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Ancient and modern methods of arrow-release.
by Edward S. Morse, 1885.
Part 1 of 17

WHEN I began collecting data illustrating the various methods of releasing the arrow from the bow as practiced by different races, I was animated only by the idlest curiosity. It soon became evident, however, that some importance might attach to preserving the methods of handling a weapon which is rapidly being displaced in all parts of the world by the musket and rifle. While tribes still survive who rely entirely on this most ancient of weapons, using, even to the present day, stone-tipped arrows there are other tribes using the rifle where the bow still survives. There are, however, entire tribes and nation who have but recently, or within late historic times, abandoned the bow and arrow, its survival being seen only as a plaything for children.

It was not till I had accumulated quite a collection of sketches and other memoranda illustrating the methods of arrow-release, not only of existing but of ancient races, as shown by frescos and rock sculpture, that I realized that even so trivial an art as that of releasing the arrow might possibly lead to interesting results in tracing the affinities of past races.

I am led to publish the data thus far collected, incomplete as they are, with the intention of using the paper in the form of a circular to send abroad, with the hope of securing further material for a more extended memoir on the subject.

My interest in the matter was first aroused by having a Japanese friend shoot with me. Being familiar with the usual rules of shooting as practiced for centuries by the English archers, and not being aware of more than one way of properly handling so simple and primitive a weapon as the bow and arrow, it was somewhat surprising to find that the Japanese practice was in every respect totally unlike ours. To illustrate: in the English practice, the bow must be grasped with the firmness of a smith's vice ; in the Japanese practice, on the contrary, it is held as lightly as possible; in both cases, however, it is held vertically, but in the English method the arrow rests on the left of the bow, while in the Japanese method it is placed on the right. In the English practice a guard of leather must be worn on the inner and lower portion of the arm to receive the impact of the string; in the Japanese practice no arm-guard is required, as by a curious fling or twirl of the bow hand, coincident with the release of the arrow, the bow (which is nearly circular in section) revolves in the hand, so that the string brings upon the outside of the arm where the impact is so light that no protection is needed. In the English method the bow is grasped in the middle, and consequently the arrow is discharged from a point equidistant from its two ends while the Japanese archer grasps the bow near its lower third and discharges the arrow from this point. This altogether unique method, so far as I am aware, probably arose from the custom of the archers in feudal times shooting in a kneeling posture from behind thick wooden shields which rested on the ground. While all these features above mentioned are quite unlike in the two peoples, these dissimilarities extend to the method of drawing the arrow and releasing it. In the English method the string is drawn with the tips of the first three fingers, the arrow being lightly held between the first and second fingers, the release being effected by simply straightening the fingers and at the same time drawing the hand back from the string; in the Japanese method of release the string is drawn back by the bent thumb, the forefinger aiding in holding the thumb down on the string, the arrow being held in the crotch at the junction of the thumb and finger.

These marked and important points of difference between the two nations in the use of a weapon so simple and having the same parts,- namely, an elastic stick, a simple cord, a slender barbed shaft,- and used by the two hands, naturally led me to inquire further into the use of the bow in various parts of the world, and to my amazement I found not only a number of totally distinct methods of arrow-release with modifications, or sub-varieties, but that all these methods had been in vogue from early historic times. Even the simple act of bracing or stringing the bow varies quite as profoundly with different races.