The Art of Shooting a Short Reflexed Bow with a Thumb Ring
By Adam Swoboda
A Review by Bede Dwyer
This review concerns a new book by Adam Swoboda about a particular branch of archery which is made clear by its title, The Art of Shooting a Short Reflexed Bow with a Thumb Ring1. This title might seem verbose, but it must be understood that thumb rings were used to shoot other than short reflexed bows2 and short reflexed bows were sometimes shot using two fingers rather than the thumb. Using the information supplied in such books as Arab Archery3, Saracen Archery4, and Turkish Archery and the Composite Bow5, he has set out to synthesize a modern technical manual for shooting in this traditional manner for the modern archer. Unlike his sources, his book is fully illustrated showing postures and techniques in a way earlier authors could have only envied.
In a technical manual of this kind, it is important to clearly describe and where possible illustrate the various parts of the subject. This is no easy task and it is made more difficult because the book under review is the English translation of a Polish original. However, despite these obstacles, the language is clear and the pictures add to the understanding of the sections they illustrate. Anyone who has had to read an engineering manual or the instructions for operating a smart phone will know that not many authors succeed in expressing themselves simply or unambiguously. This book is an exception.
This reviewer is in the unique position of having read most of the books that were used as references for this work so he can directly compare how the same subject is expressed in the original and the current book. This gives an insight into how well the ideas in the old books are conveyed and how much innovation was necessary to make an understandable and consistent system from sometimes divergent sets of opinions in the sources. Even the original manuscripts had this problem since they usually recorded divergent opinions so the author often had to make choices of what to include and what to leave out. He set himself the task of writing a comprehensive description on the subject of target archery with a thumb ring used in the traditional manner. This automatically excludes diversions into discussions of hunting war or flight archery. In a way, this is a mirror image of how Klopsteg concentrated on flight archery in his translation of Hein’s work6 on the Telḫīṣ ar-Resaīl er-Rümāt7.
The subject is complex; target archery using a thumb ring as it was practised in the Middle East had many variations. The author has concentrated on dealing with the major aspects of shooting rather than being side tracked in the various contests and specialist shooting techniques that are discussed in Arab Archery and Saracen Archery particularly. There is no discussion of shooting with arrow guides (majrā and nāvak) or with the Turkish bilek siperi. This avoids the confusion that sometimes attends descriptions of the use of these objects and also the distraction from concentration on the basics that also can occurs. The old writers in Arabic and Turkish used to divide shooting with a bow into fundamentals (uṣūl ar-ramy) and pillars (arkān ar-ramy); Swoboda in his book follows the same basic principles. He breaks up shooting with the thumb draw into its basic components. Where he goes further than the old writers is in areas in which modern readers need more help. Particular examples of this include instructions on how to maintain a horn-wood-sinew composite bow and a complex discussion of how thumb rings work.
The Art of Shooting a Short Reflexed Bow with a Thumb Ring is divided in an academic manner into chapters and sections so that it is easy to refer to a chapter or a section within a chapter. This good for the student and it makes reviewing more precise. For instance, if you want to look up how to brace a bow sitting cross-legged alone go to section 3.1. If you need to know the expected performance standards of an archer go to Chapter 18.
Chapters 1 and 2 are concerned with the bow and its maintenance. While the old manuals often describe the bow and name its parts, they assume that the archer will have some access to a bowyer or other expert and leave out all but the basic instructions on how to deal with the complex issues involved in looking after a highly reflexed bow made out of organic materials. The book even goes into the details of how to repair a bow with damaged sinew. Chapter 3 is about putting the bowstring on the bow and taking it off again. This is difficult enough with a modern recurved bow and many people rely on bow stringers and other equipment to get the required leverage. With ahorn-wood-sinew composite usually having a greater reflex8, putting the string on is not a trivial exercise. Since this book targets Turkish composite bows which both have a pronounced reflex and recurved tips9, there are some profound difficulties. The first few seconds after bracing the bow are critical to making sure that the limbs are balanced and do not have any twists. The book addresses this problem and explains the simple remedies clearly so that even a novice archer will be able to follow them. The fourth chapter is about the thumb ring and how it protects the thumb and also how it aids in shooting. There are some descriptions and illustrations of the different types of ring from several materials. A little knowledge can lead to the elimination of faults before they become serious. The fifth chapter is a more detailed discussion of the mechanics of the thumb ring, what can go wrong and how to avoid the problems.
The next chapters cover some of the basics of shooting: stances in Chapter 6; holding the bow in Chapter 7; nocking the arrow (i.e. attaching the arrow to the bowstring) in Chapter 8; locking the thumb onto the string in Chapter 9; drawing the bow in Chapter 10; aiming in Chapter 11; and releasing the bowstring in Chapter 12. These chapters correspond to what Ṭaybughā10 referred to as the fundamentals: grasping, locking, drawing, aiming, and releasing (see Saracen Archery p. 37)11. Swoboda looks on some of the topics not only for their technical importance for shooting, but also how they can enrich the modern sport of traditional archery. Chapter 6 includes stances when standing and when squatting or sitting. These latter positions add to the variety of methods that could be used in a modern contest and also test the flexibility of the archer. In Chapter 8, some of the rapid fire techniques from Arab Archery in the section on trick shooting are included. Study of these can improve general dexterity as well as providing the potential of developing an entertaining show for an archery meet. Chapter 9 goes into some detail about the various ways of placing the tip of the thumb on the middle finger and locking it with the index finger.
Following the example of the mediaeval manuals, Chapter 13 discusses faults and injuries. This is very valuable for archers shooting without instructors. If the archer can identify the cause of a fault and correct it quickly, it does not have a chance to become a bad habit. With a good knowledge of the possible causes, the bowman can ask a friend to look for particular features that an untrained person would otherwise not notice. Swoboda has endeavored to avoid the obvious; some things an archer can work out without precise instructions. If the bow is too strong, it is usually obvious for example. However, injuries to the tip of the thumb can have multiple causes and this kind of problem to examined by listing possible causes. Chapter 14 is also paralleled in the old manuals. Certain stances and methods of holding the bow were considered to be of advantage to people of different physiques. Tall men, and short men were thought to have to stand in certain ways and the length of one’s neck was another determinant of stance. Unfortunately, though the old books agree that these things are important and usually assign them to the three great teachers12, they do not agree on who said what and what is entirely appropriate. All agree that a tall man should stand with his left shoulder to the target like the modern target shooting stance and that a short man with a deep chest or a big beard should directly face it, but the various other features of the draw tend to fluctuate from authority to authority. It is a case of the greater the knowledge, the greater the confusion. Swoboda’s approach is close to Ṭaybughā’s in that he does not worry about the complexity and simplifies the system down to three somatic types tall, intermediate and short. However, it is probably wise to view these as idealised classes, more useful to remember the various stances and positions, rather than see them as prescriptive instructions13. For the beginning archer it might be wise to recall Ṭaybughā’s words when he finished the discussion of this subject in Saracen Archery (p.125), “It is my opinion that any man whose limbs are in due proportion, whose neck is long and supple, and whose chest is not protrusive, can exercise greater freedom of movement and action in shooting than anyone else.” In this he was referring to the oblique position (the sideways stance of modern archers) It is best to try this oblique position and only modify it if it causes problems.
Chapter 15 gives valuable information about which parts of the body to tense and which to relax. To shoot successfully with a thumb ring this is critical. Some of this material is mentioned in the relevant chapters earlier in the book, but it is important that Swoboda chose to follow the old books and reiterate and expand on the attitude of the different parts of the body in one place. Once the archer has attained the basic skills of shooting with a thumb ring, progress is dependent on refining the control of the parts of the body involved in shooting. Many of the minor irritations in shooting with the thumb that modern archers experience can be removed by correct tension in a muscle or the absence of it in another. An example is the thumb of the bow hand; it must always be relaxed otherwise injury and bad shooting ensue. This chapter also reiterates what can go wrong for the archer who does not follow these principles. This serves as a useful way of discovering faults and correcting them. Chapter 16 relates to breathing, which Swoboda rightly notes is not covered in the old works available to him. To be fair, it was not considered in modern Western archery until the twentieth century. Japanese and Korean archery both retained breathing practices as part of their traditional archeries, but it was not discussed in the Middle East or the West. Swoboda’s chapter fills a void that would result from only reading the manuals from the Middle Ages.
Arrows are discussed in Chapter 17. One would think that there were not too many things to note, but there are several features of Oriental arrows that are different from contemporary ones. The nocks are round and not flattened to fit between the fingers as is necessary for a Mediterranean draw. When three feathers are used, they are usually oriented with one up or down and the others at 120° angles rather than one sticking out sideways and the others arranged to match. Also the feathers are generally lower and placed closer to the nock than on modern Western arrows. Traditional arrows also often were barrelled to some degree by tapering to the point and the nock while being left thickest in the middle. This has several advantages that boil down to acquiring greater stiffness for less weight. Swoboda goes to some trouble to discuss static spine (stiffness) and dynamic spine (spine) which may be more problematic in English than Polish because of the number of authors on popular archery who have misused the terms. Following Swoboda’s definitions, you will be led to an understanding of the subject despite the confusing terms used. There are also some detailed lists of problems with arrow behaviour and the ways to correct them. This kind of information is specific to this type of shooting and is valuable for any archer who uses a thumg ring.
Chapter 18 discusses the expected performance of the archer and the bow. It is based on Chapter 25 of Saracen Archery and puts into context the distances shot, the rates of fire and the efficiency of the bow in mediaeval times in the Middle East. Appendix 1 is about the names of the parts of the bow with particular reference to the Ottoman bow. To illustrate how difficult this is, here is a brief discussion of the terminology. The appendix has attempted to convert Arabic and Turkish terms into modern language, in this case English. The two words that survive from the original languages are “siyah” (the Arabic term for the rigid ends of the bow) and the composite “kasan eye” (from the Turkish kasan gözü referring to point of the transition from the ridged kasan to the flexible sal or bending part of the bow). The earliest English word for siyah is “ear” probably because of the English translation of the Baburnama14 where the siyah is called the guše ( گوشه ) which translated from Farsi means ear. The kasan eye is identical the region of the bow called the unq in Arabic which translates as “neck” in English. Unfortunately earlier in the text, the term sal15 is used without reference to the picture of the bow and its parts. This is an inevitable problem when dealing with several languages at once, but the effort to get them all into one common language is praiseworthy. Appendix 2 deals with the nomenclature of the hand which is essential for describing what part of the hand is where at any given time. It improves on the diagram in Saracen Archery by being a photograph of a real hand with labels for the various locations used in the book. Appendix 3 deals with the Arabic system of representing numerals by the position of the fingers which provided a convenient shorthand for finger positions for the mediaeval authors whose works were consulted in preparing this book. There then follows a useful bibliography containing the sources and some useful books. What is missing is an index which would have been helpful, but the detailed table of contents almost makes up for the lack.
This is a very thorough book built on the best literary sources and practical experience. With sources like these it is easy to get too enthusiastic and include too many options. Chapter 9 diligently tries to interpret the many methods of locking the thumb on the string, but with the potential problem of confusing the beginner. Perhaps it would have been better the concentrate on the two main variants and consign the rest to an appendix. There are also repetitions of information sometimes slightly varied in discussing the various faults. In a literary work this would be a blemish, but in a manual it is an advantage. Repetition can be an asset in learning things that do not have obvious relationships. Also it is possible to go to the relevant section to find all the information on a subject instead of flicking back and forth between different chapters.
The photography in the book is a definite aid to understanding the text. Many of the older translations have been limited by the cost in the past of printing books with extensive illustrations. This has led to either none or a limited number diagrams and small groups of photographs. To give an example, the photographs in the current book offer a much better illustrations of the hand positions than Arab Archery‘s rough drawings of the finger positions. As a student of the manuals referenced in Swoboda’s book, the reviewer was forced to go back to the originals and examine them more closely. This has led to the discovery that even Saracen Archery has discrepancies between the descriptive text and the line drawings. The difficulties of reconciling verbal descriptions with physical positions of the body has always been great. This is manifest in the descriptions of bracing the bow in both Arab Archery and Saracen Archery. In the first, the descriptions are of actions that are not physically possible and in the second the descriptions in two cases do not match the diagrams. The point of bringing this up is to show that even if there are errors in the current book they can be based on long running misconceptions out of the author’s control.
Ultimately the question about a book of this nature is does it achieve what it sets out to do?
A person reading this as a beginner at archery or a new user of the thumb ring with come out of the experience with valuable insights and if they are persistent enough they should be able to shoot successfully with an archer’s ring. A person who has practised for a long time with the thumb ring may have a different experience. By placing many of the ideas of old writers in a convenient book, this work may be of great value, particularly since some of the original translations are so hard to come by these days. For people like this reviewer, it can cause them to question their understanding of the old translations and refresh their acquaintance with the mediaeval authors. This is a useful and interesting book, it is based on practical experience and study, and it communicates well while setting for future publications in this area.
1 To find the book, go to http://www.thumbringarchery.org/
2 E.g. Crimean Tatar and Manchu Chinese bows were shot with thumb rings but were not particularly short and
Scythian bows were shot with two fingers as were the short reflexed bows of the Hungarians in the fifteenth century.
3 Faris, Nabih Amin; Elmer, Robert Potter, (1945), Arab Archery. An Arabic Manuscript of about A.D.1500 “A Book on the Excellence of the Bow and Arrow”, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
4 Latham, J.D.; Paterson, W.F., (1970), Saracen Archery, London: Holland Press
5 Klopsteg, Paul E., (1934, 1947,1987), Turkish Archery and the Composite Bow, Manchester: Simon
Archery Foundation (Third edition).
6 Hein, Joachim, “Bogenhandwerk und Bogensport bei den Osmanen”, Der Islam, No. 14 pp. 289-360 (1925), No. 15 (1926) pp. 1-78; 233-294, Berlin/Leipzig.
7 Muṣṭafā Kānī, (1847), Telhîs-i Resâilât-i Rumât, Istanbul
8 Reflex in this sense is the degree that the bow bends away from the archer when it is unstrung. Specifically it is the amount beyond a straight line drawn through the axis of the grip of the bow.
9 Modern terminology refers to a bow as recurved if the tips of the bow, when strung, are past the theoretical straight line that would pass along the length of the string from its centre in both directions. Modern Olympic recurve bows are both reflexed and recurved. Sometimes they are simply referred to as recurves since that is the most obvioius feature of the strung bow.
10 Ṭaybughā l-Ashrafī l-Baklamishī l-Yūnānī, the author of the Arabic manual that was translated as Saracen Archery.
11 For historical reasons, in the original aiming or sighting is placed at the end of the list and not where it occurs in the sequence of actions.
12 Abū Hāshim al-Bāwardī, Isḥāq ar-Raffā’, and Ṭāhir al-Balkhī were used to represent the short, intermediate and tall somatic types.
13 In an email, Swoboda revealed to the reviewer the great difficulty of one person doing the various stances for the photographs. They really require different body shapes.
14 Beveridge, Annette, (1922), The Babur-nama in English (Memoirs of Babur),Volume 1 & 2
15 Sal in Turkish refers to the flexible part of the bow limb called the bending section on the photograph of the bow.
Bede Dwyer was born and still lives in Sydney, Australia. He has pursued his interest in oriental archery for approximately 36 years of his adult life. In that time, he has researched the archery traditions of Turkey, Mamluk Egypt, Iran, Northern India, Mongolia, China and Korea. Rather than just compile information from old books, he has actively tested equipment and techniques. He makes archers’ rings, arrows, quivers and bow cases. He was the first person to shoot an arrow guide of the style of a Persian nāvak (Arabic majrā) in the American Flight Archery Tournament at Bonneville Flats in Utah. He also uses the Ottoman siper overdraw in flight shooting and briefly held a world distance record for shooting a hunting arrow with a traditional composite bow.
For more than a decade he has been publishing articles in the Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries on archaeological remains of archery equipment ranging from ancient repeating cross bows to mediaeval closed quivers. He was invited by Stephen Selby to read through and comment on some of the drafts of Chinese Archery and later to present a paper at the opening of the archery collection in the Maritime Museum of Hong Kong. He attended two horse archery festivals in Iowa, where he presented a talk on arrow guides with a demonstration, and met many talented archers and bow makers. Dr Khorasani asked him to edit some sections of both Arms and Armor from Iran The Bronze Age to the End of the Qajar Period and the Lexicon of Arms and Armor from Iran. He also worked with his old friend Dr Charles E. Grayson on his collection in the University of Missouri Columbia and did some research for his book on the collection, Traditional Archery from Six Continents: The Charles E. Grayson Collection. This was particularly satisfying since it was Dr Grayson who introduced him to flight archery with all its challenges.
Over the past few years he has regularly attended the World Traditional Archery Festival in South Korea, on occasion presenting papers at seminars there. This enabled him to meet archers and researchers from the cultures he had been studying. Recently he has been able to set more time aside to follow up on his research and is planning two books on archery to be published over the next few years. In 2012, he attended the traditional archery contest held in Qinghai province in China which enabled him to meet traditional archers from the countryside as well as Uighur archers and inner Mongolian archers. He was able also to see the products of a new generation of Chinese traditional bowyers and fletchers. There were many competitors from the rest of the world as well to share ideas and compare equipment.
Dwyer, B. (1996). A Warring States Repeating Crossbow. Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, Vol. 39, 62-67.
Dwyer, B. (1997). Early Archers’ Rings. Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, Vol. 40, 62-67.
Dwyer, B. (1998). The Closed Quiver. Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, Vol. 41, 81-88.
Dwyer, B. (2000). Chinese Archery: A Review, Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, Vol. 43, 63-65.
Dwyer, B. (2003). Scythian-style Bows Discovered in Xinjiang. Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, Vol. 46, 71-82.
Dwyer, B. (2010). Promoting Traditional Archery in the Modern World. World Traditional Archery: History and Present Situation of Preservation, WTAF International Academic Seminar 2010, 11-31.
Dwyer, B. (2012). The Nature of a Cultural Asset. Present situation of traditional archery by intangible cultural asset, WTAF International Academic Seminar 2012, 99-113.
Dwyer, B.; Khorasani, M.M. (2012), Jāme al-Hadāyat fi Elm al-Romāyat [Complete Guide concerning the Science of Archery] by Nezāmeldin Ahmad ben Mohammad ben Ahmad Šojāeldin Dorudbāši Beyhaqi, Quaderni Asiatici, 97, 45-62.
Khorasani,M.M.; Dwyer, B. (2012), A Persian Manuscript on Archery, Spear Fighting, Sword Tempering and Lance Fighting and Horsemanship by Šarif Mohammad the son of Ahmad Mehdi, Pan-Asian Journal of Sports and Physical Education, Vol. 4 No. 1, 1-17.
Consultant or Member of Editorial Team:
Grayson, C.E.; French, M.; O’Brien, M.J. (2007), Traditional Archery from Six Continents: The Charles E. Grayson Collection, University of Missouri Press.
Khorasani, M. M. (2006). Arms and Armor from Iran The Bronze Age to the End of the Qajar Period, Tübingen, Germany: Legat.
Khorasani, M. M. (2010). Lexicon of Arms and Armor from Iran: A Study of Symbols and Terminology, Tübingen, Germany: Legat.
Khorasani, M. M. (2012). Persian Archery and Swordsmanship: Historical Martial Arts in Iran, Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Niloufer Books.
Selby, S. (2000). Chinese Archery, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press