August 24, 2021
If you’ve been shooting archery for any length of time, you’ve seen an arrow leave your bow, then watched its back end kick or fishtail en route to the target. It’s happened to me, and I’ve witnessed it many times while observing friends and family shoot their bows, too. Interestingly, it doesn’t bother some folks as long as they hit where they’re aiming. But, it isn’t something to dismiss.
Of course, when you can visibly identify poor arrow flight, it’s obvious that something about your bow setup is amiss. However, not all problems trigger visibly poor arrow flight. Oftentimes, bows have problems that we’ll never know about unless we utilize the time-tested technique of paper tuning.
For newer or less-involved archers, I’ll begin with a basic overview of how paper tuning is done, but I won’t elaborate on the different types of tears and how to fix them, as umpteen articles already exist on said topic. Then, I’ll outline several of the setup and shooter errors that paper tuning can help you identify. I’ll wrap up with the benefits of a bow that paper tunes with flying colors. Follow along.
Paper Tuning Basics
In its most basic form, paper tuning is when you tape a sheet of paper taut to a shoot-through frame. I created my own inexpensive frame from PVC fittings, to give you an idea. Then, you place a target too large to miss about 10 feet behind the paper. With your best shooting form and shot execution, shoot an arrow through the paper from 3-5 yards away. Other experts might suggest different distances, but I’ve found this works very well for me.
After the shot, inspect the paper. If you see nothing more than a bullet-sized tear in the center of the cuts made by your vanes, then your bow is likely tuned quite well. But, it’s rarely this easy. Often, the shaft will tear more of the paper than its diameter, with the vanes tearing left, right, above or below the shaft tear. This identifies that something about you or your setup is amiss. Lets’ discuss some of the flaws that paper tuning exposes.
Entirely a user error, bow torque is when you twist the bow grip right of left. Even minute shifts in hand pressure can cause your arrow tip to point left or right of center, thus causing faulty departure upon launch. If paper tuning reveals a right or left tear, it could be due to bow torque. This can be solved by gripping the bow with less of your hand. Or, you could try a custom aftermarket grip.
Rest Windage and Elevation
Poor paper tears could mean that your arrow rest isn’t positioned ideally. Most bow technicians set up the rest in line with the center of the bow riser or slightly left of center (right-handed bows). And while this is a great starting point, not all bows will provide a perfect tear right out of the gate. You might have to tweak your rest’s elevation or windage in order to improve the tear.
When the buss cable(s) isn’t (aren’t) evenly distributing the workload, it twists the bow limb(s) and thus cants the wheel or cam(s). This is a big one, as even a subtle discrepancy can show up on paper. You can usually check for cam lean by closing your non-dominant eye and then lining up the bowstring through the center of the riser. Once you’re doing that, quickly glance at the top cam or wheel. If the string doesn’t perfectly center the string track, you have cam lean. Check the bottom, too. Correcting the buss-cable tension will correct the lean and usually improve or fix the tear.
Now, I’ve owned a few bows that tore perfectly only when a little bit of cam lean was present. It could be that the lean compensated for riser flex or another non-identifiable problem. In any case, perfect alignment doesn’t always mean a perfect tear. In general, though, perfect alignment will optimize the bow’s tune.
Cam timing or synchronization flaws almost always lead to a poor paper tear, usually high or low. Not only do unsynchronized cams make a bow difficult to tune, it also usually creates a double back wall in which you feel two stops instead of one. If your cam timing is out of whack, fix it and it will most certainly improve or perfect your paper tune.
Arrow spine — otherwise known as stiffness — determines how much the arrow flexes in flight. Obviously, the stiffer the arrow, the more draw weight and length it can handle without over-flexing. In other words, shooting an under-spined arrow can result in too much flexing during the shot, and it takes the arrow longer to recover its integrity and straightness. That, in turn, can lead to dubious flight and a poor paper tear.
If you exhaust all other avenues and are still experiencing poor paper tears, try a stiffer-spined arrow and see if the problem resolves or persists.
The Final Rip
When your bow doesn’t produce a perfect paper tear, it usually means something is wrong. When you screw in broadheads — particularly fixed-blade broadheads — the underlying problem magnifies, and your broadheads will usually fly differently than your field points. That is a pain in the neck. Paper tuning reveals the problems and allows you to fix them so you achieve optimal arrow flight.
A paper-tuned bow launching true arrows has benefits beyond field-point-accurate broadhead flight. You’ll possibly gain a few feet per second due to reduced wind friction. Your grouping consistency will usually improve, too. And, your arrows will penetrate deeper because they’re entering the animal straight on, reducing friction.
As a final thought, I’ve owned a few bows that I couldn’t get to produce a perfect paper tear. Does it mean I couldn’t hunt with them? No. I spent a bunch of time improving the tear as much as possible. Then, I made sure that my mechanical broadheads flew the same as my field points and went hunting.
There are certainly other tuning techniques out there that yield great results. For that reason, paper tuning shouldn’t be considered the end-all solution. Even a professional tournament archer I’ve spoken with uses it as a starting point and builds on it with other tuning techniques. Every archer and bowhunter has his/her own set of beliefs regarding paper tuning, but I can tell you that it has produced results for me personally that lead me to believe every bowhunting bow should be paper tuned, including yours.