Carbon Arrow Fletching Pros & Cons

Carbon Arrow Selection & Research Guide  |  Chapter 4

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arrow fletching discussion support photo 1FLETCHING BASICS`Glued near the rear of most arrows are 3 (sometimes 4) plastic vanes or feathers, arranged in an equally spaced pattern around the circumference of the shaft. These parabolic-shaped pieces of material (collectively called the "fletching") serve to steer and stabilize the arrow during flight, like fins on a rocket. If the arrow is flying perfectly straight, the fletching slices cleanly through the air without changing the arrow's path. But if the arrow's tail isn't perfectly following the tip, friction occurs between the air and the fast moving fletch, pushing the fletch (and the tail of the arrow) back into proper alignment with the arrow's tip. So the fletching helps to stabilize and correct the arrow's flight, and if you want your arrow to fly where you aim it, you need some. But which kind? All fletching materials aren't created equal. Arrow fletching is available in a number of different shapes, colors, types, thicknesses, lengths, etc. And they can be applied in different configurations: straight, offset, or helical (spiral). So how do we know which ones to pick? Should we go with feathers? Or vanes? Would a bigger fletch do a better job than small ones? Is one more durable than another? What are the trade-offs? Well, let's start at the top.

STANDARD PLASTIC VANES (RUBBER BASED)`Standard vanes are made of soft flexible plastic and are the popular choice for today's archer. They're inexpensive, easy to apply, quiet in flight, available in almost any size/color and they can be easily fletched in a number of different patterns (straight/offset/helical). Since vanes are impervious to water, they make an excellent all-weather choice for hunting. In addition, they're also relatively durable. Vanes can be crumpled and abused (up to a point of course) and they still pop back into shape. If they do manage to get wavy or stretched out of shape, they can be easily heat-treated with a hair dryer to make them pop back into shape. So vanes are clearly the low-maintenance choice. The only major downside is weight. Compared to feathers of the same size, vanes are heavier, as much as 3X the weight of a comparable length feather. And it's also worth considering how the smooth surface of a vane doesn't "dig-into" the air as well as the rougher corrugated surface of natural feathers (nature knows best perhaps). So all other things being equal, vanes don't stabilize arrow flight quite as well as feathers. But don't make too big of a deal out of the vane's limitations. For the vast majority of applications, they're more than sufficient.
arrow fletching discussion support photo 2SPECIALTY VANES (HIGH-PROFILE)`The standard vane is an enduring staple item of the industry, and it's the most widely used type of vane, but in our industry someone is always trying to invent a better mousetrap. So specialty vanes make a splash in the archery market periodically (Quikspin Vanes, Blazer Vanes, Spin Wings, Bi-Delta Vanes, FOB's, etc.). Of course, the "improved" vane designs tend to come and go over time, but the one specialty vane that seems to be hanging tough is the increasingly popular high-profile (aka, Blazer) vane. There are a few variants, but the high-profile vane is typically a stiff 2" vane which is more plastic-like (urethane based) than rubber. Its claim to fame is three-fold. First, it's a little tougher than rubber-based vanes, so it stands up to Whisker Biscuit abuse without distorting or wrinkling. Secondly, the surface of the Blazer Vane isn't smooth, it's textured slightly to "bite" into the air better than smooth vanes. And finally, the manufacturer claims that the unique shape of the vane - specifically the straight leading edge - provides some kind of aerodynamic benefit. Now, with all that said, we shouldn't get too carried away here. A 2" vane (regardless of any marketing wizardry and technical hoo-hah) is still a tiny 2" vane - with the surface area of a 2" vane. So realistically, a big aerodynamic benefit claim might be a technical stretch. Nonetheless, high profile vanes are small, light, look cool and seem to work well enough. Over the past few seasons, we've begun to see our customers opting for short high profile vanes more and more often. The only obvious downsides are increased cost (roughly +$5 p/dozen arrows over standard vanes) and the fact that they can be fussy to fletch (which is generally our problem rather than yours). We've fletched countless thousands of these high-profile vanes and we can tell you one thing for certain. If you don't have just the right glue, the right temperature, the right humidity and the right music playing in the background, they might not stick. If you're a home fletcher, keep this in mind before you decide to go with the stiffer high profile vanes. They can be a pain in the neck to work with.
arrow fletching discussion support photo 3FEATHERS (TURKEY FEATHERS ACTUALLY)` Of course, feathers are the original arrow fletching material. When it comes to design, you just can't deny that mother nature knows best. First, feathers are very light. Three 4" Gateway feathers weigh just over 8 grains (compared to 24 grains for three 4" standard vanes). This means your arrows fly faster with less loss of trajectory downrange. As we mentioned, feathers also have a natural texture that effectively bites into the wind. So feathers do a particularly good job at stabilizing large broadheads and finger-released arrows. Feathers also have a natural curvature to them (left-wing or right-wing depending on which side of bird they're from), so they help arrows to spin in flight, which also aides in arrow stabilization. As a matter of achieving the best possible flight, it's just hard to beat a feather. But feathers are not for everyone or every application. Firstly, feathers are rather expensive. Basic 4" feathers can cost four times as much as standard vanes. They are made from the primary flight feathers of turkeys (usually). They must be harvested, cleaned, dyed, cut, sorted, inspected, etc. And this labor-intensive process costs money. So archery feathers cannot be mass produced with the same kind of speed and automation as plastic vanes, and the fancier the feather, the fancier the price tag. Apart from the pricing premium, you should be aware that feathers require more care from the user. If you rough handle your feather-fletched arrows, you'll likely ruin your feathers in short order and they will need to be replaced. This isn't to say that feathers are entirely delicate. A little steam and fiber-rubbing can sometimes resurrect defunct feathers, but they simply aren't as durable as synthetic vanes. And feathers absolutely will not tolerate high-speed contact with hard surfaces (they don't particularly like Whisker Biscuits either). If you want to shoot feathers, you need to treat them well and make sure your bow is tuned-up correctly.

arrow fletching discussion support photo 4DON'T FEATHERS GET WET? Yes and no. We hear many archers remark that they don't want feathers because of the weather, but this is probably an exaggerated prejudice. Feathers are certainly an outdoor product, designed for outdoor use. But not all feathers are the same. The answer to the question "What happens when a feather gets wet?" depends on what kind of feather you're talking about. Fluffy down feathers (like in your pillow) will soak-up water and flatten down like wet hair. But primary flight feathers, like the feathers used for archery, have a much more rigid structure, made from keratin (the same protein found in fingernails), with interlocking rows of barbs, barbules, and hooklets. This interlocking lattice-work allows primary feathers to generally retain their shapes even when wet. So don't assume that a wet feather is automatically a ruined feather. But do consider the weight of the water. A wet feather obviously weighs more than a dry feather, which means your arrow will weigh more and will fly differently when its feathers are wet. If you are the kind of hardcore hunter who might sit for hours in the rain, you might want to consider waterproofing your feathers. Gateway Feathers offers a waterproofing powder specifically formulated for the task, or if you want a quick and easy solution, pick up an $6 can of tent or boot waterproofing spray at Wal-Mart. Many archers report this works just as well, and only takes a minute to apply.

STRAIGHT, OFFSET OR HELICAL? Another factor that determines the effectiveness of your fletching is the turn, or angle of the fletch on the shafts. If your fletching is arranged in a helical (spiral) pattern - like a boat propeller - your arrow will rotate in flight. Much like a football that's thrown with a perfect spiral, an arrow will fly straighter and be more stable if it rotates in-flight. Aerodynamically, a helical configuration is clearly a better choice. However, a helical fletch may not always be appropriate or necessary for your particular bow setup. For example, some arrow rests will not provide enough clearance to allow a helical fletch to pass thru without contact. In this case, many archers use an offset fletch, where the vanes are still straight, rather than in a spiral pattern, but they are slightly turned on the shaft to promote some rotation in-flight without compromising fletching clearance. For very unforgiving arrow rests with limited clearance, or for competition target setups that don't require much stabilization, the straight fletch may be the best option. Take a look at the diagrams below and the corresponding pros and cons associated with each fletching configuration. When you order your arrows, you'll need to select one of these options.
straight fletching sample photo
Pro: fastest flying vane configuration
Pro: least amount of air resistance
Pro: works with any arrow rest
Pro: minimal fletching clearance problems
Con: less stable at long distances
Con: less stabilization for broadheads
Con: best used in a well-tuned bow
offset fletching sample photo
Pro: better broadhead stabilization.
Pro: minimal air resistance in flight
Pro: works with most arrow rests
Pro: stable flight to intermediate distance
Con: needs more fletching clearance
Con: loss of velocity (tiny)

helical fletching sample photo
Pro: best broadhead stabilization
Pro: most consistent arrow flight
Pro: increased overall distance accuracy
Pro: corrects flight attitude problems
Con: loss of arrow velocity in flight
Con: fletching clearance problematic
Con: not compatible with containment rests
A FEW LIMITATIONS` Please note that some types of fletching can only be fletched certain ways. Feathers generally come in a right-wing or left-wing pre-formed helical shape. So feather fletching will always be helical. Forcing a feather into a straight clamp to produce an offset or straight fletch is not recommended (distorts the cupped shaped of the feather). Also, if you are a fan of the short 2" high profile vane, please note a few degrees of offset over a short 2" span will not be obvious with a visual inspection. As you might imagine, this causes some confusion (and customer service drama). So we generally sell and fletch 2" high profiles in the straight configuration only.

WHAT ABOUT RIGHT VS LEFT? If you choose to go with an offset or helical fletch, the arrow will rotate in flight. But which way should it rotate? Right or left? The answer is, sometimes it matters, sometimes it doesn't. So here are a few things to think about. An arrow with a right turn will rotate clockwise (as viewed from the nock) during flight. An arrow with a left turn will rotate counterclockwise. So what's the big difference? With most modern setups, nothing. One is as good as the other regarding flight. The only major difference is left-turn fletched arrows tend to impact the target and loosen your tips, while right-turn (clockwise) arrows tend to impact the target and tighten your tips. Otherwise, it really makes no difference. Nonetheless, the traditional belief that RH shooters should shoot a right turn fletch and LH shooters should shoot a left turn fletch still persists. Unfortunately, this thinking is a leftover rule of thumb from the days before compounds and the center-shot cutaway riser. It doesn't apply to modern compounds. If you shoot a modern compound with a bolt-on arrow rest, choose a RH turn fletch and call it a day. But if you shoot a traditional bow or you have an old-fashioned flipper or plunger style rest on a non-center-shot riser bow, by all means, match the fletch and the hand. We generally don't list LH turn options on our online ordering system (to avoid confusion), but if you want a LH configuration please call 877.410.7811 and we'll talk it over.
FLETCHING SURFACE AREA` The larger your fletching, the larger the surface area and contact patch with the wind. So a larger 4-5" fletch certainly has some aerodynamic advantage when it comes to correcting unstable arrow flight. If you shoot a big gnarly fixed-blade broadhead, or if you're a finger/traditional shooter, you should definitely get the larger fletching material. You'll need it. But if you shoot a well-tuned modern compound with a mechanical release and expandable broadheads, a 2-3" fletch will be plenty. A jumbo fletch on a prime modern rig is arguably just dead weight.

FLETCHING WEIGHT` If you're concerned about your finished arrow weight or your F.O.C. balance (more on this in a moment), it's worth noting that your choice and size of fletching material will have an impact on both of those attributes. Three standard 4" vanes will add about 24 grains to your total arrow weight. Three standard 3" vanes are about 19 grains, and three of those fancy high-profile vanes weigh in at roughly 18 grains. As we mentioned earlier, feathers are notably lighter (about 9 grains for three 4" feathers and 6 grains for three 3" feathers). So if getting the fastest possible arrow speeds is a critical consideration for you, this is a no-brainer. Nothing is going to go faster than feathers. But let's keep this in reasonable perspective. Shaving 10 grains of arrow mass equates to a 2-3 fps speed increase on a typical modern bowhunting rig. So the difference in a "heavy" 4" vane and a lightweight 3" feather, realistically, will be just 6-8 fps at the chronograph. Whether or not that's a critical difference is up to you to decide.
OPENING THE CAN OF WORMS` We mention this issue with a certain degree of caution, as it often provides more of an academic exercise than a pragmatic way to select arrows. If you're not familiar with the concept, FOC (front of center or sometimes forward of center) refers to the balance point of the arrow, end to end. If you've ever played darts, you've surely noticed that the dart is designed so that it's heavy in the front and light in the back. If the dart were weighted the opposite way, with the tail being heavier than the tip, it would literally flip around and hit the target tail-first. Obviously the ballistics of a dart and an arrow are a bit different, but the underlying concept is similar. A projectile's flight is most stable when most of the projectile's mass is positioned on the leading side. As such, an arrow, like a dart, should be heavier in the front than in the back. But how much? Where's the "perfect" balance point? Most experts suggest a balance point of 7-15% front/forward of center.

BEFORE WE WADE IN` We should get in a quick reality checkpoint before we discuss this. If your FOC is really really out of whack, it's an issue, but most common arrow components tend to yield finished arrows well within the recommended 7-15% FOC range. If you're buying typical hunting arrows, it's going to be a non-issue. Move on. The only real danger of slipping off the FOC precipice is if you use really heavy fletching and super-lightweight target nibbs, or if you choose small light fletching and a macho man tip weight (or a heavy brass insert). For common arrows with basic vanes or feathers, aluminum inserts, and 85-125 grain tips, chances are your FOC will come out just fine.

arrow fletching discussion support photo 5HOW IS FOC COMPUTED? If you balanced a standard raw arrow shaft (no components), the balance point would be the middle of the shaft (0% FOC). But since tip + insert at the front of the arrow is usually heavier than the fletching + nock at the tail, most finished arrows balance somewhere just forward of the middle. So computing FOC is pretty basic. In the example on the right, the 30" long arrow has balance point that is 3" forward of the arrow's physical center. So its FOC is found by dividing the shift of the balance point by the total arrow length (3/30) or 10%. This means that the arrow's actual balance point is 10% forward of where it should be if both ends were weighted equally. Get it?

DOES IT REALLY MATTER? Yes. It is generally believed that an arrow with a high FOC will fly well, but with premature loss of trajectory (nose-diving). While an arrow with a very low FOC will hold its trajectory better, but it will fly erratically. So you might think of this as a trade-off to consider, but again, if you're ordering standard hunting arrows, the FOC exercise will almost certainly be academic. It's a problem that really isn't a problem until we make it one. Nevertheless, this is a commonly debated issue among archery enthusiasts. In fact, some of the self-proclaimed chat board gurus seem intent on beating the FOC issue to death. We submit it's a dramatically over-analyzed topic. There! We said it.

DONT READ THIS PART` If you're going to join the FOC math club warriors, don't assume that the mathematical average (11%) of the recommended 7-15% range is somehow the best score. It doesn't work that way. The ballistic physics for FOC include some rather elastic variables that make finding a "mathematically optimal" FOC very difficult to prove. To make matters worse, there are a couple variations on how FOC itself is calculated (some include the tip of the arrow in the length measurement, some stick with the AMO arrow length measurement, etc.). If you want to get out your scientific calculator and give the ballistic physics a whirl, more power to you. But be advised, most people inside the industry, including the arrow manufacturers, routinely roll their eyes when customers start talking about FOC. We're not saying you shouldn't be aware of it, but just be advised, you'll be "that guy" if you make a big deal about FOC at the pro-shop counter.
THE POPULAR CHOICES` Just so you know, the 3" offset vane is king. If we fletch 100 dozen arrow orders, at least 50 of those orders will be for 3" offset vanes (in bright colors). The next 30 orders will be for 2" high-profile vanes (in bright colors) and the remaining 20 orders will be a mixture of 4" vanes, feathers, straight and helical turn fletching. We're not suggesting you jump off a fletching bridge just because your friends do, but we thought it might be helpful to know what most bowhunters are actually buying, and that is 3" offset bright colored vanes. They work.

arrow fletching discussion support photo 6FLETCHING COLORS` Oddly enough, we frequently have dialogue with customers about fletching colors. While the color of the fletch might seem incidental and inconsequential to some, others regard this as an important choice. Frankly, we're not sure if it makes a difference or not. It's unclear whether or not your choice of fletching colors might cause you to get "busted" in the woods. Could a deer spot your flo-yellow and red vanes? Maybe. Perhaps brown and green fletching is best for bowhunting, but we can't be sure of that. However, we can be sure about what humans can see best. Every archer has had the experience of an arrow that seemingly disappears into short grass or leaf litter, despite an exhaustive search to find it. And if you do manage to finally find it, you'll likely have your fletching colors to thank. Bright colors, particularly colors which contrast with colors in the woods (like hot pink and blue), are easiest to locate in the forest. With all that said, we can't confidently say which colors are best for you, but we can tell you what other people buy. The most popular fletching colors, by far, are flo-green and flo-orange. White, red and yellow are also popular, but nothing comes close to flo-green and flo-orange. When we order fletching supplies, we literally quadruple the quantities for those two colors. The least popular color - brown. Nobody ever picked brown. We stopped stocking brown a couple seasons ago. There's just no love for brown.

Carbon Arrow Selection & Research Guide  | Chapter 4
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