Lets have a chat about ring design. Here at CTR, we have what is very likely the broadest catalogue of Asiatic ring designs in the world. That brings with it unique insights regarding ring design and function, but also presents a real challenge to our customers: which ring do you actually want and why?
If you’re relatively new to Asiatic archery, or are moving over to a historically authentic from one of the popular modern “Southeast Asian” style rings, the short answer is we strongly recommend you start with our popular Chinese Spur style ring. One of our leather ring inserts makes for a nice comfort and grip enhancing addition. So if that recommendation is all you came here for, go for it, this is the TL;DR answer.
For those interested in the dynamics at play though, lets start by looking at the the popular “Southeast Asian” style of our competitors. (yes, by popular demand and for the sake of a complete collection we do offer our interpretation of the style as well) What makes this design popular? Well the short answer is that it is very comfortable with low-poundage bows, and it is very easy to use particularly as it is designed for and encourages a “death grip” on the thumb. This over-curling of the thumb is very natural if you're a beginner, as there is a lot to concentrate on and there is a very real fear that the string will slip off the ring. So this style adapts to that, encouraging and even in some cases requiring one to fully curl their thumb and pinch the ring and string and arrow as much as possible. The release this produces is generally not as fast and clean as a more advanced ring style, however the real problem comes about when heavier bows are drawn.
You see this style does another thing, and that is load greater than 50% of the force of drawing the bow on the thumb pad. It does this by positioning the string fairly far away from the knuckle joint. On low poundage bows and for newcomers this is very comfortable, because we are all used to loading force on the pads of our thumbs, we do it every day. At higher poundages though, this rapidly exceeds the thumb and index finger's strength to retain the arrow, and begins to over-burden the pad of the thumb itself causing pain.
More advanced ring designs shift much of this load off the pad of the thumb, and onto the sides of the knuckle which can, with practice, bear vastly more force and allows the comfortable drawing of much much heavier bows. 60-80% of the draw force should be borne by the sides of the knuckle, Adam Karpowicz has noted this as well. And designs of antiquity virtually all follow this rule. Don't believe me? Note Turkish designs. Look at how little meat is there to cover the thumb's pad, it couldn't possibly be bearing the majority of the force, really it is there simply to kick the thumb out of the way upon release.
Okay, so we've established where force should be loaded on the thumb, but how does this affect the archer's dynamics? Well there are a couple things. First, the #1 form fault I see is over-curling of the thumb, the string should not be “cornered” in the thumb, it should be gently balanced on the ring, neither driving into the soft flesh of the thumb nor slipping off and releasing the string. It is worth noting that rotation of the wrist and pressing of the index finger into the string and arrow gently is part of this balance. This sense of balance is the primary skill to be learned when it comes to shooting rings. Put simply, you should be grabbing the tip of your thumb with your index finger a LOT less than you may think. If you really want to feel how a fast snappy ring should behave, one that is unforgiving of form faults but is a great teacher, I can't recommend our Turkish style ring highly enough. It will not only enforce the opening of the thumb and a gentle balanced hold of the string, it will also quickly teach you the ills of another form fault: excess retained tension in the thumb.
This brings me nicely around to our Gao Ying style ring. It has a string guard, but if you read The Way of Archery, you'll note Gao's guard was added with the intent of protecting the string from the thin side walls. THIS IS NOT A BEGINNER'S STYLE OF RING. The release angle is in fact quite aggressive and the shelf upon which it sits quite narrow. Whereas most great ring designs allow the string to provide feedback, this design protects the thumb and makes the over-curling side of balance difficult to feel. While a beginner certainly can learn on this style of ring, the consequence for bad form is longer term discomfort, namely the area around the tendon relief begin to cause discomfort as the ring is inappropriately driven rearward into the thumb, rather than an instant and obvious need of correction. In essence, the ring is adequately comfortable when used incorrectly to make the archer think the flaw lies with the design rather than their form if that makes sense.
This permits me to circle nicely back around to the Chinese Spur style ring. It uses the arrow to help position the string on the ring, providing a consistent index point. If the archer curls the thumb too hard, driving the string backward toward the thumb, this will provide immediate feedback causing the ring to twist on the thumb. This painless feedback is perfect for teaching balance without the discomfort of learning on something like our very popular Ottoman style ring. Our Ottoman style appears visually similar to our Chinese Spur style ring, however there are numerous subtle tweaks, aside from the obvious spur, to accommodate the slightly different ways in which these two rings load force on the thumb.
There is no reason why the Chinese Spur style ring is necessarily for beginners, far from it actually. It is the style we recommend users learn on, but they can also happily use it forever to no disadvantage.
What of our other designs? Well the Byzantine is our earliest design still in our catalogue. It is beautiful, but a bit of an anachronism. While perfectly fine on lower poundage bows, it offers minimal support for the sides of the thumb and a fairly steep release angle. Historical examples are even thinner than ours. My longstanding hypothesis on this ring, which is widely held by others here at CTR, is that the design was meant for use in warfare to be worn OVER gloves, and its slim design was meant to minimize interference when transitioning from the bow to polearms or the like. If you were looking for a piece of functional jewelry, this ring would be my first choice.
The Sarmatian is another odd duck, not as slim as the Byzantine, but still unusually thin. In some regards, I think of it as a transitional ring. To my knowledge it is the oldest metal archer's ring ever found, and one of the oldest archer's rings ever found flat out. (technically Nubian rings predate it, however are made of stone) It is very likely, being an early ring design, that it is not as technologically advanced as some later designs. Whether it was meant to be paired with a glove or the like we'll never know, however I suspect the rear loop was meant to be used with a leather thong tied around the wrist thus moving some of the force off the thumb entirely.
The Tongue rings are odd, but appear to act much like a very gentle thumb protector, barely discouraging the string from shifting rearward. The long tongue ring in particular does encourage clarance between the thumb tip and the string, so if you have issues with retained tension in the thumb, this ring might be treatment rather than cure.
Our Mughal style ring is as much an exercise in style as it is one in ring design. Being fully contoured it requires an expert sense of balance to use. It is both robust and elegant, and offers something of a “choose-your-own-aventure” in terms of string positioning and the thumb pad/knuckle force spit. If you can comfortably use this ring on a powerful bow, you've very likely mastered the use of rings.
And, finally, there is our Sugakji or Korean Male style thumb ring. This ring loads ALL the force onto the thumb's knuckle, and does so with the aid of a wedge of some form. Sometimes these are made of rubber, but traditionally they were made of leather. Thus the ring is able to effectively “shrink” once slipped over the knuckle, providing a very secure and comfortable fit.
And this segues nicely into the use of leather with rings, the final thing I want to touch on here. I can't recommend the addition of leather to your ring highly enough. While made for the Sugakji, most of our ring styles can have their fit snugged up with either the korean leather inserts or a kulak. But their utility goes beyond that. The kulak can act as a mild string protector on many of our ring designs, further increasing comfort. They also remain grippy when wet, which is incredibly helpful as you start to perspire when shooting. While some traditional styles of ring are found with leather, others are not but this doesn't mean they didn't use them. In TWOA for example, leather not pictured was referenced in use with traditional designs. It seems likely that many if not most rings involved some use of leather for comfort and function, and we shouldn't shy away from it simply because we have not found them depicted that way yet. Archers of antiquity faced the same challenges we do today.
I hope that serves as a brief overview of ring design, and some of the functions behind it. One could write volumes on the subject, but I hope for now this brief overview will suffice.