Of Holding and Loosing.
The Importance of Holding—Loosing, the last of Ascham's Five Points-Necessity of its Perfect Command— What is, and what is not, a Good Loose—Its Effects upon the Flight of the Arrow—Directions for its Proper Attainment.
By "holding" is meant keeping the arrow fully drawn before it is loosed. Ascham has made this his fourth "point" of Archery, and little or nothing is to be added to what he has said on the subject. "Holding" says he, "must not be long, for it puts a bow in danger of breaking, and also spoils the shot; it must occupy so little lime, that it may be better perceived in the mind, when it is done, titan seen with the eye when doing." This is an entire and exact description of what holding should be, and I shall, therefore, only add that this almost imperceptible pause before the act of loosing serves to steady the arm and correct the aim, and is a grand assistant to the obtaining of a certain and even loose. It is, therefore, with the other points of Archery, most necessary to be cultivated if successful hitting is to be the result.
After the bow is drawn up to its proper extent, and the aim correctly taken, there still remains one more "point" for the Archer to achieve successfully before he can insure the correct and desired flight of his arrow to its mark; and this is the point of loosing, which term is applied to the act of quitting or freeing the string from the fingers of the right hand, which retain it. It is the last of Ascham's celebrated "Quintette," and the crowning difficulty the Archer has to overcome, in order to complete the perfection of his shot. Though . the last point to be considered, it is not one whit the less important on that account; for, however correct and perfect all the rest of the Archer's performance may be, the result will infallibly prove a failure, and end in disappointment, should this said point of loosing not be also successfully mastered. Upon this, it has been before observed, when treating of the bow, the flight of the arrow mainly depends; and to how great an extent this may be effected by it, may be gathered from the fact, that the same bow, with a like weight of arrow and length of pull, will cast forty or fifty yards further in the hands of one man than it will in those of another, owing solely and entirely to the different manner in which the string shall be quitted; consequently, in target shooting, the aim which may be perfectly correct for one shooter, may be cither too high or too low for another, who frees the string in a different manner.
From this it may be gathered how delicate an operation in Archery it is to loose well.' To accomplish with evenness, smoothness, and unvarying similarity, it is perhaps the most difficult one of all, and yet for accurate hitting fully as necessary to be attained with all these requisites as any other point of Archery. I think a great misapprehension exists amongst Archers as to what is and what is not a good loose; it being generally thought that if an extreme sharpness of flight be communicated to the arrow, it is conclusive evidence as to the goodness. How often do we hear the observation "What a beautiful loose he has!" though the Archer to whom this remark is applied may be missing arrow after arrow, and vainly endeavouring to hit his mark twice in succession; this encomium being passed upon him merely because his arrow, flies keen and sharp. Now, without in the least undervaluing this very excellent quality in the flight of an arrow, and, so far as it goes, the goodness of the loose which produces it, I must still maintain that it is not the only requisite; and that unless a certainty, as well as a keenness of flight be also obtained, the Archer's "beautiful loose" will be of little avail to him. Undoubtedly the best and most perfect quit of the string would be that which combines both of these qualities; but if the two cannot be obtained together, a slower flight and certainty rise immeasurably superior to the rapid flight and uncertainty: (of course it is meant as regards target, not distance, shooting).
The question then resolves itself into this practical form:—" Is it possible for the same mode of loosing to give extreme rapidity of flight, and, at the same time, certainty of line and elevation?" So far as my experience goes, the answer is decidedly in the negative— not that it is meant to say that a few successive arrows may not be accurately shot in this way, but that for any length of time, the uncertainty of flight is sure to be such as to render the average shooting inferior. This difficulty, amounting almost to an impossibility, of obtaining a loose which shall combine great sharpness and certainty of flight at the same time, arises from the fact that such a loose requires (to obtain that sharpness) that the fingers of the right hand be snatched from the string with such suddenness and rapidity as to compromise the second quality of certainty—such a sudden jerk of the string endangering the steadiness of the left arm at the final moment, and, by its unavoidable irregularity, not only having a tendency to drag the string, and, consequently, the arrow out of its proper and original line of flight, but also constantly to vary its elevation. Excepting for distance shooting, then, a very sharp loose is not to be recommended; nevertheless, in case he should be engaged therein, the perfect Archer should have it under his command.
It must not be supposed, from what has been said, that the exact opposite of the very sharp loose is advocated—that is to say, that the string should be allowed to slip, or loose itself, as it were, without any assistance whatever from the Archer. On the contrary, this mode of quitting the string is the very worst that can be adopted, and one that does more to stay and unsteady the flight of the arrow than any other; in fact, no cast at all can be got out of a bow in this way. But there is a medium between the two extremes, and, leaning rather towards that of sharpness, which, in its practical results, I have invariably found to answer the best. The modus operandi, like so many other things connected with Archery, is extremely difficult to describe, if not altogether impossible; but the great characteristic with regard to it is, that the fingers do not go forward one hair's breadth with the tiring, but that their action be as it were, a continuance of the draw rather than an independent movement, yet accompanied with just sufficient additional muscular action in a direction away from the bow, and simultaneous expansion of the fingers at the final instant of quitting the string, as to admit of its instantaneous freedom from all and each of them, at the same identical moment of time; for should the string but leave one finger the minutest moment before its fellow, or all or any of them follow forward with it in the slightest degree, the loose will be bad, and the shot in all probability a failure. So slight, however, is this muscular movement, that, though a distinct and appreciable fact to the mind of the shooter, it is hardly, if at all, perceptible to the looker-on; yet, though apparently of so slight a character, so important is it, that the goodness of the loose, and the consequent accurate flight of the arrow, mainly depend upon it. I am painfully conscious of having most signally failed in describing this peculiar mode of loosing in such a way as to enable the learner to understand and practise it; but Ascham's observation, that it is "less hard to be followed in shooting, than to be described in teaching," though not altogether the fact, is not very far removed from it. Had he contented himself with stating that the one was equally difficult with the other, all who have endeavoured to attain it might have agreed with him.
Some Archers use two fingers in drawing, but by far the larger part use three, on account of the greater power the latter mode gives. Provided, however, sufficient strength can be obtained with the first-named method, it may be well recommended, as the string, when quitting the fingers has less surface to glide over, and the accomplishment of the loose is therefore easier; but very few, indeed, can manage a bow of any power without the third finger; consequently the majority of Archers use it.
The position the string should occupy across the fingers is above their first joints, but not too near their tips. On the one hand a too great grip of the string necessitates a drag or jerk (already demonstrated to be unadvisable) to free the fingers, besides giving the string more surface to glide over than is conducive to a smooth and even loose; on the other hand, an insufficient grip of the string deprives the shooter of his necessary command over it, and renders the giving way of the fingers of constant occurrence. Here again, as in so many other instances, the medium between the two extremes is the best, and, it is, therefore, recommended that the string be placed midway between the tips and first joints of the first and third fingers, and rather more towards the end of the middle one— this latter difference being rendered necessary by its greater natural length.
Now, as it is most important, in order to render the loose every time similar, that the string should always occupy exactly the same position on every finger, it has already been advised—when treating of the shooting glove—that stops or guards, to indicate the exact spot on which the string should be placed, should be fastened thereon; and this is especially necessary on the middle finger, which from its greater length, has a tendency when loosing to extend itself, and thus projecting beyond the other two, to present a second obstacle to the escape of the string, after the latter has freed itself from the first and third fingers. Thus the string is sometimes caught upon it, and when this occurs it is unevenly loosed, and causes the shot to be, nine times out of ten, a dead failure.
Especial care must be taken that, whilst loosing, the left arm maintains its position firmly and unwaveringly, and does not give way at the final moment in the slightest degree in a direction towards the right hand, as in this case the arrow is sure to drop short of the mark. It will have precisely the same injurious effect upon its flight as would allowing the fingers of the right hand to go forward with the string. This yielding of the left arm is of more common occurrence amongst Archers than is generally supposed, and is the cause of many an arrow, otherwise correctly shot, missing its mark. All must be firm to the last, and the attention of the shooter never be relaxed for a single instant until the arrow has actually left the bow.
Some Archers have an ugly habit of throwing the left arm and bow, as it were, after the arrow, the instant it has started, as if to lend it a helping hand on its course. Others, again, seem to have a notion that a kick up of the right leg will materially assist its flight. Now these antics, and all others of the like nature, are bad, of course useless, and enemies to all grace and elegance, and, therefore, should be studiously avoided. The shooter should remain perfectly quiescent, in "statue" quo— if I may be allowed so questionable a pun—until he is assured of the final destination of his shaft, and satisfied of its success or failure.