Using a bow isn’t as easy as the movies make it seem. First, in order to draw the string all the way back requires tremendous strength, and then there’s the issue of actually hitting a target. With that said, archery is a great sport and a compound bow can reduce the barrier of entry for aspiring archers. The precise machinery can let even the smallest archer fire powerful shots from a compound bow. However, there are many factors one should consider when searching for the best compound bow.
Compound bows are more complicated than their traditional longbow or recurve counterparts. It incorporates a system of cams, pulleys, and cables to retract the bow’s limbs. There are many components that a bow is comprised of.
The most apparent features of a compound bow are its cams. They are the two wheels located at opposite ends of the bow string. They are available in three styles: single, soft, and aggressive.
Soft cams let the archer pull back on the bowstring more smoothly and softly with little effort. This lends to greater accuracy and reduced fatigue after shooting multiple times. But, this ease in shooting reduces the range and power of each shot.
Aggressive cams, sometimes referred to as hard cams, allow you to shoot with more power than soft cams. They are the ideal type for hunting, since the increased speed and power makes it easier for an arrow to pierce its target.
Single cam bows, as the name suggests, are different than the other two types because there is only one cam rather than two. They provide some benefits over double cam bows. First, they can retain structural integrity for much longer. Double cam bows need the cams to be perfectly synchronized for ideal performance, whereas single cam bows do not. With heat and natural wear and tear, double cams are likely to stretch, reducing the accuracy of the bow. The combination of these factors mean that single cam bows are likely to last longer than their double cam counterparts. Single cam bows are not without faults, however. The arrow’s nock (the notch on the back end of the arrow where the bowstring fits into) can slip vertically, making the shot angle less predictable.
Compound bows are intended to assist archers by helping them shoot faster and accurately with less effort. One way this can be achieved is with something called “let-off”. What let-off is, essentially, is the effect of when the drawstring has been retracted past a certain point on a compound bow and it becomes easier to pull further or maintain that position. This is unlike a traditional bow, where the string resists more and more as you pull.
Generally, compound bows have a 75-80% let off relative to the maximum draw weight. This range is ideal for an absolute beginner, though archers with more experience may want to increase their arrow speed by using a bow with less let-off. Another effect is known as the “valley”. The valley is the range between full draw length and when the string’s resistance begins to get much heavier. For the veteran archer, neither short nor wide valleys are an issue, whereas beginners favor wide valleys.
The two flexible arms on each end of the bow that extend from the central mount, or riser, to the cams on each side are known as the limbs. Unlike longbows, the limbs of the compound bow are meant to be rigid to provide maximum resistance. There are two types of limbs: standard and split limbs. The performance of either variety is up for debate, as there are those on each side that argue that one is superior to the other.
Standard limbs, otherwise known as solid limbs, are made from a solid piece of material, and are generally stiffer than split limbs.
Split limbs are constructed from either one piece divided into two parallel sections, or from two pieces. They can display less recoil than standard limbs, and can be lighter. They may also be quieter than their counterpart.
The limbs must be made from materials that can withstand high tensile and compressive forces because their purpose is to store all the energy in the bow. The limbs of a compound bow are constructed from carbon/fiberglass composites because they provide the highest strength while weighing the least of all other materials, which is why they are the industry standard.
The positioning of the limbs from the riser will impact the straightness of the shot and the amount of recoil felt. Some bows are known as “parallel limb” because they sport limbs that reach a 90-degree angle to the riser, drastically reducing the recoil and allowing them to be very quiet. However, the length of the riser on these bows have to be longer to compensate, and this increases the weight of the bow.
There are three major type of risers: deflex, reflex, and inline. The subtle differences between each style can be confusing to discern, particularly for beginners. The classification has to do with the location of the junctions between risers and limbs, otherwise known as limb pockets, relative to the arrow rest in the center of the riser.
Deflex risers lets the arrow rest sit in front of the limb pockets, making the bow have a more curved, traditional appearance. This style has the benefit of being the most forgiving to use, however it does lack power and speed compared to other styles.
The arrow rest in reflex risers are situated behind the limb pockets. They are the most difficult style to shoot with, but provide the most distance and speed to the arrow.
Inline risers, as the name suggests, has the arrow rest located in line with the limb pockets, producing a straight appearance. They offer more speed compared to deflex risers, but are slightly harder to shoot with.
When selecting a compound bow, you must find one that fits the archer well in terms of strength, size, and shooting style. Thus, a bow’s dimensions can make a significant impact to performance than the components it is composed of.
Bow length can vary depending on the size of the archer and the intended purpose. For instance, hunting bows should be smaller so they do not get snagged against limbs, and lightweight so it is easy to carry. Longer bows, though, are more accurate and stable. Thus, a bow length of 38 to 44 inches is recommended for newbies.
Draw weight is measured in pounds, and is a measurement of how much force must be overcome to fully draw the string back. For adults, a recommended amount is between 50 to 70 pounds. Youth bows are available for children or teens with adjustable draw weights. Lastly, soft cams can decrease draw weight.
Brace height is the length from the grip of the bow to the string. Typically, the less brace height there is, the more difficult it is to get a full draw (since the string must be pulled further). However, this can result in superior arrow speeds. Beginners should seek bows with a brace height of 7” or greater. Experienced archers should look for faster bows with less brace height. Shorter brace heights can be beneficial for children and women, since the increased speed due to the longer draw can fill the gap caused by lower draw weights.
Draw length is how far back a bow can be drawn up to a set length. As soon as a bow has been pulled to its draw length, it hits “the wall” and can no longer be retracted further. As such, it is crucial for the bow to fit the arm length of the archer. For optimal shooting, the archer should be able to draw the bowstring to full extension (with the bow held in a fully outstretched arm and the string pulled back to the mouth in the other) and maintain this position for a minimum of 15 seconds. In this posture, the draw length is the distance between each hand. The longer the bow is drawn, the more power and speed the arrow will have once it is released. However, if an archer uses a bow with a longer draw length than she can handle, then the extra power comes at the cost of reduced accuracy.
Axle to Axle Length
The axle to axle length is a measurement of the distance from the center of the axle at the ends of each limb (the circular pulley mechanisms). Be aware that this isn’t a measurement of the height of the bow, so if you’re shopping for a bow case, take into account the length that the axle protrudes beyond its center.
Hunting compound bows today usually have an axle to axle length of 32”-34” and can be used for competitive archery and hunting. Pure competition bows are around 36” and generally considered unsuitable for hunting. The 30” bows are a good option for smaller archers, and anything less than this are probably youth models.
We mentioned how draw length and brace height can affect the speed and power of a shot, but there is a better way of determining this – with IBO speed. IBO speed is a unified set of standards started by the International Bowhunting Organization. Lots of archers rely on this metric when determining a bow to purchase. The IBO speed is measured in feet per second (fps), and anything above 340 is considered fast, 320 is average, and 300 or less is slow. With that said, these numbers are not likely to be attained in real life, but they still serve as a good standard by which one can judge the power of a bow.
Noise Level: Especially pertaining to hunters, a noisy bow can easily alert game of their presence, ruining a potential kill.
Vibration: The highest quality bows will have nearly no vibration upon firing, unlike cheaper ones that can have a lot of vibration.
Camo: Once again, this is mostly relevant to hunters. It doesn`t hurt to have better camouflage, but their benefits are greatly exaggerated. Furthermore, this gives manufacturers a reason to charge a premium on these branded bows, which may not be worth it for most customers.
When selecting our list of the top compound bows, we considered all of the factors mentioned above so that we can be as comprehensive as possible. As you can see, there are some trade-offs if you want more ease of use and comfort, or if you want raw speed and power. We tried our best to find bows that had a reasonable balance of these factors, while being affordable enough so you won`t break the bank. Furthermore, we intend to find compound bows that can be intuitive enough for a beginner to use, while still offering enough performance that will satisfy experienced archers.
Our recommendations on the Best Compound Bows
Best Overall Bow: Martin Lithium
For the perfect balance of everything, the Martin Lithium is the bow for you. It’s extremely quiet, has little vibration, and has respectable IBO speeds of 335 fps. The brace height is 7”, and the axle-to-axle length is 33.25”. At only 4.0 lbs, it is quite light. Furthermore, it has an 80% let down, a draw length between 26”-31”, and draw weight choices of 50-70 lbs.
The problem with these jack-of-all-trades items is that it doesn’t excel at anything. However, we feel that for the Marin Lithium, the sum of all of its parts make for an amazing overall bow that is a joy to use. Should you be looking for an aggressive bow, this probably isn’t the best choice. For almost everyone else, however, we highly recommend it. Despite the high price, we feel it is worth the investment.
Best Budget Bow: PSE Surge
Numerous brands have competent bows at reasonable price points, so choosing this was a difficult task. For a modest price, you get an efficient bow that barely wastes energy. Draw lengths range from 19.5”-30” and 30-70 lbs are available, making the PSE Surge an ideal bow for newbies who have trouble easing in to the resistance when drawing the bow. The brace height measures 7.25”, the axle-to-axle length at 32.5”, and it has a 75% let off. Weighing in at 4.3 lbs, it is heavier than we’d like, but not exactly a deal breaker.
Don’t let the name fool you, the Surge does not surge (or jerk, rather) much at all. When drawing it, the motion feels smooth and easy, which is very impressive given the price tag. With IBO speeds of 320 fps, it is quiet and produces very little hand shock. For beginners looking to get this bow, consider investing in the RTS package which comes with a range of useful accessories that archers use on a daily basis. Regardless of your archery experience (or lack of), we believe the Surge is a competent product and is hard to beat at its price.
Best Beginner Bow: Diamond Infinite Edge
We had to modify our criteria when selecting the best beginner’s bow. Seasoned archers value speed over all else, but for a beginner this should not be their main concern. Rather, we feel that a bow that handles well, is adjustable, and is forgiving of poor technique is a good starting point. Generally, the easiest bows to use are ones that have longer axle-to-axle lengths and higher brace heights. Furthermore, we also looked for high let-offs and wide valleys. Lastly, price is a big concern as well, since an absolute beginner is not likely to spend so much money on a brand new hobby.
With these new criteria in mind, we found a bow that meets these expectations very well – the Diamond Infinite Edge. In terms of customization, this compound bow is nearly unbeatable – the draw weight can be changed between 5 lbs to 70 lbs. The draw length ranges from 13” to 30”. This means it can be used by not only inexperienced males, but women and youth as well. Newbies can slowly increase the draw weight at their pace, and the flexible draw length lets them test out the perfect fit. Thus, it is a great all-in-one bow. For the physical measurements, we have a brace height of 7”, an axle-to-axle length of 31”, a very friendly 75% let-down, and a weight of 3.1 lbs.
In addition to this, the Diamond Infinite Edge is also a powerful weapon. If you set it up to IBO standards (30” draw length, 70 lbs draw weight), it can reach IBO speeds of 310 fps. Not bad for your first bow. And to top it all off, it is very affordable (the cheapest of this list) and something you should keep an eye out for.
Best Bow for Women: Bear Finesse
Let’s not forget about the ladies. When selecting a compound bow for women, we are mostly looking for ones with a longer (or adjustable) draw length and less draw weight to help make up for any lost energy and speed that is lost from reduced draw weights. The bow may need to be smaller and lighter, as well. It is also important that the bow be bright pink and look very girly—just kidding, we don’t want to coddle you like some marketers would love to do.
The Bear Finesse is our choice for the best compound bow for women not just because it was designed for women, but because it handles well. It is a smaller bow with a 7” brace height and 28.63” axle-to-axle length. When purchasing, specify that you want the one with a draw weight of 50 lbs, and the draw length can be specified as well; they can range from 23”-28” at ½ inch increments. With an IBO speed of 285 fps, it is decent and weighs only 3.0 lbs. The wide valley and 80% let off make it quite easy to handle.
Overall, we like how little hand shock and recoil there is and how smooth it draws. Let’s be frank, though – it is not an aggressive speed bow, or a powerhouse, but it is a high quality lightweight bow that is designed for women, and it does its job well. You can find this bow for a very reasonable price as well.
Best Youth Bow: Bear Apprentice III
When selecting a bow for youths, we had to make a few assumptions because kids grow at different speeds and when they grow, boy do they really grow. Our first assumption is that your child is within the age range of 10-16, which is roughly when they might be able to handle an adult bow. What this means is that the bow should be flexible and versatile, and must have space for adjustments so that your child can continue using the same bow year after year until they are fully grown.
With those considerations in mind, we believe the best bow for youths is the Bear Apprentice III. It is quite forgiving, compact, and can be a good starter bow for children learning the fundamentals of shooting. The Apprentice III has a customizable draw length between 15” and 27”. Furthermore, the draw weight can range from 20 lbs up to a max of 60 lbs. Its axle-to-axle measurement is 27.5”, brace height is 6.125”, and weighs a light 2.9 lbs. With the let-off at 70%, the bow can still be used optimally since the draw weights will be set below the maximum.
With the highly customizable draw weight and draw length, the Bear Apprentice III is a great bow for young people to use as they are growing. Even when considering other factors – such as its smooth draw cycle and low hand shock – the bow is decent based on its own merits. This bow is the cheapest out of the others listed in this review, and it will be difficult to find another youth bow that can match the features this bow has to offer.
The biggest (and perhaps only) downside to the Apprentice III is its speed, or lack thereof. With only an IBO speed of 265 fps, this bow shoots quite slowly compared to others. This doesn’t have to be seen as a negative aspect, however. Much like how we wouldn’t want our kids to drive a Ferrari for their first car, it may not be a great ideal to get them a bow capable of 350 fps. Thus, for a starter bow that your child can grow into while learning the basics of archery, the Bear Apprentice III is highly recommended.
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