How to Choose the
Best Compound Bow (For You)

Bowhunting for DeerThere is no best compound bow. There is only the best compound bow for you. Bows are incredibly individualized pieces of gear. No other tool in your hunting arsenal needs to be matched so closely to you and how you hunt. In this article, we'll explain how to select the best compound bow that will work for you and your hunting style.

Compound bow terminology can seem like a foreign language at first. The goal of this article is not to make you fluent in the language, but rather to give you an understanding of the most important parts of the basic vocabulary so you can talk intelligently with the people who will be selling you your bow.

And who are those people? Well, here's our first and most important piece of advice. When buying a hunting compound bow, find an archery pro shop that has a good reputation and is located as close as possible to where you live. This is an in-person activity. You need to be properly fitted, test shoot various models, and generally get the feel of as many bows as you can. And local archery pro shops are the place to do all this. Plus, they're a great place to meet and connect with other bowhunters.

Keep in mind that not everything about bows is quantifiable. You may not even be able to explain why you like a particular bow. Do not discount this feeling. It's important. Though intangible, owning a bow that has the right "feel", that just somehow agrees with you, is very likely to make you a better shooter.

A big part of all this is a bow's grip. Pay extra attention to how the grips of different bows rest in your hand. Thin grips are commonly recommended because they tend to help your bow hand produce less torque when releasing an arrow. But some hunters shoot better with fatter grips. Everybody's hands are different.

So, let's dive into the basics of the important features to consider when buying a compound bow. (Note: Here, we're just focusing on the bow itself. To learn more about accessories, read our article on compound bow setup.)

Draw Length

Draw length is simply the distance between the bowstring at rest and the bowstring at full draw. Draw length varies based mostly upon the length of your arms.

Draw length is probably the most crucial factor in determining the best compound bow for you. Without a properly fitted bow with the correct draw length matched to your physcial dimensions, you may never be able to achieve even a fraction of your full shooting potential.

Your pro shop staff can accurately measure your arms to determine your draw length. But once you have the number, don't get too attached to it -- it's just a reference point to get you close. Different bows with the same listed draw lengths will have slightly different actual draw lengths, so it's important to try out many different models.

Also, keep in mind what you'll likely be wearing on your upper body when actually hunting, and make sure there's enough string clearance on your bow arm to accomodate bulky layers. Once you've narrowed down your choice of bows, you might even want to bring in your upper body hunting clothing and try shooting the bows with the clothing on.

Brace Height

Brace height is the distance from the bowstring to the grip. A shorter brace height equals more stored energy equals more arrow speed. More arrow speed is generally a good thing. But, as you'll see, like everything that produces faster arrows, shorter brace heights have trade-offs.

Shorter brace heights (usually considered 6.5" or less) are less forgiving of small flaws in shooting technique and can tend to amplify any imperfections in your form. Longer brace heights (7.5" or more) will shoot slower but will be more forgiving. 7" is the most common brace height of today's compound bows, and it's a good idea to consider going with this or something longer.

If you have a particularly long draw length, it's even more critical to go with a longer brace height because the combination of a short brace height and long draw length can lead to additional shooting problems.

Draw Weight

Draw weight refers to the actual amount of weight you feel when you pull back the bowstring. More draw weight definitely has its advantages. More weight equals more speed and more penetration, which can mean the difference between killing an animal and wounding an animal, every bowhunter's worst nightmare. However, too much draw weight can cause poor shooting technique and even injury. It can also impair your ability to draw your bow when your muscles are very cold, such as when spending long hours in a treestand in frigid conditions.

With modern compound bows, 70 pounds is widely considered the maximum needed for any big name animal (in North America, that is). As for minimums, good rules of thumb include 40 pounds for deer and 50 pounds for larger animals like elk and moose. Make sure you check your state's regulations because some states have minimum draw weight requirements.

One of the things that gets bowhunters into trouble the most is shooting too much draw weight. You want to shoot the highest weight you can handle comfortably. "Comfortably" is the operative word here. There are three simple tests you can do to make sure you can comfortably handle a particular draw weight:

  • Draw Test -- You should be able to draw the bow smoothly all the way through the draw cycle without making any abrupt movements. You should not have to raise the bow upward while drawing.

  • Hold Test -- You should be able to hold the bow at full draw for a full minute without any noticeable shaking.

  • Sit Test -- Finally, you should be able to sit on the ground with your legs out straight in front of you and draw the bow while meeting the standards of the Draw Test and the Hold Test.

Most bows are adjustable between 50-60 pounds or 60-70 pounds, so you'll certainly have the option to change your draw weight. But it's important to note that most bows shoot better when their draw weight is set at or near the maximum. So, if you're shooting 60 pounds, it's much better to have a bow that adjusts between 50-60 pounds than one that adjusts between 60-70 pounds.

Draw Cycle

Draw cycle is simply the different aspects of how a particular bow feels when you draw the string back. There's a great deal of jargon bantered about in this department, but it can be simplified down to one overall concept -- something called the draw force curve.

The draw force curve measures the varying amounts of draw weight you feel at different stages when drawing the bow. When you draw a compound bow, there are three stages. In the first stage, as you begin to draw, the weight increases. In the second stage, it reaches its peak draw weight and plateaus. Finally, in the third stage, it drops back down to arrive at a small percentage of the peak weight. Now you're holding the bow at full draw.

The important thing to understand here is that there are essentially two types of draw cycles: smooth and jerky. And, as you may have guessed, there are advantages and disadvantages to both.

Smooth drawing bows gradually rise to their peak draw weight and then gently fall down to the reduced weight at full draw. They are easier to draw (and easier to draw smoothly). However, their smooth draw force curve means they store less energy, which results in slower arrow speeds and reduced penetration.

Jerky drawing bows ramp up the weight fast and then drop off sharply to arrive at full draw. They are harder to draw (and harder to draw smoothly). And the narrow "valley" between peak weight and full draw can be sensitive to accidental release, which can be unnerving to some shooters. They also require more frequent practice to ensure your muscles are up to the task. However, they store significantly more energy and result in the fastest arrow speeds available today.

Smooth drawing bows are potentially a good choice if you plan to hunt a lot from treestands, particularly in cold conditions. Jerky drawing bows come into their own for long range shooting.

One more thing to look for is a solid backwall. This means that when the bow is held at full draw, the string doesn't creep backwards. Mushy backwalls can make it all too easy to subtly change your anchor point between shots, a huge no-no for accuracy. Solid backwalls encourage more consistent anchor points and will make your shooting more consistent.

Bow Length and Weight

Over the course of their technological evolution, compound bows have been getting shorter and shorter. Short bows (under 32") certainly have their merits. They usually weigh less than longer bows. If you plan on using tactics such as spot-and-stalk, still-hunting, or tracking, this can make carrying the bow over long distances more enjoyable. Also, because they're more maneuverable than longer bows, they can be a good choice for hunting from treestands or ground blinds.

However, short bows have one definite drawback: they amplify less than perfect shooting form. Their lighter weight makes them more difficult to hold steady at full draw, and their shorter length makes it harder to avoid torquing the bow with your bow hand, one of the most common shooting flaws.

Whether these drawbacks make much of a difference depends largely on the typical engagement ranges at which you'll be hunting. If you plan on shooting only at average bowhunting distances of less than 30 yards, the difference between a short bow and a longer bow may be hard to detect. However, if you plan on doing any longer range bowhunting, say, 40 yards or more, a longer bow (over 38") is well worth considering. Longer, heavier bows will often give you noticeably better accuracy at long range due to their added stability.

There is one exception to this, though. If you're small in stature, long bows may actually prove too unwieldy for you to shoot well. On the other side of the coin, if you're exceptionally tall or have really long arms, the shortest bows on the market may turn out to be too unstable for your frame.

Cam Style

A cam is the flat, irregularly shaped piece attached to the end of the bow's limb that holds the bowstring and rotates as you draw the bow. It is the central component responsible for the compound bow's ability to allow you to hold less than the peak weight at full draw.

There are four different styles of cams to choose from today: twin cam, single cam, hybrid cam, and binary cam. Without going into all the technical details, let's just say they all have their pros and cons. There's endless marketing hype around cam styles, and it's important not to get swept up in this and become too "cam-focused".

Most experts will tell you that cam style is actually not one of the more crucial factors to consider when buying a bow. Besides, all of the four styles are found on excellent-shooting, high-quality bows.

One thing you might want to keep in mind, though, is that some experts warn beginners to stay away from twin cam bows due to the added amount of regular tuning they require. But really, in the end, the feel of specific bows should be given much higher priority than the cam style.

Let-off

Let-off is the percentage of the peak weight that you hold at full draw. For example, a bow with a 60 pound draw weight and 75% let-off means you hold about 15 pounds at full draw.

These days, let-off is really not too much of a concern. Lower letoff gives you slightly more arrow speed. Higher let-off gives you the option of being able to hold the bow longer at full draw.

75-80% is the range of the most common let-off percentages today. Some experts warn against let-off above 75%, feeling that the lack of weight at full draw does not facilitate good form. Luckily, many bows today have some type of adjustable let-off, so you won't be locked into a particular percentage.

Note: This is another place to check your state's game regulations as some states have maximum let-off limits.

Arrow Speed

The arrow speed that a bow produces is measured in feet per second (fps). It's often referred to as a bow's "IBO speed" because it's measured using a standard from the International Bowhunting Organization.

What's important to understand here is that manufacturers pump up their IBO numbers to unrealistic heights in an effort to sell more bows. However, most experts agree that it's safe to assume that all the major manufacturers are doing this to about the same degree.

Once this artificial inflation is accounted for and the bow is actually set up for hunting, the fastest most bows will shoot is 25-50 fps less than their advertised IBO speed.

300 fps has emerged as somewhat of a benchmark these days. Stick somewhere close to this on either side and you'll have more than adequate speed for the majority of bowhunting scenarios.

What Not to Worry About

There are a few features worth noting that really are not that important to worry about when buying your bow.

First of all, there's still an ongoing debate about whether solid limbs or split limbs are better. In reality, both are fine, and it's really more a function of a particular bow's design.

Second, the amount of recoil is not that big a deal. As long as the bow has parallel limbs, it will have low recoil.

And finally, there's a great deal of brand allegiance in archery. Don't get caught in the web of hype. Choose the best compound bow for you!

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