Straight Talk Interview: Norb Mullaney

Norb Mullaney, a true icon in the archery industry who single handedly set the standards for comprehensive equipment reviews.

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NORB MULLANEY

 

FA: Where and when were you born?

Norb:  St. Louis, Missouri – February 7, 1922

My German shepherd with me at age 8 – about the time I first started making hickory self-bows.

FA: What were your early days growing up like?

Norb: I lived in a large city, went to a parochial grade school, a high school for boys, attended St. Louis University for 2 years of pre-engineering. I enrolled in the civilian pilot training program during my freshman and sophomore years at St. Louis University and learned to fly, earning a private pilot’s license plus aerobatic flight training in a biplane. I transferred to the University of Detroit in 1941. They offered a 5 year coop engineering curriculum that featured cooperative employment for the last three years.

Taken in 1939 when i graduated from high school

I worked as coop test engineer on experimental inline aircraft test engines at a major aircraft engine manufacturer for my second and third years of engineering school. The program alternated between school and work every three months for each twelve-month period. There was no time off between school years. I had enlisted in the Navy V-7 program in 1942 after completing my first year at U. of Detroit. We were called to active duty in the spring of 1943. The University allowed us to complete our year of study on a shortened basis before we left for active duty in July of 1943.

Five apprentice seamen at the v-12 program at the university of Wisconsin .

I was one of several of my engineering classmates who were sent to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin. after being transferred to a new Naval Reserve Program called V-12. At the University of Wisconsin this was the beginning of the NROTC Program. It was expanded to include 4 years of college work including a naval training curriculum but required further naval training at specified midshipman schools before the individual could be commissioned as an officer in the naval reserve. For former V-7 enlistees, it allowed the completion of the remaining years leading to a degree. Somehow, although I already had 4 years of college, because Wisconsin did not offer a degree in aeronautical engineering and I had to switch to mechanical engineering, I was allowed the additional year but was unable to complete the work for my degree.

After one year at Madison, I was ordered to Columbia University in New York City for midshipman training. There I was one of several engineering V-12 students that were sent to deck school and were commissioned “Deck and Engineering” officers rather than just “Deck” officers. We were considered capable of standing both types of duty.

From Columbia I received orders directly overseas where I picked up a ship (a rocket-gun-boat converted LCI) at Pearl Harbor. I spent the next 2 years on board ship. I came home on leave in March 1945 and had sufficient points not to be ordered overseas again since the war against Japan had ended. I finished my period of active duty at NAS Saint Louis as a discharge officer.

Three former eagle scouts from troop 158, St. Louis, MO. (all naval officers) meet on the island of Guam near the end of WWII .

After the war I went back to the University of Wisconsin for one more year of mechanical engineering to obtain my degree, and then stayed for a second year to get a master’s degree.

1946 – just back from the war.

During the last year I met my wife Teddy and decided to look for a job in Milwaukee where she was living with her family. I was employed by A. O. Smith Corporation as a design engineer in their Aeronautical Division. We manufactured welded steel propeller blades for the B-36 bomber at that time. Subsequently we were involved in developing and manufacturing aircraft landing gear and welded steel structural components for B-52 heavy bomber at plants in Ohio and New York State.

My wife Teddy and I met in college – we were married in 1949- this photo was taken at Ciro’s in Los Angeles in 1950

I had been transferred from Milwaukee to Toledo as Assistant Chief Engineer of the Landing Gear Division. In 1954 after the Korean war ended I was moved back to the Milwaukee area. At that time my family consisted of 4 of us – my wife, Teddy, our two sons, Mike and Terry, and myself. I was employed by A. O. Smith as Assistant Chief Engineer of the remaining Aeronautical Division. In 1959 we were blessed with a daughter whom we named Kathleen Ann or K’Ann for short. We have lived in the village of Bayside on the north shore of Milwaukee ever since moving back from Toledo in 1954.

I retired from A. O. Smith Corp. in 1987 after spending 39 years in a variety of engineering and management positions in the aeronautical, automotive and railroad products operations of the corporation.

FA: Can you tell us a little about your family?

Norb: At the present time my wife and I have been married for almost 63 years. We have three children, 2 sons and a daughter, seven grandchildren, six boys and one girl, and three great-grandchildren, two girls and one boy. Our oldest son who was a naval aviator, married a Navy nurse. Both Mike and Blanche retired from the Navy, as a Captain and a Commander respectively.

My son Mike with his first whitetail at age 12 1/2.

Mike spent 25 years as a pilot for Delta Airlines after his active military service. Blanche was recalled to active duty during the war with Iraq prior to retirement. Their daughter Casey, a Suma Cum Laude graduate of the University of Georgia, is presently pursuing a doctorate of pharmacy. Their son John, recently commissioned an ensign, is headed for Pensacola to follow in his father’s footsteps as a naval aviator. Terry, our second son, is Technical Claims Director for a major insurance company. He lives in the Dallas area with 2 of his 3 sons. His oldest son lives here in Wisconsin – with his wife and our two great-granddaughters. Our daughter, K’Ann, and her husband live in Appelton, Wisconsin – their two sons are both naval officers, one a chopper instructor pilot and the other a Navy Seal. The older boy is the proud father of our great-grandson.

FA: Was your family an ‘outdoor’ or ‘sports’ involved family?

Norb: My father was an ardent baseball fan. As a youth he had an opportunity to try out for a professional baseball career but family pressure caused him to pass that up. He was a great supporter of the Boy Scouts of America and was very active as a district leader for many years. As a result of this my brother and I were active in this program. I was an Eagle Scout and to this day am listed as a counselor for archery merit badge. My Dad was not a hunter although he encouraged me when I became interested in this pursuit.

My first whitetail in 1960- an 8 pt buck from Necedah, Wisconsin.

FA: Where you involved in sports in school?

Norb: Only in intramural sports. I was not very large as a student and had to be satisfied with being manager of the basketball team.

FA: Did you have an early involvement in hunting and fishing?

Norb: My interest in hunting grew as I got older. It was not a passion as a youth.

FA: If so, who was the one person who taught you how to be proficient?

Norb: No one in particular – I learned on my own.

FA: What came first, your interest in engineering or archery?

Norb: I was interested in archery at an early age. My Dad played in a cork-ball league every summer in Forest Park in St. Louis. I used to go with him regularly but I spent much of my time at the Lindberg Museum that was in the park quite close to the cork-ball diamond. This museum was divided between Lindberg mementos and American Indian artifacts. These displays got me interested in both aviation and bows and arrows.

Practicing in the field.

FA: When did you start shooting archery?

Norb: I first made childish bows from tree limbs around age 8 or 9. My Dad brought me a hickory wagon tongue that had lain in the warehouse at his place of employment for many years. It was well seasoned and reasonably straight. He also bought me a draw knife to work with. I read everything I could find about fashioning self-bows from wood and went to work. After splitting the wagon tongue into several pieces I first made two or three small bows about three or four feet long.

Subsequently I carved out a hickory bow about five feet in length. I made arrows from sections of fir ceiling material and tipped them with simple broadheads I sawed and filed from band iron. I grooved the arrows and inserted feathers into the grooves held with thread and glue. On one occasion all of my best arrows were broken when my target tipped over as a result of the impact from the last arrow. Needless to say, I was heartbroken. Arrows were difficult to make when they started life as part of a fir ceiling board. I was in high school when my Dad presented me with a white oak flat bow that he had been given when he discussed my interest in archery with a colleague at work. I shot that bow until I left home for college in 1941.

FA: Tell us about your educational aspirations.



Norb: I developed an interest in aeronautical engineering by building and flying model airplanes about the same time that I became involved with building bows. First these models werepowered with rubber bands. Then I saved my Christmas money and bought a kit for a gasoline powered engine. After that the rubber bands became a thing of the past. I built a scale model Curtis Robin airplane powered with my gasoline engine. It was more of adisplay piece than a flyer and I always had problems starting the engine. Subsequently I purchased a better engine and built several more models that were real flying machines.

When I started college I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. However time and circumstances altered my goals somewhat. When I finally completed my education I had switched to mechanical engineering. I earned a B.S degree in mechanical engineering, a major in aeronautical engineering, an M.S. in mechanical engineering, plus post graduate work in industrial design and business administration. I had attended St. Louis University, the University of Detroit, Columbia University, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin Extension in Milwaukee.

My roommate Nile Sweet and I when we graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1947 - the bananas started a family Tradition.

FA: When did you begin to apply your engineering background to archery?

Norb: My interests in engineering and archery developed simultaneously. I believe that I have always applied my engineering background to archery equipment and to my understanding of its principles and performance.

During my time in the Navy I built this sailboat from empty wing tanks while waiting for the next operation – the crew deep sixed it in the middle of the Pacific when they brought the 439 home – this picture taken at New Guinea.

FA: You began your career as a ‘bow tester’ in 1974 for Archery World, since renamed Bowhunting World Magazine. How did you become involved with the magazine business of writing detailed product reports?

Norb: In 1974 Archery World was published in Milwaukee. I had met Glenn Helgeland the editor. He knew of my interest in bows and the fact that I had started testing them to evaluate the difference in performance. He was aware of my particular interest in a new type of bow called the compound bow. I had designed and built several compound bows beginning in 1967 after visiting Tom Jennings at his shop in California and shooting one of his very early models.

Ready for the hunt - my friend and hunting buddy for many years Hal Vickerman and his son-in-law Roger Armstrong

My first compound, built in 1967, was quite successful so I simplified the design and built compound bows for my sons and several hunting companions. These first bows utilized birch handles. They were all 4-wheel compounds with the parts handmade. Along the way I designed a metal handle, created a casting pattern, and had 12 handles cast at a local aluminum foundry. Several of these bows, built in the early 1970s, are displayed in the Wisconsin Bowhunting Heritage Museum in Clintonville, Wisconsin. At this point in time I had ceased building take-down recurve bows and was making only compound bows. In 1974 a number of major bow companies had started to market compound bows and the interest in the compound bow had greatly increased. Helgeland approached me about writing what came to be called Bow Reports, featuring bows that were available on the market. The selection included all types of bows, longbows, recurves and compounds.

Our hunting lodge on the Oconto River in Wisconsin.

My first article for Archery World, which later became Bowhunting World Magazine,  was a treatise on testing of bows published in 1974. I wrote the articles in longhand and did all of the calculations on a hand-held calculator for many years.

Eventually I acquired my first computer and began to type the Bow Reports. Then with some help from a friend, Gary Fisher of Oneida Bows, we created a software program that took my formula and rolled them into a four page printout that eliminated the hand calculation. Later I transferred the program to Excel which is the version I use today. It accepts all of the test data, plots the performance curves, expresses the comparative data and generally tells you everything about the bow that you would like to know. Despite the program, it generally takes me the best part of a week to produce a Bow Report, sometimes longer if I test the bow under a number of conditions.

FA:What was the first bow you ever studied and wrote about?

Norb: The first Bow Report was on the Howatt Hi Speed recurve, published in Archery World in the April/May issue of 1975.

FA: You are an honest person tasked with giving details on specific products. Obviously not every one met your full approval. Can you tell us one that was the worst and you had to pass that on to the company? What was their response?

Norb: When we started with the Bow Reports Glenn Helgeland and I had an agreement that we would not publish any detrimental statements about a bow; instead, we would send the bow back to the manufacturer with my test report and trust that he would rectify the problem or problems.

Bowhunting relatives from Virginia and Missouri who came to hunt with us in Wisconsin.

FA: In the early days were your opinions questioned?

Norb: I can recall only one time that anyone advised me that he questioned my test results and disagreed with my findings. This was a dealer in Illinois who didn’t believe that I actually tested the bow I reported on. When I wrote to him, I never received a reply.



FA: Where there any bow makers that sought your approval, opinion or suggestions for their designs?


Norb: Not that I remember.

FA: You were also Chairman of both the Safety & Standards Subcommittee and the ASTM Subcommittee for Archery Products. Can you tell us a little about your duties with these organizations?

Norb: The ASTM Subcommittee for Archery Products was formed in 1986 when the directors of AMO (Archery Manufacturers Organization) decided that it would be appropriate to have ASTM Standards for various archery products that were being produced and marketed to the archery public. There were certain standards published by the AMO Standards Committee that were in existence at the time.

Earl Hoyt and Chuck Saunders were active in an earlier AMO committee that had created a number of standards that were geared primarily to conventional stick bows. It was deemed necessary to update these and expand them to include compound bows. A meeting was held in Philadelphia under ASTM auspices to form a new Subcommittee for Archery Products to launch this effort. I was the only independent to attend and since I had no connection to a manufacturer of archery products, I was asked to chair the new subcommittee. I served as chairman of this subcommittee for the next 18 years. The subcommittee was made up primarily of engineering representatives of archery manufacturers – close to 20 in all. We created 12 ASTM standards to cover most of the common archery products that were being produced and marketed in the industry.

Our family hunting group at Bob Link's cabin in Northern Wisconsin from the left: son Terry, son Mike, nephew Greg Bock, me, and friend John Nowak - Bob took the photo .

About 2 years after the formation of the ASTM Subcommittee, Andy Simo of New Archery Products, was elected as the president of AMO. At that time he chaired the Safety and Standards Committee. He asked me to take over the chairmanship of that committee in addition to the ASTM subcommittee since many of the ASTM committee members were also members of the Safety and Standards committee and the work of the two committees was similar and sometimes overlapping. Hence, for the next 16 years I also chaired that committee. Most of the work of the Safety and Standards Committee

involved safe practices for archery and regulations that were not considered appropriate for ASTM standards.

1995 Norb receive a special award presented by the late Dick Lattimer, President of AMO for his many years of service to the sport and industry. A portion of the plaque read: ‘Norb’s thoughtful counsel, analysis and advice have played a major part in the success and growth of our sport; and in the enjoyable and save manner in which it is pursued. The Award was voted unanimously by the full AMO board of Directors.

For sometime prior to 2004, after the AMO had been replaced by the new ATA Organization, for reasons not disclosed, the ATA board of directors decided that ASTM Standards were a potential problem and should be replaced by “Technical Guidelines”.

With Bob Link a dear friend and hunting buddy at the ATA show.

In addition it was deemed desirable to have standing committees chaired by members of the board of directors. At this point my tenure as chairman of both committees ended but to date I have continued to serve on both the committees.

FA: You’ve known some industry giants so can you share your thoughts on these people as bowyers.

Norb: Other than Nells Grumley I have met and have owned and tested bows made by all of the famous bowyers you have listed. Some are known for their traditional bows, some designed and built both traditional and compound bows. A few got into compound bows almost under protest. I know that Earl Hoyt and Fred Bear never really felt comfortable shooting compound bows. Bob Lee and Owen Jeffreys are known for their beautiful traditional bows, particularly recurves and Tom Jennings, Pete Shepley and Matt McPherson have been prominent in bringing the compound into dominance.

Ralph Cianciarulo of Archers Choice TV and me with a couple of Texas javelinas.

Other outstanding bowyers I have known and were not listed are Rex Darlington of Darton Archery, Mike Fedora, O.L Adcock, Arvid Danielson, Jim Belcher, Ron Pittsley and Ken Beck.

FA: If you had to pick just one individual who would you say had the most positive influence in the design and manufacturing of the archery bow?

Norb: I think that Earl Hoyt would be my choice for one of the great bowyers and archery innovators of all time.

FA: You have shot and tested hundreds of bows. If you were headed out to bowhunt tomorrow, what bow would you have with you?



Norb: Over the years that I have hunted I have probably carried a Darton bow more than any other, although I have frequently hunted with a number of bows of my own design and building, both take-down recurve and compound.

I was fortunate enough to make a good shot on this Wisconsin grey fox in Polk County .

FA: You were inducted into the prestigious Archery Hall of Fame in 2002. How did that make you feel?

Norb: I was both surprised and very pleased to be elected into the Archery Hall of Fame in 2002.

Norm with his Archery Hall of Fame Plaque at his induction.

FA: Who would you say has had the most influence on your archery career?

Norb: If I were to single out one individual who most influenced my career in Archery it would be Earl Hoyt – a great archer, a tremendous innovator and a fine gentleman.

FA: Are you still active in archery?

Norb: I still love the sport of archery and bowhunting; however, I have shot very little during the past year due to arthritis in my right shoulder.

FA: Have you ever second guessed yourself on a bow critique? Maybe not liked a certain design and then later came around and changed your mind?

Norb: Not that I recall. I tried to evaluate a design on a factual engineering basis and usually the facts don’t change. Typically fads come and go. Overdraws were a fad – I never cared for them but evaluated them on design and function.

My Kudu taken in South Africa on a hunt with Dave Holt in 2000.

FA: In your opinion, what makes the ideal bow?

Norb: An ideal bow is one that is perfectly suited to the individual who is shooting it and permits him to operate it to the very best of his ability. Each individual is different to some extent and an ideal bow for that individual is  suited to him in every aspect. Fortunately the adjustable nature of many bows makes them possible to be adjusted to a number of individuals.

FA: What are your plans for the future?

Norb: At age 90 with arthritis in one knee and a shoulder, my bowhunting and archery activities are considerably curtailed. I have retired from writing my regular Bow Reports and column for “Bowhunting World” but I continue to contribute columns for “The Bowhunter”, a regular publication of the Wisconsin Bowhunters Association. In addition I do some private test and legal work. Beyond that, I am going to grow older gracefully and enjoy my family and friends.

On a recent whitetail hunt in northern Wisconsin.



FA: I’m your best friend and I want to get into archery and bowhunting. What advice would give me on the sport, what I should know, and what equipment should I buy?


Norb: Start out reading some basic books on archery, learn the nomenclature and the principles of shooting an arrow with a bow. A good coach can be a tremendous help. Learn to shoot with your fingers first – a release aid can come later. Join a beginners’ league and try to shoot regularly. An archery club can be a great source of help and inspiration. Try to find an experienced bowhunter who will show you ethical bowhunting before attempting to go afield on your own. Practice regularly!

FA: If you could change one thing about the sport for the better what would it be?

Norb: I would like to see the existing prejudicial attitudes that are manifest within the sport be laid to rest. A bow is a bow whether it is traditional or compound. Personally, I have shot all types of bows and still hope to continue to do that. Every bow is beautiful as long as it shoots an arrow. Having said that, I do not think that crossbows fall in the same category as hand-drawn, hand-held and hand –released bows.

FA: Norb you have become an icon and figure of truth in the industry. You have done so much to help us grow and design the best equipment possible. If you had your life to do over would you have done anything differently than you did?

Hal Vickerman and I with our wives.

FA: How do you want people to remember you?

Norb: As I look back on my life and reflect on the things that have happened to me along the way, I have to recognize that I have made some mistakes that could have been avoided. Probably these mistakes may have dictated some of the events that occurred, but in the overall I can’t find any reason to complain. I consider myself to have been very fortunate. I was born into a wonderful family that supported me in every way possible. My mother and dad were intelligent and caring, and sacrificed a great deal to give me the advantages of a good education, a proper moral upbringing, along with the guidance that was needed on occasion.

I was extremely fortunate to have found and won my wife and life partner, Teddy, and to have her with me for the almost 63 years that we have been married. Our three children have been, and continue to be a real blessing, while presenting us with great progeny.

I have enjoyed a long professional engineering career coupled with a second occupation as a technician and writer that grew out of my passion for archery and bowhunting. My work in this field has been recognized and appreciated which is very satisfying. I have been fortunate to remain reasonably healthy during my lifetime and to continue to work at a modest pace to this day. There is not much more that a man can ask for is there?

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