Mechanical Release Devices and the Compound Bow

Before I fell in love with Olympic target archery, I used to own a compound bow with mechanical release devices. The literature on how to use release devices was horrible, and I was doubly annoyed to learn (after much study) that they're actually very easy to use! So, I wanted to write up my observations to save my brothers and sisters in compound archery from the horrible reading experience (and "mystical" interpretations of "back tension") that I had to undergo.

It is most common to think of fingers holding bow strings, as we see the Olympics and movies like Lord of the Rings, but many people who shoot compound bows [bows with cams built into the limbs to reduce the holding weight] use a mechanical release device to hold and then release the string when it is time to let the arrow fly. The mechanical release device actually lets the string go on behalf of the archer, so one does not have to directly hold the string.

WARNING! Release devices are very dangerous, since during the draw process they often times cross in front of teeth and the nose. I am sure that thousands of teeth have been lost to release devices over the years when they accidentally released right in front of the face, so be very careful not to activate them on the way to your anchor position.

This short document explains how release devices can easily put into a taxonomy, and points out most major ways of using them correctly.

The Big Picture

Release devices are made by many companies, and some well-known brands include T.R.U. Ball, Carter, and Zenith.

One way to use the release device is to say, "I want you to fire, right... now!" There are people who pick the exact time that they want the shot to break, but top shooters rarely use this technique, because it is hard to keep a uniform level of performance, particularly in high-pressure situations like tournaments. We will not investigate this technique further because it is considered inferior. (However, if you want to use this technique, Feinwerkbau seems to make the ne plus ultra of finger release devices, and you can find it here [under the acessories tab]).)

The "correct" way to use a release device is with a "surprise break." By this, you bring the bow to the target, and when you are happy with the sight picture, you initiate a shot that will happen over the next few seconds---however, you do not know exactly when the arrow will leave, so the shot is a surprise. Now, the sight will be moving around a bit, and what happens if the surprise break happens when the shot is out of the highest scoring ring?! Well, in that case, the score will be lower, but on average, the surprise break gives the best scores. The better the archer, the smoother their hold, and the less movement of the bow---they are less likely to have the "suprise" happen when the bow is not pointing at the bullseye.

A Taxonomy of Common Mechanical Release Devices

Release Device Taxonomy

There are three basic types of release device.

Rotary

The rotary device goes off when the handle is turned away from the portion that holds the bow string. (These devices are incorrectly called "back tension" releases, and it will be clear in a following section why this term is so wrong that it's an outrage!) (The Stanislawski release device is a rotary device.)

Trigger

There are three kinds of trigger releases. These have a lever in one of three locations (thumb, index finger, pinkie, etc.) that gets pressed in to release the string.

Trigger (Thumb)---This is the most important and general style. The cylinder can be adjusted on top models to sit right under the thumb, or next to the base of the thumb.

Trigger (Index Finger)---These are mainly used by hunters, and are considered unsuitable for target archery.

Trigger (Pinkie)---These seem to be fringe releases, so I have ignored them.

Tension Release

This type of release activates if the tension on the string goes up by one pound, for example, and there is only one shipping model that I am aware of, the True N' Tension. (There seems to be a new design coming on the market at the time of this writing, the True BT release, from Loesch.) It is important to realize that what most people call a "back tension" release are not releases that detect tension, but rotary releases.

Activation Techniques

Activation Technique Table

Squeezing (Whole Hand)

In this technique the whole hand is gently squeezed until the shot goes off. This will work well on trigger releases. Note that stiff springs in the release device are often times a good idea, as excessive sensitivity is not required.

Squeezing (Big Trigger)

The pinkie and ring fingers squeeze, so this is a lot less tension than working the entire hand. This makes the release rotate counter-clockwise (in a right-handed shooter, watching the release), so it will work very well with a rotary device, or a thumb trigger device. In the case of a thumb trigger, the trigger is pushed into the thumb, or base of the thumb---it is indirectly fired, and the thumb stays relaxed.

Note that big-trigger squeezing looks a lot to the release device like grip deformation.

Squeezing (Little Trigger)

In this case the squeeze is directly applied to the trigger lever. This style works well for people with discipline, but sometimes shooters get "target panic" and suddenly jerk the trigger hoping for a bullseye... apparently many people have left archery out of sheer frustration once they learn to "punch" [suddenly depress] the trigger.

Grip Deformation

This important technique takes place one of two ways: Either the hand slowly relaxes (being sure not to let the release device fly down-range!), and this deforms the grip [of the hand on the release device], or increased pulling deforms the grip. The deformation of the grip lets the release device rotate in the hand, and then fire. Nice and slow deformation results in a nice and slow surprise break....

While it is obvious that the rotary release device works superby under grip deformation, some of the trigger devices do, too. For example, a thumb release can rotate through grip deformation, and its cylinder can "set itself off" by pressing into the thumb! Note that grip deformation looks a lot to the release device like big-trigger squeezing.

Pulling

Pulling works only because it induces grip deformation, and this is how rotary releases and some trigger releases can be fired. Or, in certain cases people pull and their grip behaves as if they are squeezing the entire hand. So, pulling indirectly triggers other techniques.

Note, however, that pulling can directly trigger a tension release (the HHA).

"Back Tension"

This is an extremely nebulous term that compound bow shooters sling around to mean "pulling with relaxed arms."

Expansion

Expansion is an advanced family of techniques from recurve archery that have been used since ancient times to "break" the shot (I know it has been around in traditional Japanese and Korean archery, and undoubtedly earlier). If you want to learn more about expansion, read

The basic idea behind expansion is that a tiny amount of extra force is put on the bow to open it a tiny bit further with no visible external movement---this is just enough to "break" the shot. (Koreans [the world's best recurve shooters] shoot like this at the Olympics, for example.) Expansion will not work for grip deformation (as that's not delicate enough), but it might work with the tension (HHA) release... for recurve shooters who want to play with compounds, this might be an entertaining journey.

Constant Elbow Movement (BAD!)

If one holds a rotary release device in the horizontal plane, and keeps rotating the string elbow [horizontally] towards the back, while using a firm grip, the release will eventually fire (due to the rotation). However, such "constant movement" reeks of archery of the 1970's vintage, before the Koreans introduced the "transfer/holding" style of shooting that is common [winning] today. This technique is flawed and should not be used, in my opinion.

Bending the Wrist (BAD!)

The rotary release deceive can be triggered by slowly bending the wrist... this technique is not nearly as general as big-trigger squeezing or deformation of grip, and it feels "strange" (at least to me) compared to the alternatives... consider this technique to be extremely suspect.

Extending the Bent Bow Arm (BAD!)

Correct archery technique requires shooting with a straight bow arm. However, some people shoot with a bent bow arm, and straighten it to activate the release device. From the perspective of the release device, this feels identical to a pull, and the "Pulling" section (above) describes what happens. I consider this technique to be suspect.

Summary

It is said that there are many ways to skin a cat, and the same holds for activating release devices. I think the best "proven" techniques are as follows:

The most interesting and recurve-like work would be to try

Remember that you can often times combine various techniques to operate the release devices, so you don't only have to pick one!

As always, if you should observe an error, please be so kind as to email me so that I can fix it.

Kleanthes Koniaris, email.