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Bow Hunting: Compound vs. Traditional Bows

Bow hunting is something I was raised with. When I was a child, my dad would take us to my great uncle’s place in Potter County, Pennsylvania, every fall so he could chase whitetails around in the mountains with an old Black Widow recurve customized by Fred Bear himself. He even got my mom involved a couple years, and with both of them practicing, it was inevitable that my younger sister and I would get our own bows to shoot. We shot a lot of targets with those old fiberglass recurves.

When we moved to Colorado in the ‘70s, dad bought a Bear compound, used it one year without success, and decided Western hunting required a gun. I started hunting with my mom’s old recurve while in high school, then bought an older Bear compound at an auction, put some nice accessories on it, and used it for several years.

When my wife and I decided to move back to the Midwest to be on the old family homestead, I sold that compound and scouted online auctions for a recurve after we got moved in. So after many years I have come full circle, hunting now with a recurve, and I hope soon to build a longbow for myself.

All that to say if you want to get into bow hunting but haven’t made up your mind on how to go about it, maybe a little comparison from my point of view will help, as I have experience with a variety of bows.

First Things First: What’s The Difference?

Simply put, a bow uses the mechanical advantage of leverage and stored energy to cast an arrow faster and farther than you could otherwise throw it.

Recurves and longbows directly store this energy; as you draw, them they get harder to pull. Compounds, on the other hand, have an additional mechanical advantage in that through the use of cables and cams, they are able to let off some of the weight you draw and have to hold. They also use this mechanical advantage to throw an arrow faster than a traditional bow of the same draw weight.

The differences in the way that compound and traditional bows are built will affect many things, including price, accuracy, weight, speed, and power, just to name a few.


I have a top-of-the-line traditional archery catalog in front of me, and leafing through the pages, I can find a fully carbon longbow listed for $1499. This I am sure is a super-smooth, nice shooting bow. In the same catalog, the custom recurves start at around $750. In the back are some primitive bows, and a linen-backed medieval longbow goes for $131. Some online searching turned up some name brand recurves starting at just over $120. A custom self bow (a bow made from one piece of wood with no backing on the limbs) will start at around $200 and can go up to well over $1000.

I don’t get catalogs for compound archery products any more, so I had to do some searching. From what I could find, if I were shopping for a new bow, I would expect to pay at least $250 for an entry-level bow, with the vast majority falling in the $400-to-$600 range.

The used market for both is another matter entirely. Online auctions are full of compounds for under $200, and many of these include the whole package that you will need to hunt (sights, arrows, quiver, release, etc.). Lots of folks buy a whole new kit when they get a new bow and then put their old package up for sale. This is a great way to pick up a nice bargain.

Recurves and longbows are somewhat iffier to purchase online. The bows are generally constructed of wood and laminates, and they tend to crack and warp once they get older. I have seen many good affordable used bows online, but you do need to be more diligent with what you buy. I have bought both a newer entry-level compound and an older 45# recurve for less than $30 each by watching the auctions carefully.

Advantage: No clear winner


I used to shoot instinctively (no sights). I even shot my compound that way for a couple years, but when I finally added sights, along with a peep and release, I went from groups the size of a paper plate to ones smaller than a baseball.

A compound bow can be made into an extremely accurate shooting bow. With the use of a peep sight and a release, tiny groups are common. You can put these same accessories on a traditional bow, but the compound with its great let off of draw weight enables you to take your time and get a perfect sight picture before releasing your arrow.

When you are holding a recurve at full draw, you are holding the full weight of the draw; your muscles are far more likely to quiver and shake, making perfect sight alignment more difficult and less consistent.

In most cases the same shooter shooting both types of bows will be more consistent and accurate with a compound bow.

Advantage: Compound


A few years ago while hunting in Colorado, I was with a buddy who was hunting with a recurve he had built years earlier in the Scouts, while I had my compound. We were about halfway up a steep ridge where we stopped for the umpteenth time to catch our breath. I said something along the lines of my bow weighing so much I might as well have been carrying my 300 magnum.

He smiled and handed me his recurve. WOW! Was it light compared to my bow. That is the moment I decided I was going to go back to recurve hunting.

More modern compounds have used space-age material to cut weight, but they still weigh as much or more than a good rifle when you get all the accessories bolted in place.

Advantage: Traditional

Speed and Power

As I explained earlier, the compound uses its mechanical advantage to cast an arrow faster than a comparable weight traditional bow. This fact allows you to use a heavier arrow for better penetration when using a compound bow.

Advantage: Compound


I decided to include this somewhat ambiguous category because I needed somewhere to explain how traditional bows shine in being a pure joy to shoot.

Top-end compounds have worked hard to eliminate the herky-jerky draw motion that the let off gives you when the weight drops as you pull back on the string. Traditional bows have none of this. Their draw is one smooth motion with the weight increasing the further you draw.

This is a real advantage in many forms of hunting, allowing you to keep a sight picture on a moving animal or flying bird. While the compound is more pinpoint accurate, a traditional bow is easier to shoot.

One other difference I will put in this category is that compounds for the most part are noisier than traditional bows. On some of the older bows, it almost sounds like you are firing a .22 rifle. They also generally deliver more hand shock (vibration felt in your hand) when you shoot them.

Advantage: Traditional


Most of the same accessories can be had for both types of bows; however, most traditional shooters prefer minimal accessories.

Advantage: None

Building Your Own

As a prepper, the one thing I really like about traditional bows is that I can make every single piece of equipment from local raw materials. You can buy books and videos (or search online) for instructions that show how to make everything you need to hunt game with your very own homemade bow. I have watched some videos of people crafting their own compound bows, and while it is interesting, these bows are not very practical.

You can make and fletch your own arrows with natural materials. You can craft your own broadheads, or you can go paleo and knap your own arrowheads from stone.

You should avoid shooting wooden arrows in a compound bow as there is always the danger of a hidden flaw in the arrow that could cause the arrow to explode, sending skewers everywhere.

Advantage: Traditional


In the end, it really boils down to personal preference. You have to decide which qualities are most important to you. Whichever you choose, shop around for a good deal and shoot a lot. Both types of bows require lots of practice to become proficient. Once you’ve got the hang of it, try small game hunting. I think you will be hooked on the challenge and just plain fun of stalking through the woods armed with nothing but a bow and arrow.

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