For thousands of years, bows were a staple for hunting and fighting. These days, the humble bow is mainly used recreationally and has evolved over the centuries into the advanced and complex-looking devices we now see deployed by athletes at the Olympics.
If you’re looking to get into archery, the range of bows, arrows and accessories can be bewildering, so how do you set about finding the right equipment to get started? We asked ourselves the same question, and here’s the what we found out.
What Archery Equipment Do I Need?
Strictly speaking, you don’t need a lot to get started with archery. A bow, some arrows and ideally a target, and you’re off! Of course, that’s not quite the end of the story. There’s a very wide range of accessories, gadgets and gizmos that can help you take your shooting to the next level.
There’s some simple things which are just great additions to your kit. Some kind of release or glove will make your time with a bow much more comfortable and help to improve accuracy, too. A quiver is a great buy, too – not only does it make shooting continuously easier, but it also has the side effect of making you look awesome!
If you’re looking to really up your game, you can look into getting a sight and arrow rest, both of which improve accuracy. An arm guard or bracer will help you avoid bruising on your bow arm and sleeves getting in the way.
Different Types of Archery Bows
All bows are not born equal – or even similar! As well as the range of quality, durability and materials in use, bows come in three primary types: recurve, compound and longbow. Here we’ll do our best to break down the key differences between them and hopefully point you in the direction of the bow that best suits your needs.
In short, the longbow is the simplest of the styles – it’s the traditional bow that uses a single curved limb. It doesn’t make use of pulleys or cams which makes it hard to shoot with much power.
At the other end, a compound bow is the most complex, using a design that delivers the most powerful shots and highest accuracy of the three varieties. That said, they’re often heavy and can be difficult to use. Their key feature is the use of a cam system to hold energy.
Somewhere in between is the recurve bow. It splits the difference in terms of power, accuracy and complexity – and is also the type you’ll see used at the Olympics. By cleverly pointing forwards at the tips of the bow, they are able to store more energy – allowing you to achieve the same power with less effort.
What’s the difference between a recurve bow and compound bow?
Let’s look first at the recurve bow. It has three primary components: the riser in the middle, and two limbs that, to a varying degree, curve away from the archer. The modern recurve has its roots in the Mongolian recurve bow. Its design meant it could be used on horseback in contrast to the much taller longbows typically used in Europe in the Medieval period.
An Olympic-standard recurve has a ‘draw weight’ – the amount of effort required to successfully fire it – of around 48.5 pounds for men and 33 pounds for women. Today’s variants bear little resemblance to its forebears, and in competition mode, you’ll see the bows equipped with a range of stabilizers mounted around the frame that help to keep it steady when raised, dampen vibrations when the arrow is released, and balance the weight of the bow evenly.
Compound bows look quite different to a recurve bow. In fact, they look almost like something from science fiction. Instead of storing energy only in the limbs, they employ a cam system that holds the bowstring as well as cables that give the bow a great deal of efficiency in power transfer to the arrow.
The cams are designed to release their stored power at a desired point during the release of an arrow. The way they store that energy means that for a given draw weight – say 50 pounds – the bow can hold a lot more energy than an equivalent recurve or longbow.
They are a relatively new invention – only appearing in the 1960s. They allow an archer the maximum possible accuracy, thanks in part to their higher speed that lets an arrow fly flatter longer – making gauging distance correctly less important. That’s why you’ll see the best scores are posted by athletes using compound bows. Unlike their recurve cousins, you won’t see compound bows at the Olympics, although they are used at the Paralympics and in various world championship events.
In terms of practicality, the compound bow is more accurate and more powerful, and usually shorter, too. On the other hand the recurve bow is simpler, making it much easier to maintain, less expensive and (this is subjective) generally considered to be more stylish. Also, should you have Olympic ambitions, then clearly the recurve is the way to go!
How Do Archery Bows Work?
In simple terms, a bow works by using leverage to deliver more power to an arrow than you’d be able to achieve by throwing it. The traditional longbow uses this technique exclusively, whereas the recurve adds the ability to store additional power. It does this by pointing its tips back the other way. In other words, more tension is held in the bow for the same amount of draw weight.
In both cases, once you’ve drawn the bow, you need to continue to hold the full draw weight until you release the arrow. Where the compound bow differs significantly is by storing so much of its energy in the cam system.
Although you’ll still need to pull the full draw weight initially, a ‘50% let off’ bow, for instance, will store half its draw weight in the cam system, meaning a 70-pound draw weight falls to 35 pounds. That lets you hold it steady and aim it for a much longer time – or the same amount of time with a lot less effort, meaning you can shoot over a longer day or simply be less strong for the same effect.
Different Types of Archery Arrows
It won’t have escaped your notice that beyond a bow, you’ll also need some arrows! Traditionally, arrows were wooden. You can still get these (and of course you can make them yourself!), but nowadays, you’re more likely to buy arrows made of fibreglass, aluminium or carbon. Whatever the material, they tend to share the same components.
The pile is the tip of the arrow while the nock what keeps it locked to the string. The fletching describes the feathers that keep it steady in flight and the shaft is the main, middle section. At competition level, archers have their name or initials marked on it.
You’ll usually find arrows sold in packs of six, and it’s important to choose the right length. There’s good guides out there, but it’s worth going to a store and having a professional give you some help. The right length depends on your bow and how long your arms are, so getting ‘fitted’ is a really good idea, and will set you up to shoot a lot better.
Fibreglass is the most common material for arrows because it is easy to make, durable and light. It’s also the cheapest type so is a decent place to start. Further up the scale, you’ll find aluminium and carbon (or a combination of both). Both are more expensive to buy, but they’ll usually give you better performance, and are the types of arrow used in competition, so not only are they a good investment, getting used to shooting with them will set you up for the long run.
Different Types of Archery Targets
A target isn’t completely necessary to get started, but it’s something you’ll want to add to your kit as soon as you can. You don’t necessarily need to buy a target – you can make something yourself from hay bales, for instance – but the main thing is that you need something you can shoot safely into that lets you retrieve your arrows easily. Once you’ve learnt how to shoot an arrow at a target reliably, you’ll doubtless want a to start measuring your progress a bit more accurately, which is where a good target comes in.
Beyond homemade targets, there’s two broad categories of target you can buy. Foam blocks are light, durable and good outdoors, and often come with targets pre-printed on them. They’re great for beginners or lower-strength bows. High power bows, or arrows with broadhead tips, can cause the arrow to get stuck in the target, so keep that in mind. Foam targets are great for getting an accurate gauge of your consistency and improvement.
Bag targets are very common and typically quite large – making them good for beginners. What’s great about them is how easy it is to pull arrows back out, and they also tend to stand up to a lot of use – except with the broadhead arrows we mentioned before, which can rip the outer material when you pull them out. They’re great as high-volume practice targets, or when you’re learning a new technique.
A nice benefit to both of these styles is that they tend to protect the fletching on an arrow, which can be damaged as it flies deep into a hay bale, for instance. In the longer run, you may save money by buying a good target that avoids damage to your arrows.
You can also buy heavy-duty paper targets with a wide range of designs, including official competition prints, which you can then hang on whatever you choose. You can also get 3D targets, which are usually animal-shaped and can be used to set up fun practices that involve moving through an area and taking shots are varying elevations.
Different Types of Archery Release
Archery releases do a couple of things: they protect your fingers as you release an arrow, and they help you shoot more accurately. They come in a wide range of styles designed to suit your bow and the type of shooting you do.
The simplest style is a glove. Typically they’ll either be leather or nylon and protect your fingers from blistering as you release. You can decide what finger placement you use and vary it from shot to shot, too. A great option for the purist and for getting back to basics.
Fingers tabs are also simple devices. They give you a consistent surface and finger position that spreads the weight of the string across your three draw fingers and allows it to release evenly, without leaving each finger at slightly different times – thus increasing your accuracy.
Compound bow archers generally use index and thumb trigger releases, and as the name suggests, you use a trigger to release the string rather than letting it go directly. They aren’t quite so suited to recurve and longbow shooting which relies much more on the direct drawing and releasing of the string with the fingers.
Hinge and resistance releases work a bit differently. The hinge is designed to release the arrow at a slightly unpredictable moment to prevent you flinching. You squeeze your shoulder blades together, and the hinge lets the arrow fly when the pressure reaches a certain point. Resistance releases are a bit more predictable but again rely on using the shoulder blades to increase the tension until you pass a threshold.
Typically, compound and bowhunting archers will use trigger releases, while target shooters are more likely to be using one of the other styles – especially if they’re using recurve or longbows. Further, mechanical trigger releases aren’t actually allowed in competition for those bows, so if your best bet is to avoid them if you’d like to take your archery that far.
So, there’s a lot to cover here. There’s no right answer to the question – a lot depends on your budget and style of shooting. Having said that, the type of archery bow you choose – compound, recurve or longbow – will help to make a lot of the decisions for you, so spend some time thinking about what kind of archery most appeals to you, then head to a store and use some bows in the hand to help narrow it down. Hopefully this has helped you on your way!