Why Are Compound Bows Better Than Traditional Bows?


If you’ve followed the progression of archery at all, you will have noticed that the design of bows has gone through a major evolution. The compound bow, developed in 1966 and patented in 1969, quickly surpassed the popularity of more traditional bows, especially in the United States.

Compound bows are often viewed as better than traditional bows because they are designed to be easier to shoot and to have greater power and accuracy. They also support customization through add-ons and perform better across long distances.

In the rest of this post, I will give you a more in-depth look at the advantages of the compound bow and how they can out-perform a traditional bow.

Compound Bows Are Easier to Shoot

As with the rest of mankind’s recent innovations, compound bows are designed to be more convenient for the user.

This ease of use is undoubtedly the greatest factor contributing to the compound bow’s huge popularity among bowhunters.

But in order to understand what compound bows are bringing to the table in terms of convenience, we need to fully understand what technology we were working with before compound bows came onto the scene.

How Traditional Bows Work

Both traditional bows and compound bows use the energy produced by leverage to propel arrows through the air.

But the transfer of energy on a traditional bow like a longbow or a recurve is direct. This may sound like the most efficient form of transference; however, it’s not. At least, it isn’t the most efficient form of transference when you’re talking about archery.

If you’ve ever seen a version of Robin Hood, The Hunger Games, or even Disney’s 2012 animated fantasy, Brave, you should have a good idea of what traditional bows look like.

Whether you’re using a recurve or a longbow, the physics are the same: the farther back you pull the string, the more energy you transfer to the arrow and the faster it will fly when you release it.

But it’s pretty difficult to hold back a traditional bow’s string for very long, especially if you’ve got a high draw weight on your equipment.

Even if you can pull the string back relatively far and hold it there long enough to aim, there’s a lot of energy that’s lost between the time when you release the string and the time when the arrow actually leaves your bow’s string.

The directness of the transfer is what decreases efficiency, and it’s this loss of hard-earned energy that was corrected when the compound bow was invented.

How Compound Bows Work

Archers everywhere, especially bowhunters, praise the compound bow for the “let-off” it provides at the end of the draw.

This let-off is made possible by the addition of flat, spherical discs at each end of the bow called cams.

Now, there are a variety of different kinds of cams that operate slightly differently, but the basic function of each variety is essentially the same.

The cams are an essential part of the pulley system on a compound bow, which snakes the bow around the cams and provides extra tension that is more efficiently transferred when it comes time to release the arrow.

In addition to being more efficient, the cams are shaped in such a way as to provide a point in the draw when the weight suddenly decreases for the archer.

This let-off point is created by a flatter edge to the cam, which produces a clearer stopping point beyond which the archer can no longer pull the string.

At that point, the weight of the draw, which the archer must hold in his arms, is greatly decreased.

For example, if an archer is shooting a traditional bow with a draw weight of 70 pounds, he will have to be strong enough to hold that 70 pounds with his upper body until he is ready to release.

With a compound bow, the archer will have to be able to pull back 70 pounds, but after the let-off point, he will be holding far less weight at full draw.

If he has a let-off percentage of 80%, then he is only holding 14 pounds, allowing him more time to aim his shot without worrying about how tired his arms are getting.

Does it Really Make a Difference?

Unless you’re incredibly strong, the let-off ability of a compound bow is a huge advantage.

If you’ve ever seen Peter Jackson’s production of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, you’ll know there is a lot of archery going on in that story.

An example of the traditional bow’s greatest disadvantage can be seen in the second installment of the series, The Two Towers.

King Theoden of Rohan orders his people to flee to Rohan’s stronghold, Helm’s Deep, to protect them from the coming army of orcs.

But Rohan’s army was pretty understaffed so to fill the gaps in their defense, Theoden orders the young and old men of Rohan to take up arms and defend their people.

One of these elderly men enlisted in the army is directed to join the line of archers on the wall, who are all using traditional bows.

They are instructed to take aim at the orc army as they approach and are just waiting on the signal to fire.

It’s a tense moment with a lot of staring. Everyone is waiting for Aragorn’s command, but the old man is clearly shaking with the effort of holding the draw on his bow.

Unable to hold it any longer, the old man releases his string before the command is given, and an orc on the front lines falls to the ground.

Enraged, the orc general gives his troops the signal to attack, and the battle is on.

If the old man had just had a compound bow, he likely would have been able to keep his arrow from flying prematurely, and maybe the battle would have gone differently.

Today’s archers are probably not involved in such high-stakes situations, but the same inability to hold back the string on a longbow or recurve bow could mean a missed target or animal.

Compound Bows Have Greater Power and Accuracy

The mechanical advantage of the compound bow has resulted in some pretty amazing arrow speeds.

A very well-made traditional bow may be able to fling arrows at 180 feet per second, but the fastest compound bows have been able to more than double that speed, clocking in at 370 feet per second.

For an archer who shoots exclusively at the range, that speed might not make much of a difference.

But for the bowhunter, that speed means greater chances of coming home with a doe or buck.

Accuracy is also improved by the compound bow’s mechanical pulley system.

Holding less weight at full draw means that the archer is better able to concentrate on his aim, and the increased efficiency of the arrow’s energy means it will fly in a faster and straighter path toward the target.

Compound Bows Accommodate Customization and Add-Ons

While some prefer the simplicity of the recurve bow or longbow, those who wish to customize their equipment will have the most freedom to do so with a compound bow.

Some tools can be added to your longbow or recurve bow, but the compound bow is really king when it comes to customization.

Some of the accessories archers can purchase include:

  • Arrow rests
  • Bow sights
  • Bow release
  • Silencers
  • Stabilizers
  • Wrist slings
  • Quivers

Additionally, there are a lot of compound bows that are specifically designed to be easier to manipulate draw weights, which can be a huge advantage if you’re just starting archery or are just trying to get stronger.

Compound Bows Can Be Shot Over Farther Distances

The speed and accuracy of your arrows also greatly contributes to the distance you can shoot it.

If you arrow is traveling at a faster rate of speed, its arc will be flatter. Graphed out on a piece of paper, it would look more like a straight line and less like a mountain.

It’s difficult to get this kind of speed and accuracy on a longbow or recurve bow; for bowhunters, this increased distance is really key.

In a range, you’re very much in control of how far you’re standing from the target, so the maximum distance your arrow can travel isn’t as important as other factors.

However, when you’re hunting, you have far less control over how far your target is going to be from you.

Sure, you can move closer, but then you risk the animal hearing you and fleeing in fright.

If you want to be able to sneak up on an animal and have a relatively guaranteed chance of being able to hit them, you’re going to want a compound bow.

There are pros and cons to both traditional bow models and the compound, but it’s impossible to ignore the great strides bow manufacturers have made in recent years with compound bow technology.

Havilah Halcyon

I am a copywriter from Portland, Oregon. I love all outdoor things but have a special proclivity for rock climbing. Best movie of all time: A Knight's Tale.

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