archery releases beginner

What is an Archery Release? A Beginner’s Guide

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Chances are good that if you’ve been exposed to archery at all, especially compound bows, you’ve heard about archery releases, also known as release aids.  But what even IS an archery release, how do they work, and do you need one?  With any luck this guide will help you answer some of those questions.

An archery release (also known as a release aid) is a mechanical device typically used on a compound bow that attaches to a bow string and aids in the drawing and releasing of the bow string.  The use of a release provides a more accurate and repeatable shot than using your fingers alone.

It sounds so simple when defined but there can be an overwhelming number of follow up questions regarding archery release aids.  Let’s take a journey into the who, what, when, where, how, and why of releases.

Should you use an Archery Release Aid?

Mechanical releases were popularized sometime in the 1970’s although according to Wikipedia a patent was first submitted in the US for a primitive version back in 1879 known as a clutch.

Archery has been around for thousands of years, but the compound bow is a relatively modern invention hitting the market for the first time in the late 1960’s.  As you can see, the popularization of the release aid was not far behind and would grow over time.

As you can gather, compound bows can and have been used without release aids. Traditional bows (recurves and longbows) have been fired this way for thousands of years. 

Advantages of using a release with a Compound Bow

The modern compound bow is a thing of mechanical marvel with the ability for extreme accuracy at even long distances.

5 Compound Bows hanging on a wall

However, much like firing a gun, its accuracy is affected by user input.  One point of such input is where the archer’s hand connects to the bow string, whether by flesh or by mechanical device.  A finger shooter, no matter how careful in their execution, will always cause some amount of torque on the bow string.  

If a bow string is torqued (twisted) it transfers this energy into the arrow affecting how true the arrow will travel when leaving the bow.

Using an archery release can alleviate or even eliminate this issue by joining the archer and the bowstring mechanically.  This is usually done with a set of metal jaws or a hook.  Additionally it is common practice to use what’s called a D-Loop in conjunction with a release that will further reduce the chances of any string torque.

The result of using a mechanical release as compared to using your fingers is an increased horizontal (left to right) accuracy because of the repeatable and more predictable nature of using a mechanical release aid.

Ultimately it’s a personal choice whether to use a release or not, but you’re likely to improve your shot by doing so.

What about using a release for Traditional Archery?

While you certainly can, and there are some archers who do, use a mechanical release on a recurve or longbow, it’s far from the norm.

One reason for this is that an archer may choose to shoot a traditional style bow because it’s, well, traditional.  Therefore using a modern mechanical invention deviates from the intent.  You never saw Robin Hood using a release aid did you?

In addition, using a mechanical release aid would put an archer into a different class at any competitions.  Usually they would be grouped with compound bow archers instead of traditional.

How Does an Archery Release Work?

At the very basic level a release simply provides a point of contact between the archer’s hand and the bowstring.  When the archer activates the release either by trigger or back tension, the bowstring is freed and the arrow fires.

The way in which a particular release aid accomplishes its job can be more or less split into two groups.  trigger activated and back tension releases.

How a Trigger Activated Release Works

Archer using an index finger release

There are a number of nuances in how any particular release works but they all share the same basic guidelines.  It should first be noted that in modern archery it’s typical to use a D-Loop in conjunction with a release.  This is the point at which the release attaches to the bow.

There are a couple other “sub-groups” we should note within the trigger activated category.  The first is the manner in which the release attaches to the D-loop or string.  This can be separated into releases that use a caliper (jaws) and those that use hooks.  They both function similarly.

The next “sub-grouping” we need to look at is more notable.  There are two types of trigger release activations.  The first is an index finger trigger, similar to shooting a gun and the second is a thumb trigger.  Again, these work similarly in the way they function.

Here’s how a trigger release works to fire a bow

  • The Hook or Jaws of the release are attached to the D-Loop
  • The bow is then pulled to full draw
  • When the Archer is ready he/she depresses the index or thumb trigger
  • Once the trigger is depressed the hook or jaws will open
  • The Bowstring is released allowing the bow to fire the shot

How A Back Tension Release Works

A back tension or hinge release functions more or less the same way as a trigger release except for the fact there is no trigger, button, or other doo dad that fires the release.  These releases are sometimes even called “surprise releases

Despite how that may sound they don’t have a mind of their own.  Once setup properly and after you’ve perfected the technique they act somewhat predictably.  

I actually wrote an entire article on how a hinge release works.  So I’ll just give you the basic run down here, but check out my other post for more info.

Here’s how a back tension release works to fire a bow

  • The release attaches to the D-loop with a hook
  • The bow is pulled to full draw
  • Once ready the archer applies Back Tension by squeezing their shoulder blades together
  • The back tension causes the archer to slowly rotate the release aid
  • Some releases have an audible click which sounds just prior to release
  • The hook is disengaged and the bow fires

All releases work in the same basic manner by providing a mechanical point of attachment between the archer and the bow.  This allows for a cleaner, more consistent release of the bow string. The type of release you use is entirely up to you.

Types of Archery Release Aids

There are a few different types and sub types of releases. I like to think of them all falling into 1 of 3 categories.  Let’s have a look at those categories and some of the options within each of them.

Index Finger Releases

This is one of the most commonly used releases, especially amongst hunters.  I’ve used a number of different releases of this type and still have one to this day.

Index Finger pointing up

Generally speaking an index finger release has a wrist strap that attaches with either Velcro or a buckle. They are adjustable to fit a variety of wrist sizes and also come in many different materials.  I avoid the ones that are stiff and scratchy.

The head of an index finger release can be of a few different varieties.  They all have a trigger operated by, you guessed it, your index finger.  Many models have adjustments for trigger sensitivity.

Where this type of release can differ more significantly is how it actually attaches to your bowstring or D-loop.  The two major options here are caliper or hook.  In fact I wrote an article comparing caliper and hook releases more in depth.

Caliper Release

A caliper style release can be either a single caliper or a dual caliper.  A caliper release has 2 jaws that when closed prevent the string or D-loop from escaping.  Once the trigger is pulled the jaws open.

Dual caliper releases have 2 jaws that open and close and are symmetrical. A single caliper design however only has one movable jaw, the other remains fixed. This causes a slightly less even release as the string has to “slip over” the fixed jaw.

Hook Release

Instead of having jaws, this style of release uses a hook to attach to your bow.  Because a hook is open on one side it makes attaching the release to your bow very quick.  Many hunters prefer a hook release for this reason.

It is recommended to only use a hook release when utilizing a D-loop on your bow.  Most bows are set up with D-loops these days anyway but this is something to be aware of.

Thumb Releases

As you may have already guessed, this type of release is activated by a trigger controlled with your thumb.  Thumb releases are handheld although you can get wrist straps for them which simply tether the release to your hand.

Most commonly a thumb release will be designed with spots for 3 fingers but there are 4 finger and even some 2 finger releases available as well.  Once a full draw the release is held so that the trigger is facing downward and the palm of your hand is facing away from you.

There are some variations in technique here, you’ll see some people hold the release almost horizontally as well. This is just personal preference and you may find a particular position that feels most comfortable for you as well.

Just like with index finger releases, you can get thumb releases with different heads on them.  Both caliper and hook styles are readily available.

Hinge Releases

Also known as a back tension release, a sear release, or a surprise release, a hinge release differs from the previous types in that it has no trigger to activate the shot.

Instead of pulling a trigger, an archer activates this release by rotating it which can be accomplished in a couple of ways, the most common being by using back tension.

Hinge Releases are Great for Battling Target Panic

The archer will increase back tension by squeezing their shoulder blades together, this naturally causes a rotation that will activate the release.

The advantage to this type of release is that it forces you to concentrate on holding steady on your target instead of pulling a trigger.  It’s also a great way to battle target panic, which is when you flinch or “punch” the trigger. Read more about hinge releases in another post I made.

Choosing the Right Release

If you’re new to the world of release aids this might all seem a bit overwhelming.  How in the world are you supposed to pick the right release for your needs?  There’s so many to choose from.

Categorizing the types of releases like I did above can help to narrow things down.  Within each category you then have additional options but the basic design of the release is the same.

So the first thing to do is to figure out which of the 3 major styles you want.  You might even have to try one for a while and decide you don’t like it, or that you’d like to try a different style.  I used an index finger release for 2 decades and now I’m planning to try a hinge.

Table of best releases for bowhunting, 3d archery, or target archery

Sizing and Adjustability

One thing to take into account when choosing a release is how well it fits you.  Luckily there are plenty to choose from and many of them are even adjustable.

Releases are sort of a one size fits most type of product.  However, there are ones made smaller or larger for people who fall outside of the “average”.

Additionally, many releases have some adjustability so you can get the right fit for you.  I’ve written a few articles related to this topic which you can check out below: 

Best type of Release for Bow Hunting

This is potentially a topic that’s up for hot debate.  However, after many years of hanging around events and archery forums as well as chatting with bowhunters in real life, I think I can offer up a general rule of thumb here.

Generally speaking, a hinge release is not a good choice for hunting.  While I’m sure there are people who use one, not having precise control over when your shot goes off could be the difference between bagging a nice 12 pointer and going home empty handed.

An index finger release with a wrist strap is typically the best choice for hunting.  This allows you to have the release tethered to you and ready at a moment’s notice.  It also prevents you from accidentally dropping it out of a tree stand.  The index finger trigger means you can choose the exact moment you want the bow to fire.

You could also choose to use a handheld release, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that and many hunters use them.  I might suggest using one with a tether, or perhaps adding one.  It would be a shame to drop the release at the most inopportune moment.

The final consideration when choosing a hunting release would be whether to use a caliper or hook style release.  This is a toss up, but a number of people have made a good case for using a hook style release.

The hook allows you to quickly and easily attach the release to your bow, often times without even looking.  This may be a good reason to consider a hook over calipers.

Final Thoughts

Who would have thought 1 simple accessory for shooting a bow could be so complex and full of decisions.  It’s actually great that we have so many options that allow us to customize how we shoot our bows.

There’s a plethora of releases available at various price points so you’re sure to find one that works well for you.  To read more about releases you can check out a few more of my articles below:

Jason Brooks

I've been involved with archery for over 25 years off and on and am always interested in learning as much as I can. I've taken part in local tournaments and even 3D course setup.