The Science of Bowling

There is nothing like the feeling of throwing a strike. The crack of the ball hitting the pins, the pins flying around, and then being able to rub it in your friend’s face. However, when the typical person goes bowling, they probably do not think about the science of the game. For competitive bowlers, this is not the case. When a competitive bowler goes bowling, they have to take many different scientific elements into consideration. The most difficult part of this process for bowlers is that most of these elements can not be easily seen, if at all. Some of the most important scientific elements of bowling in today’s game include oil patterns on the lane surface, bowling ball cores and coverstocks (the outer shell of the bowling ball), and bowling ball surfaces and layouts.

One of the reasons bowling is such a difficult sport is because bowlers have to base how they bowl on something they cannot see that changes all the time: oil patterns on the lane. Oil patterns come in all different forms— some are long, some are short, some are higher volume, others are lower volume. Because a bowling ball needs friction to hook, oil dictates both how much a ball will hook and when it will hook. Therefore, if a pattern is shorter and has less volume, the bowling ball will hook more and earlier. If a pattern is longer and has more volume, the ball will hook less and later, all other factors (ball & bowler) being equal. Some oil patterns are more difficult than others. The difficulty is dictated by how flat a pattern is, or, in other words, how the oil is dispersed across a lane.

Even though bowlers can not actually see the oil pattern, there are diagrams to show how the oiling machine puts down the patterns.

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Mexico City Pattern (45′) courtesy of Kegel.

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Sydney Pattern (33′) courtesy of Kegel.

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Survivor Pattern courtesy of Kegel.

From these diagrams, a bowler can determine how much his ball will hook, how difficult the pattern is, where the ball will hook, and how much volume there is. The bowler can tell when his ball will hook by looking at where the end of the pattern ends. For example, the Sydney pattern is 33 feet, so the ball would hook earlier than on the Mexico City pattern, which ends at 45 feet. The bowler can tell how difficult a pattern is by looking at the ratios at the bottom of the diagram, representing how flat the oil pattern is. The lower the ratio, the flatter the pattern. Of these three patterns, the Sydney would be the flattest, followed by the Mexico City, followed by Survivor. When a pattern is not as flat, it is easier because there is more friction to the right than there is left. Therefore, when a bowler misses a shot left, the ball will hold line longer and hook later; but if he misses right, and there is friction, the ball will hook earlier to get back to the pocket. This is called “miss room.” The best way to imagine this is picturing the lane as “U-shaped.” The last thing a bowler can tell from these diagrams is how much volume there is. The volume a pattern has is just gathered by simply looking at the volume total number, and it will dictate how quickly the oil will transition. The problem with these diagrams is that after every shot that goes down the lane, the pattern changes. High-tech bowling balls absorb oil, taking oil off the lane every shot, forcing bowlers to adjust frequently due to the constantly changing lane conditions.

Bowling ball technology, just like baseball bats, golf clubs, lacrosse sticks, and many other sporting items, has changed dramatically over the years. Back when bowling started in ancient Egypt, bowling balls were made of husks of grain bounded by leather, porcelain, and even just round rocks. In the 20th century, bowling balls were made of dense hardwoods, then quickly transitioned to being made of hard rubber and plastic. In today’s game, balls hook more and hit harder than ever. It is important for bowlers to have many different bowling balls for different lane conditions they may encounter. Needing many different bowling balls is similar to a golfer needing many different types of golf clubs.

The two main aspects that make up how a bowling ball hooks and strikes are its coverstock and core. Most argue that the coverstock is the most important aspect of the bowling ball because it is what touches the lane surfaces. Coverstocks have evolved rapidly in the past few decades. Now, there are three basic coverstocks a bowling ball can have: reactive resin, urethane, or plastic. Reactive resin is the cover that makes the ball hook the most, urethane hooks very little (old school coverstock), and plastic does not hook, making it useful for spares.

Cores are also an important factor in how bowling balls hook. There are two main types of bowling ball cores: symmetrical, and asymmetrical. Symmetrical core balls typical roll more controllably; however, they have less hook potential on higher oil lane conditions. Asymmetric core balls are typically more dynamic and can handle more oil than symmetric bowling balls.

crux core

Storm Crux Core (asymmetric core) courtesy of Strom Bowling.

optimus core

Storm Optimus Core (symmetric core) courtesy of Storm Bowling.

The typical casual bowler probably never considers any of these things while bowling, but to some this is interesting. Hopefully, I blew your mind about bowling, and now when you go bowling you may notice these things while watching others bowl or while you bowl yourself.


About the author

Gordon Granger is a senior at Collegiate