COMPOUND BOW SELECTION GUIDE
The Big Read for Prospective Bow Buyers and Archers
PRICE VS. PERFORMANCE
YOU CAN HAVE IT ALL, JUST NOT IN ONE BOW
Before you start shopping for a new bow, you'll need to understand that you can't have it all (sorry). There are many characteristics that archers look for in a new bow. Most archers want a bow that has blazing fast performance, a silky smooth draw stroke, very low hand-shock, a generous valley, and high let-off. Most archers also want their bows to be very lightweight, compact, attractive, quiet, forgiving to any flaws in technique, easy to tune, easy to adjust, and affordable for any budget. Unfortunately, this perfect bow just doesn’t exist. To get a bow with a certain set of characteristics, you’ll likely have to sacrifice some others. For example, very fast bows are generally less forgiving, low recoil parallel-limb bows are generally a little heavy, bows with the best curb-appeal tend to be expensive, and so on. Ultimately you’ll have to decide which characteristics are most important to you and choose the bow that best fits your personal criteria.
THE BIG ONE, FREE SPEED
The holy grail of the industry is the FREE SPEED bow. A free speed bow is an imaginary compound bow that somehow draws back with velvety powder-puff smoothness, and then fires an arrow at skull-shattering velocities without the slightest breath of recoil or noise. We bring this up now because we need to get this out of the way.
THIS BOW IS A UNICORN. You'll hear about them, but never actually capture one. However, a quick browse through the bow advertisements would seem to indicate otherwise. Bow manufacturers seem intent on telling you that their bows are the fastest, smoothest, quietest, most forgiving, and most accurate bows on the market. In fact, every single bow manufacturer will actually use some combinations of these tired buzz words. Some will express them in comparative form (faster, smoother, quieter, etc.) and others will just state them as hard attributes (fast, smooth, quiet, etc.). But no matter the grammatical key, every bow manufacturer sings exactly the same FREE SPEED song with the familiar chorus suggesting their bows go REALLY fast while still being smooth, quiet, shock-free, forgiving, and accurate. Why? Because that's what customers want to hear.
AWESOME AND FEROCIOUS MACHINES
Don’t be fooled into thinking that a high-performance 350 fps compound bow is somehow "just faster" than a lowly bow of 310 fps. That isn't how it works. Bows aren't faster or slower because one is awesome and ferocious and one is lazy and laid-back. Sometimes we let compound bow personification get the best of us (Assassin, Monster, Fugitive, Prowler, Alien, etc.). The compound bow is just a tool, but it isn't powered by a battery pack, a fuel cell, or compressed air. It's just a simple hand-operated machine that converts one form of energy into another. Energy from your muscles transfer into the bow's limbs, then that energy releases into the arrow. The relationship of energy-in to energy-out is generally proportional (though far less than 100% efficient). So if a compound bow is faster, it's because it requires more total muscle energy to draw back. No matter how sic or awesome or even expensive your bow is, you can't bypass that limitation.
ENERGY IN, ENERGY OUT
The machine will not release more energy than it stores, even if you buy the Devastator XZ6 Cranium-Smasher model ... because there is no FREE SPEED to be had. If you want to go fast, you must have the muscle power to load those limbs. Period! Powder puffs can't shoot 350. No matter what it says on your brochure, no matter what your favorite celebrity hunter implies, fast bows require more effort to draw back. Learn more about theoretical limits of compound bow performance.
UNDERSTANDING BOW PRICING
BIG BUDGET FLAGSHIP BOWS
Before we dive into the technical bit and pieces, we should cover pricing. If you have a big budget for your bowhunting equipment, then don't worry about it. Just buy one of the flagship models (a manufacturer's headliner model) and call it a day. The flagship bows tend to be the bows with the latest bells and whistles, the best performance specs, the coolest graphics, and they'll give you the most impressive signature on your Archery Talk account. Flagship bows generally retail for $800-1,000 (bare bow), and you can expect to dress one up nicely with arrows and accessories for around $1,300 (give or take). With a flagship bow in-hand, your hunting buddies will surely be impressed, and to be quite honest, you'll probably love it. Flagship bows typically represent the best of the market. The only issue - they tend to be aggressive speed-bows (though not always), so we would be cautious about putting them in the hands of brand new shooters, but flagship bows are usually fabulous - they're supposed to be. A flagship bow is supposed to showcase the hottest trends and latest innovations. Flagships are also the model that every manufacturer hopes to sell by the truckload, as they are literally the CHA-CHING of the archery market.
COMPOUND BOW PRODUCTION COSTS
Manufacturing a compound bow isn't so easy. Once a design is finalized and production begins, it's a long process before a finished product is ready to ship. Aluminum parts must be carefully shaped using a combination of casting, milling/machining, and forging techniques. Then those parts must be deburred, anodized or film-dipped, some parts get drilled and tapped. Limb blanks must be shaped and film-dipped. Grips, rollers, brackets, and other hardware pieces must be fabricated and finished. Then every bow needs strings, fasteners, bearings, bushings, graphics, etc. When all the bits and pieces are finally prepped, then someone has to actually assemble and test the bow. The process can take several months from start to finish. Of course, modern production techniques and automated machining helps keep some costs in check. If a manufacturer is frugal, and they stick to basic designs with minimal add-ons and no proprietary gadgets, compound bow production costs can be held to a little under $150 per unit (so we've heard). But this isn't typical.
THE PATENT ROYALTY GAME
Remember how we mentioned that bow manufacturers are always spatting about licensing and patent issues? Well it turns out that a lot of money exchanges hands to satisfy patent royalties before a bow ever makes it to an archery store. Some bow companies are patent holders on key machining processes, cam designs, and other features commonly found on the compound bow (roller cable guards, pivoting limb pockets, integrated riser dampeners, string stops, etc.). The list goes on an on. Practically anything on a compound bow is a "patentable" feature. And if one company can stake their legal claim on a gadget or design feature - or the process by which it's created - all the other companies have to pay the patent holder a small per bow royalty if they wish to use that design or process on their own products. It's a game - surely a dirty cut-throat game at that - but some bow manufacturers play the game VERY WELL.
For a few clever bow companies, the patent game offers a clear production cost advantage and a huge supplemental revenue stream. For the new players and companies less savvy with the patent game, it's really a double whammy. Not only do they ultimately pay more to produce their bows, but they pay the tax directly to the competition. It almost sounds like something from an episode of the Sopranos, but that's how it works.
CAMO AND FINISHING
Bow companies also pay royalties on those popular camouflage finishes. Those well-known patterns from Mossy Oak™ and Realtree™ aren't free to use. If you want to use a Mossy Oak or Realtree camo pattern on your product, your must pay a royalty to the creators of those camo patterns. And as we understand it, these royalties don't come cheap. This creates a pickle for bow manufacturers looking to control costs. The fact is, bowhunters don't like off camo patterns. Use of an obsolete, universal, or off-brand camo pattern signals to consumers that a bow is cheap. Whether that's right or wrong - or whether it matters to game animals or not - really doesn't matter. Bows without the latest camo patterns get an automatic value demerit in the market. So most bow manufacturers stick with the current patterns or create specialty patterns and colors (Skullworks, Lost, Black Ops, etc.) to offset those costs.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Depending on the complexity of the design, the number of machining operations and sub-assemblies that must be completed, the choice of finishes, costs of assembly and labor, plus the number of royalties applicable to the design and production - a run of the mill compound bow may cost between $150 and $300 per unit to produce (give or take). Of course, bows with particularly long risers, or risers with more intricate machine cut-outs, and/or risers cut from billet stock all cost a little more. And designs which incorporate forged or carbon risers cost significantly more. Then you have to consider the added cost of the little extras: pretty engraved grips, custom two-color strings, rubber dampening pieces, decorative badges, etc. So the fact that the average new compound bow retails for around $500 isn't really out-of-line. In fact, today's retail price points make much more sense than they use to.
WHIMSICAL PRICING ENDS
Years ago, compound bow price points were almost whimsical. We seemed to go through several seasons where all the lightweight bows were more expensive, and the next season all the short axle-to-axle bows were priced at a premium, then all the bows with roller guards, etc. Whatever feature consumers seemed to have the hots for that season, that was the feature demanding the premium price tag. But not so much these days. Bows are no longer priced because they're long or short, light or heavy, or because they have a single en-vogue feature. Today, bows seemed to be priced on more of a cost model - which we think is probably more fair and realistic.
EXAMPLE PRICING STRUCTURE
Here's a good example of how a bow line is commonly priced today. Simpler designs and slower IBO speeds are typically less expensive. More elaborate designs and faster IBO speeds fetch a premium. This is a sample of bows taken from the 2013 Bear Archery line-up. Notice how the obvious complexity of the designs - and the performance specs - increase with the pricing.
Bear Encounter $299, 310 fps, 7.8" BH
The Encounter would surely qualify as a nice basic bow. It has a rather straight neutral riser, which is less costly to produce. And it uses a simple two panel grip. But this isn't an old-school bow. This is a modern (near) parallel limb bow with pivoting pockets and a string stop. There are several features here that aren't just basic. The bow is prepped in Realtree APG (a well-regarded pattern) and it shoots reasonably quick at 310. This would be considered a well-appointed $299 bow.
Bear Legion $399, 318 fps, 7.0" BH
The Legion is obviously a little more complex. Notice the twin string stops, the more intricate machine work in that reflexed riser, and the fancier idler wheel - which all burn more machine time and cost more money to produce. The cam is the same as on the Encounter, but the brace height is a little shorter, which boosts the IBO speed up to 318. This makes the Legion a little quicker, and probably a little quieter (thanks to the extra string stop) than the Encounter. A better bow, so pay $100 more.
Bear Method $649, 340 fps, 6.75" BH
The Method is a big step up from the Encounter and Legion. The riser is more sleek and the string stops have been inverted. The limb pockets have been fully camouflaged and the grip is a full wrap-around grip. The bow also gets a two color string and a set of high performance hybrid cams. Combined with the slightly shorter brace height, that sends performance skyrocketing 22 fps faster than the Legion, to 340 fps. That's a hot-rod. Pay $250 more.
Bear Motive 6 $899, 350 fps, 6.0" BH
The Motive shares much with the Method, but it gets an adjustable string stop system (which is very cool BTW) and a camouflage roller guard. The Motive 6 also has a different riser with more aggressive styling and "bat-eye" cutouts. As you might have guessed, this is the flagship. The Motive 6 is a screamer - with a 350 fps IBO speed, highly preloaded limbs, and a 6" brace height. For the Bear line, it's the big gun. Pay another $250 more.
PROPORTIONAL VALUE MATH
If you're thinking that it can't possibly cost $250 more to build the Method vs. the Legion - or another $250 to build the Motive 6 vs. the Method, you're probably right. The cost model is pretty accurate for value priced bows up to, say, $499. After that, there seems to be a hidden exponent in the equation. But don't be alarmed, that's not a miscalculation. That's the CHA-CHING factor we mentioned earlier - and the exponent is called awesomeness.
When awesomeness goes up, the price jumps up considerably. Nothing makes bow manufacturers happier than selling their high-end bows. Every bow manufacturer chases the high-end bow sale - begging, practically pleading on bended-knee to get customers to buy their flagship bows. Most bow companies don't even waste time advertising their other bows (value priced bows sell themselves basically). That's why entry-level and mid-line bows like the Encounter and Legion will probably never get any love in magazine and TV ads. But let's face it .... you don't really want that cheap bow, do you? Step over here and let me show you something. See? You want the flagship bow! Look at my finger. You're getting very sleepy now. This is the fastest, smoothest, most forgiving, most accurate, quietest, most technologically advanced, and most incredi ...
GUESS WHAT? People don't really fall for that. Sure, some do. But statistically, the bulk of compound bow sales - across the industry - are in the entry- and mid-level bows. In spite of all the TV yammer about the latest and greatest bows, most buyers don't whip out $1,300 for a bowhunting outfit. Most bow buyers spend between $550-$750 on a new bowhunting setup (bow, arrows, accessories, case, broadheads, etc.). And that means that flagship bows - fabulous or not - are usually out of the question. So as a matter of sales dollars, flagships are statistical gravy. The real meat of the market is the entry- and mid-level bows.
Here's a quick shop fact. In 2012, our pro-shop sold and setup 1,443 PSE brand bows. Of those 1,443 outfits, only 190 of them were the flagship variety. Reasonably priced compound bows like the Bear Wild, PSE Stinger X, and PSE Brute-Force statistically dominated unit sales in the store. Sure, the X-Force Evo was awesome - incredible even. But let's face it, money doesn't grow on trees. So let's talk about how you can get more for your money.
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 ...