Archer Mark Lawrence proudly held up his bow. It was a late-model Jennings compound, with a 36-inch T-Star II stabilizer sprouting from the middle, Dacron line tautened to 49 pounds, steel cable and cam wheels for drawing power, optic sight with electric light plus an arrow-release aid. All in all, a marvel of technology worthy of the Space Shuttle. "

But the Space Shuttle's simple," Ed Rose said dryly, as he aimed a stream of tobacco juice at some dirt near Lawrence's boots. Lawrence, 38, a sporting-goods dealer, smiled thinly as the older man added with a snicker, "That's a rig for guys who don't know how to shoot."

Now that spring has come, inveterate archers hereabouts are trading indoor ranges for fresh air and woods, emptying their quivers at targets between the trees. One brisk Sunday morning, the Northern Virginia Archers, Lawrence and Rose among them, convened at Fountainhead Park in Lorton for their first shoot of the season.

Their purpose was to hit 28 targets on the club's rugged, hilly range -- with winners getting honorific pins -- and to relish the great outdoors and the fellowship of sport.

Their quivers bulging with X-7 and X-75 arrows, the preferred projectiles these days, about 30 archers grabbed scorecards and set off on the zigzag course: 30 acres inhabited by flying squirrels and bluebirds. Rose, 57 and something of a purist about archery, showed up to heckle his newfangled comrades and otherwise hold forth in the clubhouse. A bum shoulder, he said, prevented his joining in.

"I've always shot without a sight -- just a bare bow," said Rose, a beefy chap from Alexandria who runs construction equipment for a living. "I wouldn't use any of these release aides either. I can still shoot with my fingers. I guess you could call it 'true grit.' " He laughed; his listeners grinned. "Very few persons have the instinct for shooting that I have."

For Rose, an archer for 20 years and a two-time Virginia champion, the true joy of the sport comes from competition and hunting. Bowhunting accounts for most of archery's popularity, says Bob Kelly, president of Bear Archery, which, along with Jennings, is a well-known equipment maker. There are about three million U.S. bowhunters.

"What's a gun?" Rose asked with a deadpan stare. "That's the reason I got into archery in the first place -- to get away from the gun hunters. My Dad was a bowhunter, up until seven years ago. He's 89 now. Me, I've killed 25 deer with a gun -- all bucks -- and three bucks with a bow. I guess I'd like to get a mule deer and a black bear and that'll be enough for me. But I get a bigger thrill from just seeing a deer, and never getting off an arrow, than I do killing one. It's the enjoyment of being outdoors."

As Rose chatted, with the aroma of June Lawrence's chili wafting through the clubhouse, the archers walked the range, aiming for targets at distances from 20 to 80 yards and braving a cold, gusty wind. Because stiff fingers make bad releases, archers prefer temperatures in the 70s.

"This early in the year, it's kind of a shakedown shoot," said club president Dick Kroh, an electronics technician at National Airport. After planting an arrow at target's edge from 50 yards, another club member, Frank Jones, told a visitor, "It's a shame you didn't come later. Three months from now, I'd be able to hit that."

Though a quiet pastime, whose only noises are the twang of bowstring and the whoosh of flight, archery can sometimes be a taxing one. "I don't know if you could really call it relaxing," said Teresa Trent, who was shooting with her husband. "I think 'challenging' would be a better word. I'm always competing against myself."

Mike Craven, 32, a freelance stagehand who carries a beeper in his pocket when he shoots--"I've got to work," he explained--still sees the sport as an escape. "It's like fishing, really," he said, midway through the course. "Or maybe like golf," put in Bill Ayres, 58, one of the club's founders who helped build the range some 20 years ago. "The only problem with archery," Ayres added, "is that it's not really a sport that people can come around and watch. It's not too exciting that way."

Rose emerged from the clubhouse and rambled along the sidelines. "I laid this range out, but the older I get," he puffed, spitting another stream of tobacco juice, "the more I wish this was a level course. Right now, I wish I had an escalator."

WHERE THE BOWS ARE Here are some archery clubs in the area:

NORTHERN VIRGINIA ARCHERS, Fairfax County. Call Dick Kroh at 703/494-2083.

CUB RUN ARCHERS, Fairfax County. Call Bob Keaton 703/368-4085. 12TH

PRECINCT ARCHERS, Anne Arundel County. Call Harold Lisenbee at 855-1260.

B&O BOWMEN, Anne Arundel County. Call Bill Duly at 301/768-1624.

TUSCARORA ARCHERS, Frederick County. Call Terry Biddinger 301/662-1725.*

OPEN RANGES RANGE OPEN at Veterans Memorial Park, Woodbridge, $3 Saturdays, 7-10. Free instruction for beginners. Call 494-3648.

INDOOR RANGE open in Bull Run Shopping Center. Ten lanes, classes, league rates available. Open 2 to 9:30, Monday through Friday; 9 to 6 Saturday and Sunday. Call 830-2344.