The archer’s thumb ring – part 1

When using a thumbring, the arrow rests not on the left side of the bow hand but on the right side.
The thumb ring truly is a very effective and accurate way of shooting the bow.

In the first of three articles on the archer’s thumb ring, Johnny Snyman looks at some aspects of the history of the bow.

The year was 512 BC. On the rolling, grassy plains on the steppes of southern Russia, north of the Sea of Azov, lay camped a mighty army, almost 700,000 strong. It was commanded by King Darius the Great of Persia – the most powerful nation on earth, with its mighty kingdom, at the summit of its glory, spanning from Egypt all the way across to India.

It had been almost two years since King Darius undertook a campaign, and he believed this one would be short-lived. He had transported his large army from Persia through Anatolia, and on a bridge of boats he had led it across the Bosphorus and then through the land of Thrace, which finally saw them onto the steppes.

The purpose of his campaign is written in the pages of ancient history. It was to bring the Scythian nation to its knees.

Assyrian documents from 8 BC contain the first mention of warlike, horse-mounted nomads – the Cimmerians, who seem to have originated in the steppes north of the Black Sea. In his writings, the Greek historian Herodotus, from the fifth century BC, writes many a page on the “Sakas” – the Scythians. He describes them as raiders situated in the Near East, who eventually allied with the Medes of western Iran to destroy the kingdom of Assyria. At a celebrating banquet, the Medes murdered the Scythian leaders, then drove their forces from the Middle East. The Scythians retreated to the Pontic steppes through the Caucasus. Appearing from the east, the Scythians eventually drove the Cimmerians from the land, evolving into a powerful nation.

The early Scythians are remembered by ancient Greek and Persian historians as tall, large-framed and fierce warriors who where unrivalled on the horse. As much as they lived by the sword, the Scythians lived off the harsh lands of the steppes for many ages. Endless trekking after grazing grounds for their livestock and horses, along with the gruels of daily breaking of camp, bred into their bloodline the toughness needed to survive in the unforgiving wilderness of the steppes.

Ancient artifacts unearthed in modern times from tombs in Russia and China tell us that the Scythians were master goldsmiths. They also understood the practicalities of using the domesticated horse in warfare and were among the first inventors of the stirrup. Their weapons were light and practical: lances, short swords, axes, javelins and spears. But the supreme advantage of the Scythian mounted warrior lay with his primary weapon of warfare: a short, powerful, composite bow.

Commenting on the Scythians combining superb horsemanship with skills as archers, Herodotus writes in an eyewitness account of them: “They were the most manly and law-abiding of the Thracian tribes. If they could unite under one ruler, they would be the most powerful nation on earth.”
This superb unity of man, horse and bow also led to Greek mythology creating a fierce, mystical creature who was half horse and half bowman – the Centaur.

In the midst of his campaign, King Darius and his army were led deeper into the wilderness. His men were frustrated by the tactics of the Scythian warriors. Skirmishes were always quick. Their hated Scythian foes moved in with the fierceness and speed of wasps whose nest had been disturbed, and then, accompanied by the fading hoof beats, the horse archers’ hasty retreats always ended in volleys of whistling arrows loosed at long range. To worsen matters, the Scythians’ scorched-earth tactics deprived King Darius and his men of food. The Persians were weary, and morale was at its lowest ebb.

On this cold autumn day, the dim light of dawn breaking over the steppes revealed a force of a thousand Scythian mounted archers, silhouetted on a hillside only two miles from King Darius’ main encampment. From their lofty vantage point they were motionlessly staring down onto the 700 000-strong Persian force. At first the silence was broken only by mocking laughter from among the Persian ranks, as swords were casually drawn in the reassuring solace of strength residing in numbers. Then, in a deafening rhythmic war chant, their lances began crashing against their shields.
Without warning, the vastly outnumbered Scythian horsemen charged. In a deafening crescendo, the rolling thunder of four thousand hoof beats announced the devastating battle that was to follow.
With the horse archers at full gallop, the gap was closing fast. Then, as if summoned by some unseen force, from among the advancing horsemen’s ranks appeared a dreaded black cloud of whistling arrows. The horse archer’s full gallop, combined with the forward launching of their bronze-tipped two and three-bladed arrow heads, resulted in a deadly, combined momentum that rendered the Persian’s armour useless. Suddenly, in the midst of battle, the attacking horsemen veered in unison in a wide, roundabout retreat. As the hoof beats faded with the settling dust, hundreds of dead and dying Persian infantrymen lay scattered across the land like chaff carelessly strewn by a relentless, stormy wind.
Driven by the heat of battle and a lust for blood in retaliation for their fallen comrades, a large force of mounted Persian lance and infantrymen gave chase. Crossing the leeward slope of the hill, they were met in ambush by a force of Scythian horse archers ten thousand strong.

What followed that day was an onslaught darker than the skies, blackened by volley upon volley of Scythian arrows. King Darius’s force stood little chance. They were outmanoeuvered and trapped by the Scythians’ mobility and the superior range of the powerful composite bow.

What became of the Scythians? We know that in later years they were a thorn in the side of Macedonia. It took Alexander the Great to eventually defeat Ateas, the king of Scythia. But more so, it was the effectiveness of mounted archery and its manoeuvrability in battle that led to an inevitable arms race on the steppes. Armour gained popularity and the Scythians eventually became the victims of their own devices. The Sarmatians, another powerful tribe of heavily-armoured horse-archer nomads, led to the final demise of the Scythians.

Across the Asian steppes, many more battles raged through the ages. Blood became the fertiliser that made the grasslands of the Asian steppes bloom. As the ever-shifting winds of time turned over the pages of history, the next two millennia saw the rise and fall of entire nations of horse archers. The Parthians, Massagetae, Hsiung-nu, the Avar, the Huns, Bulgars, Turks and Mongols – these were all nations who lived by the rule of the land and the way of the bow.

English bowmen
Much is known and written about the mediaeval English bowmen, their equipment and their manner of shooting their war bows. We know that they used a very long bow, made of yew wood. The bows were made long to eliminate breakage and to enable long draw lengths, as the English war arrow was heavy and long, measuring a yard in length. Each archer carried a sheath of 24 bodkin-tipped arrows.
The bow was drawn with three fingers, a method today called the Mediterranean release. The archer wore a leather tab to protect the fingers of the drawing hand, and when shooting the longbow, a right-handed archer would draw and loose the arrow off the left side of the hand.

We know that the English archers conducted warfare by the use of individually commanded and mobile wedge formations, loosing volleys of arrows into French lines over distances of around 250 yards.

With the salvaging of King Henry VIII’s ship the Mary Rose in the 80s, several longbows in pristine condition were uncovered. Further research into the Mary Rose bows led to English bowyer Roy King being appointed as bowyer to the Mary Rose Trust. Mr King reconstructed a series of Mary Rose bows to the exact dimensions of the originals. This in turn led to the discovery that many of the Mary Rose bows had draw weights in excess of 120 pounds. But how fast could arrows be loosed sequentially using such heavy bows? A close friend of Mr King, Simon Stanley, was approached, and he reportedly scored hits at a target over an extended period at a firing rate of 14 arrows per minute. Thus, we may safely assume that the average experienced mediaeval English archer, using a heavy war bow, could shoot at an average rate of twelve arrows per minute.

In traditional archery today, save for the materials most modern traditional bows are constructed from, little has changed in the way we shoot our long and recurved bows. We use shooting methods similar to those of English archers of mediaeval times.

But there has to be something different! Surely somewhere within the rich tapestry and heritage, in the ancient lineage of a weapon so many of us today dream about, write about, practise and play with, hunt with … surely there must be something overlooked and possibly even ignored?

Hungarian horsebow
These were all questions that began bothering me almost two years ago. As a traditional archer, the catalyst that brought a radical change to my approach to archery was when I first started shooting the Hungarian horsebow. A strange thing it was, almost alien at first, to shoot my arrows directly off the knuckle – as the small, rounded handle of the horsebow has no arrow shelf and sight window cut out like modern traditional bows have.

After learning to shoot the horsebow with ease and accuracy, a long study of horsebow construction and dynamics followed. As a bow maker, I undertook a challenging journey in making them. During this time I realised that the crafting of bows is not a journey of designing new bows. No man can claim a new design. Rather, bow making is about borrowing ancient ideas which have already been used by many different nations throughout the millennia – people whose very livelihood depended on the bow.
Horsebows and the way they are shot, using the thumb ring, begins with the archer. It begins the moment the modern archer realises that there are more methods of shooting the bow and arrow than the commonly accepted way we all follow today.

The very first time you slip the thumb ring over your right thumb, its polished surface will be cool to the touch of the skin, your arrow will be nocked onto the bowstring and will be resting not on the left side of your bow hand but rather, on the right side. Rest assured, at this point every inch of the traditional archer within you will kick against this uncalled-for change! More so, if you’re an instinctive or gap shooter, your aiming skills will surely be put to the test, as no part of the arrow will be in your peripheral sight.

Then comes the moment at full draw when your index finger, locking over the thumb joint, relaxes, instantly releasing the bowstring off the edge of the thumb ring. You will probably flinch at the short, crisp sound of the string being set free (as I did many times at first!). And if your arrow flies off to the right, completely missing the target, know that it its not an arrow spine problem. It is your mind that has subconsciously cheated you, trying to tell you how to shoot the “instinctive way” it is used to.
But persist and you will stumble upon a glimmering facet of traditional archery that will shimmer like a diamond – something real and filled with many a challenge. Your persistence will lead you to discover that the archery thumb ring and its shooting method belongs not on dusty library shelves, or among the pages of ancient bygone archery history, but among the arsenal of your shooting skills. You will also discover that it truly is a very effective and accurate way of shooting the bow. You also don’t need to reach some advanced level of archery before shooting with the thumb ring, as I for a long time thought the case might be. All that is required is an open approach to something new, spiced up with a little patience!

This three-part series on the archer’s thumb ring is aimed at enriching your personal growth as a traditional archer. Part two of the series will offer an illustrated step-by-step guide to constructing a thumb ring, followed by part three explaining the shooting method in more detail. As an archer, I hope these articles will lead others on a personal journey of their own!

Updated: Thursday, December 10, 2009 11:14 AM