How to Choose the Right Compound Bow for You
By Larry McCoy and Heather Madsen
While rifles and shotguns can have modifications added to them, they’re fairly universal hunting weapons. Compound bows, however, are a very user specific and customizable hunting platform. In order to find a bow that works for you, you’ll need to take into consideration things like right/left dominance, weight, noise, and speed. Unlike firearms, you’ll also have to tune things like the poundage, draw length, brace height, and axle-to-axle length to match your strength and size. Plus the perfect bow with all of these specifications also has to fit within your budget. So, before you go out and buy your first bow, let’s go over some of the basics.
Hand and Eye Dominance
Starting with dominance, you need to determine which hand and eye will be doing most of the work. Most people know which hand is their dominant or “writing” one. That is the hand that will be drawing the bow, while your other hand will hold the grip. Figuring out your dominant eye is slightly different. First, straighten your arms out in front of you with your palms facing forward, and your thumbs out. Bring your hands together so that the “L” shapes of your index finger and thumb create a small triangle you can see through. Pick an object in the distance and frame it in that triangle with both of your eyes open. Then, close one eye. If you can still see the object in the triangle with your one eye, then that one is dominant.
Knowing your dominant eye is important, because it’s usually the eye you’ll be aiming with. If your dominance is all on the right side, you should get a right-handed bow and your sights should line up with your right eye. However, if you’re cross-dominant (for example, a dominant right hand, but a dominant left eye) You’ll either have to shoot a left-handed bow, so that your left eye can aim, or shoot a right-handed bow and keep your left eye closed while you aim. Try both options in the shop and pick whichever feels most comfortable for you.
Next you’ll need to consider how heavy you want your bow to be. If you’re going to be trekking into the backcountry on foot and hauling out pounds of meat from your hunt, an ultralight bow will help make your load lighter. However, lighter bows tend to magnify human error due to the fact that they can “drift” with your hand, or be easily unbalanced by the weight of a sight or quiver. Heavier bows are typically steadier, and can counteract additional weight better, but you do have to carry the extra weight with you. Really think about where and how you typically hunt, and pick a bow weight that will best suit your needs.
Most animals rely on sound to help them recognize if a predator or danger is nearby. If your bow creaks when you draw it, or rattles when you release it, you’ll basically be alerting your prey to your presence. While most modern bows have built sound dampening features into their designs, there are always things you can do to help ensure you’re as quiet as possible. Items like string dampeners, rubberized rests, and stabilizers will help minimize unnecessary sounds. If you consistently hear creaking or buzzing, check that all of your screws are still tight, or take it into a shop so they can make sure your cams are tuned, cleaned, and properly lubricated.
Despite what you may think, the speed of the arrow is actually not the most important part of shooting a bow, and it varies greatly from archer to archer. Most bow manufacturers advertise that their compound bows shoot at around 300 to 340 feet per second. However, adjusting your poundage, arrow weight, and shooting conditions will ultimately result in a different fps for you. While you do need your arrow to travel fast enough to hit your target before it runs away, bow hunting actually relies on the continued moment of the arrow piercing the hide in order to sever arteries, not speed. If your arrow gets to the deer quickly, but doesn’t have enough force behind it to penetrate, you’re going to be coming home empty handed. In fact, most states don’t have regulations on speed; they regulate poundage instead.
While the cam system on compound bows takes away a lot of the strain of holding the bow at full-draw, you still have to have the strength to pull it all the way back to the “wall.” Some states have a poundage minimum regulation for hunting, usually 35 to 40 pounds, but after you hit that number, the poundage of your bow should be adjusted to fit your strength and needs. People often think that heavier poundage means better penetration. However, in order to perform and shoot well you have to shoot comfortably. So even though your best buddy is shooting 70, doesn't mean you have to. The thing people don’t realize is that if it’s hard to draw your arrow back, you’ll subconsciously want to get rid of it faster. This can result in you compromising your aim, stance, or chance at a good target for speed. So, don't be ashamed of how much you’re pulling, be happy that you’re hitting where you're supposed to.
The next thing you need to consider is your draw length, which is how far back the rest is from the frame of your bow in full draw. The math usually used to determine that length is to take the width of your wingspan, measured from middle finger tip to middle finger tip, and divide it by 2. This will give you a pretty accurate starting point, however you might need to fine-tune it a bit to fit your arms and draw exactly. In proper form, when you’re at full draw, the string should barely be touching the tip of your nose and the corner of your mouth. Another way to ensure good form is to tuck the “L” of your thumb, or your knuckles (depending on your release) into your jaw, just below your ear. Archery is all about being able to consistently repeat the same action over and over again. Using the same anchor points each time you draw will help you stay consistent.
The brace height of your bow is measured from the string, perpendicularly to the furthest part of the riser (where the grip is). Typically, the shorter the brace height, the faster your arrow will fly, due to increased length that the string will push the bow, before it exits the rest. However, as mentioned above, speed isn't everything, and shorter brace heights also tend to leave less room for error. Shooting with a longer brace height means that your arrow will spend less time touching the string before being released into the shot. This means you don't have to hold your form perfectly for as long as you would with a shorter brace height. Try a few different heights on your bow to find the balance between speed and "forgiveness" that works for you.
Axle-to-axle length is basically how “tall” the bow is. As a general rule of thumb, a shorter bow is more common in hunting situations from blinds because it's more maneuverable. If you plan on shooting longer distances though, a taller bow can be more comfortable. Also take into account the fact that someone who is shorter than average, like a youth or small-statured adult, will probably be able to handle a shorter/smaller bow much more easily. All in all, it depends on what goals or priorities you have when it comes to shooting and what feels comfortable for you
Finally, the last thing you need to consider when buying your bow is the price point. There is a massive selection of different brands, styles, and models to choose from, but remember to focus on comfort and fit first. While a higher cost, top-of-the-line, large, custom bow might look amazing, it’s not going to do you any good if it doesn’t fit your needs. Keep in mind that as you get better and better at bow hunting, you’ll probably want to upgrade your bow to fit your growing performance levels too. At the end of the day though, the brand, color, or materials you choose won't matter as much as making sure that the bow is the right size and tuned properly, and that you practice good technique.
If you have any additional questions about compound bows, or if you’d like help picking out your own, visit Sportsmans.com or your local Sportsman’s Warehouse store for expert advice and a great selection.