Change ringing is often practiced on hand bells that are cast in bronze, typically weigh only between one-half and two pounds, and are noted for their bright, crisp tones. These bells are generally rung in sets of 6 to 12 bells by ringers who sit or stand in a circle facing each other, holding one bell in each hand by a short leather strap.
Originally, tuned sets of handbells were used by change ringers to rehearse outside their towers. Tower bell ringers’ enthusiasm for practicing the complicated algorithms of change ringing can easily exceed the neighbors’ patience, so in the days before modern sound control handbells offered them a way to continue ringing without the aural assault. The handbell sets used by change ringers have the same number of bells as in the towers – generally six or 12 tuned to a diatonic scale.
The bells used in America are almost always English handbells. “English handbells” is a reference to a specific type of handbells, not to the country of origin. The two major defining characteristics of English handbells are their clappers and ability to produce overtones. The clapper on an English handbell is on a hinge and moves back and forth in a single direction, unlike a school bell in which the clapper swings freely in any direction. It also has a spring that holds the clapper away from the casting after the strike to allow the bell to ring freely. Furthermore, the shaft of the clapper is rigid, such that the bell may be held with its mouth facing upward.
[information courtesy of the North American Guild of Change Ringers, Wikipedia, and “Change Ringing Handbells Come to America” by Martha Lynn Thompson]