The Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Choosing a Compound Bow – Foundry Outdoors

The Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Choosing a Compound Bow

If you are in the process of choosing a compound bow, this article should help you answer a few questions.

The year was 1966 when Holless Wilbur Allen sent off for a patent that would change thousands of years of tradition. This common man from Missouri never set out to change the world, heck he was just looking to become a better deer hunter. But Mr. Allen had an engineer’s mind and wasn’t afraid to try something new. One story that highlights his innovative mind is about the time he bought an egg beater to improvise a fishing reel, rather than cough up the money to buy a new one. It was that type of thinking that spurred the idea of the patent received by the US patent office in the mid-60’s. That patent, of course, was the first prototype of the compound bow.

What Holless figured out, is something most archers today take for granted. By mounting pulleys (cams) on the bow, he was able to generate speeds that significantly improved his odds of success while in the hunting woods. Over the next 50 years people would build on, and improve, the initial Allen compound bow. Today archers have the luxury of choosing from literal warehouses full of bows. Like all hunting gear, many of the bows are tailor made for a specific type of archer in mind, and all have their strong points.

If you are new to the hunting scene, and are in the midst of choosing a compound bow, you might take a few minutes to browse over this brief guide. It will hopefully clear up any questions you have about the subject, and allow you to spend your hard earned money on the best bow for you.

Axle to Axle

Perhaps one of the first decisions you will want to make when choosing a compound bow for the first time is something you might otherwise overlook; the size of the bow. Unbeknownst to most fledgling archers, the size of the bow has a significant impact on how easy to shoot the bow is. The two measurements you’ll want to take into consideration are the bow’s axle to axle measurement and the bow’s brace height.

Axle to axle (ATA) refers to the distance between the axle of the cam on top of the bow, and the opposing axle on bottom. It is very common for hunting bows today to range between 30” and 32”. These bows have short ATA measurements to allow hunters the ability to maneuver the bow in tree stands, ground blinds, and other tight situations. While this can be helpful for an experienced archer, it can cause a few problems for new shooters. The reason is that as the ATA measurement gets smaller, any bow torque (tipping of the bow from true vertical) will have a magnified effect. New shooters can certainly purchase these short ATA bows, but do so realizing they will be less forgiving than a longer bow.

Brace Height

The second measurement to consider is the brace height of the bow. Brace height refers to the distance from the back of the arrow rest to the string when the bow is resting. Most bows you find today will have a brace height between 6” and 7 ½”. As a general rule the longer the brace height the easier the bow is to shoot. The reason is that as the string is released, an arrow will travel a shorter distance on a bow with a high brace height. Less time on the string means less time your bow arm has to move, thus less time to influence the shot. On the other hand, bows with shorter brace heights are often faster since the string pushes the arrow longer. As you’ll see, often times when choosing a compound bow you’ll have to make trade offs like this.

Draw Weight

After you have found a bow with an axle to axle measurement you are please with, and brace height to your liking, the next step is to determine the draw weight of the bow. Most bows today have limbs that adjust within 10 pounds. That means if you buy a bow with a 70 pound draw weight, you will likely have the ability to adjust the bow anywhere from 60-70 pounds. Some bows are much more adjustable, but 10 pounds seems to be the norm.

Before deciding on the draw weight you’ll want to shoot, you first need to determine what you want the bow for. Will you be tournament shooting or hunting? If you are hunting, do you chase small game, deer, or thick skinned game like elk or moose? What distances will you be hunting? All of these come into play at some point.

Generally speaking, a bow with a heavier draw weight will shoot an arrow with a flatter trajectory. This makes aiming much easier. On the other hand, bows with light draw weights are generally easier for most people to shoot accurately. This varies based on many factors, including your strength and natural ability, but is a good starting point. If you want to shoot tournaments, you’ll really want a bow that is comfortable to draw, hold, and shoot lots of arrows with. If you are hunting deer and turkey, you don’t need a tremendous draw weight, and many of those animals have fallen to a bow with a 40-45 pound draw weight. If you hunt for long you’ll soon realize that archery is much more about accuracy than anything else.

When deciding on draw weight you’ll certainly need to take your personal strength into consideration. For a simple test, trying drawing the bow and holding it at full draw. If you can’t hold the bow back for a full minute, odds are you might be holding a bow that is too heavy.

Arrow Speed

Another important factor when choosing a compound bow is to consider the arrow speed it generates. Again, this decision will come more into play if you are hunting, but target shooters should also be aware of this spec..

With today’s modern compound bows you can expect an average bow to be firing around 300 feet per second (fps). There are many bows that reach up in the 350 fps realm, and bows that drop into the 220 fps cellar. Any of these bows can be fine additions to your arsenal, but only if you think about your unique situation.

First off, what are the benefits of a fast bow? There certainly are a few benefits that can’t be overlooked. As mentioned, faster bows shoot flatter, thus making aiming easier within ranges under 40 yards. This is a great attribute for hunters and takes much of the guess work out of estimating distance. Secondly, faster bows also create more momentum upon the impact of the arrow. Simply put, when the arrow strikes the target it will do a better job traveling through obstructions and have better penetration. Penetration is key when hunting large game in order to effectively, and humanely, take down and animal. Finally, faster bows close the gap between the hunter and the prey, well...faster. This is important because wary animals such as pressured whitetails have a tendency to “jump the string.” This means the deer will hear the sound of the release and actually duck out of the way of the arrow. If you don’t believe me, watch this video. If you shoot a faster bow, there is a better chance your arrow will get there before this happens.

The flip side of the coin is that slower bows tend to be easier to draw and more comfortable to shoot. This could lead to greater accuracy during the shot. Not only that, but slower bows are also generally quieter than fast bows. The question then becomes, if you can shoot a lighter bow more quietly, do you need the extra speed for string jumpers? There is no perfect bow out there, only archers with different tastes.


The final question you need to ask yourself when choosing a compound bow is how much adjustability do you want. If you, or the person who will be shooting the bow, has fully matured, you don’t need a bow with a tremendous range. Once you get your general draw weight established you likely won’t tweak it a whole lot. On the other hand, if the shooter will be growing in the next few years, there are a number of bows on the market that are designed to grow with a shooter as they grow. Some models adjust in draw length from 13”-30” and adjust from a 5 pound draw weight to a 70 pound draw. All of this by simply turning a few allen bolts. That factor might be appealing to the right person.

At the end of the day, these are some of the most basic decisions you’ll have to make when choosing a compound bow. That being said, if you make the right decision for you, you’ll likely end up enjoying archery all the more and have a better experience. As you browse the infinite lineup of bows and the boundless variety, I hope you remember that all of them stem from the innovative mind of a simple man from Missouri. Happy hunting.


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