“Strong” vs “Weak” equipment…Bowling Balls are like Tires!

Do you understand your equipment?

There’s so much discussion about high performance, medium performance, and entry level equipment. Does that mean that entry level is “low performance”? Short answer is an emphatic NO, ABSOLUTELY NOT!

Let’s delve into what all of this means.

Almost all manufacturers classify their equipment into approximately 3 categories of which prices are high, medium, and low. Most call their most expensive equipment “High Performance”, “Premier”, “Crown”, Pro Performance”, etc. Then they will move to “Advanced Performance”, “Master”, and other naming conventions which intend to communicate that it is something “less” than the line above. Finally, they will move to “Entry Level” or some other similar nomenclature. Again, this is intended to be “below” the line above it, in some form or fashion. The most obvious is price. Performance, not so much…

From now one, I will use the following nomenclature for this article to describe the 3 levels: Strong, Medium, and Weak.
I know on the surface, these names are somewhat misleading. Many people think this means: Most Hook, Medium Hook, Least Hook. Hopefully by the end of the article, you will understand how this all works and recognize the characteristics of these levels.

Surface Roughness
Simply put, the rougher the surface is, the more traction is created. The smoother the surface is, the less traction is created.
Technically speaking, surface roughness is measured in Ra and Rs. Ra refers to microscopic spikes. Think of them like studs on snow tires. The taller the spikes (the higher the Ra), the more traction is created. Rs refers to the distance between the spikes. The more apart the spikes are spaced (the higher the Rs), the more traction is created.

Strong Equipment

These tend to sit in the premium category for each manufacturer but not necessarily exclusively. They usually are promoted and touted as new technology. It may be a new cover, a new core, or both. It’s a kind of showcase for manufacturers. Most of the time, this level is intended for high volume conditions.
Strong equipment is intended for heavy oil, regardless of price point. These balls will try to create traction in the oil so they will have higher Ra, higher Rs, or both. Think of them as snow tires. You get better traction. Oil will be absorbed into those spaces like a sponge to create that traction. So the bowling lines will begin to change as the oil is eaten up away from the lanes and into the ball.
Would you use snow tires in the summer? No! Why not? Because there purpose is to create traction in snow and they are created to perform under those conditions. Using them in the summer only wheres them out really quickly. The equivalent of snow for a high surface roughness bowling ball is heavy volumes (and lengths) of oil.
They will not visibly appear as the biggest hooking balls. That’s because increased friction also increases the amount of energy used up by the ball. Heavy oil balls are meant to create a consistent read in such heavy conditions. They don’t try to create a booming right to left move and a huge backend generally speaking. They will be smooth front to back, meaning they will hook as much in the midlane as they do in the backend creating an arcing motion, rather than a skid/snap motion. Recall my articles…”banana vs hockey stick” in Coverstock – Part 3 and Coverstock – Part 5.
When to use
OK, do most of us see high volume house shots? I would say almost certainly not. Most house shots are medium to dry. So why buy this kind of equipment? Well, besides the lure of buying what’s purported to be the “Lexus” of bowling balls, you could argue there isn’t much reason unless you bowl on soup. There are a couple of reasons though. If you have lower revs or high speed, or otherwise are a stroker, balls like this can be used on less than the highest volume and the ball will help you because of how aggressive it is.
Use when:

  • Bowl on heavier conditions
  • Have lower revs and need a ball with some traction
  • Have higher speeds and need a ball with some traction

The analogy…

Think of it like tires. Many times, the premium balls are meant to absorb a lot of oil which gives them more traction. Think of them as snow tires. You need snow tires in snow. But if it’s rainy do you really need snow tires? What if it’s sunny? OK, what happens to snow tires when they are driven in dry conditions too long? They wear out quickly. That’s exactly what happens to equipment meant for heavy oil. It burns up. In other words, on lighter conditions, it will use much of it’s energy and traction so early, that there is no energy left for the backend. Thus, it tends to not have a strong move at the breakpoint and tends to hit the pocket relatively weak which leaves corner pins. I see many people complain why the strongest ball on the market hits like a marshmallow. It’s because they are using a snow tire in sunny weather and it’s worn by the time it gets to the pocket. You wouldn’t run an autocross on snow tires! However, if you threw that same ball on a higher volume condition, it would be transformed.

Medium Equipment

These tend to sit in the “advanced performance” or middle-of-the-road category for each manufacturer but again, not necessarily exclusively. They can be technology from previous years, perhaps a cover from last year’s high end ball and core from a different ball in the lineup to create a “new” reaction. Generally, the medium equipment is a reuse of some kind and not something where manufacturers are putting much R&D into. These balls may cover medium-heavy conditions to medium-light conditions. They tend to be pretty versatile and possibly benchmark balls.

Medium equipment is intended for, well… medium conditions. These balls will generally create medium to low traction in the midlane. They will have lower Ra and Rs than the strong equipment. You can use them in most conditions, but they perform only average on the extremes like the oiliest or driest conditions. To stick with the analogy, these might range from all-around performance tires to all-weather tires. They perform great in average conditions, but they’ll only work average on the extremes like snow. On the right conditions, these balls could cover lots of boards.

All the balls are medium by definition, but hook characteristics can vary quite drastically. Some balls will have a banana shape hook while others will have a hockey stick shape. If you haven’t read the previous article, here’s another chance: Coverstock-Part 3 and Coverstock-Part 5. You will find solid reactive equipment and pearlized equipment. The solid reactives will tend to be smoother in overall hook shape and have more potential to be benchmark balls. To understand what is meant by benchmark, check out the article, What is Your Benchmark Ball?. The pearlized medium balls will tend to react slowly to the midlane, pushing the breakpoint further down lane, but will react aggressively to the dry.

When to use
These balls tend to be the bread and butter equipment on most typical house shots. When you look at it overall, it may appear than the pearlized balls cover more boards, but this is a deception of the eye. It depends on what part of the lane. So in the front to midlane, Solid balls will tend to cover more boards while pearlized balls will cover more boards on the backends. Sometimes, total hook is about the same or solid may have a slightly more board coverage. So you really have to evaluate which shape you need to score best at that particular time and on those particular lanes. Earlier in a set on fresh shots, it may be advisable to use a ball that has a more even hook shape from front to back. Once the pattern breaks down a bit and the breakpoint becomes well-defined with margin for error, a ball with bigger backend will probably score better.

Use when:

  • Bowl on medium conditions
  • Even hooking ball on fresh medium patterns
  • Stronger backend hook on broken down medium patterns

Weak Equipment

These tend to fall in the entry level categories for most manufacturers, but again not exclusively. Some manufacturers are creating dry condition specific balls in their non-entry lines. Most of the time, the so-called weak equipment tends to be older technology. It may have been aggressive in previous days, but as oil viscosities have changed, they are no longer strong reacting balls. You may find various combinations of weak covers and medium cores, medium covers and weak cores, weak covers and pancake cores.

The intention for most of these balls is for dry conditions. These balls are meant to create very little traction on their own. In other words, their surface will be relatively smooth and have the lowest Ra and Rs. That means they will need the lanes to create traction, i.e., low volumes of oil. So when we say weak, that is to say the ball itself will not tend to want to generate traction. However, these balls can generate a large amount of hook if the lane conditions are correct.

I liken weak equipment to slick tires. Slicks have no grooves. The road has tons of grip, just like the lanes. But try to use slicks in the rain and what happens? The tires and the car hydroplane. That’s because there is simply no grip.
But just like slicks, under the right conditions, these balls can have strong hook on the dry and are capable of very high entry angles.

When to use
When the lanes are really dry, say you’re house puts out a very light condition, or after 1st or second shift, then these will likely find their way out of the bag. You would be surprised how often weak equipment can be used nowadays. Most houses simply aren’t oiling heavily enough. So if you have a medium shot and it breaks down quickly, these are good balls to have.

Use when:

  • Bowl on dry or burnt conditions
  • Bowl on late shift when lanes have broken down
  • Have high revs and can generate movement naturally, on medium to light conditions

Bowling balls are like tires

Strong balls are like studded snow tires. They grip when the condition creates little traction. Remember, you wouldn’t take the sharpest curves when it’s snowing. That’s why these balls don’t tend to have a huge backend!
Medium balls are like all-around performance tires or summer tires. When the conditions have decent traction, they can add some traction and create excellent performance. They can take the curves very well on the right conditions.
Weak balls are like slicks. The conditions have to be right. If there is any rain, they will not work at all. But when the conditions are right, these balls will have booming backends like the best of them.

Remember, use the right ball on the right conditions and you’ll have it made. Know what to expect from your equipment for the highest possible success.

Good Luck and Good Bowling!


  1. John Gugliotta, Jr. says:

    Coach T,

    Could you provide the range of Ra and Rs equipment fall within? It would be nice to be able to figure out whether a ball is strong or weak, without the mfr telling us. Also, maybe in a future article, provide the same information about cores; not just the range the Rg and Diff must fall within, but how we can determine from looking at a core, why it is a strong or weak one.


  2. Hi John,
    Thanks for the comments. It’s an interesting question. If we look at the 2008 USBC Ball Motion Study, it is clear that the Ra has the most profound affect on ball motion followed by On-Lane coefficient of Friction, then Rs. What this means is that the Ra or the peaks in the microscopic pores has the biggest impact. These numbers are not readily available for each ball as far as I am aware so I don’t think you would be able to use that specifically.
    HOWEVER, the study did demonstrate that the majority of equipment had very similar Ra once the ball was finished at 1000 grit or above. The standard deviation didn’t seem significant for the most part until the ball was finished to 500grit. Then the surface chemistry of each ball came into play. This study was published in 2008 so it’s tough to say since then whether or not new chemical surface additives have changed this so that the chemical make up of the ball has a bigger impact than surface grit finish.
    The way I interpret the data is that once you get to 2000, 4000, or polished, the Ra of the ball will not be the main differentiating factor in ball performance. Then you have to start looking at Rs which is also not published and then core dynamics which accounts for ~25% of the ball reaction.
    I will write a future article about core shapes. That’s a great suggestion!

  3. Hi. What ball would you recommend that can be categorized as a “weak ball” with a “medium core” or a “weak ball” with a “strong core”?

    I’m looking at Lane #1 – XXXL Starburst.

  4. This is an excellent article on comparing types of balls that are available on the market. I’m new to the sport (under 1 year experience).

    When I first started out, I was flummox by a myriad of “performance balls” in the market. I didn’t know how to choose my first ball. I did ask several pro shops on how to choose a ball. The reply was simply “it depends on lane conditions”. No further explanation.

    Your analogy between a bowling ball and tire explains it all. I can now make an educated decision when I buy my next ball. :-)

    One question though. We have ball cover stock, core, drilling layout playing a role in the hooking trajectory. Where does axis rotation and axis tilt fit in? For instance, what is the reason some bowlers apply higher axis rotation?

    • Hey, welcome to the sport K!!! I get very excited to see new bowlers, not just people who bowl occasionally. The fact that your digging around for information is a testament to your commitment… and it gives my work purpose. :-)
      I still can’t believe how many balls manufacturers continue to make. I think it’s all in trying to keep the sport fresh and relevant.
      Regardless of when you jump in and pick a rock, the fact remains that the medium and low end balls are always the most versatile. Their covers are not so aggressive as to limit their use on lighter conditions but their not so weak that you can’t use on heavier conditions. They tend to store more energy, allowing for a good motion on the backends. For beginners, that may sound like a bit much. However, it offers some validation to the efforts you are putting in to developing the game. To me, balls like the Columbia Freeze, Ebonite Cyclone, and Storm Tropical Heat would be excellent balls for versatility and I believe you can learn with them.

      Let me try to address your question about axis rotation and tilt. They do play a part in the overall ball reaction for sure. Imagine that rotation is the vertical axis and tilt is horizontal. So for rotation, if you would roll the ball from directly behind, the ball would roll end over end towards the pins. This would be 0 degrees rotation. If you held your hand like a suitcase and released the ball, you could theoretically get 90 degrees of rotation. So the ball is moving towards the pins, but rotating towards the wall.
      With more rotation you get:
      -More overall board coverage
      -more length with more backend reaction
      Rotation is the horizontal axis. So imagine the end over end towards the pin, but migrating the whole line towards the horizon. Of course, the closer the ball spins on the horizon, the more it spins like a top. Spinning like a top is not good. Some bowlers have very little tilt and some have quite a bit.
      With more tilt you get:
      -Less sensitivity to the front part of the lane
      -More reaction on the backend of the lane

      These 2 items do play a big role like I said, but maybe a bit much for a beginner. Meaning that as a coach, I wouldn’t focus on those 2 things as I’ve described. I would try to get you to roll the ball properly. That tends to mean getting the thumb out first and then fingers. Usually, that’s the most difficult transition for people switching from throwing a conventional grip straight to a fingertip grip with a hook. People like to turn the wrist and they wind up turning over the whole forearm in an attempt to make it hook. The wrist change that generates hook is a very subtle 1/4 turn.
      At some stage, a bowler will develop a natural amount of rotation and tilt. Then at a more advanced stage, you can begin to learn how to adjust tilt and rotation as needed based on the conditions. There are tricks to this.

      I hope that helps!
      Good Luck!

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