When I first started archery hunting, bow tuning felt like a dark science. I’m living proof that bow tuning isn’t as hard as you think! Here’s a step by step guide to get your bow ready for hunting season this fall.
Many tuning guides dive deep into the details and confuse new bowhunters. To keep this simple, I’ll link to other videos and articles so you can choose where you need to dig in. The goal of this article is to give you a clean, easy to follow overview of the steps needed to tune a bow.
I’ll also focus on how you can tune at home, what gear you actually need (or where you can borrow it), and how to test if you did a good job. Let’s do it.
The goal of bow tuning (and why it’s important)
It’s hard to understate how important bow tuning is. Unlike rifles, bows don’t just work out of the box: their accuracy depends on your shooting form, the arrow you use, and settings that can’t be pre-set at the factory. To make things harder, no two archers are the same: the tiny differences in draw length, how you hold a bow, and your body dynamics all mean that a bow always has to be customized to you.
While you can get away with some of those flaws on smaller animals at shorter distances (say deer under 40 yards), they just won’t work when you’re elk hunting. If your arrow isn’t leaving your bow perfectly straight then it will never have the accuracy or penetration you need (especially when you change over to broadheads). A poorly tuned bow could easily cost you the chance of a lifetime at an elk.
It’s important to separate the three different influences on an arrow’s performance:
- You and your form
- How you shoot and how the bow is customized for you (draw length, peep height, etc)
- Bow and arrow “tune”
- Do the arrow and the bow work together so that the arrow flies perfectly straight when it exits the bow
- Accurate bow sight
- Do your arrows impact where the pins on your bow sight say they will
Make sure to practice hard and work on your shooting form before you get too in depth in tuning. If you’re not consistent it can make tuning really difficult. Finally, don’t worry about where arrows are impacting until you get good arrow flight. It’s easy to move a bow sight but it won’t fix any underlying problems with how the bow functions.
The goal is simple: an arrow that comes out of your bow perfectly straight and impacts exactly where you’re aiming (with a broadhead).
Why doesn’t my pro shop do this?
Most people assume their shop has tuned their bow, which is almost always wrong. Why? First, it takes at least 1-2 hours to do, which is far too expensive for a bow shop. Second, since the bow has to fit your body and form, they can’t do it without you there, which is even more difficult. Finally, bows need to break in before you tune them (more on that in a minute), so even if they tuned it when you bought it, it won’t last.
There is no universal definition of a “tuned” bow, so many shops tell people their bow is tuned even if they just made basic adjustments. Most shops will help you tune your bow, but expect it to cost at least $100. Even if you plan on using a shop, it’s best to understand the process so you know what you’re getting. It also pays to learn to do it yourself because…
Warning: Before you start
It’s important to know that “if you change anything, you change everything” with your bow tune. Each little adjustment changes the way the bow interacts with the spine of your arrow, which means it can ruin perfect arrow flight. You need to lock down the following things down before you begin tuning your bow:
- String stretch!
- No matter how good your string is, it will settle in or stretch for the first 50-100 shots out of your bow. Make sure to shoot a while before you start the tuning process (which also helps you adapt your form to that bow).
- This is also why pro shops can’t tune your bow right when you buy it!
- Draw weight
- Find the max draw weight that’s easy to shoot for 30-50+ shots and works for realistic elk scenarios like cold mornings, weird angles, or letting down quietly
- Draw length
- Work with a pro shop (or online forum) to ensure your bow’s draw length is right for you. It makes a very big difference for accuracy.
- Without the proper arrow length, spine, and components (point weight, nocks) it’s impossible to tune a bow. Check out the arrow guide and build your hunting arrow before you begin.
- Rest timing
- If you have a dropaway arrow rest, make sure it’s working fine and doesn’t need to be adjusted before you begin.
- Check for fletching contact on your riser/rest
- Any fletching contact as the arrow comes out of the bow will create erratic flight and make it impossible to tune. If you’re unsure you can use the foot powder test.
- Your shooting form/equipment
- A different type of release, modified “anchor point”, or significant grip changes will influence how you torque the bow (or even the draw length you need). Pick a release, a style, and stick to it.
- String accessories
- Sound dampers, string leeches, kisser buttons… anything you put on your string will change how your arrow flies
- Peep height
- Your peep should align perfectly around the outside of your sight housing when you open your eyes after drawing the bow. Unlike the others, you can change this without changing your bow tune but it’s very hard to tune a bow well without the right peep setting.
Overwhelmed? This is why it’s so important for you to be able to tune your own bow! If you want to change these settings in the future, which you will, you’ll need to re-tune your bow. It’s a lot faster, easier, and less expensive to be able to make those adjustments yourself. Here’s how it goes:
Step 1: Set up the basics
The first step to tuning is setting up your key bow settings in a “neutral” position so you have plenty of range to adjust them. There’s nothing worse than going through this entire process and having to restart because one of these was way out of whack in the beginning:
- Check your Axle-to-Axle and Brace Height
- It’s worth doing a quick measurement of your Axle-To-Axle length and brace height to make sure your string length is roughly “within spec”. You’ll find the proper lengths on a white sticker inside your limbs (depends on manufacturer)
- Anything within ¼” in of specs is fine. As you decrease your draw weight your brace height grows and ATA shrinks, so don’t worry if that happens.
- You’ll need a bow press to twist or untwist the cables if they’re way off (or just take it to the pro shop).
- Find centershot on your arrow rest
- Bow manufacturers publish “centershot” measurements, which is the distance the center of the arrow should be from the riser. You can also hold an arrow against the riser and adjust your rest until the arrow in it is parallel.
- Level your arrow
- I’m assuming your pro shop put your arrow nock points/d-loop in the right spot here (which is generally safe). Use your rest to level your arrow at close to 90 degrees while it runs through the center of the berger hole.
If you’re feeling lucky, it’s usually safe to skip these steps. Most quality pro shops will set these adjustments for you before the bow goes out the door, but your never know.
Step 2: Set your cam sync/timing
Almost every bow these days comes with two “cams” that need to move at the exact same time for proper performance. If cams aren’t synched there will be weird arrow nock travel (i.e. it will come out of the bow crooked), the bow will be loud, and there will be lots of vibration at the shot.
You’ll need a bow press to do this step, which you can build, buy, or pay your pro shop to use. The basic step is to put the bow in a press, draw it, and make sure the draw stops (those pegs that stop the cam from rotating) hit at the same time. To adjust the bow you’ll need to twist the bus or control cable to shorten or lengthen them. Here’s a great video.
Step 3: Level your sight
The tuning processes after this depend on you shooting your bow while it’s perfectly level. If a bow is canted (leaned) over to one side or the other, the arrow will always miss the target to the opposite side of the angle of lean. Than can make tuning your bow near impossible!
First, you’ll need some sort of way to hold your bow still. You can buy an expensive bow vise, use a simple bike stand, or just have someone else hold it against a door jamb while you adjust the bubble level on the site to match the one on the bow. I prefer to use a long bubble level like in this video since it’s simpler and cheaper than buying fancy archery levels.
While you’re at it, it’s not a bad time to set your third axis adjustment on your sight (if you have one, which you should for elk hunting!). If you know your sight is spot on, then you can skip this step.
Step 4: Picking the right method to monitor your arrow flight
Unless you’re shooting broadheads, it’s hard to tell if your arrow is flying crooked because the fletchings correct its flight before it hits the target. You’ll need to use one of the methods below to tell what’s going on as the arrow comes out of your bow:
- Paper tuning (video)
- Buy or build a jig that allows you to shoot your arrows through a sheet of paper. The tear will tell you how the arrow is flying
- Upside: Easy to read, relatively common, less finicky
- Downside: Cost, effort, and storage of a giant frame just for tuning your bow. It’s best to borrow one at a range or a pro shop unless you really want to get into this.
- Bareshafts into a consistent target (video)
- My personal favorite. If you have a target that has the same density the whole way through(i.e. 100% foam, not a bag target or hay bale), you can shoot a fletched arrow and then a bareshaft (no fletching) into the target beside it to understand if the arrow is flying crooked
- Upside: Minimal cost/effort if you already have a foam target. Works at short range (indoors)
- Downside: Very finicky (make sure target doesn’t have too many holes, bareshaft flight is very dependent on form), have to make bareshaft arrow (just cut off the fletchings)
- Broadhead vs field points (video)
- You can simply shoot an arrow with a broadhead and an arrow with a field point and compare where they impact the target. Unfortunately this has to be done at 20yds+ to get significant differences. (hint: always shoot your broadhead first, or your going to be buying new arrows)
- Upside: Relatively simple, you know your broadheads are tuned
- Downside: You need a long distance shooting range in your backyard (or somewhere next to a bow press). Most ranges do not allow broadheads. Bad broadhead design/flight can make tuning difficult.
All three will tell you the exact same thing, so it’s about which fits your individual situation and abilities! Once you pick a method, it’s time to move on to actually tuning the bow.
Step 5: Fix vertical (up and down) arrow flight
Regardless of which method you use, your initial result will almost always be that your arrow flight is off vertically and laterally (side to side). That means a diagonal tear or broadheads/bareshafts impacting diagonally from where the other arrows do. It’s important to fix the vertical adjustment and then the lateral adjustment instead of trying to fix them both at once. Vertical is easier to do so we’ll do that first.
Gold Tip has a fantastic PDF one pager that walks you through how to fix each situation. In the future I’ll make a more detailed version, but for now it’s great. One thing to note is that my way of shooting bareshafts it different from the Gold Tip diagram. If the back of the bareshaft is down, treat it like a tail low tear. For more info, see 10:00 onward in this video.
It’s always best to play with the arrow rest height first since your cams are already synced. If you can’t get clean flight by lowering your rest, it’s time to move your nocking point/d-loop the opposite direction (up in this example). I’d recommend going to a pro shop at this point for most people, but if you can easily find DIY videos on youtube if you like (Nockon/John Dudley has some great ones).
Step 6: Fix lateral (side to side) arrow flight
I’ll point you at another great Gold Tip one pager for this one as well. In my opinion, always start by making small adjustments to your rest. That will fix many smaller problems and is far easier to do.
If those can’t fix your problem, reset your rest to centershot, and then you’re going to need a bow press again. The options differ by type of bow:
- Floating Yokes (Current PSE, Prime, Matthews bows)
- You’ll need to shim your cams (Gold Tip pdf says wheels) to the left or right. Start small! Moving a 0.02” shim on my PSE makes a giant difference.
- PSEs and Prime require shim kits, Matthews sells “top hats”
- Fixed Yoke systems (Current/old Hoyt, some Bowtech)
- Add or subtract twists to the yokes according to the Gold tip chart
- Make sure to always subtract the same amount of twists from the opposite side or you’ll mess with your cam timing!
- Bowtech Revolt
- Use integrated Deadlock system
Always start small and build from there. It’s far easier then continually guessing at how much adjustment is enough. Another good tip is to always write down a list of your adjustments. That way you can simply reverse them if you get lost.
Step 7: Test and verify
Congrats! If you get a “bullet hole” in paper, a straight bareshaft impact, and/or field points impacting with broadheads, you have a perfectly tuned bow.
If you used the first two methods, you still need to verify your broadhead flight before you hunt. In the vast majority of cases, if your arrow is flying straight then your broadheads will go where your fieldpoints go. However some broadheads don’t fly well (or just fly different), so you do have to check.
Finally, no matter how well your bow is tuned, you need to resight it at altitude with broadheads (i.e. at your trailhead or camp). Thinner air and bumpy roads in elk country can dramatically change where your arrow impacts.
Summary: Bow tuning made easy
It kills me not to do a step by step guide of how I do this, but I’ll come back for it after this series is done! Hopefully that gets you all the information you need for now. Feel free to drop me a line via the newsletter or in the comments below if you have questions! Stay tuned here and I’ll do a deep dive later on.