Tag Archives: Recurve Bows

Pet Peeve No. 

As a tyro magazine and book designer, I have a pet peeve regarding “eye candy” which is what I call photos that attract the eye but do not support the associated text. Consider the following photo:

The text this is supporting is an admonition to consult a coach who can check to make sure your form is good.

Do you see anything not quite right in the photo? I do. Check out the next photo.

Here I drew a line along the archer’s forearm. In perfect form, that line would be pointed at the center of pressure the bow hand makes upon the riser. As you can see, it isn’t even close.

Now, I am not pointing out a form flaw. There are many reasons why an archer may need to have a high draw elbow: a shoulder injury, a congenital defect, etc. I am not criticizing the archer, I am criticizing the choice of photos. If your point is that an archer should consult a coach to ensure their form is good, and you want a photo showing a coach and archer, you should use a photo in which the archer’s form is close to perfect, otherwise the photo is contradicting the text.

* * *

Since I am currently working on a book advocating coaching from first principles, which are often scientific principles, allow me to address why a lower elbow (than shown in the photo) is recommended (if possible, always if possible). When a bow is drawn, you push upon the riser and pull upon the string. The force, therefore, in a finger-release situation, is directly between the centers of pressure of the bow hand on the riser and the fingers on the string. This “line of force” (being just the line of the direction of the force) is often called the primary force line and is described as being from the center of pressure on the bow’s grip (which needs to line up with the central plane of the bow to prevent pre-loaded bow hand torque), through the nock of the arrow and out the bottom of the archer’s draw elbow. This line of force is as close as we can get to the line the arrow sits upon. The farther away the arrow is from that line, the poorer the transfer of energy and direction to the arrow. (Ask any string walker of the consequences of the arrow being elsewhere.) We can’t get any closer, because the arrow can’t sit in the middle of our bow arm, etc.

If the archer’s draw elbow is in any other position, they are effectively pulling away from the line we want the arrow to travel upon. If our elbow is on the high side, as in the photo, there is an upward pull on the bow that isn’t balanced and will cause the bow to move when the string is loosed and we do not want the bow to move once we place it in a “perfectly-aimed” position. If the elbow is low, there is an unbalanced downward force. If the elbow is outboard, you have an outboard force (which causes a wrist cock, and eventually a pluck). If the elbow is wrapped too far around the torso there is an unbalanced force in that direction, which can lead to the string rubbing on the archer’s face or arm as it leaves.

Another thing that happens with draw elbow variations is they change the pressures of the fingers on the bowstring. If the draw elbow is too low, it creates extra pressure on the top string finger and high fliers are the result, etc. Non-optimal finger pressures on the string and even the arrow can create forces on the arrow rest, causing things like clicker bounce, arrows lifting off of the rest (even under a clicker), etc.

Moving away from the primary force line results in compensations that result in larger arrow dispersions. If, for example, you have a flying elbow. you are actually pulling the bowstring away from your face. To make a semblance of an anchor position, you will tend to push your string hand in toward your face. When you loose the string, that inward push will result in an outward compensation and a pluck will be seen. There are some extensive videos of this on the ArcheryWinchester website.

The archer-bow-arrow system is somewhat closed so one thing out of whack always leads to others.

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Can You “Think” Consciously and Subconsciously at the Same Time?

I was reading Daniel Goleman’s book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence and the following leapt off the page at me “Voluntary attention, willpower, and intentional choice are top-down; reflexive attention, impulse, and rote habit are bottom-up” (as are distractions).”

By “top-down” he is inferring what Daniel Kahneman would call Type 2 thinking or archer’s “conscious” thinking,” and by “bottom-up” he is referring to what Kahneman would call Type 1 thinking or archers would call “subconscious or unconscious” thinking.

I have learned and have taught all along that an archer’s thought process was something the conscious mind taught the subconscious mind, until it became habit and then the conscious mind followed the process as an observer while shots were executed in earnest subconsciously. The monitoring of the shot sequence gives the conscious mind something to do so that it doesn’t interfere with the subconscious routine, aka habit, which is the shot itself.

For some reason, even though I understood this to be the case, that archers are trying to harmonize the workings of their conscious and subconscious minds to work together . . . at the same time, too often I took this to be switching back and forth between the types of thinking, but now I see that there are two streams of thoughts that are interwoven.

We now know that the subconscious mental activities use the same regions of the brain as do conscious activities. For example, when you are examining something visually, you engage the visual cortex of your brain. If you just imagine the same object, the visual cortex is engaged once again. Those brain cells have been optimized to deal with visual information, so using the same circuitry, as it were, makes very good sense.

So, as our conscious and subconscious minds weave their way through your shot sequence, we do not want to tangle those threads. For example, if you are aiming, you are using your eyesight intensely to align your sight aperture or arrow point with your point of aim. You do not want to use a visualization at this point to help with any aspect of your shot as the visual cortex is involved in aiming and you don’t want to pull it away to imagine a visual object.

So, while you are aiming, you need some nonvisual marker of whether you are completing your shot. Since we can’t use vision, either directly or in a visualization of your draw elbow, for example, we use instead something like the feeling of muscle tension building, building, building in our back muscles which are used to finish the draw and to execute the hold.

We now know that we can hold two things consciously in mind at the same time, instead of the one thing we used to think so we can aim (optimizing our sight picture) and focus upon feeling our back muscle tension building at the same time. (This, by the way, is the only time our conscious attention is split during a shot. The rest of the time, it is one thing at a time.)

So, while you are shooting are you thinking consciously or subconsciously? Answer: yes!

Both steams of thought are continuous and if trained right, interwoven. The key is assigning the right tasks to the right streams.

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Relaxation: How Much and When?

I remember telling a student that any muscles not needed to make a shot needed to be relaxed and he said, “. . . but I would fall down.” I went on to explain that standing did indeed require muscle tension and was also required to make a shot, because “flopped on the ground” is not a solid platform from which to shoot.

Now, I am not sure what I meant back then. I recently saw a golf coach take on the “relaxation mantra” and claim that very little in a golfer’s body is relaxed when swinging a golf club. I tend to think this is true of elite archer’s also, but what do I think now?

And Now . . .
Now I think that it is more complicated that I thought then, but not a great deal more.

We are always talking about unnecessary muscle tension needing to be relaxed away (in golf, too). The goal is always to execute each shot the same way as the previous one and trying to achieve a consistent level of muscle tension is quite difficult. We can only maintain it in our bow shoulder (which is holding the bow up) because the mass of the bow is constant and so is the acceleration of gravity at that locale. So we need enough muscle tension to hold the bow at a particular level and that force is a constant force which creates a constant counter force in your musculature. Similarly the back muscle tension you exert at full draw is based upon whatever your holding weight is, which is a constant because your bow isn’t changing in draw weight (unless something is very wrong).

So, imagine keeping, say, your abdominal muscles slightly flexed. How much muscle tension is involved in doing that? How good are you at setting that level and keeping that level? I suspect not very good, so we . . . in general . . . start from a position of keeping non-essential muscles as relaxed as possible. This is a somewhat identifiable level of relaxation/muscle tension.

If, as an elite athlete, you decide that flexing your abdominal muscles allows you to shoot better (more consistently, more accurately, whatever) then you will have a baseline to work from, which is “as relaxed as possible.”

Whenever we make changes we need to compare the “new” with the “old” to find out if we have made an improvement, rather than just a change. We recommend that when making equipment changes, that you mark everything involved, e.g. clicker position, arrow rest position, number of turns on limb bolts, etc. and document that change in writing in your notebook. The reason for these recommendations is if the change isn’t an improvement you want to have the option to set everything back to that previous arrangement. The “relaxed as is possible” body condition is at least a somewhat findable condition if you want to retreat from some other body condition that was recommended for you.

In archery, we are almost always better off throwing body postures onto our skeletons than our musculatures. For example, Rick McKinney had what he called his “wind stance” (see photo above). In this stance his feet were roughly 80° from a square stance, that is both feet were almost pointing at the target. He then had to rotate his body 90° the other way to get into full draw position. This created a fair amount of torso twist. (I have never been able to even demonstrate this, let alone do it while shooting.) That rotation of the torso creates a very rigid shooting platform that is less susceptible to being blown around by the wind.

How much muscle tension is generated in that twisting? Heck if I know, but it is made regular through the positioning of the feet. Where you place your feet determines how much muscle tension is needed to get into your full draw position. This is what I mean by “loading body postures onto our skeletons.”

The “when” aspect of muscle tension is fairly simple. I argue that the shot actually begins when the bow is raised. Everything preceding that is part of what I call the “pre-shot routine.” All muscle tensions need to be in place before full-draw position is reached. I argue this because if you took a light weight bow and got on target and then flexed a new muscle, any muscle, I think you would see that your aim was affected. I often tell students that I want them to “pause at the top” to see if they have become still. Stillness only happens when muscles are in a fixed state of relaxation/tension. Muscles are to allow you to move. Flex one and you will move. Moving is not being still. So, the pause at the top is to see if you are still (there are signs). You should not shoot until you are still. And then for consistencies sake, you should hold as much of your muscle tension until the shot is over . . . and, boys and girls, how do we know the shot’s over?

The shot isn’t over until the bow takes a bow (as in a theatrical bow).

 

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How Many Pounds Should I Pull?

I have an Olympic Recurve student (who switched from compound) who is currently building his shot. Besides being a delight to work with, he is bringing up questions us coaches should be able to answer. One of those is “how much draw weight do I need?”

I am in the camp of “as little as possible for most recreational archers” as “it ’posed to be fun, bro.” But here is the answer I sent back to him.

* * *

As to what draw weight to settle on, you are looking for something you can handle. Our goal is to shoot our last arrow of a competition as well as we shot our first arrow, so too much draw weight creates fatigue that foils this goal. You also want it to be as high as possible (while meeting the other criteria). This is because the higher the DW, the flatter the arrow trajectory and the closer to “indoor form” we get. Young archers experience the problem that because of their short DL and low DW it means that at longer distances, they have to hold their bows at fairly steep angles, which distorts their form and results in their sight aperture being above the target face. We would rather not to have to distort our form so much and we would rather have our aperture line up somewhere on the target face for consistency (e.g. 12 o’clock—7-ring, dead center is even better).

Unless you are ferociously competitive, something in the mid-40’s would serve you well for all applications. There are some people who only compete indoors and so only shoot 18 m and 20 yds. They do not need much DW at all. Just enough tension on the bowstring to get off of it cleanly. If you plan on competing outdoors, pick your longest distance and see if you can sight in on the target, that is get a sight setting with your aperture somewhere on the target face. If you can you are good (enough) to go. If you cannot, and you can handle a higher DW, that is your solution. Many people find such a spot at the mid-30’s to higher 30’s of pounds of DW. (Cast depends on a lot of variables, one of which is draw length, another being arrow mass.) This is the gift given us by the creators of lightweight, stiff all-carbon arrows. If you cannot handle much draw weight, then all-carbon arrows are part of the perfect solution. Having less mass they accelerate to fairly high arrow speeds at low-ish draw weights.

 

 

 

 

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Stop with the Bests, Please

I tend to “lurk” on several archery sites, such as Archery Talk, even Quora has an archery section. I call it lurking because usually I bite my tongue and don’t comment, so I’ll comment here instead! :o)

All too often I see questions on these various sites like “What is the best bow?” and “What is the best broadhead?” and “What is the best bow sight?” and “Can anyone recommend a good broadhead?” These questions irritate the heck out of me because they do not specify for what purpose. What makes a good bow sight for hunting doesn’t necessarily make a good bow sight for target archery. What makes a good bow for historical re-enactments doesn’t necessarily make a good bow for horse archery. What makes . . . do I need to continue?

So, these are stupid questions on their faces. And if one does try to answer them, one is necessarily put in the position of listing a great many different purposes and answering the question for each of those quite different categories, when the questioner is probably only interested in one of those answers.

On Quora, the following question was asked “What is the least expensive bow?” I lost my composure and answered “a free one.” My first bow (and second and third) were free in that they were loaners that got turned into gifts, so the answer wasn’t entirely facetious. Answers to this question would vary a lot if one had asked “I want to explore target archery, how much do I need to save up to get started?” or “What is the least expensive starter bow I can get to go hunting?”

So, pet peeves aside, I see too many posts on websites, articles in magazines, and videos on YouTube referring to the “best” binoculars, “best” spotting scopes, “best” bow sights, “best” hunting bow, “best” arrows, “best” broadheads, etc. The reason these are misleading at the minimum or stupid at the other end is there is no such thing as “the best” anything when it comes to archery . . . period.

Every piece of kit you can acquire for archery has caveats associated with it. One of mine was cost. I have never been what you might call “flush” to the point that money was no object. So everything I bought fit into the category of “the best I could get for under XYZ dollars.” On top of that are restrictions based upon application. Binoculars for most bowhunting scenarios should be small, lightweight, and moderately powerful, possibly wide field also. You may have to pack in these binoculars, so light and small are good, and deer hunters rarely take a shot over 30 yards, so not a lot of magnifying power is needed. Probably want rugged, too. If you are using the binoculars for long distance target shooting, such requirements may not apply. Field archers have to lug their gear around their ranges, so light and small might apply but target archers can have all of their gear in a wheelbarrow, right near their shooting station, should they need any of it.

A bow for target competition also has limitations. If you hanker after an Olympic medal, don’t come home from the pro shop with a compound bow, they aren’t allowed.

Then there is the matter of personal fit. When examining a new bow, the first thing I check is the grip section. I remember a bow Claudia fell in love with that I couldn’t draw because it felt that the grip was going to slide right out of my bow hand as I began pulling on the bowstring and there was nothing I could do to change that. She, on the other hand, felt she had never felt a more solid hold in her life. So, that bow might have been “best” for her, but it certainly wasn’t “best” for me.

What I would rather see are posts/videos/articles with titles such as “What Makes A Good Bow Sight?” and “What to Look For When Buying a Hunting Compound Bow.” Then you might be equipped to find something that is at least “good” for you.

Addendum When I finished this post it occurred to me that anyone who answers a “best” question straight on, “this is best,” or writes a “best” article is actually lying. This is based upon the simple fact that in order to declare a best of anything, you would have to test every possible candidate in that category. Do you think the people who declare a “best hunting arrow” actually tried all of them? Tested all of them? Can you imagine testing all bowstrings, bow sights, arrow points, broadheads, etc? I can’t. So, I sincerely wish people would stuff the “bests” where the sun don’t shine along with all of the other BS.

Apology If I have offended your sensibilities in any way, I do apologize. Being locked up due to the pandemonium gives me no one else to vent to.

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A Problem with Right Fliers

We are trying to find helpful ideas for you to pursue “Archery in a Time of Pandemic.” (We will be publishing a number of articles in Archery Focus to this end.) Since I have not been able to meet with archery students I have offered them free remote coaching and one of my newer students has taken me up on this offer. The issue we are dealing with is fairly often right fliers being shot. The archer is right-handed and shoots Olympic Recurve.

We had previously addressed things like centershot issues, form and execution issues, and arrow spine issues and are still exploring those things but I came up with another possible source of such a problem while watching Jake Kaminski’s new YouTube series on tuning Olympic Recurve bows. Here is what I sent my student. (Please realize that I can only see his bow and arrow spreads in pictures.)

* * *

I have been watching Jake Kaminski’s tuning series and he made a point I hadn’t thought of before which could be causing your rightitis—limb alignment . . . or rather, limb misalignment.

Many people do not know why adjustable limb pockets were created, but it was because the only recourse we had before they were available was to send our bows back to the manufacturer, who got tired of adjusting misaligned limbs and replacing malformed risers. So, they made the adjustable limb pockets so people could fix their own damned bows . . . and thereby created a whole new class of misalignments.

Now, almost all take down recurve bows have adjustable limb pockets and one problem this allows is this: the top limb points a little to left and the bottom limb also a bit left. Now the bowstring, which can still be eyeballed to line up with the center of the riser is actually parallel left of where it should be. This means the bowstring is moving toward the left of center of the bow and that throws the arrows off to the right . . . well it predisposes them to do so anyway. A particular kind of poor loose makes for a way right arrow, a loose not so bad results in one that is just slightly right, that is ordinarily correct by a slight windage adjustment of the bow sight. So . . . spot, spot, spot, spot, right flier, spot. Kind of what you have been getting.

Checking whether this is the case is not so easy. It is easiest done if you have a large flat surface, such as a quality ping pong table. If the bow lays flat on that surface, bingo! You lay the bow flat on the surface and then measure how far the string is up from that surface. Then you flip it over and do it again. If the bowstring is in the central plane of the bow, the same tabletop to string measurement should be had (this is the desired state).

Just thought you’d want to know. (I did mention that there is always more than one cause for every effect, did I not? :o)

I do hope you are fairing well.

Steve

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Coach Lessons

About a week and a half ago, I had a number of coaching lessons scheduled, probably the last face-to-face lessons I will be giving for several months due to the pandemic, and I had a bit of an epiphany. I had finished my last lesson and was packing up to go and I struck up a conversation with another archer, as we archers so often do. This gentleman has had a couple of coaching sessions with me recently so we were acquainted. He was at our indoor range trying to get a new bow set up and tuned for his 16-year old son.

There was clearly something not working as he seemed frustrated. The conversation naturally gravitated to the issue: his son and he, both Recurve archers, had been recommended the same arrows over the phone. This rang an alarm for me, not because of the phone conversation, the dealer referenced was quite reputable, but because of the situation. The son looked a couple of inches shorter than the dad and when asked, that was confirmed along with the fact that dad’s draw weight was seven pounds higher than the son’s. I asked about their draw lengths and he said, “they are the same.” To my eye, and brain, they should have had about two spine groups difference between their shafts.

Now, I say “about two spine groups difference” because arrows are very sensitive to “cut length.” The rule of thumb is there is a one inch difference between spine groups. (Go ahead and look at any spine chart and that is about how they work out.) So, an arrow two spine groups too stiff could be made shootable by cutting them two inches “too long,” too long being longer than the recommended cut length.

So, the son is shooting bare shafts to set up these arrows and, again, my eye immediately told me the problem. Being two inches shorter than his dad, the son’s draw length should have been one inch shorter, but it was not. It was clear, to my mind, why it was not in that the youth was leaning away from the target, which results in a raised bow shoulder. So, I asked the dad about this. “Was this a new adaption to his shot or had it been there for some time?” This leaning away from the target is a time honored adaption youths make to deal with a bow that is just too heavy (the shoulder muscles responsible for holding the bow up against gravity, the deltoids, develop rather late). But, this may have been a habit developed when the youth was younger or recently adopted and I wanted to know which it was. It seems to have been around for some time, so I explained what was going on. The net result is that a high bow shoulder leads to an overly long draw length.

So, we did a test to see if he could handle the physical mass of his new bow. The test is simply to hold the bow with one arm in full draw position (we had to adjust his posture a touch) and count . . . slowly . . . one thousand one, one thousand two, . . . etc. If you cant make it to “five” before the bow starts to descend, the bow is definitely too heavy. If the bow begins to drop after five, it is probably too heavy. If you can get to 10 without the bow dropping, then it is probably not too heavy and if you can keep going past ten, you are as strong as you need to be. The young man passed the test which means he no longer had a need to lean away from the target.

So we got him “plumb” and raising the bow without raising his bow shoulder and checked his draw length. It was now roughly an inch shorter than his dad’s. The dad asked me what else they needed to do and I responded, without thinking, “Nothing, everything will just cascade down because of that one correction,” and it seem to do just that.

I said my goodbyes with the hope that their tuning session would go well from that point onward.

On the drive home, I realized that I hadn’t really thought things through . . . consciously. I just “looked” and “saw” and spoke. I spent a little time figuring out the “whys” involved on the way home, for example when you lean away from the target, if you think of the bow arm as being just part of your reference system, the leaning of the upper body moves the head, and your anchor point, farther away from your bow hand (and the bow). This is what causes the “too long” draw length. When the archer stands plumb (straight up and down) the rear elbow is elevated, the angle the fingers make on the bowstring becomes square, for all of the reasons that we adopt that form, those postures, in the first place, so if you remove the lean, everything else just falls into place.

The young man involved sucked all of this up and made the corrections needed in just a shot or three. (He learns fast as many of the young do.)

But the lesson for me, and possibly for you, is to accept that your intuition is a very useful tool. I didn’t think all of this through, I just reacted to the situation. This can lead to chasing one’s tail, as I have done many times before, but that chasing is probably also part of the learning process. And if my intuition doesn’t work, and sometimes it does not, then thinking through everything consciously is necessary.

And, I have been working on a book project lately which is how to coach archery from physical principles. I hope this will lead to me having a better understanding of what is going on and by sharing that will help you diagnose the technical problems you encounter. Maybe this story will become a “case study” for that book.

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Compound v. Recurve Bows for Hunting

I was perusing an online article entitled “A Primer on Bowhunting.” By and large it was quite good but under the topic of bow selection I encountered the following:

“For the purpose of the rest of this article, let’s assume you’re in the market for a compound bow (which is highly recommended for a new bowhunter). The advantages are numerous, but the main ones are:
• increased effective range (usually 50+ yards)
• more accurate
• easier to hold in the drawn position (giving you time to wait for the perfect shot)
• faster arrow speeds/greater kinetic energy (resulting in a quicker and more ethical kill)”

Allow me to address the bullet points, point-by-point.

  • increased effective range (usually 50+ yards)
    Uh, most deer are taken within 25 yards, for example, so this is possibly a detriment. If a hunter thinks he is dead on accurate out to 50 yards, he may actually be enticed to take such longer shots. The problem here is the feeling of “dead on accurate” usual comes from experience at practice on an archery range, free of obstacles. In the field, however, there are branches in the way as well as other obstacles (cramped stances or no stance at all, etc.), and the farther away the game is the more time they have to react to a sound from the hunter (look up “jumping the string” for examples).
  • more accurate
    Uh, just no. The bow affects consistency, but not accuracy. Accuracy falls strictly under the archer’s responsibility. While there are aspects of bow design that do affect accuracy somewhat, it is up to the archer to use any advantage in every case.
  • easier to hold in the drawn position (giving you time to wait for the perfect shot)
    This is the primary, #1, bestest, mostest advantage of a compound bow. Because of designed in “letoff” the draw force at full draw is a small fraction of the peak draw force. Bow designs typically remove 65% to 80% of the peak draw force, often leaving less than 20 pounds of force to be held at full draw. More time means more time to aim. Recurve bows and longbows reach their peak weights at full draw and aren’t going to be held long because of that.
  • faster arrow speeds/greater kinetic energy (resulting in a quicker and more ethical kill)”
    Again, uh, . . . no. Arrows kill by cutting blood vessels that result in the animal bleeding to death. Ethical bowhunting requires the hunter to aim for the largest blood vessels, using an arrow fitted with a “broad head” which is not only broad but is very, very sharp. Larry Wise once calculated what arrow speeds were necessary to inflict lethal penetration on a deer and it came out to about 240 feet per second (fps) for a typical hunting arrow. Compound hunting bows are now promising arrow speeds of 300 fps to 350 fps. Higher arrow speeds result in what are called “pass throughs” that is the arrow penetrates the prey’s body and comes out the other side. Arrows that have left the body of the animal do no further damage, so are not any more lethal than slower arrows. (It is different for rifle hunters as faster bullets carry more energy (just as faster arrows do) but bullets kill through shock, not blood loss from severed blood vessels and there is less “drop” so longer rage shooting become easier.)

I am not a hunter. I gave up hunting when I was 18 and hunting squirrels. But I have been around hunters my whole life and I listen to them and read what they have written (a good book to educate yourself is Timeless Bowhunting by Roy S. Marlow). This allows me to work with bowhunters who are seeking archery advice and also for being able to communicate with target archers who also bow hunt.

 

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A Recurve Bowstring Question

I was too lazy to bust out all of my string making equipment recently to make a new recurve bowstring and then . . . a special offer popped up from the 60X string and cable people, so I ordered a new string from them. It came right away (third day in the mail!) and was a very nicely made bowstring. It measured, as expected, 3/8ʺ less than the length ordered, but they are very clear that they make their bowstrings to AMO specifications, which means that recurve bowstrings are measured when under 100 pounds of tension. (Which I am sure would get the length to exactly what was ordered.)

My question is this. Have any of you ever put a tension meter on the string of a strung bow? I would love to see what the tension was on a normal bow to see how 100 lb compares.

Additional questions might be:

  1. How does brace height affect string tension?
    2. How does draw weight affect string tension? (I have drawn a lot of bows and the higher the draw weight, the higher the string tension, but that is just the direction of the change, not an indicator of the quantity.
    3. Does twisting of the bow string affect tension?

I can design the experiments and actually pull them off . . . but I do not have handheld tension meter (say 0-200#) to make the measurements. They seem to be a bit pricey on the Internet, with the cheapest versions being sold for sailboat rigging.

Anyone interested? (I’ll pay for the data and/or article.) Anyone ever heard of such measurements being made?

Postscript I have run afoul of this with commercially made Dacron strings, suited for very light drawing bows. These bowstrings were always too short, possibly because the light drawing bows could not come up to anything near the 100# of tension they were measured under. Strings can be shortened by twisting but not lengthened. When I make my own strings I can adjust the build length to make sure this doesn’t happen … but when you need a dozen strings … ouch.

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Why Do I Need Soft Hands?

Since I have been working on our drills book, I have been feeling a growing interest in being able to prove, or at least demonstrate, why certain things need to be the ways they are in making an archery shot. Too much of archery coaching seems to be “do it this way” and if you ask “why,” one gets either nothing or gibberish as a response.

If you have read this blog for any length of time you may recall that I call “having relaxed hands and good full draw position” the Three Pillars of Consistent Accuracy. They provide the basis for all of the other things that need to go right to make good shots, one after the other. Good full draw position, often described as the “Archer’s Triangle” for Recurve archers, can be “proved” necessary based upon the forces involved and the desire for a “clean” release of the string for consistencies sake. But . . .

Why Soft Hands?
To demonstrate this necessity (or so I claim) I offer an experiment. First make a fist and make it hard. Hold it for as long as you can. After you feel the strain associated with this experiment, check a few things. Check how flexible your wrist is. Check how relaxed your forearm is. Check to see how relaxed your elbow joint is. If you are like me, there is a great deal of tension all up your arm and the joints are quite inflexible. The aphorism is “muscle tension spreads.” Containing the muscle tension, to the fist in this case, is possible but not, I think, easily or completely so.

So what? Who cares?

The basic consequences of unwanted muscle tension is that it restricts movement and, once a muscle is flexed, it cannot be flexed to perform an action. Examples of this are rife. Consider posing bodybuilders on a stage. They have muscles bulging everywhere. To get this effect, they are flexing muscles that are in opposition to each other (antagonistic and agonistic muscles). For example the biceps muscles close the arm at the elbow. The triceps muscles open the arm at the elbow. Flex both and the elbow becomes locked in its position. Those flexing bodybuilders are quite rigid when they are posing. Their joints cannot be moved. And archers want to move their joints. This is necessary to make shots.

Consider the bow hand. Why is the bow hand in a vertical orientation, what I call the “bye-bye” position? Why not wrap it around the bow as one would grip a pistol, say? Shooting a pistol requires very little muscle effort, certainly as when compared to shooting an arrow from a bow. If an archer uses a pistol grip, the primary contact with the bow (which becomes critical when the string is loosed) is focused on two groups of muscles: the pad of the thumb and the pad of the heel of the palm (Scientifically the thenar muscles are three short muscles located at the base of the thumb. The muscle bellies produce a bulge, known as the thenar eminence. They are responsible for the fine movements of the thumb. The hypothenar muscles produce the hypothenar eminence, a muscular protrusion on the palm at the base of the little finger. These muscles are similar to the thenar muscles in both name and organization.)

Ack! Not like this either.

These two muscle groups are independent enough that one can get tense while the other is more relaxed. During the loose, the recoil from the bow acts upon those muscles. The bow will “bounce” off of hard muscles more than from soft ones. So if the thumb muscles are more tense/hard than the other, the bow will actually rotate (the bow hand is at the pivot point, remember) ever so lightly, with the top limb moving forward and down. This slight movement gets amplified, the farther the arrow flies and a low shot results. If the thumb muscles are softer, the bow bounces off of the harder hypothenar eminence, and the bow rotates up (top limb moves down and back). This results in high shots.

So, what do archers do to reduce these effects? We isolate the bow contact onto the thenar eminence/pad of the thumb. Then, variations in muscle tension there result in the bow bouncing more forward and rotating less. (The slight rotation moves the arrow rest and nocking point. Moving both of these forward (toward the target) changes the aim very little.)

Then the job of the archer is to keep the pad of the thumb in a consistent state of muscle tension and a relaxed state is the easiest one to find/recognize. Imagine the difficulty in shooting well if the optimal situation involved those muscles being 11.2% tense or some other non zero value for the muscle tension? Ack!

We have even developed tension ridding activities for our hands (flapping them, flexing them backward, etc.).

Coaches can assess the degree of relaxation in an archer’s bow hand. The position of the bow hand is easy to check. If the bottom three fingers of the bow hand are, or can be, wrapped around the bow, the hand position is wrong (they have a pistol grip). When waving “bye-bye” to an infant, we hold our hand palm out and flap our fingers. This is the direction one’s fingers need to be able to move in an archer’s grip (and why I refer to that as the “bye-bye position”). The index finger, moving down toward the ground, and being slightly curved, may end up in contact with the back of the riser, but the others should not be able to wrap around the grip at all. Some archers curl these up alongside the grip to facilitate getting into this hand position.

As to checking whether the bow hand is relaxed, I look for “white knuckles.” Muscle tension in the fingers or pressure using the fingers forces blood out of them, turning the normal skin color lighter (black skin will look browner, brown skin will look creamier, and pink skin will look white). I will also ask the archer if I may touch their bow fingers at full draw (only after instructing them to not shoot and being in blank bale shooting position, aka up close, to catch accidental looses). At full draw I flick their fingers in the “open” direction. If they are tense, they will not move. If they are relaxed, the finger will move open and flick back to the normal relaxed position quite quickly.

How About the String Hand?
Fingers on either the string or release aid, have the same the prescription: a relaxed string hand. The muscles necessary to get the string fingers to curl around the string or a release aid are in the upper forearm and not the hand. Tension in the hand makes it harder to get a clean release (the string has to exert more force on the fingers to push them out of the way (and action-reaction makes the string move farther out of line) and harder to operate the release aid consistently.

I give the athlete something to feel for in the way of feedback and that is, I think, an illusion. If you draw a bow with a relaxed hand, it actually feels as if the hand stretches. It might actually stretch, but I think that it is mostly an illusion. The illusion comes from normal behavior. If a force comes from the outside of our body, we normal marshal muscle force (and so tension) to oppose that force. This is automatic. When drawing the bow we are supplying the force, but the bow turns it around and applies it to the string fingers. By deliberately not tensing those fingers, it seems to our minds that the fingers must be affected and from that comes the feeling of the stretch. (If you haven’t noticed this before, feel for it in some test draws. Try varying the amount of tension in your hand and see how that affects the feeling of the hand stretching during the draw.)

A nice relaxed release hand looks like this. The bow hand is not bad either.

The other thing I look for is a flat back of the hand, straight wrist and arm in a “normal position.” If the muscles in the string arm are relaxed, pulling on the arm from the farthest extremity (which the bow does) will cause the arm to be straight. If I see a kinked wrist or a curved forearm, or a cupped back of the string hand, I know there is muscle tension. There is a drill I use to provide the correct feel to the archer: you, or another archer, stand facing the student. Each reaches slightly toward the other as if to shake hands, but instead, they hook string hooks, treating the other’s string grip as if it were the string. Then both are to wriggle and shake their whole arms without losing the connection to the other archer. Wrists should be floppy, hands should flex back and forth, forearm muscles should flop around. (I got the idea for this drill from the marshal arts drill of “push hands.”)

Other Implications
The Three Pillars have other implications. For example, beginners often pick up the bad habit of setting their bow wrist before getting the bow seated (in anticipation of the forces to be applied?). Because of this “form flaw” the center of pressure point on the bow grip varies from shot to shot quite a bit causing larger than necessary groups. Sometimes they have a lot of contact high on the grip and they get low shots, other times it is low contact (aka “heeling the bow”) and they get high shots. In almost every case I recommend that there be no preset. In the case of the bow wrist, if it is kept relaxed while getting the bow up, the bow (and deliberate hand position as described above) will cause the center of pressure on the bow grip to be very consistent. The bow shapes and positions the hand and wrist very consistently. Presetting the bow wrist cannot have the response of the bow’s grip molding itself to each new hand position.

For this reason, I do not recommend doing anything “early.” It was recommended at one point that the draw of a recurve bow be done with the wrist bowed outward because that was the position the wrist would be in at full draw. This is an early set of the string wrist. If the draw is done with the wrist as relaxed as can be, when the archer gets to anchor, the wrist will conform to the archer’s head anatomy, which is determined in turn by bones, and a regular position will be the result. Trying to set body positions early is like starting a sawing/cutting motion with a steak knife before the knife is anywhere near the steak. There being no resistance to what position we want to effect, the range of positions/movements becomes greater. (And no one wants to be known as the guy who cut himself eating dinner.)

Similarly it has been recommended to recurve archers that their shoulder line be pointed at the bow (a necessary condition for good full draw position) before the draw has been completed, that is early. This causes unnecessary muscle strain, as the final stage of the draw is caused by rotation of the rear shoulder around into that alignment. This is when the muscles of the back become engaged (back tension) as they are the ones that control the shoulder position and that movement. This cannot be done from the beginning of the draw due to a lack of leverage. (Try this with a light drawing bow. Raise the bow with 1-2ʺ of draw (to keep the hands in position) and then rotate your string side shoulder around to see if you can draw the bow that way. I have yet to meet anyone who could do this. Once the draw is about half way, however, there is sufficient leverage for the rear shoulder to take over leading the back muscles to accept the load of the draw almost completely.)

Any benefit claimed for doing anything early, should be examined very, very carefully. I have yet to find any such benefits.

Postscript Sorry this was so long. It kind of grew like Topsy.

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