COMPOUND BOW SELECTION GUIDE
The Big Read for Prospective Bow Buyers and Archers
KNOCK-OFFS TO AVOID AT ANY PRICE
NO PRICE IS TOO LOW
Before we talk about the bows you should consider, we should briefly discuss the ones you should not. We realize that everyone loves a bargain, and sometimes there just isn't a price that's too low. But there are a few bows lurking around out there that scare us to death. The United States isn't the only place where compound bows are made. There are a handful of other manufacturers throughout the world who specialize in modern archery - mostly high-end target bows made in Europe. And if you want to shell out $2,000 to import a German target bow, that's perfectly fine with us. That's not what we're talking about. We're talking about knockoffs - grossly substandard bows, imported from China, and dumped onto the U.S. market for a song.
We've managed to get our hands on a few of these bows over the years, and frankly, we believe they're dangerous (not to mention they perform like garbage). We simply won't sell them. The liability for failures and injuries is just too high. And to make matters worse, the "distributors" for these compound bows seem to come and go like the wind, often entering the market just long enough to dump the products and then disappear. So when there is a warranty claim or a problem down the road, we're all out of luck.
BETTER TO BUY USED THAN BUY JUNK
If you come across a deal that seems too good to be true, on a brand of compound bow you've never seen or heard about before - be extra cautious. Better yet, check the ATA Member Directory to see if they're a listed manufacturer. Otherwise, you're putting yourself at considerable risk. If your budget is particularly tight, please don't try to save a buck with a Chinese knock-off. You would be MUCH better off with a good used bow from a major brand name. There are literally thousands of used compound bows for sale on eBay at any given time. If you shop around, you can surely find a decent serviceable rig within your budget.
THE $299 BOW PHENOMENON
MINIMUM "GOOD BOW" STANDARDS
The adult compound bow really begins at the $299 retail mark. To be fair, a few manufacturers have tinkered with resurrecting cast magnesium risers and old cam designs in recent years, but it never gets much traction. Buyers see recycled bow designs as too cheap – too unpalatable. The modern parallel limb bow has a very specific profile. When buyers don’t see that shape, they know something is wrong. More to the point, parallel limb bows require a long stiff riser – and recycling a stubby little cast riser just won’t cut it. Adult bowhunters also universally reject painted camo jobs, wheel/twin cam systems, and any IBO speed under 300 fps. So if a bow manufacturer tries to really dig in the discount bin for customers, they’re sort-of wasting their time. To some degree, even the entry-level bowhunter knows enough to be an equipment snob.
ONLY SOME CAN PLAY AT $299
So $299 bows tend to better than you might think. In fact, there are a few $299 bows that will frankly blow your skirt up. If a basic compound bow meets the essential qualifications test (modern bow profile, single or hybrid cam system, film-dipped camo finish, an IBO speed of 300+ fps, and a decent aesthetic presentation) it’s practically guaranteed to be a huge seller. But this is a dangerous battlefield for bow manufacturers. Only the manufacturers with the best patent strategies and cost management techniques dare to sell products this close to their wholesale cost.
Why sell a bow so cheap at all? Actually, there are two main reasons - both related to brand competition. First, manufacturing and distributing a $299 bow – even if the whole effort is for little or no profit – fouls up the competition by taking an otherwise profitable sale from them. So the $299 bow is sometimes used as a defensive strategy. On the other hand, the $299 bow is also considered an investment in brand loyalty. If you buy a manufacturer’s $299 bow and you have a good experience, the manufacturer hopes you’ll later buy one of their premier models as your next bow. So for the manufacturers who can afford to produce a $299 bow, it’s a win-win. Everybody loves the $299 bows – that is except for the manufacturers who don’t have one to sell.
WHAT TO EXPECT
First, don’t expect a big selection. There are only a handful of these bows on the market. We rarely miss an opportunity to stock these bows when they’re available, as they will surely be popular sellers in our store. But again, there will only be a few models to choose from. A $299 bow typically has a modern shape, a single cam, a film-dipped camo finish, a fairly tall brace height (7-8”), a moderate axle-to-axle length, and an IBO speed no more than 305-315 fps. $299 bows are not likely to have many premium features and amenities - but some have a few. However, since these bows are not particularly aggressive, they tend to be easy to shoot, reasonably quiet, and depending on the limb angle – low recoil. For most bowhunting missions, we think you’ll find the $299 bow easily gets the job done. In fact, today’s $299 bows probably outperform most of theflagship bows we celebrated as wicked and cutting-edge just ten years ago. If saving money is essential, the $299 rigs are almost no brainers.
$399 BOWS - BEST BUY CLASS
Most every bow manufacturer is in the game at $399. This class of bows more accurately represents the “entry-level” bows on the market. But due to the competition from the $299 bows, and the fact that some manufacturers want to make a good impression against them, the $399 bows tend to be market sweethearts. $399 probably won’t get you a hot speed bow or one of the pro-shop only aristocrats, but many of the $399 bows are excellent hunters, with integrated dampening gadgets, high limb angles, good limb pre-loads, and forgiving characteristics. Expect the typical $399 bow to have a 7” brace height, a 31-34” axle-to-axle length, and an IBO speed of about 310-320 fps.
This class of bows will surely outperform the typical $299 bow, and for many bowhunters, the extra $100 feels well spent, if for no other reason than you didn’t buy the cheapest thing. In addition to better self-esteem, moving up to the $399 bows will also give you a MUCH broader selection – lots of $399 bows out there. This is truly the workhorse class of compound bows.
$499 PRICE PURGATORY BOWS
A STRANGE ZONE
At $499, most bow manufacturers aren’t quite ready to put in their varsity players. As a result, $499 bows never seem to be purposefully built. More often, the $499 bows seem to either be upgraded/modified versions of existing entry-level bows or deliberately stripped-down versions of high-end bows. We’ve actually seen bow manufacturers take their $399 bow and simply install a little shorter limb to make a $499 bow. A shorter limb reduces the brace height and increases the IBO speed. Presto! A new “upgraded” bow is born. Its production cost is identical to the $399 bow, but the faster IBO speed means it can command a higher retail price.
We’ve also seen $499 bows that are just the company’s flagship bow with a softer cam and most of the add-ons removed. It’s a very strange zone of bow purgatory. Of course, we’re not suggesting that you avoid $499 bows. There are certainly some fine bows in that price range. But just so you know – we are very cautious about the number of $499 bows we select and stock each season. They tend to be slow sellers and get lukewarm customer response. Since the $499 bow could literally be anything, we can’t tell you what specs are typical. Sorry.
$599-$699 SPECIALISTS AND HOT-RODS
ALMOST TOP OF THE LINE
At $599 or $699, bow manufacturers are starting to spread their tail feathers. These bows are likely to represent the first major performance step-ups, usually into the 330's. This price range is also likely to be home to some specialist bows (very short treestand bows, bows with extra long draw lengths, bows with heavyweight limb options, etc.). This is also the price point where bells and whistles are expected. A Plain Jane $599 bow will always be a dud here in our store. If customers are going to drop six or seven bills, they expect a pretty sharp rig with upgraded cams, crisp aesthetics, custom strings, roller guards, pivoting pockets, etc. A bow has NO business in this price range without a reasonable spread of amenities and a solid technical report card. Incidentally, we sell a LOT of bows from the $599 and $699 price points. Savvy buyers find this price range has some smart picks, since the Specialists and Hot-Rods are still cheaper than the flagships, yet they often share many of the key features and technologies found on the flagships. And in some cases, the flagship bows are almost identical to the $599/$699 bows, except the flagshipshave shorter brace heights and faster IBO speeds - which some shooters don't really want anyway. If you want to buy something really nice, without spending a ridiculous fortune, this is a good class to shop.
$799 AND UP TO WHATEVER YOU WILL PAY
GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR? OK. FINE
Above the $799 mark, there really is no pricing logic - no cost based justification. Prices seem to jump around - often with no discernible reason. Of course, there are buyers out there who firmly believe in the "you get what you pay for" mantra (bless their wonderful little hearts). Some buyers really believe that more expensive automatically equals better - and that's the end of the discussion. If you want to buy an absolute top of the line rig with no regard for price ... great! Come right in. We have a few bows we would love to show you.
CELEBRITY ENDORSEMENT PREMIUM
But if you're not so anxious to have your Visa card slaughtered unnecessarily, we strongly suggest you compare these flagship bows dollar for dollar - point for point - feature for feature. There are a few bow manufacturers who simply believe their bows are worth more than everyone else's - and they aren't afraid to price their name (and the cost of all those celebrity endorsements) into their bows. If you're going to pay more, make sure you're actually getting more. It's very easy to get hypnotized in this industry ... Look at my finger. You're getting very sleepy now.
APPLES TO APPLES
WE LOVE SPEED, A LOT
In the archery industry - speed sells. And today, the proverbial line in the sand is about 320 fps. Bows that shoot less than 320 fps are considered a little slow - bows that shoot over 320 fps are considered fast. Of course, that's fundamentally ridiculous ... 310 fps is 211 mph, 330 fps is 225 mph. If one Ferrari went 211 mph and another went 225 mph, you wouldn't call either slow. Nonetheless, that's the market perception with compound bows. Additionally, there are upper and lower limits - so to speak. A bow that shoots less than 300 fps is considered unacceptably slow, and a bow that shoots 340 fps or above is considered a screamer (speed bow).
HOW TO GO FAST
Speed is literally the force that drives our industry. So we spend a lot of time dissecting the issue ... If you're just getting into the sport, and you're not sure what these horsepower numbers mean - let's start at the top. On the most basic level, there are three main components that contribute to greater arrow speeds: more draw weight, more draw length, and less arrow mass. The higher the draw weight - the more power the bow stores and the faster the arrow will shoot. The longer the draw length - the more power the bow stores and the faster the arrow will shoot. And the lighter the arrow - the faster it generally flies. So for the purposes of testing and coming up with speed-ratings, a slick manufacturer could establish their bow's advertised speed using an unrealistic 100# draw weight, a super-long 32" draw length, and use a flyweight 250 grain arrow. Surely that combination would yield a blazing fast test speed which would help to sell more bows, right? Well, not so fast.
IBO SPEED TEST STANDARD
To keep the speed ratings fair (and useful for consumers), the industry uses an "Apples-to-Apples" method of comparison. Manufacturers generally rate their bows using the same IBO (International Bowhunting Organization) Standard. To get an accurate IBO Speed rating, manufacturers must test their bows under the same preset conditions: setting the bows for exactly 70# Peak Draw Weight, exactly 30" Draw Length, and they must shoot a test arrow that weighs precisely 350 grains. This levels the playing field on basic settings, so the differences in IBO scores reflect other design attributes (brace height, cam aggression, bow efficiency, etc.). But as we said, speed sells. So measuring and declaring those advertised IBO Speed numbers is serious business. Bow buyers really split hairs over IBO Speeds - and the industry knows it. Manufacturers need their bows to be rated fast, because nobody wants to buy a new slow bow. With that said, you should know that some bow manufacturers are very honest about their IBO Speeds - others are known to take a few liberties despite the strict standards.
TWEAKS AND FUDGES
since most manufacturers rate their own bows - they'll usually give themselves a few added advantages by testing the bows with a bare arrow shaft (no fletchings), a naked string (no nocking point, peep sight, or silencers), the lowest possible let-off setting, and with a drop-away style rest. This helps to maximize storage and eliminate friction so it's possible to squeeze out a few extra fps, but it doesn't necessarily reflect realistic shooting conditions. Manufacturers can also squeeze a few more fps by shooting the bows from the hard-wall (forcibly drawing the bow back a little too far) rather than from the soft valley (more on wall and valley concepts later). And finally, the manufacturer's IBO speed is likely to reflect their "best" test, rather than their average test.
ONLY MANUFACTURERS CAN MEASURE
Since the industry has no independent testing authority to actually scientifically verify each of the manufacturers' claims, most bows end up with advertised IBO speeds that are optimistically high, and nearly impossible to duplicate. After all, most consumers don't have the benefit of a chronograph, and few people actually shoot 70# DW, 30" DL, and exactly a 350 gr arrow. And even if they did, there will always be some percentage of variance among scales and chronographs to help dismiss any claims of discrepancies. So there's really no way to hold manufacturers accountable for their exact IBO speed numbers. In our experience, they're all guilty of a little IBO speed padding. But to be fair, most are careful not to get too carried away. A little padding and outright fabricating are different things.
JUST A LITTLE SWEETER
As such, we recommend you consider the manufacturers' ratings as a high-estimate. In most cases, the IBO speed is still a reliable method of "Apples-to-Apples" comparison among different bow models. We just have to accept that manufacturers invariably doctor-up their apples to be a little sweeter than they actually are. It's just part of the game. So don't assume something is wrong with your new bow just because it doesn't shoot as fast as it's posted IBO Speed. Very few, if any, bows do.
DON'T GET TOO STRUNG-OUT ON SPEED
While we understand that speed is a big selling point for compound bows and a major performance characteristic that merits concern, we strongly suggest you not get too caught-up in splitting hairs over IBO speed. Compared to the wheel bows most of us grew-up on, any modern compound bow is blazing fast. In the field, there is no appreciable difference between a 315 fps bow and a 320 fps bow. So keep the speed ratings in reasonable perspective and treat them as estimates - not absolutes.
KINETIC ENERGY (PENETRATION)
WE HAVE POWER: To help illustrate the point that practically any modern bow is an excercise in bowhunting overkill, let's take a few moments and discuss Kinetic Energy (KE). In the shooting sports, penetration is most often expressed as a function of KE. This topic is covered in great detail in our Arrow Selection Guide, but we'll mention the highlights here in the bow guide as our final thought on bow "power". So how much power does that 300 or 320 fps bow really have. Let's take a look.
ARCHER'S KE FORMULA
In the end, the measurable "power" of your new bow - it's total kinetic energy output - ultimately depends upon just two variables: the mass of the arrow and the speed of the arrow. Kinetic energy of an arrow can be found by using the formula KE=(mv²)/450,240 where m is the mass of the arrow in grains and v is the velocity of the arrow in fps (and yes, yes, we know the standard formula is KE=1/2mv²). The archer's KE formula is a modification of that formula which tidies-up and converts all the units around so we can use grains, fps, and ft-lbs easily. Otherwise, this wouldn't nearly be so fun.
Since we know that IBO speeds are calculated using a 350 grain arrow, we could easily plug a bow's IBO speed and 350 grains into the formula and get KE. But since we've already discussed that IBO speeds are usually fluffy and optimistic, let's be fair and subtract 5% right off the top. Now let's determine how much KE we can expect to get out of a 300 fps bow, a 320 fps bow, and a 340 fps bow.
300 FPS BOW
- KE=63.141 ft-lbs.
320 FPS BOW
- KE=71.841 ft-lbs.
340 FPS BOW
- KE=81.102 ft-lbs.
IS THAT ENOUGH POWER FOR HUNTING?
Let's take a look at Easton's Kinetic Energy Recommendation Chart.
Kinetic Energy Hunting Usage < 25 ft-lbs. Small Game (rabbit, groundhog, raccoon, etc.) 25-41 ft-lbs. Medium Game (deer, antelope, coyote, etc.) 42-65 ft-lbs Large Game (elk, black bear, wild boar, etc.) > 65 ft-lbs. Toughest Game (cape buffalo, grizzly, musk ox, etc.)
POWER IS JUST ONE VARIABLE IN THE EQUATION
According to Easton's recommendations, about 55 ft-lbs of KE would be plenty for most popular North American game species. Even a lowly 300 fps bow covers that with plenty of juice to spare. But is that a guarantee of success? Absolutely not! Remember, bowhunting is a traditional and difficult sport. And regardless of how you crunch your numbers during pre-season, you can't avoid the elements of chance during the actual hunt.
Shooting a live animal in the woods is quite different than shooting a block of ballistics gel in a laboratory - or even a target in the backyard. In the field you'll encounter unpredictable and complex variables that limit any mathematical model to just a "best guess." If you consider that your arrow must arrive on target then pass through layers of hair, hide, muscles, bones (perhaps), and other tissues - and that all of this is happening in an uncontrolled outdoor environment, it's pretty clear that the issue of hunting penetration cannot truly be distilled into a mathematical puzzle. As many experienced bowhunters can attest, just as it's possible to make mistakes and get lucky, it's also possible to do everything right and come-up empty handed. That's just part of the sport. However, with good equipment, good technique, smart planning, and some common sense, you can surely tip the scales in your favor and maximize your chances of success in the field.
PLAGIARISM OF THIS DOCUMENT
Incidentally, this guide is the most commonly downloaded document on our website (aside from the home page). It is also the most commonly plagiarized document on our website. Back in 2002, we seeded the Compound Bow Selection Guide with a nonsense word, "hyperpolyresin." That nonsense word has been part of the text for over a decade. We just made the word up - because it sounded like something technical (an excitable plastic adhesive perhaps). Anyway, that nonsense word was deliberately used so that we could track plagiarism. If you Google the term "hyperpolyresin," you will find a number of other websites have copied and reposted our Compound Bow Selection Guide (some with our permission - most without). Very naughty. In this update, we've added a few new words. back to bows ...