The differences between compound and recurve archery

Many archers switch disciplines, for various reasons. Some people are bored by their current discipline, think they will like another discipline better, or experience physical issues. Therefore many archers wonder what the differences are between compound and recurve archery. In this article, I will discuss these differences in detail. I will also share my experience on why I switched from recurve to compound archery. Although many archers start with recurve archery and decide at a later state they prefer compound, some archers also switch back. Therefore I will discuss both how to switch from recurve to compound and vice versa.

No time to read the remainder of this article. Read at least the bold section below for a short summary:

The main difference between compound and recurve bows is how they feel. Compound bows feel more modern and are easier to shoot due to the let-off, release, peep sight, and shoot-through riser. Recurve bows feel more traditional and are more difficult to shoot well due to the archer's paradox and finger release.

The differences between compound and recurve

Although there are a lot of similarities between recurve and compound archery, there are also many differences. I have summarized the biggest differences in a table for a quick comparison. Below I will discuss these characteristics in more detail.

Characteristics Recurve archery Compound archery
Release mechanism Tab Release aid
Strain at full draw High Low
Sight picture Looking trough the string Peep sight
Sight No zoom allowed Zoom is allowed
Archers paradox Yes No
Average scores (1 year) Tend to be 7+ per arrow Tend to be 9+ per arrow
Variable draw weight No Yes

Tab versus release aid

One of the most important differences between compound and recurve archery is the release mechanism. Recurve archers are not allowed to use a release aid. Compound archers on the other hand are allowed to use a release aid. In general it’s not a good idea to shoot a compound bow with a tab or finger glove. If you want to know why, read this article.

The release aid makes the release process a lot more easy, because you don’t manipulate the string with your fingers. Since you mechanize part of the release process, the consistency of the release is basically out of question. For recurve archers a clean release is a vital part of their overall technique and can be quite difficult to accomplish. For more information on how to get a consistent release, read this article.

Another reason why some people like a release aid is that it’s less strenuous for your fingers. Since you don’t hold the bow with your fingers you don’t need to have strong fingers to pull the bow back. Especially for older archers this can be a great advantage. On the other hand, some people really like the feeling of the string on their fingers and therefore prefer a tab.

Strain at full draw

When you are at full draw with a recurve bow, the bow is at the heaviest point. This can be quite a burden on your back, shoulder and arm muscles. Compound bows on the other hand have somewhere between 60% till 90% let off, depending on your bow. This means that the bow reduces the draw weight at full draw anywhere between 60% or 90%. For example:  a 50 pound compound bow with 70% let off will be approximately 15 pound at full draw. I am simplifying here for comparison sake, there are way more factors that influence the draw weight of the compound bow. Compound archers can therefore take more time aiming, because their muscles are not strained as much when at full draw.

Sight picture

Recurve archers look along the string, while compound archers use a peep sight. Therefore compound archers have a more clear sight picture and can line up the peep sight with string. This alignment makes aiming correctly more easy. Peep sights are not allowed in the recurve class in competitions, because of this reason.

Sight

Both compound and recurve archers may use sights as part of their setup. The sights are often very sophisticated and allow for micro adjustments. Compound archers can however use a magnified sight, which makes precision shooting more easy.

Archers paradox

Traditional bows always had to deal with a physical process called the archers paradox. Because the point of the arrow is heavier than the arrow itself the arrow starts to bend, when fired. This makes that the arrow travels around the bow and continues in a straight line. If the archers paradox wouldn’t exist the bow would either shoot far to the left if you right handed and vice versa. This physical process is difficult to grasp without visuals, therefore I would recommend to watch this video from SmarterEveryDay.

The archers paradox makes archery more challenging. You have to have the right arrow shaft, with the right point with the right bow. There are so many factors to take into account when tuning a bow for the archers paradox.

Compound bows have not archers paradox, because the arrow shoots right trough the handle. Shoot through risers are not allowed according to World Archery (11.1.1) because they make the bow more easy to tune.

Average scores

It’s always difficult to discuss average scores, because they are dependent on the level of the participating archers. There are however some general points that we can discuss. In general, starting compound archers tend to have higher scores than recurve archers. Compound bows make it easier to aim and in general more accurate when not tuned to perfection. Therefore it’s easier to shoot higher scores with a compound bow than with a recurve bow. If two equally skilled archers train regularly for a year, I would expect the following scores:

  • Recurve archers: 7+ per arrow
  • Compound archers: 9+ per arrow

In the long run recurve archers tend to catch up with compound archers. When their bows are correctly tuned and they have developed the right form, they can shoot very high scores as well. In professional archery the scores between compound and recurve tend to be much closer to each other.

Variable draw weight

Most compound bows have a variable draw weight, meaning that you can change the amount of strength that is required to get the bow at full draw. This makes you able to start on a lower draw weight and increase it over time. Being able to change your draw weight can also make it more easy to tune your bow to your arrow.

Some recurve archers will mention that you can also change the draw weight of a recurve bow with the tiller. This is however not where the tiller is designed for. The tiller is designed to tune the bow and not to change the overall draw weight. In general you can only change the draw weight with the tiller about 5% depending on your limbs.

The compound bow I have for example allows draw weights between 30 till 70 pounds. More heavy compound bows often allow you to change the draw weight between 50 and 90 pounds.  Therefore most compound bows give you the option to almost double your draw weight.

What is similar?

I discussed the main differences between compound and recurve archery, but there are many similarities between the shooting styles. If you have been a recurve archers for a year, compound archery will be much easier than when you just start. Many basic techniques are similar or exactly the same between the disciplines. Below I will discuss the most important similarities that recurve and compound archery shares compared to traditional archery.

Modern feeling bow

Compound and recurve bows feel really modern compared to traditional bows. Recurve bows are basically modern adaptations on the principles of traditional bows. Compound bows go one step further by improving certain parts that make it easier to fire accurately. If we look at the development of archery, there were always improvements made. See the table below for the developments in archery.

  Traditional archery Modern archery
Estimated date invention 10,000 BC 4000 BC 1,600 BC 1900 1970
Bow name Longbows Flatbows Recurve bows Olympic recurve bows Compound bows
Flat limbs   X X X X
Recurved limbs     X X  
Stabilizers       X X
Sight       X X
Plunger       X  
Adjustable arrow rest       X X
Let off         X
Peep sight         X
Archers paradox X X X X  

Note: in the article I discuss shorten ''Olympic recurve'' to ''recurve'', because this is very common in the archery community. In this table the two are separated because they are very different in nature. I would recommend you to read the article below if you want to know the distinction between recurve and Olympic recurve archery.

What is olympic recurve archery?

Many options to tune your bow

Both recurve and compound bows are able to be tuned to perfection. With both recurve and compound bows, you can change the arrow rest, configure the tiller and tune the sight. With recurve bows you can also change the center shot of the limbs and the pressure of the plunger. With compound you can also change the draw weight, draw length and peep sight. Although both disciplines have different options to tune the bow, the disciplines are quite similar regarding the amount of options.

Technicalities

The amount of options to tune the bow makes both disciplines quite technical. I often hear recurve archers say that compound is more technical, because you can change additional features of the bow, like the draw weight. I however disagree with this opinion, because compound bows have no archers paradox. The archers paradox is a major technical challenge of recurve bows, which is not present with compound bows. Therefore in my opinion both the compound and recurve discipline is very technical.

Why some archers prefer compound

Although compound archery is the latest addition to the archery sport it is very popular all over the world, especially in the USA. Therefore it’s a shame that compound archery is not a sport in the olympic games. Many archers prefer compound archery for many different reasons. Below I will discuss the most important reasons.

  • More focus on aiming: compound archers tend to hold their bows longer at full draw, because of the let off. Therefore there is more focus on aiming and less focus on the release.
  • Less straining for the muscles: compound archers can shoot a heavier bow without straining their muscles because of the let off. Therefore compound archers can even shoot decently if their muscles are tired. This is not possible with recurve archery because you will start to shake.
  • Archer paradox: the archers paradox is a really interesting physical process, but can also be quite frustrating. It’s very difficult to grasp and to tune your bow in the right way. If you don’t tune you bow correctly you will see large variation in your shots.
  • Modern/military feel: let’s face it, some people just prefer to shoot with the newest technology in archery available. If that’s you, compound archery is just the discipline for you.

Why some archers prefer recurve

In last section I made a lot of points why some archers prefer compound archery. There are however many archers that prefer recurve archery for multiple reasons. Below you will find the most important reasons why.

  • More natural feeling: when you first draw a compound bow, you will find that it feels really weird. The let off on compound bows feel really strange when you are not used to it. Some people prefer the feeling of just the force of the entire bow in their fingers and don’t like the feeling of let off.
  • It’s the sport you fell in love with: if you started your archery journey at a club you probably started with a recurve bow. Most archers therefore start with a recurve bow and have fond memories of their first time shooting. Compound can be quite hard to try out, because most clubs don’t have compound bows to lend.
  • More variation between scores: I often hear recurve archers mention that they don’t like the lack of variations between scores in compound archery. Although this also happens with recurve archery at higher competition levels, the scores in compound competitions can be quite predictable. Most arrows land either in the 10 or the 9. Scores of 8 and lower rarely occur in indoor matches between trained compound archers.
  • More recognized sport: I already mentioned that compound archery is not allowed in the Olympic games. Recurve archery however is present in the Olympic games, therefore more people outside the archery community will recognize and know a few things about your sport.

How to make a switch

There are many reasons to make the switch from recurve to compound or vice versa. Some reasons I often hear are:

  • I like the other discipline more
  • I hit a plateau with my accomplishments and want a new challenge
  • I want to try something else
  • I get muscle issues with my current disciplines

In my book, these reasons are all very good reasons to change your discipline. Therefore in this section I will discuss in detail which things to consider when you want to do so.

Switching from recurve to compound

If you already have bought a recurve bow, you know that it’s quite a challenge to find the right bow with the right accessories. I could write an entire article on this subject, but since you already bought a recurve bow, you already know the basics. Therefore I will only discuss things that are different between compound and recurve.

Draw weight

When you bought a recurve bow, the draw weight of the limbs were very important. With compound bows it is still important to pick the right draw weight, but you have a lot more flexibility. You can shoot a lot higher poundage with compound than with recurve. See the table below for an indication of the draw weight that fits you.

Recurve Compound
16-20 lbs 30-40
20-26 lbs 40-50
26-30 lbs 50-70
30 lbs 70+

Draw length

You also need to configure the draw length when you want to shoot the bow. This is done by changing the ‘’ramp’’ on the cams. Most compound bows allow draw lengths between 16 and 30 inches. This range is suitable for almost all archers. Only people longer than 6 feet 6 inches, might want to double check if they might need a bigger bow.

Type of release

When you buy your compound bow, don’t forget to buy a release as well. Although you can fire a compound bow without a release, there are many reasons to not do it. Read this article for more information about why this is a bad idea.

There are many different type of release aids namely:

  • Wrist release: you attach this release at your wrist and use a trigger to release the shot. You often use the trigger with you index finger, but there are also some available with a thumb release.
  • Thumb release: you hold this release with fingers and release the arrow with your thumb.
  • Back tension release: with this release you don’t use any of your fingers to fire. Instead you pull the bow string further backwards. When you draw back far enough the release will fire the shot at a certain poundage.
  • Canting release: the last type of release works fires by canting the release in a certain direction, which makes the release go off.

If you are just starting with compound archery I would recommend a wrist or thumb release, because those are the most easy to use.

Arrows

If you still have the arrows of your recurve bow, it’s worth your time to check whether you can use the same arrows. Since compound bows have no archers paradox the recommended stiffness between arrows is quite different. If you want to compare your arrow stiffness, I would recommend the chart and calculator from goldtip.

Don’t worry too much if your arrow has not precisely the right stiffness. Most often if the difference is 100 or less, it will still shoot fine. You can also decide to decrease or increase the poundage to fit the compound bow to your arrow.

Switching from compound to recurve

Although it’s less common, some people start with compound archery and later decide to switch to recurve archery. In this section I will discuss some main differences you have to be aware of before buying a recurve bow.

Draw weight

When you bought a compound bow, the draw weight of the bow didn’t really matter to much. Often you could change the draw length significantly, therefore you never had to find out what draw length exactly fits you. With recurve archery you can’t change the draw weight, so you have to make sure to buy the right limbs. Otherwise you might need to buy a second pair.

You can use this table, of the ‘’switching from recurve to compound’’ section to find a general idea of what draw length fits you. Since you don’t have a let off with recurve bows, it’s better to buy weaker limbs than too strong limbs. If you have bought too strong limbs, you will not get accurate, because you arm will start to shake. If you bought weaker limbs the only disadvantage you will have is that you could have had a higher arrow speed.

Draw length

With compound archery draw length is also no issue since most compound bows are highly configurable. Although you can draw a recurve bow back as far as you want, doing this with too short limbs might make it break. Having longer limbs than necessary doesn’t really affect your shots negatively, it only makes the bow a bit more difficult to wield. If you want more information on how to buy the right limbs, see the ‘’limbs’’ section of this article.

Tab

You may not use a release aid with recurve archery. Therefore you need to invest in a proper tab. A good tab helps you to anchor correctly and makes the shot process more comfortable. There is more to finding the right tab than you might think. I would to read the ‘’tab’’ section of this article for more information about finding the right tab.

Arrows

Sometimes you can use the same arrows on your compound bow as with your recurve bow, even though you will probably shoot with a lower draw weight. The charts of compound and recurve archery are very different, because you have to account for the archers paradox. I would recommend the chart and calculator from goldtip to compare you current arrows to what you need.

Do you have to start with recurve archery?

In the intro I discussed that many archers start with recurve archery. Compound bows need to be configured to the shooter. Therefore the experience most new archers have with archery is with recurve bows. There is however no reason why you should start with recurve archery. In general I would say that it’s easier to start with compound archery, because you have more aids that make you more precise.

A good reason why some archers start with recurve archery is because they don’t know what discipline has their preference. It’s quite easy to switch to traditional archery because you can remove all your aids and start shooting. On the other hand you also get more experience with tuning the bow, which is important part in compound archery. If we look back at the at the table of the what is similar section we can see the similarities. It has both similarities with traditional and compound archery.

Why I made the switch to compound

I was a passionate recurve archer for the last at least 2 years. I shot at least 3 times a week and I got quite decent scores. Between 8 and 9 points per arrow on average. The 3th year I got less time to shoot and exercise in general. I also bought a new bow, which was 2 pounds heavier. The 3th year, my scores started to drop, when I shot an average of 7 points per arrow, I got really demotivated. To cut the downwards spiral I quit archery for at least 2 months.

When I started again, I noticed that my muscle strength decreased even more. I couldn’t even fire with my old limbs without shaking. This got me really frustrated and I thought about quitting archery for good.

Although I always had a preference for recurve archery, I decided to buy a compound bow. This could be a temporary solution, to reset my expectations. So I switched to compound for two major reasons: because my muscle strength has decreased and I wanted to start with something new.

One year later, and I am still shooting with my compound bow. I won’t say that I will stay with compound archery forever. But at least I found back the fun in archery because of the switch.

Some final words

I hope this article was helpful to provide you everything you need to know if you are considering to switch. If you feel like you get less enjoyment out of shooting, you might want to consider to switch. Learning something new can get you excited again and reset your expectations.

If you have any opinions or personal stories you would like to share, please leave them in comment section down below. I will respond to any questions as soon as possible.

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