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Before you buy: Bow styles, parts of a bow, and draw length

This is an excerpt from Archery Fundamentals 2nd Edition ebook by Teresa Johnson.

Before You Buy


Bows come in the following three basic styles:

  • Longbow: The longbow is usually made from a single stick of material. It is straight when unstrung and forms a simple backward curve when strung.
  • Recurve bow: Similar to the style of bow shot in the Olympic Games, the recurve bow has elongated limbs that, when strung, curve backward near the riser and then curve forward (recurve) at the tips. This bow has a smoother draw and release than a longbow does.
  • Compound bow: The compound bow is a shorter and more compact bow that was originally invented for hunting but is now immensely popular among competitive archers. It features a series of wheels, cams, cables, and strings. A cam is a special type of wheel that creates greater bow speed than a round wheel does.

Although bows differ in looks depending on what they’re used for, they all have some basic traits in common. When strung, all bows are bent in some fashion. The center part of the bow that you hold with your bow hand is called the riser, or the handle.


A bowstring, which connects the limbs, is often made of a series of synthetic fibers that are protected by special reinforced thread at the ends and the center called servings. The center serving often has a small brass ring or wound thread on it called a nock locator. The nock locator is positioned onto the serving on a specific spot, below or between where the notched back part of the arrow (called the nock) snaps onto the string (figure 1.1).



Parts of a bow.


Commonly thought of as the bow used by Robin Hood and featured in countless Hollywood movies, the longbow is a simple, straight piece of carved wood with a string. Longbows have no additional components (e.g., sights, arrow rests). Originating in Europe, the longbow was made from a variety of local wood, including yew. When archery started to become popular in America, Osage orange became a popular wood for bow makers, who are also called bowyers. Currently, hickory, lemonwood, and bamboo are popular materials for longbow construction.


A recurve bow has elongated limbs above and below the riser that have a lengthy curve, and the string is connected at the very end of the limb, called the limb tip. A compound bow has a distinct riser and upper and lower limbs that are less curved than their recurve bow counterparts. On a compound bow, the string makes the connection to the bow at the wheels or cams. The cam is attached to the tip of one or both limbs.


Found on the riser is a cutout called a sight window. The lower part of the sight window, called the shelf, can act as the direct place on the bow on which the arrow rests while the bow is being drawn. This is frequently found on fiberglass bows and longbows. The sight window may also have holes drilled in it with metal inserts for a small arm - called a rest - that holds the arrow. Some arrow rests have self-adhesive pads so they can be stuck onto the side of the sight window. The sight window may also have drilled inserts that accept mounts for a wide variety of aiming aids called sights. Bow sights are usually made of metal or plastic, and they have an adjustable aperture (recurve bow) or magnified scope (compound bow) used for aiming.


Bows come in a variety of draw lengths and draw weights. Draw length is the distance you pull the bow back when you draw it fully and the string is at the correct location at the corner of your mouth or under your chin (called the anchor point). Draw length is measured from the front of the arrow rest on the bow to the front of the inside of the nock on the arrow. Draw length differs from person to person based on body type and shooting technique (figure 1.2). Draw weight is the amount of pull the bow exerts at your full draw length. Recurve bows and compound bows differ slightly in how draw length functions. On a recurve bow, because everyone has a slightly different draw length, the draw weight differs slightly. The farther back you pull a recurve bow, the more energy it stores in the limbs, and the heavier it draws. However, an industry standard states that the advertised draw weight of a bow, which is usually printed on the bottom bow limb, is meant for a 28-inch (71 cm) draw length.



Draw length.


On a compound bow, draw length is preset by a module on the cam that limits the length the bow can be drawn back, in order to have the draw stop at your anchor point. Some cams allow the draw length to be adjusted by changing or moving modules, while others require a complete cam change to change draw length. In either case, these adjustments can be made at your local archery shop. The cam allows you to pull the bow back to the proper draw length using the full draw weight of the bow; at the end of the draw, the cam rotates to lessen the holding weight of the bow (an action called let-off) - allowing you to hold the bow back at full draw at just a fraction of its original draw weight. Additionally, most compound bows have approximately a 10-pound (4.5 kg) draw weight range, although some bows have a greater range. The weight is easily adjusted at a pro shop.

Learn more about Archery Fundamentals, Second Edition.