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Original Issue

The big little gizmo imbroglio

The major question left unanswered by the $20,000 U.S. Open Indoor Archery Tournament, which was held in Las Vegas last month, was whether the shootout had been awfully perfect or perfectly awful. That there was an abundance of perfection was evident from the scores, which were the highest ever. But so many shot so well—there were 30 perfect rounds of 300 points—that the sport is faced with a most unusual dilemma. Is it possible, archers are asking, to be too good?

Until recently, a 300 in archery had been a whole lot rarer than a 300 in bowling; in fact, it had never been done. Then, at the 1967 Open, Bob Bitner shot a perfect round and received a $1,000 check from the Archery Lane Operators Association, which had offered this prize to anyone firing a 300 in major competition. In the next two years, four other archers shot 300s and the offer was withdrawn.

And then last year along came mechanical releases. In essence, they are little gizmos that take the place of fingers for holding the bowstring. They also enable almost all archers to shoot more accurately—much more accurately.

Traditionally, professional archers have been a quiet, harmonious group—sort of a bunch of straight arrows. But disputes about whether releases should or should not be allowed have divided the sport into wrangling factions.

Fumes Victor Berger of Springfield, Ohio, the world's No. 1 pro the past two years: "We have had warm friendships in this sport, but they are cooling fast. I have been called many names, but what hurts most is that the sport I love is being destroyed by a gimmick."

"Releases are the greatest thing ever to hit archery," says Mike Elott, who owns an archery "college" outside Atlanta. "Thousands of people quit each year because of target panic, but with a release they can overcome this. You've got to keep people from dropping out if the sport is going to grow."

A middle view is held by Frank Pearson of Palmyra, N.J., one of Berger's chief rivals. "I feel guilty about using a release," he says, "but I've got to. I'm psyched out if I don't. Last year I had a 298 league average without a release and then I came to Vegas and saw other guys using them and I couldn't hit a thing."

Perhaps the whole furor can be blamed on Genghis Khan, who was the grand-daddy of archery in the Orient, where releases were first used 1,000 years ago. They were called thumb horns then and there was no flap about their legality, possibly because no one was offering $1,000 for a perfect round.

Basically, the function of ancient thumb horns and modern releases is to hold the bowstring. There are a number of advantages to be derived from this seemingly insignificant factor. A release enables a shooter to concentrate on aiming without worrying about letting go of the string, which is eased off ever so gently by manipulating the release. In addition, it eliminates flinching—also known as target panic or freezing—which comes from fretting about when and how to let go of the string, and which has done in millions of archers; no matter how smoothly an archer lets go, there is always a momentary hang-up between fingertips and string that translates into oscillation and deflection of the arrow. With a release, the string slips off all at once.

According to the rules of archery, releases can have no more than one moving part, but they may be made out of anything and they are—metal, leather, nylon, tape, string, even nails.

There are three main types. With one, the bowstring is held by a lip or hook; when the release is gently twisted the arrow is triggered. Another release functions on the same principle but with the bowstring fitted into a groove. The third consists of a cylinder that holds a nylon cord; the cord fits around the bowstring and is kept in place by pressing the thumb against the inside of the index finger. To release the arrow, all you do is let go of the cord.

One archer who competed in the Open had such faith in the efficacy of his release that he wore it while playing a slot machine on the Strip. On his first pull he got a $12 payoff.

These gadgets were nothing more than ancient history until a few years ago when Dale Halter, a California archer, thought that some type of release might make him a better shooter. Halter's scores improved and soon other West Coast archers were experimenting with the devices.

Still, no one really knew what Halter had wrought until last year's Open. As expected, Berger was the winner in the men's pro class. He shot a 300 and a 299 in the two rounds of championship competition and his 599 broke the world record by two points. Berger was ecstatic, but his elation was tempered by the knowledge that archers who had been shooting 250s in the past had shot in the 290s, and they were all West Coast men using releases. The once-impossible 300 had also been achieved six other times in the tournament—four of them by archers using releases.

At the end of the first day of shooting in this year's Open 10 men had fired 300s, putting all 60 arrows in the white five-ring. Berger had shot what would normally be an excellent 297 and was in a 24-way tie for 41st place. Called the White Knight because he outfits himself completely in white while shooting, including his bows and arrows, Berger did his best to remain calm. In smoldering English—he came to the U.S. from Germany in 1956—he roared, "We have not a tournament. We have something ridiculous."

Pat Norris, a lanes proprietor from Alameda, Calif., disagreed. During a tournament held at his place early last month there were three perfect rounds, each by release-shooters. "Usually people leave as soon as they can if they don't have a chance to win," he said, "but we had a shootoff and a hundred people lined up outside my lanes to watch."

Another supporter of releases is Doug Easton, president of Easton Aluminum, Inc. of Van Nuys, Calif., the nation's largest arrow manufacturer. "The purpose of archery is to hit the target and with a release people can now do this," Easton explained.

Easton's son, Jim, took exception. "With releases," he said, "archery has a negative scoring system: miss one shot and you're out of contention."

Those in accord with Jim Easton and Vic Berger spoke about the preponderance of tournaments now decided by kissoffs. Alas, a kissoff is not as stimulating as it sounds. At least not in archery, where it simply refers to arrows that would have gone in the five-ring had they not glanced off arrows already grouped in the three-inch circle.

One of those in favor of releases was Jack Lancaster, a tech sergeant stationed at the Air Force Academy. "Without a release, I wouldn't even be competing here," said Lancaster, who had shot a 300 on the first day. "The best I ever shot without a release was 285. To progress, archery has to draw public interest. This can be done if people know they will see good shooting. Other sports have progressed. Look what the fiberglass pole did for pole-vaulting."

Purists countered by pointing out that archery has progressed with the advent of such innovations as intricate sights, exotic bows and stabilizers. They felt, though, that releases should be declared illegal because they are the first device that actually removed the archer from contact with the string.

Perhaps the most unusual of the 534 archers competing in Las Vegas was Denise Libby of Rancho Cordova, Calif., the women's professional champion. She shoots interchangeably with fingers or release. "The mental approach to archery is not that hard to understand," she said, "and I can see why some people feel they can't shoot without a release. It's like with a Sandy Koufax or a Bob Gibson or any pitcher who has a pitch that can blow a batter's mind—a pitch they can't hit. A Koufax throws that pitch and the batter can't touch it. Another pitcher who is not a Koufax may throw a pitch just as good but the batter hits it because he's not psyched out. In archery, I think there are about 25 men who could shoot 300 with their fingers, but Victor Berger's on the line with them and he blows their mind."

As in most archery competitions, the final round paired the best shooters against each other. It was the sort of head-to-head pressure that was supposed to cause archers to buckle, but the 10 men with perfect rounds kept on hitting for nearly an hour. Attrition came only by way of Jim Easton's "negative scoring": one by one, archers would barely miss the five-ring. Finally, it came down to Lancaster and Billy Mills of Phoenix.

The 5'10", 140-pound Lancaster agonized through each shot and stared intently at the floor as he awaited his next try. Mills, who is 6'3", 245, preferred to spend much of his time between shots rubbing his watermelon-size stomach. Both needed just five more arrows in the spot (archers never call it a bull's-eye) to wrap up the first-ever 600s. Lancaster got his. Seconds later the ponderous Mills got his.

It was time for a sudden-death shoot-off, the first one to miss getting second-place money of $1,000, the winner picking up $2,000. After nine arrows Mills put one out and it was finally over.

Neither had been at the Open last year: Mills has been shooting only 16 months and Lancaster didn't discover releases until last August.

"Today I felt more like crying than shooting," said Berger, who finished in a tie for 39th place.

Listening to both sides was Dave Staples, president of the Professional Archers Association, who announced the formation of a committee to decide the issue once and for all. "We've got a problem," he said in the understatement of the year. "Should we outlaw releases or shouldn't we? What's best for the sport is what we want, but how do you weigh it? Sure, it's good to have more people come into the sport and shoot well. But are we going to destroy ourselves by having too many good shooters? Another factor is boredom. Some guys have shot hundreds of 300s and you have to wonder if, after they've shot a thousand, they're just going to get bored and quit."