If you're looking to get into classic bowhunting, or to improve your traditional-style archery or hunting performance, you've probably been giving a lot of thought to buying a new longbow or recurve.
Ten years ago saw a mere handful of classic bow models on the market. Now, with the resurgence of traditional archery, we have hundreds to choose from.
Some of us look for shortcuts in bow selection. I get letters regularly that ask, in essence, what kind of bow should I buy?
I'm not about to tell anyone which bow is "best," because, frankly, there ain't any such animal. The several hundred successful vintage bow models on the market today attest to the fact that "what's best" is a variable. It's that personal preference thing.
Acquiring exactly what you prefer is tricky. Bow selection is made up of tradeoffs. When you gain convenience by choosing a shorter bow, you often sacrifice desirable shooting characteristics. Greater arrow speed most times means a heavier draw weight. And better quality, of course, is usually accompanied by a higher price.
While only you can decide which is the best bow for you, there are certain givens and general principles in selecting a bow. This article will cover those considerations to help you make the best choice.
Recurve Or Longbow?
Should you get a recurve or a longbow? This is the fundamental question facing an archer bent on acquiring a new, classic bow.
Most have an idea of which they prefer, but it's a question worth objective consideration. Both longbows and recurves have their advantages -- some are inherent, some are personal.
Another component of the recurve's better efficiency is that its limbs are generally shorter -- thus lighter -- than those of a longbow. Lighter limbs use less energy in moving themselves forward and instead transfer that excess energy to the arrow, giving it greater velocity.
Recurves have other advantages. Their compactness can be a real attribute in the field. The standard recurve bow grip, contoured to encourage a straighter wrist and consistent hand placement, is inherently more accurate than a standard, round longbow grip. The greater mass and swept-back limb design of recurves leads to less hand shock than with longbows, an important concern for some archers.
Longbows Also Shine
Despite the advantages of recurves, longbows shine in several areas. The longbow's greater length and straight-limb design, a liability from one perspective, helps make it more accurate in a certain respect. The string of a longbow contacts the bow at only a small point on each limb tip, compared to the long string-to-limb contact surface on a recurve. This makes a longbow more "stable," a term that describes a bow's resistance to twisting and its ability to "forgive" the inevitable minor mistakes made by the shooter.
The great longbow shooter and hunter, Howard Hill, used the term "sensitivity," and claimed that he could never get the hang of shooting "recurves and other sensitive bows."
The extra length also minimizes finger pinch, an accuracy-eroding problem that many shooters have with shorter recurves. And with new designs and materials, longbows have been developed that close the velocity gap and result in a few of them performing on par with the better recurves.
Finally, there is the romantic simplicity of the longbow; some traditionalists will settle for nothing more, nothing less. It should be noted, however, that if real "tradition" is what you're after, the recurve design might actually be more appropriate. It has been around for at least 3,000 years, much longer than the true English longbow.
Design And Specs
Once you've decided between a longbow and recurve, there are several other choices to make.
There are many options in overall design, construction, specifications, and special features.
A few bowyers make self bows, which are longbows or shorter flatbows carved from a single bolt of wood. But self bows are so inferior in performance and durability that their applications to bowhunting are very limited.
With few exceptions, today's traditional bows are made of laminated wood and fiberglass. They are built through a process of precise cutting, carving, shaping and feathering of laminations, followed by gluing them together in bow presses.
Many types of wood are suitable as laminations in a bow, and no one type stands out as superior. One of the most commonly used is Actionwood, a material made of thin laminations of hard rock maple. It offers superb consistency and high resistance to breakage. Solid maple and other woods such as yew, bamboo, osage, locust, and cedar can offer somewhat better performance if it is hand-selected for a higher spring rate and consistent spine.
While the materials and construction of classic bows is fundamentally the same, there are many slight design variations.
The most basic of the classic bows commonly used today is the straight-limb, straight-grip longbow. When unstrung, the back of the bow forms a straight line and the grip is uncontoured, similar in shape to a thick axe handle. While many traditionalists favor this design for its simplicity and heritage, it falls short in the area of performance.
Bowyers Can Improve Performance
Bowyers have found they can improve the longbow's performance by angling the limbs in (toward the string) at the handle, then back out near the tips, a design called deflex-reflex. This tends to increase arrow speed and stability while reducing hand shock, one of the more significant liabilities of the longbow. Contouring the grip, either by dishing it in on the face (shooter side), or even carving a full pistol grip, promotes consistent placement of the bow hand, which is crucial for consistent accuracy. More and more longbow models are being made with contoured grips
Virtually all recurves feature the contoured handle and deflex-reflex design. The major design variation is one-piece versus takedown. Aside from being a bit heavier and less sleek, the takedown has all the advantages. Its disassembly feature makes it much more convenient for many forms of travel. If part of the bow is damaged or the shooter desires a different draw weight, bow components can be replaced for a fraction of what it would cost to replace an entire one-piece bow. On average, takedown bows can be shot just as accurately as one-piece models.
Along with the fundamental design differences, there are other more minor ones. If you prefer to shoot off a rest, or mount a bow quiver or stabilizer, you will need the appropriate accessory holes and hardware. Another consideration for some people is whether the bow may be used with a Fast Flight string. Fast Flight will increase arrow velocity by a few feet per second, but the bow must be designed to withstand the increased stress caused by the nonstretch string. A lesser bow may have a tip sheared off or its laminations blown apart when used with Fast Flight.
Your design options will be limited if you buy a production recurve or longbow, but will be almost limitless if you're shopping among custom bows. Choice of wood, exact specifications, and customized grips (one of the major advantages of custom bows) are available.
Please read more in Part 2.
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Mike Strandlund is the late editor of Bowhunting World Magazine and bowhuntingworld.com, and is a member of the National Bowhunters Hall of Fame. We continue to run his insights into bowhunting to help others, which Mike would have loved.