Fred “Papa” Bear’s innovations to bowhunting gear and marketing vaulted the pastime into the mainstream. What is seldom discussed is his passion for conservation and his quest to establish a tax (for conservation) on the very products he sold.
What started in the corner of a small advertising shop eventually grew into the biggest name in archery. Fred Bear’s skill in building bows and archery gear sent him around the world testing the products he built and sold. Along the way, he filmed and wrote about those adventures that captivated an adventurous audience of aspiring archers. For more than 60 years, he devoted his life to the world of archery. Fred was a member of the Boone and Crockett Club for only six years, but he left behind a legacy in both bowhunting and conservation.
The Early Years
Fred Bear was born in south-central Pennsylvania in 1902, at home in a blizzard. His father was a machinist. “A fine man with a rifle,” Fred wrote. Youngster Fred helped around the farm with chores and tended an acre of asparagus, from seed to market. From an Old Town canoe, he checked 50 muskrat traps before school. He captured and raised skunks. His dad took him rabbit hunting at age six. At seven, he carried a .22 Quackenbush. At nine, a shotgun, then a .32-40 Winchester, then a Model 94 Winchester carbine. Fred was a self-proclaimed “gun man” until his 30s.
School was not Fred’s passion, and he left at 16 when he joined the Pennsylvania National Guard. There, he competed in rifle matches and learned to ride horses, which would come in handy later in life on his hunting adventures. He went to work in various factories, learning drafting, pattern-making, management, and marketing. At 24 years old, Fred was single and simply working to get by—until he went to the movies one day.
The Archery Bug Bites
At Detroit’s Adams Theatre in 1925, Fred watched a film made by Art Young (of Pope & Young), in which Young goes on a bowhunting adventure like no other. He shoots it all with stick and string, including fish. Fred was hooked. He ordered lemonwood staves and birch dowels to create his own bow. Not long after, Bear met Art Young, and they made archery tackle together.
Fred tried hunting deer with a bow in 1929 but lost all six of his arrows trying to impale a snowshoe hare. It took him six seasons to finally kill a deer—a spike buck. Meanwhile, he and a business partner started making marketing banners for Chrysler. Among the piles of canvas and sewing machines, there was a space to build bows. Eventually, Fred’s bow-making skills paid enough bills that allowed him to leave advertising, and he launched Bear Archery in 1940.
In a new shop, complete with retail space and an indoor range, Fred hired bowyers and a sales force. He earned patents for gear like the Razorhead broadhead, a shooting glove, and a bow quiver. Fred invented the glass-laminated bow. He produced the first quiver that attached to the bow. Bear Archery sold the first arrow with interchangeable screw-in heads. For 20 years, he perfected a “take-down” traditional bow. Production increased from 7,500 bows in 1947 to more than 360,000 conventional, glass, and compound bows in 1976. Over the years, Bear Archery changed location and ownership numerous times. It’s currently located in Gainesville, Florida.
Fred Bear’s understanding of materials technology and his ability to design new products were only part of the story. He also created demand through his character, love for the outdoors, and talented shooting ability. He traveled the Midwest to organize archery clubs, stage shooting exhibitions, and compete in archery tournaments. He won Michigan's target archery championship in 1934, 1937, and 1939. He worked to establish bow seasons in Wisconsin and Michigan in the 1930s. Other states followed suit.
Much like Art Young’s film inspired an impressionable young bowhunter, Fred sought to do the same with film. Plus, he said in one interview, “I discovered that I could go anywhere in the world and expense it out and pay myself for hunting.” In 1942, he and sportswriter Jack van Coevering of the Detroit Free Press traveled to the Upper Peninsula. There, they filmed Fred’s hunt, and Fred became the first Michigan bowhunter to take a whitetail on film. The footage would later be used for his first hunting film, the first of 25 films to help launch bowhunting into the mainstream.
From there, Fred made his first trip to Africa in 1955, where he hunted everything from Cape buffalo to lions to elephants—with his bow, of course. There were trips to India for a Bengal tiger, and a trip north for a polar bear, which was featured on ABC's The American Sportsman. He made more than a dozen trips to Alaska and Canada, where he hunted caribou, grizzlies, and moose. Be sure to read about his hunt for barren ground caribou in this edition of Adventure from the Archives. At one point, Fred held six World’s Records for bowhunting, including brown bear, Stone’s sheep, barren ground caribou, mountain caribou, moose, and elk.
Fred’s hunts were fodder for more than just film. Even though writing wasn’t his favorite pastime, he wrote about his hunting adventures for Outdoor Life and True. He found enough time to sit down and write three books: The Archer’s Bible, Fred Bear’s World of Archery, and Fred Bear’s Field Notes.
Fred was a father to two kids, and yet, he was a father figure to countless others. When Fred died in 1988, numerous friends and colleagues spoke about their relationship with him. Among them was Brigadier General Joe Engle, who served as a space shuttle commander. “My dad died in 1966, and I met Fred a couple of years later,” Engle said. “Fred filled a big void in my life…I suspect that like so many others, Fred became my adopted dad. And he knew it and accepted it.”
Bear’s Commitment to Conservation
All hunters should know that in 1937, lawmakers passed the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration program, or Pittman-Robertson Act, which placed an 11 percent tax on sporting arms and ammunition. That money was, and still is, used to restore wildlife populations, among other things. The tax, though, collected no money from the sale of archery products—at least until 1972.
As president and CEO of the Archery Manufacturers & Merchants Organization, Dick Lattimer wrote that one of the highlights for him was the effort to increase the amount of money devoted to the future of archery from the 11 percent federal excise taxes collected. That effort was whole-heartedly supported by Fred Bear.
In the 1960s and into the early ‘70s, lawmakers tried to pass bills adding the excise tax to handgun and archery equipment sales. The industry wasn’t supportive. That’s when Fred started reaching out to his colleagues in the industry. He wrote a letter of support to all members of the Archery Manufacturers & Merchants Organization. He wrote, in part, “We should keep in mind that this is a worthy cause….We, at Bear Archery hope that the archery manufacturers will go on record with the Wildlife Management Institute as favoring this bill and that they would contact their representatives in Washington to this effect.” The amendment was signed by President Nixon in October 1972. The Wildlife Management Institute reported that the tax generated more than $45 million in the first three quarters of 2021 alone.
While Fred was lobbying his industry colleagues, he created the Fred Bear Sports Club in 1970, which promoted hunter ethics. The 30,000-member club had a quarterly newsletter and offered a series of badges. The first badge that a member received read, “Hunters Respect Wildlife.” In addition, Bear noted on his Boone and Crockett Club member application that “The Fred Bear Sports Club has spent several hundred thousand dollars” on conservation. The club’s newsletter featured stories about pressing conservation issues and promoted principles of fair chase, of which Fred was a die-hard preacher.
For a guy born at the turn of the 20th century during a blizzard, Fred Bear left an indelible mark on the world of hunting. He preached the gospel of fair chase and giving back to the wildlife and wild places that provided one hell of a wild life for him.