Want an edge on hitting the spot in archery, darts or snooker? Or just out to zap your mates with fun blasters? Take a cue from Mark Harris
Picture yourself at the seaside. The pop gun stall in front of you has a row of tin ducks just begging for someone to knock ‘em dead. What determines whether you walk home with a goldfish in a bag and the admiration of your fellow men, or a pocket stripped of loose change and scornful laughter echoing in your ears? You might say it depends on whether the stallholder has glued the bloody things in place, but here at Stuff we beg to differ.
Step up to the mark with a semi-automatic spud gun and a laser-guided rangefinder, and we reckon you’ll be in with a better chance than with the wonky old kid’s rifle they give you. Top target sports professionals realise this, of course, which is why their products have got more carbon-fibre shafts and computer designed grips than the Space Shuttle.
Below, we take a look at the best equipment on offer in archery, snooker and darts, and the best toys to keep your eye in while you’re just mucking about, er, we mean ‘practising’. Professionals in each area tell you what features to look for, and which products to buy to give you that vital edge in competition.
Browse through the feature below, or use the wonders of modern technology to jump straight to: Archery bows Snooker cues Darts Fun/toy target games
With its roots in hunting and warfare, archery doesn’t deserve the rather effete image it sports nowadays. If it hadn’t been for British bowmen at Crecy and Agincourt, we probably would have been eating frogs and washing irregularly for the last five hundred years. Of course, technology has moved on from the longbow, and modern archery equipment combines astonishing power with remarkable ease of use.
But if you no longer need arms like tree trunks to pull the bows, archery still takes a lot of practice and is by no means a cheap sport. Your best bet is to visit or call the Grand National Archery Society (01203 696 6316) for your local club.
Stuff Best Buy TD01 Trainer 5/5 £100 For your first serious bow, look no further than the TD01. Its recurve design provides a balance between challenge and reward, and you can learn all the techniques and skills you’ll need when you upgrade to a more expensive product. It has a laminated wood handle and laminated glass/maple limbs, providing good speed and stability. Many world-class archers started with a TD01, and it’s available in sizes, weights and bracing heights to suit almost everyone. Even better, the price includes everything you’ll need to get started in archery: eight arrows and quiver, target, wrist and finger guards and a sight. Stuff says: If he’d been around today, William Tell would have learnt on one of these. Unbeatable value.
Bickerstaffe Longbow 4/5 £140 Traditional English longbow design has hardly changed in over four hundred years, and many archers think the original is still the best. This hickory and lemonwood bow was hand-made by Pip Bickerstaffe, and comes with a leather grip and bowstring. Longbows are harder to draw than recurve or compound bows, and there’s no arrow rest or sight to help your aim. This makes them bloody hard shoot to accurately, but they do look pretty ace. Just don’t get suckered into dressing up in old armour, growing a beard and re-enacting battles. Stuff says: Interesting and authentic longbow, but might scare off beginners and Frenchmen
Hoyt Rebel Raider XT 3/5 £188 Compound bows use the mechanical advantage of eccentrically-mounted cams and pulleys to shoot high velocity arrows with a low draw weight. Or to put it another way, they’re easy to pull and very, very accurate. The Rebel Raider XT has a lightweight magnesium handle and glass limbs. There’s also a torque-free grip and Accuwheel for added stability. Compound bows were designed in the USA for hunting - you’ll get higher target scores than you would with a recurve, but less of a challenge. Stuff says: Our expert reckoned this was a good intro to compound archery, and great if you can’t cope with the weight of a recurve
Professional’s choice Hoyt Avalon 4/5 £865 Probably the best recurve bow on the general market, the Hoyt Avalon has a computer-machined aluminium riser (handle) with pop-in Carbon Plus (layered carbon-fibre and synthetic foam core) limbs above and below. As strings have become stronger, modern bows need to be much stronger to cope with the increased energy they release. The holes in the bow keep the weight down, and you’ll need stabilisers and sights (about another £350) to get the most from it. The Avalon is an Olympic competition-standard bow, although our expert warned it would only reward those with the skill and dedication to set it up and use it properly. Stuff says: An awesome bow, ideal for the very best archers
Darchery If you don’t happen to have a 50m long back garden, try this strange hybrid sport from Australia. Darchery combines darts and archery in a James Bond-style harpoon gun that’s ideal for even the smallest yard. With a powerful latex band, adjustable sights and firing tiny 5g darts, Darchery costs around £120, plus a couple more quid for some targets. Find out more from: www.ozemail.com.au/~darchery
Flights of fancy... • In the reign of Henry I (1100-35), archers were absolved of murder if they killed someone while practising • Arrow flights of right-handed archers come from the left wing of the grey goose, and from the right wing for left-hookers. This helps the arrow spin in flight. • English longbowmen could reliably shoot and hit 12 men per minute at a range of 250 yards
Our expert Mick Urbaniak shoots for the University of Sussex and County Oak archery teams, and is one of the top ten student players in the nation. With 11 years shooting behind him, he has been county and regional champion. Mick makes his own longbows for fun, but in competition shoots a Hoyt Gold Medallist riser with glass-fibre limbs. He uses an Easton stabiliser and A/C/E arrows.
VERDICT Choosing a bow is a bit like choosing a car - everyone starts with a Mini but where you go from there depends on what you want. If you’re after high scores and ease of use, opt for a compound bow like the Rebel Raider. Traditionalists and posers will lean towards the stylish longbow, and serious sportsmen will climb on the recurve ladder. Whichever bow you end up with, the TD01 (together with a helpful archery club) will teach you the essential skills and help you make your mind up, and is great value to boot.
Manufacturers: We got all our archery equipment from Quicks mail-order (01705 254114) Where next? Darts Fun/toys Top of page
You used to hang around a snooker hall when you were 15 to smoke cigarettes and look hard. Nowadays, you have a go on a pool table after you’ve already sunk four or five pints - and wonder why it’s not as easy as it used to be. With over five million regular players and 80,000 tables around the nation, pub pool is one of the largest sports in Britain. This only makes it all the more shameful that we generally play it with cues bendier than a Russian athlete and about two feet too short. Buy a decent hand-made cue, get in a snooker hall and recapture the days of your youth. And if that doesn’t improve your game, at least you’ve got an offensive weapon the Old Bill can’t nick you for.
Stuff Best Buy Parris Master 5/5 £135 This is a two-piece cue, with the join three-quarters of the way to the slender butt. The butt is genuine ebony, which is solid and heavy enough to give great balance. The Master is a machined cue - you can tell by the sharp edges to the dark points - but has a nice feel to it, and an almost invisible base plate. It’s not quite as versatile as the more modern three-piece cues, but is superbly made and will last for decades if you look after it. Many of the top players use Parris cues, and it’s easy to see why. Stuff says: Excellently made traditional cue, and good value at the price
Parris Exclusive 5/5 £335 When you’re paying this much, the manufacturer should have thought of everything - and John Parris has. The hand-spliced cue is made from lovely close-grained ash, the butt is ebony, and the three-piece design gives the ultimate in flexibility. His attention to detail even goes so far as lining up the butt plate with the grain of the wood, giving a perfect line of Vs to help you aim when cueing. The three-quarter length joint has perhaps a few too many turns in it, but there’ll be no worries about the thread slipping over time. Stuff says: One of the ultimate hand-made cues. If you’re serious about your snooker, you’ll want a cue as good as this
Tamar Volcano 4/5 £305.50 The last thing you want when you’re really into a game is to waste two or three minutes screwing in an extension. The Volcano comes with a unique quick release join (3/4 length) that takes just seconds to fix, so you won’t lose your concentration. It’s a top quality hand-spliced ash cue, with a butt made from ebony and exotic snakewood. The finish is nice and smooth, but this is a lot of money to spend on a cue, so try before you buy. The price includes a telescopic extension. Stuff says: Very good hand-spliced cue, and a strong butt design
Burroughes & Watts Champion 4/5 £350 Burroughes & Watts have being making snooker and pool cues since 1834, so it’s fair to say they know what goes into a good ‘un. Although their hand-made cues start from less than £100, the Champion is more for the serious (or at least seriously rich) player. It’s made from straight-grained ash, with ebony main splices, purple heartwood secondary splices and a solid ebony butt. The three-quarter length join has a lot of turns in it, but fits very snugly indeed. Stuff says: Your granddad’s granddad might have had one of these. Superbly built, classic and elegant.
Peradon John Parrot Replica 3/5 £180 This is one of the newer three-piece cues, with a 6in mini-butt that screws straight into the end of the cue. Together with a telescopic extension (included in the price), this makes for a very flexible, very useful system. The hand-spliced ebony butt is longer than most, which means it may come into vision when you’re cueing. It has a nice quick release and a Blue Diamond tip, but our expert didn’t like its action compared to other cues on test. Stuff says: Very flexible, well-made and smart, but lacking in feel
Peradon Joe Davis 3/5 £63 Joe Davis gave the sole rights to his name to this company, and you get a lot of cue for your pennies. This two-piece centre join cue is machine-made from ash, and has a pretty good, smooth finish. Centre-join cues are by far the most convenient for transporting, but our expert says that having the join in the middle can interfere with your vision when you’re aiming. Due to variations in the wood, machined cues can still vary, so try a few of the same make and model before deciding. Stuff says: Good starter cue from a reliable cue maker
Tamar Hawk 3/5 £30 For the price of a few games of snooker, you can buy this cue. The centre-join Hawk has OK balance and feel, and will be worlds better than the warped cues you see in pubs and clubs. Our expert felt it was too light, and didn’t like the way the two sections were made from separate pieces of wood. But it has a sensible rubber base plate, a brass ferrule at the tip, and a tight brass joint. Change the tip to a Blue Diamond or Elkmaster (cost: about 50p!), and you’ve got a decent cue. Stuff says: Good value for money, but spend more if you can afford it
Professional’s choice Burroughes and Watts Black Diamond 5/5 £375 Making a snooker cue out of anything other than ash or maple is a little like pinching the Queen Mum’s bum - it’s just not done. But leave your prejudices behind, play a frame with this hand-made carbon-fibre cue, and you might never go back. Carbon-fibre won’t warp with time or heat, is 100per cent straight in a way natural materials can’t be, and should last almost forever. Older players may complain about its jet black colour, but splices made from Indian rosewood and ebony, together with a maple veneer, help it feel balanced and traditional. A top 40 player is rumoured to be playing with a carbon-fibre cue next year, so the days of wooden cues may be numbered. Stuff says: A future-proof cue that deserves to become much more popular
Not just a load of balls... • Billiards probably originated in 15th Century France, from an outdoor game a bit a like croquet where balls were pushed (not struck) through hoops and into pockets • Pool got its name from the English practice of each player laying his stake on the table before the game. The winner then received the ‘pool’ of money • Modern snooker is actually a combination of pool and a now rarely-played game called Pyramids • Snooker was banned from taverns in 1757 due to its seedy reputation
Cue care • Never lean your cue against the wall or in a hot or moist room, as this will accelerate warping. • Many professionals strip off the protective lacquer that manufacturers coat their cues with, as it can get sticky under the lights • Clean your cue about once a week with cold water and dry it immediately with something like a bar towel. Never use furniture cleaner or polish. • Transport and store your cue flat, in a case.
Our expert Dave Smith has been playing snooker for over 30 years, and is now regional coach for the English Association of Snooker and Billiards. He has coached many young players (some now professionals) and has high hopes for a12-year old player, Jimmy Robertson, who can already shoot a 141 break! Dave plays with a 10-year old de-coloured Parris Paragon, with a custom extension that can fit in the middle of the cue (allowing him to grip the butt as usual) and hand-made quick release joints.
The rules of billiards If you don’t really understand the rules of billiards, snooker and pool, you’re not alone. There are three main games of billiards played in the UK today, and the rules (and even the equipment) can differ. 8-ball pool: The most popular game, played with a cue ball and 15 object balls (7 coloured, 7 striped and the black 8-ball). In its American version (where players chew cigars and are called ‘Slim’ or ‘Fast Eddie’), 8-ball is a call shot game, where you must nominate a pocket and ball. The first player to sink all his balls and then the 8-ball wins. 9-ball pool: Played with balls numbered 1 to 9 and a cue ball, 9-ball is not a call shot game. The players must hit the lowest numbered ball on the table (but don’t have to pot balls in numerical order). The first player to sink all balls - and finishing with the 9-ball - wins. Snooker: Played with 15 red balls (worth 1 point) and 6 coloured balls (2-7 points), the first ball sunk must be a red. Players then alternate red and coloured balls, before finishing by sinking the coloured balls in order, black last. Bow ties and velvet waistcoats are compulsory.
VERDICT As in most of life, you get what you pay for, although the cheaper machine-made cues we tested are still better than those you’ll find in most clubs. The best on test were from John Parris, but the competition is snapping at his heels, and the innovative carbon-fibre cue from Burroughes and Watts deserves a special mention. Look for a smooth finish (so the cue doesn’t stick when you’re cueing), a nice balance in your hand and, most importantly, choose a cue that ‘feels’ right for you. Play a couple of shots with it if you can and always buy a case - £10-£20 spent now will save you a lot more later on.
Manufacturers: Burroughes and Watts 0121 501 2780 Parris 0181 291 6288 Tamar 01895 462594 Peradon 0151 207 1336
Links: More billiard rule info Some US pool association
Where next? Archery Fun/toys Top of the page
Darts really is a sport for everyone. No one is too small or weak to chuck an arrow from the oche, and the darts themselves are ludicrously cheap. Far from being tiny javelin throwing for fat Northern blokes, darts is a highly skilful sport that’s growing fast overseas - the Dutch love it and so do the Yanks. Best of all, it’s the only sport where it’s almost obligatory to spend every night in the pub ‘practising’. But forget old brass darts with blunt points and battered flights - the latest arrows are high-tech needles of cool.
Stuff Best Buy Harrows Gyro 5/5 £12.95 These 80per cent tungsten nickel darts are reassuringly solid and incredibly well-balanced. They have unique barrels with EGP-knurling (Extra grip performance) so they won’t slip out when your hands get sweaty under pressure. The tough Dimplex flights should be good for a whole load of throwing, and the special gimmick - rotating flights to prevent deflecting subsequent darts - won’t get in the way of your throwing style. Our expert rated these steel-tipped darts the best on test and great value for money. Stuff says: Superb, sensible and well-balanced darts. There’s no need to pay any more than this
Unicorn John Lowe Club Special 4/5 £7.99 Supplied in a smart clear plastic case, these Club Specials have a fat barrel with a central groove for improved grip. Not everyone will like the long barrel and short stem, but you can swap the stems for next to nothing. The Dimplex flights attach in ‘slick stick’ style at the sides. This prevents the flight from accidentally coming out when you throw them. A nice, well-balanced dart. Stuff says: Retro-style ‘slick stick’ darts - ideal for casual games in a smoky pub
Elven Elite 4/5 £20 If money is no object, or you just have funny-shaped hands, why not have your darts hand made? Elven Darts can be made to your exact specifications in nickel or copper tungsten. These Elite darts are constructed from the highest grade of tungsten (95per cent). The darts are well balanced and very tough, and at the very least, you can be sure you won’t suffer from the embarrassment of turning up to a match only to find your opponent has the same darts as you. Stuff says: You’d be fussy not to find the darts you want off-the-shelf, but these are a stylish alternative
Harrows Voodoo 3/5 £5.95 Another set of very long darts, and not as substantial as others on test. However, you get a lot of dart for your money, and these make a great first step up from brass darts. The Voodoo sports an aluminium shaft, aerodynamic Dimplex flights and sinister black and gold styling. They’re also suitable for plunging into miniature mannikins of your opponents in the hope of ruining their concentration. A Slimpack plastic case is included. Stuff says: Ideal first serious dart, but you’ll want to move on before long
Really Ruthless Dogs of War 3/5 £7 These are among the cheapest 80per cent nickel tungsten darts - and they look it. Although supplied with an unpleasant leather case, and flimsy plastic shafts you’ll want to exchange as soon as possible, the barrels are tough and well made. The darts are available in an astonishing 47 varieties of grips, from a flyweight 16g to a truly daunting 35g monster. They won’t win any prizes for style, but our expert reckoned they were as good as any at the price. Stuff says: Ugly, basic, cheap darts that will do the job. But the Dogs’ they ain’t.
Professional’s choice Unicorn Golden Tripoint Phil Taylor 4/5 £39.95 Watch World Champion Phil Taylor at work and you’ll notice his darts seem to hit the board at a strange upwards angle. This is thanks to a moving point at the front of the dart that’s meant to reduce bounce-outs. These titanium-coated darts should retain their grip forever and are supplied with three lengths of point, a Quikchange tool and spare flights, and come in weights accurate to 0.1g. However, the Tripoints take a lot of getting used to and caused even our expert a few troubles. Stuff says: Definitely not recommended for beginners, but stick with them and you could go far...
Nothing for two in a bed... • Official dartboards are made from a natural fibre called sisal, compressed under tonnes of pressure then banded with steel hoops and staples • If you want to play properly at home, the distance from oche to board should be 2.37m, and the bullseye needs to be exactly 173cm above the floor • Don’t lean over the line or spin the dart when throwing it. The first is tiring and leads to poor follow-through and the second will affect your accuracy
Our expert Apylee Jones started playing darts at 12 for the London youth team, and is now ranked 13 in the world. She regularly plays for England (winning both her recent matches against Scotland and Wales), and spends three or four nights a week practising and competing for her local team. She normally plays with a 22g short shaft, short barrel tungsten nickel dart with plastic flights.
VERDICT Tungsten nickel are the two important words here - heavier darts mean a slimmer barrel and closer grouping on the board. And they’re so cheap, you may as well get decent quality ones from the outset. We choose the Harrow Gyros as best on test and you certainly don’t need to spend any more. But experiment with combinations of barrel, shaft and flight, everyone’s hands are different and you might find a lighter or longer dart suits you.
Manufacturers: Harrows 01992 300300 Unicorn 0181 291 3344 Elven 01493 384337 Really Ruthless (at Tommy Darts International) 01270 589500
Links: Excellent darts site at Cyberdarts
Where next? Archery Snooker Top of the page
FUN/TOY TARGET GAMES
When you were a kid, nothing was more fun than skinning your knuckles playing conkers, turning McDonalds’ straws into tiny blowpipes or trying to hit grumpy adults with snowballs. So if you’ve never grown out of bright plastic toys that never look as good as they do on the box, this lot will be right up your street. Of course, none of them should be let anywhere near real kids, who will break them (and probably your windows, Ming vases etc.) within five minutes of getting their hands on them.
Stuff Best Buy Micromax Laser Challenge V2 5/5 £49.99 Forget bullseyes and tin cans, the only target that counts is one that can shoot back at you. The Laser Challenge V2 set comes with two infra-red beam guns and two sensor units - ideal for one-on-one stalking action. The light sensor units are worn on the front, so there’s no cowardly shooting in the back, and the neat guns have an impressive 100m range. Special features include ‘high power’ shots and a five-second shield if you get boxed into a corner. Add the ELS computer system (another £49.99) and you can get a print-out of score, hit percentages, and reloads to prove who really is Top Gun. Plenty of extra guns are available, too, for team games. Stuff says: Just like Quasar, except without the annoying 13-year olds who always win. Bloody good fun.
Barnett Black Widow slingshot 4/5 £6.99 If you thought catapults were all about Y-shaped sticks and rubber bands, you’re in for a big surprise. The Black Widow has a contoured grip and fold-away wrist brace for accuracy, and Magnum latex long-life Power Bands for incredible power. Firing .38 tin ammunition, the Black Widow can reliably hit small targets at distances of up to 15m, and will reach 40m with ease. But watch where you’re pointing it, as the ammo has a tendency to ricochet all over the place. Also good for shooting poison spiders. Stuff says: A catapult that’s definitely not for schoolboys, the Black Widow is a seriously powerful piece of rubber ware.
Bushmaster 2000 paintball gun 4/5 £599 War is hell, OK? But there’s still a little part of every bloke that wants to chuck a pineapple into a Jerry machine-gun nest or take a pot-shot at Slobodan. Paintball is your way of satisfying those urges without risking anything more serious than getting a few bruises and a bit muddy. The Bushmaster 2000’s semi-automatic electronic trigger can hose enough paint around to keep Dulux in business (up to 10 pellets/second) and its Infinity barrel means you’ve only yourself to blame if you miss. If you want the Armageddon air system shown here, you’ll need to splash out another £375. Stuff says: A monster gun that’s heavy and powerful enough to take on all-comers
Arcadia Skeet Shoot 4/5 £69.99 Duck shooting for veggies, the Arcadia is retro gaming at its best. A small motorised unit projects quacking ducks onto your living room wall, and you blast away at them with a pump-action light gun - just like in early ‘80s arcades. There are loads of dodgy electronic noises, and the unit can keep track of up to nine players’ scores. Two can even shoot at the same duck, if you buy an extra gun. It claims there are five different games, but they all involve shooting the same ducks, just moving at different speeds. The Arcadia will be too simple to hold your attention for long, although other cartridges (such as Meteor Attack) are also available. Stuff says: Top shotgun fun and no green wellies required
Big Bad Bow 3/5 £24.99 If you fancy the idea of archery, but are scared of sharp things, the Big Bad Bow is for you. Granted, it’s not particularly big or bad, but it can fire a Scud-sized foam dart at leg bruising velocities. You can even pretend you’re Sly Stallone in Rambo III, where he shoots down Russian helicopters with bow-fired missiles. But without the explosions. If it’s not too windy, the Big Bad Bow should reach 15m with ease, making it ideal for indoor and outdoor use. Stuff says: Great for bow battles with your mates, but no fun as a target game.
Nerf Hailstorm 2/5 £14.99 Air-pumped water pistols are great, but you always end up soaking wet. So for the nine months of the year when it’s not warm enough to enjoy getting drenched in cold water, the Nerf Hailstorm is an ideal substitute. Pump up the power, pull the trigger and five sucker-tipped foam darts shoot out. The downside is that you have to reload after every shot, and it’s hard to be accurate at over a couple of metres. The little bleeders are also great at finding all those hidden away corners you knew should have cleaned after your last party. Stuff says: Nice idea but disappointing to play with. OK for kids.
Professional’s choice The Trebuchet Whether you’re attacking your next door neighbour’s castle or besieging Oddbins down the road, nothing will scare the bejasus out of them like a medieval trebuchet. Standing 34 feet tall in its cotton socks, this recently constructed replica managed to hurl a 95lb boulder a mighty 700ft. It weights about 30,000lb and was put together by a bunch of students (naturally!) in Virginia, America. in just five days. They admit its accuracy leaves a lot to be desired, but deny rumours that it has since been used to hurl fully grown cows around the place. Shame.
VERDICT Just about all of these are suitable for mucking about with down the park or at the beach, although your dad might give you thick ear for borrowing his trebuchet without asking. We reckon you can’t beat the team games like Laser Challenge V2 or paintball, but even plinking tin cans in your back garden with the Black Widow is surprisingly satisfying. So slip into some shorts, smear mud over your face and pretend to be a kid for the day. And if you break any windows, scarper!
Vivid Imaginations (for Micromax and Arcadia) 01702 200660 Barnett 01902 405121 Paintball Planet 0161 872 5572 Hasbro (for Nerf and Big Bad Bow) 0181 569 1234
Links: How about blowguns?
Where next? Archery Snooker Darts Top of the page