Early Islamic Turkish Archery and Thumb Release
Dr. Murat Özveri
Bow has been a part of human history for at least 15.000 years. Through these millennia, bow has been shot with various pull-and-release techniques, which apparently varied from one culture to another.
Thumb release is a general term that is preferred by contemporary authors. It defines a pull-and-release technique where the major work is done by the thumb and the other fingers of the hand are involved in reinforcing the hold. This is different than the pinch or “primary” draw and its variations, as called “secondary draw” and “tertiary draw” by Edward Morse.
Morse's preference in naming this technique “Mongolian release” was based on his mistaken belief that belonged to the Mongols and the “common races.” While such race-based classification was considered normal among the European scholars of the late 19th century, today, thumb release is more accurate and contemporary term. Its accuracy is primarily due to this technique’s wider distribution on the globe, including in Africa and America, where traces of different forms of thumb release can be found.
Turkish traditional archery is exceptional with its many aspects and Turkish archers too shot using the thumb method throughout history. Despite the insufficient evidence about very early use of thumb release in Turkic culture, for instance by Xiung-nu, Huns and Blue Turks, Seljuk archers did shoot with this technique, as can be seen in many visual depictions and as supported by some written sources.
The Manzikert Battle between the Byzantine army under the commandment of Romanos Diogenes and the Seljuk army led by Sultan Alp Arslan ended with the victory of Seljuks. It was 1071, just 31 years after Alp Arslan’s father and uncle had defeated the Ghaznavid army and founded an empire that was going to rule Iran, Iraq and Syria. The young empire’s military success against the enormous Byzantine army and the renowned general has been analyzed thoroughly by historians. Together with many other factors, the Seljuks’ skill with bow and arrow is considered by many to be one of the reasons of their victory. Neither Romanos’ experience acquired in the war against the Turkic tribes of Pechenek and Uz, nor the presence of these minorities in the service of the Byzantine army prevented the successful application of typical nomadic tactics and strategies on the battlefield.
The Seljuk Sultanate dates back to the early 11th century and their rise is believed to have triggered the first Crusades. Alexios’ call for help to the Pope against the “Saracens” coming to Anatolia from the East was undoubtedly a factor. The less-known part of this history by Europeans is that it was the Seljuks who encountered the first Crusade armies and later closed the land route to Jerusalem. Although the very first “People’s Crusade” army was completely destroyed by Sultan Kilij Arslan in 1096, the second army consisting of well-trained and armored knights were able to defeat him a year later, in a battle called “Dorylaion”, referring to an ancient city that is close to Eskisehir in modern day Turkey. These Crusaders were the only ones arriving in Jerusalem following a land route. Kilij Arslan, learning from his mistakes, did not underestimate the subsequent three crusades in 1101, and allied with his eastern Turkish neighbor Danishmend Gazi, destroyed all of them.
Crusader chronicles report the amazing archery skills of the Seljuks during these confrontations. They did not hesitate to appreciate the enemy’s unusual martial skills; long-lasting showers of well-aimed arrows shot from surprisingly long distances, together with flexible and mobile warfare tactics. The Seljuks were mounted warriors who preferred fast attack-and-retreat tactics rather than a face-to-face, impact-based combat. They were steppe people who had been toughened under the hard living conditions of the steppes. Bow was their main weapon and archery training was starting in early childhood, as early as 4 years of age. Being brilliant archers and riders they shot an exceptional bow; the recurved, reflex Asian composite bow. Undoubtedly, the bow played an important role in their performance on the battlefield but another important factor was that the bow was shot with thumb release.
A relief, now in Armenia, depicting a Seljuk mounted archer who is executing the “Parthian shot”. Shooting backwards from on horseback was the zenith of the nomadic warrior’s martial art.
After a hundred years, Ottoman archers were going to reach unsurpassed distances in flight archery. They were going to use an evolved version of the Asian recurve-reflex bow, while thumb release remained to be favored technique, playing a major role in their effectiveness.
There are some advantages that this technique provides. Since the archer’s paradox occurs towards the “opposite” direction compared to the Mediterranean release, the bow is “loaded” from the right side. This way the arrow follows a direct, shorter and flawless path to the string. Therefore, nocking the arrows is faster. The string hand is closed in a special manner to form a lock (“mun-dull” in Turkish), so that the arrow is held in place with a slight pressure of the index finger. This grip assures great stability during the entire shot sequence. The archer pulls and releases comfortably, on foot or horseback, backwards, in kneeling positions, with the bow canted in any direction, at any angle. Unlike when shot with three fingers, the string hand can hold extra arrows that can be nocked and shot faster consecutively. During the shot, the archer’s paradox occurs not only towards the opposite direction but also in a less acute manner, i.e. the arrow shaft bends less. It makes a wider spectrum of spine values match a particular bow. Practically, this allows the archer to shoot other arrows he may find on the battlefield with better accuracy. Another advantage of less-bending shafts is supposed to be a decrease of lost energy and, consequently, a higher initial arrow speed. We tested this assumption by chronographing shots executed with Thumb versus Mediterranean release. In this short study, two experienced thumb shooters and one experienced finger shooter were involved. We used a 55#@28, all-resin Ottoman bow replica and shot two arrows weighing 513 grains and 422 grains. The result was an increase of 6,5% in initial velocity when the thumb release is executed with a well-made, rigid thumb-ring. Calculation of the kinetic energy resulted in an increase of 12,29%. In combat or hunting situations in which every bit of energy counts, this difference may be of great importance.
The Turkish term for the lock of the string hand, mandal, or mun-dull as would be spelled in English (Photo: Suat Gürsoy).
The arrow is on the “right side” of the bow due to the opposite direction of the archer’s paradox (Photo: Suat Gürsoy).
“Jarmakee” or “fard or qirat” is a very unusual shooting technique to shoot at a target in a well or cistern. It works also in predator hunts when the “prey” charges the hunter and hangs on the horse’s back (Photo: Suat Gürsoy).
Bow shooting techniques evolved with the needs and demands of the people who used them. Short composite bows and thumb release created their own technical extensions and variations, as well as accessories. One variation is worth mentioning is the “fard or qirat” or “jarmakee” technique, especially because it shows what flexibility thumb release would provide and because European archers are unfamiliar with this shooting technique. The “fard / qirat” or “jarmakee,” as it is called in eastern sources, technique enables the archer shoot at targets in a well, cistern or in a narrow, deep place. The string is drawn over the head, brought back to the neck, the bow is pushed downwards the arrow pointing straight down. In regular practice, the target should be just next to the left heel of a right-handed archer. It is mentioned that this technique is also for shooting a lion that would attack a mounted hunter and suspend on the horse’s back. This explanation makes sense when the typical Central Asian and Middle Eastern mounted drive hunts are considered.
Composite bows and horses have been like two halves of a whole for centuries. Thumb release existed just as long. The synergy they created wrote the military history until the age of firearms arrived. The sounds of horseshoes of Attila’s Huns, Chingis Khan’s Mongols, and the Ottoman sultans’ sipahis inspired fear and awe in the lands they conquered. The Ottoman army kept an archery detachment until 1790. The guards of the sultan, the Solak Troops, did not leave their bow and arrows until the first quarter of the 18th century. Today, we proudly keep the heritage of Turkish archery alive, with the hope of passing the torch to the next generations.