Picking out a new bow can often be a daunting task for the aspiring archer who wants to get into the sport. With so many choices from a plethora of manufacturers, it can be an overwhelming amount of information. Traditional or parallel limbs, long or short ATA, fast or forgiving, hunting or target. In this article we will take a look at some of the considerations to make when picking out your first compound bow (or any for that matter!)
Archery and Bow Definitions
Before getting too deep into the how to pick out a bow, it’s necessary to understand a few definitions. These are just a few of the most important terms to understand.
ATA: Axle to Axle The distance between the two axles on the ends of the limbs that hold the cams in place.
Brace Height: The distance from the deepest section of the grip to the bowstring
Draw Length: Either the draw length rating on the bow, or the archer’s actual draw length. A calculation of the distance that the archer must pull the bow to full draw
Draw Weight: The rating on the bow that describes the maximum force the archer must put on the string to pull it back
Release: A mechanical device, most often with a trigger, that is used to pull the bowstring back and “release” it
Riser: The center section of the bow that holds the limbs in place and has the grip for the archer’s hand
What are you going to use a bow for?
Bows come in many varieties and before being able to properly pick one out, you need to know what you plan on doing with it. While it is possible to buy one bow and do most anything archery related, if you plan on focusing on a certain type of shooting, it would be best to get a bow most suited for that type of archery.
Bowhunting: Hunting is probably the number one reason people get into archery and the majority of bows are geared towards this. Hunting bows are generally finished in camouflage or dark, matte colors. Many hunters prefer shorter ATA bows that are lightweight and thus easy to manipulate in treestands, blinds or carry through the hills. Some hunters prefer shorter brace heights to eke out every bit of speed and power from their bows; others like a longer brace height so that the string is less likely to hit bulky clothing used in cold weather and to make the bow easier to draw and be more forgiving in adverse conditions. These days most hunting bows range from 28″ to 36″ ATA and 5″ to 8″ brace height. Bowhunters generally prefer higher draw weights, 50-70+ lbs., to give more kinetic energy and momentum to the arrows to better penetrate game animals.
Target shooting: Target shooting can be anywhere from indoors at 18m/20 yards to outdoor Olympic style shooting at 90m and everywhere in between. In most cases, the needs of the target archers are similar. The distances are usually known and so the speed of the bow is not a big concern and high draw weight bows are unnecessary because the arrows need to only stick in the target and not bury themselves up to the fletchings. Bows for pure target shooting are generally longer in ATA, sometimes even over 40″, and in brace height, usually in the 7-9″ range. This makes for a more forgiving, easy to handle and stable bow when pinpoint accuracy is a must for scoring well.
3D archery: 3D is extremely popular in the USA and becoming more popular in other parts of the world. When shooting at foam animals at unknown distances, archers will want a fast bow to help compensate for errors in yardage estimation, along with a very accurate setup to be able to hit those small 12 and 14 rings. Many 3D shooters will choose something in between a hunting and target bow, but most often archers will use their hunting gear for 3D shooting.
Different bow options
Once it has been decided what the main use of the bow will be it’s important to understand some of the different options available on today’s bows.
If you plan on shooting with a glove/fingers, you will need a bow with a longer ATA so that when the bow is pulled back, your fingers aren’t pinched and a clean shot can be executed, an ATA with at least 38″+ is usually desirable. If you plan to use a mechanical release, the ATA is not as important and a shorter bow can be used without interfering with the release. In most cases, shorter bows (until they get too short!) tend to be faster as well.
There are different cam systems available on bows; this can be an extremely complex subject so we will just touch on it here for basic informational purposes
Single cam bows have one cam on the lower limb and a round “idler” wheel on the top limb. Because there is only one cam that affects the draw of the bow, it is generally easier to tune to an acceptable level.
Two cam bows are generally a type of “binary” cam where two identical cams are hooked together by the bow cables. This helps the cams to rotate in sync with each other. There are many variations of binary cams and all sorts of idiosyncrasies that go along with each one.
The third type of readily available cam is the hybrid, which is a mix of a two cam bow and a single cam. These bows have one full cam and one cam that is a cross between the full cam and an idler wheel.
Fitting the bow properly
By far the most critical thing to consider when buying a bow is that it must fit you properly. An ill-fitting bow will be less comfortable to shoot, less accurate and encourage bad shooting form that can be hard to overcome down the road. The first consideration when fitting a bow is getting an approximate draw length determine. Good pro shops will have the proper tools to accurately measure draw length, but an easy approximation can be made at home. Measure your wingspan with the arms held all the way out, measure from finger tip to finger tip. Take this measurement, subtract 15″ and divide by two. This will not give you an exact draw length, but should be close enough so that when you are looking at bows you know what draw length ranges to look at. See this short article for more details and a chart on using this method.
Once a bow that has the appropriate draw length is selected, the final draw length must be set to match the archer as exact as possible. The best way to do this is with the help of a quality pro shop or instructor that knows how to alter the draw length of the bow to fit the archer. This can be done in 1/2″ increments usually by moving the cam modules or swapping fixed cams, and adjusted more finely by adding or removing twists in the strings and cables.
Another consideration is picking a bow that balances well and has an appropriate brace height. Bows with longer brace heights tend to be more forgiving because the arrow is on the string for a shorter period of time and because they are less susceptible to being “torqued” or twisted by the archer’s grip. Giving a beginner a PSE Omen with a 5″ brace height is generally not a good idea and will most likely lead to less accurate shooting and frustration. Bows with a brace height of 7-9″ are generally more appropriate when learning to shoot.
The balance of the bow is also important and can only be determine by the archer themselves. It is very important to pick a bow that you can hold and balance steadily while aiming. Extremely short ATA bows, though they can be shot very accurately in capable hands, tend to be less stable and harder to hold on target. Much like a tight-rope walker’s long stick, a longer bow is easier to hold steady. This does not mean you should shoot a 50″+ ATA bow just because it is longer! With today’s bows, a good point to start looking would be for a bow with an ATA in the mid thirty inch range.
Used vs. New
One question that is often asked by new archers (and experienced ones as well!) is whether to buy used or new. There are advantages to both; used can save money and give the beginning archer an economical way to get started in the sport and learn about bows and their workings, while nobody will deny it’s nice to buy something shiny and new that only you have ever owned.
There are many ways to buy a used bow such as through your local archery shop (most will take in used bows on trade-in or consignment), Craig’s List, eBay, the classifieds both in your newspaper and through many internet message boards. Without being able to touch and shoot a bow, unless you already know about a certain bow, there is always a risk in buying a used bow. Going through a pro shop for the first time definitely has the advantages of being able to hold and shoot a specific bow before handing over your hard earned cash.
Buying a new bow is certainly more expensive, but there are many great entry level packages that are sold by most manufacturers that are a great way to get started. Also, by buying new you will have a valid warranty on your purchase (though some manufacturers do offer warranty transfers or will warranty used/sold bows.) Buying new also gives you the peace of mind that nothing has been done to damage or otherwise alter the bow in unsafe ways.
This article just barely scratches the surface of all the many considerations that go into purchasing a bow and how to pick the best one for yourself. Hopefully it is enough information to arm you with to be able to better ask questions and understand the many options you may come upon when looking for bow. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them here, email me (firstname.lastname@example.org), use the contact page or visit your local pro shop and/or archery club.
Archery can be as simple of a sport or as complicated of a sport as you make it. There is something for everyone!
Look for future articles to address more specific aspects of archery and archery equipment. I’m sure this article will undergo many changes/improvements/additions/etc. and I welcome any thoughts or suggestions on improving it. I’ll also be adding several graphics to the articles as time permits. Because of the amount of emails I have received lately on how to pick out a first bow, I decided to get the basics down ASAP and add to them along the way.