Archery and bowhunting basics: Types of bows

Archery and bowhunting basics: Types of bows

Vin T. Sparano, as excerpted from Complete Outdoors Encyclopedia: Camping, Fishing, Hunting, Boating, Wilderness Survival, First Aid



Archery and bowhunting as sports today are practiced in a variety of ways. There are archers who prefer to shoot at conventional targets; roving archers who ramble through woodlands testing their skill on tree stumps and other natural targets; and field archers who roam a course shooting at targets that simulate hunting conditions. Then there are bowhunters, some of whom have taken every game animal from the groundhog to the bull elephant with well-placed arrows. 

An interesting offshoot of bowhunting is bowfishing, in which a harpoon-type rig is used to shoot coarse fish.

Like the hunter who uses various types of guns designed for different species of game, the bowhunter also uses various types of bows according to his sport. While there are differences among bows—some are designed for championship performance on the target range, others for plinking and roving, and still others for hunting big-game animals—foremost to remember when purchasing any bow is its draw or pull weight, that is, the amount of strength required to pull the string back to full draw. “Overbowing” is the cardinal sin of the beginner.

Parts of Bows

1. Compound Bows

The acceptance of compound bows—especially for hunting deer and other good-size game—has been so pronounced that some manufacturers make no other type or else make only a few recurve models. This newest concept in archery was invented by H. W. Allen of Billings, Missouri, and most compounds are manufactured under license from him. A compound bow looks a bit strange but is simple in operation. Attached to its relatively short, stout limbs is a small pulley system. A conventional bowstring is connected to two strands of cable that run over the wheels—an idler pulley, plus an eccentric pulley at each end of the limbs—in the manner of a block and tackle. This device solves bow-weight problems, vastly increases the power and accuracy of an arrow, and eases the draw and release.

To understand some of the reasons this type of bow is so popular, consider how energy is applied in a firearm. A rifle produces greater bullet velocity than a handgun because the rifle’s longer barrel applies gas pressure for a longer distance, thus increasing the foot-pounds of energy exerted on the projectile. The eccentric pulleys on a compound’s limb tips accomplish the same thing by applying maximum pull weight for a greater number of inches. With an ordinary recurve bow, the pressure decreases steadily from the instant of release as the bowstring moves forward. With a compound, the peak pull-weight poundage is about at mid-draw. Thus, as the bowstring moves forward, the pressure increases to a peak before decreasing. This substantially raises the foot-pounds of energy applied to the arrow.

Also, with a conventional bow the release pressure must overcome the inertia not only of the arrow but also of the bowstring and the moving part of each limb. In a compound bow, limb-tip travel is reduced from about 8 to 3 inches and inertia is greatly reduced. In a conventional bow with a 50-pound pull weight, 50 pounds must propel the weight of the limbs 8 inches while also propelling the arrow and center of the string 20 inches to the string-rest position. With the pulleys and three strands (bowstring plus two strands of cable), the same pull results in three times the power—150 pounds.

Due to the action of the eccentric pulleys, the pull weight reaches a maximum and then relaxes somewhat—eases off—before full draw is reached. This reduces finger strain and muscle fatigue at full draw, making a compound bow easier to shoot well. The same principle also permits the use of lighter arrows. A compound with a 50-pound peak setting will hold at full draw at approximately 40 pounds, so an arrow spined for a 40-pound pull is about right. (Manufacturers include arrow-matching instructions with their bows, and these instructions should be followed.) The lighter arrows, released in the compound manner, have a flatter trajectory—a bonus advantage.

In many compound bows, draw lengths can be adjusted somewhat, and peak weight can be adjusted within a 10-pound range. Target compounds are usually 56 to 58 inches long. Hunting models generally range from 38 to 50 inches, and bows to be used for both purposes are about 50 inches long. The weight of these bows ranges from about 3½ to 4¼ pounds. They’re made in either a one-piece style or in the takedown style. The cables are steel. The handle risers may be magnesium or hardwood. In top-quality bows, the limbs are laminated wood and fiberglass. Less expensive models may be solid fiberglass. Even those, however, are more costly than high-quality bows of conventional design.

2. Crossbows

The basic design of the crossbow is centuries old, but a major change has been made in recent years. There are now recurve crossbows and compound crossbows that incorporate the pulley system of the conventional compound bow. Older crossbows were impossible to draw manually and employed a crank for cocking them. The modern compound crossbow, however, has draw weights up to 175 pounds and can be drawn by hand. It has either a stirrup or bipod stand at the front end. The archer plants his feet on this and pulls the bowstring up into the cocking position.

Nearly all modern crossbows have many features in common: they have shoulder stocks, mechanical “trigger” releases, and telescopic and electronic sights. Modern crossbows will shoot a bolt (arrow) at speeds up to 350 feet per second. Crossbows are also drawn and cocked in advance. They are easier to master than conventional bows because all functions are mechanical.

Compound Crossbow

3. Recurve Bows and Straight Bows

Conventional bows are of two basic types—straight or long bow and recurve. The straight bow, as its name implies, has straight limbs. Such bows were once standard. Today, few are sold, but there are archers who enjoy the ancient and classic style, and some of these people make their own straight bows. The limbs of a recurve bow curve back, and then, near the tips, curve forward.

The modern recurve bow is popular because it casts an arrow at greater speed with less draw weight than older styles. A relatively short recurve bow has excellent cast and is also maneuverable in brush, so models measuring 50 to 60 inches are popular for hunting. Longer bows—some of them 64 to 70 inches—are more stable, easier to draw, and smoother to release, so long models are usually preferred for target shooting. A bow for both purposes will have a compromise length.

Bear Super Kodiak Recurve Bow

Wood alone is still used in making some bows, primarily inexpensive models. Lemon and hickory are the most common woods. Hickory withstands cold better than lemonwood, but neither material produces the best cast. Various metals (especially tubular aluminum) have also been used by bowyers. Aluminum bows are unaffected by temperature changes, but, again, the cast is poor. Solid fiberglass is also used. It’s impervious to weather but lacks the shooting qualities of composite bows, which are now the most common. These are laminations of two or more different materials—metal, wood, fiberglass, and various synthetics. The laminated composite bows produce excellent cast and are, in general, better than any other type. 





About the author:

Vin T. Sparano is the author of Complete Outdoors Encyclopedia as well as three other guides for Rizzoli

He has been an outdoor editor and writer for more than fifty years. He is editor emeritus of Outdoor Life, and has written and edited more than fifteen books about the outdoors. In 2013, he was inducted into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame.

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