The archer’s thumb ring – part 2

Figure 1: The thumb lock and the index finger position.
Figure 2: Conventional finger-release method.
Figures 3a and 3b (above & below): Securing the bowstring in the lip of the thumb ring.
Figure 4: At full draw – using the thumb ring.

In the second article of his series on the archer’s thumb ring, Johnny Snyman discusses shooting technique.

“Things which are truly worthwhile do not usually come easily, and to strive toward them is to gain strength of character” – the late Jay Massey.

While certainly not an easy undertaking, mastering the technique of shooting with the thumb ring offers the traditional archer a wealth of personal rewards.

The foundation of the archer’s thumb ring is sound. Its roots were deeply anchored in the pages of history thousands of years ago by many nations of Central Asian origin, who lived and perished by the bow. The release technique, originally (and incorrectly) named “the Mongolian release” by Edward Morse and other European intellectuals in the early 20th century, has been employed by many nations and tribes other than the Mongols, with certain African and North American natives included in the ranks. So “thumb release” is a more common and accepted term.

Throughout the ages various materials have been used to construct a form of protection for the thumb against the strain of the bowstring. It is known that early archers used a type of leather protection, although no examples exist today. However, various other museum pieces tell us that in times past archers used bone, wood, horn, semiprecious stones, silver, and various other metals to construct thumb rings. In essence, the thumb ring provides the archer with a means of protection in order for the thumb-release method to be performed effectively.

But before we look at the effectiveness of the technique, we need to look at the effectiveness of the weapon used in combination with the technique. Just as history can be fascinating and rewarding to those keenly interested in the roots of archery, so has history through the ages been used by politicians and historians to conveniently distort factual events to fuel their devices and motivations. The medieval English war bow with its devastating armour-piercing ability has been much highlighted by Euro-centric historians over the ages. In contrast, the medieval composite war bow, how it was employed strategically by the nations of the steppes and the successes it brought them on the battlefield, have often conveniently been ignored. Many of these nations’ defeats have often been exaggerated. In the end, many facts and technicalities surrounding composite bows were obliterated and blinded by the glorifying light of the successes of the English longbow.

The composite bow’s armour-piercing capability was first noticed by the Romans and the Persian Sassanids, who in the fifth century employed heavily plate-armoured cavalries. Roman infantry soldiers with their double-layered chain mail and heavy oak shields had little protection against the Huns’ powerful composite bows and armour-piercing arrows. And in 1682 Field Marshal Monteccucoli in his memoirs mentioned a detailed report concerning the Ottoman archers, advising the Habsburg army to take great caution against the Turkish archers’ arrows. These arrows pierced the plated armor of the Austrian cuiriassier cavalry soldiers with ease.

Technical Overview
Any newcomer to traditional archery will remember the steps of learning to shoot the longbow or recurve bow. It is much the same when we first learn to shoot with the thumb ring using the thumb-release technique. Perhaps the first (and most discouraging) aspect to get used to is the fact that if you’re a right-handed archer, in other words, you draw the bowstring with your right hand, you will shoot your arrows from right-hand side of the bow’s grip and not from the left-hand side as is the conventional way (the reverse will apply if you’re a left-handed archer).

There are several reasons why the bow is shot this way. Firstly, the index finger performs two vital functions: it forms a powerful and consistent lock over the joint of the thumb, and also applies and maintains gentle pressure on the rear end of the arrow shaft just behind the fletches. This pressure keeps the arrow secure against the side of the bow, preventing it from falling off the bow handle during the draw and while shooting. It also enables the archer to cant the bow and shoot from various different positions. It is useful at this point to note that the thumb-release method isn’t suitable when using conventional shooting styles, i.e. shooting the arrow off the left side of the bow handle. The index finger will tend to push the arrow off the bow handle.

Another important effect when shooting the arrow off the opposite side of the bow handle is that arrow dynamics are radically changed. So let us first have a glimpse at arrow dynamics and the conventional way we shoot traditional bows.

When we shoot the bow using finger release, the arrow rests on the left side of the bow handle and in most cases on an arrow shelf (see Figure 2). Upon release (regardless of whether we are using a shooting glove or a finger tab), as the hand relaxes, the bowstring needs to roll off the fingers. This action has two effects on both the bowstring and the arrow. As the string rolls off the fingers, the arrow is subjected to a series of oscillations as the power stroke of the string thrusts it forward. The arrow shaft first flexes inwards, towards the opposite side of the bow handle. As the shaft travels forwards, it flexes around the bow handle while passing along the arrow shelf. This flexing of the arrow we all know as arrow paradox or archer’s paradox.

The flexing continues as the arrow is on its way to the target. When viewed with high-speed motion photography, the flight of an arrow very much resembles the motion of a fish moving under water.
Proper arrow-spine selection when using traditional bows therefore has always been critical, as the weakness or stiffness of the arrow greatly affects arrow dynamics, consistency and accuracy.
But ballistics change when we shoot using the thumb-release method, with the arrow being shot from the opposite side of the bow handle.

Once the arrow is nocked, the bowstring is secured in a narrow groove or lip on the inside of the thumb ring (see Figures 3a and 3b). The lock is then formed by curling the index finger over the thumb joint. This is the stage just before the bow is drawn. The release of the arrow is instant and is performed by relaxing the index finger and the thumb simultaneously. This is where the bowstring and arrow dynamics change. Firstly, the string now only needs to roll off a narrow portion of the thumb ring’s surface as opposed to the larger surface of three fingers. If done correctly, the result is a very crisp release, which greatly minimises string oscillations. As the arrow is thrust forward, it is still flexed inwards by the forward stroke of the bowstring, but there is now no bow handle for it to flex (paradox) around. It passes along the opposite (right) side of the bow handle, unhindered, with a minimal amount of flexing. The results are greater initial arrow stability and greater initial arrow velocity. Arrow-spine selection thus becomes less critical. Once the thumb-released technique is mastered, it offers the traditional archer access to a greater arrow-spine range for the same given bow.

First steps
As mentioned, learning the thumb-release technique will require you to first get used to the idea that your arrow will be resting on the opposite side of the bow handle. This certainly is a test for your instinctive shooting abilities, as the arrow won’t be in your peripheral vision the way it would be when shooting from the left side of the bow.

A lightweight bow of any type with a draw weight of 20 to 25 pounds should be used at first and the bow should preferably have a narrow, dual-sided handle.

Most solid fiberglass youth bows have dual-sided handles and can be obtained at low cost. Alternatively, if you’re a right-handed archer, you may use a left-handed bow, provided the palm swell of the grip hasn’t been contoured for an archer’s right hand. Of course, the opposite will apply if you’re a left-handed archer.

It would be even better if you had access to a lightweight horse bow. These generally have much narrower, smaller and rounded dual-sided grips, with no arrow shelves or sight-window cutouts. Some horse bows might have an improvised leather shelf of sorts to provide a platform for arrow placement, but the true way of shooting the horse bow is by shooting the arrow directly off the hand – which incidentally by no means makes the bow less accurate. It only enhances the skill of the archer.
Learning the thumb-release method with a lighter draw-weight bow has several advantages. It will help you focus on learning proper technique, form and release, and will aid you in mastering the technique sooner. Initially there is a measure of discomfort to the thumb joint. If you’re clever you will stick to using a lightweight bow for practice. My wife learnt to use the thumb ring using a lightweight horse bow and got the basics of the technique under the belt within half an hour.

If you think you’re Attila and start out using a heavy bow, be prepared for visions of discomfort in your dreams, for Genghis will be visiting. And believe me, it will feel as if he’s slowly claiming your thumb…

In the next part of the series, Johnny will be discussing the types of arrow one can use when shooting with the thumb ring. The last part will give step-by-step illustrations on the construction of a horn thumb ring

pdated: Thursday, December 10, 2009 12:57 PM