Beyond Strength: Why Technique Matters for Shooting Asiatic War Bows

by Blake Cole and Justin Ma

Foreword by Blake Cole

Introduction

The primary purpose of this article is to provide a resource for those endeavoring to use thumb draw to shoot heavy poundage bows. It documents the authors’ journeys to—and beyond—100#. Using Gao Ying’s Ming Military Archery as a foundation, it offers detailed technical advice on technique and how to develop both the body and brain to handle Asiatic war bows. It also seeks to dispel assertions that thumb draw is ill-suited for heavy bows, as well as concerns that training at high poundages inevitably results in injury.

Throughout history, myriad cultures employed war bows as a means of effective penetration versus armor and big game. Though accounts of historical archers drawing bows over 200# may seem like the stuff of legends, proper knowledge and training provide a window to how these feats were accomplished.

The foundations of war bow shooting are 1) training, 2) technique, and 3) diet, all of which will be covered in the sections ahead. The article will also discuss how to get started on your journey, how to ensure consistency in evaluating progress, when to increase poundage, and much more.

War bow archers throughout history have employed similar draw techniques and form foundations, independent of their geographic location. Credit: Justin Ma

Foreword

Asiatic archery scholar and instructor Justin Ma released one of the first of his war bow demonstration videos—in which he shot a 75# laminated bow by Jaap Koppedrayer—during the summer of 2018. Ever the monomaniac when it comes to archery, I viewed it as inspiration to challenge myself, so I contacted Justin and put an order in for a heavy bow. I went to work strength training and watched as Justin steadily improved, eventually opening a dialogue on technique and documenting my progress alongside his.

Justin, who along with Jie Tian authored The Way of Archery: A 1637 Chinese Military Training Manual , was committed to transparency. The problem with any strength training is that bravado can often replace a more clinical approach. We’ve all seen videos wherein the subject claims to be shooting a very heavy bow. Unfortunately, without any proof, we’re left to our imaginations when it comes to the veracity of the accomplishment. This is not to say there is anything maliciously untruthful about these types of demonstrations, but there are a handful of variances that can lead to an inaccurate interpretation of a bow’s weight. These factors include 1) the bow’s actual poundage in contrast to its marked weight; 2) the weight in relation to how far the archer is drawing the bow; and 3) the archer’s consistency in their draw—to name just a few.

The method Justin developed was to use a handheld scale to measure the poundage of the bow at a fixed point on the arrow that would touch his bow hand at full draw. Thus, when he used his thumb to draw the arrow to the same aforementioned spot, he would be replicating the exact weight. It left no guesswork. Here was what was being accomplished—cut and dry. It was not merely an evidential technique, though. It was a tool for awareness, a means of charting progress in a fact-based manner—of being honest with oneself about successes and failures.

We must have gone through a dozen scales. There were bulk buys, only to be left with the decision a few days later: “Is Amazon going to ban us if we return more of these?” There were scales that required you to hold perfectly still at full draw until they registered a reading (I failed at this—Justin prevailed). Eventually, we needed a scale that measured over 100#. This would lead us to begin replacing certain parts of scales by hand, or in my case, building my own draw table.

That is to say nothing of the bows. Oh, the bows. To train up responsibly, poundage increases need to be moderated, so there is both a financial and quality control component. Financial in regards to finding affordable gap fillers, and quality control in accepting that in a long run of bows there will inescapably be lapses in accurate poundage. That said, we were fortunate enough to forge bonds with bowyers who have become stalwart in their ability to craft accurately-measuring Asiatic war bows.

People have different reasons for training up. It might be a means of challenging oneself, or of chasing the feats of the historical archer whose training from childhood culminated in battlefield shots of legend. All journeys have ups and downs. Sometimes breakthroughs are met with regression only days later. In the end, the only way to pull a stronger bow is to pull a stronger bow. And that means harnessing every fiber of your body—and especially your mind—to draw it true.

As the title to this article states, the thesis of this guide is “technique over strength.” A heavy bow is like a light shone on every shadowy aspect of your form. Either you weed out every form defect, or you fail—or worse, injure yourself. But when everything comes together, whether you’re new to the journey and just hitting 30, 40, or 50#, or a weathered archer breaking that 100# mark, there is a harmony that exists between body, brain, and bow that is difficult to match in the world of archery.

(Above) Justin reaches the 115# mark—ambidextrously—using a Tiron Asiatic war bow made by Misko Rovcanin of MR Bows. He confirms the poundage using a handheld scale.

Why shoot a heavy bow?

The pillars of traditional archery are 1) accuracy, 2) speed, and 3) power. In order to achieve greater lethality in battle or big game hunting, you must increase the force of impact. Increasing force requires a heavier arrow and therefore a stronger bow to launch said heavier arrow at a faster speed. Hence, archer conditioning. Exploring these dynamics both helps the archer gain insight into the inner workings of their equipment and provides a lens through which to view—and retrace—historical and cultural archery.

Training up in poundage also forces you to find better technique, and makes for a much more comfortable draw with your day-to-day target bow. And constantly pushing yourself to safely handle heavier bows demands awareness in regards to variables like diet, sleep, and psychological approach, so it has a way of putting the archer in touch with their body and mind. And finally, it has the deeper benefit of achievement through self-discipline.

Getting started: Determining your ideal draw and ensuring draw length consistency

The first step toward drawing heavier bows is to know exactly how much weight you’re pulling at full draw. The key here is consistency. You must draw the bow in a way that maximizes your body’s ability to handle the weight (e.g. activating the muscles in your back), and you must draw it the same distance each time. The brain has a way of tricking you as you move up in weight. A relaxed 28 inch draw with a light bow might regress to a 27 inch draw with a heavy bow. If you don’t take a systematic approach, it will impede progress.

This is where the bow hand anchor comes in. The bow hand anchor is reference point on the arrow itself that contacts the bow hand when the archer reaches full draw, eliminating guesswork by giving you an objective indicator. Experimenting with a bow hand anchor will help you determine your ideal draw and give you the necessary consistency to ensure concise evaluation and goal setting. You can find a detailed tutorial on all aspects of the bow hand anchor here.

The bow hand anchor takes many forms. Here, it presents as clear tape on the shaft of the arrow. Photo credit: Chris Lee

Warming up for the draw: Establishing a stretching routine

You should always take a few minutes to warm up before shooting, but it is especially important when training for heavier poundages. You should develop a stretching routine that targets all essential areas of the body used for archery: fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, chest, back, neck, and core. It won’t hurt to also stretch your lower body, as your base also figures into your draw.

A few examples of exercises you can perform: flex your fingers and tug your thumb. Clench and unclench your hands. Perform windmills with your arms, waist twists, and neck rotations. Arch and stretch your back and chest, squeeze your shoulder blades together, roll your shoulders, tighten your core.

Consult outside resources and experiment with stretches to determine what works for you. Do not get lazy and skip this step. Drawing heavy without warming up is a great way to sideline your progress.

Initial poundage: Choosing a baseline bow

Now that you’ve developed a warm up routine, the first step in training for heavier bows is a determining a good starting poundage. It is essential you have a baseline bow at all times that you can return to in order to practice perfect form. Generally, this will be the bow an increment below your goal bow. The biggest mistake you can make is to start with a baseline bow that is too heavy. As the title of this article suggests, training heavy bows is not about strength—it’s about technique. Choosing the heaviest bow you can manage to pull back as your baseline bow will only handicap you on your journey.

From the very start you will be training the proper techniques to draw a 50# bow, a 100# bow, a 200# bow. There is no hard cap on technique. It’s either correct or suboptimal. Let go of all the baggage in regards to how “strong” you are. Choose a comfortable weight (it should provide a challenge, but not impact your form negatively) and use the upcoming sections to evaluate your ability to perform the proper technique. If you find yourself falling short at the weight you’ve chosen, don’t despair. Remember, you are playing the long game.

Note: The article will discuss how and when to increase poundage in subsequent sections.

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