Just for fun, I recently took out a bow I had hunted with for seven years. I stopped using it only a couple years ago. I loved “Old Reliable.” I once joked that if I notched the grip for every deer Old Reliable had killed, there wouldn’t be any wood left. I failed to mention I had taken the grip off years earlier. But that does not change the fact I have shot well over 100 deer with that bow. Yet, when I shot it side-by-side with one of the top bows from the market today, I literally tossed it aside.
There is no comparison between the bows of today and the bows from as little as five years ago. Today’s bows are just better in every way a bow can be better. They are faster, more efficient, have less friction, are lighter, have better grips, produce less recoil, are easier to tune — the list of improvements goes on and on. I will never again wistfully remember Old Reliable. It isn’t exactly junk, but it is certainly a relic destined to gather dust. That is where we are at now; today’s bows are awesome. In this article, I review this year’s best of the best.
APA BLACK MAMBA 6.5
APA bows are among the fastest on the market, and the Black Mamba 6.5 is no exception. The advertised IBO speed rating is “up to 348 fps.” Even though that is not exactly definitive, you can rest assured, given the cam design and brace height, it will be sizzling fast. Most APA bows feature a handle that spans the grip, making it easy to carry the bow in the field — sort of like carrying a suitcase. The handle also serves to beef up the critical grip area, allowing for a stiff, strong riser even with a narrow grip section.
The Black Mamba 6.5 has parallel limbs for low-recoil shooting, factory-installed BowJax silencers on the limbs and cable guard and a string suppressor to squelch string noise. This package results in a bow that is both fast and quiet. The bow’s 6 1⁄2-inch brace height is a good compromise between raw speed and forgiveness. Anything in that 6 1⁄2-7 1⁄2-inch range makes for a good all-around bow.
ATHENS BUCK COMMANDER
One of the new television hunting shows is a spin-off from the popular Duck Commander program; it is called Buck Commander. This new bow from Athens Archery takes its name from the show. It is a good-looking, all-black bow that performs well and feels good in the hand.
The Buck Commander features the EV2 Duo-Cam System, producing a good combination of speed and consistent nock travel. The bow comes in two lengths, 32 and 34 inches. I was struck by the looks of the bow and the solid back wall. It shot quietly, due in part to a string suppressor and pair of limb-mounted BowJax silencers. If you are familiar with Athens’ bows, the Buck Commander is simply a souped-up version of the popular Accomplice line.
Bear consistently produces great shooting bows, and that trend continues with the new Attack. I shot it at the ATA Show, and it has a relatively rough draw cycle; not bad but not exactly smooth. However, on release it is pure magic. I loved the solid feel of the bow during the shot. It was quiet, produced almost no recoil and was plenty fast.
Features usually define a bow, but I think this bow needs to be shot to be truly appreciated. However, for the sake of thoroughness, I will also lay out the facts. The Attack has two string suppressors, one on the top of the riser and one on the bottom. This combination effectively squelches string vibration and a high percentage of bow noise. The Attack has a single-cam system, custom string/harnesses, a comfortable grip and Max Pre-Load Limbs that go past parallel at full draw. These features are similar to many other bows on the market, but feel is the final criteria. And I like the way this one feels.
BOWTECH DESTROYER 350
No bow has more technology deep-fried into its aluminum and fiberglass than the Destroyer 350. One of its most innovative features is the geared axle/cam system. They call it the OverDrive Binary dual cam system. According to BowTech engineer Craig Yehle, you need to feed a little harness to binary cams at the end of the draw to keep them synchronized.
In the past, BowTech did this through secondary lobes on the cams. However, BowTech wanted to spread the harness forces out to both sides of the limb tips so the limbs wouldn’t twist at all during the shot. If the limbs twist much, you get less than perfect arrow flight. By splitting the harnesses and moving the ends outside the limb, they achieved this goal. Then they geared the axle, which is not perfectly straight, to turn with the cam, so they can still feed out a little harness at the end of the draw to keep the cams in sync through this turning, offset axle. It is quite ingenious.
The Destroyer 350 also features the FLX-Guard, a flexible cable guard rod with rollers at the end. It flexes about one-eighth inch during the draw to keep the harnesses aligned with the bow’s center. This reduces torque on the riser so the bow pivots less during the draw.
The Destroyer also features a new carbon sandwich limb design, HardCore Limbs, that is more efficient and lighter than previous generations.
CARBON TECH CT PHANTOM
The Carbon Tech CT Phantom is the big question mark on this year’s Great Bows list. I wanted to shoot it at the ATA Show, but it was not yet ready for testing. So, I instead shot the Pursuit, an aluminum-riser version of the same bow. The Phantom has an all-carbon riser that looks very much like a conventional machined aluminum riser, only it’s much lighter and has the superior vibration insulating qualities of carbon. That is why I wanted to shoot it and see how it feels. The riser is made by Win & Win, a noted maker of risers for recurve target bows.
The Pursuit shot well. It is designed to balance at the grip, so it feels really good in the hand. It takes no additional effort from the bow hand to keep it upright and on target while aiming and into the follow-through.
The Phantom will have a carbon riser and carbon laminated limbs. I am looking forward to experiencing what promises to be an enjoyable shooting experience.
CONCEPT MINI 29
The Concept Mini 29 is the shortest bow on this year’s Great Bows list. At just 29 inches, it looks like a youth bow, but you will forget all about that when you start pulling on the string. It is a stout tug. The real surprise comes at full draw, because you have your choice of 80- or 99-percent letoff. When I let it down for the first time at 99 percent, I almost felt like I had to push the string forward. That is a strange sensation.
Of course, the true value of 99-percent letoff comes during the hunt. If you can get a 70-pound bow back to full draw, you can literally hold it for minutes. You are holding just under a pound! Letoff is adjustable by turning the axle so the harness can drop down into a groove on one side of the axle at 99-percent letoff. It feels good during the shot. You won’t notice a big difference in the feel of the bow once the string is released. The Mini 29 delivers a good fast arrow too.
DARTON PRO 3800
Ever since I got into this business 19 years ago, Darton has been an overlooked bow brand. I came to call it the “Quiet Company.” They have great products, but you just don’t hear much about them. Don’t let that stop you from taking a look at their new Pro 3800. I really like this bow. In fact, after shooting it, I feel it is the best bow Darton has ever made. That is saying a lot, because they have produced many good bows over the years.
The Pro 3800 was very quiet and stable during the shot, but it was also fast — very fast. One of the leading features of this bow is its cam system. Darton’s owner, Rex Darlington, is the inventor of the hybrid and binary cam styles. I remember when we first started seeing them back in the early ’90s. The CPS (Controlled Power System) cams were kind of a novelty until nearly every bow company began using them. Now, these designs are as mainstream as anything since the basic two cam. They are everywhere.
So, one would naturally assume the inventor of this technology would know how to make the most of it. The DualSync Cam System is a binary cam where the harness is split to terminate on matching tracks on both sides of each cam to better stabilize the limb tips for perfect arrow flight. The Pro 3800 also features two string suppressors for quiet, accurate shooting.
DIAMOND ICEMAN FLX
The IceMan FLX features the Center Pivot riser technology BowTech (which makes the Diamond brand) brought to the market three years ago. The short, parallel limbs are supported at their center by an extension of the riser. This allows Diamond to but a hinge at the butt of the limb, rather than locking it solidly in a pocket. This allows the entire limb to flex, spreading the stresses for greater reliability.
The IceMan also features the same FLX-Guard I wrote about in the review of the BowTech Destroyer 350. Other features include a string suppressor to reduce vibration and noise and a single-cam system with a rotating module that makes draw length adjustment easy. This bow isn’t super fast like most of the BowTech models, but it is very sweet, with a smooth draw and a rock-solid back wall. It is also very stable through the shot with its parallel-limb design.
Elite continues to gain popularity and market share for the right reasons. It is not a bunch of marketing hype; they make great bows. The new Judge is similar to the GT500, just a bit faster. I shot the Judge at the ATA Show and have shot the GT500 many times. A friend of mine owns one, and I shot it for 30 minutes at a recent 3-D shoot. It is very quiet — impressively so. Looking through my notes from the ATA Show, the Judge is also quiet, has a solid feel and is slightly top-heavy, so it tips forward easily during follow-through. I also noted it is very fast!
The Judge has a moderately low brace height and a two-track binary cam system. It has a sleek, streamlined riser and a string suppressor. At nearly 35 inches, it is a little longer than most top-line bows. I like that, because I think a few extra ounces of weight are worth the added stability.
HOYT CARBON MATRIX
The Carbon Matrix was one of the bows I looked forward to shooting most. I didn’t know what to expect; I guess the cynic in me expected it to feel just like the AlphaMax 35, but I was surprised at how nice this bow feels. At the shot, the bow didn’t jump or vibrate at all in my hands. It is just very sweet. I would say it was among the best feeling bows I tested this year. It draws smoothly and feels notably good in the hand during the shot. There is not a huge weight savings here despite the carbon riser, but it sure does suppress vibration.
The tubular carbon riser also makes the Carbon Matrix very durable. I watched the videos in Hoyt’s booth — you can also find them on their website — showing them driving over the bow repeatedly with a big truck on an asphalt parking lot and then shooting it flawlessly moments later. It was shocking, really. I don’t want to try that with any of my aluminum riser bows. I once accidently ran over my aluminum bow with a Suburban out in South Dakota, and I know what can happen — it’s not good! The Carbon Matrix is very expensive, but it is unique, not a gimmick. The bow is definitely sweet and rugged.
HOYT MAXXIS 31
I shot the AlphaMax quite a lot last season, and when I received the Maxxis 31 to test, I admit I was a bit skeptical. The AlphaMax had been such an improvement over previous Hoyt bows that I really felt the Maxxis would be a letdown by comparison. I won’t say it redefined the Hoyt brand the way the AlphaMax did, but the Maxxis is actually a slightly better bow. It is a little faster, a little smoother and a little sweeter.
The limbs on the Maxxis go beyond parallel at full draw. This configuration eliminates all hand shock during the shot. The bow literally doesn’t jump forward. It is also very quiet. I pulled my old UltraTec out of the closet just for comparison. It was a great bow in its time. That thing feels like a bucking bronco compared to the Maxxis. Hoyt now makes some of the best bows on the market and the Maxxis is the flagship. Tangible assets include a string suppressor, moderately hard hybrid cam and a split roller guard.
By today’s standards, the Pantera is a very smooth performer. It features a single-cam design that rolls easily yet produces more than sufficient speed. It is a full-featured bow with a string suppressor, roller cable guard, riser mounted vibration suppressors and parallel limbs. Now, here is the part I like best about this bow: it retails for just $499.
No, it is not as fast as some bows, but honestly, just a few short years ago, this would have been the fastest bow on the market. So, it is not like it is incapable of filling the game pole until it creaks and sags. If you are looking for a good value in these slower economic times, find a Martin dealer and give the Pantera a try.
Never forget that Mathews started many of the trends we see on the market today. They were the first to use parallel limbs, the first with a roller cable guard, the first with bow mounted string suppressors, among the first to produce a truly centered shooting rig (the string lines up with the center of the grip) and the first to produce a truly fast single-cam bow. So, each year I look at their new products to see what other companies will be doing next.
On the Z7, we see an aggressive single-cam design with QCA (Quick Change Axle), limb- and riser-mounted string suppressors for maximum vibration reduction and the Harmonic dampening system.
The stiff, lightweight Grid Lock riser is an eye-grabber. If you count all the holes in t
he side of the riser (cutouts and drilled holes), you will be shocked when the number runs just south of 55. By removing as much material as possible, without compromising the necessary strength, this riser is as light as possible.
The Z7 also features the Reverse Assist Roller Guard. With this system, the harnesses push back into the roller rather than pulling out on it. The result is less friction and greater efficiency. It is a lot to pack into a 30-inch package. This little killer is a great companion on any bowhunt.
The Maniac may be that rarest of rare bows. It is the one bow that fits almost everyone and still delivers good performance. And it does all that at an economical price! There are only a handful of bows on the market that I would feel good about recommending to a new archer. Such folks don’t need the most advanced bows; they need a simple product that will morph to fit their changing form at a price that won’t break the bank. The Maniac fits that bill, but it is also a good upgrade for someone who has been bowhunting many years.
Mathews makes the Maniac, and many of its features are typical of Mathews models. For example, it has string suppressors mounted to the ends of the limbs. It has the Zebra Hybrid string and harness system. And it has a parallel limb design to reduce recoil during the shot. If you are looking for a great first bow or a high-quality, adjustable upgrade, the Maniac is definitely one to shoot.
PSE BOW MADNESS
The Bow Madness is a single-cam spin-off from PSE’s highly successful X-Force bow lineup. This is a straight riser bow, but with its highly pre-loaded limbs, the tips of the limbs actually turn beyond parallel at full draw. Again, this produces a shock-free shot. Shock-free, fast and quiet summarize the shooting experience.
One of the strengths of this bow is its adjustability. You can adjust letoff from 80 to 65 percent, and you can adjust draw length over a full, six-inch range without a bow press.
With the resurgence of interest in carbon risers, people are talking weight again. You don’t need carbon to own a lightweight bow, if that is your goal. This one is just as light as any adult, full-length bow on the market, carbon riser bows included.
PSE X-FORCE AXE 6
Unless you have been sleeping for the past four years, or are new to bowhunting, you are no doubt aware of the X-Force tradition at PSE. The X-Force was the first bow with a dramatically curved limb system that permitted the limb tips to fly straight up and straight down at the shot. Despite the fact these bows were very fast, they were sweet shooters with very little hand shock. They were also surprisingly quiet. The first one I tested was a part of a panel that eventually selected it as the best bow that year — I think it was 2007. The X-Force ignited a trend toward many similar designs on the market.
PSE didn’t rest on the initial success of the X-Force. Instead, they came out with additional bows utilizing this same aggressive, pre-loaded limb technology. The latest in the line is the new Axe 6. It is a very fast hybrid cam bow, but one of its greatest features is its adaptability. It offers a full six inches of draw-length adjustment via a rotating inner cam module. It is wicked fast but shootable thanks to limbs that go past parallel at full draw.
Quest bows are made by G5 Outdoors, and if you are a fan of quality construction, you no doubt are also a fan of G5. Everything they do, from broadheads to sights to bows, is done with precision and quality in mind. G5 is an engineering company that began producing bowhunting gear rather than a bowhunting company that tries to get by without the overhead of qualified designers. That is G5’s (and Quest’s) strength; their engineering and production capabilities.
You can see evidence of this all over the Primal. The bow has a number of innovative features, starting with the new cam system. The Sync is a binary cam that produces a very smooth draw and excellent arrow flight. Like all binary cams, it produces good nock travel while staying synchronized easily. The I-Glide cable guard is also very innovative. The harnesses slide within ceramic coated holes, eliminating moving parts. The bow has a string suppressor and factory-installed BowJax limb silencers. Finally, you have the option of purchasing the bow in a GFade Durafuse finish that creates a smooth color transition from full black at the grip to full camo at the ends of the riser. It is pretty cool — a good, solid bow by a good, solid company.
REDHEAD KRYPTIK PRO
Redhead sells some of the most overlooked great bows on the market. The bows are made for Redhead (Bass Pro Shops) by BowTech, so you know they have a solid lineage. Redhead bows generally have fewer bells and whistles than BowTech’s main line, making them more similar to the Diamond line in that regard. The Kryptik Pro features a grid-style riser design similar to the look of the new Mathews Z7.
The Kryptik Pro is a smooth-drawing bow. Some of today’s fast bows have pretty rough draw curves, especially where they drop into the valley. They do this to store more energy, but the Kryptik Pro is still plenty fast without being harsh. I was also impressed by how quietly the bow shoots.
The Rytera Nemesis was one of the best bows I tested at the ATA Show. I had the opportunity to shoot nearly every bow on the market and take a few notes as I slipped from shooting lane to shooting lane. My notes for the Nemesis say, “Very dead in the hand.” “Impressive.” “Very quiet.” I don’t do shorthand, so my notes are a bit short. But in translation, that means I liked the bow a lot.
Martin makes the Rytera line, and while they have increasingly focused on value in the Martin line, Rytera is where they let it all hang out and shoot for the top in every element of bow design. It shows in places such as Speed Bearings, super hard axles, STS Shock Terminator Suppressor, Dakota custom strings and an elaborately machined truss-style riser. It is a good bow.
This new company is born from the vision of Kevin Strother. He has been designing bows for other companies for more than a decade, and now Strother Archery will benefit from those years of intense research and development. The SR-71 Blackbird is a long-range military recon aircraft known for its high speeds. I actually was able to watch one land at our Air Force base in Okinawa back in the late ’80s as part of my former life.
They are extremely sleek and racy. That is why Strother chose to name this very fast, sleek new bow after the SR-71.
Strother poured the bulk of his research time into the limbs and cams. He achieved a new method for constructing limbs that allows him to hold tighter tolerances to assure consistent accuracy. The cam Strother designed is a hybrid that produces a high degree of energy storage. Throw in the obligatory string suppressor and parallel limbs and you have a stable, fast shooting bow. The SR-71 headlines an impressive lineup for this first-year bow company.