An empire of arrowheads: At 85, Jack Zwickey turns out thousands of arrowheads a year
NORTH ST. PAUL, Minn. — An innovative arrowhead that slices through big-game animals like a butcher knife was the bedrock of Zwickey Archery of North St. Paul, founded in 1938 by machinist and inventor Cliff Zwickey.
But in 1957, a high-profile archer in a different part of the country came out with his own brand of arrowheads, and many Zwickey customers switched over.
“It knocked us right out of business,” said son Jack, now an 85-year-old mechanical engineer who runs the business and winces as he remembers that time. For a while, he said, there were tens of thousands of unsold arrowheads “sitting in buckets all over the house, sitting around in my bedroom.”
Forced to change their focus, the father-and-son Zwickeys turned their attention to a pesky problem encountered by bowhunters who wanted to go on “roving shoots,” practicing on, say, stumps in the woods, rather than formal targets on groomed terrain. The trouble was the time-wasting hassle of hunting for arrows that burrowed beneath the weeds, and the cost of the inevitable lost arrows.
“My father said, ‘Geez, we’ve got to make an unlosable arrowhead,’ ” Zwickey said. “I knew him well enough to know if he said he was going to invent something, it was as good as done. So we monkeyed around.”
The result was a winner: an ingenious combination of prongs and tiny springs that made arrows jump back up rather than hide in the underbrush. And over the years, the original Zwickey arrowhead — called a “broadhead” because it’s used to hunt big game — has come back into vogue, too. Now several hundred thousand arrowheads are sold each year from the small shop on North St. Paul’s main street.
The sun never sets on his arrowheads, Zwickey said: They’re stuck in trees all over the world. They’re sold by dealers and distributors in the United States, plus in France, Belgium, Germany, Canada, Sweden — and in Italy, where Zwickey, an opera buff, once visited Venice and Milan to pursue a passion aside from bowhunting. Some arrowheads sold abroad are used on other continents, such as in Africa for ostriches, elephants and warthogs, and in Australia for water buffalo.
“They’re so strong in front that you can use them for rhinos, grizzly bears, polar bears and Cape buffalo,” Zwickey said. He himself sticks with deer when hunting with his traditional maple and fiberglass bow.
Over the years, he has added his own arrowhead designs, but the original model, patented by his dad when he was a kid, is still sold. It was created to respond to changes in hunting laws that allowed bowhunters to shoot deer, elk and bear.
“He realized there was a need for new technology in broadhead design. He started monkeying around,” Zwickey said. “Our theory was to put the steel up front where you need it,” so the design has three layers of metal at the tip.
Zwickey Archery started in the back of the family home, and initially, the heat-treating process was done off the premises. Sometimes the arrowheads came back crooked, so one of Zwickey’s childhood chores was to straighten them in a vise, one at a time. The arrowheads were lacquered by hand and set to dry on a pegboard of nails, and then the edges were ground, also by hand.
The unlosables at first were a pain to make, too, Zwickey said. But eventually the father and son figured out a process and created a machine to do part of the work. The patented Judo Point sold poorly at first, he said, because hunters were skeptical. But then they caught on.
“That changed the history of bows and arrows,” Zwickey said, because it gave a different dimension to archery beyond hunting animals and shooting at circles on a lawn. With a broadhead, out in the woods, “you might hunt for the whole season and never get a shot. With this thing, you can take 100 shots a day and not spend a minute looking for an arrow.”
Nowadays, Zwickey greatly enjoys roving shoots with friends. In the spring, he lays out a course of plastic milk jugs on wooded acreage he owns in Wisconsin.
“We wanted to pretend we were hunting year-round,” he said. “Roving is not hunting, but is going around the woods shooting at every darn thing you can see, just to see if you can hit it.”
Zwickey’s father died at age 75 in 1977. The arrowheads still are made largely by hand by Zwickey and his four full-time employees, plus a few students hired during the summer.
The plant is an unassuming 2,100-square-foot concrete block building. Construction began in 1948 because spot welding being done at the Zwickey home was interfering with the neighbor’s radio reception. Some functions still were performed at the home until a few years ago, when road construction eliminated the house.
Visitors to the plant receive an enthusiastic greeting from the employees’ dogs and cats, who come to work with their owners — as required by Zwickey himself. In the small office, a computer sits side-by-side with a manual typewriter and filing cabinets.
Arrowhead pieces are carried around the shop in old plastic buckets. Some of the small machines at which workers sit were fashioned decades ago, “from junk from the junkyard, so they cost no money,” Zwickey said. The grinder buzzes for hours a day, and Zwickey said he’s been looking into an upscale replacement, priced at $148,000.
At the plant, the broadhead pieces of high carbon steel are stamped out, one at a time on a punch press, then spot welded. They’re then sent to a furnace in Cleveland for brazing, in which a copper insert fired at 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit binds the pieces together. Back in North St. Paul, they’re heat-treated to make them strong, tempered so they’ll have a bit of give, tumbled to clean them up, ground twice to sharpen them, lacquered and packaged. The unlosable arrowheads are made on-site, as well.
Myles Keller is a professional bow hunter from Mantorville, Minn., who has given seminars around the country and has been sponsored by several companies, including Zwickey Archery. He holds the arrowheads in high regard.
“It’s probably the No. 1 broadhead in traditional archery,” he said. “I’ve used them since 1967 and I’ve shot a number of record buck deer. It’s a very lethal and very excellent broadhead.” As for the Judo Points, “they’re something to practice with and almost impossible to lose.”
Keller says hunting with bow and arrow is popular in part because “you have to learn more about the animal to get so close. And it gives you more time, because gun seasons are more limited. The leaves are turning, the birds are chirping, and you get more time with nature.”
Bowhunting has been on the increase in Minnesota over the past decade, said Jay Johnson, coordinator for hunter recruitment and retention at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. One reason may be the longer season, which people who have busy lives appreciate. And a popular archery-in-the-schools program sponsored by the DNR has created a pipeline for young people. Plus, Johnson said, “I would say we’re seeing more female participation in bowhunting,” possibly because of the “Hunger Games” movies, which star a woman who bowhunts.
Johnson himself has used the North St. Paul company’s broadheads.
“There’s something about the steel in the Zwickey, and their design, that makes them particularly easy to sharpen. You can use them year after year,” he said. “That broadhead is recognized worldwide for its effectiveness and its strength.”
Looking back, Zwickey wonders how something so fun — shooting bows and arrows — could end up being so much work. Business is good now, though, and he is still enjoying it, six days a week.
He is single and has no children, and as for what might happen to the company when he decides to slow down, he really can’t say: “So far, I’m still interested, so I haven’t thought about it seriously.”
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