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How to Pick Your First Hunting Bow

Most people who have shot a bow before have experience with a recurve bow, but when it comes to the complexities of a compound hunting bow, the waters tend to get muddied. The word “compound” seems to indicate “complex,” and for those taking their first forays into the world of bowhunting, the amount of knowledge required to get started can become overwhelming.  Luckily, your local archery pro-shop can help you fill in any knowledge gaps.

I sat down with Tyler Vanderkolk, owner of Archery Country in Austin Texas, and his top bow tech Jordon Janecka to discuss what makes his shop a destination for novices and experienced archers alike.

Archery Country - Austin, TX
Archery Country - Austin, TX

The first thing you’ll notice upon walking into Archery Country is the customer service. We’ve all had the unfortunate experience of walking into a shop where the guy behind the counter seems to be on a mission to make you feel like an idiot. You won’t find any grouchy salespeople or condescending techs in Archery Country. Vanderkolk places a particular emphasis on how his staff treats customers. His goal is for everyone who comes to Archery Country to receive the same personal, attentive experience, no matter how much they know about archery.

The customers at Archery Country keep coming back because of the relationships built with the staff. The techs remember what bows the customers have and, even in some cases, what their favorite vane colors are on their arrows. This relationship allows the staff to help and make recommendations based on the customers’ history.

In Search of a Bow

So, if you a looking for a hunting bow, what do you need to know?

Before you walk into an archery pro-shop, ask yourself the following questions.

  • What is my budget?
  • What animals am I going to be hunting?
  • Where am I going to be hunting? In a ground blind, a tree stand, or in the open?

Even if you don’t have all these questions figured out, a good archery shop can help guide you to the right bow – but you need to listen to them. Trust their expertise to outfit you with the best bow for your size, strength, and shooting style.

Discussing options
Discussing options

“When someone comes in looking for a bow, I start by asking them what they are going to be doing with it,” Janecka said. “Do they currently hunt? Have they shot a bow? What are their friends’ suggestions for them?”

These kinds of details give the experts a pretty good idea of where, to begin with getting the right bow into your hands.

“If you go into a pro-shop and they don’t ask questions to fit the right bow to you, then you need to go to another shop,” Vanderkolk said.

The Fit

Based on your budget, the pro-shop should pick out several bows for you to try.

“I typically start with three different bows for the customer to try, because that is all I can carry at one time,” Janecka said with a laugh.

Keep in mind that more pricey bows will not necessarily fit the best for you. What feels right to one person might not feel right to another, and without a frame of reference, a novice doesn’t know what to look for in a bow. Since you might not know what feels the best, this is another area where you should trust your pro-shop.

If you shoot three different bows and don’t notice a difference, then defer to your tech for their opinion. The tech should be able to make a recommendation based on how you are shooting the bow that you have tried out. If you don’t feel comfortable with the bows you shoot, then keep trying out different brands and types until you do.

Getting measured for the correct draw length
Getting measured for the correct draw length

Don't Worry About Brand

Every bow may be equally accurate, but it is up to the end-user to practice and learn to shoot the bow they ultimately choose.

“It is the tech’s job to make the bow fit you. You don’t have a frame of reference for what is good or bad if you haven’t shot before,” Vanderkolk said.

Most bows are offered around a 30-inch axle-to-axle (ATA). That measurement marks the distance between the axles on which the cams operate, and around a 6-inch brace height. The longer the ATA, the smoother your draw. You’ll also find that a longer brace height typically gives you a smoother draw cycle, which is more forgiving. Bows with a 32-inch ATA and 6-inch brace height look the best on paper, and they perform well, but you might need a longer or shorter ATA or brace height.

Keep in mind that the longer the ATA, the less space you will have to maneuver the bow in hunting blinds or tree stands. That’s because a longer ATA means the bow is physically longer. On the flip side, shorter bows require more stabilization and may be harder for novices to shoot. There is a reason you see competitive archers shoot very long bows – they are more stable.

Think about where you will be shooting your bow and what trade-offs you are willing to make. There is not a right or wrong answer – it comes down to fit and feel. 

Axle-to-Axle Length (ATA)
Axle-to-Axle Length (ATA)

Remember, after you choose a bow if the pro-shop does not tune it, then even the best bow in the world will not feel right.

Selecting the Draw Weight

What is the correct draw weight for a bow?

“We start most people off with a 55-pound bow (assuming they are a male). When we bring the bows out to shoot, they are all set to 55 pounds. This gives us a baseline as to what they can handle.” Janecka explained.

If you can easily shoot a 55-pound bow, then you can increase the draw weight. However, if you find that you are unable to shoot a heavier-weighted bow accurately and repeatedly, then you need to go lighter.

Don’t worry if you aren’t shooting an 80-pound bow.

Traditional archers routinely shoot bows with lower draw weights
Traditional archers routinely shoot bows with lower draw weights

There are plenty of people shooting deer and elk with light poundage bows. The weight of the bow does not determine whether you can hunt with it. Poundage does not equal lethality in your shot, but it does extend the range. You can ethically take a longer shot with higher poundage because it has more energy at the longer range. However, it doesn’t make the 20-yard shot any more deadly; (assuming the same broadhead and shot placement) what a higher-poundage bow does is give more energy and speed at longer distances.

Choose a bow weight that you can shoot accurately and consistently and then practice.

“Thirty pounds in the heart will always kill, but 80 pounds in the leg might not,” Janecka said. “Shoot the highest weight bow that you can without giving up comfort and accuracy.”

Speed and poundage don’t make you shoot better. If you want a faster speed and more energy, you can use a different arrow. The pro-shop can help you make this decision, too. It isn’t something a novice should tackle alone. The wrong arrow might not fly true or, worse, might shatter when you shoot it.

“Go shoot a lighter bow and work on your technique and mental conditioning and take the weight up when you want. The bow is easy to change; you need to work on you.” Janecka said.

Accessorizing Your New Bow

Another area that you need to think about are the accessories that will go onto the bow, such as the rest, sight, quiver, stabilizer, etc. Some accessories, like the sight, will not improve your shooting. If you are a beginner, an entry-level sight will work great. You can always upgrade after you have been shooting for a while. Gaining experience first helps you know what you want, so when you upgrade, you don’t waste money on something that you don’t like or need.

A good rule of thumb for a beginner is to spend more money on the bow and less money on accessories if you are on a budget. The one exception to this is your rest. The rest is a major part of what keeps the bow in tune and rests last a long time. You can always move your rest to another bow if you upgrade but start bowhunting with a good rest. If you are a rifle shooter, think of the rest like a scope; it can completely change the shooting experience.

A customer's Mathews bow that was passed down from his dad receives some upgrades
A customer's Mathews bow that was passed down from his dad receives some upgrades

“A $50 sight and $1,000 sight will not make you a better shooter. You can shoot with a paperclip and still punch the center,” Janecka said. “Sights will have features and styles that you might want, but you will pay for them. Rests are buy once cry once; they last forever.”

So how much should you spend on accessories?

Janecka had some excellent advice:

“Spend the extra money you would have spent on accessories on a lesson to learn to shoot instead. That will do more for you than the fancy stabilizer you might have your eye on.”

Budget

When you walk into the shop, you need to have a budget in mind. Remember, you need to shoot multiple bows from various brands and price points. A $1,099 bow might not feel as good as a $399 bow for a novice, and there is a reason for this: Entry-level bows are designed for new shooters. Think of it like shooting a 22 LR rifle vs. a 300 Win Mag. The 22 is easy to shoot and designed for learners. You could start with the Win Mag, but you won’t necessarily appreciate it until you have more experience.

How much should you spend on a bow?

With hundreds of bows to choose from you are sure to find something in your budget
With hundreds of bows to choose from you are sure to find something in your budget

Bows vary in features, but you can hunt with any bow. As mentioned earlier, every bow is equally accurate; it is up to the end-user to practice and learn to shoot the bow they choose. However, premium bows will have features that you can grow into over time. Think of a premium bow as having custom golf clubs – they won’t make you a pro, but they can make some shots easier.

If you shoot an entry-level bow and a flagship bow back-to-back, you may not notice a difference. However, if you shoot the entry-level bow for six months and then try a premium bow, you will definitely notice a difference. There is no harm in getting the premium bow to start with if your budget permits, and it feels right. But don’t worry about starting with an entry-level bow, as they are designed for beginner bow-hunters to take full advantage of the sport.

Jordon Janecka helps customers find the right bow for their budget
Jordon Janecka helps customers find the right bow for their budget

As you gain experience, you will notice a difference in performance at roughly three different price points: $500, $1,000, and $1,600+. If you have a budget of $500, then you can get set up to hunt with an entry-level bow and accessories. Between $500 and $1,000, you will see some increases in bow performance. At the $1,600+ range, you have a premium bow and accessories. However, without practice, you won’t be able to take advantage of that awesome bow you have.

Get Out & Shoot

Janecka emphasized that he wants to see people enjoy the sport. “Get out and shoot even if it is with a $30 pawnshop bow. Once you start shooting a bow, you won’t look back.”

The biggest takeaway is to trust your pro-shop and listen to their expertise. I don’t want to be cynical about “big box” stores, but it is rare to find this level of service and experience in those stores. You could end up trying to get advice from someone who just got promoted out of the shoe department.

If you don’t have a specialty archery shop near you that specializes in making sure the bow fits the customer, then seek one out and make the drive – it is worth every mile to get equipped with the proper-fitting bow. Or you can always make the trip to Austin and visit Archery Country, where you will have a personal experience and leave with a bow that is tuned to your specific shooting style and hunting needs.

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