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Slinging Advice for Beginners - Bill Blohm

This article is intended to be a beginning guide to slinging. However, I will discuss not only slinging, but also sizing and ammuition. There may also be information here of interest to the non-beginning slingers as well as to beginners just starting out or seeking to improve their slinging.

The very first thing I want to say is that slinging style and sling lengths are very much a personal preference. You may like a longer or shorter sling than I, and you might find that you prefer slinging vertically rather than horizontally. That's absolutely great, I have absolutely no problems or issues with that. What's expressed here in this article is my preference, and I present it merely to help you with your slinging. I want you to take what I say here and adapt it to the way you discover you prefer to sling. My goal is to get you started in this fun and cheap sport.

I have been slinging, on and off, since I was about 11. As a result, what you read here works for me. That it also works for others is indicated by the following e-mail I received several years ago:

I tried your way of throwing a rock with my sling. I have a Goliath shepherd's sling made by Mr. Gudmundsen. He makes nice slings, and I thought that it was my homemade sling that kept ruinning me, so I bought one of his. Well, your way worked fine, and the pointing release works great!! It should be a prized secret! I mean it was almost as accurate as my bow, and when a person slings, it lookes like they're going to miss for sure. But the accuracy is surprizing., and I'm hooked. Well, thank you again, and good bye!!

So, if you're having trouble with accuracy or consistency, or just getting started, this article may well be what you need. If nothing else works, give it a try.

There are several release styles that I've seen and discussed with others. Each style has it's proponents, and each style, undoubtedly including mine, has both detractors and those for whom it doesn't work. The basic styles are underhand vertical, overhand vertical, and horizontal. Any slinging style can be placed in one of those three categories. Some people have mentioned a 45 degree plane they swing their sling in. I honestly believe that you should use either a vertical or horizontal plane, especially if you are striving for accuracy. I believe these are easier to gain consistency with, and consistency is the key to accuracy as you will see. As will become evident, I prefer the horizontal style, so all references to my way of doing it will be in reference to a horizontal, overhead plane unless I specify otherwise.

Before going into the release itself, let me describe the sling I favor. Some would say I'm cheap, but I've never seen the point of spending much money for custom braided slings. Some of these are works of art as well as being quite functional and I'd love to own one, but when I can quickly make a sling for under one dollar I just don't see the need. Especially with the constant wear and tear I subject them to and the fact that I'll give them away to people that are interested in maybe taking up slinging.

The materials for the thong can be just about anything and work. Either from always having used them or just because the idea of leather appeals to me, I favor leather bootlaces for my thongs. For the pouch, I prefer a leather rectangle. Two cuts in the narrow ends of the rectangle, tie on a bootlace to each end, tie a loop in the other end of one bootlace, and you've got a sling. It's as simple as that. Regardless, the criteria are that the thongs be flexible and comfortable to hand. The criteria for the pouch is that it be flexible, like the leather tongue of a boot, and not stiff like rawhide. Again, my preference is some material for the pouch that you can form a pocket in, either over time or deliberately shaping it to the typical ammunition you'll be using. This can be accomplished by finding a simlarly sized ball, bearing, rock, or whatever, and storing the sling with that object in the pouch. Over time, the pouch will take on a dimple or pocket, of that size. Even if you use stiff leather for the pouch, an application of mink oil and wrapping it tightly around the ball over a night or three will result in a nice pouch with a pocket ready to receive your ammunition.

The length of the sling's thongs varies from person to person, mainly due to personal preference. However, there are situations where a particular length might be better, just as with guns where you have the pistol, rifle, or cannon. Keep this in mind as you make your slings.

My preference for sling length is that when standing with my arm hanging by my side and the elbow bent 90 degrees so that my forearm is parallel to the ground and my loop is around my middle finger with the other thong held between pointer and thumb, my pouch is just above the ground, maybe an inch or two. Sorry for that long sentence!

Like I keep repeating, this is a matter of personal preference, but consider that the longer sling means that when it spins around you, the pouch is going faster further out than if it were in closer. The speed of the missle when it leaves the pouch obviously has an impact on both hitting power and range. You'll have to learn whether you prefer a longer or shorter sling. They're easy enough to make, so you can have at least one of each size. ;-)

As mentioned, others have used both shorter and longer slings. Indeed, there is reference in antiquity to slingers having to get up on a stand of some kind to get their slings to clear the ground. There's mention of slings hanging 6' to 15' down from the hand when held like this. I'll provide some more information on this later, in the section on ammunition.

Ok, we've got a sling made. It's nothing more than two leather bootlaces tied onto an old boot tongue. One of the leather bootlaces has a loop in the free end. Now what? Let's start slinging, of course!

So, here's how I do it. With practice, you can easily put all your shots in a tight group on a target you select. I'd suggest starting with a close target, ideally a large paper sheet so you can see just where your shots are going through the paper. A piece of butcher paper 4 feet long, for example, should do well. Start at 50 yards, move in to 25 yards if you aren't hitting the paper at 50, then work your way back as your accuracy improves.

I start with my middle finger in the loop at the end of one thong, and grasp the other thong between thumb and index. I adjust the thong between thumb and index finger so that the pouch hangs down centered. I put in a ball and let it hang down by the weight of the ball, holding it up slightly to clear the ground. I whip it forward 45 degrees across my front and into an overhead, horizontal plane. At this point I'm twirling it around easily enough, maybe just a little faster than needed to keep it horizontal. I look at my target, then after 3 to 5 turns overhead, I suddenly whip it around one last time as fast as I can. As my hand comes around the side, I point my index finger at the target in front of me, at the same time releasing my thumb. It's pretty much automatic to release the thumb when you point forward at a target. You're pointing normally here, with the index finger pointing at the target and the other fingers curled shut under it.

Remember, your hand leads the pouch. For the length of sling I use, as mentioned above, when my hand comes in front of me, I point and move my hand at the target, pointing, as if I was gong to poke it in the chest. That releases the thong at the right point for me that the vector is correct and the ball goes home. This is the crux of your slinging accuracy. Releasing when the pouch is moving past in front of you means it is going to leave the pouch on a path off towards your left (assuming it passes from right to left in front of you). The ball will leave the pouch in a straight line from where you release, off a tangent from the circle the pouch makes, not directly away from you. Thus, you have to release the thong before the pouch gets in front of you, not after it's already there.

Follow through, of course. Thus, as your hand reaches the end of it's forward motion, you continue it on to the side, letting the sling fall to earth on it's own momentum. Obviously, you never let go of the loop. :-)

Try that and see how it works for you. Most people I know that use slings and strive for accuracy seem to use some variant of that release. A lot has to do with the length of the sling. The shorter the sling, the smaller the distance the pouch lags your hand. So, with the short sling, releasing like this might be releasing past the point at which you need to release. This will result in the ball tearing through the paper to the left of the center (I swing right to left across the front of me). If the ball tears through the paper to the right of center, you're releasing too soon.

I hope this helps you get started and/or work out your accuracy. Like I said, there's no need to change the length unless you want longer range or are slinging in more confined space than, say, an open field or beach. Find out where you need to release, get consistent with that, and work your way back from the target. Eventually you'll find that point where you shoot best.

Now, I've used the horizontal style since I was a kid, a bazillion years ago. I found that for me, that gave me the accuracy I wanted so that I could hunt with it if I desired. I have not hunted with a sling, but in an emergency situation, I could easily make a sling and should be able to bring in some food if I couldn't locate any edible plants. It's a handy skill to have to fall back on. I have tried this method in the vertical plane, both overhand and underhand. Swinging in the vertical plane is, to me, awkward enough that I will do so only for amusement, such as seeing how high I can get a stone to go out over a lake. That is not to say that horizontal is the only way to go. I know slingers that use the vertical plane and also have good accuracy. As I keep saying, it's a matter of preference and what you are most comfortable with. If you're just starting out, try both horizontal and vertical planes and see which you prefer.

Ok, so what's next? Ammunition, of course. What's a sling without good ammunition?

Slinging is a personal sport, and the choice of ammunition can vary just as much as anything else here. There is no right or wrong choice, unless you're trying something too large or heavy for your pouch. Size can matter here, with my preference in size ranging from 1/2" to 3/4", but I also enjoy shooting up to 1" diameter balls. The type of ammunition ranges from steel bearings when I can get them, otherwise ceramic or clay balls or paintballs. Of course, smooth rocks in this size also work well. Yep, I did say paintballs. Admittedly they don't have the same mass as clay balls, ceramic balls or steel bearings or even rocks, but they do work and it's kind of neat to see them hit. I caution, though, that you not start with them, but rather start with more solid ammunition such as rocks or ball bearings. Paintballs do have some quirks when used in a sling, mainly due to their lighter weight.

While I don't recommend it, some ancients used to mix the brains of their enemies with clay and make their ammunition that way. There were various reasons for this, one being that it made the balls more lethal to the enemy and less so to friendlies. Regardless of the reason, clay balls have been shown to be quite lethal in antiquity, and therefore is indeed a good ammunition choice. They're also quite cheap to make and much easier to obtain than trying to find a good rock in the field. In addition, they're quite environmentally friendly if you tend that way.

Of course, you've noticed the possible difference in the ammunition weight in my listed preference above. It should be quite obvious to anyone that has been around clay and metal that a 1/2" diameter steel ball bearing and a 1/2" clay ball will have one significant difference: weight. Weight does have a vital role when it comes to selecting the ammunition to use.

When I refer to weight here, keep in mind that I've not used scales to weigh my ammo, but rather I pick up a stone, decide that's too light or heavy, and go from there. By this I mean I am going from feel, admittedly based on experience. That said, here's some comments based on my experience.

I'll definitely second the idea that there is probably no optimum weight for sling ammo, unless you qualify that by two things: range and personal taste. Ok, three things if you include the sling itself, but that's a given.

I don't think there is one optimal ammo weight per sling length since I could perhaps get better accuracy and range out of a larger or smaller weight than someone else of the same height, sling size, etc.. Rather, I tend to the idea that a sling of x length has an optimum ammo weight range of y to z grams/ounces/whatever. A lot of it has to do with my being able to shoot a range of ammo weight with comparable accuracy. This range doesn't vary over a large amount, granted, but it doesn't seem to be tied to any one weight being any more accurate than another in that range, either.

I do think that the weight does have some corelation to sling size. While I've had reasonable success using the same weight in either a long or short sling, I've found that as I reduce the sling's length, there comes a point where I need to switch to a lighter ammo weight. It seems to be a matter of being able to control the stone while spinning it and releasing it. Too heavy a weight can pull the sling forward and produce some slack when you try to catch up.

Obviously, the larger the sling, the greater the pouch and the more sturdily the entire sling can be constructed. There are, as I've briefly mentioned before, slings in a wide range of size, doubled and ready to load measuring anywhere from the length of the slinger's forearm from elbow to fingertip, all the way up to tens of feet in length. I've seen some reference to even larger slings, but have never really followed up on them. Let's call the larger ones over, say, 6 feet mega-slings, a term used on the slinger list years ago.

As to the mega-sling... I can imagine the damage ammo could do from a sling of this size, especially if it's on the order of:

"Sir, what's my target?" queries the slinger.

"Oh, anyone in that group there." the Officer says, pointing.

"Aye, sir." The slinger nods to his loader, then grunts, gets going with the help of his loader, visually grabs pre-determined landmarks while he spins around, takes one last look, spins really fast, and lets fly. He watches the 2+ pound lead ball sail into the enemy group.

"Good shot! Carry on." applauds the officer as he walks off.

"Damn! I only got 4, and those were 20 feet to the left! Grumble." mutters the slinger inaudibly as he dizzily signals and the loader loads up the next ball.

That picture aside, I wonder just how long a sling can get before it becomes unmanageable. This has got to be a corelation between the slinger's height, his build/fitness, and his skill. With me being 73" tall, I should be able to handle a mega-sling, either on the ground or on a stand, but only with a weight up to some top value right now. Later on, maybe a heavier weight will be just as accurate as I gain greater control through experience.

Now, if I increase ammo weight and sling length gradually so not to lose control, what is the theoretical maximum sling size? At some point, the weight of the ammo can't be increased if only because I won't be able to stand against it. Just like the hammer or ball and chain throws, you can only control up to a certain weight before it pulls you around.

Also, at what point will the length of the sling cause loss of control? At some point, you will be unable to launch the pouch into the spin. Even assuming you have a loader and starter, there comes some point where you just can't get momentum to get the pouch going. One possible way to handle Extreme Mega Slings might be to use a sling of the maximum size you can keep twirling, and start short on the thongs. As you get it spinning, you gradually feed out the thongs until you reach the end of the thongs and the maximum sling you can keep airborne. Of course, something like this will cut down on the maximum ammo weight you can handle otherwise. Would there be any advantage to this over a starter, possibly a shorter sling and heavier ammo?

Now, think about this: historians argue that Alexander's slingers had a 1/4 mile range. I know where I'll have to practice then! And with my truck parked in a gulley or some cave until I learn to aim that sucker! :-)

Hmmmmm. If I stand on the edge of a cliff, and by rocking the sling back and forth...nah, there's that over the head part. "Look out below!!!!" Thunk. "Oops." ;-)

Getting back on topic and off experimenting, I don't really have anything tied to measured weight, only to size. Now, let's get back to examining ammunition. How does shape come into play?

The one thing I will say about accuracy is that after a few shots, ball shaped ammunition is consistently accurate. This seems more a result of technique and aerodynamics than weight.

Weight comes into play more, in my opinion, only with respect to hitting power. Of course, weight does come into play when it comes to range, as well: more mass, greater distance. The counter, though, is that the greater the distance, the more difficult spot-on accuracy is to attain. At extreme ranges, the heavier ammunition is more effective, providing more mass for the longer flight. Remember, once in motion, mass prefers to remain in motion and the more mass, the harder it is to stop. Heavier ammunition typically also does more damage when it hits than lighter ammunition.

With that background, as mentioned above, my preferred ammunition is spherical with a diameter of 1/2" to 1" (inches). I have shot larger and smaller items, and non-spherical items, but find that for me this range seems to work best. My accuracy is consistent when using spherical ammunition, and degrades the further from spherical I get. That is, of course, to be expected.

I have shot assorted items that might give you some idea of the weights involved to tie into the ranges (I'll that cover next). I like the ceramics and the ball bearings best, when I can get them. Of those two, I like the ball bearings better. I have made some clay balls and shot them with quite satisfactory results. I have also shot mouse balls (US computer mouse balls, I understand European mouse balls have a lighter weight but have not had the opportunity to verify that).

As to range, as should be expected, it varies. When going for distance, I have shot 1" steel ball bearings 128 feet consistently. This was without any attempts at accuracy, just to see how far I could shoot them. They were probably landing in a 6 foot diameter circle, if you want to group for accuracy. In general, I've not really tried to shoot any targets beyond 64 feet. At that range, when trying to be accurate, I would estimate that my accuracy would be a grouping about 1 to 1 1/2 foot diameter. At 32 feet I usually generate 6" groupings.

A word on safety, now. As with anything, when you first start slinging, you want to be in an area where it doesn't matter where the stone goes, so it's not going to damage anything. You also want to practice at first in an area where it won't matter if you lose sight of where you're hitting. Take it from me: early on, around 11 years old, I was happily slinging on the beach and wondering why I wasn't seeing any splashes out in the lake. My dad finally came up to me and told me to quit. Why? I'd busted a windshield in a truck in the parking lot some 30 yards away, behind me.

I hope this is of some use and helps to answer the questions you as a beginning slinger might have getting started in this sport. As I continually reiterate, much of the selection of materials, sling length, style, and release is simply a matter of taking physics and your preferences and mixing them. The idea is to find what's comfortable for you, what works for you, and to find what applications of the variables best suit your style and needs.

Above all else, have fun.

Ok, class is over, you've got a sling in your hand and a pocket full of ammo just begging to be fired off. Git!

- Bill Blohm

© 2007