The art of making primitive hunting equipment

WHEN RYAN GILL was 13 years old, his father gave him a spear—or long stick—from a black locust tree, along with a single wooden awl. By the time his father got home from work that evening, Gill was standing on a pile of wood shavings and holding a primitive-looking bow. After stealing a string from a Bear’s bow, they strung Gill’s first bow and shot it into the night—starting a lifelong obsession, Gill says, with recreating and hunting with the tools of our Stone Age ancestors. .

Today, as the owner of Hunt Primitive, Gill spends most of his waking hours building bows and atlatls and working with stone-tipped wooden arrows, spears and knives, which he hand-cuts from flint and obsidian. When you’re not making them, you’re shooting with them. Gill has taken more than 50 game animals using his primitive equipment. He’s tried modern gear, but says it’s the most basic tools and the art of making them that allow you to fully immerse yourself in the hunting process and get the most out of it.

four handmade arrowheads
Clockwise from top left: Created from the Georgetown Cortex, this point will start as a knife blade and become a spearhead and then an arrowhead as it wears down; a head made of agated coral from Florida, reflecting the Clovis style in use 12,000 to 15,000 years ago; a stone point crushed from Pennsylvania jasper, a material known 7,000 to 9,000 years ago; a red-colored head that reflects the Dalton style, which was common in the late Paleo era, about 12,000 years ago.
Artisan in the workshop
Gill, 38, leans on the workbench in his shop. By the age of 21, he was so skilled at creating primitive hunting equipment that he began selling his handmade tools and teaching others to build and hunt their own. Today, his business keeps Gill and his wife, with the help of their two children, busy full-time filling orders. “Fred Bear was my idol, not just for his hunting skills, but for what he did to popularize modern bowhunting,” says Gill. “I want to be archery’s primitive answer to Fred Bear.”
Alligator jaws with hand-crafted spear points
Gill used this harpoon point to hunt a Florida alligator in 2019 after rowing a canoe to within 8 meters of the animal. “Primitive alligator hunters used canoes because they’re so quiet,” says Gill, “and the gator doesn’t see it as a threat until it’s too late.” The stone point was originally attached to a spear. Once a gator is speared, the point stays on the animal, but rotates and slides off the shaft, leaving the rope for the hunter to hang on to. “I hit the gator in the lung and it sank to the bottom. Then I used the cord to pull it up.”
hand-picked spots on buffalo hide
Gill has killed two bison with primitive equipment. For the first, he used a bow himself and the arrowheads shown at the top right. For the second, he used an atlatl to propel a long spear, the front shafts of which are the pieces of wood shown in the center. Gill used stone knives, which are part of his usual hunting equipment, to dress and cut the animals. “I wasn’t as nervous hunting gator as I was hunting bison. If you can take a bison with primitive equipment, you can take anything.”
six handmade bows
Gill has built hundreds of bows, all made from a single piece of wood, using only basic tools. “One thing I love about self-bows is that each one is completely unique,” he says. “I’ll make a snakeskin-backed bow, like the two upper and lower bows shown here, and I’ll think, this is the prettiest I’ve ever built. But then I’ll make one like the honey-colored bow in between and I’ll change my mind. The truth is, I love them all.” Gill used the lower bow to get his first bison and the upper bow to kill several deer and a pig. The rest are sold.
Ryan Gill's Primitive Tools
These are the materials and tools Gill uses to make arrowheads, spears and stone knife blades. The process begins with a large piece of cherry or flint (bottom center). That rock is broken into smaller pieces (right and above), and these eventually form into finished points (left). It uses the round stone in the center to break the starting pieces and the decreasing diameter horn to form a point into a finer and finer shape.
Ryan Gill's Tools for Making Bows
To make most of his bows, Gill relies on some relatively modern hand tools, including a draw knife and round file. But he learned early how to do this using only what primitive hunters had on hand. He begins by shaping the wood with a hand ax (center left). He removes more material by using the ax to strike a horn chisel (in the middle of the middle). Then he finishes the bow using the stone scraper (center right). “I’ll be honest, it’s pretty tiring and kind of gross,” he says. “Doing it with metal hand tools is hard enough.”
Triptych of Ryan Gill at work with primitive tools
Clockwise from top right: Striking a chariot “motherstone” with a rock hammer; the separation of a large edge, or scratch, for further shaping; creating the trailing edge of the point by “pressure bursting” with a small horn thread. “This process took me years to perfect,” says Gill. “It’s so hard on the hands that my doctor told me my hands would become useless if I didn’t stop. But I switched from the horn to a copper shaper and now I can get caught all day without a problem.”
Aiming with self bending
Gill shoots one of his hunting bows. “I shoot holsters, and while I never touch any part of my face with any part of the bowstring or release hand, I’m within a quarter of an inch of the same anchor point every time,” he says. Gill takes aim before drawing the bow, then draws and releases in one smooth motion. “My father taught me to shoot a bow the way a primitive hunter would have taught his son. “Just go out and shoot,” he told me, and I did, using the form that felt right and comfortable for me.”
Throwing the javelin
Gill launches a spear with an atlatl. The thrower, in his right hand, is little more than a club, but it acts as a lever that adds power. It has a triangular post that fits perfectly into the concave end of the spear. Like an arrow, the spear wobbles up and down as it begins its journey, but the large quills of the feathers stabilize and correct its flight as it nears its target. “It took me forever to learn because I refused to learn, wanting to figure it out on my own,” says Gill. “But I can teach a person to be proficient with an atlatl in a few lessons, and you can shoot with one in a few days. Then all you have to do is get within throwing range of an unsuspecting animal.”

This story originally appeared in the Limits Issue of Field & Stream. Read more F&S+ stories.

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