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Compound Bow Buyer's Guide

Compound Bow Buyer's Guide

Today's compound bows come in all shapes and sizes. The industry itself is filled with mixed messages: some tell you it's all about speed, while others emphasize bow lengths or a smooth draw cycle. This makes buying a compound bow a bit of a challenge.

In fact, several manufacturers sell their wares based on raw speed alone, making you believe that's the only consideration to be made. Others push only the shortest bow models possible, all while the best shots in archery — the winningest 3-D target shooters around — invariably wield longer models. It can all get a bit confusing. The biggest problem in specifying an "ideal" is that everyone has different needs, expectations and skill sets.

For example, I have a long draw length (30 inches) and live out West where the pursuit of mule deer, pronghorn and elk results in shots many would consider on the long side (though I'm also just as much a whitetail fanatic as the next guy). I gravitate toward longer axle-to-axle compounds (38-40 inches) to accommodate my tall stature and because these outfits promote the level of accuracy I demand for long-range success. But that's just me.

I have a short but stout friend (27-inch draw length) who lives in Texas and bowhunts nothing but brush-country whitetail and hogs, and always from pop-up or brush blinds. He prefers shorter bows (30-32 inches) because he seldom shoots past 20 yards and short bows are easier to handle in tight quarters.

These two examples demonstrate two opposite ends of the spectrum. They also show you that different bowunters are going to have to make different considerations when selecting the right bow for them.

The compound bow buying advice which follows, therefore, is an attempt to best serve the average bowhunter subjected to average conditions — the avid whitetail hunter who occasionally ventures into elk mountains or onto pronghorn prairie.

3. Finding Your Sweet Spot

The easiest hunting bows to shoot are like Goldilocks' porridge: not too fast, not too slow, not too short, not too long. No one wants to shoot a slow bow, as flattened trajectory certainly has its merits: it makes range judging less critical, lessens wind drift on longer shots and tightens pin gaps for less aiming confusion. The key is shooting all the speed you can without sacrificing accuracy and forgiveness, while also pulling a draw weight you can handle easily under real-world conditions (drawing slowly and smoothly into anchor while aiming at a finite point, without moving that pin off that point). For most bowhunters, especially those shooting fixed-blade broadheads, the speed threshold falls somewhere in the 280-315 fps range (real speed derived from hunt-ready bows wearing peep and string silencers and propelling hunting-weight arrows — not advertised IBO speeds), produced by bows with forgiving 7.5-8-inch brace heights and about 60-65 pounds draw weight.

2. Beware Small Packages

I understand the appeal of short, featherweight bows. They're easy to carry. They fit inside pop-up blinds. They provide added clearance on brushy stands. But the shortest, lightest bows also sacrifice stability, and in turn, forgiveness. Heavier objects are steadier in the hand than light ones. Shorter bows are also easier to torque should you grip the bow during release. Apply that to actual shots at game — with breath coming out ragged and hands fluttering — and that lightweight, short-model bow is more likely to deviate from center than heavier, longer models (the degree of deviation also increases exponentially as range stretches).

5. How to Get a Grip

Feel is also important when it comes to cam style, and more specifically draw cycles created. I prefer an even buildup into peak, while not minding abrupt let-off if a bit of controllable speed is gained. You may shoot better and maintain more steady concentration by shooting a cam that builds into peak and lets off equally at each end of the draw cycle. Feel is also part of handle design. Some prefer slim profiles, while others prefer a bit more bulk. You discover that perfect feel only by handling a variety of bows, which is only possible via local pro shops, not mail order.

4. Finding the Right Axle-to-Axle Length

When it comes to axle-to-axle lengths, the answers become more subjective because we're not all created equal. What's short for me as a 6-foot-5-inch man proves perfect for my 5-foot-4-inch wife. Matching bow length to stature is important. I'd say a good fit is 30-33 inches for those standing 5 to 5 1/2 feet, 33-35 for average guys, and 36-38 for taller shooters. These are, of course, ball-park figures. You must find your own comfort level that provides maximum stability while aiming and releasing.

6. Why Silence Is Golden

In bowhunting there's no such thing as too quiet. Average compound bows grow quieter out of the box each season, but that doesn't mean it should be taken for granted. Especially if you're a diehard whitetail hunter, you should gravitate toward bows with built-in silencing features that create whisper-quiet shots. String stops are the newest thing in silencing. They're simply rubber bumpers that capture the string after release to dull guitar-string twangs, and in many cases they also make the bows more accurate by creating more consistent nock separation. String silencers, combined with string stops, create the ultimate bow silence. Also look to factory-installed silencing accessories such as cable-slide dampeners, limb silencers, and riser dampers like the Harmonic Dampers from Mathews or Martin Archery's Vibration Escape Modules. Of course many of these accessories can be added after purchase, but factory-installed components typically mean more bang for your buck.

1. Do You Have a Need for Speed?

In my opinion, ultra-fast bows (340-plus fps) are largely overrated — unless you have the honed skills to handle them — especially in a whitetail context. When the pressure is on, short bows are always more challenging to shoot well. Speed bows typically have lower brace heights (less than 7.25 inches) which creates more speed by holding arrows on the string longer during launch, providing extra push. The longer your arrow stays on the string, the more time you have to introduce human error — like dropping the bow arm during release, for instance. As a result, fast bows offer less forgiveness. Secondly, speed bows are normally accompanied by radical cams that remain at peak draw weight longer during the draw cycle and let off more harshly. They can prove taxing on cold, stiff muscles after a few hours on a cold stand. Finally, the faster you push an arrow, the more finicky it becomes regarding tuning. Fast bows accentuate small shooting errors and make arrows more susceptible to small deflections after contacting the lightest obstacles.

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