Compound Bow vs Recurve: Which is Better for Hunting and Why?

The compound bow vs recurve are two viable choices for bowhunting. Both styles have their respective areas where they excel. A "best choice hunting bow" will depend on your individual goals.

With thousands of years between them, the compound bow and recurve are examples of two weapon innovations separated by an immense span of time. The history of archery is a long-lived tale nearly as old as humans themselves.

If not for the ingenuity of early humans and our ancestors, archery as we know it may not even exist.

The recurve bow is one of the original traditional bows and dates back to the 8th century B.C.

In 1969, the compound bow was derived by adding pulleys to a recurve bow by the mechanically-minded Holless Wilbur Allen.

Since the beginning of time, humans have always looked to make things bigger, better, faster, and more powerful. Continuous improvement is in our DNA – it is our nature.  Both the recurve and compound bow are examples of such improvements.

The recurve bow was an improvement over the longbow, and the compound was an improvement over traditional bows in general. Although, some (looking at you traditionalist!) may argue this fact.

But how do they stack up against one another? And which one is better for bowhunting? Like many comparisons, it is highly subjective and specific to the individual's expectations.

Let's take a look at the differences.

Recurve Bow

Recurve Bow

The recurve was designed with limbs that curve back towards the archer. This design stores more energy in the limbs, resulting in increased power in a more compact frame than the longbow.

During the reign of Genghis Khan, it was perfect for carrying on your back, shooting from horseback and better than a longbow for traveling through heavy brush.

Both bows could reach long ranges when firing a volley of arrows at an enemy. However, the recurve design provided an advantage over the longbows of the day.

For example, longbows are said to have reached distances of 350 yards. But the recurve is estimated to have reached ranges of 500 yards.

Recurve bows of ancient times were made of only the best wood for making a bow or a composite of wood, horn, bone, and sinew. These days, you'll find them made from wood along with the same kind of synthetic composite materials as compound bows.

In modern times, takedown bows have seen growth in popularity. The tool-less variety is better where you can disassemble it without an Allen wrench. Unfortunately, additional tools can mean additional lost items for some of us.

Therefore, the ability to break it down by turning a couple of knobs is beneficial. The main advantages of the takedown recurve bow are transporting it in a smaller case and the ability to change out limbs if you grow into a heavier draw weight.

The ability to exchange limbs is a great feature. When a budding archer begins shooting a recurve, they will have to do so with a lighter draw weight. As they become proficient and ready to move up to a higher draw weight, the limbs can be swapped out for heavier ones.

Forty-five pounds is the recommended starting draw weight, which will allow the shooter to begin working on proper shooting form.

Click here for a guide on how to choose a recurve bow complete with size chart.

Compound Bow

Compound Bow

Similar to recurve bows being an improvement over longbows, compound bows were an improvement over recurves.

Using cams, cables, and idle wheels, the compound bow probably appears as an unnecessarily complicated machine to traditional bow purists.

With the multitude of accessories, it is hard to deny that fact. As most know, the more technology added, the more likely something is to fail at an inopportune moment. "Murphy's Law" is usually good like that.

Like rifles, there's a tendency for sights to get knocked out of alignment during transport, so a high quality bow case is a must have accessory.  

Fiber optics can break from intruding vegetation, causing a pin not to illuminate. Peep sights can get moved up or down without even realizing it.

The compound setup can be somewhat fragile and requires extensive tuning to shoot accurately.

That's okay; it doesn't take away from the fun that compound bows are to shoot! In fact, similar to the way crossbows have allowed easier entry into archery hunting, the compound bow has also made it more accessible.

Ease of use allows new hunters to experience the awesomeness of the hunt and add to our ranks.

Compound bows are typically made of a machined aluminum riser and limbs constructed from composite materials like fiberglass. These materials are lightweight but strong.

The compound bow riser usually features numerous cut-outs. This gives the bow a cool, industrial look but, more importantly, functions to further reduce weight.

Accessories like quivers, bow sights, wrist slings, and stabilizers all attach directly to the bow's riser via pre-drilled mounting holes.

Which is Easier to Use

Wild Hog with a recurve bow

By far, the easier bow to use of the two is the compound bow. This is why both early crossbows and modern compound bows were developed, to begin with.

At first glance, it appears that shooting a recurve requires the muscles of a UFC fighter. Strength won't steer you wrong. And strong muscles that support the shoulder and rotator cuff certainly help, but it's the actual shooting technique that will produce results.

Recurve bows require dedication to master shooting form and the will to practice shooting to stay on-point consistently. Unfortunately, shooting is a "perishable skill” for most weapon types.

Meaning if you don't consistently practice, you lose some of that muscle memory and hand-eye coordination that you developed. Whether it is a bow or pistol, the lack of consistent practice will directly impact the accuracy and precision of your shooting.

This is especially true of recurve bows, where the full draw weight is held, and aiming is done with methods such as instinctive shooting or using the arrow's tip.

A compound bow that features "let-off" and utilizes a bow sight allows an archer to shoot accurately, much faster. Let-off is a wonderful bi-product of the cam system on a compound bow and is usually set between 75 and 85 percent.

When you draw the bowstring back on a 70-pound compound bow, you eventually hit what is known as the "back wall." The back wall is the stopping point where you can draw no further.

At this point, if you have an 80 percent let-off, the 70 pounds you just pulled back is converted to a holding weight of 14 pounds. This conversion occurs because of the cams rolling over as you complete the draw.

Form is essential while shooting a compound bow too, but a compound is much more forgiving than a recurve.

Comparing Speed, Accuracy, and Range

Hunting with a recurve bow

Depending on factors like draw weight, length of the bow, bow materials, and weight of the arrows, an average recurve bow's speeds can range from 130- to 200 feet per second (fps).

Accuracy is highly dependent on the skill of the archer, and developing that accuracy requires shooting thousands of arrows over time.

When it comes to hunting, the lower speeds and variable accuracy keep the recurve archer's range within about 25 yards.

Compound bows, with their power, easily have the upper hand here. Average speeds for compounds run between 290- and 350 fps. Like the recurve, speed depends on draw weight, draw length, and arrow weight.

But because of the mechanical advantage, most compound bows start about 100 fps above a recurve bow.

Accuracy on a compound is enabled by using a peep sight, bow sight, and individual sight pins that are set for different distances. You simply aim with the dot corresponding to your estimated or ranged distance.

You put the dot on your target, set up, and release.

Using a bow sight on a compound bow is somewhat akin to shooting a firearm - at least when comparing it to shooting a recurve bow. Recurve archers can undoubtedly get quite accurate, as mentioned, but the compound bow gets beginner bow hunters shooting with better accuracy, much faster.

A bowhunter's effective range with a compound bow can run as far as 60 yards. But the vast majority of shots are taken within 20- to 40 yards. Especially tree stand and ground blind hunters who often strive for top pin shots at 20 yards.

Compound Bow and Recurve Shooting Methods

Compound Bow Technique

Part of the art and mystique of shooting a recurve is the lack of gear and accessories. Simplicity is the name of the game here. Shooting with your fingers without the use of a release aid certainly follows this mantra.

There are a couple of different techniques for shooting with fingers - namely "Split Finger" and "Three Under" styles.

Split Finger shooting is where the index finger is placed above the arrow nock, and the middle and ring fingers sit below it. Three Under style shooting is where all three fingers sit under the nock.

Split Finger is the most common technique for bowhunting as it works well with instinctive shooting methods. It is also the preferred technique for long-range shooting and Olympic Shooting. According to 3Rivers Archery, "this method places the back of the arrow lower than the point. This gives a more natural sight picture for the arc of the arrow."

Three Under lends itself well to shorter ranges and works well for shooting methods like "string walking" and "fixed crawl shooting." With all three fingers under the nock, your positioning is already set up to move your fingers up and down the string to adjust for the distance of your shot.

When shooting with your fingers, you should position the string just forward of the first knuckle of your fingers. So, the bowstring doesn't hang up at the moment of release.

A protective finger tab or glove is often used when shooting traditional archery. Some recurve archers use an arm guard to protect against string slap.

That brings us to the compound bow. Shooting a compound involves using a release aid instead of fingers. You can certainly shoot a compound bow with fingers if you choose to. However, it isn't the norm.

I've shot practice sessions with just fingers and have had to resort to using finger shooting while hunting deer because I forgot my release. So without a doubt, this is an excellent reason to practice shooting with fingers!

But a release aid helps ensure better accuracy since it is attached by only one point-of-contact (the release clipped to the compound bow's D-loop) on the string, rather than multiple points due to your fingers.

With a wide variety of release types, choosing one that works for you shouldn't be difficult. The best bow release for hunting is the one you aren't going to lose! So keep that in mind during your search. One that attaches to your wrist with a strap is a good choice.

Whether you choose a compound bow or a recurve, it is very important to avoid dry firing a bow. This can lead to damage to the bow and risk of injury to the archer.

Also, a compound bow will use a different style of arrow rest than a recurve. A recurve will use a simple arrow rest that is attached with glue, or a recurve archer will use the shelf on the bow.

A compound bow archer will typically use a containment rest or a drop away arrow rest for better accuracy.

Hunting Small Game

Grouse

It's hard to deny the fun of hunting cottontail or ruffed-grouse with a bow. And both of these species make excellent table fare. But is there a better bow-type for smaller critters?

Both compound and recurve bows are deadly on small game. Hunting rabbits, raccoons, ducks, and grouse is no easy feat with a compound. You have to be at full draw to fire, which won't allow you to get shots off as fast as a recurve. But the compound does have a more precise sighting system.

Compound archers will do better using hunting methods that don't require shooting at flushing game birds or other small game animals that are on the move.

For a real challenge, try hunting with a recurve! The great thing about hunting small, fast-moving game with a recurve bow is that you can take shots quickly. You can aim, draw, and fire without the long shot set-up of a compound.

Of course, snapshots like that take mastering instinctive shooting.

Compound bows are light but not as light as a recurve. Of course, that is something else to consider if you'll be out all day. I can't tell you how often my bow switches hands when hunting on foot with a compound. And if I'm being honest, my wrist gets quite sore and cramped when carrying my compound bow all day.

Hunting Big Game

Bow Hunter with a deer

Compound and recurve bows are both short-range weapons. But of the two, a recurve will limit you the most. For example, most shots are taken under 20 yards while hunting whitetail or elk.

According to an article on the October Mountain Products website, "the average successful shot at a whitetail deer is approximately 15 to 17 yards."

Bowhunters that use a compound bow will take shots at distances of 20- to 50 yards. This is the average range across all modes of bowhunting styles.

Also, the best broadheads for deer will differ if you are using a compound bow vs recurve.

It's also important to note the difference in habitat types. Unfortunately, you are at the mercy of the landscape. So, people hunting in states like Wyoming or Utah, which have vast open areas, will at times have to take longer shots.

As someone who has lived in both of these states, I can attest that often you cannot get any closer to the quarry.

It's not uncommon for compound bow hunters I know to take 70-yard shots on mule deer or elk in sage-brush-dominated landscapes. But these hunters are well-practiced and accomplished.

The individual hunter needs to decide for themselves what constitutes an ethical shot and how far is too far. For myself, if I haven't been practicing regularly at 50 yards, I won't even consider taking a shot at that distance if an opportunity arises in the field.

In my opinion, the deer, elk, and other game we pursue deserve the respect of a clean, quick kill.

Don't just wing a shot at 70 yards because your bow is capable of it. You may not be.

Consider the consequences of losing a wounded animal and don't shoot beyond your current skill level.

When you touch the trigger on your release and start your hunting arrow towards its target, it should still be an ethical shot. For instance, I wouldn't suggest taking a 90- or 100 yard shot on a pronghorn.

It is also important for your hunting bow to be as quiet as possible. Be sure to use appropriate bow string silencers whether you choose a compound bow or a recurve for hunting big game.

Final Thoughts on Compound Bow vs Recurve

Compounds and recurves are both viable and deadly choices for hunting with archery equipment. The right choice of bow comes down to what you are looking for out of the experience.

If you are new to bow hunting and you want to shorten the learning curve, you should probably consider one of the best beginner compound bows.

With a good compound bow, you get more distance, speed, and repeated accuracy.

Recurves are lightweight and brilliant in their simplicity, offering a less gear-intensive hunting weapon that makes for quick shots. But you'll have to get in close.

There are also bragging rights and something to be said for mastering the art of shooting a recurve accurately, the same as our ancestors did for thousands of years.

If you are brand new to archery and bowhunting, you are going to have to figure out if you need a left or right handed bow.

Click here for a guide to determining if you need a left or right handed bow.

Different types of bows, different styles. You'll know which one is the right choice for you pretty quickly. Or it may be that you alternate between a recurve and compound for different types of hunting.

You may also want to consider a crossbow, click here for an in depth look at crossbow vs compound bow.

As we come to the end, something to remember is there's no wrong or right answer. There's only what is the right choice for you. The only way to know is to jump in and give it a try! Part of the fun is trying new things and discovering the "mystical flight of the arrow," to quote Ted Nugent.

Once you start, you'll likely never stop. It is a lifetime addiction.

Photo of author

Shawn Lentz

Shawn Lentz is a freelance outdoor writer, avid bowhunter, and fish hatchery specialist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. He regularly writes for online and print publications such as deerhuntingguide.net, Wide Open Spaces, Fair Chase Magazine, Stone Road Media, and more. For more info go to www.shawn-lentz.com

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