Recurve vs Compound Bow: Choosing the Right Bow in 2021

Jeff
| Last Updated April 6, 2021

You've decided to take up the noble sport of archery or bow hunting.

You need to research the best bow to use and can't decide which is most suitable for you.

We discuss these two bow types' different attributes and what tasks they’re suitable for. 

Recurve vs Compound Bow

Recurve Bow

Compound Bow

PROS

PROS

  • Easy maintenance

  • Versatility

  • Costs
  • Let-off

  • Length

  • Adjustability

CONS

CONS

  • No let-off

  • Unforgiving of mistakes

  • Requires more practice
  • Costs

  • Complexity

  • Most major maintenance requires specialized tools and knowledge

BEST FOR

BEST FOR

Survivalists, some forms of hunting and learning the basics of archery

Bow fishing and some types of hunting

What is a Recurve Bow, and How Does it Work? 

The term recurve bow refers to its shape. Instead of a traditional longbow's simple D shape, the recurve bow curves away from the archer at the limbs' tips. We refer to this second curve as the recurve. 

The recurve on the limbs gives this type of bow the ability to store more energy from the draw and transfer it to the arrow. The result is that a shorter recurve bow gives the same draw weight as a longbow. This makes it the ideal choice for mounted archers and those who need to move through thick vegetation. 

The original compound bow's construction was wood and laminates using animal parts as glue. The modern recurve bow uses a variety of materials and laminates in its construction. The range of materials available to the modern bowyer allows for lightweight recurve bows that the archer can break down for portability.

Let's look at some of the terms used when referring to modern recurve bows:

Takedown Bow

A bow that the archer can break into three, separate parts for portability. 

Riser

The central part of the bow, consisting of the grip and arrow shelf or rest.

Limbs

Recurve bows have a top and bottom limb that extends from the riser. They store the energy when you draw the bow.  

Limb Tips

The ends of the top and bottom limbs. The bowstring is attached to the limb tips. 

Arrow Rest

An arrow rest could be a shelf to rest the arrow when the bow is loaded or a tab rest. 

Parts of a Recurve Bow (Photo credit: lancasterarchery.com)

Draw Weight

The power needed to draw the string back and thus the power of the bow. 

Bow Sight

Many modern recurve bows have space on the riser to fit a sight. 

Knocking Points

Fibers or rings attached to the string to indicate the correct position to fit the arrow (knocking the arrow). 

What is a Compound Bow, and How Does it Work? 

Holles Wilbur Allen created the first compound bow in the 1960s by adding modern engineering techniques to a traditional recurve bow. Looking at a compound bow for the first time, anybody can see that the emphasis is on its engineering and physics.

Photo credit: gearjunkie.com

The emphasis on modern technology and the incorporation of cams in the design adds many advantages to this bow. This technology is also its greatest weakness.

The compound bow has two strings instead of the single string of traditional bows. The main bowstring runs on the large external cams and is the string the archer knocks the arrow on and draws. The second string, referred to as the cable, runs on tinier internal cams and passes directly between the limb tips' cams. 

The second string holds the tension on the limbs, which store the power of the bow. The double-action of the two strings and cams is what gives the compound bow its let-off.

The compound bow shares some of the terms with a recurve bow, so we'll concentrate on terms that refer only to compound bows:

Cams

Cams can be round or oval, and pins hold them in place on the limb tips. The string and cables terminate at the cams, whose job is to transfer the limbs' energy to the string and arrow. 

Cable

The cable is the string between the tinier internal cams and works during the draw and shot.

Photo credit: bowhunting.com

Let-off

The let-off is expressed as a percentage and denotes the amount of draw weight that the bow saves the archer from holding at full draw.

A compound bow with a draw weight of 70 pounds and a let-off of 80% saves the archer from holding 56 pounds of draw weight.

The Wall

The wall is the full draw length and weight of the bow. At this point, you achieve the full let-off, but drawing the bow further is almost impossible. 

The Valley

If you release pressure slightly when at the wall, the draw becomes heavy again. The distance the string can travel closer to the riser from the wall before the increase in draw weight is called the valley. 

Relevant Characteristics Between a Recurve and a Compound Bow

Recurve Bow

Compound Bow

225 fps maximum (150 mph)

Speed

300 fps maximum (200 mph)

10-60 pounds

Power / Draw Weight

10-70 pounds

10-35 yards (effective)

Range

30-60 yards (effective)

Excellent

Aim / Accuracy

Excellent

48-70 inches

Takedown bows are very portable

Size & Portability

30-40 inches


Very portable, but can’t be disassembled like a takedown bow

Noisy, especially barebow

Noise

Quiet

Wood or metal (Aluminum and magnesium alloy) risers with wood and fiberglass laminate limbs

Construction

A mix of wood, fiberglass, and carbon fiber laminates for the limbs with wooden or alloy riser

$100-$400

Cost (average)

$200-$700

Similarities and Differences 

Looking at the two types of bows next to each other, you can quickly notice the differences. Still, an honest close inspection also reveals many similarities. We'll explore these differences and similarities before looking at each bow's sacrifices and gains through the different technologies employed in their construction. 

Recurve and Compound Bow Differences 

The differences between recurve and compound bows fall into the categories of construction and performance. We'll look at the construction differences first and move to performance. 

Technology

The most apparent difference between the two bow types is the addition of cams on the compound bow. The recurve bow's basic design hasn't changed since the eighth century BC, whereas the first compound bow's patent dates to the 1960s. The compound bow incorporates all the latest technology in all aspects of its design. 

Compound bow cams (Credit: lancasterarchery.com)

Length

A compound bow is significantly shorter than a recurve of the same draw weight. The shorter length has been touted as an advantage for hunters and survivalists, making it easier to move through thick vegetation. 

Field Repairs

The technology and complexity of a compound bow make it almost impossible to carry out field repairs. A moderately skilled archer can easily replace a damaged bowstring on a recurve bow. The same task on a compound bow requires specialized equipment and a technician's skills. 

Customization

You can mount the same accessories on a modern recurve bow as you can on a compound bow, but the only way to alter the draw weight is by changing out the limbs. A compound bow's draw weight can be adjusted within a range, allowing beginners to use the same bow for longer. 

Range and Speed

The arrow speed is directly related to the effective range and accuracy of the bow. The faster arrow speed of the compound bow ensures increased accuracy at more range. The compound bow's effective range is almost double the recurve bow's. 

Photo credit: bowhunting360.com

Recurve and Compound Bow Similarities

The two bow types also have several similar characteristics, which we'll look at now. 

Basic Shape

Remove the cams and cables from a compound bow, and you have the same shape as a recurve. Both of these bows consist of a riser with top and bottom limbs. The compound bow is a direct descendant of a traditional recurve bow.

Construction Materials

Both bows use the same construction materials for strength and flexibility. Typically, the limbs use wood laminated with fiberglass or carbon fiber composites. The risers use light metal alloys or wood in the construction. 

Weight

Although the compound bow is significantly smaller than the recurve, the sturdier construction required and extra cams and cables give both bows similar weights. A lighter-weight bow isn't necessarily good, as heavier bows give the archer more stability. 

Accessories

The more traditional design of the recurve bow doesn’t preclude you from using the same accessories as a compound bow.

Modern recurve bows can mount stabilizers, sights, vibration dampeners, and even a release aid. The riser's similar design and size means that many of the accessories available for compound bows are also available for recurve bows. 

Photo credit: simplearchery.com

Accuracy

Accuracy is a complex attribute to measure as a lot depends on the individual archer's shooting style. The compound bow is easier to aim thanks to the let-off, which means you can hold it at full draw with ease. The arrow release is also more stable than a recurve bow. Still, an experienced archer can achieve the same accuracy as a compound bow with a recurve bow. 

Advantages of Recurve Bows 

Recurve bows have several advantages over compound bows that make them a better choice in some situations. 

Photo credit: bowtote.com

Portability

Most modern recurve bows can be broken down into three parts for travel or storage and reassembled with minimum tools at your destination. If you don't want to wander through the town with a fully assembled bow on your back, consider buying a takedown recurve bow. 

Easy Maintenance

The archer can carry out most maintenance and tuning tasks on a recurve bow themselves without taking the bow into a shop. Changing the limbs or the string is easy to do, even in the field. Similar tasks on a compound bow require specialized tools, expertise, and a workshop.

Cost

A recurve bow is significantly cheaper than a compound bow. The initial cost is half that of the compound bow, but the savings don't stop there. The recurve bow has no complex mechanisms to be maintained. The archer can do most maintenance tasks with minimal tools or expertise at home or in the field. 

Only Bow Allowed for Olympics

Although you can find target shooting competitions for recurve and compound bows, the recurve is the only bow allowed for the Olympics. For competition shooting, the recurve bow is the only answer for more significant competitions and traditional sportsmanship.  

More Durable

The simple design of the recurve bow also means that they’re more resistant to bangs and knocks than their compound counterparts with extra cams and cables. You still need to take care of your bow to achieve maximum effectiveness. Still, if you knock it by mistake, it's far less likely to sustain expensive damage. 

Versatility

The lower speed of the arrow means that you have more choice in this regard. A high-speed bow needs better balanced and more aerodynamic arrows to maintain a stable flight. A recurve bow with lower speed and draw weight is more forgiving. Remember, the frontiersmen and native Americans hunted big game with recurve bows and home-made arrows to feed their families. 

Photo credit: bow-international.com

Verdict

The simplicity of this bow's design and easy maintenance makes it the best choice for survivalists. It gives them a sustainable, ranged, weapon solution. The ability to carry out field repairs also makes it a good choice for hunters. However, the shorter length of a compound bow also has advantages in certain hunting types. 

Anybody contemplating target shooting should consider the recurve bow as the best option, especially when learning. The recurve bow is unforgiving of mistakes. Learning to shoot with this type eliminates the risk of developing bad habits with technique, making it a good choice for beginners if they have the patience to master the bow. 

Advantages of Compound Bows 

Compound bows also have advantages over recurve bows, making them ideal for some uses. 

Let-off

The most significant advantage of a compound bow is the let-off. You can hold a compound bow at full draw with 80% less effort than a recurve bow. The let-off means you can hold the bow at full draw for longer, giving you more time to aim. 

Photo credit: thewoodsandback.com

Forgiveness

If all you want to do is learn to shoot and put arrows in your target, then the compound bow is the most forgiving type of bow. An archer can get away with far more mistakes in technique and still be successful with this type of bow. You can master the compound bow far quicker than a more traditional design. 

Range

The higher arrow speed gives the compound bow double the effective range of a recurve bow. If you're planning to shoot at targets from further away, then the compound bow should be your first choice. 

Shorter Length

The shorter length of the compound bow allows you to use it in thicker vegetation areas with less risk of getting it tangled up in the plant life. You can also use a smaller hide if you're hunting. There’s no need to disassemble the bow for transport and storage. 

Noise

The smoother release of the compound bow reduces string vibration and noise without fitting additional accessories. The reduced noise levels are an advantage, especially if you're shooting in a confined space. 

Adjustability

You can adjust the compound bow's draw weight without changing the limbs. Beginners can use the same bow for longer by adjusting the draw weight as they become accustomed to drawing and releasing arrows' muscle action. 

Photo credit: bowhunting360.com

Verdict

The let-off makes the compound bow ideal for many hunting types, where you're likely to hold the bow at full draw for any length of time. Compared to more traditional types, the unforgiving nature of this bow means you can master it a lot faster. 

If stance and technique aren't essential and you want to learn to shoot quickly, the compound bow is ideal. Having the ability to adjust draw weight also means that the bow grows with you as your muscles become accustomed to the draw action. The compound bow is ideal for sports like bow fishing and some types of hunting. 

Recurve vs Compound Bow: Which is Better for Beginners?

On paper, the compound bow is the best option for beginners, with the adjustable draw weight and its unforgiving nature. Despite this, we would choose the recurve bow for beginners. 

If you're starting with archery, the reduced cost of a quality recurve should be a deciding factor. The unforgiving nature forces you to perfect your technique, which will stand you in good stead, even if you later decide to use a compound bow. 

Photo credit: academy.com

We recommend the recurve bow for beginners unless you're impatient to start shooting or you've already decided that you'll stick with the compound bow. You can change from recurve to compound quickly, but you'll have difficulty getting used to a recurve bow if you've learned with a compound. 

What About a Longbow?

The longbow has been around as long as the recurve bow. It was an alternative in wetter regions where laminating was a poor option. The longer length makes it unsuitable for use in thick vegetation or cramped spaces. Still, the longbow was the weapon of choice for the British until the introduction of mass-produced muskets. 

The longer length of the bow and the D shape also works as an advantage. The bowstring's only contact with the limbs is at the tips, making the bow naturally more stable and quieter. The bow's length also means that the tension and friction are spread over a larger area, making the arrow release smoother. 

A modern longbow doesn't accommodate accessories like sights, and the aiming and shooting need to be more instinctive. You also have the total draw weight to contend with throughout your draw, hence the need for the extra length to achieve the same draw weight. You need to be both closer to your target and quicker when using a longbow. 

Photo credit: archeryguidance.com

There’s also no way to adjust the draw weight on a longbow. A compound bow gives you a range of draw weights that you can adjust to, and you can replace the limbs on a recurve bow. The longbow body is in one piece, so there’s no way to adjust it. 

The most significant disadvantage of the longbow is that you may have trouble finding somewhere to shoot it. Most archery clubs and competitions cater for compound and recurve bows, but the simpler longbow is often overlooked. If you're competitive, the longbow is unsuitable for this reason. 

Bottom Line

Choosing between a compound or recurve bow comes down to personal preference and how you plan to use it. The compound bow's most significant advantage is the let-off which allows you to hold it at full draw for longer before releasing the arrow. The range of the compound bow is also an advantage for some types of hunting. 

The recurve bow gives you a more realistic archery experience that's not reduced to technology and mechanics. This bow's relatively unforgiving nature also makes it ideal for training archers for the optimal technique and shooting style. 

Look at the attributes of both and decide which one suits your personality and style for the best archery experience. 

People Also Ask

Most people still have questions to be answered after researching different bows. Our experts have answered a few of these questions below. 

Should I Start With a Compound or Recurve Bow?

We recommend starting with a recurve bow when you're learning archery. Once you have the correct posture, technique, and style, you can always change to a compound bow. 

Where Did the Recurve Bow Originate?

The first mention of the recurve bow is Psalm 78:57, dated to the eighth century BC, making it difficult to pinpoint the exact origins.

We know that the Persians, Egyptians, Chinese, Ottomans, and Greeks all used recurve bows. Native Americans also used recurve bows in North America. 

How Many FPS Can a Recurve Bow Shoot?

The recurve bow shoots at around 225 fps.

How Many FPS Can a Compound Bow Shoot?

Compound bows can shoot at 300 fps. 

Which is Better for Deer Hunting?

Either bow is an excellent choice for deer hunting, and the best one depends on your style and where you hunt. Our preference is the recurve bow for its simplicity and the ability to do field maintenance. 

Which is Better for Target Shooting?

You can find competitions catering to both bow types. Still, the Olympics only allow for recurve bows, so the notable competitions cater mainly for this. If you're target shooting for fun, the compound bow gives better, faster results. So the best bow, once again, relies on personal choice and what you plan to do with it.

Jeff

My name is Jeff and I have been hunting and fishing for over 40 years. I am an avid archery lover, bass fisherman, and all-around outdoorsman. Currently, I'm obsessed with elk hunting but I'm sure I'll move onto a different favorite soon. You gotta love hunting for that reason :) If you have any questions, or just want chat about your latest hunting score or big catch, you can reach me at admin@biggamelogic.com. Read more about Big Game Logic.