The Bow

To optimise its use, the bow should be able to fit properly into your body, hence the number of sizes available on the market. To be able to select the best and most appropriate bow for you, you should be able to understand the different parts of the bow and how they work.

Although bows do vary in size and function, they are all curved when strung and share other similar characteristics. The archer holds onto the central part of the bow, which is called ‘the handle’. If this separates from the rest of the bow, it may also be referred to as ‘the riser’. The limbs that form the curve are situated above and below the handle.

A bowstring is attached at the end of each limb, and this is what brings the bow into its curved shape. Bowstrings are usually made from synthetic fibres, which are then protected by wrappers at the end and in the middle by a wrapper, referred to as ‘servings’. This centre serving will usually have a brass ring or thread attached to it, which provides support for ‘the nock’ of the arrow, hence its name the nock locator. It is located at the precise spot in which the arrow should rest.

On the bow handle, there is a form of cutout, which may also be referred to as ‘the window’ and is where the arrow rests when the bow is being drawn back. On more advanced, manufactured bows, the cutout may have metal inserts which hold the arrow in place for you. Other bows have self-adhesive pads, which are used to rest the arrow on the side of the bow, or may simply have coloured pins or elaborate rings with fibre optics as a cutout. Some cutouts may also have a sighting aid, which allows more precision with your shot.

The draw length is the distance the archer pulls back the arrow at full draw, and depends on your body style and shooting technique. It is measured from the front of the arrow rest on the bow to the front of the nock on the arrow. The draw weight refers to the amount of pull exerted by a bow when at full draw. As every archer’s draw length differs, this also means that every archer’s draw weight will also differ as well.

There are five main types of bow:

The longbow

The Longbow

The Longbow

Also referred to as the straight bow, this is the tallest type of bow and is typically the same height as or taller than the person using it.

It is usually made from one single stick of material that is relatively narrow. The bow is widest at the handle, straight when not strung and falls into a simple backward curve when strung. The handle usually consists of a wrapped strip of leather, and the arrow rests on either the archer’s glove or on a notch which has been cut into the bow above the handle. The traditional English longbow must be at least 5/8ths of its width; if the measurements were less than this then the longbow would be disqualified from use in most modern competitions.

The longbow originated in Europe and traditionally was used for hunting and warfare, with the English longbow being the most renowned example, associated with Robin Hood in the Middle Ages. Today, longbows are used by archers who want a traditional, wooden feel from their bow.

The shortbow

Technically this is not a distinct category of bow, as it is simply a smaller version of the longbow. It is lighter and therefore more manoeuvrable than the longbow, but this also means that it cannot store as much energy and subsequently cannot shoot the arrows at such a long range. Historically, West Coast American tribes used shortbows for hunting.

The compound bow

The Compound Bow

The Compound Bow

This is a relatively modern style of bow, which was designed to decrease the force the archer must provide yet increase the energy stored by the bow. The design uses a series of pulleys and cams to do this, which are positioned at the end of the limbs to optimise the archer’s leverage, yet reduce the holding force when the bow is fully drawn. This means that the bow stores the energy and then “lets off” the pulling weight at the end of draw length.

This is done by rotating the cams at either or both ends of the limbs, and is known as a ‘let-off’. As the force which the archer must hold is less, the archer’s muscles are not fatigued as fast. Therefore, they have longer to hold and aim the bow and arrow, making the shot more accurate. The bow can be adjusted so that the let-off occurs at the appropriate length for the archer.

There are a variety of compound bows available which usually fall into one of four categories: – ones with single limbs, split limbs or double limbs, or those with a single cam on the bottom limb which have a rotating round idler wheel on the top. Compound bows are frequently used by archers performing field-style archery, or in bow hunting, and in some non-Olympic target archery.

It has been debated whether beginners should use compound bows. On the one hand, as they are so advanced, it is thought that beginners should have access to this type of equipment straight away. However, the compound bow has to be properly sized and fitted for the particular draw length. New archers may not know enough about archery to be able to discover what the right draw length is for them, so they may actually cause themselves injury if they do not use the bow correctly. To overcome this problem one manufacturer, Mathews, designed a compound bow called the ‘Genesis Compound’. This bow does not have to be let-off like other compounds, and so can be used by archers of varying draw lengths.

Recurve bow

The Recurve Bow

The Recurve Bow

When strung, the limbs of a recurve bow curve in two directions – backwards near the centre rise, and forwards at the tips. This makes a smoother draw and release than with other straight bows.

Some recurve bows are made using one piece of material, usually laminated wood or synthetics, and have a very small handle which means that the limbs can be shorter making the bow easier to handle. Another type of recurve bow is available, called ‘the takedown’. This is longer than the one-piece bow and separates into a handle and two limbs. These bows are more portable and most bows used in competition are unsurprisingly takedown models. They also have the ability to carry different accessories, which can be added to improve accuracy and stability. Recurve bows have the greatest engineering and manufacturing quality of all bows today.


The Crossbow

The Crossbow

The crossbow is a variation on the typical design for a bow, although the basic concept of firing is the same.

However, crossbows cannot fire arrows. Instead, shortened versions are used called ‘quarrels’ or ‘bolts’. The limbs are not held vertically as with other bows but are mounted horizontally, and they are either compound or a recurve in design. As with other bows, the string can be pulled back manually or some crossbows are fitted with a windglass which then locks the string into place. The string is held in place (storing energy until it is released) by the trigger mechanism. The amount of energy that is stored is equal to that of the longbow, but the limbs of a crossbow are much shorter meaning that it is easier to manoeuvre and aim.

Types of arrows

A typical arrow has a body, referred to as the shaft, with a point or arrowhead fixed at the front. The arrowhead is what distinguishes arrows, dictating its purpose, and this is either glued onto the outside of the shaft or inserted into the shaft itself.

At the other end of the shaft is the nock and fletching, which consists of three vanes (sometimes more are used) made from feathers or thin, soft plastic. These are equally spaced and glued onto the shaft, with one placed perpendicular to the bow when it is nocked on the sting, and then capped with the notched nock, which is where the bowstring contacts the arrow. Sometimes all the fletchings will be attached at a slight angle, which aims to introduce a stabilising spin to the arrow. The shaft can be made from a variety of materials (see below).

Arrows vary in length, weight and flexibility, and the type of arrow you use will depend on the type of bow you are using and the archery you are practicing. If using a recurve bow, slender, lightweight arrows which have small vanes are favoured, due to their great range and reduced wind resistance. Hunters tend to use thicker arrows with have larger vanes. You should try and use arrows that are as similar as possible on each day of archery, as this means you will be able to shoot consistent groups and develop an accurate shot.

The spine
This refers to the degree of stiffness the arrow has. This will depend on a variety of factors, including the material the arrow is made from, how thick the wall of the shaft is, the diameter and length of the shaft, and how heavy the various arrow parts are, e.g. the nock and point. The spine is given in two sets of digits; the first refers to the shaft diameter in 64ths of an inch, and the second refers to the wall thickness in 1000ths of an inch. You can then use an arrow chart to find which arrow is suitable (see below).

The shaft
Over the history of archery many materials have been used to make arrows. Archers experimented with a great variety of products, and technology dictates which are preferred today. There are four main types of material used to make arrows: –

  • Wood – This is the traditional material, with cedar being the main type as it is inexpensive, fairly straight, knot free and has an even grain. However, wood has a tendency to warp and can sometimes break if the arrows are used for striking hard targets, or if the bow weight is great. Wood is more typically used for beginner’s archery.
  • Fibreglass – This is used like a substitute for wood as it is cheap, durable and straight. Like wood, fibreglass arrows are used more in archery where a high quantity of equipment is needed rather then good quality stuff, as the accuracy of fibreglass arrows is not particularly good. They also need to be regularly checked for slivers and splitting.
  • Aluminium – This material is most commonly used among target archers and bowhunters. These types of arrows come in a wide variety of colours, spines and prices and, if bent, they can be straightened again, which is one of their greatest assists.
  • Carbon – These arrows are made from carbon filaments running down the length of the arrow. They are known for their straightness and thin diameter, and are less susceptible to wind resistance, making them able to maintain velocity at long ranges better than other arrows. Like fibreglass arrows, carbon arrows should be checked for loose slivers and splitting regularly.
  • Composite arrows – Although these are not made from one single material, they are the latest in cutting edge arrow technology. In these arrows, aluminium and carbon are bonded together in layers, which means that the arrows have the benefit of both of the materials’ qualities.

The fletching
This steers the arrow in its flight by acting as a rudder and providing wind resistance, which keeps the arrow pointing towards the target. It usually consists of three vanes, two of which will be the same colour with the third being different and referred to as the index vane. This vane is the one that lies at a perpendicular angle to the bow.

The best type of fletching available will keep the arrow at maximum stability whilst also providing minimum drag. Feathers have a high drag on the arrow, thus creating better stability than plastic vanes. They also flatten when touched, which lessens the chances of snagging occurring when the arrow falls to rest or comes into contact with anything. It does not matter in which direction the arrow spins when it comes to accuracy and stability.

The point
The point on the arrowhead can be long or short, pointed or rounded depending on the archery being done. They also come in different weights for the same reason. Some arrowheads are formed by sharpening the end of the shaft but they are more commonly separate from the shaft and made from metal, horn or another hard material.

Using an arrow chart

You can either buy ready finished arrows or build them yourself. The easiest option is buying ready-made arrows, and most manufacturers make a wide range of arrows with a selection chart to match your bow and shooting style to the array of arrows they have to offer.

Before you use the chart, you need to measure your arrow length. To do this, stretch your arms out in front of you with your palms resting together. Place a yardstick in between your hands with the end resting on your chest. Get someone to measure where your fingertips fall on the yardstick, and then add 2 more inches to this measurement. This is your arrow or draw length.

The arrow chart consists of a grid with arrow sizes in each of the squares. The columns of either side of the grid refer to the bow length, the draw length and whether you are shooting the bow with your fingers or a mechanical release aid. To use the chart, find out the weight of the bow and locate this in the bow-weight column of the chart. Then find your draw length on the top row of the chart, and find the box where these two meet, which will tell you one or more arrow sizes that are suitable.


Archery clothing is rather limited, and many amateur archers will not feel the need to wear any protective items.

Generally though, most archers will wear a bracer, or an arm guard, which protects the inside of the bow arm. A tab is also frequently worn on the fingers and thumb of the drawing hand for protection when drawing the bow. Chest guards are sometimes worn, which are designed to prevent the bowstring from being hindered by the archer’s body or clothing when released, as well as protecting the archer’s chest area.

Archers are taught to hold the bow with little effort, which creates the risk of the bow flying out of their hands when they release the bowstring. Slings have been designed to catch the bow in such circumstances, removing any fears that it might be dropped. Wrist slings can also be found and are used with compound bows and some recurve bows, which can take finger slings.