In bowling, a pinsetter, or pinspotter, was originally a person who manually reset bowling pins to their correct position, cleared fallen pins, and returned bowling balls to players. Probably due to the nature of the work (low-paid, often part-time, manual labor that most frequently took place evenings), many pinsetters were teenaged boys, and thus pinboy is another name used to describe the job. In 1936 Gottfried Schmidt invented the mechanical pinsetter while with the AMF firm, which largely did away with pinsetting as a manual profession, although a small number of bowling alleys still use human pinsetters. While humans usually no longer set the pins, a pinchaser, or in slang 'pin monkey', often is stationed near the equipment to ensure that it is clean and working properly, and to clear minor jams.
Many pinsetters are integrated with electronic scoring systems of varying sophistication. While many pinsetters have a manual reset button to use in case the pinsetter does not automatically activate at the correct time, other types have no automatic tracking of the state of the game - especially for the candlepin and duckpin bowling sports which use smaller balls - and are almost always manually activated.
The design of the machines varies. Several types of bowling make use of different designs for machines due to the different size and shape of the pins and balls. Common part descriptions for just about all pinspotting units consist of:
- Rake/Sweep Bar - removes fallen and leftover pins from the pin deck area of the lane. The sweep may also stay lowered throughout the table operating cycle, to act as the primary physical protective barrier against improperly thrown balls
- Spotting Deck/Table - also used in pre-automated manual units, places a new "rack" of pins onto the lane for the next frame, and in tenpins and duckpins, lifts the remaining pins for the sweep to remove fallen pins for the bowler's next roll of the ball in those games
- Deck/Table Shield (Brunswick A series only) - a fixed sheet metal enclosure, usually fastened to the spotting table's framework and diagonal forward frame edges, provides secondary protection for the spotting table system from improperly thrown balls (in addition to the sweep bar) and flying pins, and covers the pin chutes that are used to transfer the pins from the characteristic, cage-like Brunswick-design rotating pin storage turret above the table downwards into the deck for transfer onto the lane's pin deck area.
- Pit - a collection area behind the lane where balls and struck pins collect for sorting, actually a part of any regulation bowling lane.
- Pin Elevator - brings pins upwards out of the lane's pit to the top of the unit for re-racking for successive frames, usually in the form of a vertically-oriented toroid-shape system at the extreme rear of the pinspotter for tenpin bowling units, to deliver pins upwards from the pit into the pin storage system.
- A system of pin storage for storing the next full "rack" of pins after delivery to it by the pin elevator system - this can exist within (or as part of) the table, or above and/or behind the table
- Ball Return (or "Ball Lift") - Removes the bowler's ball from the lane's "pit" and sends it rolling back to the bowler on the ball return track, located between paired lane beds, back to the ball return unit at the "heads" of the lanes. The ball lift's components are designed to physically separate the ball from the fallen pins in the pit, and will not send pins into the ball return track.
In the decades leading up to the introduction of the fully automatic units, "semi-automatic" pinsetters, such as the "B-1" and "B-10" units made by Brunswick, basically consisting of just a manually filled "table" similar to those used on the fully automatic units, operating much as the later units' component of the same name operated, were used by human pinsetters to both speed up the manual operation, and assure accuracy of "spotting" the full rack of ten pins for the next frame.
The AMF family of pinspotters, the very first ones ever used in quantity in the industry, have changed little since the mass-produced 82-30 version. There are three main pinspotter models, the aforementioned 82-30 (no longer produced, but still in common use, ever since the 1960s US bowling boom and the early career of Dick Weber), the 82-70 (prototyped in 1962, and still in production, since 1963) and the newest versions, the 82-90 and the 82-90XLI, both of which use the 82-70's general mechanical design. AMF pinspotters were originated by American Machine and Foundry and are now manufactured by QubicaAMF Worldwide. All operate generally the same way with small improvements.
The 82-30's operation and mechanics, having been significantly developed from AMF's pioneering 82-10 experimental model, which depended much on the use of suction to hold the pins in a double-sided spotting table for both spotting remaining pins and setup of new racks of pins, are quite different from the Model A, A-2 and JetBack units from Brunswick (which the AMF 82-10 pre-dated by almost a decade), with differing sweep and table designs, and especially in how the pins are handled for storage, after they got to the top of the machinery. After the bowler rolls their ball, and knocking down the pins, the ball strikes the pit cushion block. This activates the machine, which lowers the sweep to the guard position. Then the table descends and the respot cells close around the heads of the standing pins. The cells that have pins in them complete electrical circuits that send scoring information to the display, and turned on one or more of ten "pindicator" lights - pioneered by AMF in May 1953 - in an electrically illuminated triangular framed screen on the pinspotter's masking unit in front of the machine, to identify remaining pins.
After the table lifts the remaining pins, the machine runs the sweep, clearing dead pins from the pin deck, then returns to the guard position. Ball and pins travel on a continuously running carpet belt at the bottom of the pit. The ball, being heavier, travels to one of the side kick-backs where it enters the ball return, shared by adjacent lanes. The pins travel under the cushion into the ring-shaped, revolving circular pin elevator, at the rear center of the unit, which brings the pins up to a "distributor arm" that travels laterally as well as forward and back (on the 82-30, an "arrowhead"-planform guide rail atop the spotting table governs the distributor's head piece movements) over the table as seen here, to deliver the pins to the corresponding bins or "spotting cups" as known in the 82-30's factory manuals, awaiting the next spotting cycle. In the 82-30, its semi-cylindrical "spotting cup" bins are part of the visible spotting table (unique to the design of the 82-30) suspended below the table's frame, each at a roughly a 45° angle with each "cup" inclined, pin-base-forward, in front of each spotting cell, and clearly visible to the bowler whenever the table approaches its lowermost position. After the table returns to its upper position, the sweep also lifts, and the machine shuts down to await the next ball. For spotting the new rack of pins, the 82-30 version tilts the pin-filled spotting cups vertically as the table descends, and tilts the cups slightly rearwards as seen here to clear the new rack of pins just as the table starts upwards, leaving the new rack of pins spotted on the lane for the next frame.
Beginning in December 1961, the 82-30 units also became famous for having the "Sparemaker" version of the earlier triangular pindicator screen on their masking units as advertised by AMF and their staff's pro bowler Dick Weber, which added a set of eleven lighted "arrows" to the usual numbered ten lights for standing pins, triangular corner lights that indicated the first or second ball to be rolled, and separate lights to indicate a foul, or a strike. The "arrows" were for the purpose of advising an inexperienced bowler to assist in spare conversion, by indicating where a second ball delivery should hit the remaining pins for a successful conversion, and were triggered by appropriate combinations of standing pins that helped the machine select which one of the eleven arrows to illuminate. Rear view of an AMF Magic Triangle screen and the patent document for it
There have been specific upgrades and improvements made to the machines produced after the 82-30, with after-market solid-state/microprocessor-operated controllers available for the 82-30 itself. The 82-70 is the general standard in most AMF-equipped modern bowling centers today. It features a microprocessor-operated chassis that is upgraded to short cycle the machine for strikes, gutter balls, or 7–10 pick-offs. It features solid state motors. The 82-90 and the 82-90XLI are further upgrades, basically using the 82-70's mechanics, which replaced the older, completely electro-mechanical controls with machine status indicator lights, much more sophisticated "pin storage" design, single control centers that handle two machines, and perhaps the most important upgrade is the self shutdown control, which shuts the machine down to prevent damage from continuing to operate with a fault. The 82-90 models feature a deck that is thinner than the 82-70.
QubicaAMF Worldwide has also introduced many different scoring systems that are compatible with all pinsetters and pinspotters.
Brunswick A series pinsetters
The Brunswick Model A, dating from 1956, as well as the developed A2 (1962) and the JetBack (1965) versions of it, work as follows.
First, the balls and pins are pushed off the end of the lane by the rake assembly onto a shaking board the width of the lane, in place of the AMF-variety carpet belt. This "shaker" transfers the ball and pins to the rear of the pit, behind the lane's pindeck. Two large rotating wheels, at the center rear of the unit, are situated with their common axis along the bowling lane. The ball-lift wheel is the one closer to the bowler and is smooth on its inside surfaces, with enough space between its inner and outer surfaces to allow the fallen pins to go rearwards through it into the rear-located pin-wheel (or pin elevator), placed behind the ball return wheel which has seven pockets, which capture the pins, and is somewhat similar to the AMF unit's design.
When a ball rolls back to the ball-lift wheel, friction lifts the ball up to the side where it catches on two lift rods covered with a rubber material. Wedged in between, the ball is rolled upward. When it gets to the top, it is deposited onto a metal track that usually leads underground, and is pushed along by a long accelerator belt. Finally, the ball is pushed upward by two wheels located at the head of the ball return track, where it is deposited.
When a pin rolls back, the smaller diameter of the pin allows it to fall rearwards through the ball return wheel. As the pins are still moving from the shaking by the board, a pin will bounce around until it lands in a pocket in the pinwheel. It may be seated in the pinwheel head-first or base-first. The wheel brings the pin to the top and drops it into a metal tray, called a "turnaround pan", similar to what exists on the rear end of the AMF 82-30 unit's pin distributor arm. It's shaped somewhat like a scoop, with the lip of the scoop facing the bowler. The weight of the pin's body makes it drop into the pan base-first, so that the pin's base is facing the bowler. From there a conveyor belt lifts the pin up, letting it slide into one of ten spots - nine around the periphery in groups of three spots each, and one in the center for the number-5 pin - in a rotating metal basket called the "turret" (located just above the spotting table) with only the deck itself, protected with the attached sheet metal "deck shield", visible to the bowler as it descends to handle the pins. When a pin lands in an empty location in the turret, the turret rotates (or "indexes") so that the next pin will land in the next empty location, with the 5-pin chute in the center of the turret being filled last. Once the turret is full, and the empty spotting table reaches the top of its travel, all ten pins are simultaneously dropped from the turret into the spotting chutes of the table, which lowers them onto the lane to set the new rack of pins on the pin deck.
This style of machine is typically loaded with 20 pins, though most proprietors normally put in 21 pins to facilitate quicker loading and faster operation of the pinsetter, especially in cases where the bowler(s) make two strikes in quick succession — on the original Model A unit, the "second ball cycle" used for both a second ball's delivery or a strike won't complete if the turret is not full, with the spotting table waiting in its elevated position until it loads a full rack of ten pins from the turret. Adding an extra pin does not put undue stress on the machine, but adding more than that is not advisable due to damage that can occur to the machine. Other centers will only load the pinsetter with 19 pins. Having only 19 pins in the machine will cause fewer stops from time to time but it will slow down the progress of the game if multiple strikes are thrown in succession.
The later A2 and JetBack versions, otherwise each virtually identical to the original Model A design, were augmented enough to have much faster ball return action than the original Model A units. the A-2 was also designed to be a faster machine overall to increase the number of frames that could be bowled in a given time frame, thus increasing the revenue of the bowling center.
The visible deck shield, as well as the noticeable sounds of pins entering the pin elevator (sounding like bowling pins rattling in a metal drum) and of the next set of pins dropping from the turret into the deck chutes, are unique to the Brunswick A series. There is a large Brunswick "crowned-B" (their 1950s logo) on the front of the deck shield of the Model A, "A-2" on the A-2 deck shield front, and "JetBack" on the JetBack deck shield front, unless these markings have been removed or covered by the bowling center proprietor.
Brunswick GS series pinsetters
The GSX is Brunswick's current pinsetter. This machine uses a conveyor belt on the pit floor to move the pins to a vertical elevator system similar to the ones utilized on the AMF 82 series pinspotters, while the ball exits the pit at the side through a ball door. Pins are loaded using a combination of belts. The ball return system on this machine uses an under-lane accelerator as opposed to a lift. It lowers the pin table on every cycle to determine scoring.
The original model in the GS series (GS stands for Game Setter) was the GS-10, which was principally designed by Augusti Schmid in Scherzenbach, Switzerland to promote the sport of bowling throughout Europe. In 1984, Brunswick Bowling & Billiards Corporation acquired the rights to manufacture and sell the GS-10 pinsetter. The mechanical portion of the pinsetter was originally manufactured in the Brunswick plant located in Stockach, Germany. In 1999 the mechanical manufacturing was relocated to Hungary. The electronic control system is manufactured in Michigan, near the Brunswick plant located in Muskegon, Michigan. Subsequent models (year of introduction is in parentheses):
- GS-92 (1991) - Incorporated changes to the pinsetter to make it quicker to install and easier to service.
- GS-96 (1995) - Incorporated changes in the software and hardware to speed up loading time of the pinsetter.
- GS-98 (1997) - Incorporated a new consolidated electronic system that uses a two control box system to reduce the number of printed circuit boards needed to operate the pinsetter. Also, software and hardware improvements to make the pinsetter more efficient and user-friendly.
- GS-X (1999) - Incorporated a setting table and ball accelerator redesign that reduced the amount of parts, the number of adjustments, and the amount of preventive maintenance required. In 2000 the GS-X consolidated electronics was replaced with a single box electrical system called the NexGen Controller. This change reduced the overall size, weight, and number of electrical components needed to operate the pinsetters and made the setup for the machine more user-friendly. An additional modification lowered the overall profile of the pinsetter, allowing it to be installed in centers with low ceilings and reducing the number of parts and adjustments and the amount of preventative maintenance required.
The GS is characterized by a sweep that rotates downward (as opposed to dropping) as soon as the ball enters the pin deck. A GS-X shows “gsx” on the sweep when it is down, unless this marking has been removed or covered by the bowling center proprietor.
Other types of ten-pin pinsetters
The Mendes company produced a magnetic pinsetter known as the MM-2001. It featured a flat magnetic pin table and magnets on the head of each pin. It had a pit similar to the AMF and an elevator similar to the GSX. Pin loading involves the combination of a carousel and magazine. The company claimed this technology reduces stops in play due to table jams on out-of-range pins. Mendes was bought out by Qubica, which sold the machine as the MAG3 until its partnership with AMF.
The now-defunct Bowl Mor firm of central Massachusetts (no relation to Bowlmor AMF) that was more famous for their candlepin pinsetters, also made tenpin pinspotters early in their history. Some of these units are still in service, with at least one bowling center in Japan having continued to use them.
The most common candlepin pinsetters were made by a Massachusetts company named Bowl-Mor (no relation to Bowlmor AMF), which was founded in the 1940s by two attorneys, Howard Dowd and R. Lionel Barrows. According to the International Candlepin Bowling Association (ICBA), Dowd and Barrows were searching for business venture that could weather an economic depression. Marketing research on their part found that participant sports met this requirement, and that bowling was one of the top three participant sports at the time. The first Bowl-Mor pinsetters  were installed at the now-defunct Whalom Park amusement park in 1949. Though no longer manufactured, refurbished units, parts and maintenance support are available from several vendors.
Bowl-Mor pinsetters have a depressed pit approximately 14" long at the end of the bowling lane, placed about 4" below the level of the lane surface, with a curtain behind it, hanging past the lane surface but not touching the bottom of the pit. The curtain arrests the backwards motion of struck balls and pins, so that they fall onto the pit. When a reset takes place, a "board-like" sweep bar descends, driven by a chain drive system on each side of the machine along a pair of "L"-shaped tracks — one on either side, and sweeps the pins and balls off the lane, through the depressed area, and past the curtain and onto a rotating turntable. Here, pins and balls separate, being spun off the steadily rotating turntable by centrifugal force into the elevators.
An elevator composed of a rotating rack of open frames (similar to an industrial toaster) catches the candlepins and hauls them towards the top of the machine, and then turns 90 degrees to bring the pins horizontally across, bringing the pins past ten conveyors each wide enough to hold pins in a lengthwise orientation. Unlike the pinspotters used for tenpins and duckpins, since candlepins have identical "ends" to them, the machine does not have to orient the candlepins in one particular direction. The pins fall off the end of the conveyors into spotting tubes, mounted at their base onto the plate that forms the main part of the spotting table. As the sweep nears the forward end of its travel, and then begins its ascent to its resting position, the table drops to the metal plate pindeck at the end of the lanebed, and release a set of pins, and then ascends to its own resting position, ready to be filled with pins once more.
A separate elevator next to the turntable transports the balls to the ball return system, which has a near-vertical ramp that the balls roll down to gain enough momentum to roll through either an above-lane or submerged trough back up the alley, entering the ball return rack next to the approach area where players can grab them. Bowl Mor pinsetters are stocked with 24 to 27 pins, and are deemed substantially more reliable than typical Ten-pin bowling pinsetters. Due to the playing rules of candlepin bowling allowing fallen "dead wood" pins to remain on the lane between each ball's roll, no provision has ever been made for "spotting cells" in a candlepin pinsetter's spotting table, simplifiying the machines' design. Most parts of the machine are driven by chains - especially the sweep board's drive system, on two L-shaped tracks on either side of the unit - or belts. A Bowl Mor unit weighs approximate 1,450 pounds (660 kg), and draws 24 amperes at 110 volts from three-wire 110-220 volt service mains. The ICBA lists the cost of a refurbished Bowl Mor unit at approximately $5000.
AMF manufactured candlepin pinsetters for a short time in the 1960s, using a Bowl-Mor style spotting table and an adapted tenpin-style sweep bar that operated at an unusually rapid pace during its sweep.
Unless triggered into action by an automated scoring unit, candlepin pinsetters must be started by the bowler at the conclusion of a frame, by using a button or foot pedal operated switch to start the reset cycle.
Five-pin bowling is a popular variation in Canada, and pinsetters fall into two categories: string and free-fall. String pinsetters are more prevalent, and consist of machines attached to the head of each pin, by means of a cord. Essentially, the pinsetter is triggered by the movement of any pin by more than an inch or two. With that, the machine lowers a guard, pulls up all 5 pins, and resets those that did not move. There is, on average, a three second lag from when the pins were knocked down to when the guard is lowered. The pit floor is angled such that the ball is gravity-fed to a track that leads to an elevator. The elevator lifts the ball to the return track.
Free-fall 5-pin pinsetters work in a similar way to their ten-pin counterparts, and requires initiation by the bowler pressing a "reset" button as a candlepin unit does to "cycle" it, when a ball is bowled or pin knocked down. When the player pushes their "Reset" button, the machine lowers a guard, lifts standing pins and sweeps away the downed pins. If it does not recognize any standing pins, it will set up a new set for the next frame. Unlike tenpin, balls and pins are picked up in the same elevator or conveyor and are separated at the top of the machine.
Duckpin bowling is played in two varieties.
Regular duckpin bowling is popular in the northeastern and mid-Atlantic United States. One popular pinspotter in this sport is the Sherman, with continuously moving conveyor belts at the ends of the gutters beside the pin deck as required by the sport's ruling body, the National Duckpin Bowling Congress, that move fallen pins to the pit. The Sherman's sweep device is located on the right side, vertical "kickback" panel of the lane and pivots 180 degrees (much like a fence gate) to clear pins. The pin table always handles the pins by the neck. A new rack of pins is created with a moving magazine that is shaped like a pin triangle. When the magazine is loaded and the bowler is ready for a new set of pins, a lever pushes the magazine unit out to the pin table so it can take the pins out of the magazine and then set them down on the lane.
The Bowl-Mor company also made a duckpin pinspotter for a time, using a similar sweep device to its more famous candlepin machines.
Soft belly or rubberband duckpin is played in Quebec. Most of these bowling centers use a string type pinsetter similar to five pin. Apart from five-pin, rubber band duckpin is the only bowling variant that currently sanctions string type pinsetters. The free-fall machine for this sport features a rotating turntable in the pit floor similar to a Bowl-Mor candlepin unit, conveyor belts in the gutters as required in the regular duckpin game in the USA, an elevator similar to the Brunswick GSX, a turret similar to the A-2, and a rather flat looking pin table. The sweep is similar to the candlepin Bowl-Mor.
Older table-based pinsetters that pick up the pins between throws could malfunction if a pin were moved sideways when the ball is thrown, but remained standing. The pin would now be out of alignment with the setter pickup holes, and the table mechanism would collide with these misplaced pins. Failure of the device to detect pin drift can result in setter mechanism collision damage, pin crush damage, or lane damage from blunt force pressure of the setter pressing down on the misaligned pin.
If a pin had drifted but still managed to be picked up, older table pinsetters would simply realign the pin into the correct spot when placing it back onto the lane. This results in less than accurate gameplay since the table is changing the pin positions during the pickup process.
Regular table-style fully automated tenpin pinspotters from AMF and Brunswick, from their beginnings earlier in the 20th century, have been required by the United States Bowling Congress to be able to accurately re-spot "off-spot" pins that have been knocked out of position, sometimes up to 15 cm from the normal setting position, and then place them back onto the lane in the same location. If the pins are sufficiently out of position to not be pickable, the table will detect contact with the misplaced pin, and shut down the pinspotter to prevent mechanism damage.
String pinsetters generally do not have a mechanism to place pins back on the lane exactly where they were before, during the spare clearing. Since there is no table, collision damage is not possible with a string pinsetter, but they can suffer from string entanglement when the pins are being picked up, that prevents pins from aligning with the pickup holes.
- "How Stuff Works on Pinsetters". Retrieved 2014-01-24.
- "GS-Series Pinsetter Operation and Service Manual, January 2001, Part number 47-902735-000" (PDF). Brunswick. Retrieved 2014-01-24.
- Patent for the Bowl-Mor candlepin machine
- Patent for the AMF candlepin machine
- Development of the Automatic Pinsetter
- Bowlinglinks all over the World, sorted by categories
- Article about a bowling alley that still (as of 2000) uses human pinsetters
- An Elks lodge two-lane alley that still uses Brunswick pinboy-operated semi-automatic pinsetters in the 21st century
- AMF 82-30 pinspotter videos page
- Manufacture and operation of AMF 82-70 pinspotters
- OldBowling's video of first, a very early model of Brunswick tenpin pinspotter, and then a prototype of the Brunswick Model A pinspotter
- Part 1 and Part 2 of two-part video of Brunswick Model A2 pinspotter in action
- A rare Bowl-Mor tenpin pinspotter in action
- The Bowl-Mor candlepin pinsetter in action
- ICBA page about Bowl Mor units
- Video of a rare Canadian fivepin bowling pinspotter
- The Sherman duckpin pinspotter in action