What to know when buying a compound bow (Part 1)

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Video how to pick a compound bow

Comprehensive Guide To Buying A Compound Bow

Purchasing a new bow is a big decision and may seem overwhelming. What is even more overwhelming is the fact that the decision-making doesn’t stop there.

You still need an arrow rest, a sight, a stabilizer, and a release to put the whole thing together. It is certainly easy to walk down the aisles at your local pro shop and pick the most popular brand or the cheapest option since you have probably just spent what feels like a small fortune on a new bow.

The truth is that every component on your bow will influence its performance. In part one of this two-part buyer’s guide, I will break down how to choose a compound bow and explain what to look for in a compound bow to make your decision more informed the next time you are in the market for a new bow!

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Things to consider in a bow

There are four key features to look for in a compound bow: the type of cables that the bow has, the brace height, the axle to axle length, and the bow’s material.

Types of cables for a compound bow

The type of cables that your bow has is something you may not have considered when buying a bow. There are two types of cables (in general). A control cable looks much like a bowstring, just shorter. It is simply a length of string that goes from one cam to another.

A buss cable (sometimes called a split buss cable or a yoke cable) is a cable that goes from one cam to another, but on one end, it will split into two halves, creating a ‘Y’ in the cable with each end going to one end of an axel. This ‘Y’ is extremely important.

The ‘Y’ in these cables allows you to adjust your cam’s angle or ‘lean’. Shortening one-half of the Y will pull the top of the cam towards that side. Doing this also moves your string left or right.

When I am setting up a bow, I always set the arrow rest dead center. You can find the dead center of your bow using your limb bolts, which are always the true center of your bow.

Once I have set the arrow to the true center of the bow, I will adjust the rest so that it is perfectly level. I will then shoot the bow through paper. Normally, you would be instructed to adjust any left or right tears by moving the arrow rest left or right. Doing that is simply a bandage solution to the problem.

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If your arrow rest is dead centered, and your bow shoots left or right tears, the problem is more likely that your string is not also dead centered. Using the left and right of the ‘Y’ (each one is called a yoke), you can add/remove twists to bring your string to the dead center of the bow as well.

This is optimal and nearly guarantees field point accuracy with a fixed blade broadhead if you tune like this.

Choosing a bow that does not have yokes certainly makes the tuning process easier, but you will not be able to correct any left/right offset in the string’s placement.

You may think a bow without yokes will have the string perfectly aligned from the factory, but this is not the case. I rarely see a bow come through my shop that doesn’t have yokes with perfect string alignment. In this case, all you can do is move the arrow rest left or right – and out of its true center – to make the bow shoot well through paper. It works, but your bow will never be truly perfect like this.

The exception is that many modern bows have two control cables and no yokes, but they have shims on each of the axles next to the cams that allow you to move the string left or right like that.

This works just as well but requires a lot more work to achieve the same result as you would if you had selected a bow with two split buss cables in the first place because you need to remove the axel and cam each time you adjust.

What is brace height on a compound bow?

Brace height on a compound bow is the distance between the deepest part of the bow’s grip, and the bowstring. Brace height numbers will fall in the 5”-8” range, with 6”-7” being the most common.

A shorter brace height means that your arrow gets to stay on the string for longer before it leaves the bow, meaning it gains more speed. If you take two identical bows with the same draw weight and length, but one has a 6” brace and the other has a 7” brace, the arrow coming out of the bow with the 6” brace height will have a slight speed advantage as it has had one more inch of string acceleration pushing it before it is in flight.

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The downside to shorter brace heights is that they tend to be less forgiving of form issues.

Since the arrow is on your string for longer, that also means you need to hold perfect form for longer. You may think that this 1” of string travel happens in a fraction of a second so it doesn’t matter, but it certainly does.

There is not a huge amount of difference in accuracy between a bow with a 6” and a bow with a 7” brace height, but once you get below 6” they tend to be quite unforgiving and much harder to shoot accurately. Many target bows have 8”+ brace heights because speed hardly matters, and larger brace heights are more accurate.

So, the next time you see an advertisement for the ‘world’s newest fastest bow’, pay attention to the brace height because although it may be fast, it may be very difficult to shoot due to a short brace.

Personally, I shoot a 6” brace and have no issues with accuracy, but I would not go lower. I have shot up to a 7 5/8” brace height for hunting, and it is a pleasure to shoot. I don’t take brace height too seriously when it comes to selecting a bow, as long as it is not too short.

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What is axel-to-axel length?

Axel to axel length is the length from one axel on the bow to the other and determines how comfortable the bow will be to shoot as well as the string angle.

Longer axel-to-axel (ATA) generally means that the bow will be more comfortable to shoot and will have a larger string angle making it easier to align your eye with your peep and sight.

Shorter ATA bows are easier to draw in tight hunting scenarios, such as in a blind or a tree stand, because the bow is physically smaller. Still, the narrow string angle can make these bows quite uncomfortable to shoot for some people.

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In the end, this decision will come down to personal preference. My best bowhunting season ever happened with a 28” ATA bow (very short), but it was not the most comfortable bow to shoot. I now shoot a 32” ATA bow and find it the perfect balance between comfort and portability. Many target bows get up to 36” and 38” ATA’s and unless you are approaching 7 feet in height, that is just not necessary for hunting.

Carbon bows will be lighter than aluminum bows and feel warmer to the touch in cold weather, but they will cost more. In theory, there is some evidence that carbon bows are more stable than aluminum bows and shoot better. However, no human is a good enough archer to notice this.

This type of difference is on such a micro scale that it is purely theoretical as far as a bowhunter should be concerned.

I prefer to shoot a carbon bow because it is warmer on the hands in cold weather, but I found a bow that was perfect for me in every other category, so I bought it without regard to its material.

It is made of aluminum, and it sure gets cold in the winter. But it performs so well; I have never thought I should have chosen a different bow just because it is not carbon. I also saved a few hundred dollars by going with an aluminum bow.

I hope that part one of this buyer’s guide has cleared up a bit of haze for you when selecting a bow at the archery shop. Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg regarding the decisions you need to make, so stay tuned for part two, where I will talk about arrow rests, bow sights, stabilizers, and releases!

If you have any questions or would like to discuss the topic further, please feel free to reach out to us at sales@toothofthearrowbroadheads.com

We are always more than happy to talk arrows and broadheads with fellow bowhunters!

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>