After spending most of today in the service of the kids, we got home and I went outside to spend a little time practicing my archery. Our neighbor had visited yesterday and he’d suggested I might want to figure out a way to raise my target block so I didn’t have to aim down so much. I think the idea is to be able to practice technique without concern for aiming right now- just practice the draw, anchor and release stages of the shot to develop some muscle memory.
So when I went out I took my 2 arrows and the shooting block and scanned around a bit to determine if I had any simple options for elevating the block. After ruling out a few options, I looked at the kid’s play gym. It has an elevated platform which the monkey bars are attached to. From the platform, there is a slide down to a sandbox. There is also a short rock wall climb on one side and a rope ladder climb on the other. The platform is open from one side to the other along it’s length, with a roof made of the old tent material covering it. I went and measured my shoulder height against it.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was close. If I set the target on the platform, I judged I could stand about 5 yards away and fire away at it with a straight arm and little aiming to worry about. Just to be sure, I nocked an arrow and raised my arm into drawing position and it lined up with the lower half of the target.
So I paced off 5 yards and turned towards the target. I set my other arrow down on the ground next to me and then began my shot progression. I placed my fingers on the string. I set the string into the first joint of my index finger just above the arrow. My middle and ring finger go below the arrow and curl around the string allowing me to take the weight of the bow off my bow hand. I then relax my grip on the bow. At this point, I look up and stare at the center of the target, then raised my bow arm into position. As I raised the bow into position I brought my draw arm elbow parallel with the ground and began my draw, rotating my body then transferring the draw to my back (at least, that’s what I’m trying to do.)
I anchored my string hand under my chin with the string touching my nose and the corner of my mouth. I paused a moment, made sure my bow hand was relaxed and my arm was straight out from my shoulders. I felt the tension in my back as the weight of the draw pulled against my fingers. I then relaxed my fingers…
The string sang and the arrow flew.
There are those moments when something goes awry where our mind takes a moment to fully comprehend what happened. When the mind recognizes that something went amiss, but can’t quite put the whole picture together. In my case, I distinctly remember thinking “Where’s the THOCK?” That satisfying sound every archer knows as their arrows strikes a target.
Full understanding came quickly from there. I’d missed the target. High. The arrow has sailed through the opening in the play gym’s platform. It had hit nothing and passed unimpeded into the woods behind the house. Beyond our yard, there is a drop off of about 15 feet into wetlands. The arrow had flown somewhere into there, with barely a whisper.
And where it landed, I know not where.
The limbs for my riser arrived yesterday and I’ll admit to being excited about the prospect. For one, having the limbs would officially make the bow mine, instead of half borrowed. I’d been using my neighbor’s limbs in the interim. Also, these limbs are longer and more appropriate for someone with my draw length and finally, they’re a tad bit heavier in draw weight.
So after about a half-hour of setup time, I marched outside and took my first shot and exclaimed “OUCH!!” Didn’t see that coming. At least the shot hit the target with a satisfying THOCK.
On the release, the string had smacked me on the bony part of my wrist just below the thumb. Right where my arm guard wasn’t covering because I’d never been struck that far low on my wrist before by the string. In fact, since I’d started shooting more regularly, I hadn’t been striking my arm much at all anymore. To do so on the first shot with the new limbs was disappointing.
I fired a second shot. I figured it was a one-off. Alas, no. My new bow gave me the exact same treatment as on the previous shot. In fact, that would be the treatment I’d get on every shot I took with it. I ultimately slid the wrist guard down to over that spot. The pain stopped, but I could still feel the impact.
The short of it, literally, was that my brace height was way to low.
What happened was when we strung up the bow, the neighbor wasn’t sure how many twists it would take to measurably shorten the string. So we started with 10 turns, with little change. Then we went to 20 turns, again with little change. Finally, we stopped at 30 turns because that just seemed like way too many turns. Still, the brace height was only about 7 1/4 inches. He told me that for the longer limbs, I should really be closer to 9. It seemed like it would be impossible to shorten the string almost 2 inches when after 30 turns, we’d barely shortened it a quarter inch.
So after shooting today and continuing to hit my wrist, I basically became desperate. I’d tried various different grips and positions to keep from getting hit and none of them worked. I realized that if I had to tolerate getting hit like that on every shot, I’d drop this new hobby as quickly as I’d picked it up. The bow was almost unshootable.
I took a close look at the setup. When I gripped the bow, the string rested just a few inches above the wrist-hand joint. I also noticed that when nocking an arrow, the fletchings were almost touching the riser. As compared to the previous setup with the neighbor’s medium length limbs, both of those were different- the string rested in the middle of my forearm and the fletchings came no where near the riser when nocked. So I decided to go back to the brace height and resolved myself to twisting that string right up to the point of knotting if I had to.
Before doing so, I did a little investigating and determined that the 9 inch measurement for brace height for a recurve with long limbs was a starting point. It could be decreased or increased around that for tuning purposes. I wasn’t interested in tuning, since I don’t have enough consistency to know the difference anyway. All I wanted was to make sure I was getting it to a reasonable point and hopefully stop the string from striking my arm.
So I unstrung the bow and started twisting. I counted my additional twists at first, but then stopped counting after realizing what mattered was the measurement, not the number of turns. I was able to significantly shorten the string with the twisting without any sign of knotting in the string. The first time I restrung the bow, I could immediately see I’d made a significant change. My measurement confirmed it: I’d increases the brace height to 8 1/2 inches.
Encouraged, I opted to keep going. From this point, I counted 10 turns and immediately noticed I had a hard time getting the string back on to the bow. Once I did and then restrung it, I was astonished to see that the brace height had increased a half-inch! I was now at 9 inches. So this is why I couldn’t find any information about the number of turns earlier- because it’s non-linear. There is an inflection point beyond which individual twists can significantly alter the length of the string, but prior to that point the change is minimal.
After getting a chance to shoot, I was much relieved. I was no longer striking my wrist. In fact, I don’t think I was hitting my forearm at all. The bow seemed significantly quieter as well, with little of the loud THRUM I’d been hearing and had simply assumed was what to expect. Interestingly, the brace height had shortened up to about 8 3/4 inches after shooting, which I wasn’t entirely surprised at. The string is under pretty significant tension after all.
Most importantly, though, it’s shootable.
I continue to keep up with archery practice. The more I do it, the more I enjoy it. I’m beginning to gain the semblance of a repeatable technique, and my shooting reflects that. One aspect I’m trying to figure out is the release.
Here’s a great video of Olympian Jake Kaminski practicing:
I’ve been watching his release, and technique in general, across a number of videos on the web and it’s very consistent through all those videos.
I’m wondering how his release hand ends up almost behind his head.
From what I’ve been able to research, the gist of the release is to increase back tension while relaxing the fingers in the string hand. At some point, the string will “pop” through the fingers and go. Now, in order to make sure the arrow flies straight, it stands to reason the only direction an archer should be pulling the string is straight back. But if the archer pulls straight back, I don’t see how a relaxed release hand can end up behind the head like his does.
There are a few possibilities to explain this. One is that Jake Kaminski has muscle memory for that follow through which he simply taught himself because he was told “that’s how a release should look.” But this kind of implies that he’s doing something wrong and I’m not about, after less than a month of toying with it, to say an Olympian is doing something wrong. While it’s not outside the realm of possibility, I won’t start there.
The other, more likely, scenario is that there are other technical factors at play that cause the hand to end up there after releasing. Certainly, the initial motion of his hand appears to be straight back as expected. After that, his hand seems to kind of drift back there. Considering that the string is well away at that point, perhaps it doesn’t matter where his hand finally comes to rest and it’s just those initial few moments immediately after the string is released that count.
In any research at all regarding archery, the theme that will come up again and again is consistency. It’s certainly easy enough to understand. In practice, however, it’s devilishly hard to do. In fact, I’d say it’s hard to appreciate how difficult it is to be consistent, really truly consistent, until arrows start flying.
In retrospect, it’s an easy mistake to make. After all, a good archer, like a good anyone at anything, makes shooting arrows look effortless. Nock an arrow, pull back the string, release, arrow hits target. Rinse, repeat.
But once a bow is in hand with a nocked arrow, it doesn’t seem quite so trivially simple. How should I stand? How do I grip this thing? Do I put my arm out straight? When do I start drawing the string? Two fingers on the string? Three? All three fingers below the arrow or one above, two below? How far do I pull back? Where do I pull back to? How do I aim? When do I release? How do I release?
After the first couple of days, the most notable thing was I was barely hitting the target and I had bruises on my lower wrist below the guard, on my upper forearm between the guard and the elbow, on my inner bicep and on my chest by the arm pit. That was from twanging the string during release. I’m happy to say that I haven’t twanged myself in the past couple of days with the string, so that’s progress.
Additionally, the bow arm wants to be out basically straight but not full-extension straight. Something like 99% straight. Plus, the elbow wants to be oriented vertically such that if you were to bend the arm it would hinge back towards your body, as opposed to hinging up. The grip is as loose as can be, relaxed is a word that comes up a lot, with the finger tips ever so slightly supporting the bow.
As for my string hand, I’m still working on that but for now I use what’s called a split-finger grip with a “deep hook.” The split finger refers to having the index finger above the arrow and the middle and ring finger below the arrow. All three pull on the string during the draw. The “deep hook” means that I curl these fingers around the string so that it’s resting in the first knuckle joint. I initially was drawing the string with just the finger tips, but I found the draw was taking too much effort that way, so I switched. It took a bit of getting used to the release, but I was able to adjust OK after a bit of practice.
Finally, for now I’ve settled on an anchor point where my index finger goes to the little notch towards the rear of the jawbone. I played around with several and this spot just felt the most natural. Pending someone telling me otherwise, I’ll just work with it. I’ll note that most videos of archers I’ve seen, particularly Olympic caliber, anchor up around the chin. I tried this but it felt like I was expending too much effort holding it there. Plus, the string contacts the lips with that anchor and after a couple of releases I thought I was they might get ripped off and sent down range.
So, even having figured all that out where form is concerned, it is still ridiculously hard to duplicate everything from one shot to the next. It turns out there’s a lot of developed coordination in drawing an arrow and minute changes from one shot to the next mean a big variance in where the arrow strikes the target. If it strikes the target.
All told this past week, I probably shot close to 350 arrows. By the end of today, I was at least feeling like I had some consistency in my form. Even so, I was only hitting a 20″x20″ foam target about 50% of the time at 10-15 yards.
Contrast that with Olympic archers whom shoot at a target 70 meters away. The best of them can achieve groupings with 12 arrows within 5 inches of one another. Now that’s consistent to such a degree that essentially it’s the chaotic effects of airflow pushing the arrow around that cause it not to hit the exact same spot over and over again.
All of this is a long winded way of saying, archery is a lot of fun. It’s simple enough that anyone can go out and practice. After that, it’s up to the archer how far they want to go.