November 10, 2021
By Randy Ulmer
In the last few columns, I have encouraged index-finger release aid shooters to try a handheld release, specifically one with a thumb trigger (as opposed to a hinge-style release aid).
You might just discover this one small change drastically improves your hunting accuracy. In this column, I’ll discuss the techniques necessary to shoot this style of release aid well.
Getting Started: The ‘String Bow’
As I have mentioned, the first step in this process is finding a release aid that fits your hand properly. Once you’ve selected a model that feels good in your hand, I recommend you practice using a ‘string bow.’ This is just a loop of string approximating your draw length (for example, 28 inches from one end of the loop to the other). Place your bow hand into one end of the loop as though it were the bow handle. Attach your new release aid to the other end of the loop and pretend you’re shooting a real bow. You’ll have to adjust the length of the string loop until it matches your draw length perfectly.
The purpose of this exercise is to allow you to adjust to your new anchor point and learn the full functionality of the release aid. If you attempt this while using a 70-pound hunting bow, you’ll be in danger of ‘loosing’ an arrow into your neighbor’s roof or popping yourself in the chops as you draw the bow. This string bow technique also allows you to learn to squeeze the trigger without worrying about accuracy.
Proper Hand Positioning
Most folks shoot their index-finger release aid while holding their hand in a somewhat horizontal position, anchoring along the bottom of their jawbone. In contrast, when shooting a handheld release aid, you should rotate your hand into a more vertical position, with the back of your hand facing towards your neck. Your knuckles should be against the back of the hindmost portion of your jawbone and the thumb trigger should be pointed straight down.
This counterclockwise rotation of the release hand (for right-handed shooters) creates a unique geometry that forces your elbow both up and back, better engaging the muscles between your shoulder blades. These are the ‘back tension’ muscles I am always encouraging you to use.
As you are reading this article, I want you to try an exercise that will illustrate this point. First, pretend you are shooting a wrist strap, index-finger release aid. While you are at ‘pretend’ full draw at your normal anchor, switch gears and act as though you are now holding a handheld release aid. Rotate your release hand counterclockwise (right-handed shooter) and place your knuckles behind your jaw bone. You should feel your elbow moving both up and back. You should also feel the engagement of the muscles between your shoulder blades.
These back-tension muscles are very short and very strong and are supported by the spine, so they are very stable. Using them will take the pressure and tension from the muscles of your arms and help you hold steadier as well as execute more consistently.
After you’ve fired your new release aid a few hundred times using the string bow, you should be extremely comfortable with its function. You can now advance to shooting a real bow up-close at a blank bale. I suggest you begin with a bow that is easy to draw and hold. If you only have your hunting bow, then turn the poundage down significantly. Shooting at close range with your eyes closed can’t be beat for learning a new skill and perfecting your shooting form.
When you’re ready to shoot at distance at an actual target, I suggest you start indoors. All of the adverse environmental factors you face outdoors are neutralized. There’s no wind, no shadows, no awkward footing and no cold weather. Because it’s just you and the bow, it’s easier to detect minor defects in your form. If your sight pin was on the dot at the time of release, but your arrow hits outside the group, you know there was a problem with your shooting form. Figure out what the issue is and work on it.
No matter what method you use to let the string go, your hand and arm, from the elbow forward, must be held in exactly the same way on every shot. And I mean exactly the same way. This requires a great deal of repetition. The take-home message is this: the way you hold your release aid is critical to maintaining extreme accuracy. Little changes make a big difference in where the arrow impacts.
Repeatability Is Key
Theoretically, it shouldn’t matter how you hold your release hand, forearm and elbow, as long as you do it in exactly the same way each time. However, as in all things related to archery shooting form, you want to find the position that is most repeatable. The more repeatable it is, the less likely you are to vary from shot to shot.
I’ve found the most repeatable position for nearly everything in archery is the relaxed position. As long as you are able to relax, your body will slip into the default, relaxed position. Obviously, you can’t relax all of your muscles or you couldn’t hold the bowstring back or the bow up. However, there are only a few muscles that need to be engaged to complete the shot, and none of them are in your release hand, forearm or wrist.
When shooting a handheld release aid, try to relax your hand so that the fingers and wrist stretch out and remain straight. Ideally, I’d like to see a straight line along the back of the forearm, the back of the wrist and the back of the hand. We’ll continue this topic in my next column, so stay tuned.