people. There was a thrower, we took turns at that chore; and then there were shooters, always forming a line on the Pennsylvania tracks because that bed was based of great pebbles.

To keep the thrower from being showered with broken glass, a tiny roof (about a four feet square) was erected in the valley with no sides--just four poles and a roof.

The thrower stood below the roof and winged bottles up between the tracks and the shooters let ‘er fly. Seldom did a bottle make it back to earth, but if it did it took another ride.

Unfortunately, the Pennsylvania’s east side was adorned by utility poles decorated by glass insulators for wires, and they, too, became fair game. That game got so vicious that the railroad, or somebody, asked Sampson, the town policeman to confront us in a heart-to-heart. Delivered in its most simple terms, his message told us insulator shooting must halt, as of that moment

Empty hooch bottles aside, turning out a good slingshot is an art form that few have mastered. I became a passing slingshot-maker because one of my best friends was my mentor. His name was Garland “Big Mitch” Mitchell, and he lived only half a block away. Big Mitch was just that, and without a doubt the most versatile athlete in the history of the town. He excelled in all sports and still found the time to be a tremendous outdoorsman, now an active octogenarian.

Contrariwise, I was small, and that figures in one of our classic outings. We were fishing at Buck Trestle, slightly north of our range, and we wanted to be on the other bank. Ordinarily, I could have crossed easily, but the creek was high from rain.

Big Mitch seized the situation with brain and brawn. Sitting me on his right hand, he simply shot-putted me to the far bank, legs and arms flailing the air. Then he broad-jumped the creek.

Making a slingshot is a pretty easy matter. But from where I come from it is exacting. One can, of course, fashion a slingshot that features almost any forked limb or even a post-type, say a popular old wood clothespin. But the best--most artistic forks are made from trees, saplings, or shrubs that have opposite branches (limbs). In Indiana we rely heavily on the ash species that spring up as thickets and fencerows (we have a lot of them) through much of the state. 

Indiana hosts several ash species, but the one I use most is the saplings of the white ash (Fraxinus americana). This species grows along roadsides and in thicket situations, often featuring several forks that are suitable for slingshots. It usually is easy to gain permission to cut them.

When searching for forks for slingshots, I look for handles that are half an inch--or slightly larger--in diameter. I like the tines to be somewhat larger than a quarter of an inch.

I cut them about 16 to 18 inches long--including a main trunk at least twice as long as it will be on the finished product. The remainder is tines. Tines may be cut just about any time, but the warm months is a good time to cut forks because the sap is up to make the tines bend easily. 

To make the fork arty, I bow the tines to the desired form, and wire the tines with light copper wire that bends easily with the fingers. However, if pressure on the handle is too great, the handle may split. Thus, in the case of exceptionally good forks, it is well to wire the handle several places before bowing the tines. This is not necessary most of the time.

In selecting the fork, one may find two or more good forks on one branch (stem). They may be usable, but ordinarily only one is used from a single branch. Forks often have a middle tine, too. It is discarded after baking.

Once the fork is bowed and wired, all one must do is place it in a warm--not hot--oven to dry out the sap. When dry, the fork will stay in the form it was wired. Bark removal is optional, but if it is to be removed, this the time to do it. I use a sharp knife and sandpaper;. The tines and handle are then cut with small, sharp saw (coping saw is good), to desired length. Generally, though, thee-inch tines are good. The top of the tines are then notched to hold rubber bands that will secure strong rubber strips half an inch wide and a foot or more long (again, your call on length).

The dangling rubber strips are then cut with sharp scissors to desired length. The pouch is then tied to the strips with strong twine (it can be bees-waxed for added strength) to the rubber strips.

The pouch, with a purpose of holding the projectile to be propelled, is made from a piece of strong leather. It is roughly 2-3 inches in length, and 1½ inches wide with slits on both ends where the rubber strips are secured.

Now the slingshot is complete.

Shooting a slingshot is simple. Just place the projectile in the pouch, allowing the pouch to wrap part of the way around the projectile. The projectile is held in the pouch with the thumb and index finger of the shooter’s other hand. The fork is held with the thumb and index finger of the preferred hand, and the rubber strips are flexed to their limit. Using “Kentucky windage,” the shooter releases the pouch, sending the projectile to the target. It is a simple operation that can get accurate with practice. The more the rubber strips are flexed, the greater the power and speed of the projectile, and the flatter its trajectory.

Shooting solves a lot of problems and it is very inexpensive.

Incidentally, one looking for slingshot forks should, as well as possible, observe the 11th Commandment of slingshotters: “Thou shalt not covet the forks of thy neighbors’ ornamentals.”

Finding stock, or pure, sheet rubber or rubber strips for the propellant for a slingshot, is a greater problem today than it was when I was growing up. In the days of my youth--the 1930s and early 40s--old automobile inner tubes were almost as plentiful as empty hooch bottles. Garage operators of this golden age of autos were more than happy to part with holey tubes. Truck inner tubes were not close to those of passenger cars because they were thicker and less flexible. I think a little plastic was creeping into truck inner tubes too, even at that early automobile epochal period 

But, as common as auto inner tubes could be, possession of such could transform one into an enviable position of the community.

What we did was cut the tube in 12 or 14-incg strips with crosswise cuts with sharp scissors, then make a lengthwise cut to make one wide strip that often was as wide as it was long. Wide strips--maybe several inches wide--were then parceled out to one’s friends. One very important chattel.

The strips then were cut lengthwise with sharp scissor, usually half an inch wide--maybe ¾ of  an inch by stronger boys, and young men. Somehow, lengthwise cuts seemed better than those of crosswise cuts. I cannot tell you why.

Cutting good strips from a larger sheet was tedious work, even with sharp scissors. It is not easy to cut duplicate strips from a larger sheet (not a bed-type sheet), but one way to keep propelling strips as much alike as possible is to mark the strips with a pen, and cut along the line slowly and carefully. The paired strips need to be as identical as possible in order to deliver a projectile accurately.

There are, of course, several commercial producers of slingshots or the components (to build your own), but the homemade slingshot is the best, I believe. And homespun slingshots are by far more colorful.

I do not critique commercially manufactured slings, but my one criticism of them revolves around the fact that some use tubing, instead of flat projection bands for power. But they work, although I do not believe they are as good as the flat in terms of flex. The better it flexes, the better it recoils, and the better it propels an object. Strength of the shooter could be a factor.

In any event, I find flat tubing better than round. Also available, is a flat, single thickness of pure latex used by doctors and technicians as a tourniquet for drawing blood. They make excellent bower band for a slingshot, but they lack power. They can be used both single and doubled. They can be cumbersome if doubled. The half-inch Penrose Drain is my favorite. It is a tube, but it is flat.

Medical supply salesmen, hospital operating rooms, and doctor’s offices are good sources.

Twenty or 30 years ago, Lafayette sling shot enthusiasts found a good substitute for the old favored auto inner tube, but I was never able to track it down. Very secretive, and it could have been the source I have explained. 

Click on thumbnail image for enlarged view.

This picture demonstrates the opposite branches of the ash group, more specifically the white ash, most common in Indiana, and a good source of slingshot forks. Extra forks are eliminated. Middle fork of this one was used. There are several ash species in Indiana, all opposite branched. White is most common, but green ash is being planted more now. This "big brook trout on Arctic circle" photo demonstrates the fact that my slingshot always is with me. Carrying it as a necklace keeps it available at all times outdoors.



All columns are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author's family.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Scifres Family, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038, E-mail: billscifres@aol.com

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