October 12, 2023
I spied the muley buck feeding out in the open with a group of does. With very little cover to hide behind, I had to move methodically, advancing only when deer eyes were solidly obscured by a patch of desert scrub or rock outcropping.
After a two-hour cat-and-mouse chase with the buck and his harem, I finally closed the distance to legitimate archery range. Yet the buck wouldn’t stand still long enough for a solid shot, so I had to wait and hope for a better opportunity.
Finally, as the sun began to dip near the horizon, the group of deer went over a small rise in the terrain, and I knew now was the time to strike. I hurried to the top of the hill and quickly spotted antler tips. With my heart pounding through my chest now, I snapped the distance to the buck with my rangefinder — 45 yards exactly — and then slowly came to full draw. At anchor, I could feel the adrenaline flooding my body, causing me to feel anxiety. I wondered, Would I aim solidly and make the shot?
Fortunately, that worried feeling subsided as I watched the 40-yard pin glide smoothly to the deer’s chest and then roll around like it has done so many times before in practice. I was in deep focus, aiming solidly, when the shot broke by surprise. The distinct sound of the arrow striking the deer’s chest was unmistakable, and I knew he was mine.
Benefits Of A Surprise Shot
After years of experimenting with different arrow-releasing methods, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no better way to release the arrow than for it to happen by surprise. Why? Because it eliminates or drastically reduces the mental distress caused by shot anticipation — a phenomenon that contributes to flinching, freezing, trigger-punching, or some other anxiety based ailment that disrupts smooth shooting and consistent accuracy.
A surprise shot is effective because it trains the mind to wait for the shot to just happen, while the muscles in the back cause the draw-hand/arm-elbow unit to pivot rearward, eventually taking up the trigger tension or movement of the release’s handle until the sear activates. This method is governed by the subconscious mind and your body’s muscle memory to keep it strong and consistent, so it won’t fail when the pressure is on.
On the other hand, a command-style way of releasing the arrow is much different. It relies more on the direct timing of the shot, rather than muscle movement. You settle the pin and then consciously pull the release’s trigger when the sight picture looks right. After doing this over and over again, the mind can fall into an unhealthy rhythm of snapping the pin on the bull’s-eye and forcing the trigger. If not kept in check, this method can quickly lead to a major snap-shooting or trigger-punching problem, ruining you as an effective archer.
To prevent shot anxiety and disastrous shooting, learn to release the arrow by surprise. Here are four steps for doing it right.
Adjust The Bow
To practice a surprise-style way of shooting, you must be comfortable at full draw, with the draw length set short enough to pivot the elbow an inch or so. This will give you the room you need to activate the rhomboid muscles in your back, so you can pivot the arm-elbow unit enough to smoothly trigger the shot.
There are two telltale signs of proper bow fit. From the side view, an archer’s full-draw position should look like a “T.” This means, the torso is straight up and down (not swayed forward or back) with the bow arm and draw elbow in line with the arrow. The head and neck position are also straight (not canted downward or upward), with the chin more or less parallel with the arrow.
From the rear, the draw-arm elbow is also in line with the position of the arrow. If the elbow is above, below, or to the left or right of the arrow, then the draw length is either too short or too long. Either way, this could lead to difficulty executing a surprise release.
Another important consideration is draw weight. If you can’t pull the bow straight back, in a smooth, fluid motion, you’re shooting too much weight. Reduce the weight until you can cycle the bow smoothly, with your draw-arm elbow rotating straight back.
Fine-Tune The Release
When releasing the arrow by surprise, you use your back muscles to trigger the release rather than letting your conscious mind say when to fire the bow. To do this, you hook the release’s trigger deeply and pull with your back muscles until this movement causes your draw-arm unit to pivot rearward, eventually forcing the trigger on the release to fire the arrow.
To do this correctly, you’ll need to shorten the stem or strap on your index-finger release, so the trigger bisects somewhere between the first and second knuckle on the finger. This setting will allow the finger to grasp the trigger in a natural hook. From there, your job is to keep the finger curled but completely motionless, until the tightening of the back muscles pulls the arm, hand, and finger unit rearward, activating the trigger’s sear.
With a thumb release, it’s best to place the thumb tip on the body of the handle, while the trigger is tucked just under the thumb’s first joint. By keeping the wrist and hand relaxed while at full draw, the handle will naturally rotate downward, forcing the trigger deeper into the meaty part of the thumb, eventually causing the shot to break by surprise.
The hinge, or trigger-less release, is shot the same as a thumb release, only there’s no trigger to control. This makes it easy to use when mastering a surprise-style shot execution. With this type of release, you simply come to full draw, plant the pin on the bull’s-eye, aim intently, and then keep the wrist relaxed until the handle turns and the sear activates by surprise.
Train The Mind
To shoot the arrow by surprise, you must shift your focus completely compared to your old method of shooting. Instead of putting all your emphasis on hitting the bull’s-eye, shift your attention to the actual process of shooting the arrow. When you focus on the process of shooting, accuracy and hitting the bull’s-eye will happen naturally, so don’t worry about it.
Tim Strickland, my good friend and archery coach, recommends using your entire body to trigger and direct the arrow into the bull’s-eye. He suggests, just because the archer’s sight pin is where it’s supposed to be, actually means very little. You must direct the arrow into the spot using good follow-through, back tension, and a relaxed shooting posture in addition to aiming intently.
There are two things you can do to keep the mind focused and busy while the shot just happens. First is to aim…aim…aim…until the shot takes you by surprise. Second, is to feel the tightening or movement in your rhomboid muscles. By shifting your focus onto one or both of these areas, you’ll keep shot anticipation at bay and maintain solid shooting control.
Build Muscle Memory
Muscle memory begins by working through a new shooting technique step-by-step until it becomes completely engrained. This, unfortunately, takes weeks, if not months, of orderly shooting practice.
The best way to build muscle memory is to get close to the target butt and shoot with your eyes closed, otherwise known as “blind-bale shooting.” With your eyes closed, you eliminate the sight pin and bull’s-eye, keeping the mind completely relaxed as you reprogram your shooting technique. Don’t rush the blind-bale shooting process.
When blind-bale shooting, you’ll notice quickly if the trigger on the release is set too light or too firm. A trigger that’s set too light is not good, since the shot won’t come as a surprise, eventually causing shot anticipation. A trigger set too firm, on the other hand, can be a mind distractor and disrupt an otherwise smooth shot execution. To execute the shot correctly, set the trigger just right. Ideally, you want the shot to break in about four to six seconds — long enough to eliminate anticipation but short enough to prevent a physical breakdown of the shot.
One other point, if you feel any awkward trigger creep or “movement” upon tightening your back muscles, I recommend upgrading to a better release. Trigger creep can cause poor shot control and even anticipation, ruining a surprise style of shooting. Visit a well-stocked archery shop and sample several different releases until you find a quality model with a crisp, clean trigger. Releases with polished trigger mechanisms cost more, but they are worth it.
There are many reasons to switch to a surprise-style way of shooting. For one, it will increase your accuracy and consistency. Secondly, it will enhance your shooting pleasure two-fold. Shooting with greater control is a whole lot more fun than wrestling with poor technique and lousy shots. Overall, it’s the most effective way to practice archery and to become a better bowhunter.