In this article, we'll outline the principles you need to understand when selecting compound bow arrows for your particular bowhunting setup.
Your best friend in this process is going to be your local archery pro shop. They can guide you through choosing the proper arrows, something that's really best done in person so you can see the different options up close and personal.
There are seven primary concepts that you need to be familiar with when setting up your hunting arrow:
This is an easy one. The great carbon vs. aluminum war is over. Carbon won. Aluminum had a good run (and still has some desirable features, including straightness and low cost), but today, carbon arrows reign supreme in the compound bow world, mainly because they are:
The vast majority of today's compound bow-wielding bowhunters choose carbon arrows. If you're starting out bowhunting, you'll want to follow suit here. There are also plenty of newer composite arrows that actually combine carbon and aluminum to get the best of both materials. Consider these options as well, but keep in mind that they can be significantly more expensive.
Safety first here. Arrows that are too short for your individual bow rig are a SERIOUS SAFETY HAZARD. They have the potential to fracture upon release and send fragments hurtling toward your bow arm and hand.
Always make sure your arrows are cut to 1-1.5" past your arrow rest at full draw. As long as you're shooting a modern compound bow with a cutaway riser, measuring from 1-1.5" past the arrow rest at full draw to the groove of the arrow nock will give you the proper arrow length.
Don't attempt to cut your own arrows to length (unless you have a high-speed abrasive-wheel saw and you know how to use it). Your local archery pro shop will have this equipment as well as the knowledge needed to properly cut your arrows for you. They'll also take care of gluing the inserts in. That way, you're ready to screw in a field point and start shooting.
The size of arrows actually refers to their stiffness or "spine". This is an important attribute because the heavier the bow and/or the longer the arrow, the stiffer the arrows need to be. Proper spine is probably a great deal more important than other factors that typically get more attention such as arrow straightness or fletching. You could have the fanciest arrow setup money can buy, and it won't mean a thing if you don't have the right spine.
Most manufacturers have easy charts to follow -- the bow's maximum draw weight and your arrow length gets you the right spine. However, keep in mind that sizing is not universal across arrow manufacturers. If you want to compare between manufacturers, you'll need to use something called "actual spine deflection", the only apples-to-apples comparison unit.
Here's a handy chart that takes into account draw weight, length of arrow, and weight of point to give you the actual spine deflection range you'll need for your arrows.
A straighter arrow is a better arrow, giving you more accuracy and consistency every time. Arrow straightness is measured in tolerances ranging from +/-.001" to +/-.006" (with +/-.001" being straighter).
Luckily, you don't have to worry too much about this one because many experts recommend +/-.005" as being more than enough straightness for almost any bowhunting situation you could encounter. When you're talking about the difference between a +/-.005" and a +/-.002" arrow, you're talking about splitting hairs (literally, because the diameter of a human hair is about .001"). Only top-level competitive archers would be able to perceive any difference.
The weight of your arrows has a profound impact on how your bow shoots. Lighter arrows produce more speed, giving you a flatter trajectory, which is more forgiving of range estimation errors. However, as you decrease arrow weight, you get less penetration and a noisier shot. Shoot an arrow that's too light, and it could shatter upon release and damage you or your bow.
So, how do you decide on your arrow weight? The first step is to find your minimum arrow weight so you can be confident you're shooting a safe arrow. The IBO (International Bowhunting Organization) standard is the easiest to calculate and the most commonly used. It's simply your bow's draw weight multiplied by 5. So, if your bow's draw weight is 60 pounds, then 60 X 5 = 300. There you go. 300 grains is the minimum your finished arrow (that includes the tip, fletching, and nock) should weigh.
Now, you get to go up from there as you see fit. The typical bowhunting range is 5 to 9 grains per pound of draw weight (known as "grains per pound"). So, with that same 60 pound bow, you could move up to 6 grains per pound (60 X 6), which gives you a finished arrow weight of 360 grains. Or you could keep going up from there.
Most bowhunters strike a balance between speed, penetration, and noise by opting for something in the midrange, such as 6 to 7 grains per pound. The average finished weight of bowhunting arrows is probably around 400 grains. This should give you a good place to start.
However, your hunting situation may call for something on an extreme side of the spectrum. If you're exclusively hunting whitetails from treestands at close range and are concerned about the animals "jumping the string", you might opt for a heavier, quieter arrow.
On the other hand, if you're hunting pronghorn antelope out West from longer range, noise may not be an issue and you may be more concerned about getting maximum arrow speed. In this case, you might want to consider a lighter, faster arrow.
Fletching is the parabolic-shaped "wings" at the end of the arrow that stabilize it during flight. Feathers are the original fletching material, and this style still has followers today. Feather fletching is extremely lightweight, and it provides the best arrow stability possible. Feathers definitely excel in certain bowhunting niches. However, feathers are relatively fragile, they're not waterproof, and they can be very expensive.
When it comes to choosing a fletching material, vanes are the clear choice for beginners shooting modern compound bows with standard setups. They are durable, waterproof, and economical. They simply stand up to weather and general abuse much better than feathers.
Once you've decided to go with vanes over feathers, you'll need to decide on a fletching length. Longer fletching gives you more surface area, which produces better arrow stability during flight. The tradeoff here is reduced speed. However, stability (which translates into accuracy) tends to be of much greater importance at typical bowhunting ranges. 4" vanes are the most common, so if you're just starting out, that's a great place to start. The shorter, wider 2" Blazer vanes (and similar styles) have also become popular and are another good option to investigate.
The final consideration in arriving at your ideal fletching is the amount of helical or "turn" the fletching has. This simply denotes the angle of the fletching in relation to the arrow. You can choose from straight, which has no turn; offset, which has some turn; and helical, which has the most turn. The amount of turn influences the arrow's stability. More turn results in more spin, which gives you greater stability.
Fletching turn really comes down to personal preference, but here are a few guidelines to keep in mind. If you decide to set your bow up with a full capture arrow rest like the popular Whisker Biscuit, use straight or offset fletching. If you decide to shoot a drop-away arrow rest, go with helical (just make sure the fletching clears the arrow rest fully).
Note: If you choose offset or helical fletching, always choose right rotation instead of left. It won't loosen your arrow tips.
When archers talk about F.O.C., they're talking about the arrow's Front of Center balance point. This is the percent difference between the bare arrow's balance point and the finished arrow's balance point (i.e. with point, fletching, and nock installed).
This isn't something to get too caught up in fine tuning. Make sure it's in the acceptable range of 7-15% and call it good. Luckily, it's pretty easy to achieve this because most common arrow setups produce good F.O.C. numbers. It's only when you combine unusually heavy fletching with an unusually light tip, or vice versa, that you start to run into problems.