Compound Vs Recurve Bows – What Is The Difference?


In this article, we cover the topic of compound vs recurve bows. The differences go beyond the way they look. In fact, the key difference is what enables one of these bows to offer a dramatic increase in accuracy for the archer.

So, if you want to level up your archery skills keep reading. Here is the main takeaway from the article.

As a general rule, the key difference between a recurve and a compound bow is in the effort it takes for the archer to fire it. The compound bow employs a system of pulleys that make it easier for the archer to hold the bow at full draw for longer periods of time. This results in much more accurate shots with the compound bow than with a standard recurve bow.

A little later on you will see how William Shatner played a part in the adoption of the compound bow. It’s a really cool story! And you will see which one is better for beginners a compound or a recurve bow.

Before we continue, let’s start with the basic definition of what is classified as a recurve bow and what is classified as a compound bow.

What Is A Recurve Bow?

A recurve bow is a bow whose limbs turn away from the archer when the bow is unstrung. The very act of stringing a recurve bow stores immense energy in the limbs of a recurve bow. This enables the recurve bow to impart a great deal of energy to an arrow.

You can see how that looks here.

On the left side of the picture, you can see the recurve bow which is unstrung. The archer has to bend the bow in the opposite direction in order to attach the bowstring.

This bending of the bow stores a great deal of energy in the limbs, this, in turn, enables the bow to impart a great deal of power to every arrow.

What Is A Compound Bow?

A compound bow is a bow that relies on a complex system of cables and pulleys to enable the archer to draw the bow more easily even if the bow has a high draw weight. The benefit of a compound along with the easier draw is the extra equipment you get to attach to the bow.

Now that we have the basics down, let us proceed to how the recurve and compound bows differ from each other.

5 Ways Compound And Recurve Bows Differ From Each Other

  1. Their Origin
  2. The Material They Are Made From
  3. How They Are Aimed
  4. The Effort It Takes To Fire Them
  5. How The Arrow Behaves When Fired From One As Opposed To The Other

Their Origin

You will find the tidbit on the origins of the compound bow really cool. But we will get to that in a little bit.

As you can imagine the recurving bow pre-dates the compound bow by a factor of a few thousand years (at least).

You can see the details in my article on the history of archery here. But, to shorten the story a little bit. Recurve bows originated in the middle eastern kingdoms of antiquity.

The ability of a recurve bow to store immense amounts of power meant that they didn’t have to be big. They were made compact and able to be easily carried by a footman or just as likely an archer on horseback.

In the old times, people discovered that aside from just wood they could add animal horns, animal sinew and actually increase the amount of energy a bow can store even further.

This lead to the compact but powerful bows which were widely used on the battlefield. The most famous among these bows was the Mongol bow.

As you can imagine, with the advent of gunpowder, recurve bows pretty much faded away for a while but came back in Victorian England.

Their early archery clubs kept archery alive until the twentieth century after which it grew from there thereafter being accepted in the Olympics.

The Origin Of The Compound Bow – Starring Captain Kirk

The compound bow has been around since the sixties. It was developed by Holles W. Allen. And during the early marketing push for the compound bow they tapped William Shatner to promote its “space-like” design.

This factoid was part of my article on archery facts. But if you wish to find out more about the involvement of Shatner in the introduction of the compound bow then click on the following link – go here.

Now that you have seen the difference in origins let’s proceed to the next difference between the bows.

The Material They Are Made Off

Recurve bows started being made from wood back in the day. But as the technology of the day progressed recurve bows started being made with wood animal horn and sinew. All of them were added for the purpose of increasing the amount of energy a bow can store.

And it worked!

Modern-day recurve bows are made a little differently. Which is an understatement.

The modern recurve bow is made from advanced materials such as carbon fiber and carbon foam. Which are designed to reduce the bow’s weight and increase the amount of energy the bow can store.

Granted, some still use wood and bamboo since they are fantastic materials. But modern materials took over since they are easier to mass-produce at a lower cost.

Modern composite bows are actually somewhat similar. They are made from aluminum and carbon fiber mixtures. The limbs are made from fiberglass-based materials.

These are capable of withstanding big energy loads coming from the bow.

With that, let us continue to the next key difference between the two bows.

How They Are Aimed?

There is a big difference in how archers aim their recurve versus their compound bows. An archer aiming a recurve bow will often rely solely on their vision.

Projecting an imaginary line from the arrow towards the desired target usually does the trick.

When you have that you simply learn to take into account the distance and when you have the imaginary line plus the distance taken into account then you can fire the arrow.

The compound bow offers slight perks when it comes to aiming. With the compound bow, you can rely on sights.

When you aim a compound bow you are looking through an archery aid called the “peep sight”. Your job is to align the peep sight with your scope.

The scope is the magnifying glass attached to your bow with a cross or a dot at the center. When you have your peep sight aligned with your scope you can release the arrow and it will hit where you aimed it.

The archer in the picture is using a front sight instead of a scope. The only difference is that the scope magnifies the target while the sight does not. The aiming technique is the same.

My recommendation is that you use a scope.

The Effort It Takes To Fire Them

Here the compound bow clearly has the advantage. The construction of the compound bow enables the archer to draw the bowstring of a compound bow with 50 lbs draw weight and hold the bowstring with only 15 lbs at the very end of the draw.

Now, let me back up here. As you know the bows are classified by draw weight. Meaning if a bow has a classification of a 30 lbs draw weight it roughly means it takes 30 lbs of force to pull the bowstring back.

If it’s a 50 lbs bow it takes 50 lbs of force to pull the bowstring back and hold it at full draw.

Simple right? The genius thing with the compound bows is that as you draw a compound bow with the 50lbs draw weight it initially does take 50 lbs of force to draw the bow but towards the end of the draw there is a “let off”.

The Let off is a point in the archers draw where the force required for drawing the bow falls considerably.

This let-off is classified in percentages. This means that a compound bow with a let-off of 60% means it reduces the force requirements for drawing the bow by 60%.

Meaning, a bow with 50lbs of draw weight can be held at full draw with only 20 lbs of force.

The let-off percentage goes as high as 80% or 90% with some compound bows.

How That Helps With Aiming

This smaller requirement for force enabled by the let-off means that an archer can take his time in aiming the bow.

It is one of the great contributing factors as to why compounds are far better for accuracy.

Assuming the same skill in two archers the one with the compound bow will be more accurate than the one with the recurve.

What About The Recurve Bow?

Well, no such luck here. It’s pure strength here. This means if you see a recurve with the 50lbs draw weight it really does mean it takes 50 lbs to draw the bowstring and hold it at full draw.

This means archers with the recurve bow often aim faster than archers with the compound.

They have to.

This isn’t a bad thing though. Stronger force requirements mean you get more of a workout at your local archery range.

Depending on your reasons to start practicing archery it might be something to consider. Stronger muscles are rarely a bad thing. It is one of the benefits mentioned here.

If you want to take a look at a drawback of using bows with a high draw weight you are not ready for then go here.

Another thing that differs the compound from the recurve is the release aids used. This causes the arrows themselves to act in an unusual way. As you will see in a moment.

How Does The Arrow Behaves When Fired From A Recurve Versus The Compound Bow?

This one is a really fun factoid. When an archer fires an arrow from his bow, the arrow while flying towards the target wiggles mid-flight. Side to side.

It bends side to side as it should. Two factors play into this. The first is the archer’s fingers when releasing the bowstring impart a minute side-to-side movement to the bowstring which in turn translates that movement to the arrow.

The bigger factor at play is that when the bowstring transfers that pent-up energy to the arrow it makes the back part of the arrow move faster than the front end of the arrow.

These two factors make the arrow bend around the bow handle and fly to the target.

While in flight this bending motion remains in place and it bends while in flight.

With The Compound Bow, The Arrow Behaves Differently.

When an arrow is fired from a compound bow using a mechanical release the arrow will bend up and down while in flight as opposed to side to side as with the recurve bow.

Remember the part with the recurve where the fingers impart a small side-to-side movement which then gets transferred to the arrow?

Well, compound bows are fired with the aid of a mechanical release attached to the D-loop which negates these micro transfers from your fingers to the arrow.

Here is a 2-minute video demonstrating the concept.

This has the added benefit of improving accuracy. It negates those side-to-side movements and it helps the archer to comfortably hold the bowstring at full draw without hurting his fingers.

That coupled with the lett off and use of scopes and peep sight makes the compound a lean mean accurate machine.

In the right hands of course.

Which Is Better For Beginners?

A recurve bow is preferable to the compound bow if you are a beginner archer.

A recurve bow will help you build the muscles necessary to draw the bow and hold it at full draw.

It also helps you to aim without the fancy equipment that is attached to the compound bow.

You can easily transfer your archery skills from a recurve to the compound bow later on while it can be harder to transfer your skills from a compound to the recurve.

Some will argue that it is a matter of personal preference. I disagree.

As you improve your skills it is important to be well round with both the recurve bows and compound ones.

So it makes sense, to begin with the bow that is more demanding which in turn will make your transition to the compound bow (if you so choose) a lot easier.

My Recommendation

Go with the recurve bow. They are somewhat harder to get a hang of but they will pay dividends in making you a better archer. Without the training wheels that tend to get attached to the compound.

The compound bow will make your shots much more accurate but even with that, it is important to build your basics on something as key as a recurve bow.

Again, you can go to your local archery range and choose for yourself.

Most archery ranges will have available the option to rent bows. So rent a recurve bow and compound one and see for yourself.

If you would like to see how crossbows compare to bows and which ones are better, I suggest you take a look at this article where I discuss the difference between crossbows and bows.

Thank you for reading and have a great day!

Take care

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