Recurve vs Compound Bows

For many just getting into archery and hunting bows, the question often arises – what are the pros/cons associated with recurve vs compound bows? It’s a fair question, and one we hope to shed a bit of light on for those debating between the two. Let’s get to it….

The Recurve Bow, a Classic Design That Still Works

Martin Jaguar Takedown Recurve

Recurve bows offer certain advantages over the longer, some would say awkward, longbows that preceded them. Reportedly, it was the advent of the recurve bow that was in part responsible for Genghis Khan’s military dominance. The story goes that the recurve bows his army used overwhelmed his adversaries because they were compact enough to be used from horseback and shot during full gallop!

Unlike the seemingly confusing tangle of strings, pulleys and risers associated with compound bows, recurve bows just make sense when you look at them. A recurve bow is, at bottom, a piece of curved wood with a string. There is also no mystery as to how they work. You simply pull on the string and the power that you transfer to the limbs during the stroke is proportional to the rising tension you feel toward the end of the draw. Indeed, this tension increases in a predictable, linear fashion too.

Further, there is not much you need to do in the way of maintenance or tuning. For starters, there are no moving parts. All of the potential energy that you’ve transferred into the bow’s limbs smoothly lets go with your release – and hopefully, takes the arrow to its intended target. In fact, smoothness is the hallmark of a good recurve bow.

So, what’s the downside of all of this simplicity? In a nutshell, it’s power. Yes, recurve bows tend to also be longer/bulkier than compound bows, but the big sacrifice is power. Sure, there are relatively powerful recurve bows out there (45+ pound draws), but in terms of averages, a compound bow is a more powerful and sophisticated weapon – that is, if you know how to use it.

In addition, because draw weight peaks out at full draw, it can be very uncomfortable to hold a fully-drawn position recurve bow for any length of time – even if using a relatively low draw weight bow. This lack of any “let-off” (more about that below) is a big drawback for many users, and another reason why some opt for the compound bow.

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Not surprisingly, the comparatively reduced power/speed of recurve bows generally does not make them the type of choice for serious bow hunters. Of course, it’s not that you cannot hunt with a recurve or even a longbow – there are very successful hunters out there that use them exclusively – but a good compound bow normally has a clear performance edge (at least with respect to power/velocity) over a quality recurve bow.

Now let’s explore why the compound bow is such a game-changing design.

Compound Bows: Cams/Wheels and More Cams

PSE Surge Bow Package #70 Draw

As we discussed above, pulling the bowstring of recurve model stores energy in the flexure of the limbs as they bend toward each other, and that’s that. However, a compound bow uses much stiffer limbs and one or more pulleys or “cams” that are designed to multiply the bow’s draw weight so that more energy can be captured and stored.

Notably, in addition to providing a mechanical advantage, these cams change the way tension builds during the draw. Rather than the linear increase in pull weight up to maximum draw with recurves, compound bows ordinarily exhibit some degree of “let-off” – or a relaxation of draw weight at or near maximum draw. For most compound bows, at full draw the user experiences only 20-40% of the maximum draw weight. So, unlike the linear rise in force required to pull and hold the string of a recurve, a compound bow has a bell-shaped draw weight curve, where peak draw weight occurs somewhere between starting and half draw. One fortunate consequence of this is that it usually takes very little force to hold the string of a compound bow at maximum draw (although this can vary by design or preference).

In addition, the cams used for this purpose are subject to nearly infinite “tweaking” by engineers looking to squeeze as much power and performance from their rigs. As such, we need to briefly cover some typical cam designs and how they behave:

Least Aggressive Cam Design – Round Cams

A roundish cam on Browning bowOf all of the compound bows, those with round or roundish cams (normally, single cams) tend to have the smoothest power ramp-up and an overall softer feel. Moreover, with their classic bell-shaped power curves, they have a very gradual and generous let-off that provides lots of leeway at full draw. This makes them great for newbies, or those who are seeking a kinder, gentler compound bow.

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As you might guess, all of this user comfort does with a tradeoff, and that’s power. The round cam doesn’t multiply draw pull like the other, more elliptical type cams do, so these bows tend to be slower and, hence, not as attractive to fps-obsessed consumers.

Moderately-Aggressive Cam Models

In the middle of the road cam-wise are compound bows with cams that are more asymmetric and/or elliptical. Rather than storing power in a gradually rising and falling bell-type pull weight curve, these exhibit a more flattened region at the top of the curve, which begins to approximate a plateau.

As a result, these bows store peak power throughout more of their draw and the let-off is dramatically reduced. As such, at full draw one must take care not to relax the string or else you will feel yourself getting sucked into the bow as pull weight ramps up quickly. However, they still remain fairly easy to draw and can be quite smooth to shoot. A very good compromise between power and comfort.

Highly Aggressive Cam Bows

Cam on PSE Prophecy 70# Draw

These are the compound bows that appeal to bowhunters looking for the most sizzling rigs out there. All about storing as much potential energy as possible, the power curves of these bows are distinctly plateau-like, and let-off is very minimal. Indeed, at full draw, you may have a fraction of an inch of string travel before pull weight spikes quickly. This can be very unsettling for many shooter, especially new ones. They are also no walk in the park to fully draw (manually) either. Likewise, smoothness is largely sacrificed and vibration and noise tends to be significant. However, if speed and power is what you’re after, you’ll probably get used to it.

How Many Cams Do You Need?

There is a lot of tinkering going on by manufacturers, and you can find single cam compound bows, dual (i.e., twin) cam bows, binary and hybrid types. Indeed, the sky is the limit when it comes to cam geometry and number, which is why compound bows are so exciting in the first place. Nevertheless, there is no one type of cam configuration that is best, and we encourage you not to obsess about this technology or that. It’s far better and more productive to focus on the entire rig and its overall level of energy storing aggressiveness (which is a combination of many features, including cam design and configuration).

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Downsides of Compound Bows?

The greater energy storage capacity of compound bows also comes with considerably more noise than recurve bows, and they also tend to suffer from more vibration and are more sensitive to your hold. But probably the biggest cited disadvantage of compound bows stems from their very complexity. All of the moving parts and precise integration between them means that you will have to keep your rig tuned and well-maintained to get good results. Recurves need comparatively little attention to keep them working optimally.

Similarly, due to the greater technology engineered into compound bows, they are simply more likely to fail – with many moving parts that can suddenly stop working correctly, or stop moving altogether. Hence, recurves are widely considered to be more durable as well as much lower maintenance weapons. We agree!

A Word on Brace Heights and Powerstroke

Before we wrap up our thoughts on recurve vs compound bows, you may see discussions from time to time about brace heights – this refers to the distance between the bowstring (at rest) and the bow’s grip. The less distance between these two points, i.e., the lower the brace height, the longer the pull and greater the powerstroke. In other words, a low brace height translates into more power (and higher pull weight), all other things being equal.

There are some consequences of going too low on brace heights, chief among them is greater noise and “string slap,” which can be a big deal if you’ve ever experienced this. Nevertheless, given this inverse relationship between brace height and power, you can bet that some manufacturers pushed the envelope to market faster rigs. Paradoxically though, there is actually very little difference between brace heights for most modern compound bows, with most having a 7-inch or 6-inch brace height. We are not sure that this is so much a performance issue rather than some “industry norm” that has taken hold, but there you have it.