If you are new to archery hunting and want to get started it can be quite a challenge. There are a lot of different brands and models and the parameters of compound bows and the terminology used to describe their features can seem like a foreign language. In this comprehensive Beginner’s Guide, I will make this task a lot easier. When you are done reading, you will know how to buy a compound bow for hunting and what bow will fit you and your personal needs the best.
To best way to begin your bow buying journey is to learn about the components, the features and specifications of compound bows, and how your personal specifications ultimately impact what bow you select to start bowhunting. Let’s Get Started.
*This post may contain affiliate links from which we may receive a small commission. All opinions stated here are our own and are not promotional.
- Components of a Compound Bow
- Compound Bow Features and Specifications
- Required Bow Accessories
- Other Required Equipment
- Key Considerations
Components of a Compound Bow
When you start looking at different bows, you will see and hear a lot of terms that might not sound familiar to you. It is important to understand what the different components of the bow are called and how these components can impact your buying decisions.
The basic components of a compound bow are:
Riser and Limbs
The main body is called the riser. This single piece is the backbone of your bow and its reliability, comfort, and weight will determine its long-term strength. The limbs are attached to the riser at the top and bottom of the bow and are the support beams that bend and flex every time you shoot. The limbs are the attachment points for the cams that provide the power and speed of your shots. In a lot of modern bows, you will find split limb technology being employed versus using a single solid limb. This type of split limb technology has helped bows become more shootable and allowed for dampening to make them quieter.
The cams are the round disks you find at both ends of the bow. They are the tools that provide the power when it is put into operation and they are also the tool that makes using a compound bow easy to hold after the string is drawn. Some types of cams include round wheels, soft cams, hard cams, single (solo) cams, and 1.5 hybrid cams. These then form the type of cam systems that manufacturers use to increase speed and kinetic energy. We will talk more about cam systems below.
The bowstring is the main part used to draw and shoot the arrows. Bowstrings are largely made of B50 Dacron or Dacrogen, with a little stretch to increase shootability. In addition, most bowstrings are made up of approximately 20-24 individual strings, wound to construct a strong stable shooting platform.
Cables, the Cable Slide, and the Cable Guard
The cables are connected to the cams and are what rotate the cams when the bowstring is pulled back (as shown in the image below). The cable slide allows the cables to move freely under control, while attached to the cable guard, which keeps the cables away from the bowstring to allow it to launch arrows freely when shot.
String Vibration Arrestor
The string vibration arrestor is used to minimize the vibration of the string and to stop the string when you shoot. It also helps minimize the sound when firing the bow..
Compound Bow Features and Specifications
Now that we have gone through the basic components, it’s time to understand how these components, when put together, impact each bow’s individual features and specifications. These affect how fast it is, how well it shoots, and most importantly; how it fits you and what you want to hunt, and how you want to hunt.
Example Bow Features and Specification Breakdown:
- Bear Archery (Manufacturer)
- Model: Alaskan
- ATA Length – 32″
- Brace Height – 6.25″
- IBO Speed – 335 FPS
- Draw Weight – 45-60 lbs and 55 – 70 lbs (2 models)
- Draw Length – 25.5 – 31″
- Let Off – 80%
- Bow Weight – 3.9 lbs
- Can be ordered in Right or Left-Hand versions
- Uses the new Bear Archery DHC hybrid cam
When you see something like this it can be quite intimidating, so let’s put it all into context and see what it actually means and why you should care when choosing a compound bow for hunting. When you see an example as I’ve shown above, this is what each of these features and specifications means and how they impact you.
ATA Length is one of the first specifications you will see when looking at new bows. ATA is the acronym for Axle to Axle. In this sense, it means the axle to axle length of the bow as measured from where the cams connect to each limb (as shown in the image above). Bow lengths can vary and the longer it is, normally the faster and more stable it is. Professional target archery compound bows are normally very long when compared to hunting bows. A bowhunter usually wants a bow that is smaller and more maneuverable (depending on the landscape they are hunting). If you are hunting from a tree stand, for example, you will most likely want one that is short and easy to use in a restricted space. On the other hand, if you are really short or small in stature, you probably do not want one that is long and cumbersome to operate. This is why most compound hunting bows are between 27 and 35 inches. There are much shorter and much longer bows, but this is the average you will find when shopping for a new one.
Another key specification you will see is the brace height. The brace height is the measurement from the bowstring to the inside edge of the bow grip where you hold it when shooting. You will normally see brace heights of between six (6) and seven (7) inches. In older compound bows, the brace height was critical to keeping the bowstring from slapping the inside of your non-shooting forearm when shooting. This is why you see a lot of traditional bow archers wear an arm guard to protect themselves from the slap of the string when shooting. A longer brace height normally keeps the bowstring farther away from your forearm and minimizes this. That being said, most modern compound bows do not have this issue.
A short Brace Height usually means the bow is faster and a longer brace height usually means it is more forgiving. Manufacturers try to find the best combination to make their bows shoot fast, yet very forgiving and smooth shooting. This isn’t always the case.
IBO or ATA Speed
When selecting a new bow, it will be easy to get caught up in its advertised speed. While these speeds can look very enticing, they are a baseline and do not represent how fast it will actually shoot for you. There are a lot of other factors that go into its actual speed. Bow speeds are dictated by the International Bowhunting Organization (IBO). A few bow manufacturers use speed ratings from the Archery Trade Association (ATA) instead. Both have different formulas for measuring bow speed, but both measure their speed in Feet per Second (FPS). The important thing to note is that rarely will a compound bow shoot at the advertised IBO or ATA speed unless you are using the IBO or ATA listed draw weight, draw length, and specific arrow weight dictated by these two organizations.
We discussed what cams were above, but we didn’t talk about cam systems. A cam system is the type of system bow manufacturers use to build their bow. The cam systems used, the refinements, new technology, and the way the bow is assembled can make for an extremely fast or a slow bow. The key thing to remember is that a lot of time a great hunting bow will sit somewhere in the middle. Fast bows tend to be very stiff on the draw and not as smooth to shoot. This is where the cam systems and how the bow’s components are built and refined can make a lot of difference from bow to bow and where you will find the large disparity in price. Examples of different types of cam systems you will come across are single cam, hybrid cams, binary cams, and twin cams. A lot of entry-level bows are single cam, while the more expensive options use other variations. That being said, there are some single cam bows that are very expensive but shoot very fast and very smooth.
The Draw Weight is the number of pounds required to pull the bowstring back to full draw. This is then used as the force with which the bow will shoot. The max draw weight on a bow and the maximum draw length is part of the equation that determines the full speed of the bow (how fast it shoots your arrow). The lower the draw weight on your bow is set, the slower your bow will shoot (in reference to its rated IBO/ATA Speed). There are multiple other factors that determine the speed of your arrow when it’s shot, but draw weight can make it lose approximately 20 Feet Per Second (FPS) for every 10 pounds of reduction (on average).
Depending on the bow you are looking at, the draw weight for each can vary wildly. This matters because you will need to not only draw the bow but do so under control multiple times. When selecting the draw weight it is critical that you can draw the bow under control without raising it in the air and arching your back to do so. This is why you should test a few bows before actually buying, but we will get into that more below.
Use the table below to get a general estimate of what might work for you. This will help you understand what bow setup will be right for you along with your draw weight (see below).
|Body Type & Weight||Estimated Draw Weight|
|Small child (40 to 70 lbs.)||10-15 lbs.|
|Child (70 to 100 lbs.)||15-20 lbs.|
|Women and Adolescents (100 to 140 lbs.)||30-40 lbs.|
|Women with a larger frame & Adolescents (140 to 160 lbs.)||40-50 lbs.|
|Individuals ranging from 160 to 190 lbs.||55-65 lbs.|
|Larger Individuals (190+ lbs.)||60-70 lbs.|
The Draw Length is based on your personal draw length at full draw. You cannot buy a bow without ensuring that the draw length can be set to your personal measurements. You can determine what your draw length is by measuring your wingspan and then dividing it by 2.5. This is an industry-standard, but even with this, it is important to not only measure your draw length but to test the bow you want to buy to make sure this is perfect for you.
The type of release you use to shoot the bow will also determine how the draw length is set on your bow. If you use a standard mechanical release, your normal draw length will be used. If you use a finger-style release, you will need to subtract .5 inches from your total. Find yours by using our Compound Bow Draw Length Calculator here now.
Compound bows normally have an advertised “let off” percentage. You may see, for example, that some bows have an advertised let-off of 80%. Some have adjustments that allow these let-offs to be raised or lowered. The let-off is the percentage of the draw weight that is removed from the bow when you are at full draw. In other words, when you have it at full draw, you will only feel 80% of the draw weight it took to pull the bowstring back. This feature allows you to hold the bow at full draw for longer periods of time when hunting. A higher let-off can sometimes mean that the bow’s speed has been sacrificed for more stability, but 80% is an industry average, while a 90% let-off is more common on higher-end bows. Some bows promote speed with lower let-offs in the 70% range.
The actual physical weight of the bow is a big factor. Obviously, the heavier the bow, the harder it will be to hold it up for a long period of time. Hunters often find this is an issue after selecting a bow and then realizing they can’t hold it on a target very long. Most modern bows are in the 3-7lb range. You can see in the example above that the Bear Alaskan model weighs in at just under 4lbs. Remember, this weight is based on a bare-bones bow with nothing mounted on it like your rest, sight, or stabilizer. The weight of the bow is even more critical to small or youth hunters who don’t have a lot of upper body strength.
Required Bow Accessories
You can’t shoot a compound bow effectively without some required accessories. There are several other accessory items that you will need if you want to have the optimal performance of your bow when hunting. These items must be factored in when setting your budget as they can add significant costs to your archery hunting setup.
These accessories include:
The Arrow Rest is a critical part of your bow setup and tuning. In our example image above and below you can see that we’ve used a “Whisker Biscuit” arrow rest as our example. This is a contained rest that holds your arrow in place and helps maintain its trajectory through the shot. There are multiple types of arrow rests that provide for minimal arrow friction and a faster release of the arrow on the market. They can range in price from $15 to $300 or more depending on their individual features. The one thing you need to remember is that while there are expensive options, many hunters kill game animals every year with the standard whisker biscuit arrow release.
- Recommended Closed Arrow Rest – Trophy Ridge Whisker Biscuit
- Recommended Drop Away Frictionless Rest – QAD Ultra-Rest HDX
The Bow Sight is another critical component to your hunting success. This accessory, coupled with a peep sight mounted on the bowstring, will allow you to quickly align your bow sight to the arrow rest for a highly accurate shot when your bow is tuned properly. You can’t hunt effectively without a good bow sight. That being said, bow sights range in price from $10 to $1300. In fact, some new models actually come with laser rangefinders included in the sight.
- Recommended Bow Sight – Trophy Ridge Hotwire Bow Sight (One of the most popular bow sights on the market)
- Recommended Budget Bow Sight – Trophy Ridge Mist Sight
- Recommended Single Pin Bow Sight – Apex Covert Pro Single Dot Reticle Sight
The Peep Sight is mounted and intertwined into the bowstring. Much like open sights on a rifle, the peep sight is the rear sight that helps create the sight alignment from your shooting eye, through the peep sight, through your bow sight, to the target. The peep is mounted based on your draw length and can be raised or lowered on the bowstring to allow for the best anchor point when aiming and the best sight alignment that will optimize your bow’s speed and your bow sight’s individual setup and capabilities. Peep sights come in various types and sizes, from simple, small, medium, and large; to tubular and optical.
The Nock Loop is a very important component and is a critical element of your shooting process. The Nock loop is where the nock on your arrow connects to the bowstring. This connection is contained by the Nock loop’s connection to the bowstring. In addition, the Nock Loop is also where your mechanical release or finger release will connect to allow you to draw the bowstring back to shoot. The alignment of the Nock loop with the Arrow Rest is an essential element to an accurate shot. This is also an element of the bow tuning process (which we will discuss more below).
The stabilizer is used to do two things. First, it does exactly what it says. It is meant to stabilize your bow while shooting to provide you with a balanced shooting platform. Second, the stabilizer absorbs the vibration of the bow when you are shooting, thus minimizing it and making for a more stable shot overall. A stabilizer isn’t critical to your bow, but it is highly recommended. Stabilizers can range in price from $10 to $200, but I do not recommend spending a lot of money in this area until you have really gotten a feel for shooting your bow.
A bow-mounted Arrow Quiver is not a necessity, but it is highly recommended. You will need to be able to carry your arrows with you safely as you hunt. In addition, you will most likely want to have an Arrow Quiver that is removable and can be taken off and put back on your bow quickly. A lot of bowhunters like to take off their quiver when they get to their hunting spot to enhance their maneuverability and to get the extra weight of their arrows off the bow for easier shooting.
The wrist loop, also commonly called the wrist strap, is an essential accessory for your bow setup. One of the most basic fundamentals of bow shooting is to maintain a loose grip on the bow grip. When a shooter’s hand has the wrist loop around it while gripping the bow for a shot, the wrist loop keeps the shooter from dropping the bow. This is a safety measure and is required; especially when shooting from different angles in an elevated position or a tree stand.
Other Required Equipment
In addition to the accessories discussed above, there are a few items that you will need before you are ready to go hunting.
Here are just a few of those items.
Mechanical or Finger Release Aid
To shoot accurately, a release aid is required. A release aid is a tool that connects a caliper to the Nock loop and allows you to draw and shoot the bow under control. There are two main types of release aids. There are mechanical releases and finger-style releases. A mechanical release usually includes a wrist strap and the trigger is operated using your index finger. A finger-style release is usually held in a reverse grip and the trigger is thumb-operated. Check the links here for some examples of some popular mechanical and finger release aids for archery hunting.
*There are actually more variations of both mechanical and finger-style releases, but these are the best options for new bowhunters who are just starting out.
- Recommended Mechanical Release – Trufire Smoke Extreme Archery Bow Release
- Recommended Finger-Style Release – Trufire Edge 4-Finger Hand Held Bow Release
Arrows and Broadheads
Arrows and the type you shoot from your bow are just as critical to an accurate shot on a deer or other game animal as your bow is. You can’t have one without the other. Arrows must “fit” your bow, your draw length, and your draw weight. The worst thing you can do is simply “buy” arrows for a compound bow. The arrow spine and its strength must be matched with you and your bow in order to work optimally and they need to be tuned to your bow as much as your bow needs to be tuned to you. This is the kind of stuff that keeps archery shops in business.
Broadheads are the deadly portion of your arrow tip. There are practice tips and then there are hunting broadheads. Broadhead selection and their weight is a critical element of your arrow setup and not one to be taken lightly. The weight you use for both archery training and archery hunting must be the same for a consistent shot. Make sure you check out the broadhead section of our arrow buying guide before making a purchase. you don’t want to waste your money without reading it.
How to Buy a Compound Bow for Hunting
Now that you understand the different components, features, specifications, and required bow hunting essentials you will need, we can talk about the steps you should take before you buy a compound bow. These steps will help you find a range of bows that fit you and your individual needs and allow you to get started on the right foot.
There are a few key personal considerations that are unique to you and might require you to use an archery professional at your local archery shop, Cabelas, Bass Pro Shop, Field and Stream, Gander Mountain, etc., to get clarification and help. In addition to the steps listed above, here are a few additional things to consider and questions to ask yourself.
- How much does the bow weigh and will that affect me?
- Is the overall speed of the bow adequate? Will I be able to kill the game animals I am hunting with this bow?
- Do I want a short or a long bow? Pricing may be higher when selecting a short bow with a high IBO Speed.
- Am I hunting game animals from short or long distances? Do I need a speed bow?
- Will the bow I’m buying allow me to use any accessories I want or does it only handle specific brand options?
- Do I like how the bow draws? Is it smooth or rough?
When choosing a bow, look at multiple brands and styles to see what might appeal to you. Read reviews and look at comments on different Archery forums and groups on social media sites. Make sure you select a bow based on if you are right-handed or left-handed. Make sure you know your draw length and that you check that the model you are looking at fits your draw length. Test the bow and make sure you are comfortable drawing the bow to shoot it and that the draw weight isn’t too heavy. Remember, you need to be able to draw and shoot the bow quietly when hunting. This means being able to draw it in a confined position so the animal you are hunting can’t see you. If you are hunting deer in a woodland area, you will be hunting at close range. This means you have a lot of bows to choose from. If you are in the western United States and plan on taking long-distance shots, you will most likely need a bow that can provide a lot of speed and kinetic energy.
Take all these things into consideration when selecting a new bow.
A great way to put this in perspective is to detail my last two bow purchases and then relate them to other possible situations that might make sense or be relatable to you and your situation. Let me tell you a little about me. I am 5’8″ tall and 190 lbs. My draw length is 27″ and my normal draw weight is between 62 and 65 pounds. I used to be really concerned about my arrow kinetic energy and speed instead of focusing on heavier arrows and better broadheads like I do now.
My last bow was Hoyt Vector Turbo. This was a $1000 bow. I went after this bow because I was looking for the fastest bow I could find with good reviews. The bow had an IBO-rated speed of 350 FPS. The bow was fairly long with an ATA Length of 35″. My draw weight was 65 pounds in order to maximize the bow’s speed and was the top end of what I was comfortable shooting. I was able to tag three whitetail deer with the bow but I was never really comfortable shooting it. It was long and heavy and did not have a smooth draw cycle at all. I did not test any other bows, I just selected this one because of its features and I regretted it.
My latest bow, the 2022 Bear Alaskan, is a mid-tier bow that only cost around $500 and is the one used as an example above. For this bow, I wasn’t looking for an ultra-fast bow like before but still ended up with one of the higher speed bows in the mid-price range. I shot approximately six different bows before settling on this bow. I chose it because the draw is one of the smoothest I have shot and the back wall (full draw limit) is extremely solid. I feel like I can hold this bow for a long time at full draw and it really seems effortless. I have the bow set at my 27″ draw length and my draw weight is set at 62 pounds. It is very easy to draw, aim, and shoot. I am very happy with this bow purchase because the bow is a great combination of speed and shoot-ability. Plus, it only weighs 3.9 pounds and it is only 32″ long. Three inches shorter than my previous bow. My current arrow setup has a weight of about 423 grains. This current setup is shooting just around 261 FPS, has an estimated kinetic energy of 63.92 ft-lbs., and the arrow momentum is approximately .490 slugs. Not the fastest setup, but a nice middle ground setup that is great for whitetail deer.
What Does This Mean to You?
The bottom line is that you need to find a bow that fits you. Just like me, I was looking for a fit. You might not get it the first time, but if you do anything, I highly recommend walking into your local Archery Shop and talking to the experts behind the counter. Never be afraid to admit that you are just getting started. An Archery Professional can help you not only find a bow that fits you and what you want to do, but they can also make sure that your compound bow is set up and tuned properly. Bow tuning is almost an art form and takes a lot of experience to do quickly and right. An Archery Shop will help you not only tune your bow and get everything ready for that first shot, but they can also help you with your arrows. It is a win-win situation. The only thing you need to do is take the information here and keep it in your mind and understand that you don’t have to have an expensive compound bow to hunt and be successful. Archery Hunters around the world takedown game animals of all types with traditional bows that don’t have half the power of a compound bow. The difference that separates an entry-level bow from a high-end bow really isn’t that much. Be smart and focus on how the bow feels, shoots, and sounds, and its accuracy, versus focusing on the brand name or a fancy paint job.
Ready to Hunt Bows
A lot of manufacturers offer Ready-to-Hunt bow packages that will have everything installed, ready to shoot, and factory tuned. There are some great options for beginners who want to get started fast and who don’t want to worry about finding the right sights, arrow rests, stabilizers, etc. This is a great way to get started at a low price. My only recommendation is if you buy the bow from a local Archery Shop and/or buy it online; take the bow to an Archery Shop to check that everything is tuned right and that the bow is safe before using it. Bow tuning is extremely important and can take away frustrations at the range when you are first learning to shoot your bow.
There are a lot of things to learn about a compound bow before buying one as you can see. Archery Hunting is a great sport, but it takes some time to learn all the different archery components and equipment. Hopefully, this guide has helped you on your bow buying journey and now you are ready to join the fraternity of bowhunters around the world. Thanks and good luck!