What Are the Different Types of Archery Bows?

When I first started learning archery I only knew of the old longbow and the recurve, when I started to dig in and learn more I found that there was a lot more options available!
Written By: Josh Koop
Est. Reading: 14 minutes

Archery is the most traditional form of target shooting. If you’re new to the sport, you may have noticed that different archers have completely different bows from one another, similar to how there are different types of golf clubs in golf or bats in baseball. However, this variety does not make archery complicated; it is just a matter of choosing what type of bow you want to master. 

What are the different types of archery bows? There are four main types of archery bows:

  • Compound bow
  • Recurve bow
  • Longbow
  • Crossbow

There are many different types of bows and divisions in archery, but these are the main types that cover them all. It is important for you to know all the aspects of each type of bow since each of them represents a path you must take and commit to for possibly most of your archery career.

Why Are There Different Types of Bows?

It might seem counterintuitive to have so many different types of an archery bow when all you need is a stick and string to shoot arrows. However, each bow type was created to specialize in fulfilling different needs. As new technological advancements were reached, new types of bows started emerging.

The technology behind bows has updated out of necessity, but sometimes it has been purely out of the need for recreation and making the shooting process more efficient (as is the case with compound bows, discussed later on in this article).

All types of bows consist of the same concept of pulling a string that, with the tensions of the limbs, will fire an arrow upon loosing said tension. However, each bow type has its unique world, with different parts and techniques. Every bow also has its own advantages and disadvantages.

The 4 Types of Archery Bows

Making the right choice when deciding which type of bow you will start with can be of extreme importance, since you will most likely have to invest in it and, most importantly, put hours, days, or years of practice into that specific type. Below are outlined the four main types of bows along with their advantages and disadvantages.

Compound Bow

Compound bows are one of the more complicated bow types from a technical perspective. They were invented less than a century ago. They use a levering system to allow the bow to harness more power with less input force from the archer, making them ideal for precise long-distance shooting. Compound bows are fired with a release mechanism.

The main purpose of the compound bow is to be an ideal hunting bow, which it achieves with its high power and velocity. However, competitive compound bows are also available if you wish to stick purely to the sporting aspect of archery.

Man hunting with a compound bow - What Are the Different Types of Archery Bows
Man hunting with a compound bow

Compound bows are also perhaps the most customizable type of bow, since there are a plethora of attachments available for it, and aspects such as the draw weight and length have a pretty large degree of customization for each user.

Advantages of Compound Bows

  • Due to the compound bow’s levering system, it can harness a lot more power and can shoot an arrow at a greater distance with greater accuracy without demanding much strength from the archer.
  • It is also highly customizable; many attachments and add-ons are available in the market, and aspects such as draw length and weight can be adjusted to the archer’s preferences. Some compound bows offer draw weight and length ranges that can function for a teenager and a fully grown person.

Disadvantages of Compound Bows

  • Due to the features mentioned above, such as the levering system and large amounts of attachments, compound bows tend to be heavier to carry despite their compact size, which can become a problem after repeated use. 
  • Also, due to their complicated and sensitive levering system and their metal parts, compound bows require lots of maintenance in the form of cleaning any moisture, waxing the strings, etc. 
  • Another major setback is that you can’t have a friend or even yourself use the bow if the draw length doesn’t match that of the user. Improper use of the bow could result in very costly damage and or serious injury to the user.

Recurve Bow

A recurve bow is the type of bow that most people think of when they think of archery. It is the most common type of bow, and its history goes back to the times of medieval warfare. A recurve bow consists of a main piece called the riser, which is connected to two curved wooden (or plastic) limbs that hold the string. 

Recurve bow archery competition hand only - What Are the Different Types of Archery Bows
Recurve bow archery competition hand only

Recurve bows are the most common competitive bows and the only type of bow that is currently featured in the Olympics. Recurve bows are fired by hand.

Advantages of Recurve Bows

  • Because of their simple design, recurve bows are very light and easy to use. 
  • They also don’t require that much maintenance and are very easy to fix. 
  • It is also possible to use a recurve bow with little or no attachments at all. 
  • Additionally, it is much easier to find competitions in the recurve bow division.

Disadvantages of Recurve Bows

  • Due to a recurve bow not relying on any complicated mechanical system to hold the force as the string is pulled, it is a lot more demanding on the user in terms of strength in the pulling and holding processes. 
  • Likewise, since it lacks a pulling system and advanced sights, it is a lot more difficult to be accurate with.

Because of this, a recurve bow requires a lot more practice and dedication before you start seeing any sort of ‘impressive’ results.

Longbow

The longbow is also one of the more recognizable types of bow, and it is particularly famous due to its heavy usage by the English during the Middle Ages. The longbow consists of a skillfully cut and carved piece of wood tied with a single string forming a “D” shape.

It was widely known due to it being particularly powerful. However, it is a lot less common nowadays.

Advantages of Longbows

  • A longbow is the most original bow, with its shape and technique dating back to antiquity. Therefore, a longbow can give you a feeling of tradition and history, and present a fun challenge to shoot since it relies a lot on the user. 
  • It is also very simple to repair and doesn’t require any maintenance.

Disadvantages of Longbows

The feeling mentioned above of history and challenge can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. A longbow can’t really have any attachments, not even a sight or an arrow rest. Therefore, shooting a longbow can be quite difficult and physically demanding. It requires years of practice and commitment.

Crossbow

A crossbow is perhaps the most peculiar out of all the four main types of bow. Crossbows have been around since antiquity. They have a system similar to a bow, but the bow rests horizontally on a piece of wood (or other material) that somewhat resembles the shape of a rifle.

Man targeting with a scoped crossbow - What Are the Different Types of Archery Bows
Man targeting with a scoped crossbow

It works by pulling the string and locking it on the trigger mechanism and then releasing the arrow by pulling said trigger.

Advantages of Crossbows

Crossbows are arguably the easiest type of bow to shoot. It only requires user input while loading an arrow. After that, all you need to do is aim and pull the trigger; this means that it is much easier to gain experience with a crossbow than with conventional bows. Crossbows are also extremely powerful.

Disadvantages of Crossbows

  • Crossbows tend to be quite heavy since it is basically a bow with additional parts. 
  • Also, due to their high power, crossbows tend to be very difficult to reload if a reloading mechanism is not being used. 
  • Crossbows tend to be very noisy due to their strong mechanism, which is not good if you plan to go hunting (although it is still very possible to do so).
  • Additionally, crossbows require constant maintenance due to their complicated and sensitive mechanism.

Now that we have explained the four main types of bows let us move on to compare and contrast them to figure out which one would be the right choice for you.

What is the Right Type of Bow for You?

Each type of bow is out there for a reason; each of them can be the right fit for different archers. Of course, it is important for you to know yourself and your situation before you make a decision since each bow is more demanding than others in different aspects.

  • If you are more of the hunting type of person, then a crossbow or a compound bow are the right choices for you. These two types of bows can pack quite a serious punch with way less user input than with a recurve or a longbow. However, compound bows tend to be quieter than a crossbow, so keep that in mind as well when choosing a hunting weapon.
  • If you are into archery purely for the sport and are considering the possibility of eventually growing into a professional, then the recurve bow is definitely the right choice for you. Recurve bows are the only type of bow that has such a wide competitive scene and the only type of bow currently allowed in the Olympics.
  • If what you are looking for is a feeling of history and tradition, then the recurve and the longbow are the right choice for you. However, the longbow is the most primitive type of bow and has most likely been around for longer than the recurve. Also, longbows don’t have any attachments, creating a greater connection between the bow and the archer.
  • If you don’t have much physical strength and don’t plan on increasing it in the near future, then compound bows and crossbows are ideal, since they require less strength to pack more of a punch, and compound bows have customizable draw weight. However, these two bows are quite heavy, so you do need some strength.
  • Lastly, if what you are looking for is the best bow for its price, then you should know that recurves and longbows tend to be the cheapest, and compound bows and crossbows are more on the expensive side. Also, take into account the price for any attachments you want to buy and arrows.

Speaking of price, let us move on to the types of expenses that come with owning an archery bow—because owning a bow is not just about purchasing one!

Expected Costs of Owning Each Bow Type

Archery can be a pretty expensive sport. There are many additional expenses after buying a bow that is necessary to keep your bow in good shooting condition. These expenses can come from accessories to regular maintenance.

Bow Accessories

Bows have multiple accessories; some come with the bow (but are interchangeable), and others are purchased separately. These accessories enhance your bow’s performance and vary depending on what type of bow you have.

  • Compound bows are the types of bow that have the most accessories available. Accessories for compound bows include sights, which usually come with the bow but are interchangeable, and stabilizers, which add weight to the bow for better accuracy. Limb dampeners are very good accessories if you wish to be more silent while hunting, and releases are handy to help fire your bow.
  • Recurve bows are the other type of bows that have many accessories available. They can have sights ranging from a simple pin to a magnified, professional sight. There are also armguards and finger gloves to make shooting less straining on the archer. Stabilizers are also available for recurve bows to make them incredibly accurate.
  • Longbows don’t really have any attachments other than bow string silencers. 
  • Crossbows have a few attachments, including sights for improved accuracy, cranks for easier reloading, and silencers for hunting.

An accessory that is worth mentioning and is universal across all bows is a quiver. Quivers allow you to carry and have easy access to your arrows. They can be worn on the hip, on the bow, or (less commonly) on your back.

Compatible Arrows

Let’s address the white elephant in the room. Arrows are just as vital as the bow itself. There is no archer without both a bow and arrows. Arrows come in many different shapes, sizes, and materials, which vary depending not only on your type of bow but also on the length of your arms.

Arrows have to be perfectly cut for your draw length; this has the objective of reducing the mass of the arrow as much as possible without making it difficult or impossible for you to fire it at full draw. 

Arrows also have different fletching orientations and thicknesses for each type of bow:

  • Arrows for compound bows are generally thicker, since they need to be able to take more force, and they have different-colored fletchings that are always supposed to be pointed upwards.
  • Recurve and longbows, on the other hand, have thinner arrows and a different-colored fletching that is supposed to be pointed towards the archer’s arm. 
  • Crossbows are a whole different story. Arrows for crossbows are called bolts, and they don’t vary much in size since crossbows don’t depend on your draw length, but they still vary. Crossbow bolts have a different-colored fletching that goes pointed downwards. The bolts are somewhat thicker than since they need to withstand a lot of force. 

You might also need to purchase different heads for your arrows if you wish to hunt with your compound bow or crossbow. There is a large variety of broadheads for bowhunting.

However, you can’t use broadheads for target practice as both the target and the head might be damaged. Instead, you will need target heads for your arrows.

One thing you must be aware of is that arrows do break over time. Always make sure to check how your arrow is doing by slightly bending it and see if you hear any cracking noises.

If your arrow is slightly damaged, it can become a serious hazard for your safety. Always be sure to replace your arrows when needed.

Some Final Notes On Archery Bows

There are some important things you need to know before you take up archery as a sport or a hobby, especially as you decide on the type of bow you require. These things have to deal with requirements and caveats, which will require you to know yourself and your situation very well.

  • First off, shooting a bow can be pretty demanding. It is not like target shooting with guns, where you only need to improve your aim to become better. With a bow, you need to practice and improve your form to become more accurate.
  • If you wish to get better at the sport, you will also need to constantly train and increase your upper body strength to be able to pull bows with heavier weight. Heavier weight in bows usually leads to greater distance, velocity, and accuracy, that is, if you can pull that weight properly without it affecting your aim.
  • Another thing you need to know is that owning a bow can be pretty expensive, even after buying it. During your journey as a growing archer, you might want to upgrade to a better bow or one that matches your style more or has a specific feature that your original bow didn’t have. Also, maintenance and repairs will eventually be required.
  • Some bows are better than others at fulfilling a specific role. Recurves, for example, is the ideal type of bow for target and competitive shooting. On the other hand, compound bows are ideal for hunting since they can pack a lot more power and are more compact.
  • Lastly, take very good care of your bow. You don’t want it to be damaged and cost you more than it needs to. You also don’t want to injure yourself or others, so be very careful and attentive while using your bow.

Dry-Fire

Dry-fire requires a section of its own because it is so crucial to both your bow’s safety and your safety. Dry-fire is the practice of shooting a bow without an arrow loaded on it. This doesn’t sound as dangerous on paper, but it can be one of the most dangerous things you can do with your bow.

When you draw your bow, all the force generated from the tension of the limbs is stored and released onto the arrow, which sends it flying yards away at high speeds. When there is no arrow present, all of this force has nowhere else to go other than back into the bow itself, which can have a pretty devastating effect.

When all the force is released upon your bow’s limbs, it can cause them to snap, which will result in irreparable and expensive damage. However, the main risk is that the string might also snap and whip towards the user, posing a serious hazard since the string is usually resting on your face before shooting.

Always make sure that you have an arrow properly placed on your bow to avoid any possible harm to your bow or yourself.

Maintenance for Different Bow Types

To get the best out of your bow, you need to keep it in good shape through constant maintenance. However, maintenance is usually quite easy and inexpensive. Basically, all bows require to have their strings waxed. You can usually tell when your bow needs waxing by looking for hairs that are sticking out of your main string.

Another way you can prevent damage to your bow is through trying to keep it away from moisture. Or, if you had to shoot on a rainy day, make sure you thoroughly dry it, since moisture can cause rust on any metallic parts of your bow, which can lead to damage developing slowly over time.

In the case of compound bows and crossbows, dust is also a threat to your bow, since it can interfere with the complicated firing mechanisms of your bow. Dust can be easily dealt with by wiping it away with a piece of cloth, but make sure to get any small or tight spaces on your bow as well.

This damage can be avoided by purchasing a bow bag or a case for safe transportation. Even if you don’t plan on taking your bow outside of your property, a bow bag or case is still important for protecting it. Recurve and longbows can be easily dismantled, so they usually only need a bag. However, compound bows and crossbows need a case.

Lastly, make sure you don’t lend your compound bow to anyone else since the draw length has to specifically tuned for the archer, and overpulling can occur, which could damage the bow. Or even worse, they could not know the dangers of dry-firing.

Final Thoughts on What Are the Different Types of Archery Bows

There are many types of bows out there, but the main types of bows are compound, recurve, longbow, and crossbow. These bows have many similarities and differences. Their shooting styles and their equipment are different for each, so choosing your type of bow will be a commitment throughout your archery career.

  • Compound bows are a modern type of mechanical bow that uses a levering system that allows them to be compact and particularly powerful without much input from the user. However, they tend to be heavier, require constant maintenance, and need to be customized and adjusted to fit the archer.
  • Recurve bows are a more traditional type of bow, consisting of a riser and two curved limbs. Recurve bows are light, easy to use, require little maintenance, and have a hugely competitive and professional scene. However, they require more practice and commitment to improving.
  • Longbows are the most traditional of all bows. They consist of a wooden piece bent into a D shape tied by a string. Longbows have the advantage of being more historic, challenging, and simple to use. However, they require a lot more commitment, there are no attachments for it, and the challenges mentioned above might also be a disadvantage.
  • Crossbows are the most peculiar of all bows. They have been around since antiquity, and consist of a bow mechanism attached horizontally to a piece of a certain material, and have a mechanism and design that closely resembles that of a rifle. Crossbows have the advantage of being easy to shoot and being incredibly powerful. However, they tend to be heavier and more difficult to reload.

Some people will find certain types of bows better for them. There are a lot of extra expenses, such as arrows and attachments that come with owning your bow. No matter what type of bow you have, you must constantly practice improving on the field. You must also give it constant maintenance and make sure never to dry-fire it.

Archery is a very demanding sport, but it is definitely fun and so very worth it. Every type of bow provides its own little adventure. 

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