Step 5: Loosing II (follow-through)

The Follow-through or khaṭrah

“In his next stage he should nock [an] unfletched arrow and draw and release it at a practice drum. He should do this for quite a time…” – Ṭaybughā

The Arrows

Why unfletched? Practice arrows were only ever going to be shot at short range so there was no need to waste good feathers on arrows that weren’t going far. More importantly, this stage of Loosing is actually about learning the correct follow-through. Mistakes while learning would cause fletching to hit and/or cut your Grasping hand. Remember, the Mamelukes didn’t wear any protection on their Grasping arm and they got away with it because of both the thumb lock and this follow-through. Most critically, unfletched arrows tell you more about your technique because feathers hide flaws.

The Practice Drum

What was a “practice drum”? It was a short, but wide, sand-filled barrel with cow hide stretched across one side and set up on a stand to hold it at chest height. It was turned so the “top” faced the archer and was fired into at close range, like 2 to 4 yards at most. For the modern archer, you have a few choices for getting your own. Of course, if you make one as described in the book that would be amazing and I would love to see it!

One thing to try, if it’s allowed in your area and you have access, is to stack up some hay bales outside. A great option for urban- and suburbanites, and what I did for myself, is a simple burlap sack. I found one that is about 3′ x 2′ and I stuffed it with shredded paper and recycled plastic packing film and bags. I was able to contact a local big-box retailer and ask them to hold their used plastic wrapping so that worked out great. I packed it until it was about 1.5′ thick and somewhat firm. I tested it with a 25# and 40# bow with both light and heavy arrows and it seemed to stop them just fine. All the same, consider putting a large sheet of inexpensive plywood behind it as a back stop. Altogether that will run you about $18 US. One advantage of this type of bale is that, more often that not, the strands of burlap are pushed aside by the arrow rather than cut so the bale can be used many, many times. Even when it does wear out, just flip it around to use the other side. When that’s no longer an option, get another bag for $5 and re-use your stuffing. Pretty flexible! The greatest advantage of this bale is that the loose material will stop your arrows but not so abruptly that your shafts will break. It still holds the entry angle reasonably well, which is important for evaluating your technique.

stuffed practice bale with large ruler
Stuffed practice bale with large ruler
Finished practice bale in living room
Finished practice bale in living room

If you don’t want the DIY route, get a modern foam target, but use caution. Even light bows used to send arrows from full draw have a very high risk of breaking. You must be careful here and check your shafts after every shot. Best practice is to start close, like two yards, and at half Draw, then increase your Draw and distance only as you improve. Watch the video below for a better explanation.

No matter what bale or backstop you use, no targets or marks are allowed yet! Resist the temptation. If you bought a pre-made target, cover its markings with paper.

The Follow-through

The correct Mameluke follow-through is called the khaṭrah. It is a clear and quick forward and outward rotation of the Grasping wrist completed at the precise moment of the Loose. It results in the bow string ending near a 45 degree angle. The lower siyah may come to rest just under the Grasping arm’s pit (and Ṭaybughā even says many archers tap their shoulder blade). Remember, though, the bow should snap back to position by the time the Draw hand makes it back with a new arrow.

The reasons for the khaṭrah are to impart slightly more force to the arrow, to drop the Grasp hand very slightly out of the way of the passing arrow, to allow arrows of varying weight to be accurately loosed from the same bow, and to reduce the effect of the Archer’s Paradox. Performing it correctly will also allow your arrow to fly with less deflection off the grip so it strikes its target straighter. Timing of the action is critical for if done too soon you will foul your aim, done too late and the arrow deflects off the bow badly. If done by dropping the whole arm instead of only rotating the wrist, you will have accuracy problems later.

For the Draw hand, you are meant to perform the farkah AND slightly jerk your arm back as if to tap someone behind you with your elbow. The idea is pulling the Draw hand farther from the bow at the moment of Loose prevents you from instead accidentally creeping the hand forward, which saps energy from the arrow by shortening the Draw. See Fig. 46 below for the general idea (but note it shows three faults Ṭaybughā would not approve of [Footnote 3]).

illustration of the follow-through

Tuck an arrow in your belt. It’s finally time to loose your first! Remember to start around 2 yards from the bale. Pick it up, Nock it, Draw it, and then Loose! It will likely strike and stick out at an odd angle. Not to worry, the cleaner your release and follow-through get, the straighter your arrows fly. This will take a lot of practice, on the order of hundreds of arrows over weeks or months. Since you are so close, just grab the arrow and try again. Once they are all straight, move back to three yards, grab two more arrows to tuck in your belt and try again. Really practice a long time at this distance until you develop an instinctive feel for where the arrow will strike and until each arrow is pointed straight back at you. A well-loosed arrow will fly straight, strike straight, and wobble very little upon contact. When you are excellent at three yards, move to four and start over. It really is eye-opening how moving only one yard will show just how much you still need to work on your technique. Don’t go beyond four yards, though. The lack of fletching has its limits. Even in the next step we aren’t going for accuracy so increasing distance does us no good.

PRO TIP: ALWAYS keep both eyes open when loosing the arrow. It’s an important habit to get into and you’ll see why later.

Key points are to give the novice tremendous repetition at Locking, Drawing, and Loosing without any concern yet over Sighting. Your first few arrows may hit your practice bale far to one side or very low and that’s fine. Don’t get distracted trying to aim. You should be doing this at close range, anyway. Just make what feels like a natural adjustment and keep going. The more arrows you loose, the more intuitive those adjustments become. The goal here is perfection of the form then acceleration of the mechanics. We are not yet working on aim.

For learning this fundamental, hundreds if not thousands of arrows should be loosed over “quite a time” until both hand motions are rock solid. Nocking needs to be quick and fluid and indistinguishable from Drawing, the draw length and anchor points must be flawless, the Loose must be clean and sharp, and now, critically, the release and follow-through will be in place.

How long “quite a time” should be is anyone’s guess, but I’d say at least until the above fundamentals could be done practically blindfolded and the arrow would be sticking straight out of the practice drum every time.

Footnote 3:

The three faults are: 1) the Draw hand and elbow are too high, remember everything should be in one plane. 2) The Grasping thumb is up high relative to the wrist indicating incorrect position of the index finger and thumb, remember we are instructed that the bones of the thumb should be parallel to the forearm and on the same level as the thumb’s base. 3) the Draw hand moves too far back when completing the release and it does not rotate, remember we are told for a correct farkah the index fingernail should come to rest just below the ear lobe and the palm should face out as shown below. [back]

hand position after farkah with arrow

Loosing I (the Release) – Loosing II (the Follow-through) – Loosing III (increase weight)